Cholly—by Chris Ott
My parents died three hours and three thousand miles apart. My mother was in Connecticut helping Aunt Karen with her third newborn in as many years. She was on a midnight run for vodka and Pampers when her car was T-boned by a retired circuit court judge with a BAC of .22. The judge had the decency to hang himself in the holding tank, thereby sparing us a lengthy trial and the pathetic charade of closure.
Upon hearing the news from my Uncle Corky, my father walked into his garage, tacked a sheet to the wall, put a handgun to his left temple, and scattered his final memories of my mother on the covered wall. My father was right-handed, and to dispel any notion that it was not suicide, he filmed his final act on his iPhone. That was my father. Always thoughtful. Always neat.
We learned from the time stamp on the video monitor that caught my mothers accident and the video of my fathers suicide that they died exactly three hours apart. Those were my parents. Inexorably linked in sorrow – even in death.
My father’s suicide didn’t surprise me. It would never occur to me that he would do it, but once he did, it seemed like the natural thing for him to do. I believe that if it had been my father who died in that car crash, my mother would have followed my father in a similar way.
I wish I could say that I grieved over the loss of my parents, or that I at least miss them, but I didn’t and I don’t. I never felt that I was a part of them or that they were a part of me.
From my earliest memories of my parents something seemed wrong. Something seemed missing. They said all the right words, bought all the right presents, never missed one of my games or my performances. To all of my friends, teachers, coaches and directors, they were the perfect parents. To me they seemed like poor actors trying to play the role of loving parents. They had their lines down, but they didn’t seem to believe their role.
They never fought or disagreed on anything. They were a united front whenever I asked them about dating, curfew, driving, college. Talking to one of them was like talking to both of them. It was also like talking to no one. There was very little affection with me and none between them. Never a hug or a kiss. They never held hands. They would sit in separate chairs watching TV.
One time when we were on vacation at Corky’s lakeside cabin I saw them accidentally bump into each other in the cramped kitchen. They had been chatting along about what to cook for dinner, but the second they touched the conversation stopped in mid sentence. They both flinched away from each other as if they’d been hit with an electrical shock. But it was the look on their faces that haunted me. They both shared a look of endless pain and despair. Their bodies seemed to collapse. They caught me looking at them, and their smile masks reappeared and their banter continued.
I believe that was the only honest moment I ever experienced with my parents.
Both of my parents came from large families in Connecticut. We moved to Seattle when I was six years old, so I had a couple dozen aunts and uncles who would visit us in Seattle from time to time. My favorite was father’s brother, Uncle Corky. His real name was Duane, but he got the nickname because he was always popping the cork out of a bottle of wine or a fifth of bourbon. He was a drinker. He was also the father that I never had.
Shortly after we moved here he pulled up stakes and bought a condo in downtown Seattle and a lakeside cabin just outside Mt. Rainier National Park. He was as much a part of my growing up as my parents were. He helped coach little league, jammed with me on bass while I learned drums, helped me learn my lines for school plays, and bought me my first beers when I decided I wanted to try alcohol.
During the school year he would live in Seattle, but when summertime came he and I would head down to his cabin on Clear Lake and spend the summer fishing, hiking, boating and remodeling. His cabin was a dump, and every summer we would tackle something that need to be repaired or, most likely, replaced. He was a patient teacher and let me learn on the job. Whenever I screwed something up he would shrug and say, “It’s no worse off than it was before.”
And I screwed up a lot. I was impatient, impetuous and frustrated. I wanted to be good at everything. I felt I should be good at everything. I assumed I knew what needed to be done and would only half listen to Corky’s instructions. Once he turned the project over to me I would plow forward and screw it up.
He tried talking to me about how to calm down, but I couldn’t seem to. One day, after I’d almost burned the cabin down while plumbing the new bathroom, I started to cry. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, kid. It’s only a cabin.”
Through my tears I said, “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t my parents love me?”
His breath caught and I could feel his arm around my shoulder stiffen. “What do you mean?” He took a long drink out of the beer he had in his hand. “Your parents love you.” He paused, and then said, “Why are you asking that now?”
I didn’t know how to take his question. I was sixteen, and Corky had been a part of my life – hell, the major part of my life – for ten years. We had talked about sports, cars, booze, pot and girls for a decade, but we had never talked about my parents. I didn’t know if he was asking why it had taken me so long to bring them up, or if something had happened recently to make me question their love.
As I sat in the uncomfortable, questioning silence with his arm resting awkwardly on my shoulder it began to dawn on me. I had tried to talk about my parents. I thought of all the times I’d tried to tell Corky about my mother’s and father’s lack of interest in the details of my life. I had tried to tell him that something didn’t feel or seem right. I had tried to explain the feeling that they seemed so distant from me. Yet every time I tried to approach the subject he deflected the conversation elsewhere.
As I sat there I felt a gulf form between us. I felt that this man who I loved and respected was treating me in a similar way to my parents. This man who had been my anchor and my partner in life suddenly started to fade from me. I felt a deep hole in the pit of my stomach. I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life. I wanted to cry harder, but I didn’t feel right crying in front of him.
I pulled away from him, stood up and walked across the porch. “I need some time to myself,” I said and walked down the steps to the lake. I took my fear, my pain and my anger and stuffed it into a little ball in my soul. I dried my tears, took a couple of breaths and tried to figure out what the hell just happened. What the hell has been happening all of my life. I knew I had touched a nerve, because Corky just sat on the porch staring at the ground saying nothing.
Corky never said nothing. He always had something to say. His stories about women kept me laughing for days after. His knowledge of cars was encyclopedic. He could tell stories about Bob Gibson, Ty Cobb and Joe Namath that sounded apocryphal. He was the go-to guy when it came to life. He always had a clever quip; always had a cheerful word; and he always had smile on his face and a drink in his hand.
Today he only had the drink in his hand.
I felt as if I’d touched on something, but I had no idea what it was. I spent the afternoon walking the lake and the woods around the cabin. I knew I was being lied to, but in a really strange way. It wasn’t that someone was telling me something that wasn’t true, it was that somebody was not telling me something that was.
I thought about my parents and my extended family. I had dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins who lived back east, yet my parents were the only ones who moved away. Why didn’t we go to Connecticut and visit them? Why didn’t I ever meet my cousins? And why did Corky follow us out to Seattle?
I spent the afternoon turning everything over in my mind. My parents emotional distance; my family’s physical distance and Corky’s closeness, and I finally realized the truth.
Corky was my real father. He had gotten a woman pregnant, but for some reason he couldn’t raise me. My father, being the oldest, had done the responsible thing. He and my mother had adopted me and moved away to raise me free from the family’s scrutiny. Corky followed me here so he could still be a father to me.
Walking back to the cabin I started to get mad. My conclusion answered all of my questions, but I felt like I was a pawn. I was angry at my parents for lying to me. I was especially angry at Corky for abandoning me. But I was deeply hurt because no one was willing to be honest with me. By the time I got back I was livid.
Corky was in the kitchen cooking dinner. As I stormed in he turned to me and said, “Where the hell have you been? You scared the shit out of me!”
“I know the truth,” I said. “I finally figured it out, and I’m really pissed.”
Corky looked at me skeptically and asked, “What truth?”
“I know that you’re my real father.”
Corky looked at me dumfounded. Then he reared his head back and started howling with laughter. It was not at all the reaction I was anticipating. He continued to laugh until tears started streaming down his face. The harder he laughed the more crestfallen I became. He came over to me, with tears of laughter streaming down his cheeks and wrapped me in a bear hug.
“Oh Jesus, kid. Oh my God. I wish that were true.” He held me at arms length and looked me in the eye and said, “I would be proud to call you my son. Sometimes I do. But I am not your father.”
He went to the refrigerator and got me a beer. He opened it and said, “Sit down and tell me how you came up with that.”
We sat at the kitchen table and I told him what I had been thinking about – my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, his moving here. When I was done it still made sense to me. I said, “Please tell me what’s going on.
Corky poured a few fingers of bourbon in his glass, and sat there organizing his thoughts.
“When you put it that way I can understand how you came up with that. But the truth is much simpler and much more complex in some ways. Your mom and dad have known each other since they were babies. Our families lived side by side for decades. They grew up together, fell in love and married.”
“But it seemed they got married because that was what was expected of them. Large families are a complex mess of conflict and love. Two large families intertwined by time and proximity is a nightmare. Throw the first-born baby into the mix and you’ve got a scene of living hell. A dozen people telling you what you are doing wrong on a daily basis. Your parents felt the need to get away.”
“But I watched them with their baby. I could see that parenting wasn’t something they were very good at. As soon as they decided to move to Seattle I knew that I would follow – kill two birds with one stone. I could get away from the insanity of our families, and I could give you the love and guidance that I knew your parents were unable to give.”
He paused and took a drink of bourbon, “I really wish you were my biological son, but you’re not.” He hugged me and started to cry.
Now it all made sense to me. I could understand my parents wanting to flee from the constrictions of a large family. I could understand Corky doing the same. As he stood up, wiped his tears with his sleeve and walked into the kitchen to continue cooking dinner, I felt a sense of calm come over me.
Two weeks later I witnessed my parent’s collision in that same kitchen, and the doubts came flooding back to me.
During the second week of my senior year at Garfield High School, a new girl was introduced to our homeroom. As the vice-principal was going over the paperwork with Mr. Gunderson, she stood calmly in the doorway scanning the class. She was average looking with an ok body. The remarkable thing about her was the sense of calm in her dark blue eyes. As the vice-principal left, Mr. Gunderson turned to the class and said, “This is Melanie Costanza from New York.”
She turned to Mr. Gunderson with a half smile and said, “That would be Kostakas. You must be thinking of my brother George Costanza from Friends.” She said it harmlessly, and as the class snickered she walked over and sat in the empty desk next to mine.
When the bell rang for the first period and we got up to head to class, she turned to me, stuck out her hand and said, “I’m…”
“Melanie,” I said and shook her hand. “I’m Cholly.”
“Cholly?” she said and cocked her head. “That’s an interesting name. And thank you for taking the time to remember my name. Most guys are too busy staring at my tits.”
I was mildly taken aback by her directness, but to prove her point Jake Washburn walked up to her, put his hand out and said, “Hi I’m Jake. Welcome to Garfield.”
“Thank you Jake,” she said taking his hand and beaming with a radiant smile, “And what’s my name?”
Jake stood there speechless. She let go of his hand, took my arm in the crook of her elbow and started leading me into the hallway. She smiled at me and said, “See. Tits. Now show me how to get to my first class.”
From that moment on Melanie and I were inseparable. She taught me how to think critically about facts and fictions. She showed how important frankness and honesty is in a relationship. She taught me about love and sex and how to tell the difference. And she was also the first person in my life to understand that there was something wrong with my parents. Something more than their just being emotionally distant from me.
We had been seeing each other for several months before she finally got to spend time with my parents. She’d met them individually for brief moments while getting rides to and from games or plays, but during Christmas break she got to spend a whole day with them.
Her mother was gone for Christmas Eve with a new boyfriend, so I invited Melanie to join us for our traditional “X-mess” cook-a-thon. For years Corky, my parents and I would start early in the morning of Christmas Eve and cook, bake, fry and drink. By Christmas Eve we would have so much food cooked we wouldn’t have to do anything but gorge, reheat and gorge through New Years Eve.
Melanie showed up at nine in the morning, and our house was already full of the aromas of cookies baking and onions caramelizing. The kitchen was a disaster and the mess was spilling out into the dining and living rooms. She caught the spirit of the day, put on an apron and dove right in.
The five of us were chatting about nothing much at all – Corky, as usual, the pivot around which all dishes and stories flew. Melanie was as carefree and open as she always was with me, and her quick wit and easy laughter blended with the spirit of the day. A couple hours into the day, however, I noticed a slight change.
Anytime Melanie and I were alone we were in almost constant contact with each other. But when we got together with others we gave each other plenty of room to move. It wasn’t anything we talked about or negotiated, it just felt natural. But as the day progressed Melanie moved closer and closer to me. At the same time her natural ebullience and easy repartee became almost nonexistent. By the time lunch was ready, three hours late as usual, she was almost clinging to me and seemed frightened.
I made a quick comment about wanting to spend some quality time and insisted that lunch was the last thing I needed after tasting and sampling all morning. Melanie and I grabbed our coats and headed out for a walk. It turned out to be a longer walk than anyone expected.
The minute we closed the front door she broke into tears.
“Oh my god!” she sobbed. She tightly wrapped her arms around herself and hunched over like she had been stabbed in the stomach. She was trying to catch her breath, crying and saying “Oh my God,” over and over again. She disappeared into herself. She kept curling tighter and tighter like she was trying to get into a fetal position while standing up.
I reached over to console her, and I think that was when she realized she wasn’t alone. Her head whipped around, a look of fear and confusion in her tear-filled eyes. She leapt at me, wrapped her arms around me and said, “Oh Cholly. I’m so sorry.” She clung to me, gently kissing my cheeks, my neck, my mouth, my forehead. She kept repeating, “I’m so sorry.”
I stood there trying to understand what had happened. Her breathing and her frantic kisses started to slow down. She buried her face in my chest, held me tighter than she had ever held me before and said, “Where can we go talk?”
Beantown Espresso was a couple of blocks away, so we wordlessly headed there. Her right arm was tight around my waist, and her left hand clung to my jacket like she was afraid I would float away. We entered Beantown, ordered a couple espressos and waited, bound together as one, while the barista made our drinks. We took them to the couch in the corner and sat down.
I was more confused than I had ever been in my life. This holiday tradition that had always been one of my favorite part of Christmas now stood in suspension. I couldn’t understand what had caused such a powerful reaction in Melanie. She was a passionate woman – but she always seemed to be in control. I’d seen her angry before, but her anger was always focused. I had never seen her this out of control. I had questions, but I knew that she would talk about it.
We sat sipping our coffees. She was staring into the near distance, collecting her thoughts. Collecting herself. After what seemed like an eternity she turned to me, took my hand, held it to her cheek and kissed it gently. She then took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I owe you the deepest apology that I can ever owe,” she said. “You have told me about your parents and I didn’t understand.” As she spoke tears started running down her cheeks. “I thought you were just like everyone else. Complaining because your parents aren’t perfect.” The tears were getting heavier and her breathing became labored as she tried to hold herself together.
“But…but…Oh my God!” She buried her face in my chest and started sobbing uncontrollably. “I have never seen two people in so much pain. I couldn’t stand it. I had to get out of there.”
As she sobbed I started to hold her tighter and tighter. Tears were starting down my cheeks, but mine were tears of relief. Finally someone else saw something that I could never explain.
We sat holding each other. Crying for our own separate reasons. Crying about something neither could understand.
Suddenly Melanie popped upright. She quickly wiped the tears from her face, shook her head back-and-forth, blew her nose in a napkin, stood up and said, “Okay, enough! Done!” She stood up and started shaking herself off like a boxer preparing for a fight.
She sat back down, took both of my hands in hers, looked me in the eyes and said, “We’ve got to figure out what’s going on. Now that I know there is something seriously wrong, I need you to tell me everything you’ve told me before.”
So I did. I told her about my feeling of alienation; about my parents seeming like bad actors; my Corky adoption theory; the look on their faces in Corky’s kitchen when they touched.
She listened intensely, holding my hands and looking into my eyes the whole time. As I talked I could feel a weight off my soul. It was the first time anybody listened to what I was saying, not to what they were hearing.
When I was finished, she gently kissed me on the lips, picked-up her cup of cold espresso, stood up and started pacing. Neither of us spoke for a few minutes. She then walked to the counter, ordered two more drinks, brought them over, set one in front of me at sat beside me. She was ready to speak.
“Hear me out,” she said. “Taking in everything you said and everything I’ve seen, I think you were adopted. You don’t look or act at all like your parents. I can’t remember a single moment when I saw anything of them in you. You and your Uncle Corky don’t look alike, but you at least have some of the same patterns of talking. Are you one-hundred percent sure that he’s not your real father?”
“I’m not one-hundred percent sure of anything,” I said shaking my head. “But when I told him that I thought he was my father, his reaction wasn’t at all what I expected. He laughed and said that he wished he was my father. I’m pretty sure I believe him.”
She nodded her head and said, “You two spend so much time together that you speak the same language. That would make sense.” She paused for a minute, thinking. “And if he’s not your father, and your dad’s not your father, then maybe your mother isn’t your mother.”
“What?” I said.
“Maybe none of them are your parents. Maybe you were adopted, but from a totally different set of parents.”
I sat back, crossed my arms and started sorting out what she had just said. That maybe none of the people in my life were actual family. I was just some kid that nobody wanted, and my parents adopted me. But they didn’t seem to want me either. Then Corky comes along to act take care of me because he doesn’t think they are good at being parents. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “If my parents didn’t want children, why did they adopt me? And you see how they are. What is going on with them? How did I do that to them? And why is Uncle Corky here?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe they couldn’t have kids and adopted you instead. Once they had you they realized that they didn’t really want to have kids. Your uncle sees that and comes to help you.”
“But you see how they are,” I said. “You saw how it affected you. How do you explain that?”
Melaine sat beside me silently. Once, she started to say something but stopped short. After a few minutes she took my hand and said, “I don’t know, Cholly. I really don’t know. And you don’t know. So that means we have to find out.”
“Find out what?” I said.
“Find out who your real parents are.”
“How?” I said.
“We need to do a DNA test.”
“How are we going to do a DNA test? We’re seventeen years old,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. Then she grabbed her iPhone and said, “Grab your phone. Lets look it up.”
I pulled my phone out of my, pocket and we sat there side-by-side, silently Googling on our phones.
“I found it,” she said. “For three hundred dollars you can do a paternity test just using hair samples.”
“What?” I said.
“Check it out,” she said and handed me her phone.
It was a kit I could get from Amazon that tests for paternity. All I needed was hair samples from myself and the person I was testing. It only took a week to ten days. And it was three hundred and forty dollars.
“Yow. Three hundred and forty dollars?” I said. “I only have a couple hundred. And where am I gonna get hair samples?”
I stopped to think for a few seconds and then asked, “And who should I get the sample from? My mom or my dad?”
Melanie sat there for a long time thinking the problem out. She finally said, “I’ve got some money you can borrow. That’s not a problem. And I think you should get samples from your mom. And if she uses a hairbrush, you can get them from there.”
“She uses a hairbrush,” I said, “But why do you think it should be my mom and not my dad?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “I really don’t. It’s just a feeling I’ve got. I mean, I’ve met a lot of fathers who are distant, and I’ve met a lot of mothers who are weird, but mothers always seem to have a connection with their kids, no matter how strange they are. And I don’t see any connection with your mom and you.”
I thought about what she had said for a little while. She took my hand and held it and didn’t say anything.
“I guess it makes as much sense as anything,” I said. “And we’ve got to start somewhere.”
“I’m sorry you have to do this,” she said, holding me gently. She then reached over, opened her purse, pulled her Visa card from her wallet and said, “Let’s get this thing ordered now. I’ll have it sent to my house. You can pay me back when you get the chance.”
Our Christmas Eve was spent side-by-side in Beantown Espresso, ordering a three hundred and forty dollar paternity test kit that would hopefully help me understand my parents.
As it turns out, it was three hundred and forty dollars wasted. By New Years Eve I had more answers than I ever wanted.
My mother left for Connecticut the day after Christmas. Melanie’s mom was still out of town so I was spending the night at her house. At six the following morning my Uncle Corky called and told me that I had to get back to my house. He told me to bring Melanie. I started to protest, and he said, “Kid. Please. Please just come home. This isn’t the time to argue. Just please come home.”
The tone in Corky’s voice stopped me cold. He sounded so empty. I turned to Melanie beside me in her bed and said, “Something strange is going on, and Corky wants us both at my house. Did the kit get sent to my house instead?”
“No,” she said as she leaned on her elbow in bed and grabbed her phone. “It wasn’t even supposed to ship until today.”
She scrolled through her phone and said, “It hasn’t even shipped yet.”
“I’m sorry to ask,” I said, “but could you come with me. Something seems weird, and Corky wants you there.”
Melanie got out of bed without answering, took a quick shower, and we drove over to my place.
When we arrived at my house, something seemed odd. The driveway was empty, and both of my parents cars were parked on the street. I didn’t see Corky’s car anywhere and there was yellow tape on the detached garage.
Melanie and I entered my house. Corky was slumped in the middle of the sofa, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He didn’t look up as we came in. I didn’t see my father.
“Where’s dad?” I asked.
Corky slowly raised his head. His eyes were red. Tears were streaming down his face. He stood up silently, crossed to me, wrapped his arms around me, and said, “He’s gone. So’s your mom.”
“They left?’ I said.
“Oh my God!” Melanie said as she clung to me and started to sob.
It was then I understood what Corky had said.
Every family has an archivist – a packrat. The person who squirrels away the minutiae that makes up everyday life. My father was that man.
After the funerals, the coroners inquest and probate were done, I was left with a house full of stuff that I had to deal with. Corky had moved in with me while the courts dragged slowly so I could finish my senior year. He maintained payments on the house until everything got settled. The slow pace worked to my advantage, because during that spring I turned eighteen. I was now the sole heir of their estate, and the burden of handling my parent’s belongings fell to me.
I hadn’t touched anything in the house since my parent’s death. I was told by the courts to leave everything alone, so I slept in my room and ate in the kitchen. Every two weeks a maid service would show up and vacuum and dust the house. I focused on finishing school, playing baseball, doing my final play and spending any time left with Melanie.
Probate was settled two days after graduation. The bank got the house and I got the profits and everything else. I had a month to sort through everything, keep what I wanted and sell the rest. It was during that final month in the house that I discovered what I thought was the truth.
My parents were very private people. Their bedroom door was always closed. They had separate studies that I had been into occasionally, but only when they were there. They had instilled in me from the beginning that we all had separate spaces that were sacrosanct. They never came into my bedroom without permission, and it would never occur to me to go into their rooms without permission. Now I had permission.
I started in their bedroom. They had separate closets, separate dressers, separate end tables and a king-size bed. Their closets were neat as were their dressers and end tables. Everything in their closets was clean and pressed. Their dressers were full of neatly folded clothes, socks, underwear and belts. The tops of the dressers were bare. There were no pictures on the walls. Nothing but books in their end tables. It looked like a room display in a furniture store.
Their bathroom had dual sinks it was plain as their bedroom. My father’s side had a toothbrush, toothpaste, Right Guard roll-on deodorant, a bottle of Advil and a shoeshine kit in the drawer. My mother’s side had nothing. I was confused, until I realized that she probably had her stuff with her in Connecticut when she died.
I entered my mothers study. It was small, plain and lifeless. She had an Ikea desk with an old Dell computer and a number of vases filled with paper flowers. The floor was bare. There was a tall-backed upholstered chair with a plain white side table. Three walls were filled with framed posters and copies of famous paintings. Nothing seemed to go together. It looked like a poster shop at the mall. All the images were familiar. The third wall was a bookcase with hundreds of books – mostly hardbound popular fiction. I felt as if I’d walked into a well-lit thrift shop.
I stated loading her books into the boxes I’d gotten from Home Depot, and then I stopped. I remembered reading about a woman who had found an original stock certificate from Nike in her mother’s books as she was boxing them after her parent’s death. It turned out it was worth thousands of dollars. I pulled the books out of the box and started flipping thorough them quickly to make sure I wasn’t donating more than just books to the Goodwill.
After an hour or flipping and loading I had found a candy bar wrapper and a dollar bill that she had used as a bookmark. I opened her computer and checked her files. From what I found I can only think that her computer was a decoration, just like her paper flowers. There was nothing on it.
I pulled the pictures off the walls and checked behind them to see if she had hidden anything. Nothing. Most of them still had the price stickers on the back, and all of them seemed to have been purchased at the same store. I stacked hem beside the boxes of books and started to leave her room. I turned at the doorway and looked back. The room looked no emptier now as I was leaving than it did when I entered.
My father’s study was a study in contrasts. While my mother’s was sparse and bleak, my father’s was dense and textured. Ceiling-high bookshelves in dark wood lined all of the walls. He had a roll-top desk in one corner, stuffed with papers and piled with books. There was no computer or television. There was a Tiffany lamp on the desk and a brass floor lamp with a brocade shade. He had a rich, green oriental carpet on the floor with a burgundy velvet overstuffed couch and matching chair. A small, round end table sat between the couch and chair. On it was a crystal decanter with amber liquid and two brandy snifters. There was a pipe rack and a round, leather canister half-full of tobacco. I felt as if I’d walked into Sherlock Holmes study.
I also felt like I’d walked into the life of a man who I had never known. I had never seen my father take a drink. I had never seen him smoke a pipe. I had never seen him do anything except smile and be.
The first wall of books contained much of the same popular fiction that my mother’s study did. I knew my parents would usually read the same book at the same time. I also knew that they would pace themselves so they would finish at the same time. I imagine that if I compared their two collections they would be the same.
The second wall looked to be a collection of leather-bound books, but on closer inspection I discovered that they were daily planners. I’d seen one of my teachers with one, and she had explained that it was what people used to keep track of their schedules before computers came along. Each book had three hundred and sixty five pages with an hour by hour listing of the day broken down into 15 minute increments.
The first one had the year 2001 printed in gold on its spine. I took it down and opened it up. There was nothing written on the first few pages so I flipped through it until I found writing. The first notation was on July sixth. It looked like my father’s writing. It said:
6:00 – Get up. Shower
6:15 – Make breakfast
6:30 – Eat breakfast
6:45 – Leave for work
7:00 – Work
7:15 – Work
7:30 – Work
The “Work” notation continued on until a lunch break at noon and resumed from one o’clock until five, when he wrote, “Go home.” It continued in fifteen-minute increments that included:
5:15 – Get home
5:30 – Change clothes, clean
5:45 – Play with the boy
6:00 – Play with the boy
6:15 – Make dinner
6:30 – Make dinner
6:45 – Make dinner
7:00 – Eat dinner
7:15 – Eat dinner
7:30 – Eat dinner
7:45 – Clean kitchen
8:00 – Study time
8:15 – Study time
8:30 – Study time
8:45 – Study time
9:00 – Shower
9:15 – Read with Marian
9:30 – Read with Marian
9:45 – Read with Marian
10:00 – Go to bed
Every 15-minute slot had my fathers handwriting listing what he did that day. I was confused about why he called me “the boy” instead of Cholly. I turned the page for July 7, and everything was exactly the same. Same handwriting, same events, same pen. I flipped through the rest of the book and saw that all of the days of the week were filled-in with the exact same schedule.
It then struck me that this wasn’t a recording of what he had done, it was a planner for what he was supposed to do. The workdays were filled-out exactly the same, day after day, through December 31. But the weekends and holidays were just a series of question marks filling line after line. It looked like it had all been done in one sitting. The pen was the same. The letters looked like a font.
I reached to grab the next planner and stopped. I stepped back to survey the remaining bookshelves. What at first appeared to be a collection of book series with similar spines, was row upon row of daily planners. Hundreds and hundreds of them. They were chronologically ordered from 2001 through last year. The year my father died.
I felt a chill run through me as I looked at this eerie collection. I started randomly going through different planners. They were all the same, but some had blank pages at the front and started on a seemingly random date. I would pull one out, scan it and return it to its place. The more I looked the more confused I got.
I decided to start at the first one and check the next twenty. The second planner was exactly the same as the first, but the first entry was three days later on July ninth. The remaining days in the planner were filled out exactly like the first planner – all the weekdays were the same and all the weekends and holidays were question marks. All filled out through December 31st. The ink color was different from the first planner, but it was the same ink throughout the book.
The entry in the third planner was July 10. The fourth was July 20. The fifth was August 3. All had blank pages before the date, and full pages through the end of December.
I started counting. There were more than six hundred of them. Some years had more than others. They were in perfect chronological order. Every subsequent planner started on a later date than the previous one. All had blank pages in the front and were completed through the end of the year.
I sat in the armchair, poured whatever was in the decanter into a snifter and swirled it gently while I tried to figure out what all those planners meant. I knew my father was an organized man, but these planners were an obsession. I couldn’t figure out why he had to plan his whole year in advance. Why his weekends were question marks. And I could find no pattern in his starting a whole new planner on different dates of the year.
I took a sip from the sifter and tried to imagine why anyone would change planners from time to time. And the word “change” struck me. What had changed to make him start his year all over again? As I turned it over in my mind, the date of the very first planner came to the surface. July sixth. That was the exact day we moved into this house. I remember it because it was on bank documents I had to sign for probate. It is also Melanie’s birthday.
I took another sip and looked at the bookshelves lined with my fathers plans. Had he always planned his life like this? Were there boxes of planners left behind in Connecticut? Taken to the dump? I didn’t have any answers.
I stood up and pulled the second planner off the shelf. July ninth. I tried to remember anything happening on July ninth. As I was trying to figure it out, I realized that I was only six years old at the time. I put the planner back and sat in the chair. What was a recent date that might have changed my father’s plans? I played sports, played in the band, acted in plays. I did a lot, but I couldn’t remember any specific date.
Then it hit me. October tenth, 2010 – 10/10/10. It was my first starring role in a play. I was Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” I remember it because we had ten perfomances, there were ten boys and ten girls in the play, and it was the tenth show that Ms. Wilson had directed.
I started looking through his planners of 2010