It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Although in possession of a full set of keys to the house she had remained for some time on the front porch where the heavy front door still held a mosaic window of lead-jointed obscured glass. The window permitted light but so distorted the shape of any person on the door’s other side that identification was quite impossible until the door was opened. Once the antique bell pull had been drawn down, it was only possible to tell that the summons had been heard, but not by whom. Now, as she stood there with no reason to pull the bell on an empty house, her mind sluggish with fatigue, Shirley Jackson’s sinister story of another empty house returned to her. What utter crap, she said out loud, her voice returning to her ears crookedly after percussing from a thousand vitreous faces.
While she-who-was-me decides how best to proceed, and with a solemn promise to return, allow the she-who-is-me to step away for a short while ..
For nearly a year Hank has pursued the project of collecting stories from each of the people in our small clan. LiV, a colleague from Hank’s university days has been hired to compile the material. Hank shrugs and smiles when I ask about the project’s purpose. Call it a living group autobiography if you need a name for it is the answer I get. In spite of my doubt and non-participation, the project has not only succeeded, but appears to be accelerating.
When Hank introduced the rather plain and stolid figure of LiV, I barely concealed my annoyance. If others in this canaille wished to have their stories recorded and my consent was desired, I would give it so long as the specifics were obscured. As the months have passed I have learned that Emmie and Bunny forward their email communications, that taped interviews with Hank have been transcribed, that Kit has copied off portions of a journal, that even taciturn Griff has shared the contents of text exchanges with Bunny, all this while I myself have found no reason to contact LiV. How could I do justice to the need which has driven the direction of my life for nearly three decades now and, while having celebrated small victories, now seems ruined, already half in shambles? I have done nothing to advance the notion that within groups of humans, ethical practices, evolving systems of agreement, and absolute transparency might produce lasting cohesiveness. I was wrong, and it is too late to change my topic. So why would I wish to share failure?
I have casually studied impersonal objects or moments which find in us receptor sites and flash into brief reactive phenomena as well as ongoing dialectical of relationship between our selves and others, learning little. As to the notion of self-contained personalities, cross-contamination makes it impossible for any one of us to claim true originality or to accurately grasp the full causation of the holograms we call selves. Therefore, if I am nothing more than an ever-shifting cluster of internally viewed images, how can I ever hope to describe myself in ways both meaningful and trustworthy? I cannot, and I must suppose that it is the same for everyone in this group, acknowledged or not. Nonetheless, they have apparently begun making contact with LiV to share the moth-eaten fictions of themselves. Contrary to my own expectations I have uncovered within myself a similar desire to mete out something of my life, no matter how small.
Is it LiV herself, this unremarkable person, or is it simply the opportunity to participate in this project of us, the energy of which can be felt even hours after she has gathered up her materials and driven away? For it now seems to me that we are on a path toward something unseen, and if this work is to be representative of the entirety of us, mine must be one of the voices.
I shall begin, then, with the window.
From earliest childhood I understood that Matters of Great Importance went on inside that house, as unknowable as the figure of whoever stood on the other side of the front door. In the adults who came to the house to conduct business with Grandfather, I detected a starching of personal space among the suited civilians standing at attention, while I found my way behind his desk to wrap my arms around him. At those times there was no one else, simply he and I, old friends. He never failed to be delighted with me, and in me was a secret door which opened only to him. Later as I came to understand that he headed an empire, I never felt unwelcome no matter how urgent Grandfather’s affairs.
Kept in a lawyer’s vault for a quarter century before the letter was placed in my hands along with my unlooked-for inheritance, Grandfather opened up for the first time about his wealth:
.. without someone like you, Joey, all of it means nothing at all. You can’t eat it, sew clothes from it or feel truly safe.
You can only imagine a child’s future with a reflected brightness, how that child will find many paths open to him, hope that he will take confidence from that and stride boldly forward into the world to make it somehow better. This I wanted for your father, yet somehow things went badly. Never mind how or why, for there are few things more tedious than an old man’s regrets. All you need know is that you have always been my single chance for redemption. The fact of you kept me from becoming ossified and complacent. A rich man does not have to adapt or to evolve into a better person, for his money buys any number of plots of land in which to bury his mistakes. This tendency of hiding and turning away from errors is so common that most rich men do not even know they do so and that all they buy is premature death.
What gold buys the wealthy is a delusion of significance, when in truth we are no more significant shooting into the world covered in blood than when we are at last sewn into our shrouds, silver spoon or no silver spoon. All a rich man really has is the means of commanding the attention of others and shiny coins for the hiring of musicians, the trappings of theater; we make religions of ourselves.
For my ignorance I could weep from now until death comes to claim me, which will not be long. I have had and have wasted a thousand times more than the average man, a million times more than any poor man. This now-failing body, of which eyes and hands and tongue long ago became servants to acquisition and to the have-ingness of objects, in which no god could ever be felt even if it did exist. I cannot claim that I was not shown the way; in love, in poetry, in the early wonder of being a father I again and again beheld transcendence. Now, it seems that all that is left to me are my fears for you, Joey. And my hopes.
Soon enough I will be sewn into my last suit and my mud shall join that of the planet. Poised on the edge of that precipice, desperate to leave just one thing which is not matter but energy, my thoughts turn to you.
As I realize the true insignificance of all of my successes, I am left in shock. I have been a man admired, emulated, sought after and written about; my obituary is already typeset.
But none of this is real. You, Joey, are the only real thing in my life. And I pray to what gods there might be that by the time you read this you will still be real. I fervently wish that I could be there to watch your face as you read this letter. There is a force in this fifteen-year old you which gives me hope as I write this that I would recognize this you in even your thirty-nine year old self. Thirty nine is old enough to know oneself and young enough to still have many beginnings ahead, to be nearly ready to undertake learning the kabbalah of yourself.
While I cannot begin to imagine you in another quarter-century, eyes do not change, and yours at fifteen are vast unknowable universes, containing humor and ridicule, fascination and condemnation. Your eyes radiate not only intelligence but agility.
There is drive in you, but as for what persons, ideas, goals that passion will attach to remain to be seen. If I know you, whatever occupies your adult life will be original, principled, daring. You will expect too much from people and be disappointed in them. I hope that you will open to love
I feel that for you this inheritance, this sudden having-ness will bring only good. By now in your adulthood, you know who you are and will have honed and refined the means of making a living. Perhaps you will be a parent, what a thing to imagine! Your grasp of cause and effect will be solidly in place, guided by justice. You will be merciful and self-effacing. You will hold your success with equanimity and not rest upon laurels previously given. Your restlessness will cause you to remain a searcher until the end of your life.
Despite my many mistakes, I clearly see these possibilities in you.
So do what you will with all of this: the house, the properties, the businesses or what remains of them if they have been well managed. The cabin.
You have my gratitude for what has turned out by far to have been the most significant relationship of my life. We have always seen one another, you and I.
If as the poets say love never dies, then as you read this feel me once again.
Let us now return to the porch where the then-me stands uncertainly. I did finally unlock and enter the house, but I did not stay any longer than necessary. I had by then come to settle in another part of the state, and my grandparents’ home was sold with most of its furnishings.
I kept only a few pieces of furniture for my study, and from the massive door I saved the window with its many textured panes, having it installed in the west wall of my study. At certain times of the year late afternoon sunshine warms me as I worked and I can easily imagine Grandfather looking over my shoulder.
Well can you imagine, then, my reaction to what I found after returning from a conference this June. It was already past dark when I finally unpacked and sat down to catch up on email. Only when I was seated at the desk did I notice what appeared to be gritty powder on the blotter. Brushing it aside I felt a tiny stabbing pain and stared rather stupidly at two drops of blood welling on my fingertip. I turned on the overhead light and saw a spray of glass shards across the desktop. At a slight draft on my neck I spun in my chair to see that one of the Grandfather’s windowpanes had been broken, leaving an irregular oval hole which let in the night. The hole - no larger than a fist - certainly would not have permitted access to anything larger than a squirrel, and that impossible, for from the outside the damage was at least seven feet above ground level. Nonetheless I was deeply bothered, quelling a hot dark emotion as Griff looked around the room. Of course, citing security concerns I had called him in the morning. He studied the ground beneath the window outside, finding no footprints, stooped, crawled and took pictures.
No disturbance inside? asked Griff.
None. Nothing taken or disturbed. Just the window. It is very old, came from my grandfather’s house.
Can it be fixed? asked Griff
I am sure I can inquire with the historical preservation society and find someone who works with leaded glass.
Don’t think you need to worry about someone breaking in. Doubt that’s what happened here.
Do you think it could be from the landscape company? A rock kicked up by the lawnmower?
Uhh, no. Think I know what happened said Griff. You gonna be around later?
I will I said
I’ll be back maybe an hour. We’ll get this sorted, as Bunny likes to say. An odd expression crossed Griff’s face before being replaced by the speculative lawman squint.
I was at the desk working an hour later when Griff returned, tapping on the open door.
Got a minute?
Of course I said.
Griff came in and I noticed Hank’s apprentice Kit’s angular shape in the doorway.
What is this? I asked.
Kit has something to tell you said Griff.
Come in and sit down, both of you I invited.
Kit slouched into one of the two chairs that face my desk. Griff closed my study door and came, depositing something on the desk with a meaningful look at me.
What is that, a slingshot? I asked. And - is this a BB?
Wrist rocket said Griff. Found that pellet on the floor under the desk this morning.
Standing almost over Kit, a steely-faced Griff nudged a leg of the girl’s chair.
Go on. Tell her.
What was this now, I wondered. Why bring the girl in here?
I broke your window said Kit.
You broke my window I repeated, a statement. Why did you break my window?
Kit shrugged. Griff scowled.
I’ll pay for it said Kit. I can.
Well and good, but I really do need to know why. Were you trying to break in here? Was there something in here that you wanted? When did this happen? Confusion angered me. Over the course of more than a year I had gotten to know the girl Kit and none of this was making any sense, least of all her apparent unconcern.
Have I somehow offended you? I asked. The question surprised both of us. She looked directly at me for the first time. Her face underwent a rapid change, and I saw a minute glitter in the corner of one eye. The plumwine stain over one cheek, usually obscured by a fall of dark bangs, stood out prominently.
No she said. Please don’t think that.
All right I said. Then why, Kit?
She covered her face with one long hand. Griff made a sound of exasperation. Fucking explain yourself, you little punk. That window came from Jo’s grandfather’s house, ya know that? Say something, goddamnit!
I don’t know said the girl. She lifted her face. I seriously don’t know.
She and I regarded each other across the desk for a long while.
I’ll pay for it Kit repeated.
Is there no way you can help me understand this? It really is quite strange I said. I do feel that I deserve an explanation.
She shook her head slowly, staring down into her lap again. Her neck looked tender and unprotected; I feared any moment Griff would hoist her up by the scruff and shake until answers fell out like loose change.
Kit looked up past me suddenly. Can I see it?
The window? Here, I said, pulling off the cardboard patch.
She studied it systematically while I watched.
My Grandfather collected the pieces from different historical buildings in Europe I said.
I like the design said Kit, her eyes still taking in details. She turned to me.
But I don’t get why you’d want a window you can’t see out of.
After they left I realized two things.
The first was that she had never actually apologized.
The second was that she was not wrong.
Those lovely bits of glass carefully searched out and purchased, wrapped and shipped or carried across the ocean, arranged by a no doubt underpaid artist into a pleasing mosaic for the door - each is a cataractous eye.
The view from this window is of foggy shapes; the trees outside are blurs of bright yellow-green, changing to dark green in summer.
The color moves gently in breezes, agitatedly during storms; I can make out nothing of the trees, only their moods. Each autumn there come hazy reds and oranges followed by black stippling of bare winter branches.
I spend a great deal of time at the desk, and if I were to only take my reality from behind the desk I would never know what a real tree looks like.
An artisan was found to replace the broken pane, an elderly man who has traveled the country doing so for longer than I have been alive, most of his commissions coming from synagogues and churches. He treating the lead chemically to accelerate oxidation so that old and new appeared to be of an age.
It was a summer afternoon with the sunset coming through warmly when I called Kit in to see what her reparations had paid for.
Once again I watched her, noticing how the light refracted beguilingly through the tawny eyes.
She looked at the repair and turned to me, her face open with wonder.
But you just put in regular glass she said.
Yes I did, I said. I decided after some thought that you were right, and that there was limited value in a window I cannot see out of. There are trees out there; I want to see them clearly.
The new piece would keep out the rain and the wind while allowing me to see the outside in a new way, and that, I told her, was all that mattered.