Here’s what I know: When Mom discovered she was pregnant with me, my parents had been separated for some time. Dad had left her for another woman in another town, and Mom had filed for divorce. I was conceived during a short-lived Christmas reunion. Dad wanted her to get an abortion. She refused. On the eve of the date when the divorce would’ve become final, Dad caught a train back to New York where Mom was living with my brother (four at the time) and begged her to take him back. She did. I was born September 2nd. Dad was at the hospital, 5:30 in the morning. They were married for the rest of their lives, both dying at seventy-two, a year apart. Dad first.
You have to understand this story wasn’t handed to me as a coherent narrative early in life like the time they met as kids or their first date with Aunt Eleanor in tow. I learned about the abortion thing when I was thirteen because they’d argue about it when they got nasty drunk and into dredging up old fights. Since I obviously survived this abortion, lying in bed hearing them argue about it, I could only get but so upset. It was never clear why I might’ve been aborted. I didn’t know the story until years later.
The other woman, separation-while-pregnant, and near-divorce details came from Mom over pie and coffee at Denny’s while Dad underwent a series of tests at the hospital next door. Dad had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at sixty-two, and I was separated from my second wife, so Mom thought this was a good time to bring me up to speed. I already knew Dad cheated on her, had known for years, and Mom knew I knew, but that’s another story. I always thought of this as Mom’s Story: Pregnant with me, waiting on a divorce, that son of a bitch knocking at the door again, wondering “Is this going to be like Christmas?”
Once my parents were gone, all this information didn’t have to matter anymore. I’d narrated it for two or three counselors over the years—processed it or whatever you call it now. I figure any adult who merely had their abortion discussed in their fetal presence probably has more important things to worry about, since the decision went their way, and they’ve had years to get over it. I don’t feel scarred. Or maybe, at fifty-nine, scarred is what I know.
But then Dad starts showing up, and suddenly it’s all supposed to matter again.
He’s gotten his memory back, ever since his life flashed before his eyes, and he’s been sorting through the pieces, putting things together, and feeling pretty ashamed. He’s had time to think, he says.
“Dad, you died twenty-three years ago.”
“Has it been that long? Hmmm. It’s taken me a while to find you. I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.” We’re standing in the musty mystery aisle in a used bookstore where I have more credit than I’ll ever use in my lifetime. I was trying to remember the name of an author I’d been on a panel with only a few months before and coming up with nothing, not even an initial, when there’s Dad, saying he’s sorry.
“For what? You’ve got nothing to be sorry to me about. You were great. No complaints. Life’s hard, and you did the best you could.”
“You really believe that?”
He looks stunned. Otherwise, he looks like I remember him before the Alzheimer’s. He looks a lot like me, only shorter, a scragglier beard. We could be brothers. He laughs. He’s got a nice, warm laugh. “Well, thanks. I didn’t think that was gonna go this good. You want to have some coffee or something?”
“Dad, you’re dead.”
“I know. I like going through the motions. This place around the corner has the cutest waitresses you ever saw.”
Here’s the weirdest thing. When we’re together, other people can see him, talk to him, whatever. They just don’t remember him the next day, the next minute, far as I can tell. He orders pie and coffee, flirts with the waitress who keeps filling both our cups. When the check comes, it’s for one pie, one coffee, and it’s like he was never there. He shows up while I’m walking my dog, and my neighbor shows up with her dog, and we talk, my dad charming as usual. If Dad had asked her out, she would’ve gone. As far as she’s concerned, it never happened. “I enjoyed our talk yesterday,” she says when I see her again. All I did was say, “Judy, this is Bob; Bob, this is Judy.”
This makes it easy at first. We can say anything we want, and nobody cares because nobody remembers. But now he’s showing up all the time. Dad never went to a counselor, never processed all this stuff he’s been thinking about since he died—events he couldn’t have made heads or tails of when he was alive. Before he died, he couldn’t remember the days of the week, much less the story of his life. Now he remembers it all and has only me to talk to. It’s not like I can refer him to a professional counselor. He says he can only really talk to someone he had a close connection with in life. Otherwise they won’t remember. I could make an appointment for myself and bring him along, but the counselor wouldn’t remember him from one session to the next. Besides, I can’t afford it, and Dad doesn’t have any money. He can’t do anything—make a phone call, drive a car. He can only listen in, ride along. And talk, and talk, and talk.
It doesn’t take him long to get to his buried life. “There’s something I’ve never told you,” he says and proceeds to tell the story Mom told me years ago in Denny’s. I let him tell the whole thing. I’m impressed their versions don’t depart from each other in any significant detail except it’s a little more obvious he was crazy in love with this other woman.
“Mom told me.”
“You’re fucking kidding me. She told me she wouldn’t.”
“She thought it might help me sort out things with Rachel. We were split up at the time.”
“Well, did it?”
“It didn’t hurt. Mom was trying anyway.”
“Yeah. I guess so. Was she still mad about it?”
“You mean back then? No. You were in the hospital. You’d been married most of your lives. To her, that was the whole point of the story—not to give up on a marriage. She was glad she forgave you.”
“You believe her?”
“Dad. ’Course I believe her.”
“There’s a part of the story she doesn’t know.”
“I haven’t talked to her. I can’t find her. The dead don’t talk. But I read something in the library—in Dallas, when I thought you might still be there. It was Kitty’s obituary. She was the woman I left your mother for. She was an actress, a singer. We worked together in advertising doing serial script shows, Backstage Wife and John’s Other Wife mostly. Some Stella Dallas. She spoke the lines I wrote, sang the jingles for the products.”
“I thought you wrote advertising.”
“There was no difference back then. I was part of a stable who ghosted for the agency shows.”
Ghosted. “All of this was in the obituary?”
“No. I’m just telling you.”
“Maybe you’re telling me more than I want to know.”
“Maybe I’m not. The obituary said she’s survived by a daughter, Maureen Powell, living in Philadelphia.”
“Kitty was pregnant, too. Maureen’s the right age—your age. I think she’s your half-sister.”
“Jesus, Dad. You got two women pregnant? What the hell were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking, obviously. I told you I was a fuckup.”
“I knew that already. I just didn’t know the extent of the damage. So why are you telling me this now?”
“I want you to help me find her.”
“Her. Maureen Powell?”
“That’s all you’ve got? Maureen Powell in Philadelphia? When did this Kitty die?”
“Dad, that’s fifteen years ago. What’s Kitty’s last name?”
“You’re kidding. That was really her name? Kitty Beaumont?”
“She had it legally changed. I told you. She was an actress.”
“I know. A jingle singer. Why in hell do you want to find Maureen Powell?”
“I want to introduce myself. She has a right to meet her father.”
“Dad, death has made you stupid. She’s come this far not knowing. Trust me. She doesn’t want this information at fifty-nine.”
He sulks. It’s funny to think of my dad as a big boy, but that’s what he was. Now he’s a big dead boy. “Maybe you can understand that I’d like to make things up to her, for never once being there for her.”
“How are you going to do that, Dad? You’re dead.” I hate to keep reminding him, but obviously somebody has to.
He looks off in the distance, a gesture I remember, like he was looking down a long, lonesome road where he kept some secret knowledge hidden. In the space of that look, he’d go down that road and back—then tell you the incredible thing he found. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I know where some stuff is that could make her some real money.”
“Like what, Dad?” I don’t hide my skepticism. Mom and Dad had been broke for years before they died. Surely, if they’d had anything of value, they would’ve cashed it in long before the Alzheimer’s set in.
“Like some old records her mother and I cut with friends after-hours playing around. Dirty versions of popular jingles, stuff like that. There were some big stars there that night. Don Ameche, for one. I saw on eBay something like that sold for thousands of dollars, and that’s not even the most valuable stuff.”
“eBay? You get on eBay?”
“I spend a lot of time in libraries. It’s up there on the screens. You have to be patient. That’s how I found you. I saw your books on the shelf, waited until someone took one down and looked at the back flap. It said you lived in Richmond, Virginia. I went to the airport and caught a flight. When I came across that old bookstore, I knew you’d come in there sooner or later. Anyway. I know where those records are and a bunch of other stuff, and I can tell Maureen, and she can sell it. Her mother’s on the records. It’s only right. She might want to keep them, I guess. Sentimental value. C’mon, Den, just help me do this one thing.”
He used to call me Den when I was a kid. “No. I’m not doing it. It’s crazy.”
“I’ll do all the talking.”
“She won’t even remember it when it’s over.”
“Maybe she will. Maybe she’s thought long and hard about who I am her whole life long.”
“Maybe she hasn’t. Maybe she won’t.”
“Then what’s the harm?”
Have I mentioned that after his advertising days Dad was a salesman most of his life? Pharmaceuticals. He’ll wear me down if I let him. I change the subject. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask him. “Remember that time in New Orleans when Mom went shopping with Jeanette, and you were supposed to be looking after me, but you stuck me in a movie downtown? I was about ten. What were you doing?”
He doesn’t hesitate. “Screwing a woman.”
“Jesus, Dad. What was her name? We going to look her up next? Maybe her grandkids?”
“I don’t remember her name. She didn’t mean anything to me.”
“Enough to dump me downtown.”
“Yeah. She was something. She was a nurse. She reminded me of Kitty. Diane. Her name was Diane. Look, I’m sorry. I was a terrible father. I said. You’re the one saying I’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Would you stop with that? It worked out. You shouldn’t have done it, but that was a big day for me. I knew something was up, that you were doing something wrong—no idea what—and you needed me to play along. It gave me a thrill, made me feel like I’d reached some new level of adulthood. Then when I came out of the theatre, and you were late, and I was on the streets of downtown New Orleans by myself, ten years old, it did something for me, made me stronger somehow. Braver. By the time you finally showed up, I’d figured out in my head how to walk back to the hotel if I had to. I never forgot that, growing up a weird loner kid. No matter where I was, what I got myself into, I figured I could always find my way back to the hotel.”
“So will you help me find Maureen?”
“We’ll see,” I say, knowing in my family “we’ll see” meant yes, because I could always wear Dad down. “We’ll see” was the first sign of surrender. Mom might say absolutely not, but Dad never could say no for long, and neither can I.
• • • •
When I give in, we’re arguing in the basement, and we get pretty loud, until I finally agree to go to Philadelphia, and he leaves out the barred back door. Sally comes down the stairs. “Who were you talking to?”
“Just trying out some dialogue.” I don’t want to go into it. I’m afraid she’ll worry. I try out dialogue all the time—two stories above our heads in my office on the second floor, behind not one, but two closed doors.
She glances around the chaos of our basement. She doesn’t ask what kind of story I’m working on that has me talking to boxes of videos rescued from the Gastón flood. “Have—Have you been feeling okay lately? You’ve been acting kind of strange, distant.”
There’s nothing for it. She’s worried already. I don’t like to keep anything from her. “My father’s been haunting me,” I say. Then I tell her the whole story.
“So you’re going to Philadelphia to find your half-sister?” she asks when I’m done. By this time we’re out in the daylight and have walked twice around the track.
“That’s the plan. There’s a convention there coming up. I can write it off.”
She smiles. “It will do you good to get away.”
“You always say that.”
“It’s always true. Can I meet him sometime?”
“Dad? Sure. Next time he shows up.”
Sure enough, he shows up that night for dinner. Fortunately I’ve made plenty. I’ve never seen the woman who didn’t enjoy meeting my dad. They might not think so much of him later on, but meeting him always goes well, and Sally is no exception. He gets her to telling travel stories from her days trekking though Africa in her twenties, and we go through every bottle of wine in the house. Dad’s in a great mood. He can’t get enough of the gorillas. He praises my cooking, which pleases me no end. He was the one who first taught me to cook. After he leaves, Sally and I make love on the sofa and sleep there.
“What got into us last night?” she asks over our morning oatmeal.
“Dad came for dinner, stayed all evening.”
“I don’t remember a thing. Except . . . Did I tell all my Africa stories?”
“That wasn’t just to you?”
“I’ve heard them all before.”
She smiles. “Well, tell him he’s welcome anytime.”
As I’m washing the crusty plates left sitting out all night, I find myself wishing there was one for him. I piled a plate high. I watched him eating, watched him slip a couple of bites to the dog, who stuck by him all evening. But there are only two plates to wash.
• • • •
Dad prefers to take the train to Philadelphia instead of the plane even though he used to love to fly. “I still like meeting all the stewardesses,” he says. “But lots of times there’s no place to sit except the toilet, and since this 9/11 thing nobody wants some dead guy standing around who’s not on their little list. They keep forgetting about me, but that just makes them even more nervous. There are always seats on the train.”
“They’re called flight attendants these days, Dad. Not stewardesses.”
“Is that right? Okay. They always have their names pinned to their chest. I usually call them by their first names. They don’t seem to mind. Interesting women, stewardesses. Some of them are small town girls who’ve been all over the world. I remember this one—”
“Dad, we’re taking the train.”
We take the train, but that doesn’t stop him from talking about stewardesses—excuse me, flight attendants—all the way to Philadelphia, navigating the station, waiting for a cab. When we get to the hotel—so Dad can finish the story of a Delta flight attendant named Juanita—the cabbie waits with the meter off while other cabs stack up behind us. Too bad he’s going to forget the unforgettable tale as soon as he drives away.
“Do you remember Braniff Airlines?” Dad asks me as we’re waiting in front of the elevator. By the time we get off on twelve everybody in that elevator must be thinking they’ll never forget them. Unfortunately, I’m the only one in that boat—in that pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet with Dad and a Braniff stewardess in the galley with a bottle of champagne unzipping her pink boots. Once in the room, I jump into the shower before he can remember another airline, another route, another town, another stewardess, another woman.
• • • •
When I get out of the shower, Dad’s looking out the window. “What do you do when I’m not around?” I ask him.
“Nothing. I was just thinking. You remember that tape we made of jokes the first summer in Houston before I got fired?”
When Dad was transferred as part of a merger reshuffle, he came into brief possession of a reel-to-reel tape recorder he was supposed to record weekly reports on. As far as I know, he never used it for that. Though over the space of a couple of weeks, night after night, we recorded all the jokes we knew on it, taking turns back and forth. I soon ran out. Dad knew tons of them, so he taught some to me and let me record them. He thought I did voices and characters well, so he taught me every character joke he knew—Chinese, Mexican, Italian—but I never could do Russians or Germans. I found them too intimidating. When Mark Russell came to a local nightclub, Mom and Dad took me, and I stole a Chinaman joke from him that got me five star reviews even from Mom who usually just laughed and said, “You two are just awful.” I don’t think Mark Russell does Chinaman jokes anymore. Neither do I.
“Yeah, I remember it. How’d that get started anyway?”
He smiles to himself. “I’d just gotten off the phone with Bill, and the rumors were flying. They were going to can me for sure. They were just looking for an excuse. I knew I wasn’t going to have that fucking tape recorder for very long. So I decided to have some fun with it.”
“It was a good time, Dad.”
“When I returned the recorder, I left that tape on it. Said it was my final report.”
I laugh out loud, imagining all those farmer’s daughters and bears who walked into bars telling Dad’s old boss to fuck himself, and Dad beams. I’ve surprised him again. Am I really so different from who I used to be?
Jeez. Look at the time, and I haven’t even registered yet. I have to get going. I fill him in as I’m getting dressed. “I’ve got a couple of panels this afternoon, then a reading later. I’ll pop into the dealers’ room some time in there, and come back up here around six. We can go out to eat, work out a plan for finding Maureen Powell. I’m not scheduled for anything tomorrow.”
“Can I come along?” He stands up, looking pathetic, like my dog angling for a walk. What do you do when I’m not around? Nothing.
I start to tell him he doesn’t have a badge, but I know that’s not going to make any difference. The conductor didn’t care if he had a ticket. He goes to the movies with me without one. Anywhere I go, he can come along, apparently, if I want him to. I’m not so sure I want him along for this sort of thing. I’m nervous enough anyway. “You’ll be bored. It’s just a bunch of writers and fans talking about fantasy and science fiction. You never read that stuff, did you?”
“Topper. Lost Horizon. Edgar Rice Burroughs. 1001 Arabian Nights. H. G. Wells.”
“Okay.” I hold up my hands in surrender, just like Dad used to do to me.
“Besides, I’ve never heard you read one of your stories.” He gives me a crooked smile. Of course he wants to go. He’s my dad.
I was unpublished when Dad died, though he read everything I wrote when I was thirteen, not much since then, since I’d sought out what I thought were more discriminating readers. The story I plan to read is all about him. It isn’t altogether flattering. I look out the window too. It’s a long way down. “Sure, why not?”
• • • •
I like conventions, though I’m too shy to ever feel completely at ease with the social side of them. Having an alcoholic father has made me a fairly moderate drinker, and my typical schedule is to rise at four in the morning and sleep at ten or eleven at night. Not a partier’s hours.
Dad, however, takes to the convention like a duck to the flock. Wherever we go, he strikes up a conversation with someone who, charmed by his innocent enthusiasm, explains what a “mundane” is, cautions him not to say “sci-fi,” or places the whole trekkie thing in its broader science-fictional context for him. This last proves no easy task and leads us into the bar. Dad’s Star Trek—seen in syndication and processed by the Cuisinart of his Alzheimer’s—isn’t the same as everyone else’s. The way he remembers it, the tribbles were in every single episode. Whenever the bridge would tilt back and forth, he claims, tribbles would roll this way and that with the rest of the lurching crew. In his Star Trek, Dr. McCoy—prone to paranoid Luddite rants and emotional outbursts—was clearly into the drug cabinet bigtime. As a representative of a pharmaceutical company, he’d seen it happen to lots of doctors over the years. By the time Dad’s spinning his theory of Dr. McCoy, Space Junkie, there’s a donut of people around us five deep, and someone buys us another drink.
I don’t remember the panels that well except I talk more than usual, and when someone asks if I would call my work “interstitial,” I say I prefer to think of it as intestinal. Dad laughs, and then everybody does, though it turns out Dad didn’t get the joke. “I thought you needed some help back there,” he says. “Was I right?”
He was right.
In the dealer’s room, I turn my back on him for a second to talk to a reader nice enough to introduce himself, and when I turn back around Dad’s admiring a woman’s boots, the woman as well, of course, and they turn out to be Elizabeth Hand’s boots, and I feel like a tribble caught in the headlights. She’s flanked by science fiction and fantasy luminaries whose names suddenly escape me, but who’ve all been on the cover of Locus. “Liz says there’s a party later, Den, a couple of parties. What do you say?”
Inarticulate strangling noises? I’m not sure. Everyone seems to accept it as yes. Dad goes on to pitch my reading, quoting and misquoting from some of the book jackets he had a chance to study for so long in the Dallas Public Library.
We stumble in a herd to the bar where I have another drink I don’t need and Dad works the crowd, enlisting more recruits for my reading. We ooze into the tiny corner room where my reading is scheduled, packed to overflowing. Dad’s sitting up front with Liz and Jeff Ford and Robert Louis Stevenson and Marie de France. There are tribbles spilling out of the podium. McCoy’s in an aisle seat, rolling up his sleeve, mainlining di-lithium crystal meth. My hands are trembling.
“Here’s what I know,” I begin, and then it goes pretty well. When it’s over, I shake a few hands Dad’s rounded up for me to shake, and we’re planning to stay in the room to hear Jeff Ford read next, when I step out for a moment to catch my breath and notice a woman sitting off in a corner of the bar. The semicircular chair surrounds her like a shell. A suspended light, a flat black cone, hovers above her. I can just make out her nametag. Maureen Powell.
She looks a lot like me. She looks a lot like Dad. Her hair’s white like mine. I slip through the crowd. It’s significantly quieter standing in front of Maureen’s chair. She looks up from her program, and I introduce myself and take the chair across from her. Most of the crowd heads into the reading room, and it grows quieter still. We can hear the clink of glassware as the waitress cleans up after.
“I’m not familiar with your work,” Maureen says.
“Nor I yours,” I say. “You live in Philadelphia?”
“I used to. I moved out west almost fifteen years ago now, after my mother died. I was ready for a change.”
“Was your mother’s name Kitty Beaumont?”
She starts. “How do you know that?”
“My father told me.”
“Did he know her?”
“Yes. They were once lovers. He thinks he might’ve been your father. Is that possible?”
She holds out a hand, and at first I think she means to cover my mouth to silence me, but she sights along her arm, trying to block out the distraction of my white beard, trying to get past the Santa thing to study my nose and my eyes. “You could be my brother,” she says.
I can hear Jeff Ford reading in the corner room, saying, “Back in the Autumn of ’57…” then someone inside pulls the door shut with a thud, and it’s so quiet you can hear the piped in soft jazz lurking overhead. “Listen. Would you like to meet him?”
“Is he here?”
“He’s in the reading that just started. Can I buy you a drink? You can meet him when he comes out.”
“All right. Scotch and water.”
I order two Scotch and waters. “Tell me about your mother,” I say. “Tell me about Kitty Beaumont.”
She tells her mother’s story with the first sentence she speaks. The rest is just details. “She told me my father was the love of her life, that he swept her off her feet and ran away with her, only to go back to his wife, and she never got over it.” Maureen laughs. I imagine it’s how Kitty might’ve laughed, a childlike cynical laugh. “I always thought it was a convenient story to justify never settling down, never being satisfied.”
Kitty was a chronically struggling radio actress whose career peaked with a brief stint as a contentious in-law on a short-lived TV soap. She was married five times. Maureen was her only child. She shows me pictures of her stepfathers the way some women show pictures of their kids. “This one’s Tom, Mom’s second husband. He adopted me. That’s where I get the name Powell.” She herself has never married.
“I started writing science fiction,” she says, sipping at her second Scotch, “because I thought we might be aliens. What about you?”
I glance at my watch. The reading’s almost over. “There’s something I have to tell you about Dad before he comes out. He’s been dead for twenty-three years. It’s his ghost you’ll be talking to.”
“You do horror?”
“No. Not really. I’m just trying to tell you. Before you meet him. He’s dead.” I sip my Scotch.
“Hmm.” Her eyes meet mine. We’re holding our glasses the same way, looking over our Scotches the same way, probably both of us quit smoking ten years ago, but a cigarette sounds awful good right about now.
The door in the corner flies open, and the room begins to empty out. Dad finds me right away. “That was terrific,” he says.
But already his eyes are on Maureen, and hers on him.
“So you’re my father,” she says, and any introduction I had in mind becomes irrelevant.
“Yes. I’m so sorry—”
“Not here,” she says. “Can we go someplace else?”
“Do you have a car?” he asks.
Before you know it, we’re driving out of Philly into the New Jersey countryside. I’m at the wheel, following Dad’s directions, so he and Maureen can talk in the backseat. She knows a lot more about the radio world than I ever did, and they talk about people I never heard of from the shows Dad and Kitty worked on together. Kitty, apparently, kept all the radio friends.
“Okay,” I finally say. “Where are we going?” The sprawl has given way to countryside dotted with abandoned farms, every other one for sale. The moon is high and bright.
“It’s not much farther,” Dad says. He tells Maureen what he told me before about the bootleg after-hour recordings and other stuff, and how he wants her to have it. “That’s where we’re going now,” he says. “I found it.”
“What other stuff?” Maureen asks.
“There’s a box of premiums, practically every one we ever offered. Mint condition.”
“Holy shit,” Maureen says.
“What are premiums?” I ask.
“Little toys and things for kids mostly,” Dad says. “When a character’s about to go on a big trek, you offer the Hike-o-Meter, a jazzed up compass for a boxtop and a dime. Membership cards. Magic rings. Kids loved it. Advertisers loved it.”
“Highly collectible,” Maureen adds. “Where is this stuff?”
Dad points down the long, lonesome road. “There’s a driveway a couple miles on the right. Big red mailbox. Can’t miss it.”
“Wait a minute. What is this place?” I ask.
“You remember Jake?”
Jake helped Mom and Dad move out of the house when they lost it a few years after Dad lost his job and before he got Alzheimer’s, offering the loan of his big truck, loading it up to the top, then driving off with two-thirds of their possessions never to be seen again. That Jake, Dad? “Yeah, I remember him.”
Dad tells Maureen the story. “This is his place. He’s laid up in a home in Newark about to kick off. When he goes, his heirs will get all this stuff. Till then, this is an abandoned farm full of stolen property.”
“How do you know this?” I ask.
“I spotted him, still working the same scam, rode out here with him with a load. Sure enough. He steals more than he can get rid of, never throws anything away. He didn’t know what he had. He never thought twice about a bunch of whistles and plastic rings that glow in the dark.”
I pull into the driveway, roll a hundred yards and stop. The place is completely dead.
“And you’re giving all this stuff to me?” Maureen asks.
“All except one thing. I want to keep that back. Everything else.”
“What?” She’s the one who says it, but we’re both asking.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s just one thing.”
“All right,” she says. Let the old ghost have his secrets. “There’s a flashlight in the glove box.”
“Wait a minute,” I say.
“You want a cut?” she asks.
“No. Should we even be doing this?”
“I don’t see the problem. The stuff was stolen. He’s asking us to get it back so he can give it to me. You don’t think he owes me? He abandoned my mother. You had a father, and I didn’t. You going to help or not?”
Dad doesn’t say anything, but it’s obvious he sees things pretty much the same way Maureen does. “Okay. What do we have to do?”
“There’s an old shed where the stuff is,” Dad says. “We just have to pry a few rotten boards loose. You two can do it with your bare hands, I bet.” And that’s what we do, loading the stuff into Maureen’s trunk, except for the one thing. It’s in a little flat box. “Give it to Den,” he says. “I can’t keep anything.”
“I don’t want it,” I say.
“You don’t even know what it is.”
Maureen opens the box. Inside is a diary like they used to sell in dime stores. Only this one says Pearl’s Diary across the front in fancy script. “Give me that,” I say.
Maureen is fiddling with the lock and key. “Hold on.”
“Pearl was my mother’s name.”
She freezes. “Oh,” she says and hands it over.
“What the hell is this, Dad?” I ask.
“It was going to be part of a new show. The premiums worked so great with the kids, somebody thought, why not their moms? The show was this woman’s diary, you know? A good-hearted woman married to a faithless man. The idea was we’d get the thing started, then you’d send in and get one of these diaries and write in it like you were the character in the show, and then we’d pick the best ones to put on the air. I think the idea was to try to do a show without writers. They already didn’t pay us much of anything or give us a credit.”
“Who was going to play Pearl?”
“When was it on?”
“It never got on the air. That’s the diary I pitched it with. Wrote the first couple of episodes in it and passed it around.”
I open it up, and read out loud: Dear Diary, I got the news today from Dr. B. My worst fears are confirmed. I’m going to have another child five months after my divorce is final. Isn’t that a kick in the head? How can I tell Robert? How can I not?. . .
Dad’s not looking at me. He’s staring at the ground. It’s his handwriting, but it’s Mom’s voice. Her life.
“Didn’t they go for it?”
“What are you talking about? They loved it. They went crazy for it. I couldn’t do it. After I wrote it all down . . .” He gestures at the diary. “I just couldn’t do it.”
“What do you want me to do with it?”
“Keep it. Throw it away. I just couldn’t see it being sold on eBay. It’s yours.”
Maureen’s looking off, brushing tears from her eyes. She snuffles and blows her nose. “It’s probably not worth anything anyway. If there was never a show.”
• • • •
By the time we get back to the hotel, most of the parties are winding down, but Dad finds the one where everyone still partying has ended up. We have to squeeze through a stand of tall well-watered men planted just inside the door angrily discussing the stupidity of recent award decisions and the judges who made them. There’s not so much as a sofa arm to sit on, and my back is aching from the drive. My mind is in my coat pocket, in the pages of Pearl’s Diary. I want to beg off, but Dad’s determined we make an appearance.
Maureen heads toward the remains of a cake. The liquor is decimated, but it’s late enough that pretending to be drunk will get me by. We hang in the kitchen where Dad gets into a discussion of faster-than-light travel that’s going nowhere fast. I lean on the counter only to lean on Pearl’s Diary. I take it out of my pocket to make sure I haven’t damaged it. The thing’s older than I am. I look inside. Every page is filled. He kept writing her life as a serial. Dear Diary, the last entry begins, Robert’s life is slipping away from him, slipping away from me, and I’m afraid . . .
A young woman on the edge of the FLT discussion spots me reading. “What’s that?”
I start to tell her. My characters are always telling all to each other. It makes sense to me. I’ve lived with too many secrets. But not this time. “It’s just a notebook,” I say and slip it back into my pocket.
“Hey, aren’t you Dennis Danvers?” she says. “I was at your reading earlier about your dead father? How did it end anyway?”
“It didn’t. He’s still dead.”
She laughs, thinking I’m joking.
I tap Dad on the shoulder. “Dad, you about ready to go?”
“Sure, son. I guess you’ve had quite a day.”
We say good-bye to Maureen at the cake, push our way though the still-angry men now spinning elaborate theories of collusion and corruption and inside deals. “Those guys all writers?” Dad asks me.
“Definitely. Big names.”
“Helluva business.” He looks me in the eye, his face serious. I remember this look too, when he was handing out advice, much rarer than secrets, visions, and schemes. “Don’t sell yourself,” he says. At first I think he means sell yourself short, but that’s not what he said. The elevator opens, and we step inside. “I got a new one for you,” he says.
“There’s this dead guy, see, hanging out in this old bookstore, when who should walk in but his very own son.” He laughs. “Gotcha.”
“You sure did.”
I hold him, a frail, dead old man until the elevator doors open on our floor, and he says, “I guess I’ll be going now.”
“Where?” I panic. I don’t want him to leave me again. I know I was just complaining about him showing up all the time, but that doesn’t mean I want him gone.
“I’m going to look for your mother.”
“I thought you already tried that. I thought the dead don’t talk.”
He looks down that long, lonesome road and nods his head—true, all true. Everything’s true down that road. “Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I couldn’t really face her before.”
“Because of Pearl’s Diary?”
He nods again. There are tears in his eyes.
“Good luck, Dad. I hope you find her. Will I forget you now?”
“No.” He points to the book in my hands. “I’m on every page.”
He watches me walk the long hall to my room. I don’t look back. I go inside and wait until I hear the elevator going down, then lie with the pages of my mother’s life, and read.
Spread the word!