My father’s best World War II story was about bailing out of his plane on New Year’s Day, 1944. His story unfolded as a series of incidents of “dumb luck,” as he liked to call it: he made all the wrong decisions and lived to recount them with an awe that never diminished with repetition. One of his buddies has a chute that doesn’t open; he falls past, clawing at the sky, as my father floats like a jellyfish on air too cold to breathe. I can’t seem to remember if that’s his description or mine – and since he died this year, I guess it’s too late to ask him. In the story, my father crosses his legs, thinking to protect himself – it turns out later that landing on the ground with crossed legs would have caused him to break them both – but he tangles in a tree branch, four feet above the ground. “Bouncing like a baby,” as he put it, when he told the story at dinner parties.
My own life had been filled with little in the way of luck or stories, until this year, which – my father’s death notwithstanding — has been strangely characterized by both. National security, however, will prevent me from going much into the details.
My father doesn’t know whether he’s landed in Germany or France; they’d been flying near the border, and the difference, of course, is a matter of life or death. He finds a road. His silk parachute is the color of the snow, so he covers himself with it when cars go past. He tries to see the license plates, but the cars spin snow at him, blocking his view. His lips and hands bleed; the blood freezes. It is January. He is eighteen. He creeps bent along the road, lunging into the ice when the cars come.
It’s a good story, and my father liked telling it, usually by roaring fires, to younger people, a glass of red wine in hand. It’s sad, in many ways – the other soldier, dead in the sky; the teenaged boy with bloodied blue lips, crawling in the cold — but mitigated by the evidently happy ending. Here he is, alive, not frozen to death in foreign snow or tortured past sense by Nazis. Here we are, in the 1950s, ‘70s, ‘90s, the World Wars won.
It was not easy to grow up with this; to be a teenaged boy against the backdrop of a better, braver teenaged boy. At eighteen, I was starting college, homesick, too nervous and full of dread at my own nervousness to speak in my classes. In the winter I was hospitalized with whooping cough. After I graduated, with a degree in mathematics with lowest possible honors, I went to work for Apple. At the time, nobody’s parents understood at the time that there could be any money in that sort of thing; soon enough, though, it became clear that there was, and I think my parents were reasonably happy with me. But there was no way that anyone – least of all myself – could have imagined me in my father’s place: jumping out of planes and knowing how to discern where I’d landed, hiding from pursuers underneath my parachute, continuing on in the jagged frost of the mystery country, bleeding and uncomplaining. Because for all the self-deprecating tics of my father’s story – the dumb luck, the naïve decisions – some part of it must have been designed to make him sound remarkable.
* * *
It wasn’t long after my father’s death — esophageal cancer, the relatively quick kind – that unusual things started to happen. First, my bedroom went crooked. Second, the recruiters started calling. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The bedroom problem presented itself a day or two after my father’s funeral. My first day back to work, I jumped up when my alarm sounded, ready to resume my normal schedule and life, and was surprised to fall out of bed. The distance of the floor to the bed had shifted, lengthened somehow – and upon closer inspection, I realized that the whole room was out of sorts. There was an overall unevenness – a downward sweep to the floor, an oddly cramped feel to the walls. I must have overlooked all of it for quite some time, no doubt due to my preoccupation with work. Alarmed, I bought a level on my way to work – but somehow, when I got home, the level failed to reflect the slant. I bought some more, and then some more, and I put them on every windowsill and flat surface. But over the weeks I found I had to adjust and re-adjust my posters and photographs to keep them in line with the slant – which, I realize it sounds crazy to say, seemed to be growing sharper and deeper. And no matter how hard I tried to accommodate the crookedness, to align everything at the correct angles, I could not make it disappear.
It was a few weeks of this, perhaps, before Frank found me out. I was sitting in my chair, reading Le Monde. It was a great production to arrange to have Le Monde delivered at home, but I liked to keep up with my languages (Spanish and Italian from my mother, French from my father, some Russian from going to college during the Cold War). Frank always teased me about my newspapers. I think he saw them as an affectation, and when he arrived – at seven every night, before his nine o’clock shift – he’d often bat them away from me, make nonsense pronunciations of the words, engage in gross cultural stereotypes of the nation the newspaper was from. For Corriere della Serra, he would typically start humming “Funiculi Funicula,” or sometimes “When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie.” If he ever caught me with Pravda, he’d squat down and do a Russian dance, jostling the whole house, and then call me Comrade for the rest of the evening.
When he saw me with Le Monde, he said, “Ooh la la la la, wat ees thees sheet?”
“Nothing,” I said, taking my newspaper. “Philistine.”
“Insufferable snob,” he said.
“What’s for dinner?”
Frank was an RN at the local home for troubled youth. He was thin and blonde and people used to tell us we looked alike, when we were out together. “Are you two brothers?” old ladies would ask us, smiling at the thought that two adult brothers would be friends. And then we told them we weren’t, and they would stop smiling.
I chopped celery and Frank did the cilantro. I always liked watching Frank chop things. Veins threaded out of his arms at the slightest excuse, and it made everything he did seem substantial, even if he was just opening a bottle of wine or stealing away a newspaper.
“So, last night,” Frank said. “We had a young woman in. About four-thirty, five in the morning.” Frank always told me stories from the previous night to get himself in a properly ironic mood to do it all over again. They were not exactly true. He wasn’t allowed to tell me anything that actually happened there, so he’d change the details, reverse the genders, edit the disorders.
“And the police had brought her in after an altercation on the street with a boyfriend,” Frank said.
“An altercation?” I hated it when Frank talked like a police blotter.
“A fight, okay. So they were yelling, drunk on the street. She was hitting him with her cell phone. The police stopped them, and the boyfriend told them this girl was acting crazy. So they brought her in.”
“That seems excessive. You can’t hospitalize every girl who’s crazy to her boyfriend.” I don’t form romantic attachments, myself, but they do seem to drive people to all depths of indignity.
“Exactly. The state doesn’t have the resources. But anyway, she’s in, we’ve got her, we try to take her name.”
I started peeling potatoes to put in the stew.
“And the only name she’ll give is Flonhilda von Florgerstern.” Frank had stopped bothering with the cilantro. When he got to the best parts of stories, he always lost his ability to multi-task.
“Well, it’s obviously not her name.”
“It could be her name,” I said, offering Frank a raw potato, which I knew he hated.
“And when individuals decline to provide their actual name, or seem to be confused as to what their name is, we have to commit them. It’s the policy. I can’t believe you eat those.”
“She was likely joking,” I crunched through the potato.
“Yeah, but it’s like joking about bombs at the airport.” Frank started rifling through the paper grocery bags on the counter, looking for wine. He didn’t usually drink before a shift, so the story must have been at least partly true.
“What are these?” He was holding two levels he’d found among the wine and crackers. There were probably six or seven others in the bag. “Building something?”
This was a joke. Before everything changed this year – my personality, my capacities, my competences – I was not the kind of person who built things.
“No.” I turned back to the stew. “I’m having some crookedness issues in my room.”
“What?” Frank said. He took out another level, and another, and another. They were from Home Depot, Ace Hardware, Target. It probably seemed like a bit much, but I was having difficulty finding any that were accurate. “Why so many?” Frank said.
“Just to be sure,” I said. “It’s so hard to find quality equipment, these days.”
Frank looked like he was going to ask me more, but luckily the stew was starting to boil aggressively, and we needed to run around and hurry to get plates and napkins and salt. Frank didn’t say anything else about the levels, although he did seem to shoot me a puzzled, somewhat sad glance on his way out the door at quarter-to-nine. But maybe that was in my head.
That night, I lay in bed and seemed to feel the bed tilting. It was a deeply unnerving sensation. I held onto the windowsill and knew that I was not, in fact, falling, but I couldn’t escape the unswerving suspicion that something in my room was pulling me downward, sucking me towards its center, perhaps. Bits of my room, I felt sure, were rolling of their own accord, and pieces of my life – my blue computer screen at work, Frank’s face – seemed to form waves which roiled and crashed down the incline around me.
I will be the first to confess, it was somewhat troubling.
After my father had crept through the snow for a long while, so the story went, he came to a small town. Talloires, the sign read, so he knew he must be saved: the French would welcome him as an American soldier, celebrate him as a hero, and most importantly, give him some water. He wanted desperately for water.
He found some Frenchmen working in the village, and approached them with his high school French. “Je suis soldat americain,” he said. “Je suis tombee de mon avion.” But they looked at him with suspicion and hostility, their shovels drawn close, and they brought him to the center of town for further inspection. “Je suis americain,” my father said again, and showed them his dog-tags for proof. But they looked at him even more darkly after that, and my father began to feel a further frozenness quite unrelated to the chill of the January wind.
* * *
For a while, the situation in my room bore little on the rest of my life. I went to work, I did my work well, I declined to socialize. I saw to my father’s grave, I saw to the shopping. Frank came and we cooked, Frank left and I read. But I noticed I had to read for longer and longer downstairs in order to feel ready to face my room – and once I was there, I took to staying up well into the night, clicking on news websites longer, to postpone sleep. I hoped to tire myself out sufficiently so that I wouldn’t mind what the room was doing when I finally lay down, and had to devise increasingly elaborate strategies to bore myself. Some nights these worked and some nights they didn’t. Some nights I found myself still practicing the Russian alphabet as the sun was coming up. “You look tired,” Frank would say, and touch my cheekbone. Frank could do odd things, at times. But I would dismiss his concerns and tell him I was working longer hours than usual; he would nod sympathetically and attribute my fatigue, I am sure, to grief over my father’s death.
I wanted to show Frank the slant, but I never show anybody my room.
So I suppose it was on a night like any other, maybe after Frank had gone to work, and the dishes had been put away, while clicking away on news websites into the dawn, that I first thought to apply to the Agency. (For security reasons, I cannot disclose which one.) I hadn’t been looking for a new job, really – my old one had served me well for years. And I certainly hadn’t been secretly fantasizing about the glamour and danger of such a career – as I know some do, from childhood – as I’ve mentioned, my life had always been characterized by an extreme lack of interest in glamour or danger. So it was an impulse, really; nearly a little inside joke with myself. But there was the application, available on the Agency website for anyone to fill out; and there was I, at four in the morning, with free time to spare.
I will admit, I felt a jaunty little satisfaction at filling out the application that was quite unusual to me. I think it was the excitement of indulging a whim. I rarely have whims.
But I gave it no further thought after that. I had no idea at the time that I had just propelled myself toward my first dramatic brush with my father’s “dumb luck” – or that my life, like my bedroom, was already beginning to tilt out from underneath me.
* * *
My father stood in the snow, his socks down to his ankles, his ankles red and raw. His lips were still blue and he dangled his dog tags with a certain desperation, now, but the more he referred to them the more dubious the French villagers became.
He learned later, of course, that it was a German tactic to take the dog tags from dead American soldiers, and use them to establish credibility with townspeople.
* * *
It seems strange to say now, but I forgot about the application almost entirely. My days passed as they had before, each moment implying the next. The nights were still battlegrounds and I was growing distressingly fatigued during the day; my co-workers sometimes brought me coffee unbidden and had taken to asking me often how I was holding up. Frank teased me less when he found me with my newspapers, so he must have known something was wrong. And I guess it was only a matter of time until he confronted me.
We’d made chicken picata with lemon and capers that night, and it was during that awkward lull that always fell between us when eating was finished but neither of us was ready to be done with dinner time that Frank asked me what was going on.
“Look,” he said. “There’s obviously something on your mind.”
I chewed my lip and said nothing. Frank raised his eyebrows and continued.
“You’re not eating, you don’t look like you’re sleeping, you’re barely talking. If this is about your father –“
“It’s not about my father,” I said. Frank raised his eyebrows again and didn’t say anything. One of the things I always liked about Frank it that he wasn’t pushy; he didn’t usually ask for things you weren’t ready to give, or to say.
“You might feel better if you tell me,” he said at last.
“I’m just.” I put my head down on the table. “I’m sorry if I’ve seemed unlike myself lately.”
“You seem confused.”
“Yes,” I said, somewhat encouraged, but then I didn’t know what else to say. How could I explain why the slant was so troubling, when I didn’t fully understand it myself? “It’s hard to explain,” I said finally.
“Try,” he said. “I might understand” – but he said it as though he knew he would understand; he said it as though he knew already what I was going to tell him – and even though it was impossible, there was a beseeching sort of compassion in his voice that made me think it would be okay, just this once, to tell somebody about the crookedness.
“I’ll have to show you,” I said. “Come upstairs.” And I took him up to my room, which I really never show anybody. It’s not that there’s anything that I should be particularly bothered by anyone seeing, it’s just that showing someone my room has always struck me as a very personal gesture. I am aware, of course, that other people’s lives are composed mostly of a series of personal gestures with which I am utterly uncomfortable. Naturally, I haven’t always been able to avoid them entirely – I’ve been hugged at funerals, kissed by aunts, asked out on dates by several presumptuous individuals – but I’ve done my best. So I don’t believe I’m overstating the case when I say that Frank’s inability to understand the problem, the angle, was something bordering on betrayal.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said when I tried to explain the crookedness. He’d sat down on the bed when we entered the room and had raised his eyebrows again, but when I started to explain the issue he’d gone to stand in the doorway – maybe to better survey the room – and now when he spoke, he sounded tired.
“You don’t feel the slope?” I said. “Here, stand here. Don’t the posters seem off?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe a little. It’s hard to tell. It’s hardly noticeable. Why is this a problem?”
And I felt deflated, and suddenly alone, which is not a feeling to which I am accustomed.
“I don’t know why it’s a problem,” I said miserably. “It just is.” For a moment neither of us spoke.
“Well,” Frank said finally. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one.” And he muttered something about being late to work, and went downstairs to gather his things.
The townsfolk were crowding around my father with increasing menace, speaking to each other in French too fast to follow. And suddenly the third stroke of dumb luck befell my father – fourth, if you want to count the fact that he’d landed in France, and that he’d not broken his legs, and that his parachute had opened at all.
A black car pulled up to the gathering crowd, screeching through the snow, and a man in a suit got out. The crowd seemed to know the man and respect him, and all watched eagerly to see what would transpire between him and the teenaged Nazi soldier.
“Hey, Mac,” the man in the suit said to my father. “You got a problem?”
* * *
Things were fragile between Frank and me after that. He still came every night for dinner but something seemed to have shifted; he seemed more tired than I was, and once he stopped bringing energy with him into the house, I realized how much of our conversation had always been driven by his jokes and stories and commentary. We ate dinners in near-silence. I felt I had broken something between us by showing him the crookedness in my room, but what – or how – I couldn’t be sure.
So when the phone rang one night during dinner, I was happy to excuse myself. Phone calls were peculiar; sometimes telemarketers called, or people taking surveys—I do enjoy participating in surveys—or Frank, if he was running late for dinner. I swallowed my salmon and hurried to the phone. I have often wondered how my year might have unfolded differently, had I missed the call.
“Hello, Brian Coles?”
“Speaking,” I said.
“My name is Sarah, and I’m calling in response to an application you submitted to a government agency.”
I stood up a little straighter and glanced over at Frank. He was bent over his salmon, pushing it around on his plate, and I noticed for the first time that he seemed to be balding slightly. I closed the kitchen door and lowered my voice.
“Of course,” I said. “Go on.” I felt something akin to the sliding disorientation I’d been feeling at night all those preceding weeks, but this time, there was a fluttering, frantic hopefulness that went along with it.
She explained how I might advance my application further, if I were interested – there would be essays, interviews, a battery of psychological testing – none of which, it went without saying, were to be mentioned or described to anybody else. I was given to understand that the Agency’s interest in me stemmed primarily from my competency in multiple languages. I was to begin by doing a great deal of writing: essays designed to demonstrate my writing ability, language fluency, grasp of geopolitics. Unfortunately, I can’t go into any further detail on our conversation.
By the time I hung up the phone, my ears were ringing. Nothing would come of it, most probably – and yet I had never imagined this: my parachute opening, and me floating over a great maw of new opportunity. I can’t say I’ve experienced that sensation often in this life.
When I went back to the table I was a different person, I felt sure, and I only hoped that Frank wouldn’t notice. I took a moment to bang some dishes around in the kitchen, and I brought some ice cream and bowls out to cover for my absence.
“Couldn’t find any spoons,” I said brightly, and felt a minor, impossible thrill at saying it. “Would you like some?”
Frank eyed me somewhat warily. He could tell I was in a better mood than I’d been in five minutes ago, but he seemed to decide to accept this shift rather than challenge it. “Sure,” he said.
“It was a poll,” I said, even though he hadn’t asked. “Idealism versus electability in a presidential candidate.” I was improvising wildly, for no reason, and Frank raised his eyebrows.
“I didn’t even hear the phone,” he said absently. He took a small scoop of coffee ice cream from the tub but didn’t eat it.
“Your ears must be going in your old age,” I said, and he smiled lightly. Frank is seven months older than I am, and his infirmity has been a longstanding joke between us. I was throwing caution to the wind already, I knew – jokes and ice cream amounted to a celebration, albeit a premature, secret one. Frank didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he thought we were celebrating something else. At any rate, he seemed to relax, and started to eat his ice cream.
“So, what did you say?” he said.
“To the pollster?”
“Oh,” I said, and thought for a moment. “Electability.” I had heard it on CNN earlier that day. “What would you have said?”
He put down his spoon and considered. I liked to watch Frank wrestle with questions – moral, practical, hypothetical. He brought the same intensity to a broken doorknob as he did to a discussion of religion, and he always seemed to unravel the problem – whatever it was – with such authority that it wouldn’t dare present itself again. He usually did this while squinting downward and biting his lip. But this time, as he thought, he looked me evenly in the eyes – and even I was not too obtuse to notice that there was a certain sadness in his, before I looked away.
“Idealism,” he said finally.
* * *
And so, even though my days remained much the same and my room continued to tilt menacingly toward the equator, there was something now that seemed to hold me firmly in place. A secret confers impossible power onto the small corners of your life. Everything that grated on me normally – my colleagues’ understated pity, Frank’s self-conscious concern, the irreversible swerve of my bedroom – became minor indignities suffered in the service of something much greater. I took to feeling as though I were in a movie; I began leaving my books aside at night and taking long windy walks after Frank had left, and I could almost hear the orchestra playing behind me.
I worked assiduously at my essays. I practiced my Cyrillic characters until they lost their forced precision and began to look natural. I read Corriere della Sera out loud to myself every night. I followed all the major foreign news stories. I memorized world leaders, world capitals, the populations of countries of interest. I learned which countries had oil and which had nuclear weapons and which had large, restive minorities. I read up on hostilities in the Horn of Africa, the Transnistria region of Moldova, the un-policed mountains of Pakistan. I thought about why I wanted to join the Agency, and why I thought I would be a good contribution. I thought about it, and then I wrote it all down.
The man in the black suit spoke rapid French to the villagers. My father couldn’t entirely follow what was being said, but the villagers first looked confused, then apologetic, then jubilant. They abandoned their pitchforks and crowded close around him. He tried to cover his head and face – fearing attack from these men who, moments ago, had seemed on the verge of something sinister – but they only laughed and picked him up and carried him to town to celebrate. My father was bewildered. The man in the black suit only winked. Once my father knew that he was not about to be murdered – that he was, in fact, about to be celebrated as the hero he was just beginning to understand himself to be – he thought it safe to ask for water. Please, he said. I am strongly thirsty. Please, I would like some water, please. They brought him a tall glass. He gulped at it and his throat turned inside out, his eyes watered. It was cognac. He swore. The villagers laughed and laughed, and brought him some real water. Through bleary eyes he glanced at the man in the black suit, who was watching him and smiling. “Thank you for your service to your country, Soldier,” he said.
* * *
“I don’t think you should come over anymore,” I said. Frank was on the stoop with an arm full of groceries. I realize now that there was probably a better way to have done this.
My essays were finally flawless, and I’d sent them off. I knew it could be a long time before I heard word from the Agency, but I wasn’t worried. The more I thought about it, the more I felt sure that I was a perfect match for the needs of the organization. And furthermore, I felt just as sure that there was a certain symmetry to my new line of work: I had spent the first half of my life cultivating languages instead of relationships, and now my decisions were about to pay off monumentally. I could not believe I had not thought to apply earlier.
The hard part, I suppose, was in letting go of those things that could prevent one from fully committing to a profession like this. But the bright hope of the Agency had cast everything else into shadow, and I felt I knew where my priorities lay. On the nights when my bedroom still angled itself into a sharp slant, new images overtook me. I saw myself in suits and ties and serious looks. I saw myself driving cars around Islamabad late at night, losing anyone who tried to follow me. I saw briefcases full of cash, fake passports, Central Asian republics. In some of the better scenarios, I saw myself as something like my father.
So I had to stop inviting Frank to dinner, which is no casual undertaking when you have a standing arrangement with someone.
“Why? What are you talking about?” he said.
“Things have changed,” I said. “I need space.” I knew I being cryptic, mimicking things I’d heard said on television when imaginary people ended their silly entanglements.
Frank raised his eyebrows. “What’s wrong with you?”
“That’s not – what? Nothing’s wrong with me.”
“Yes. Something is. Is this about the room, somehow?” He adjusted the groceries from his right arm to his left.
“No,” I said, indignant. “I have been offered a new job, actually.” This wasn’t technically true, I suppose, but it was close enough. Besides, there wasn’t going to be room for squeamishness about obfuscation in my new career.
“Really?” Frank said. “What kind of job? Where? When did you apply?”
“I can’t really talk about the details,” I said. “It’s sensitive.” I wouldn’t have told him even this much, but Frank was my friend.
He backed away slightly, and put the groceries down on the porch. “Brian,” he said. “I want you to know I am worried about you.”
This seemed strange. Why be worried, when the doors of my life were finally swinging wide open, letting in opportunity and adventure and light? Why be scared, when I was finally about to start doing something of substance? I couldn’t tell him this, of course. So I just told him not to worry, and he told me to take good care of myself – which is another thing people say to each other on television – and I told him of course I would. He left the groceries on the porch, but I didn’t feel like cooking after that.
It wasn’t long after that that I stopped going to work. At first, this elicited flowers and phone calls from the colleagues. Then, angry voicemails from the boss. They eventually fired me, but it seemed to take them a rather long time to get around to it – probably due to the efforts of my kind co-workers, who likely assumed I was having a very tough grieving period. I really should have called. It wasn’t like me not to. But thinking about the Agency was occupying so much of my energy that it was hard to focus on anything trivial. In no time, I’d be gone – swept away to a new country and future. And none of it, none of it, would matter.
* * *
My father always concluded the story with a summary of events. The story really ended with the cognac. He stayed in the town a week, and the villagers treated him like a king. They cooked and clothed him and cared for his frostbitten toes. The man in the black suit disappeared, but my father was forever grateful for his help in setting the villagers straight. The villagers wanted him to stay, and would have married him off to any one of their daughters if he’d let them. But he needed to find his way back to his crew, if any of them were still alive, to complete his missions. So he left them with many thanks and goodbyes and tears on the part of the women. He donated his silk parachute to the town dressmaker, and he learned later that her business thrived because of it. It was a good story.
* * *
I started checking the mail more times a day than the mail comes. I started answering the phone only to hear a dial tone. Even I will admit, I was quite preoccupied.
One day Frank came by to pick up his things – he’d left some cooking gadgets around the house – and caught me staring into space on the front porch. He looked thinner, and his voice was ragged when he spoke. To be polite, I asked him how work was going. This, it turned out, was a mistake.
“We had a young man in about a week ago with a really crazy story.”
“Don’t they all?” I said. I was distracted, thinking about the phone.
“This one, especially. It was about a tragic love affair with an AIDS-ridden prostitute, and about how his father had begged the girl not to see the boy anymore because of the humiliation to the family, which was fairly prominent, and so the girl agreed, and went back to her pimp –“
I was not really listening. I banged into the kitchen, finding the utensils that were Frank’s and assembling them into a box. Frank followed me, and kept talking.
“And then, when the boy found out she’d betrayed him, he refused to speak to her, and she died of heartbreak as much as AIDS.”
“Sad story,” I said vacantly. This was exactly the kind of thing I did not have time for anymore.
“And so it wasn’t until a week later that a patient on the ward remarked that that’s the plot of La Traviata.”
“Is it?” I ushered us both out onto the porch.
“So we were all glad we’d administered the anti-psychotics.”
I gathered up the cooking gadgets, and put them in the box. “Is there anything I’m missing?” I said, gesturing to the box.
But Frank did not answer, because he was singing, quietly, in Italian. This annoyed me. I could barely hear the phone as it was, and I did not need somebody singing me arias on the porch when I had so, so much to do. Besides, his pronunciation was terrible.
“Addio del Passato,” he said. “Farewell to Bright Visions.”
“I know what it means,” I said.
“It’s the aria that the girl sings when her love has left her.”
I looked at Frank darkly. I did not want to think of what he was getting at.
“I’m sorry you can’t stay,” I said firmly. “But I think I hear the phone.”
I left him on the porch, holding a cheese grater and looking very upset. I was wrong about the phone. But when I came back out, Frank was gone.
At my father’s funeral, four months ago, something unpleasant happened. Many, many people had come to pay their respects; Frank came with me, and I remember him remarking on how beloved my father must have been to elicit such an outpouring of grief. His former students were there, some with their families, his colleagues, college friends, army buddies, an entire mosaic of individuals collected from a life lived across continents and most of a century. There was crying, and some drinking, and some laughing, and sooner or later, after most of the mourners had gone home, and only a committed core of friends and family remained, the topic turned to that great war story of my father’s. Most everyone there could have recited it cold, and we began to – adding, as we went, our commentary about how brave and guileless and good my father had been.
But an old army buddy of my dad’s, who had been drinking and laughing along with us until then, stopped doing both and stared stonily as the story was told. And after we completed it – including the coda about the dressmaker and the silk parachute – the man said “Bullshit” and took a sip from his drink. Weight shifted uncomfortably, a woman laughed, a few people wandered off in a hurry. Everyone was eager to avoid confrontation. But not me.
“What did you say?” I asked, rather shrilly. I could feel Frank’s hand on my arm.
“I said, ‘bullshit,” and what I meant is, that story is ‘bullshit.’”
The rest of the crowd seemed content to ignore the man – dismiss him as drunk, senile, misunderstood – and turn the subject to other, undisputed stories of my father’s. But I couldn’t do that.
“And why,” I asked, my voice shaking, “would you say something like that?”
“Because it’s true,” the man said, in a voice slightly louder than was warranted. He put his drink down. “Look,” he said. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I was a great friend of your father’s. But I’ve heard that bullshit story one too many times, and it isn’t true. James was in infirmary with whooping cough on that mission. The story is bullshit.”
“Are you calling my father a liar? At his funeral?” I shouted. Those unlucky enough to have stayed this long didn’t know what to do with themselves – some were watching rapt, others were pretending, quite implausibly, to pay no attention, busying themselves with napkin rings and phantom wine stains on shirts.
“I am calling him a great storyteller.”
I almost took a swing at him. It’s just as well that Frank stopped me – I don’t know where a punch would have landed if I’d thrown one.
“Easy, easy,” the man said, and picked up his drink again. He looked like he wanted to say more, thought better of it, and then went ahead anyway. “You don’t have to take my word for it,” he said, talking quickly now, as though he’d rehearsed. “There’s holes all over that story any idiot could see. Why doesn’t he eat the snow, ‘f he’s so thirsty? Where is Talloires, France, I wonder? Is it near the border with Germany? Or Switzerland? Who the fuck is the man in the black suit supposed to be?”
“It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot,” said Frank, in the voice he must use with his hysterical youths at the ward.
“Yes,” said the man. “I have. Wouldn’t you? Man’s been telling this bullshit story, in front of me, for sixty-some-odd years? He thinks I didn’t know? He thinks I didn’t remember?”
I was, I think, crying by this point. Everyone had gone, somewhere during the man’s speech. Leaving was their last courtesy to my father.
The man seemed a little sorry that he’d upset me so. He pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket as he put on his coat, and tried to give it to me. I rejected it, glad to have this small way of telling the man he was a sad, drunk, senile, irrelevant, mean-spirited bastard.
The man addressed Frank, as he left. “Take care of your friend, okay?” he said. “But when he’s better, tell him to look up Talloires on a map.”
I never did. I didn’t need to. The man had clearly been drinking too much. Everyone I spoke with agreed.
* * *
I wait on the edge of my still-sliding bed, my hand on the phone. Frank hasn’t been back since the episode with the cooking gadgets, which is just as well. I find I don’t like leaving the phone for the time it takes to cook. Sometimes it’s hard to hear when the water’s boiling.
I know that they will call soon. It’s been quite a while now since I sent my essays, even longer since the government recruiter first called. The night that I sent in my application online seems now an episode from another, more diminished lifetime. But I don’t mind the waiting. The waiting will culminate in grand adventures and great things; rich and beautiful stories to tell my children, should I ever have any.
And after a while – although it’s hard to say how long, all the detritus of life lying between the night I applied to the Agency and now has coiled, compressed, disappeared somehow – they arrive. I am lying on my bed half-asleep, unstrung and shifting. I slip into a dream of falling, and when panic jars me awake there is my father, wearing a suit, sitting at the edge of my bed. The man in the black suit from the story is there, as are other men in suits, many of them wearing sunglasses. They stand straight, unbothered by the tilting of the room, the slant of the floor, and I sit up in bed, feeling – for the first time in months – properly aligned in the universe. “Hello, Brian,” my father says, as the other men slowly, but with increasing energy, begin to clap. My father takes off his sunglasses. “I’m proud of you, son,” he says, and I think I see a glint in his eyes as he extends his hand and shakes mine. “Welcome aboard.”