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Apr/May 2020 Fiction

Question Mark

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne
Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne


My father died with a big question mark over his head like the one in the bubble over a cartoon character who can't make up his mind. No one saw it but me. I had been sitting for two days at his bedside watching him slip from semi-consciousness into coma. I had brought The Brothers Karamazov with me to the hospital, which I had started rereading after many years when my sister called to tell me pop had had a second stroke and wasn't expected to last long.

It seemed odd, spending those hours by his bedside in the company of both the comatose man who had begot me and with Papa Karamazov. One, my father, was about as curious and tentative a human being as I've ever known. The other was a self-absorbed narcissist who cared about nothing but his own pleasure. And yet, because they were both fathers, they shared something universal on that account: an unhealthy influence on their sons' amour propre. I found the two men getting confused in my mind—lecherous, single-minded Karamazov and my own one-woman, ever-questioning parent—as the hours dragged on and I got little sleep except for cat naps on a cushioned chair a nurse kindly provided.

The question mark only appeared after my father drew his last breath. Till then his expression had remained blank. He might have been any old man taking a nap. His nose, especially in profile, seemed even larger and more curved than I recalled it. The skin of his face was slack but smooth as a young child's. My girl friends used to comment on it the way they might a woman's. I could never decide whether his complexion enhanced his looks as a man or those girls were just envious. I considered it unmanly, like his white, hairless legs. I was embarrassed to be seen on a beach with him. I often wondered what my mother made of his hairlessness. My own coloring is ruddy, and I have the thick body hair of my mother's people.

He died without fanfare, simply drew one last easy inhale and stopped breathing. That was when the question mark appeared. Of course, nothing so dramatic literally happened. But the expression on his face changed, one moment unperturbed and tranquil as if there were not a mystery on earth that could trouble him, but in death became constricted into a look of puzzlement, the brow gently creased, his heavy lips pursed. My first reaction was to think he must have gained consciousness at the last and was pondering something he had been unable to resolve—the meaning of life, whether it was better to vote for the least worst candidate, or if he should put out the garbage tonight or wait till the morning. I had to resist an urge to tell the doctor not to take his body away yet, though I knew no matter how much extra time my father was allotted, he would never resolve any question to his satisfaction.

"What are you trying to figure out now, you old fool?" I thought as I began to produce tears that seemed entirely removed from what was going through my conscious mind. "Why don't you give it a rest? Your musings are done. Your uncertainties are ended with this last great certainty. For once in your life, make up your mind to make up your mind."

I had always hated his indecision. He would have called it something else—suspension of belief, healthy skepticism. I wouldn't have minded so much if his inability to decide what was true or false, right or wrong, didn't extend even to doubting his doubt. For him there were at least six sides to every question plus an entire history behind each of those to acquaint oneself with. And, of course, those histories were also subject to question.

Not that I preferred Papa Karamazov's mindless libido, vying with his eldest son for the favors of a woman half his age, never caring about anything but his lust. My own father was not without his own appeal for the opposite sex. He could be quite charming when he chose. Young women laughed at his corny jokes and were flattered by his asking their opinions on subjects no one else assumed they had. They didn't know what it was like to live with a man who couldn't tell you what time it was without reminding you it was a different hour a hundred miles away.

I often watched my mother's exasperation with her husband's insistence on seeing every subject, even basic household matters like when to clean out the cellar or put up the screens, from multiple and usually irreconcilable angles. She was a practical woman who had to make sure a hot meal appeared on the table every evening without any hemming and hawing. I pitied her for what I thought she suffered on his account and tried to divert his pointless speculations my way for her sake. He was willing enough to accept me as an interlocutor despite my youth and didn't seem to care that half the time I didn't understand what he was talking about.

When my mother died I blamed him for her death. I knew I was being unfair. They had gotten on well enough, and that was a period when many of my friends' parents were splitting up and their kids had to shuttle from one divorced parent to the other, never again knowing a place they could securely call home. But I saw my father's endless questioning of every decision as a kind of spousal abuse. I was being taught in school there were such things as facts: about my country, about nature, even about God. Was my father the only wise man among a host of fools?

My sister didn't seem bothered by his sophomoric dialectics. Her concerns were with a torn skirt or broken doll or, later, with a boy she wanted to notice her. Our father soon gave up hope of finding an audience there. Maybe it was for that reason she loved him without complication. She saw only the man, the parent, not the pest who couldn't go out for a walk, never mind turn on a newscast, without coming up with a dozen different topics to hash out from multiple perspectives.

The morning she called to tell me he was in the emergency room at a hospital in the next town, I felt disinclined to rush to his bedside, though I knew I would. I had been in therapy long enough to know it wasn't just his irresolution that rankled me. There was something deeper going on. I and my therapist, an attractive woman my own age, had been trying to tease out what it was.

"Why do you suppose it angered you so much that he refused to see things in anything but such a complicated fashion?" she asked in that neutral tone therapists use. At that point I suspected her of being on his side, and I resented having to pay good money for the privilege of defending myself against her charge of intolerance.

But she was canny enough to see what was going through my mind and smiled a crooked grin that made me think maybe I should have chosen a male therapist or at least someone not quite so pretty. "I remember when I was just becoming politically aware," I said. "There was a war going on—in the Middle East, I think. I wanted to be patriotic, and to me that meant supporting our troops and the president—I was ten or eleven years old. But my father started asking questions about the underlying reasons for the war. Did we have some kind of economic interest in that part of the world? Oil, maybe? How many members of Congress had children in the military? Didn't the president manage to get a draft deferment to avoid fighting in one of our previous wars? Were we really under threat?"

I was so upset by his refusal to accept what I saw as support for the nation at a time that called for unflinching patriotism that I burst into tears. We were walking home from my school, his favorite time for launching into one of his Socratic dialogues. He probably regretted having gone too far—I'm not claiming the man was a sadist—but that didn't stop him from pursuing his train of thought as if I had responded in a calm and measured way instead of with tears. "Why can't you ever say anything good about our country?!" I wailed right there on the town's main street. "Why do you always have to be saying bad things about America?"

Of course he insisted, oblivious to the half dozen heads turned at my outburst, that he wasn't being unpatriotic. Wasn't it our duty as Americans to question authority and make sure the government wasn't flaunting our laws and constitution? Was not the nation a set of common beliefs and values, not just a piece of real estate which, by the way, some other people were occupying when Europeans arrived here?

"You resented his not paying attention to your feelings," the therapist said.

"'Resented'? I fucking wanted to disown him. Other kids had fathers who watched football games instead of Sunday-morning talk shows. They went hunting and fishing with their sons. Mine asked why we needed to kill defenseless animals when we could buy all the food we wanted in a supermarket.

"'Because it's fun,' I told him.

"'Have you ever killed anything?' he asked. 'I mean, bigger than a mosquito.'"

"I said no, of course."

"Have you since done any hunting?" the therapist asked me.

"Are you kidding? After that I couldn't even step on an ant without feeling I'd committed murder."

"Did you anyway?—step on ants?"

"Sometimes. But he had taken all the pleasure out of it."

Now he lay dead, no longer a threat to my mental equilibrium. But, as if to remind me so that I should never feel sure about anything again, there was that question mark hovering over his head like a keepsake he wanted to leave me like a family heirloom.

We cremated him. My sister and I decided it was what he would have preferred, assuming he could make up his mind. Cemeteries took up needed space, and dead bodies didn't turn into daisies and tomato plants if they were sealed in coffins. But before he was cremated, the medical profession harvested whatever organs that might still be useful to someone else. He had indicated he wanted that by signing a statement on the back on his driver's license. I confirmed the signature was his by comparing it with other samples I found in his papers. How had he managed to bite that bullet? Did he figure what happened to him after death was a no-brainer, so to speak, or did a streak of altruism run deeper in him than his obsessive indecision?

On the way home from the cremation—an aunt and my sister and I being the only ones in attendance besides the gravediggers—we stopped for lunch at a diner on the highway running past our town. The aunt, Minnie, is my father's older sister, well into her 80s at that point but looking as indestructible as granite. Wiry, energetic, with all cylinders still firing, she had the same flawless complexion as her brother. We scarcely knew her, though my father drove her to our house every Christmas for dinner, and we never failed to receive a check from her on our birthdays. During those holiday get-togethers, she behaved as if she were a head of state at a formal dinner. She wore something expensive-looking for the occasion, the color of which highlighted her marvelous skin. She kissed us on both cheeks like a European and gave us "educational" toys or, as we grew older, books—James Fennimore Cooper for me, Jane Austen for my sister. She came and went like the Christmas tree, a seasonal thing immediately forgotten once it was taken down, though unlike the tree she was only with us for a few hours. We called her "Skinny Minnie," though never in front of my father.

It was awkward, to say the least, sitting with her now in that upscale diner, especially since my old man wasn't going to be there to take on responsibility for making conversation. But she seemed completely at ease as she studied the big menu almost obscuring her from view. She had never lacked for appetite during those Christmas visits. She ate slowly, genteelly, but without pause and for longer than anyone else. I used to wonder if she had any decent meals the rest of the year. I figured maybe not and that was why she was so thin. She studied the bill of fare now as intently as if she were going over a bank statement, then closed the menu and put it down on the end of the table to show the waitress she was ready.

"I ate very little before I left for the cemetery," she said as if to explain in advance the big meal she was about to order. "It was a lovely ceremony. I think your father would have approved."

What ceremony? I thought. I had spoken a few words about the old man's devotion to justice and making the world a better place, and my sister had placed roses on the coffin.

I was wrong about Minnie's order. She only asked for a chicken-salad sandwich and a cup of tea. She chewed with the same methodical delicacy she had consumed our Christmas feasts, as if she only ate for the sake of nourishment no matter how great the amount she put away. I marveled as I had so many times in the past at the contrast between her decisiveness and her brother's inability to come to a conclusion. It was hard to believe they had come out of the same womb. My sister and I are different in many ways, but we share a number of common characteristics: an aversion to abstraction, for one, though my sister's seems to come from a naturally practical mind while mine developed as a reaction to my father's annoying peripatetics. But Minnie and my father seemed to share no personality traits at all and, apart from that flawless complexion, didn't even look much alike.

"I remember when we were children, your father used to take me outside at night and give me lectures about the stars and the civilizations that must exist way out there in the universe," she said after the chicken salad had disappeared—she hadn't spoken or even answered a question with more than a nod while she was eating. A wistful smile appeared on her lightly colored lips. She was memorializing because that was what was expected, I thought, just as those educational toys and the books she sent for our birthdays were the appropriate gesture to make without ever showing any interest in what we actually wanted. "We would lie on the lawn outside the big house on Walnut Street, and he would name the constellations and then say a whole lot else I only half understood about comets and shooting stars and how long it would take an airplane to travel from earth to the nearest star. He was a very inquisitive person, your father," she said, taking a dainty sip of tea.

"Inquisitive," I said. "He was certainly that."

Minnie regarded me with curiosity as I cut into my custard cream pie. Another smile appeared on her thin lips—my father's had been thick and were usually thrust forward as if for emphasis. But for once Minnie's expression seemed unscripted. Her smooth white brow was furrowed ever so slightly. "Surely you don't begrudge him that, my dear? It was his gift, really, his constant inquiring into the meaning of things. Don't you think?"

"You could see it that way, I suppose," I said, preferring not to meet her gaze. Rain was pelting the car parked just outside the diner. The urn containing my father's ashes lay safely on the back seat. I thought, if we had chosen to bury him, he might already be wet. If there was one thing he hated, it was getting wet. "'Contrary' might be more apt."

Minnie seemed genuinely surprised. I was a bit surprised myself. I had no intention of saying anything that day beyond the usual clichés about the dead. Something had got into me. Maybe it was Minnie's theatrical propriety. Maybe it was anger at the old man's up and dying and thus forcing me to acknowledge how much I would miss him. Maybe it was the rain. I didn't mind getting wet the way he did, but rainy days always made me depressed, never mind on the day of my father's funeral.

"I had no idea you resented him so much, my dear."

"I don't resent him."

The truth is, I didn't know what I felt as I continued to stare out at the wet parking lot. How could a man, a living human being who had thoughts and feelings and consciousness, be reduced to a jar of ashes? Where was his inquisitive self now? Just gone out like a light bulb when you flick a switch on the wall?

I turned back to my aunt. What would be in the bubble over her own head when she died, I wondered. A turkey thigh? A book of etiquette? More likely, I decided, a well-scrubbed blank space.

"A child wants reassurance, clear answers," I said. "Not endless questions, as educational as that may be. Was he always like that? When he was young, when you were growing up?"

"I suppose he was. But I don't recall his ever getting on my nerves on that account. We didn't share each other's lives that much, to tell you the truth. Went our separate ways, you could say. Except for the early years. I was his big sister, you remember. I was already a teenager when he was still in short pants. I always saw him as my baby brother. It's hard to be impressed by one's baby brother."

She took another sip of tea—if you had seen her just that day you would assume she never ate more than half a sandwich at a time and then only to keep body and soul together. "And then I went away to college. Your father was still in elementary school, seventh grade. After graduation I got a job with a publishing house in New York—it's gone now, swallowed up by one of the conglomerates. Life goes on," she said, herself gazing out at the wet parking lot where what was left of her brother lay unobjecting in my ten-year-old Corolla. She mused on something for a few moments, her face almost in profile. It was not an unattractive face, even for an old woman. She must have been good-looking in her day, I thought. I pictured her in a dusty office reading manuscripts, living on strong tea and crackers.

"What did you do when you were still working, at the publisher's?" my sister asked.

Minnie smiled as if the answer should be obvious. "Editorial assistant," she said. "Glorified secretary, though every once in a while they did ask me to look at a book they were thinking of publishing, for the 'woman's point of view,' don't you know. Four years of Vassar with a degree in English literature—my concentration was the 18th-century novel. But it was my typing they hired me for."

This was an Aunt Minnie I knew nothing about. My father had rarely spoken of his sister. I had assumed all there was to her was the finicky but voracious bore we had over for Christmas.

"Dad went to Columbia," I said.

"First to New York University. That didn't work out."

"Why's that?"

"There was an incident. With a professor. I never quite understood what happened. They said he disrespected the man. Your father refused to apologize."

"Disrespected him in class?"

"I assume so."

"I didn't realize he was that, well, militant. At least not in a public way."

"Oh, even back then he wasn't shy about expressing what he thought. The man you knew had toned down quite a bit from that earlier firebrand. Columbia was more receptive to his type."

I was surprised by her account of my father's youthful activism—I always thought he was just talk—but I found I was now less interested in him than I was in this old woman I had for so long written off as an old spinster.

"You never married?"

"Me?" she said, laughing as if I had made a joke. "Good gracious, no."

My thoughts turned to the possibility that she preferred women to men. I made an effort to work up a smile of my own to encourage her.

"I could have. I wasn't always this wrinkled up old woman you see. Of course," she added, "I had my opportunities. But I didn't want to spend my days stuck in a suburb raising a bunch of brats while my husband went off each day to an interesting job in New York or Boston. That was what well-educated girls did in my day. The college degree was just a way for them to meet upscale males they might otherwise never get an opportunity to snag."

"There must have been other types available."

"Yes," she said. "I suppose there were. I even knew a few. But they were either taken or, you know, had less orthodox preferences."

"Gay?" my sister said.

"Yes, darling. Though I don't believe that term had come into common use yet. It still strikes me as odd. Why 'gay'? That was a word we did use, but never in the context of sexual orientation. Eh, bien. Life moves on, and you must move with it or be left behind."

"Would you like another cup of tea?" I asked as she consulted her watch, a slim gold band she wore on her right wrist. I never thought I would feel anxious about my aunt Minnie's leaving. When she eventually exited those Christmas dinners, my sister and I used to celebrate as if we had just gotten out of jail.

"I should get back and feed my cats."

"I'll drive you home."

"No need, dear," she said digging into her purse, a chic black thing not much bigger than a business envelope. She found what she was looking for: a cell phone, not one of the new "smart" ones but an old-fashioned clam-shell that looked as elegant in her hand as did her watch or the small pearl earrings she was wearing. "I'll call a car service. They won't be ten minutes."

I spent the rest of the week cleaning out the old house my father had lived in alone after my mother's death. I didn't know what to do with the urn containing his ashes. I wasn't sure I wanted it in my apartment. It would be too much like having his ghost staring at me. Putting it in a closet seemed disrespectful. I thought of burying it in his back yard, but my sister and I had already decided we would put the house up for sale as soon as I finished cleaning it out. We finally decided to put it into a mausoleum. My sister volunteered to find one.

My father didn't believe in throwing anything out, which meant the rooms my mother managed to keep clutter-free by making him do periodic purges of old magazines and gizmos of various sorts he insisted might be needed some day had filled up to eye level since her death. It wasn't that difficult deciding what to do with old issues of the Nation and the Progressive, but he had a way of squirreling away personal items along with his saved reading matter, not just old bills that might contain bank account or credit card numbers but letters as well, even old ones he and my mother exchanged when they were courting. I put those aside unopened. I thought perhaps someday, two or three generations hence, my progeny might find them interesting. A few weeks later I went back on my decision and read every one, but for the moment I stacked them and any other private correspondence I came across into boxes I would take back to my place in the city for safekeeping.

The letters weren't the only surprise I came upon. There was also a trove of my mother's clothes which I thought we had already either given away or thrown out. My mother was a cheerful woman, an optimist who took the world as she found it. She wore house dresses at home and tasteful but conservative attire when she left the house. Imagine my surprise when I found in one of the boxes my father had squirreled away a pair of black mesh stockings and a pink teddy, the sort of things you might see in Victoria's Secret. At first I thought the worst: they couldn't be mom's, so they must have belonged to some other woman. That made my father an adulterer, a conclusion that was harder to accept than the idea of my mother as a sex kitten. But I discovered the same scent on that teddy that still clung to other clothes in those boxes. I had never paid much attention to how my mother smelled, but I immediately recognized that fragrance as hers, though she only wore perfume when she and her husband were going someplace special.

What other revelations were waiting for me?

I decided to wait to find out. It was already dark, and I had an invitation for dinner at my sister's. I showered in the same tub where I had once floated my toys and put on a clean pair of pants and shirt, the only fresh clothes I had with me besides the suit I had worn to the funeral.

I was of two minds about telling my sister what I found in that box. At first I thought it would be best to say nothing. Like myself, she was divorced, but she had opted to stay on in the modern ranch house she and her husband bought back when they were still planning to start a family. Now she lived there alone as she had done since her separation ten years earlier. After my own divorce I had moved to the city to be nearer my job, and my son went on living with his mother. My sister and I had a close, if not intimate, relationship. She had been supportive, mostly by phone, during the breakup of my marriage. I was still in my early 20s when her own had come unraveled, and I still thought of her then as an adult rather than a sibling in need of comfort. My own experience a few years later seemed to even out the playing field. I came to see her as just another human being knocked about by life. But she had been close to our mother, leaned on her whenever she was in a crisis, which seemed frequent even before her marriage began to fail. I wasn't sure how she would take to the idea of Mom in a teddy and mesh stockings.

But after we had finished dinner and were halfway through a second bottle of Bordeaux, I decided we were both too old to believe our parents had no sex life, however improbable those garments seemed. When I told her what I found, she paused before draining the last of the wine in her glass. Then she stared hard to see if I was pulling her leg. She swallowed, put the glass back down on the mahogany dining table she and her husband had bought just before her miscarriage, and shrugged.

"That doesn't surprise you?" I said. "Mesh stockings? Our mom?"

"Not really. Now, if you said you had found French ticklers or handcuffs and chains..."

We'd emptied almost two bottles of wine, but even allowing for alcoholic bravado this seemed a pretty smug response from someone who came home in tears the first time a date tried to do something more than kiss her.

"Don't tell me you aren't surprised," I said.

"I am. A little. Not as much as you. Why are men so shocked to find out women have their own sexual fantasies—although this does look like something she did for daddy, yes?"

"I suppose. But that's surprising in itself, isn't it? I mean, who would have thought...? Not that they didn't obviously care for each other."

I poured more wine in my glass and drained it. "Who knows what else I'll come across before I finish clearing out that mess?"

"Would you like me to help?"

"No need. I mean, unless you want to."

"I have nothing better to do. We'll get an early start."

We were up at dawn. The dew was still glistening on the wild rhododendron in the front yard of the old house when we arrived. The lawn needed mowing, but it wasn't the kind of neighborhood where people minded. My sister made a pot of coffee while I started on the third and final room stacked full of my father's detritus. Unlike the others, this one was mostly filled with hardware—old tires, a broken jack, a rusty band saw—plus more stacks of newspapers and periodicals. Had there been a fire, my father wouldn't have stood a chance.

I had scheduled one of those outfits that specialize in picking up people's junk. But I wasn't sure they would be willing to carry away all that heavy stuff. What would I do if they didn't? The band saw alone required two men to lift it.

"I wouldn't worry," my sister said. "They've probably dealt with worse."

I expected she was right and put the thought out of my mind, as I used to do when my mother told me not to fret about something—whether I'd pass a math test or make the basketball team. She said all I could do was prepare as best I could and leave the rest to fate. I knew better than to voice my anxieties to my father. He would have told me I could come down with flu and miss the test altogether, or I might be better at some other sport anyway, baseball or football, and would never find that out if I only played basketball.

We finished the last room in just a couple hours, satisfied there was nothing of real or sentimental value to be salvaged. There was a collection of tools and other stuff in the basement, none of which I or my sister had any use for.

"You could ask the neighbors if they'd like to have a look," my sister said.

"Was he friendly with them?"

"I couldn't say. I never saw him socializing. That doesn't mean he didn't."

I suspected the neighbors gave the old man a wide berth once they got a taste of his polemics. So I was surprised when the man next door seemed sincere in his condolences and asked me in for a cup of coffee. I said I didn't have time and invited him to come see if there wasn't something he could make use of.

"Tools?" he said. "No, I'm not the handy type. Now, your father, there was a man who could fix anything. He used to help me put up my storm windows." He paused and smiled as if at a happy memory. "Talk a blue streak while he did. He was a great talker, your father."

"He certainly was."

"A fine man," he said. I figured him to be no more than a couple years younger than my father. "A fine man. Principled. He had principles. Not many do nowadays. Not," he added with a wink, "that we always saw eye to eye. No, he had his opinions, and I had mine. As I say, I'm not much of a talker myself, though I guess you'd never guess it from the way I'm rambling on today. Living alone does that. You get wrapped up in yourself. But," he said with a shrug, "what're you gonna do?"

I returned to the house. My sister was preparing lunch.

"Any luck?"

"No. But I did find out he had at least one friend who would put up with his soliloquies."

"Is that right?"

"Is it possible I was wrong about the old man?" I said. "Do you think I've judged him too harshly?"

"No. You were his son, after all, not somebody who could take him or leave him. Though I'm not surprised some people took to him. He was unrelenting, but he was never unpleasant. Not in my experience. People either ran away from him or found him interesting. I guess the neighbor you just visited was one of the latter."

We decided to leave the cellar alone and invite a local charity to take anything they might be able to resell at their thrift shop. That left the garage.

"What about the attic? We should do that first," my sister said after we sat down to eat the canned beans and franks she had heated up. "Do you want a beer? There's a couple in the fridge."

"No, thanks. It would make me sleepy. I forgot about the attic. Do you think there's much up there? Jesus, I hope not."

"Only one way to find out," she said, opening a beer for herself. "We might find an Old Master and discover we're millionaires.

"Buddy," she said, using my mother's pet name for me. She usually called me Harry. "You take things too seriously. People especially. Daddy wasn't the ogre you make him out to be."

"I never said he was an ogre. I would never say he was an ogre."

"Well, I only meant to say the man meant well. But he was human. He had his faults. He could be overbearing at times."

"At times? How would you know, sis? He spared you the worst of his diatribes. I got them day in and day out. Did I ever tell you how he made me cry in front of half a dozen people outside the Hallmark downtown?"

She smiled as if I were still six and she fifteen. "More franks and beans? How about some coffee to wash it down?"

There were no surprises in the attic unless you count a big box of photographs my father had inherited from his mother. They showed relatives, mostly people I'd never met or even heard of, going all the way back to the immigrant in the 19th century. I was for giving the lot to the junk-removal people, but my sister wouldn't hear of it. She said my son might want to know what his ancestors looked like. I suspected she hadn't given up on the idea she might still produce one or two progeny of her own. We agreed she would keep the box and digitize the most important photos. But she insisted I take home a few snapshots of my parents, though I already had several pictures of both of them.

"Makes you wonder, doesn't it," she said after she had wiped the dust from her hands.

"What's that?"

"No, I just mean it's kind of sad," she said. "All those lives. All those people who came before us. We wouldn't be here without them." She stood up and brushed off her jeans. She was still trim and, as best a brother can judge, attractive. "What will they make of us—future generations, I mean—if they care at all. Well, you have your son. If he reproduces, his kids might be curious about whence they came."

"You're waxing philosophical."

"You can't tell much about someone from an old photograph. Daddy, for instance. You remember him as a pest, someone who couldn't make up his mind, a... whatchamacallit, that word the Greeks used for Socrates."

"Gadfly."

"Gadfly. That neighbor remembers him as a man of principles always ready to lend a helping hand. Mom, well, who knows what she really thought of him. But she did seem to love him, whatever his faults."

"And you?" I asked. "How do you remember him?"

"It seems weird using that word—'remembering.' It's hard to believe he's only been dead two days."

She walked over to the small window at the far end of the attic and tried to look out through the dirt and grease that had accumulated on the glass. The way she bent over to do so reminded me of our mother when she reached down to take something out of the oven. It suddenly struck me that we, the two of us, were next. Maybe not this year, maybe not for another 30 or 40, but we had now become "the older generation."

"I remember the man who would sneak into my room when I was six or seven and Mom was trying to get me to go to sleep on my own," she said. "He would lie down beside me till I drifted off. Sometimes he told me a story. It was always about a little girl who made friends with a bear. She and the bear had adventures together. That was my word: 'adventures.' I would say, Daddy tell me another adventure story—but I meant about the little girl and her bear friend. That was our secret time. That was something only he and I shared. It meant a lot to me." She turned from the window, looking so much like our mother that I felt a chill go up my spine. "You must have had similar moments with him," she said.

"Not that I can recall. Unless you count that time he made me cry on Main Street."

"He doted on you. I was there, you know. I was jealous."

"I don't remember it that way."

"We pick and choose our memories, and then make a story out of them, our story. I remember a loving father who couldn't bear to hear his little girl crying. You remember someone different. That neighbor remembers someone else."

"You really do have a philosophical streak."

She looked at me wearily in the fading light and smiled. "We better get a move on. We still have the garage to do, and those guys will be here first thing in the morning to haul it all away."

Two weeks later I got a call from her. She said the real estate agent had found a buyer for the old house. Did I think the offer was acceptable, or should she tell him to hold out for something higher? I told her it was fine by me. The next day she called back to say it was a done deal. My share of the money would be deposited automatically in my bank account (I gave her power of attorney so I didn't have to take any more time off work).

"Buddy? Why do I feel like it's only now he's died?"

"I don't know, Sis. I guess it's because the house was the last of him that remained. Now that's gone, too."

"I guess you're right. It just seems so stupid."

"Stupid?"

"Pointless. Whatever."

She had slurred those last words. She had been drinking.

"Sis?"

"Yeah?"

"He loved you. That fact can't die. If I was a believer, I'd say he's up in heaven and he still loves you. But even if he's dead-dead, you can always know that he loved you."

I waited for her to answer. I wasn't used to being the one to offer consolation and wasn't sure how she would take it. Then I realized she was crying, and the first sob I heard made me start myself, and soon were balling into the telephone in unison.

When we were done, she blew her nose and sniffed hard.

"Buddy?"

"Yes?"

"Don't be a stranger."

"Okay."

"I mean really."

I decided to keep the urn containing my father's ashes after all. I offered to share them with my sister, but she declined, said she couldn't think of them as being our father in any way. I put the urn in my study on a table opposite my desk. I greet it every morning when I check my email and first thing when I return home in the evening. "How was your day, you old curmudgeon?" That sort of thing. There's no question mark hovering over it. But sometimes when there's an especially gruesome mass shooting or a politician gets caught in a major scandal, I ask the man in the urn if he has anything to say. Then I speak for him. "Who's really responsible? The shooter alone? What about the rest of us? Does it matter if the guy's crazy?" Or, "What makes a man throw up a career for the sake of a bit of illicit sex? Should it matter as long as he's doing a good job as a public official?"

I no longer feel the irritation I used to when I recalled his posing those kinds of questions. I'm not sure now why they bothered me. My therapist says I should get out more, join a church group. I didn't bother to tell her I'm not a believer, and I certainly didn't say I have my father's ashes to keep me company. I see my son on weekends. I have my work. When the time comes, I hope to mingle my dust with my dad's. I'm glad I decided to bring him home instead of leaving him in a cold mausoleum alongside hundreds of other urns with contents indistinguishable from each another. You could even stretch it a bit and say we're roommates, fellow travelers on a short road to no place in particular. I've put it in my will that when I go, I want our combined remains buried alongside my mother—unless, of course, my own son has other plans.

 

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