The next morning, Theo was up by six and ready to leave ten minutes later, kissing me on my closed eyes, his soft hair brushing over my face.
“I’ve got to get to work,” he said. “Bunch of meetings today.” Theo had founded a Web design software company while he was in high school. He went to Stanford on a full-ride scholarship, but dropped out after a year. I’d been told he was making millions and millions now. We didn’t much talk about work. Truly, we didn’t talk much at all.
I pulled him toward me and kissed him, then we murmured our goodbyes. When he was gone, I lay in bed, eyes still closed, replaying the night. My bedroom felt thick with heat from the memories.
I fell back to sleep, and when I woke up at eight, my mind drifted to my dad. Or, should I say, to that man in the stairwell.
I called my brother. “How are you?”
“Nervous. I have to go into the radio station today to fill out paperwork and meet with the head producer.”
“Don’t be nervous. Everyone loves you.”
He laughed. “Thanks, Iz, but c’mon, everyone loves me at a party. Everyone loves me at a bar. This is a job.”
“It’s so weird to hear you say the J word. You want to do this, right?”
“I do. I really do. I was up all night thinking about it.”
“You were?” I couldn’t hide the surprise in my voice. Charlie never stayed up all night-not to party, not to be bothered about girls, not to fret about anything. If Chicago were in the grips of a natural disaster, the city being swept into Lake Michigan by a violent, massive tornado, Charlie would land in the lake, find something to use as a raft and lie down for the night, happy to let the jostling waves put him to sleep.
“You’ll be fine,” I said. I told him what I used to look for when I was searching for a new assistant. As I thought of working at the law firm and how I’d eventually hired my amazing assistant, Q, I felt rather misty-eyed about those days in a way I hadn’t when going through them.
Then I asked Charlie about the book, the one our dad used to read to us. “Do you have it?” That book was one of the few objects that reminded me sharply of my dad and made me feel close to him, or the man he used to be. After the other night, I wanted that.
“I think I left it at Mom’s house with a bunch of other books the last time I moved.”
“Perfect.” My mother had other books of my father’s, too. Maybe looking at them would give me some sense of him, tell me something about him.
A pause. “Iz, be careful with all this.”
“All what?” I threw back my sheets and stood up. The image that greeted me in the mirror over my dresser was comical. My long red hair was stringy in parts, extra curly in others, springing from my head and falling around my shoulders in crazed coils. My neck was splotchy from being kissed so many times. I tugged down a corner of the T-shirt I slept in. There was a red spot-a bite mark-on the top of my left breast. I’m scarred, I thought. And I was not unhappy about it.
“You know Dad is dead, Iz,” Charlie said. “Has been for a long time.”
“There was no body.”
“When you crash a helicopter into a huge lake, there’s a good chance the body won’t be recovered. Seriously, Iz, don’t let being out of work and away from Sam make you nuts.”
“I’m not nuts.” I looked at that bite mark. “And right now I’m okay about Sam.”
“I know. But, hey, learn from your brother. Use the time you have when you’re out of work. Go have a glass of wine.”
“It’s 9 a.m.”
“Exactly. You’re already an hour late.”
We hung up, and I walked to the kitchen, opened my fridge. I thought of Charlie’s words and considered a half-full bottle of pinot grigio. The thought made me nauseous. Charlie and I were simply different. We’d always known that. No reason to take my unemployment and turn it into alcohol dependency.
An hour later, I was at my mom’s. It was one of my mother’s greatest pleasures to give or loan her children something, even something mundane, because it meant she was a part of our lives; it meant she was needed.
If I was, for example, on the phone with my mother and casually mentioned I needed lightbulbs, my mother would inevitably say, in a quick voice, which counted as excited for her, “I’ve got lightbulbs. What kind do you need? What wattage?” I would tell her that the hardware store was closer than her house, that I would get them there, and inevitably she would be disappointed.
So that morning, I called and asked if I could borrow a pair of earrings I liked and maybe a book.
“Of course!” she said quickly, before giving me a summary of the three books she’d finished in the last week.
When she opened her door, she was already showered and dressed for the day in a cream skirt and silver silk blouse. She hugged me. “Do you want me to make you some green tea?”
I held up my Starbucks cup. “Already got it.”
“There are four pairs of earrings on the counter in the kitchen. Take all of them. Meanwhile, I have to help Spence with something.” She stopped. “Oh, and take anything you want from the library.”
I walked through her house to the library, a cozy, winter-hideaway room off the kitchen where none of us went in the summer. It was loaded with bookshelves and plump leather chairs. Although it had French doors that looked onto the back garden, they were partially obscured with yellow velvet drapes.
My mother had a desk in there, where she worked on her charity, an organization called the Victoria Project, which helped widowed women with children. A few stacks of paper sat on the desk, but it was the slow time of the year for the project, and so the library was as pristine as the rest of my mother’s house. I drifted to her fiction section and perused some novels, but my eyes kept moving upward, to the shelf at the top right, the one above the autobiographies, the one that required a step stool to reach.
A wooden stool with two steps was tucked to the side of the shelves. I pulled it over and climbed the steps. I felt a little dizzy as I did so, part of me remembering climbing down the dark steps the other night, another part of me woozy with the sense of climbing now into the past.
These were my father’s books. I easily found the one Charlie and I talked about. Poems & Prayers for the Very Young.
I took it off the shelf and stepped off the stool, drawing my fingers over the cover, over the drawing of the two children on the front. I felt flooded by snippets of recollection-my dad’s hands opening that book; me, excitedly pointing to a poem I wanted to hear.
I flipped, reading the first lines. I wake in the morning early. And always, the very first thing…
What did my dad do first thing in the morning these days?
I chastised myself a little for asking the question. What were the chances that he was really alive? Was this something I’d concocted from the recesses of my mind to distract myself from the fact that my life was stuttering?
Yet here I was on a Tuesday morning, when I should have been working (or at least looking for work), idly perusing my mother’s bookshelves, stepping back in time. Later, I told myself. Later I would look for a job, then I would sort through the night with Theo and what it meant, if anything. I would call Sam for the first time in weeks and see how he was doing, how we were doing.
I put the book down on my mother’s desk and stepped back up on the stool. A few of my dad’s textbooks were there, a couple of those novels he used to read and some historical books dealing with the history of Southern Italy and others on uprisings in Italy and Greece.
My father was half Italian on his mother’s side, and he always had a taste for learning about his heritage. I opened the history books one by one, flipping through them. The pages were golden with age. I searched for notes my father might have made, passages he might have underlined, but there was nothing like that.
I looked at a book about urban regeneration in Naples. I flipped through the pages the way I had with the other books. Again, no idle thoughts were scribbled into the margins, nothing that told me what my dad was thinking as he read the lines. But at the end, I found something sandwiched tight between the back cover and the last page. A newspaper clipping, dated February 1970.
The clipping was small, almost ashy to the touch, and like the book pages, it was yellowed. I unfolded it and read the headline. Thieves Kill Man at Shell Station.
I began to read the text and flinched when I saw the name of the victim-Kelvin McNeil. Suddenly, I remembered my dad talking to me one night, telling me a story, but this one wasn’t from a book. It was about his own deceased father, the one who would never meet his grandkids.
You would have called him Grandpa Kelvin, he’d said, and he was a great man. He loved your grandmother very much. He always said the best thing he did was marry her.
Grandma O? I asked.
My father had nodded, smiled. Grandma O was Oriana, my dad’s mom. She lived in Phoenix, having moved out there from the East Coast when it was still a desert and not a suburb. Because of the distance, I only saw her about once a year. She’d died in a car accident a month before my father.
I got down from the step stool, held the article closer and read it.
Kelvin McNeil, it said, had pulled his vehicle, a 1969 F100 truck, into a Shell Station. Five minutes later, a neighbor screamed from an apartment next door. Police arrived at the scene and found McNeil lying dead beside his truck, the victim of a stabbing to his chest and abdomen, his wallet stolen. The keys were still in the ignition.