MAN OF LETTERS
It was Friday, three days into the new year, and there I sat at the breakfast table in my son Josh’s fashionable second-story apartment in Dallas, staring at the unopened letter I’d sent the Christmas before. Make that two Christmases before. There were other letters as well, besides the one in my hand. Some dating back years. They were all unopened, unread, and when I came across them and realized what they were, my heart jumped off a lonely little bridge inside my chest.
Josh had gone to the office early. We said hello and goodbye as he was walking out the door, hair still wet, smelling of soap, leather satchel slung carelessly across his shoulder. He wouldn’t be home for lunch, he told me, pausing at the threshold, so I’d have to fend for myself.
He turned to leave when his phone rang.
He raised a finger and spoke a few clipped words to whoever was on the other end. After he hung up, he slipped the phone into his pocket.
“What was that?”
“No, I mean the language. You speak a second language.”
“Only when I have to.”
“It was what, Spanish?”
“You speak Portuguese? How do I not know this?”
He shrugged and returned to the topic of lunch, suggesting I poke around the neighborhood rather than depend on the pickings in the refrigerator. There were a lot of nice bistros here in Dallas, he said. Places with shaded terraces, interesting cuisines. I could buy a magazine and a decent cigar while I was out. Or get a handcrafted porter at the sports bar around the corner. Their burgers were to die for, he said. The waitresses weren’t too shabby, either.
I smiled. Told him, yes, sure. Any of those things would work. He wasn’t to worry. I was happy just being here, enjoying my time with him. The rest, I said, was cake.
He turned, paused and turned back.
“Just remembered,” he said. “There’s a new exhibit at the art museum. Dale Chihuly, the glass guy. You know him? There was a big write-up last week.”
He admitted he’d never been to the museum himself, but assured me it was a world-class operation. This was the Big D, he said. Not Port Arthur. They didn’t do half-assed here.
“Why don’t we go together?” I said. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. My plane doesn’t leave until late.”
He smiled, almost sadly. “Art glass?” He shook his head, eh. “You go. You’ll have a better time without me.”
I tried not to look as though I’d taken his dismissal personally. “Sure, sure.” I knew he wasn’t hot on galleries or museums — his social interests ran to sports and women, the occasional rock concert — but I hoped maybe just this once he’d accommodate me.
He glanced at the handsome steel watch strapped to his wrist. “Look, I gotta run. See you around 6, yes? We’ll order in tonight. Pizza or something.”
I nodded. “One last thing? Before you go?”
He raised his brow, hinting a slight impatience.
“What’s the best way to get there? The museum?”
“Easiest way’s to walk,” he said. “Cabs here are stupid expensive. Besides, it’s just as fast on foot. You’re only a mile away, down through the old historic district — ”
“No, no,” I said, embarrassed at the misunderstanding. “What I meant was, where is it? As in, what street is it on?”
He pointed to my laptop, open on the kitchen table. “Look it up online — dma.org — and Google yourself a map.”
Halfway out the door, he called over his shoulder. “Print it up on the workstation in my bedroom if you like. That way you’ll have your bearings, coming and going.”
He was right about the Chihuly exhibit. It looked impressive. There had to be 80 pieces from what I could see on the website, and they were all breathtaking. Fantastic blobs of colored glass, blown and twisted into massive dreamlike shapes. There were other exhibits, as well, including a collection of photographs by Edward Weston and Dorothea Lang. He didn’t know what he was missing.
The museum’s address was at the bottom of the page. But I remembered, in afterthought, that I needed a point of embarkation, too, if I hoped to generate a map.
I suppose his address should have leapt immediately to mind. But it didn’t. Strange surroundings, a strange bed … having to orient myself to the streets of a strange city … they had all toyed with my old man’s memory. The numbers resisted coming, and after a brief struggle to recall them I gave up and reached for the wicker basket where he kept his mail, believing I’d find a bill or credit card statement. Something that would give me the information I needed.
The first two pieces of correspondence were of no help. They’d been delivered directly to Josh’s post office box, which had a different address than his apartment. But the third envelope caught my attention. The handwriting was mine. The letter had flown out of Colorado on a different day than I had, on a different plane, but here we were, suddenly reunited. Sitting at the same kitchen table in the same neo-posh apartment in Dallas, Texas. I was thinking this and smiling when I plucked the envelope from the basket. But the smile vanished when I saw the letter had never been opened, and that there were dozens more beneath it. All from me. All sealed.
I’d sent Josh a letter every week for 40 years, a habit I acquired after his mother, Linda, and I split up. Linda was a Midwestern girl, born and bred, who hated Colorado. So when she saw the chance to move back east, she didn’t waste any time. Our divorce was barely under the judge’s gavel before she booked a flight home to Iowa, taking Josh with her. I didn’t chase after them. I saw no point. I was broke and tired of fighting, and the last person on earth I wanted to see again — besides Linda — was my attorney. I missed my son terribly when he was taken from me. But my work was in the west, my heart was in the west, and I couldn’t help but believe that when he was old enough to make the choice, Josh would come back to me of his own accord.
A letter a week, every week for 40 years. My God. What did that add up to? I couldn’t make myself do the math.
The unopened envelopes in the basket seemed to multiply before my eyes. How many more might there be in the drawers and closets, I wondered. How many of the hundreds and hundreds I’d mailed over the years were languishing in attics or basements or landfills? I drew a hard, sobering breath. I had a sudden urge to tear into the letters myself and give air to the words suffocating inside. But I didn’t dare. They were no longer my property. They belonged to Josh now, and were his to do with as he pleased.
One of the envelopes contained a greeting card. I could tell by its shape. But what occasion did the card commemorate? It was seven years old, according to the postmark. Seven. Years. I was still in my 50s seven years ago. My second wife, Stella, had just run off with a realtor who dealt in high-stakes commercial properties. His name was Douglas, and he was bald with a white beard trimmed to a pointy little Van Dyke. He was also cross-eyed, an affliction he made no effort to disguise in the photograph on his business card. Stella had met this fat little garden gnome at a software convention in Phoenix, and what started out as three-day business trip turned into a permanent change of address. She never came back, except once, to appear in court.
I wrote to Josh the day my divorce to Stella went through. It was a long, difficult missive, but I thought it would hurt less if I controlled the narrative on paper in an unbroken stream of thought. I tried to keep it straightforward and light. Compassionate, though I was feeling far from charitable at the time. I explained that Stella was young and pretty, and had always wanted a big house and money. I said the cross-eyed realtor was able to give her both, where I hadn’t been able to manage either. It was a good deal for each of them, I joked. Stella had found true happiness in a five-bedroom Federalist mansion, and the opthalmically challenged realtor had doubled his return on a cheap investment, getting two Stellas for the price of one.
I ran my thumb across the envelope’s canceled stamp now. It was a Ringling Brothers poster, in miniature, crowded with clowns and elephants and tumbling acrobats. I remembered buying the stamp — an entire sheet of them, actually — at the Capitol Hill post office in Denver. They were meant to be a mocking commemoration of the year’s events. A nod to the circus-like spectacle the divorce had been, and the endless parade of ugly little sideshows it engendered. I had hoped to be ironic, I think, affixing them to my outgoing mail. But now, seven years later, the image struck back with the cruelty of a twisted knife.
Seven years. Christ.
Yes, by all means, send in the clowns.
I couldn’t keep my thoughts in front of me, no matter how hard I tried. They kept blowing around inside my head — wild, scattered. Why would anyone keep a letter for seven years and never open it? He had his reasons, I suppose. Yet I couldn’t imagine a single explanation that would make sense to me. That wouldn’t fill me with despair. I wondered, grimly, if it was me alone whose words had been relegated to this unsettling limbo? Or did he do the same with his mother’s letters? His friends’ letters, if any of them ever wrote?
I could see the self-satisfied look on Linda’s face as she watched me suffer. Hear the smugness in her voice as she dismissed my heartache with a blunt declaration she’d kept under wraps for years. What did you expect, Brodie? You’re an afterthought in his life. A footnote. You always have been, and always will be.
I used to imagine that when Josh was out from under Linda’s influence, his life would flow back into mine, naturally, like water. Like blood running to blood. I always thought that, having read my letters, he would understand how much I loved him. How much I missed him. How eager I was to make up for what had been taken from us.
I never pushed things — I knew it would take time for him to put the divorce in perspective, to understand my reluctance to battle his mother over custody, or bicker with her over visitation — but it was the letters I’d counted on to help him come to balance in these matters. Letters were all I had. They were my proxy. They stood in for me, were me, in the most fundamental ways of parenting. Letters were my late-night bedside talks. My ball games and father-son breakfasts. They were my summer vacation road ramblings and holiday storytellings, sole witness to my devotion. But if he hadn’t read them, he would never know any of this.
I couldn’t move. Or breathe.
I thought of my own father, gone 15 years, and how I’d held his hand as he lay dying. How the veins in his fingers, which were swollen and purple from the disease, smoothed again, regaining their youthful mien after his heartbeat ceased and his breath left his body. My father died knowing I loved him, and I knew he loved me, which made the dreadful aftermath of his passing tolerable. How would Josh feel, I wondered, when I died? What would he remember about me? What would he know of me, or of my love for him? Would he be there to hold my hand?
My girlfriend, Jessica, sometimes asks about the long grinding silences between Josh and me.Why in hell don’t you just come out and ask the kid what his problem is? she says. Just say, Do you love me? Do you hate me? Is your phone broken? Did you forget how to write a letter? What? Maybe if you asked, directly, he’d tell you.
She doesn’t understand that if I started asking questions like that, Josh would never invite me into his home again. He was a quiet boy who’d grown into a soft-spoken, distant man. A man who took great care to protect his privacy. I explained it had taken more than a year to arrangethis visit — three short days — and that the only reason the boy agreed was because I threatened to pull the “father card.” Show up on his doorstep unannounced. How many times did she think a stunt like that would work?
I closed my eyes. It grieved me to admit it, but the truth was, if not for a few stray and ultimately meaningless facts, my son and I were, after 40-odd years, no more than acquaintances. I knew he made good money. That he drank red wine. But what else could I say about him? What of substance? I knew he had friends he’s never introduced me to, an acoustic guitar he’s never played in my presence … that he spends his spare time in the gym (his biceps speak even when his mouth doesn’t), and that his mother, Linda, is married to a man named Carl, whom Josh may or may not call Dad. Did any of this amount to anything? What did it say about us as father and son? My heart sank when I asked myself these questions. Love me? Jesus. I didn’t even know if he liked me.
I returned the letter to the basket the same way I’d found it. Unopened. Unread. The small mysteries of my life and times, locked away forever, of interest to no one. Not even my last blood relative.
When Josh got home from work that evening we ordered a pizza and watched TV.
He opened a bottle of expensive red wine and poured two glasses.
“You see that exhibit today?”
“What did you think?”
“I thought it was beautiful.”
He seemed genuinely pleased. “Good, good.”
I almost suggested he see the exhibit himself, even if Chihuly’s glass wasn’t his thing. There were so many astonishing works of art in the museum. So many incredible pieces to savor and contemplate. I was certain he’d come away surprised. Maybe even moved to some unexpected appreciation of the artists’ craft. How much trouble, I thought, would it be to drop in and take a look?
We watched the news, and later, changed channels to a sports program where a panel of retired football players made predictions about the upcoming season. When the show was over, Josh sighed and reached wearily for the remote. I assumed we were finished for the evening, headed for an early bedtime. But he surprised me, asking if I would like to listen to a bit of music.
“Of course,” I said, though I didn’t get his music. “Why not.”
“I think you’ll like this,” he said as if he’d read my mind. “It’s a compilation of ballads. Old stuff.”
He got up and walked across the rug, opening the French doors to the balcony. A breeze passed into the room. The street below was lined with pecan trees, the branches of which were festooned with twinkling white lights. On the sidewalk below, revelers talked and laughed over drinks.
Josh turned on the music, and returned with another bottle of wine. “I’ll email the playlist to you,” he said, drawing the cork, “if you like.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d like that.”
I stared out the French doors at the starlit sky, thinking about the unopened letters. Wondering how it was that so many impenetrable mysteries had come between us. But as he poured the wine I set the thought aside, too tired to worry about it anymore.
The ballads surprised me. They were tender and full of longing, and hearing them I was overtaken with an awkward self-consciousness — as if I had blundered into a dark room and stumbled upon strangers making love.
“How do you say ‘longing,’” I asked, “in Portuguese?”
He was slumped in his chair, head back. His eyes were closed and it was a moment before he replied. “Longing?”
“Yes,” I said. “The word. How do you say it in Portuguese?”
He crossed and uncrossed his legs at the ankles. But his eyes never opened.
I repeated the word. “Sow-deh-che.”
He smiled at my oafish pronunciation, and cautioned me not to think of the words as interchangeable. There was no adequate way to explain the nuances in English, he said. But in Portuguese, saudade was more complicated than just longing. It was, he said, a feeling of love steeped in deep, wistful nostalgia. A homesickness for a home that no longer existed. Or perhaps never existed at all. It was, he told me, a tender ache, and a yearning. A grief for the lost places of one’s past, real or imagined.
He paused and asked if I understood.
I didn’t know what to say.
"Man of Letters" first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.