Fiction, Vol. 4.1, March 2010
Our father was from Santiago. He never spoke of Santiago or how he happened to love our mother—or at least marry her, stay with her, and come when she called. She called for him constantly, and by the middle name, which sounded more European if you couldn’t see how it was spelled.
He did everything we asked him to do. He took us trick-or-treating when our mother asserted, “It’s what American fathers do in October.” He taught us how to drive the truck with the clutch my foot could barely hold down. He built us a pool in the backyard and a wall to make our bedroom two, and one summer he drove to the coast and back, every day, until this house was finished.
Our mother is selling everything she has. “When I die, you’ll have less to clean up,” she says. But she is young. She won’t die soon.
He spent the last week of his life alone in our beach house.
He has hardly been dead three days when our mother sends us to pick up his things. She is selling the beach house and wants it perfectly hollowed. Somehow these rooms seem to harbor the same dusty air we breathed as children, turned stale after so much time. Every light has burned out.
I want to say, “He wasn’t here; nobody has been here in years,” but Paige wordlessly raises the blinds in the living room.
Here, with the wallpaper made to look like English newsprint and the closet full of torn, tailless kites, we begin to pull things from the shelves: tiny purple raincoats, water-warped stuffed animals―tears? Juice? Maybe the tide once encroached upon a picnic. I ask Paige if she remembers. She shakes her head.
Eventually, as I knew she would, Paige says, “I have a theory.”
“Go ahead,” I say, examining a plush tiger with matted fur. I toss it in the throw-away pile, alongside the other casualties.
“Mom thought she wanted babies. But Mom wanted baby boys.”
The theory is nothing new, even if it has never been said out loud. Our mother had been disturbed by our childhood manes of long hair—had once nearly wept when we both returned from a slumber party with purple toenails. I longed for a mother who did not mind pretty things, but Paige, younger than me, learned quickly. She kept her face unpainted and never upset our mother with news of junior high love affairs.
“And the reason she wanted boys,” Paige continues, “is so Dad could teach them to be like him.”
The first time Paige ever shared one of her theories, she was ten and I was twelve. It was summer and we played in the pool all day. Having exhausted every underwater game, we were just floating and talking.
“I have a theory,” said my sister.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Mom has a big secret.” Paige leaned back to admire a cloudless sky. Her hair—a mass that slipped from its rubber band every time she dove into the deep end—rose to the surface and framed her face. “But she’ll never tell us.”
In the end, our father was the only one who still drove out here. He liked to swim laps in the ocean. He was able to swim twenty-five yards out and back again, unthwarted by the shifting tide. He swam right under the waves.
And he read poetry here, alone. We are clearing the shelves in the master bedroom when we find Neruda and Silva—books that never lined the shelves when we were children. Our father’s name—his first and last—is printed on the inside of each cover.
My sister and I lie on the bed and take turns reading the poems out loud. When it’s my turn, I am only making the right sounds; I don’t know what they mean. In school I took French, but Paige took Spanish. She had to know what our parents had been saying under their breath.
I fall asleep listening to Paige, and the next day we work so hard—tearing down wallpaper and scrubbing the baseboards—that by evening we have hollowed the house. The walls are naked and the ceiling beams are free of cobwebs, as they haven’t been since the house was new. Our father gave us everything we asked for, but this had been the best thing.
My sister’s husband calls to say that it’s time for the funeral; our mother has finally chosen a picture for the frame, a gravestone and a coffin. We drive back into the city.
Our mother gives the eulogy. We tell her, “No one expects a widow to speak,” but she doesn’t listen. She wears a short black veil, determined to appear as old as he was. She calls him by the middle name and no one but Paige and I know why she does it. None of our neighbors or any of our father’s friends from the hardware store know why she begins to list everything he did for her: the pool and the extra wall, Paige and I and trick-or-treating, and the house on the coast, where he died alone.