Vita thought she saw a handgun in her father’s underwear drawer. She hesitated. She slammed the drawer shut. His crime paperbacks dominoed to the floor. If it was a gun, it lay gleaming between coiled snakes of leather belt. If it was a gun, it chilled her fingertips. If it was one. She could almost hear the plosive, smothered in soft cotton. The bedroom closed around it like a vault, the carved furniture and embroidered quilts whispered. Who was he? Vita glanced at her parents’ wedding portrait collapsed on the dresser. Mystery was her bequest, inborn as brown eyes and small feet. Outside, pale spring tendrils drilled into the windowpane. She hurried out. She said nothing. She kissed her father and mother goodbye in the garden and boarded a plane back to Manhattan.

Vita sat cramped in the window seat and studied her hands. Their backs were tracked with blue veins. She leaned against the window and closed her eyes. Sun struck, her eyelids flushed with colors. Tomato-red, her father’s ’69 Chevrolet truck; gray-blue childhood house in the woods; crimson stain on the driveway; bruise-blue sky. Very few things were naturally blue. Certain flowers, glaciers, deep space. Blue paint crushed from precious blue minerals – the most baffling color, a confusion of surface and depth. The blood in the veins of her hand was that same numinous hue of sky. Only an emergency, a sudden rush of oxygen, could inflame it red.

Vita and Stef’s East Village apartment had a bright kitchen zebraed by a fire escape and an office that doubled as a guest bedroom during her parents’ visits. Stef squeezed lemon juice on fusilli in a skillet while Vita cleared the table.

‘You’re not sure what you saw?’

‘No.’ Vita pictured the blocky silhouette, the obtuse angle. Well. He owned a gun. Did it make him feel strong? Did it make him feel safe?

‘What were you doing in his underwear drawer?’

Vita shrank, embarrassed by the things she did not know and could not say. Stef chided her. ‘Talk, Vita. If you need something, ask.’ In the memories she summoned of her father, he was perpetually forty-five and she was eight. His hands covering hers for tandem backhand practice. At the harbor pier, dropping crab pots lashed with bloody chunks of raw chicken. Lake trips in their fishing boat, her father patiently rigging her pole. No, that was wrong. They had not owned a fishing boat. He had wanted one. Whose boat was it, then. Which of her memories was not spackled with fabulation? In which was she not mortaring a gap, levering childishly hewn keystones to loft the archways of love and family?

‘Why would he have a gun?’

Vita sighed. ‘He’s probably been watching the news.’

She used to search his underwear drawer for quarters and chewing gum, the drawer on the left side of the carved oak dresser his father made. It rose to her chest and sank its curly feet in blueberry-colored shag. She could ease the drawer open with nothing but a hollow whisper. His v-neck undershirts were soft and over-washed. They showed his chest hair when he mowed the lawn. Mother liked that, tickled him with her fingertips. The underwear was big, the waistbands ringed in parallel gold and blue stripes. Eli’s were the same, but small. It was Vita’s job to fold them, did he know that? They confused her. Of all the laundry issuing from the dryer in endless smoldering heaps, she folded them last.

She looked for the man things. Metal things. Things on chains. Restaurant hard candies twisted in cellophane. Objects nestled in drawstring pouches. A maroon-dyed rabbit’s foot. Receipts and pocket scraps, the Jimmy Connors signed tennis ball. There was a shallow tray bristling with finishing nails and coins pillaged to pennies. His too-tight gold wedding band. Grandfather’s drawing of their beloved house on Queen Anne, sold after Grandmother died. School pictures of Vita, Eli and Abbie, a silver-framed portrait of their mother as a young woman. The things in the drawer spoke of his every day – what he did not speak of, his precious things.

‘He used to hunt,’ Vita said, scooping pasta. ‘In Florida, before we were born. With a rifle. They went scuba diving for shells. In a rowboat in the Everglades, an alligator came too close and he hit it with an oar.’

‘Your father?’

‘One morning he was up early in the yard, in his slippers. We had a terrible lawn. He was pointing the rifle down a mole hole.’

‘Did he shoot?’

‘No. He just waited.’ But there were always those kinds of things, Stef. Wasps, raccoons, vet bills, car repairs. Kids fighting. Layoffs. Hard times for engineers.

Stef poured water and placed the bowls of pasta on the table. ‘When I asked for his blessing, he just sat there, blinking. I couldn’t tell if he’d heard me. Finally he said, ‘I hope you’ll take good care of Vita.’ That was it.’

Vita ate a few mouthfuls. She couldn’t think straight when she was hungry. She had been about six years old. They lived in a small, rented apartment and he’d just lost his job. Eli slammed a door in his face. ‘My father punched a hole through a door.’

‘A solid wood door?’

‘It was hollow. Everything was. We could hear the neighbors through the walls.’

 

Her father had grown up in a solid house, an old Victorian on Queen Anne overlooking the water. He spent his adolescence in garages, rummaging for carburetors and drag racing on crumbling Seattle streets. His father was a reputable woodworker and renovated the entire house, restored the walnut paneling and decorative scrollwork, lathed all the railings. His wife loved that house. A year after she died, Vita, Eli and Abbie stayed overnight. Vita remembered a walnut staircase polished to the gleam of a naval officer’s cabin. There were sheets spread over the furniture and an amber crystal chandelier slumped on the floor like a shed ballgown. They’d heard noises, played hide-and-seek in empty rooms and passed a terrifying, sleepless night.

All that remained was Grandfather’s sketch. The careful crosshatches limned a gabled house perched on a grassy berm, flanked by shade maples. Her father had pleaded to keep the house but could not secure a bank loan. It was sold, razed and replaced by a cheap multi-family. Years later when he visited the site, it had returned to a rough square of dirt encircled by chain-link and plastered with contractor licenses, an empty lot worth millions.

 

Stef always fell asleep first. Vita lay awake listening to his intermittent, light moaning.

We moved from that cramped apartment, Stef, into a rented house in the woods. One night, a tiny, starving calico cat came to the door. Mom nursed her to health, then she got pregnant and bore an extraordinary litter: a marmalade, two blacks with green eyes, a white with blue eyes, and two Siamese. They mewled in the garage and skittered around the yard. It was a cold spring. Father let them in the house though they aggravated his asthma. One of the black kittens was underfed and smelled of shit. Abbie baptized it with a bottle of Mom’s Estée Lauder.

Stef groaned and shifted in his sleep. She looked at him in the dark.

Vita could not recall what became of the rest of the litter, probably a free kitten box at the supermarket. The calico stayed with them for sixteen years before disappearing into the woods, around the time Vita met Stef. The day before the wedding, she huddled on the stairs while her mother stroked her arm. Honey, you can call it off. The tablecloths were wrong, not at all to Vita’s taste. She’d had to delegate the details while finishing her degree. Hydrangeas were for old women. What had her mother been thinking? It was just a party, it would all be over in a day. No, it was not about Stef. Stef was the opposite of her father. She shook her head. Her mother took her hand. Why did you fall in love with him, Vita asked. Her mother answered without hesitation. Because he was without guile.

Do you remember the restlessness of childhood, Stef? We went mad with excitement when he came home from work. It probably hurt Mom’s feelings. Remember, Stef, trying to guess, wondering what you could do to make it all okay? Make yourself helpful, she’d say. Don’t climb on Father. Let him relax. Father is tired. Father suffers every day, far greater than the small tribulations of childhood. Children must learn. You’ll learn. You’ll never know the anger of the Father.

 

Planning the wedding with her mother had piqued Vita’s curiosity about their deceased relatives. Her maternal grandparents had passed. The great aunts and their husbands had passed. Only her paternal grandfather remained. They sifted through disordered boxes of Polaroids and silver-gelatins with crenellated edges.

Vita’s mother had left gaps. She had wanted to start her own family with a blank slate. Vita only knew there had been alcohol, there had been hospitalizations. The picture of Grandmother hugging Vita’s five-year-old mother looked like a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film still. The child had a sweet face, pursed lips, Judy Garland braids. The mother’s eyebrows were plucked and arched, smiling lips lacquered in black cherry, eyes bruise-tired. Vita’s grandmother was dead, in the same photograph with someone alive. Yet something was lively: her silk suit purled over her shoulders, her skin was powdery as a butterfly wing. It was as if everything gone still caught the light, rustled in the wind. As if to die was not to separate, only relocate. People constantly conversed with the dead.

‘She was a tiny woman. Very beautiful, glamorous. She had a mouth on her. She was extremely smart and read everything. He took away her car keys and eventually, she stopped leaving the house. She made me stay home from school and drank and chain-smoked and gabbed at me like I was her girlfriend. No one spoke of these things back then; marriages, home life. I poured out all her alcohol. I fell behind at school. I smuggled her books from the school library and hid it from the nuns.’

The man in another photo wore a pocket square and a suit that could have come from Madison Avenue. Vita’s grandfather stood in front of a white Christmas tree, his arm tucked imperiously behind a bewildered son in a ventriloquy of honor. He was handsome and tall. He glowered from a heavy brow, hard mouth and shadowed chin that retracted into the folds of his neck. Vita knew her mother loved him. She knew he brought them expensive French perfume and real kimonos from Japan and fed them his broken pieces. He died first, of complications from heart disease. Her mother offered her one fragment of counsel from a Hoboken hospital bed that she cherished like a benediction: Baby, don’t let it make you bitter.

‘Tell me,’ Vita whispered.

‘He never touched me. He threw things and he raged.’

‘What else.’

‘He threw my mother across the room. Right in front of my eyes. Her lovely face was cut and bruised. She began wearing sunglasses in the house.’

Vita sat on the stairs and shook. He had besieged his family, that was her mother’s bequest.

 

The day after Thanksgiving was rainy and cold in New York. Vita and Stef agreed her father would like the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. She noticed he was hunching as they descended the Union Station subway stairs. Her mother clung tighter to his arm. Strangers relinquished their seats and Vita understood in fresh, cold waves that her parents had grown old. They filtered out with the crowd at 81st. As the train ripped out of the station it pushed back a tube of wind that lashed her face and shook the platform. The gust would not subside, she knew; it would whistle through subterranean recesses and abandoned chutes, eddy in crumbling pipes and the corroded fortifications of a hundred years of excavations, conveying the breath of global citizenry throughout the boroughs. The city was hollow.

They folded into the crowd and emerged on the street, filmy with rain. Strings of damp children trailed adults through the museum’s rotunda. The displays were better than Vita expected, unencumbered by the inner turmoil she felt about the zoo. Zebra, elk, moose, gorillas and bears were presented with perfect, frozen faces. They had wet noses and glossy eyes, no dust on their hides. They sniffed the air or moved in packs, grazed and dozed against painted vistas and clouds. How did they all end up here? How had they died? The illusion of endless space was flawless. If Vita blocked out the crowds in the periphery, she could imagine walking straight into a field or forest. It was too much. It looked too real. Why make it so artful?

Children shrieked and jostled in the dim corridor. Stef and her parents moved into another room. Vita stood before three buffalos grazing in a sunlit plain. In the background, a painted herd stretched to painted mountains. Her eye was drawn to the middle ground, the bent junction between the dirt floor and the wall, where the space transformed. Then she understood. The artists had painted the horizons at eye level. They had scaled the vastness to the visitors. It was to draw you in, to make you care. You, who never saw a rainforest recede or a tundra starved of polar bears; you, casual company, blind tourist, barely conscious of the mysteries of earth. You, who watched a person die, and did not remember.

Vita looked at the animals. She recalled the rest of the conversation with her mother on the stairs, the day before her wedding. ‘You were there when your grandmother died,’ her mother said, ‘in the house on Queen Anne.’ She produced a faded, magenta photograph of an extremely overweight woman wearing a flowered dress. Grandmother had reddish curls, drawn-on lips, eyelashes like petals. ‘Do you remember her?’

Vita did not.

‘You were too little. She was enormous. She had a heart attack. We buried her in her favorite dress.’ During lunch, Abbie wailing in her high-chair, triangles of shattered chicken sandwich strewn across the tablecloth, her grandmother had fallen to the floor in front of her family and died. Vita marveled that her consciousness had been left unmarked.

‘And then Grandfather sold the house.’

‘Not right away. Your father fought for that house. Did he tell you why your grandfather sold it?’ She continued. ‘There was an attempted break-in. The neighbors noticed a window had been smashed and they called your father and your aunt. But no one was inside, and nothing had been taken. Your father checked upstairs and your aunt went to the basement with all your grandfathers’ tools and wood. She saw a woman pass between the planks. Your aunt screamed. She ran upstairs and told your father. He saw her, too. It was your grandmother. She was wearing her flowered dress, and she was young and slim and smiling. Your father said she was beautiful.’

Vita shook her head in disbelief. ‘Did he tell anyone?’

‘Everyone who would listen. Your father and your aunt were terrified. Seeing their dead mother? It was all they spoke of. It changed their lives. They thought she was protecting her house, her family. Your grandfather didn’t believe any of it.’

 

The museum was crowded. Vita patted her father’s shoulder. ‘Let’s get you a sandwich.’ He had retired to a bench and sat placidly watching the people. She could see he was overwhelmed by the activity. She wanted him to be more energetic. She wanted him to stand up or say something, about the animals, or the bones, or her, or why there was a gun in his underwear drawer. All those years, he had probably just been trying to provide for the family and stay sane. It wasn’t enough. It was what he had.

Visitors filtered toward the basement cafe, decorated in sparkling plastic whites. Fragments of international conversations drifted through the cashier line. They ate costly museum food wrapped in waxed paper. Her father sipped coffee. Vita twisted an empty sandwich bag, doubled it, wrung it in two.

‘You have a gun in your drawer.’

He looked startled. She repeated herself.

Her mother turned to him. ‘You do?’

‘How do you know that?’ His eyes flashed, a half-smile played on his lips.

‘I saw it. In your drawer.’

‘Is it loaded?’ her mother asked.

‘You were in my drawer?’

‘What do you need with a gun?’ her mother asked.

Vita studied his face.

He put down the coffee and rested his palms on the tabletop. ‘It just seemed like a good idea, to have one around.’

Vita felt eight years old. The noise of the crowd died away. ‘You never said anything about it. You didn’t talk to me.’

‘Oh, honey.’ He looked into his lap. The hair on the crown of his head was white, his skin smooth, expression untroubled. He sighed. ‘I don’t know what to say. You know me. I wasn’t good at those things. Your mother is. Your mother has always known what to say.’

Vita felt Stef’s eyes on her. She didn’t meet them.

‘We did other things, honey, didn’t we? I took you places, showed you things. We drove you around. We went fishing. You had a good time, didn’t you?’

Tears rolled from her eyes. She gazed into her father’s face. It was without guile.

 

 

Photograph © Frank Fujimoto

Bookshelves: John Berger in My Family Album
Three Poems