We lived on Victor Hugo Street in a rambling, dilapidated house that was the family’s last remaining asset. For years the Old Man had strung a living together in pale bits and pieces, like popcorn on a string, freelance editing, book reviews, a little fact-checking here and there, the table droppings of the literary profession. Sometimes, when his ever-fluctuating mood allowed it, he’d even worked as a substitute teacher at the local high school. He called this “educational day labor,” and despised it. His students were beneath him, as were the lowly, salaried teachers who, he said, pursued their modest pensions like scraps of holy writ. His contempt was bottomless, and it erupted in fits of spiraling rage.
In the midst of such seizures, he used the telephone like a whip. In the room where I was made to study, a tiny thing beneath its towering bookshelves, I could hear him leafing through the ever-expanding pages of the “enemies list” he kept in plain view on his desk, each entry made up of the enemy name and occupation, along with the Old Man’s one-word judgment: James Elton, professor, lackey; Carolyn Bender, editor, coward; Stephen Horowitz, headmaster, charlatan; and the like. At some point he would inevitably select certain names from this roll of the damned. Then the calls would begin.
I remembered a particular afternoon when I’d suddenly paused outside the door of his study, then glanced through its slightly open door. He was sitting behind his desk, screaming into the phone: You are a fake, you hear me! You are a plagiarist! I listened as he steamed on, citing the crimes and misdemeanors of whomever he’d called. He’d gone on and on, then abruptly stopped, so that I’d heard the voice at the other end, metallic and inexpressive, The time allotted for this message has expired. Please call again to continue.
It was pathetic, I thought at the time, all that mighty rage futilely expended into the insensate ear of an answering machine. King Lear had thundered against our earthly plight. In comparison, the Old Man’s fury seemed little more than sour grapes monstrously inflated. When he died, I felt that a dark, devouring force had been stilled at last. I wore his death like wings.
At the gravesite, I told my sister exactly that, then added, “You can go on with your life, Diana. You don’t have to take care of him anymore.”
She nodded silently, then tossed a single rose into his grave.
And I thought, At last she’s free of him. At last she can be happy.
But then came Death, as the Old Man might have put it in his stilted and archaic dictum, an untimely death that came like that fabled highwayman whose poetic exploits Diana had so often recited for his pleasure, Riding, riding, riding, as I can hear her even now, up to the old inn door.
It was a Friday afternoon when the court pronounced its judgment that no one was to blame for Jason’s death and that no one would be held accountable for it. Since Diana had already separated from her husband, Mark, by then, I’d come to the courthouse with her instead, the two of us seated at the front of an almost empty courtroom, listening silently as the judge declared Jason a “victim of misadventure.”
“Shallow,” Diana whispered. Then she stared directly at the judge, watching as he rose and left the room.
“Shallow,” she repeated in a tone exactly like the Old Man’s when he closed a book and with a word pronounced his verdict.
I started to get up, and expected Diana to do the same, but she didn’t move.
“Not yet,” she said, and gently tugged me back down onto the bench beside her.
She remained seated for a long time, her hand resting on mine, both of us now waiting as Mark rose and left the courtroom. He was dressed in a white shirt and dark blue trousers, his usual attire. As he left, his eyes briefly darted toward Diana, then no less quickly skirted away.
For her part, Diana never glanced toward Mark, but instead held her gaze on the mythical representation of blind justice that hung from the wood-paneled wall behind the judge’s bench. She breathed slowly, rhythmically, and her hands remained steady, with no hint of trembling. She kept her back straight, her head erect, and seemed determined to stay that way, not to grow faint or swoon. In such an attitude, she looked more like a warrior than a grieving mother, as if grief itself had become a lifted sword. Her eyes were dry and her lips were pressed together tightly, like someone sealing in a scream, though other than the few words she’d already uttered, she made no sound at all. After a moment, she closed her eyes and for those few seconds she actually looked resigned to the court’s decision, ready to accept it and move on.
“Diana,” I said softly. “We should go now.”
She nodded but her eyes remained closed, her body eerily still.
After a moment, people began to trickle back into the courtroom, Bill Carnegie among them, looking suitably solemn in his neat gray suit. He’d represented Mark in the divorce, though there’d been little for him to do beyond making the offer Diana had immediately accepted.
“Hello, Dave,” he said as he passed on his way to the defense table.
Diana opened her eyes and stared at him.
“Hello, Mrs. Regan,” Carnegie said.
“I’m Miss Sears now,” Diana told him, though without any hint of bitterness, merely a fact-checker making a small correction.
“Ah yes, of course,” Carnegie said.
“The court has determined that my son died by misadventure,” Diana added.
Bill glanced at me warily then turned back to Diana. “Anyway, nice seeing you,” he said, and quickly continued down the aisle.
We rose, walked out of the courtroom and into a radiant late September afternoon, its light so bright it seemed to sparkle. Diana drew her hair into a bun and pinned it, exposing her long white neck in such a way that she looked oddly sacrificial, like a woman to be killed in exchange for rain.
We reached my car, and without a word Diana took her place on the passenger side and waited for me to get in behind the wheel. She said nothing as I put the key in the ignition, turned it, and began to back out of the shady space where I’d parked. We were already at the main road before she spoke.
“Truth matters, doesn’t it, Davey?” she asked. Her question abruptly returned me to the dinner-table inquisitions I’d endured from the Old Man, philosophical questions to which he’d demanded quotation-studded responses. His intimidating voice crackled in the air: What say you, my young Daedalus?
“You sound like the Old Man,” I told her.
“I didn’t mean to remind you of Dad,” Diana said. I shrugged, as if wholly indifferent to the mention of his name, though I continued to recall the nightly interrogations at the dinnertable, the Old Man firing questions or demanding that I recite whatever passage he’d assigned me. I’d always responded haltingly, stammering and faltering, forgetting lines, going blank. Which was when Diana had always cut in, lifting her small white hand into the air, saving me from any further ridicule or humiliation.
“Bleak House,” Diana murmured.
Before the Old Man’s death it had been typical of Diana to encapsulate everything in a book title, as if her mind worked in a high-velocity shorthand. But the practice had abruptly disappeared at his gravesite, and it surprised me that she’d suddenly returned to it.
“Not bleak for you,” I said. “You were his shining star.”
Again I found myself returned to the house on Victor Hugo Street, watching Diana from the shadowy corner where I stood like a poor relation, listening as she recited passage after passage, the Old Man erect in a chair before her, breathing softly, his shining black eyes fixed upon her. These...