The Pathetic Biographer
My father was murdered the night before Christmas. His body swaddled in lace, hidden underneath his basement steps, with only the top of his head exposed.
I found him, cold and resistant to movement. His striking face drawn and unreflective through a thin film of blood. An indentation the size of a tangerine on his forehead.
He'd seen his death.
I unwrapped him. The difficult task of unrolling him in the dusty crawlspace. The blood permeated the layers of lace, creating horrific patterns.
Vainly hopeful, I placed my ear against his heart for a sound or a movement. My actions confirmed what my heart had already known.
Throughout the discovery, I was plaintive, even though only moments before I had tore through his house searching for him. The act of conclusion, of seeing a goal to its fruition. He was expecting me from college break, said he'd be home and now he was dead.
The front door was unlocked, which was odd for my father. He was a man of distrust. The man who noted the speedometer of his car before he allowed me to use it as a teenager. The same man who listened in on my phone calls and referred back to any learned information when my guard was down. A distrustful man. Yet, a man with secrets. And a man with secrets would never leave the front door of his house unlocked, especially during the holidays. And holidays can forever be scarred by exposed secrets.
I closed the door behind me, honoring my father by locking it. I called his name in my usual speaking manner. No response. Maybe he was upstairs in the bathroom or taking one of his multiple showers of the day. His alternative to poisoning his body with deodorants of any sort. I made my way from the foyer to the living room, through the dining room to the kitchen. Each area celebrating Christmas with excess. My father, who was extensively restrained in almost every other compartment of his life, lost all sense of taste with his decorating style. It was my mother, God rest her soul, who endlessly reined him in. But after her death, it was as if he was celebrating somehow. The first Christmas after she passed away, I told him I was appalled by his extravagant behavior. What I thought was his utter lack of respect. He simply dismissed my collegiate affectations, his words, with a roll of his eyes.
I continued to call out to my father, leaving enough space in between for him to respond. I climbed up the flight of stairs to the second floor, still receiving no answer. Not one to usually worry, my heart quickened without an excuse. It wasn't like there was a given cause to worry. When the cab dropped me off, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Besides, I was not that kind of worrier. I needed reasons, evidence to worry. My fears were never based on paranoia or expectations. Therefore, I wish I had some kind of excuse for my escalating internal alarm, other than an unlocked door.
I checked every room upstairs. The master bedroom. The guest room. Even the bathroom. I concluded he had to be in the basement, indulging in his most recent of pastimes, lace making. This replaced tennis, which replaced skeet shooting, but became almost as important, at least to my collegiate observations, as weightlifting. My father had clung to weightlifting since his teenage years, when he tired of being the school nerd, he once told me. At fifty-seven, my father was the type of man who people always remarked how good he looked for his age. He made no bones about my avoiding the gym and any other physical exertion. You look like shit, he'd tell me without a hint of levity. And I'd tease him about his lace hobby and he'd give me that familiar hard gaze that carefully and silently explained: some things are never fodder for laughs.
I expected to find my father hovering over his worktable, surrounded by needles and reams of lace at his feet. Entranced by some complicated stitch he'd mastered. I began running towards the basement reminded of a past franticness when I was little and came home from school and no one was there. Doing as I had done on this Christmas Eve, searching and searching to no avail. Only to have both of my parents enter from the back door, mildly laughing and each holding a dry cocktail glass in their hand. They were enjoying the good weather in the backyard and needed a refill. I was furious that they had scared me and that their careless mood contrasted with my fear. It was like they didn't even care. I just knew my father would be the same when I discovered him. He'd be humming some aria and look up from his work at hand and say, What the hell are you doing yelling all over my house? He'd heard me the whole time. Amused.
The lights were on in the basement. Their glow creating diamonds at the top of the stairs. I walked down the steps without making a sound, hoping to gain some small revenge against my father's tragic sense of humor. I would surprise him. At the landing I could survey the entirety of the room and my father was not there. Maybe I had overlooked a note, I thought. When people say, this isn't like him, in reference to someone's out-of-character behavior, they never take into consideration that people change, people get fed up, people just don't care anymore. But I could honestly say, this was not like my father. If he had left a note of some sort, it would have been on the kitchen table in plain view or waiting on the floor as soon as I opened the front door. And again, my father would have never left the door unlocked.
I decided to once more check the house, much more carefully this time. But any further inspection proved unnecessary. As I turned to go back up the stairs, I saw a length of lace rolled up the way carpet would be. Peculiar, I thought. My father would never be so careless. Then I noticed deep red peppering only one end of the lace. White lace with irregular deep red patterns? Curiosity forced me to take a closer look.
I'd found my father.
Frantic as I felt, I entered into a new mode. I became calm. Too distracted to cry. In some sort of shock, maybe. My father laid beneath my kneeling body.
After I unwrapped him, I called 911 from the phone on the wall. When a woman answered, I only said, Somebody killed my father. I don't remember what else she asked or what else I might have said. I had my father propped up in my hands when the sound of the sirens neared. I gently placed him on the floor, amazed at how heavy his body was. He was literally dead weight. I rushed upstairs to answer the door.
This year's Christmas was supposed to be hopeful. One of resolution and determination. My first in two years following my mother's passing. She was my only reason for visiting. Then suddenly, I had none. I say suddenly because there was no lingering illness; she was ripped from my life when a drunk driver careened onto a sidewalk where she took her morning walk before work. My father and I were told by the police she most likely didn't feel anything. I've always prayed for that to be true. She was wearing her Walkman, probably set too loud to that atrocious smooth jazz station I teased her about. Why don't you listen to real jazz? I'd joke. Her hands were surely swinging back and forth at her side while she briskly walked through the neighborhood.
With nary a relationship or an understanding of my father, it seemed obvious that I would choose to live on-campus at the state college. He hadn't asked where I would live anyway. My father never asked questions he already knew the answer to. All we would have done was politely argue. That back and forth verbal ping-pong between two people who really don't care what the other person has to say. Therefore, I was utterly taken aback when he had asked me to come home for Christmas this year. I was lying on the floor of my dorm, a pile of dirty clothes under my head for a pillow. I thought, but didn't say, What the hell for? Then he said he wanted me to meet someone. Someone special, he added. This conversation was more than I could bear. I clumsily excused myself to a non-existent class. My father knew. This was November and several more just-thinking-of-you calls followed.
I endured endless conversations as this sterile man, my father, gushed over žsomeone special.Ó The same man who couldn't even write he loved me in a card. Just Dad, he'd sign. This same man was now in love. Or something that looked like it, I hoped. And just like that it hit me. I always questioned if he ever loved my mother the way you should love someone you decide to marry. And if he didn't, my father wasn't falling in love again; he was falling in love. And for some reason, this scared me.
You two will get along, he said often. You have a lot in common.
My wordlessness must not have been indicative of my disapproval. He'd continue with a childlike abandon I'd never witnessed or could imagine from him. Who was this man calling me? Where was the guarded son-of-a-bitch that raised me? Now he was open and receptive. Especially our last conversation before my visit. He'd given me the flight schedule he'd made without my knowledge. He pleaded with me to come home. To make things right? He asked shyly. There was a vulnerability in his voice, along with sincerity, that made me unable to say, I have work to catch up on or I can't this year. My usual explanations. It didn't feel right to use them. You can meet this new person in my life, he finally offered. My father always spoke like men with secrets do. Vague. Bare. Efficient. Leaving you to inquire (or not), to ask questions (or not) they clearly didn't want answered on your terms.
I hung up the phone with a mild expectation of clarification. Something I've never received from my father. Something that began and ended and came back to when I was much younger. A small boy. Something that was never discussed with me.
It must have been football season because I had to wear gloves and a hat, in addition to my coat to go outside. My mother was becoming increasingly infuriated with me for coming in and out of the house to use the bathroom. I almost wish you would use a tree like all the other boys, she said. I know that's what they do instead of bothering their mothers and letting the good heat out. I'd say I was sorry each time and when I was eventually diagnosed with a too-small bladder, I never let her forget it.
My father was on the couch watching a game with his best friend at the time, Mr. Gurney. Amazingly, my father didn't seem to mind how many times I traipsed in and out of the house, even though I had to pass through the living room where they were. It probably had to do with their emotional viewing of sports. A pleasure that even today surpasses all reason for me.
The streetlights came on, which meant that it was time for me to come in for the day. Nothing more than running around and chasing each other in the snow was probably interrupted. I entered the house and as I closed the screen door, I didn't hear my dad and Mr. Gurney screaming foul or touchdown or anything at all. Only of the sound of the TV blared. Mom was upstairs. I removed my sneakers for the umpteenth time that day, so I wouldn't track up the rest of the house. Basically, the only personal annoyance I had with my constant peeing. I hated having to remove and then put my sneakers back on. But unlike the other boys, I couldn't use a tree or sneak behind some bushes to take care of my business. I didn't know at the time it was called pee-shyness.
In nothing but damp, cold socks on my feet, I walked into the living room and saw Mr. Gurney giving my father a massage. My father was still seated on the couch and Mr. Gurney was standing behind him, silent, his hands kneading my father's shoulders. As for my father, his head lazily rested back into Mr. Gurney's crotch. I completely recall the look of contentment on my father's face.
I stood there watching. I couldn't run away. They sensed my presence because they jumped away from each other the way people do when they've done something they hope no one has seen. But what I remember most is the look they gave me. Like I'd done something wrong. What's so wrong about a massage? Neither one of them said a word to me. Mr. Gurney sat back down on the couch. They both faced the screen and I ran from the doorway. Still feeling like I'd done something bad. For the remainder of my life, I couldn't escape the look they both gave me that day.
I stood in that same living room waiting for the ambulance and the police to arrive and allowed the memory of that look to chill me. They came almost at the same time. I knew the neighbors would be gathering soon. I led everyone to the basement and eventually lost all semblance of composure as my father's studio was turned into a crime scene. One of the paramedics made me sit down as gushes of nausea poured from within me past my lips. It was the outlining of his body that did it. To be so close. It was like the outline was my father's ghost, not quite ready to release him. A policeman's voice called out for somebody to get me the hell out of there. I clung like a marionette on the arm of someone.
The investigation began with me. I was asked questions that I could answer and more often, others that I could only guess. I was of no help; I knew so little of my father's life. He knew so little of mine. Often it seemed they were asking me to reveal the life story of a stranger I sat next to on the plane. When I was asked, Do you have any idea who'd want to do this to your father? I said no without hesitation. My reply was certainly based on ignorance. Are you sure? I was asked again and repeated my answer. Anyone he might have might mentioned casually to you? The detective asked. I wasn't so sure then. The detective knew I wasn't sure. He repeated himself. I spoke gingerly, feeling like I was about to betray my father and his life of secrecy. My father always said, family matters remain in the family. Even after his murder, did this still hold true?
I explained that he had a friend he spoke favorably of more recently. I didn't have a name. I realized, I didn't even have a gender. My father never specified. Which should have rang an alarm to me. This was the visit when I would know. I was supposed to meet them for the first time, I explained. I sounded like the son of a secretive man.
I was lodged between two moods. Grief and exasperation. I just wanted to be alone. No more questions. I couldn't answer the way I was expected. I probably annoyed the detective as much as I annoyed myself. I vaguely apologized that I was too upset to continue. I was told I would be contacted again. But then the detective added, Are you sure you can't tell me anything about your father's friend? I could only nod. Would it have helped their investigation if I had shared with them how excited my father was over this friend? Or how I reminded my father of this friend or more accurately, the other way around. I don't know if my hesitation to speak was evident, but in some odd way I expected this trifling bit of information to help. But really, how could it?
After everyone left, I walked through the house again. I'm not sure why. As if I was hoping, in vain, to find my father. But, of course, I did not. All that greeted me was the emptiness. The same emptiness that was there when I had first arrived, unaware that my father was dead underneath the basement steps. The same emptiness that existed as its own entity and threatened to consume me. I had to sit down. After walking upstairs, I returned downstairs to that couch. Where ages ago I witnessed my father's head back, eyes closed, taken away by another man's calloused hands rubbing his shoulders. The span of years connected with the detective's question that I was incapable of answering, Are you sure you can't tell me anything about your father's friend?
What could I say? I was an inept authority on my father. I only knew shades of what he allowed me to see. To view. To understand. Yes, I knew his presence. His walls. Often a victim of them. But I knew little of his personal life. His private life, I suppose. I was the pathetic biographer. Left with little more or little less information found in one of those instant books on the latest teen heartthrob. I could supply his statistics. His height, weight, hair color, etc. His birth date, and now, the date of his death versus a surplus of gaps and voids surrounding that event in front of the Sunday afternoon football game.
Most biographers design their story to illustrate their subject's life with a thread pulled from their earliest beginnings of childhood adventures, traveling forward through the headiness of first successes, stopping, of course, to include a failure or two, both the personal and career-related ones and so on, with the direct intention of proving that perhaps, if we're fortunate, like said subject, we change as we grow and our lives will possibly serve as a cautionary tale to the reader. Enlightenment? These connected events of a life lived. Of my father's life, which returned me to the chorus in my head, Are you sure you can't tell me anything about your father's friend?
Alone on the couch, I somehow expected enlightenment to be more of a revelation. It wasn't, it was inconsequential, considering my father had been murdered by, most likely, his male lover.
It had probably been a complicated day. The way days leading up to a holiday can be, despite the best intentions. Not complicated in the way that something is challenging or a difficult life lesson is, but in the sense that there's never enough time for all the things you need to do.
My father and his friend spent the day together. Those final, tedious hours of shopping on Christmas Eve at the local mall. Herded with the others who swore to Christ on the cross and his angels, back when there were still leaves on the trees, that this year they wouldn't wait until the last minute to take care of their gift shopping.
You want to get something from the food court? He'd ask my father. I'm really hungry.
_____, I have so much food at home already. You can wait a little longer, can't you? I really don't have much more shopping to do.
Then my father would look at his perfunctory list, rattling off each and every item and chore in order of importance. Only my father in love would find himself shopping the night before Christmas. But isn't that what love can do? Take you out of yourself, away from yourself and then back again, all for someone else. Then, his friend, his male lover, might affectionately rub my father's shoulder to punctuate his easy demand. Was it really a question that he wouldn't eat? My father would tense his entire broad, muscled body. Telling himself no one saw one man touching another man that way in public. Telling himself that he shouldn't be so closeted, that's what his friend, his lover, repeatedly told him. But he could never shake his inhibitions. Besides, my father was never an affectionate man in the first place.
My father would find himself sitting at table in the food court. Surrounded by his many shopping bags. Constantly checking his watch while _____ waited in any one of the crowded lines. How people can pollute their bodies with junk is beyond reasoning, my father would mull over in his head. An impatient man. He'd want to finish shopping. He'd want to leave. Now. But he loved _____. And aren't you supposed to do things you don't want to do for those you love? At least sometimes.
_____ would return with a tray. Not a take-out bag. By now, he knows of my father's impatience, well. You're not going to let me eat alone, are you? He'd ask. And why would I want to watch you eat junk? My father thinks. My father wants to chastise him, but decides against it since it would create more tension. And besides, _____ would not stop eating anyway. My father knows this. He'd really have to rush now. Rush to complete the remainder of his shopping. Rush through the holiday traffic. Rushing until he was home. Preparing those last minute decorating touches. Perhaps, the tightly woven lace cover on the dining room table. That would need to be pressed with the iron. The intricate placemats on the kitchen table would also need to be free of creases. All before my arrival.
My father, the master of grudges would perform the cooking or the ironing under a smoke of resentment. Blaming _____. Blaming himself. Then _____ would try to calm him with seduction. The cure for what ails you. Maybe on this very couch. The couch where I saw my father and our neighbor. Maybe in the same position. My father sitting on the couch. This time fuming. Pouting. _____ behind him. A massage? Kisses on the nape? My father would brush his hands away. Then lurch forward to avoid them altogether. As if flames curled out from _____'s fingertips. More futile attempts until my father would stand up and order him to leave. Why do you act so immature? My father would ask. Knowing the answer already, as he touched the creases on his face. Even though I look good for my age, he'd think. That's what everyone tells me.
Hurt. Rejected. _____ grabs his coat. Making emphasized gestures as he drags his arms through the sleeves. Maybe he's only infuriated because he didn't get what he wanted. For all the hastiness used to put on his coat, his walk to the door is lingering. Maybe he's waiting for my father to ask him to stay. To apologize for being so÷himself. Again with the make-up game.
Then they'd make love.
But this time is different. How? My father knows I'm coming. The beginning of our new beginning. Maybe, he had decided, we'd talk about that moment on the couch, too many years ago. He'd know the moment I met _____, I'd want answers. Explanations.
But this time is different. The game of _____ and my father's. The kind of game where you don't know the rules, the outcome, the winner or the loser.
_____ reconsiders and walks back to my father. He reaches out. My father slaps him. The way he would slap my mother. Stunned, _____ backs away. Then seethes. Unlike my mother, he hits my father back. As good as he got. Then they fight. An old-fashioned fist fight to rival any from a black and white Western. They struggle against each other. A new component of the game neither one of them has anticipated. My tall, broad-back father who looks good for his age, channels his entire life, his suppression, my mother, me, onto _____. _____ is no match against a lifetime of rage. He has no choice but to pick up something. Anything. Something nearby. The nearest Thing that will make my father stop pummeling him. That's all. To just make him stop. He picks up a candleholder? Or a vase? Or a Thing that's just plain heavy? It doesn't matter.
He'd seen his fate.
_____'s crying. Shaking. My father falls to the floor. He's not moving. _____ checks my father's pulse, like he's seen in the movies. Fingers to the temple. Ear to the chest. Nothing. He understands, now, how easy it is to find yourself caught in a situation beyond your grasp. He understands he wants to finish college. English Lit, my father mentioned. The same as mine. He wants to write a novel. But who doesn't? He wants to do everything. He wants to rule the world. He believes he can. For God's sake, we're both in our early twenties. Of course we can rule the world. But this changes everything: my father on the floor. Not moving. Not breathing. The blood pouring from the gash. From his head. Matting his hair. If I search, will I see smeared pinkness where a desperate try was made to remove the staining blood from the floor? Does he bring the lace to my father or my father to the lace? Lace first. Less mess. Then he drags him or carries him over his shoulder. Down to the basement. My father is dead or dying. But _____ is still desperate and he believes nothing can be undone.
He places my father's body under the staircase where he probably stands over him before leaving. Praying, maybe. He is convinced that he wants to rule the world. He has to leave. Leave the house before I arrive. Leave before we ever meet.
We will never meet. _____ and I. We will never connect. At least not the way my father wanted. And my father and I found no resolution. Only the expectation or idea of resolution.
My father's murderer was never captured. Maybe it was _____. Maybe it wasn't. In some difficult, indirect way though, he gave my father something I never could. And in some haunting way, he would bring my father and I together.