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Vol. 3, No. 3

Notes to My Biographer
by Adam Haslett

Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental-health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of flesh. Bureaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.
      Note, for instance, the way I obtained the Saab I am presently driving into the Los Angeles basin: a niece in Scottsdale lent it to me. Do you think she'll ever see it again? Unlikely. Of course, when I borrowed it from her I had every intention of returning it, and in a few days or weeks I may feel that way again, but for now forget her and her husband and three children who looked at me over the kitchen table like I was a museum piece sent to bore them. I could run circles around those kids. They're spoon-fed Ritalin and private schools and have eyes that say, Give me things I don't have. I wanted to read them a book on the history of the world, its immigrations, plagues, and wars, but the shelves of their outsized condominium were full of ceramics and biographies of the stars. The whole thing depressed the hell out of me and I'm glad to be gone.
      A week ago I left Baltimore with the idea of seeing my son Graham. I've been thinking about him a lot recently, days we spent together in the barn at the old house, how with him as my audience ideas came quickly, and I don't know when I'll get to see him again. I thought I might as well catch up with some of the other relatives along the way. I planned to start at my daughter Linda's in Atlanta, but when I arrived it turned out she'd moved. I called Graham, and when he got over the shock of hearing my voice, he said Linda didn't want to see me. By the time my younger brother Ernie refused to do anything more than have lunch with me after I had taken a bus all the way to Houston, I began to get the idea that this episodic reunion thing might be more trouble than it was worth. Scottsdale did nothing to alter my opinion. These people seem to think they'll have another chance, that I'll be coming around again. The fact is I've completed my will, made bequests of my patent rights, and am now just composing a few notes to my biographer, who, in a few decades, when the true influence of my work becomes apparent, may need them to clarify certain issues.

  • Franklin Caldwell Singer, b. 1924, Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Child of a German machinist and a banker's daughter.
  • My psych discharge following "desertion" in Paris was trumped up by an army intern resentful of my superior knowledge of the diagnostic manual. The nude-dancing incident at the Louvre in a room full of Rubenses had occurred weeks earlier and was of a piece with other celebrations at the time.
  • B.A., Ph.D., Engineering, The Johns Hopkins University.
  • 1952. First and last electroshock treatment, for which I will never, never, never forgive my parents.
  • Researcher, Eastman Kodak Laboratories. As with so many institutions in this country, talent was resented. I was fired as soon as I began to point out flaws in the management structure. Two years later I filed a patent on a shutter mechanism that Kodak eventually broke down and purchased (then?Vice President for Product Development Arch Vendellini was having an affair with his daughter's best friend, contrary to what he will tell you. Notice the way his left shoulder twitches when he is lying).
  • All subsequent diagnoses—and let me tell you, there have been a number—are the result of two forces, both in their way pernicious. 1) The attempt by the psychiatric establishment over the last century to redefine eccentricity as illness, and 2) the desire of members of my various families to render me docile and if possible immobile.
  • The electric-bread-slicer concept was stolen from me by a man in a diner in Chevy Chase dressed as a reindeer whom I could not possibly have known was an employee of Westinghouse.
  • That I have no memories of the years 1988?90 and believed until very recently that Ed Meese was still the attorney general is not owing to my purported paranoid blackout but, on the contrary, the fact that my third wife took it upon herself to lace my coffee with tranquilizers. Believe nothing you hear about the divorce settlement.

When I ring the buzzer at Graham's place in Venice, a Jew in his late twenties with some fancy-looking musculature answers the door. He appears nervous and says, "We weren't expecting you till tomorrow," and I ask him who they are and he says, "Me and Graham," adding hurriedly, "We're friends, you know, only friends. I don't live here, I'm just over to use the computer."
      All I can think is I hope this guy isn't out here trying to get acting jobs, because it's obvious to me right away that my son is gay and is screwing this character with the expensive-looking glasses. There was a lot of that in the military and I learned early on that it comes in all shapes and sizes, not just the fairy types everyone expects. Nonetheless, I am briefly shocked by the idea that my twenty-nine-year-old boy has never seen fit to share with me the fact that he is a fruitcake—no malice intended—and I resolve right away to talk to him about it when I see him. Marlon Brando overcomes his stupor and lifting my suitcase from the car he leads me through the back garden past a lemon tree in bloom to a one-room cottage with a sink and plenty of light to which I take an instant liking.
      "This will do nicely," I say, and then I ask him, "How long have you been sleeping with my son?" It's obvious he thinks I'm some brand of geriatric homophobe getting ready to come on in a religiously heavy manner, and seeing that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look in his eye I take pity and disabuse him. I've seen women run down by tanks. I'm not about to get worked up about the prospect of fewer grandchildren. When I start explaining to him that social prejudice of all stripes runs counter to my Enlightenment ideals—ideals tainted by centuries of partial application—it becomes clear to me that Graham has given him the family line. His face grows patient and his smile begins to leak the sympathy of the ignorant: poor old guy suffering from mental troubles his whole life, up one month, down the next, spewing grandiose notions that slip like sand through his fingers to which I always say, you just look up Frank Singer at the U.S. Patent Office. In any case, this turkey probably thinks the Enlightenment is a marketing scheme for General Electric; I spare him the seminar I could easily conduct and say, "Look, if the two of you share a bed, it's fine with me."
      "That drive must have worn you out," he says hopefully. "Do you want to lie down for a bit?"
      I tell him I could hook a chain to my niece's Saab and drag it through a marathon. This leaves him nonplussed. We walk back across the yard together into the kitchen of the bungalow. I ask him for pen, paper, and calculator and begin sketching an idea that came to me just a moment ago—I can feel the presence of Graham already—for a bicycle capable of storing the energy generated on the downward slope in a small battery and releasing it through a handlebar control when needed on the uphill, a potential gold mine when you consider the aging population and the increase in leisure time created by early retirement. I have four pages of specs and the estimated cost of a prototype done by the time Graham arrives two hours later. He walks into the kitchen wearing a blue linen suit with a briefcase held to his chest and seeing me at the table goes stiff as a board. I haven't seen him in five years and the first thing I notice is that he's got bags under his eyes and he looks exhausted. When I open my arms to embrace him he takes a step backward.
      "What's the matter?" I ask. Here is my child wary of me in a strange kitchen in California, his mother's ashes spread long ago over the Potomac, the objects of our lives together stored in boxes or sold.
      "You actually came," he says.
      "I've invented a new bicycle," I say, but this seems to reach him like news of some fresh death. Ben hugs Graham there in front of me. I watch my son rest his head against this fellow's shoulder like a tired soldier on a train. "It's going to have a self-charging battery," I say, sitting again at the table to review my sketches.

 

~

With Graham here my idea is picking up speed, and while he's in the shower I unpack my bags, rearrange the furniture in the cottage, and tack my specs to the wall. Returning to the house, I ask Ben if I can use the phone and he says that's fine, and then he tells me, "Graham hasn't been sleeping so great lately, but I know he really does want to see you."
      "Sure, no hard feelings, fine."
       "He's been dealing with a lot recently . . . maybe some things you could talk to him about . . . and I think you might—"
      "Sure, sure, no hard feelings," and then I call my lawyer, my engineer, my model builder, three advertising firms whose numbers I find in the yellow pages, the American Association of Retired Persons—that market will be key—an old college friend who I remember once told me he'd competed in the Tour de France, figuring he'll know the bicycle-industry angle, my bank manager to discuss financing, the Patent Office, the Cal Tech physics lab, the woman I took to dinner the week before I left Baltimore, and three local liquor stores before I find one that will deliver a case of Dom Pérignon.
      "That'll be for me!" I call out to Graham as he emerges from the bedroom to answer the door what seems only minutes later. He moves slowly and seems sapped of life.
      "What's this?"
      "We're celebrating! There's a new project in the pipeline!"
      Graham stares at the bill as though he's having trouble reading it. Finally, he says, "This is twelve hundred dollars. We're not buying it."
      I tell him Schwinn will drop that on donuts for the sales reps when I'm done with this bike, that Oprah Winfrey's going to ride it through the halftime show at the Super Bowl.
      "My dad made a mistake," he says to the delivery guy.
      I end up having to go outside and pay for it through the window of the truck with a credit card the man is naïve enough to accept and I carry it back to the house myself.
      "What am I going to do?" I hear Graham whisper.
      I round the corner into the kitchen and they fall silent. The two of them make a handsome couple standing there in the gauzy, expiring light of evening. When I was born you could have arrested them for kissing. There ensues an argument that I only half bother to participate in concerning the champagne and my enthusiasm, a recording he learned from his mother; he presses play and the fraction of his ancestry that suffered from conventionalism speaks through his mouth like a ventriloquist: your-idea-is-fantasy-calm-down-it-will- be-the-ruin-of-you-medication-medication-medication. He has a good mind, my son, always has, and somewhere the temerity to use it, to spear mediocrity in the eye, but in a world that encourages nothing of the sort the curious boy becomes the anxious man. He must suffer his people's regard for appearances. Sad. I begin to articulate this with Socratic lucidity, which seems only to exacerbate the situation.
      "Why don't we just have some champagne," Ben interjects. "You two can talk this over at dinner."
      An admirable suggestion. I take three glasses from the cupboard, remove a bottle from the case, pop the cork, fill the glasses, and propose a toast to their health.
      My niece's Saab does eighty-five without a shudder on the way to dinner. With the roof down, smog blowing through my hair, I barely hear Graham, who's shouting something from the passenger's seat. He's probably worried about a ticket, which for the high of this ride I'd pay twice over and tip the officer to boot. Sailing down the freeway I envision a lane of bicycles quietly recycling power once lost to the simple act of pedaling. We'll have to get the environmentalists involved, which could mean government money for research and a lobbying arm to navigate any legislative interference. Test marketing in L.A. will increase the chance of celebrity endorsements, and I'll probably need to do a book on the germination of the idea for release with the first wave of product. I'm thinking early 2001. The advertising tag line hits me as we glide beneath an overpass: Making Every Revolution Count.
      There's a line at the restaurant and when I try to slip the maître d' a twenty, Graham holds me back.
      "Dad," he says, "you can't do that."
      "Remember the time I took you to the Ritz in that Rolls-Royce with the right-hand drive and you told me the chicken in your sandwich was tough and I spoke to the manager and we got the meal for free? And you drew a diagram of the tree fort you wanted and it gave me an idea for storage containers."
      He nods his head.
      "Come on, where's your smile?"
      I walk up to the maître d', but when I hand him the twenty he gives me a funny look and I tell him he's a lousy shit for pretending he's above that sort of thing. "You want a hundred?" I ask, and am about to give him an even larger piece of my mind when Graham turns me around and says, "Please don't."
      "What kind of work are you doing?" I ask him.
      "Dad," he says, "just settle down." His voice is so quiet, so meek.
      "I asked you what kind of work you do."
      "I work at a brokerage."
      A brokerage! What didn't I teach this kid? "What do you do for them?"
      "Stocks. Listen, Dad, we need—"
      "Stocks!" I say. "Christ! Your mother would turn in her grave if she had one."
      "Thanks," he says under his breath.
      "What was that?" I ask.
      "Forget it."
      At this point, I notice everyone in the foyer is staring at us. They all look like they were in television fifteen years ago, the men wearing Robert Wagner turtlenecks and blazers. A woman in mauve hot pants with a shoulder bag the size of her torso appears particularly disapproving and self-satisfied, and I feel like asking her what it is she does to better the lot of humanity. "You'll be riding my bicycle in three years," I tell her. She draws back as though I had thrown a rat on the carpet.
      Once we're seated it takes ten minutes to get bread and water on the table, and sensing a bout of poor service, I begin to jot on a napkin the time of each of our requests and the hour of its arrival. Also, as it occurs to me:

  • Hollow-core chrome frame with battery mounted over rear tire wired to rear-wheel engine housing wired to handlebar control/thumb-activated accelerator; warning to cyclist concerning increased speed of crankshaft during application of stored revolutions. Power break?
  • Biographer file: Graham as my muse, mystery thereof, see storage container, pancake press, flying teddy bear, renovations of barn for him to play in, power bike.

    Graham disagrees with me when I try to send back a second bottle of wine, apparently under the impression that one ought to accept spoiled goods in order not to hurt anybody's feelings. This strikes me as maudlin, but I let it go for the sake of harmony. Something has changed in him. Appetizers take a startling nineteen minutes to appear.
      "You should start thinking about quitting your job," I say. "I've decided I'm not going to stay on the sidelines with this one. The power bike's a flagship product, the kind of thing that could support a whole company. We stand to make a fortune, Graham, and I can do it with you." One of the Robert Wagners cranes his neck to look at me from a neighboring booth.
      "Yeah, I bet you want a piece of the action, buddy," I say, which sends him back to his endive salad in a hurry. Graham listens as I elaborate the business plan: there's start-up financing for which we'll easily attract venture capital, the choice of location for the manufacturing plant—you have to be careful about state regulations—executives to hire, designers to work under me, a sales team, accountants, benefits, desks, telephones, workshops, paychecks, taxes, computers, copiers, decor, water coolers, doormats, parking spaces, electric bills. Maybe a humidifier. A lot to consider. As I speak, I notice that others in the restaurant are turning to listen as well. It's usually out of the corner of my eye that I see it and the people disguise it well, returning to their conversations in what they probably think is convincing pantomime. The Westinghouse reindeer pops to mind. How ingenious they were to plant him there in the diner I ate at each Friday morning, knowing my affection for the Christmas myth, determined to steal my intellectual property.

  • Re: Chevy Chase incident, look also into whether or not I might have invented auto-reverse tape decks and also therefore did Sony or GE own property adjacent to my Baltimore residence—noise, distraction tactics, phony road construction, etc.—and also Schwinn, Raleigh, etc., presence during Los Angeles visit.

"Could we talk about something else?" Graham asks.
      "Whatever you like," I say, and I inform the waiter our entrées were twenty-six minutes in transit. Turns out my fish is tougher than leather, and the waiter's barely left when I have to begin snapping my fingers for his return.
      "Stop that!" Graham says. I've reached the end of my tether with his passivity and freely ignore him. He's leaning over the table about to swat my arm down when the fellow returns.
      "Is there a problem?"
      "My halibut's dry as sand."
      The goateed young man eyes my dish suspiciously, as though I might have replaced the original plate with some duplicate entrée pulled from a bag beneath the table.
      "I'll need a new one."
      "No he won't," Graham says at once.
      The waiter pauses, considering on whose authority to proceed.
      "Do you have anything to do with bicycles?" I ask him.
      "What do you mean?" he asks.
      "Professionally."
      The young man looks across the room to the maître d', who offers a coded nod.
      "That's it. We're getting out of here," I say, grabbing bread rolls.
      "Sit down," Graham insists.
      But it's too late; I know the restaurant's lousy with mountain-bike executives. "You think I'm going to let a bunch of industry hustlers steal an idea that's going to change the way every American and one day every person on the globe conceives of a bicycle? Do you realize what bicycles mean to people? They're like ice cream or children's books, they're primal objects woven into the fabric of our earliest memories, not to mention our most intimate connection with the wheel itself, an invention that marks the commencement of the great ascent of human knowledge that brought us through printing presses, religious transformations, undreamt-of speed, the moon. When you ride a bicycle you participate in an unbroken chain of human endeavor stretching back to stone-carting Egyptian peasants, and I'm on the verge of revolutionizing that invention, making its almost mythical power a storable quantity. You have the chance to be there with me, 'like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific—and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise—silent, upon a peak in Darien.' The things we'll see!"
      Because I'm standing as I say this a quorum of the restaurant seems to think I'm addressing them as well, and though I've slipped in giving them a research lead I can see in their awed expressions that they know as I do, not everyone can scale the high white peaks of real invention. Some—such as these—must sojourn in the lowlands where the air is thick with half measures and dreams die of inertia. Yes! It is true.
      "You'll never catch up with me," I say to the gawking industrial spies.
      This seems to convince Graham we indeed need to leave. He throws some cash on the table and steers me by the arm out of the restaurant. We walk slowly along the boulevard. There's something sluggish about Graham, his rounded shoulders and bowed head.
      "Look, there's a Japanese place right over there, we can get maki rolls and teriyaki, maybe some blowfish, I can hear all about the brokerage, we might even think about whether your company wants to do the initial public offering on the bike venture, there could be an advantage—"
      He shakes his head and keeps walking up the street, one of whose features is a truly remarkable plenitude of shapely women, and I am reminded of the pleasures of being single, glances and smiles being enjoyed without guilt and for that matter why not consummation? Maybe it's unseemly for a seventy-three-year-old to talk about erections, but oh, do I get 'em! I'm thinking along these lines when we pass what appears to be the lobby of a luxury hotel convention-center kind of place, and of course I'm also thinking trade shows and how far ahead you have to book those things so I turn in and, after a small protest, Graham follows (I tell him I need to use the bathroom).
      "I'd like to talk to the special-events manager," I say to the girl behind the desk.
      "I'm afraid he's only here during the day, sir," she replies with a blistering customer-service smile, as though she were telling me exactly what I wanted to hear.
      "Well, isn't that just wonderful," I say, and she seems to agree that yes, it is wonderful, wonderful that the special-events manager of the Royal Sonesta keeps such regular hours, as though it were the confirmation of some beneficent natural order.
      "I guess I'll just have to take a suite anyway and see him in the morning. My son and I will have a little room-service dinner in privacy, where the sharks don't circle!"
      Concern clouds the girl's face as she taps her keyboard.
      "The Hoover Suite is available on nineteen. That's $680 a night. Will that be all right?"
      "Perfect."
      When I've secured the keys I cross to where Graham's sitting on the couch. "Dinner is served," I say with a bow.
      "What are you talking about?"
      "I got us a suite," I say, rattling the keys.
      Graham rolls his eyes and clenches his fists.
      "Dad!"
      There's something desperate in his voice.
      "What!"
      "Stop! Just stop! You're out of control," he says. He looks positively frantic. "Why do you think Linda and Ernie don't want to see you, Dad, why do you think that is? Is it so surprising to you? They can't handle this! Mom couldn't handle this! Can't you see that? It's selfish of you not to see a doctor!" he shouts, pounding his fists on his thighs. "It's selfish of you not to take the drugs! Selfish!"
      The lobby's glare has drained his face of color and about his unblinking eyes I can see the outlines of what will one day be the marks of age, and then all of a sudden the corpse of my son lies prostrate in front of me, the years since we last saw one another tunneling out before me for some infinite distance, and I hear the whisper of a killing loneliness travel along its passage as though the sum total of every minute of his pain in every spare hour of every year was drawn in a single breath and held in this expiring moment. Tears well in my eyes. I am overcome.
      Graham stands up from the couch, shaken by the force of his own words.
      I rattle the keys. "We're going to enjoy ourselves."
      "You have to give those back to the desk."
      By the shoulders I grab him, my greatest invention. "We can do so much better," I say. I take him by the wrist and lead him to the elevator, hearing his mother's voice behind us reminding me to keep him out of the rain. "I will," I mutter. "I will."
      Robert Wagner is on the elevator with Natalie Wood but they've aged badly and one doesn't take to them anymore. She chews gum and appears uncomfortable in tight clothing. His turtlenecks have become worn. But I figure they know things, they've been here a long time. So I say to him, "Excuse me, you wouldn't know where I might call for a girl or two, would you? Actually what we need is a girl and a young man, my son here's gay."
      "Dad!" Graham shouts. "I'm sorry," he says to the couple, now backed against the wall as though I were a gangster in one of their lousy B movies. "He's just had a lot to drink."
      "The hell I have. You got a problem with my son being gay?" The elevator door opens and they scurry onto the carpet like bugs.
      For a man who watched thousands starve and did jack shit about it, the Hoover Suite is aptly named. There are baskets of fruit, a stocked refrigerator, a full bar, faux rococo paintings over the beds, overstuffed chairs, and rugs that demand bare feet for the sheer pleasure of the touch.
      "We can't stay here," Graham says, as I flip my shoes across the room.
      His voice is disconsolate; he seems to have lost his animation of a moment ago, something I don't think I can afford to do right now: the eviction notices in Baltimore, the collection agencies, the smell of the apartment . . . "We're just getting started," I say quickly.
      Graham's sitting in an armchair across the room, and when he bows his head, I imagine he's praying that when he raises it again, things will be different. As a child he used to bring me presents in my study on the days I left for trips and he'd ask me not to go; they were books he'd found on the shelf and wrapped in Christmas paper.
      I pick up the phone on the bedside table and get the front desk. "This is the Hoover Suite calling. I want the number of an agency that will provide us with a young man, someone intelligent and attractive—"
      Graham rips the phone from my hand.
      "What is it?" I say. His mother was always encouraging me to ask him questions. "What's it like to be gay, Graham? Why have you never told me?"
      He stares at me dumbfounded.
      "What? What?" I say.
      "How can you ask me that after all this time?"
      "I want to understand. Are you in love with this Ben fellow?"
      "I thought you were dead! Do you even begin to realize? I thought my own father was dead. You didn't call for four years. But I couldn't bear to find out, I couldn't bear to go and find you dead. It was like I was a child again. I just hoped there was an excuse. Four years, Dad. Now you just appear and you want to know what it's like to be gay?"
      I run to the refrigerator, where among other things there is a decent chardonnay, and with the help of a corkscrew I find by the sink I pour us two glasses. Graham doesn't seem to want his, but I set it down beside him anyway.
      "Oh, Graham. The phone company in Baltimore's awful."
      He starts to cry. He looks so young as he weeps, as he did in the driveway of the old house on the afternoon I taught him to ride a bicycle, the dust from the drive settling on his wetted cheek and damp eyelashes, later to be rinsed in the warm water of the bath as dusk settled over the field and we listened together to the sound of his mother in the kitchen running water, the murmur of the radio, and the stillness of evening in the country, how he seemed to understand it as well as I.
      "You know, Graham, they're constantly overcharging me and then once they take a line out it's like getting the Red Sea to part to have it reinstalled but in a couple of weeks when the bicycle patent comes through that'll be behind us, you and Linda and Ernie and I, we'll all go to London and stay at the Connaught and I'll show you Regent's Park where your mother and I rowed a boat on our honeymoon circling the little island there where the ducks all congregate and which was actually a little dirty, come to think of it, though you don't really think of ducks as dirty, they look so graceful on the water but in fact—" And all of a sudden I don't believe it myself and I can hear my own voice in the room, hear its dry pitch, and I've lost my train of thought and I can't stop picturing the yard where Graham used to play with his friends by the purple lilac and the apple tree whose knotted branches held the planks of the fort that I was so happy for him to enjoy never having had one myself. He knew me then even in my bravest moments when his mother and siblings were afraid of what they didn't understand, he would sit on the stool in the crumbling barn watching me cover the chalkboard propped on the fender of the broken Studebaker, diagramming a world of possible objects, the solar vehicles and collapsible homes, our era distilled into its necessary devices, and in the evenings sprawled on the floor of his room he'd trace with delicate hands what he remembered of my design.
      I see those same hands now spread on his thighs, nails bitten down, cuticles torn.
      I don't know how to say goodbye.
      In the village of St. Sever an old woman nursed my dying friend through the night. At dawn I kissed his cold forehead and kept marching.
      In the yard of the old house the apple tree still rustles in the evening breeze.
      "Graham."
      "You want to know what it's like?" he says. "I'll tell you. It's worrying all the time that one day he's going to leave me. And you want to know why that is? It's got nothing to do with being gay. It's because I know Mom left you. I tell you it's selfish not to take the pills because I know. Because I take them. You understand, Dad? It's in me too. I don't want Ben to find me in a parking lot in the middle of the night in my pajamas talking to a stranger like Mom found you. I don't want him to find me hanged. I used to cast fire from the tips of my fingers some weeks and burn everything in my path and it was all progress and it was all incredibly, incredibly beautiful. And some weeks I couldn't brush my hair. But I take the pills now, and I haven't bankrupted us yet, and I don't want to kill myself just now. I take them and I think of Ben. That's what it's like."
      "But the fire Graham? What about the fire?"
      In his eyes, there is sadness enough to kill us both.
      "Do you remember how you used to watch me do my sketches in the barn?"
      Tears run down his cheeks and he nods his head.
      "Let me show you something," I say. Across the room in the drawer of the desk I find a marker. It makes sense to me now, he can see what I see, he's always been able to. Maybe it doesn't have to end. I unhook a painting from the wall and set it on the floor. On the yellow wallpaper I draw the outline of a door, full-size, seven by three and a half.
      "You see, Graham, there'll be four knobs. The lines between them will form a cross. And each knob will be connected to a set of wheels inside the door itself, and there will be four sets of hinges, one along each side but fixed only to the door, not to the frame." I shade these in. Graham cries. "A person will use the knob that will allow them to open the door in the direction they want—left or right, at their feet or above their heads. When a knob is turned it'll push the screws from the door into the frame. People can open doors near windows without blocking morning or evening light, they'll carry furniture in and out with the door over their heads, never scraping its paint, and when they want to see the sky they can open it just a fraction at the top." On the wall I draw smaller diagrams of the door's different positions until the felt nib of the pen tatters. "It's a present to you, this door. I'm sorry it's not actual. You can imagine it, though, how people might enjoy deciding how to walk through it. Patterns would form, families would have their habits."
      "I wanted a father."
      "Don't say that, Graham." He's crying still and I can't bear it.
      "It's true."
      I turn back to the desk and, kneeling there, scrawl a note. The pen is nearly ruined and it's hard to shape the letters. The writing takes time.

  • Though some may accuse me of neglect, I have been consistent with the advice I always gave my children: never finish anything that bores you. Unfortunately, some of my children bored me. Graham never did. Please confirm this with him. He is the only one that meant anything to me.

    "Graham," I say, crossing the room to show him the piece of paper, to show him the truth.
      He's lying on the bed, and as I stand over him I see that he's asleep. His tears have exhausted him. The skin about his closed eyes is puffy and red and from the corner of his mouth comes a rivulet of drool. I wipe it away with my thumb. I cup his gentle face in my hands and kiss him on the forehead.
      From the other bed I take a blanket and cover him, pulling it up over his shoulders, tucking it beneath his chin. His breath is calm now, even. I leave the note folded by his hands. I pat down his hair and turn off the lamp. It's time for me to go.
      I take my glass and the wine out into the hall. I can feel the weight of every step, my body beginning to tire. I lean against the wall, waiting for the elevator to take me down. The doors slide open and I enter.
      From here in the descending glass cage I can see globes of orange light stretching along the boulevards of Santa Monica toward the beach where the shaded palms sway. I've always found the profusion of lights in American cities a cause for optimism, a sign of undiminished credulity, something to bear us along. In the distance the shimmering pier juts into the vast darkness of the ocean like a burning ship launched into the night.

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