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The Lost Father (Vintage Contemporaries)by Mona Simpson
I lived in a small, low-ceilinged apartment beneath an old man. He was cane walking, stooped and Chinese. In the elevator he stood just to my eyebrows. He seemed to be completely alone. I weighed those factors at midnight, again, as I sat by the spray of lamplight over my textbook, while the vague, indoor noises of his television fell down through my ceiling. Outside my one window, another brick building rose, like a piece of dark paper.
I was twenty-seven and in medical school. The only reason I was in the East was to read these pages. I scratched out a note to the man above. "Dear Sir, Could you please turn down your television?" I balled it up. I had no garbage can. That was another thing. To Do.
And so I went to bed. I loved sleep. I was new in New York City, new in medical school, sleep was my voluptuous sanctuary. I slept in linen closets, on cots, floors, in waiting rooms on foam-covered chairs. I slept, and could sleep, anywhere. Under a sheet, my limbs would move in the thick pleasure of being unseen. I could sleep most times, especially if I had something warm. I dressed in layers of cotton and would leave some piece, a sweatshirt or a T-shirt, on top of a radiator. Then I took the warm thing and hugged it in my arms by my face and before the heat drained out of it I was fast asleep. I did that in boys' apartments to help assuage the strangeness. I always woke up first, in the morning. I hated mornings there. They seemed so ordinary and industrial, machinery of the material world gearing up in hitches noisy outside. This life was approximate, I knew, standing at the window, whether or not there were any others.
I wanted to be a country doctor. I knew what I wanted my office to look like. It would be a room at the end of an orchard, with wooden bureaus and shelves, magnifying glasses, bird skeletons, nests, butterflies behind glass, a live parrot in a cage, an examining table with a clean roll of white paper. I would treat whole families, the migrant cherry pickers, Gypsies who came to the Wisconsin peninsula every year, and I would keep their histories in an even penmanship in lined notebooks. There would be a small laboratory at the back. I was specializing in internal medicine, but I did not want to get too far away from home. Most people in the world suffered common, eternal diseases.
I'd picked New York because I had a vision of myself wearing white bucks and a pink cable-knit sweater, holding the silver subway pole.
I lived there, but I never had a strong sense of place. I was always standing at a window, looking at the buildings and a small portion of the sky. Even when I walked in the park by the river, the trees never seemed beholden to that place. They were trees that could have been anywhere, just trees. I'd come to get my training. I wanted to use the place, not the other way around, and I approached with a kind of wariness.
My first day of college chemistry, a Nobel Prize winner who'd discovered an element, now colored on the periodic table, said into the microphone, "Look to your left and look to your right. Because two of you won't get in." He didn't even have to say get in what. We knew. That was Brown. The tall, off-handed man wasn't even a doctor. He was a scientist. The distinction hardly mattered to me then. I found my pencil in my mouth. Two others waited, sharpened, in a clear case. I had a good seat, because I'd come twenty minutes early, but for those in back, video monitors on the ceilings played the lecture. And that was the last joke he told all semester, if you can call it a joke.
One out of three wasn't bad odds. Four kids from West Racine's two-hundred-and-eighty-nine-person class went to college. Any college. And they were teachers' children. I came from a high school in California where all the mothers cared about was colleges and straight teeth. Pencils grated around me. Brown seemed full of valedictorians.
But that time I didn't last in the East. I transferred, the next year, to Wisconsin, after my grandmother's third stroke. Then, only once, she came to visit me in my dormitory room in Madison. I'd encouraged the trip. I thought she would be proud of me, on campus, and that she would enjoy the idea of a scholarly life. And she would have, but she was just too old. I saw when she stepped off the bus. She held the metal bar with two hands and her feet went off parallel, stiff coming down. She pointed to a green tin box on the curb. When my mother had tried college, she'd sent her sorority clothes home to be laundered every other week and my grandmother had sent them back in this same box, all washed and pressed. Now she wanted to do the same for me. We walked a little through campus and she nodded solemnly with a downward frown. She gripped my arm too hard and I felt glad and relieved to get her into the dormitory. I had a good room and my roommate was gone for the weekend. At the hall kitchenette, I made my grandmother the Sanka that she liked. I'd bought powdered Cremora so it would be just like at home. When I walked back balancing the cup, I found she'd lowered herself to her knees. She had her hands on the top of the bed for balance. My mattress lay on an eighteen-inch platform that somebody's boyfriend had built.
"You know what I'd do," my grandmother whispered, the skin around her mouth gathering, "I'd get a saw and two such hinges" she spanned her thumb and first finger to show me the size-"and build a door in here." Her hand traced on the wood of the platform. "Then, if you hear anything trying to get in, you just crawl under and shut the door. They'll never even know you're here."
She worried about the window. My roommate, Emily, and I lived in two rooms. The front one had a nice window with a tree outside. Other windows in the building had security bars but I didn't want them because of the tree. I'd pushed my desk there and I scattered birdseed on the wood to lure birds: bluejays, robins and once a cardinal, skitting the meal over my papers as I worked.
I borrowed a car and drove my grandmother home. By the time we turned onto the old small roads outside Racine, she began to forget me. She could still take care of herself, alone in the house, but that was all. She was glad enough to let me go. At home, I undressed her and she went right to sleep, on her back, her nose the highest place on her.
Living in New York, in the apartment with one window and the man who watched TV upstairs, I had no tree. I turned the light on first thing in the morning. But the brick wall outside, the hot plate on the floor in the closet, even the ticking pattern of cockroaches, made me know what I was there for. I felt a weakness in my neck. The book lay open to page 485. I stayed up later than I could, marking with yellow highlights, slowly and more slowly turning the pages. Getting in turned out to be the least of it.
I had nine thousand dollars in the bank. My inheritance. The money represented a third of the proceeds from a gasoline station my grandmother had owned. For twenty-four years after her husband died, my grandmother had dutifully driven out to the Mohawk Gasoline Station every month to collect the rent. I had often gone along and waited in the car. When we drove up slowly, the car coasting into a slot by the high red and white pumps, the manager would run out, fill up our tank and hand my grandmother an envelope. Sometimes he had a bottle of chocolate milk for me and a straw. She always paid him for the gasoline and she tried to pay him for the milk, too. My cousins and I often collected gifts we didn't deserve because we were the owner's children.
I kept the money in the Racine National Savings. and Loan Bank. I owned a small cardboard accordion file, where I slotted the dark green passbook under S, for security. I kept all my valuables in that file, my grandfather's watch and my mother's costume jewelry from her college years. I hadn't touched the money yet and I felt some satisfaction, knowing I had more than the numbers printed in blue, because there would be interest. Sometimes, I took the book out and just held it.
I'd managed major expenditures without touching that. It had been a question, when I moved, whether to come lightly and buy a futon in New York or to truck the family furniture, my desk and the old gray couch from the living room, the bed and green-and-white-striped bedspreads. If I didn't keep the stuff, nobody else would. I saved the money from my job after college at the Wildlife Sanctuary. The salary had been small but I had no expenses. After my grandmother's fourth stroke, my senior year, I'd moved back into the house on Guns Road.
It seemed an odd thing to do, moving half a houseful of furniture across the country, worrying over trucks, examining the arrived familiar things for nicks and scratches. That is the middle class: paying thousands of dollars trucking pieces of junk from one state to another. These were not antiques or anything. But I was from the West. I hadn't planned on my New York apartment being so small. I was embarrassed and I didn't want people to know I'd moved all these chairs here. There was something not young about me when I was young. I lived in an overfull room, hitting my hipbones on table corners.
Once when I was asleep, I heard a thump against my door just before it was light. The sky was streaked with gray and blue and a strange pale cream. I hadn't locked the door. I just forgot. That was another thing I couldn't get in the habit of doing right. I never locked doors. I reached down the side of my platform, touched the rough wood I'd shipped from Wisconsin. I thought of the hinged door. There was no hinged door. It was my own fault and now I waited on my back in bed. My mother had always been terrified and locked everything six times, even car doors. I hated that. I wanted to feel careless. I tried to be.
Later, the upstairs neighbor's water rushing thoroughly in the walls, I turned on the light and opened the door. A new phone book, the yellow pages, slumped against the wood. This seemed hilariously funny. Once before, in Madison, I'd been in bed and I heard something alive land through the window. It turned out to be a twelve-pound cat. So far in my life, for me, nothing that followed was as bad as that first gasp.
It was just morning. Nothing had happened. The old man upstairs had on his TV already and I forgave him. I even liked it. I made a strong cup of coffee and began flipping through the yellow pages. I turned to the D's. Detective Svce wedged between Dentists and Diamonds. "See Investigators-Private," the book said. I almost didn't, but I did. All the boxed entries advertised MISSING PERSONS. After MATRIMONIAL, they seemed to be the main attraction. Some firms bragged about the numbers of unmarked cars, others claimed international service. A lot of them seemed to be run by ex-police lieutenants and ex-district attorneys. One ad said UNUSUAL CASES! DIFFICULT PROBLEMS and I turned the corner of the page back, thinking that was me, until I realized, with a funny feeling, that missing persons did not seem to be unusual.
Right then I started calling agencies. I didn't really mean to. It was an odd thing to do when I was always behind with work and sleep stole my time. A luxury meant caramel flan and caf? con leche at the greenlit Cuban-Chinese diner on Amsterdam. That morning, spatters of unremitting rain ticked on the window. There is glamorous and dull rain. This was dull rain.
The first detective put me on hold. He transferred me to Missing Persons. When I told Missing Persons what I knew, a sure-sounding guy said he'd be wasting my time. "You just don't have enough. It's a big country," he said.
The next one was a young woman. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," she said while I told my story. I didn't like talking about him. It reminded me of being a girl, standing still while the interrogation slanted down on me. Have you heard anything from your dad? Do you miss him? I felt sullen. But of course, I'd called her. Still, I said as little as possible. I answered her questions with yeses and nos. Mostly nos.
"Twenty-five hundred," she said. "That's ballpark, you understand."
The next place I called transferred me three times before anyone would listen. But then, the man seemed kind. He said hmmm, thoughtfully and somehow impersonal in a way I liked, as if this weren't my life we were talking about, but something general. "Why don't we schedule a meeting just so I can hear all the facts."
I had to ask him first, how much that would cost.
"Oh, nothing yet," he said.
He actually came to my apartment. I suppose his seeing where I lived helped me with the price. Hard as it might have been for other people to believe, I felt sort of proud of my apartment. It was the first place I'd had on my own. Sometimes I missed that: the refrigerator door yawning open in the other room, Emily clomping in, a cat draping silkily around my legs. Here, no matter how poor I was, I had furniture. I felt proud and ashamed of that, depending on how the other person seemed.
I don't even remember the detective's name. This bothers me, but when I think about him, even hard, I know I don't know it. I'm pretty sure I never even received a report from him, anything in writing. It's all vague to me, the way a casual affair might be. That's what I did instead of casual affairs my first year in the East.
I offered the detective tea and he accepted, then seemed to regret it as I clanged about my closet kitchen, bumping my hot plate on the floor, extracting two cups from their unlikely situation in the half-size refrigerator. "No storage," I apologized. The apartment building had once been a hotel and the kitchen, a linen closet. Racine's old downtown had this kind of brick building. Downtown and this kind of place meant squalor there, old single men with strange-smelling habits. The detective sat in my grandmother's coil rocker. When I gave him his tea, there was nowhere for him to put it, so he held it in his open palm on his thigh. With his other hand, he took notes on what I told him about my father. He didn't ask much. We settled on a price of fifteen hundred. Seven hundred and fifty then, the subsequent seven hundred fifty upon location. C.O.D., so to speak. I wrote out the check. I hadn't budgeted the money and I didn't want to take it out of the bank. I didn't want to use my grandmother's gas station money to do this. I just wanted to do it. Sort of on the side.
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