The writings of Richard Kluger
…My father died at the beginning of that summer. I was unprepared for the event. Sixty-four years did not seem long enough to live for a man I had grown up believing an ageless wizard who could outsmart wind and rain and the actuarial tables by which he earned his living.
In a way he had been dying for ten years, my mother told me after he was in the ground. The company had advanced him as far as it had determined he should go, and he sensed that the rest of his professional life would be a slow but unmistakable atrophying of his powers. His investment recommendations were increasingly second-guessed by the supervisory committee, and his cautious attempts to dedicate a small portion of the portfolio to socially commendable projects like public housing – an impulse, mother said, born of admiration for the selfless aspects of his children’s careers – were methodically blocked. He sorely missed my brother, Brownie, and me and our tumult; there were no grandchildren to build doll houses with or for, not yet at least, and mother’s outside interests were not ones he shared. The sweetness went out of the man, and while he always displayed curiosity about my professional progress when I visited for the holidays or an occasional weekend, he had limited confidence that I would amount to a great deal in my chosen field. “If you don’t excel,” he told me about a year before he died, “they’ll say it’s because you’re a woman. And if you do, they’ll say it’s because you’re a bit of a whore.” Aside from the indelicacy of the phrasing, I thought that one of his most sensitive insights.
I stayed in Farmington for a week after the funeral, helping mother not go to pieces. She said she doubted that she could live in that large white house by herself and supposed she would sell it unless I objected strenuously. The place occupied too large a portion of my memory, prompted too deep a longing for unreclaimable moments of laughter and discovery and small victories over childhood’s chilling demons, for me to contemplate sensibly that further loss of life. I opted for delay, pledging to mother that I would weekend at the house throughout the summer while she shipped off to California to visit Brownie, now a Caltech biologist, and his wife of six months.
There were other assets as well, I had known as father’s duly designated executor – I told him I would no more accept the title “executrix” than I would be classified occupationally as a “lawyeress” – and said it was plain that mother’s half of the estate, along with her own tidy family inheritance, would not leave her wanting for material comfort. But having subordinated her life to a family that had now all but vanished from view, she faced needs of another sort. “Lord, how I envy you,” she said before we kissed goodbye. I knew she meant the absorbing nature of my work. “It’s your fault as much as Daddy’s,” I said. She knew I meant the model of unexpended resources she had provided for me and that I had so utterly rejected. “What he wanted for his children was not necessarily what he wanted in his wife,” was all she said, and the subject was dropped between us for good.
I returned to Amity and the practice of law with an inheritance of sorts that left me more financially but less emotionally secure than I had been. My father’s end forecast my own as no other event could have, and time no longer seemed infinite. I would be thirty soon and on my own more than ever. Did I want that? Or at subterranean levels would I seek a man to replace the one whose seed had begun me and love had shaped me and death had left me lonely and disconnected? That struck me as both so possible and ignoble an urge that I retreated for the moment from all but the most casual contact with men.
The first few days back at the office, I spent my lunch hour roaming alone through the historic cemetery, called the Amity Burying Ground, a few blocks above the city green. Neither necrophilia nor morbidity drew me there, only the need for a brief retreat to order my head and its wanderings. Set off from the city streets by a high sandstone wall on all sides, the hallowed ground held the remains of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lives under tree-shaded tombstones that spoke to me achingly as if with the single inscription I had come upon the first day: “Rest, loved one, thy sufferings are ended.” Stone after stone promised resurrection as if life on earth were but a vast detention camp for ritualistic writhing until divine accommodations became available. I tried to imagine my own immortal soul unsheathed by flesh and bone and pictured only a vaporous thing of terrible fragility to which no earthly frame of reference could be applied. What function would that unemployed wraith serve? What pleasure would it be granted without countervailing pain? All that bland, disembodied bliss struck me as more an everlasting doom than a heavenly reward.
My head was so full of metaphysics and birdsong as I made my way through that arbor of death, I nearly marched right past Sam Nightingale, who was seated on a stone bench at the end of the walk I had just distractedly negotiated. “Trying the place on for size?” he asked as I seated myself beside him.
“No, nothing like that,” I reassured him. “Just consulting eternity.”
“What’s it telling you?”
“That it doesn’t have anything to tell me.”
He propped a foot up on the bench and folded his hands around his knee. “Sounds like rather a one-way exchange.”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“I’m intruding – forgive me. I thought you could stand a little nonverbal company.”
“I probably can.” Slowly I turned toward him and saw that he was concerned. “How did you know I was here,” I asked, “or are you practicing up for Hallowe’en on Bald Mountain?”
Sam grinned. “Balakian told me. He said you were a little down.”
“Aren’t most people when a parent dies? Steve wouldn’t know that, though. He wasn’t whelped, he was extruded.”
“Such ingratitude. The guy was sensitive enough to mention he thought you were overdoing it.”
“That means he can’t understand why I’d rather mope around a cemetery than have a cheering hamburger with him. And wouldn’t you? Dead people are livelier.”
“Steve’s not all that bad.”
“I wouldn’t go much beyond that.”
“I find him dedicated and quite agreeable.”
“Not to mention waffling and petty. He also wears appallingly short socks.”
He shrugged. “Steve’s just a little too cautious for his own good. And short socks are not a really major character flaw.”
“They are if you expect to make partner.”
“I wouldn’t put them at the top of the list.”
“Bare male leg doth not confidence inspire.”
“Have you passed on that little haberdashers’ homily?”
“Hell, no. What’s he got a wife for?”
Sam gave his head a disapproving little shake. “Frankly,” he said, “watching you walk up this way, I thought Steve was right. You looked like you were on the way to your own beheading.”
“I wasn’t aware.”
“No wonder – you were in a trance. Usually you take long, quick strides. I don’t know another woman who walks more purposefully or less seductively, as if you’re on a perpetual classified mission without much time to finish it.”
“There usually isn’t,” I said and climbed slowly to my feet. “In here, though, speed is not exactly of the essence.” I drew him up beside me. “Here, come tour Necropolis. I’ll show you my favorite graves.”
The bad-taste prize I had awarded to a banker’s headstone featuring an interlocking dollar sign and cruciform. “The gospel according to St. Lucre,” said Sam. A strong runner-up for grossest grave was a Roman-style marble arch of triumph that rose to about the height of my shoulder above the bones of the thirteenth president of MatherUniversity. “Better that,” said Sam, “than a replica of the Cloaca Maxima.”
I grinned and felt myself unwinding there beside him. The rest of the markers on our route I was able to examine with some detachment. In one stretch we came upon the consecutive graves of an eight-year-old girl, a woman who had died at just my age, and a seventy-nine-year-old who succumbed a month after her husband of fifty-seven years. “There’s not a whole lot of logic to any of it, is there?” I said.
“For the species, maybe,” he said. “For one being, none that I’ve been able to figure out.”
“I guess maybe everybody ought to be ready to pack it in the day after next. It’s all borrowed time, anyway.”
“In a way,” he said.
“Once you’ve decided that, you can go like gangbusters till you drop. I think that’s what all the great people do. They don’t waste their time worrying how long they’ve got left.”
“And what do all the ungreat people do?”
“Figure there’s not much point in any of it and just screw off waiting for the end.” We moved on in silence for a while. Then I asked him if he ever thought about his own funeral and where he was to be buried.
“As little as possible,” he said.
“But why? It’s part of life.”
“So is having a cavity drilled.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Not you – it.”
“Doesn’t the prospect make you sad, though?”
“So you run from it?”
“What else is there to do?”
“Stay and think what it means. You can’t do it afterward.”
“Well,” he said, “I can’t argue with that.”
“I think maybe I’d like to write my own funeral oration,” I told him, “and leave enough to pay the leading lady at the Old Vic to recite it.”
He grinned at the very idea. “But you wouldn’t be there to enjoy it.”
“At least I’d know what they’d be saying.”
“Afraid to take your chances with history’s verdict?”
“Not if I was sure it would notice me.”
“Does it matter to you all that much?”
“Don’t laugh,” I said, “but I think it may.” We walked on a few more steps. “That must sound screwy as hell to you.”
“No,” he said, “it sounds like someone furiously driven inside.”
I nodded a little grimly. “You know what, Sam – sometimes I’m afraid of my own ambition.”
“That’s good. It may even save your life.”
“For what, though?”
“I don’t know – another day, another year – maybe until they cure cancer and constipation and everybody’ll live forever.”
“I’d rather flame out than become a long-term basket case.”
“Sure,” he said, “because you’re still young and beautiful.”
“I am not beautiful.”
“Oh,” he said, “my mistake. How about pretty, then?”
“Flowers are pretty, not people.”
“How could I be so dumb?”
“I’m interesting-looking, how’s that?”
“So is a praying mantis,” he said.
“That’s my league,” I said and took his arm and steered us on till we came to a grave with the epitaph “Loved and esteemed by wife, children and all who knew him.”
“What more can anyone want said of him?” Sam asked.
“That he used his time here well,” I suggested.
“Could a man who won such devotion not have?”
“Sure. Give me a week and I’ll find you a hundred lovable wastrels.” Even as I said it, I saw where the loving wife and children of that esteemed corpse had been planted next to him. The whole loving family was side by side in the ground. Sam saw my eyes swell before I could avert them.
“Hurts, huh?” he said without smothering me.
“All that goddamned togetherness.”
“Is that bad?”
I tried to sniff away the gloom. “Not bad – it’s just not for me.”
“Weren’t you close to your folks?”
“Very. I even love my brother.”
“Then why the waterworks?”
“I – don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
“It’s private – okay?”
“Sure,” he said. “I just thought talking about it might be good.”
I shook my head, and we moved off toward the gate. Then out of nowhere I heard myself telling him, “He wanted me to marry and have kids.”
I nodded. “He never gave me a hard time about it. He just said he hoped I could make room in my life for both the law and a family.”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is that what sank you back there -- feeling alone?”
“I didn’t sink. It just got me down a little.”
“Not having a family?”
“Yes, for crissakes!” I don’t know why I barked at him. Probably because he was poking deeper than I liked. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m not quite myself.”
We passed through the cemetery gates, were assaulted by the city fumes, and headed toward the green. “I think you’ve got a lot of courage to go it on your own,” he said, “if you don’t find that patronizing.”
“It’s not courage – it’s preference. And fear.”
“Fear of what?”
“Of being a wife.”
“What’s wrong with wives?”
“Some are, some aren’t.”
“Most of them lead second-rate lives – face it.”
“So do their husbands. So does almost everyone. In fact, second-rate is pretty high. Not everybody wants to tear the world apart like you, Tabor. People recognize their limitations and just try to cope.”
“But coping is all most wives really do. They’re scared to death to try to be more than a decoration or a walking disinfectant.”
“Yours paints dots.”
“She’s a quite accomplished artist.”
“Who says so?”
“A lot of people.”
“Who – critics? Dealers? Does she show her stuff – does it sell?”
“She’s – working toward a show.”
“Then who says she’s any good – besides her loving husband and a couple of dozen close friends?”
“People she’s studied with.”
“People she’s paid, you mean.”
“Look, I’m not trying to knock her – maybe she’s a genius. But she’s probably dabbling. She puts in half the effort a man would. The other half’s for you and your kid. And half isn’t enough. That’s how come there aren’t more than a couple of women painters anyone’s ever heard of.”
He thought that over and said maybe I had a point. “I also happen to think women have an inordinate fear of failing,” he put in, “so they risk a lot less than men.”
“It’s not just fear of failing – it’s fear of succeeding. It would turn their whole quilted world upside down. They’d have to kick and be kicked and not fall apart on contact. It’s easier to take refuge in biology and sexual analogies. Wives don’t do – they get done – and afterward they clean up the mess. Who do you think got out the mop and the Lysol when God rested on the seventh day after all that creating?”
“Exactly. And you never hear a word about Her. He makes all the noise.”
We swung down treeless Willow Street for the final two blocks to the office. “I’ll tell Steve not to worry himself over you,” Sam said, “and don’t abuse the poor guy for being considerate.”
“I’ll just buy him a pair of knee-length socks and a gallon of mouthwash.”
“What’s wrong with his breath?”
“Nothing I’ve ever noticed. But it’ll get him plenty worried.”
Sam laughed. What easy pleasure it was to turn that expressionless face of his festive. It looked at times as if it were almost begging to be transformed. He was still emitting snickers when we hit the last corner before the office. Then he slipped on the seersucker jacket he had slung over one shoulder and grew pensive. “Hey,” he said, affecting jauntiness, “if you ever need a platonic ear to chew –so to speak – call me. I’m a summer bachelor during the week – Lee and Rollie are groupies with another family at Niantic. She likes to work out there. I go over on weekends.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll remember.”
The following week I called him.
The seven o’clock news had been particularly cataclysmic that night; even David Brinkley’s wry nasality could not minimize the disasters of the day. Suddenly a long, empty evening loomed. As a rule, I had no problem filling it with a dozen different things: Bach and the morning Times, a Thackeray novel, some reading for the office, a letter to my brother in our own inimitable code, the new Scientific American, practicing the flute which I bad lately taken up, a call to a friend, watching “Masterpiece Theater,” scrubbing my clump of ringlets and drying them to a side of Cleo Lane…. None of those seemed appealing just then, except blowing on the flute, which I managed for twenty minutes before resigning in desolation and drifting toward the phone.
Even looking up his number seemed too studied. I asked Information for it, wrote it down, contemplated it (a profoundly uninteresting number), lifted the receiver, paused, wondered….
©2017 Richard Kluger