E. (Ted) Sullivan Jr. reached toward father’s solid brass doorknob. He paused and showed Sis and I the hefty key. As slow as fucking molasses, he inserted the key and turned it. Listen carefully, son. Hear that? That’s the sound of quality. Those tumblers are solid brass. They have weight and purpose. Hear them drive home. That’s your goal in life- to have weight and purpose.
It’s been 32 years since I last entered father’s study. Nothing has changed. The pen set he got from the under-secretary is in the exact same spot on his desk. His Churchill painting is still slightly off-kilter.
The lawyer pulled out father’s tufted leather chair. Sis and I both reacted instinctively, our fingers in sync.
“Uh, not there, Ted,” she said. Sis spoke before I did. Three minutes older than I, and years ahead in language development, she never gave me a chance. I walked first though, and ran.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m just a bit nervous.”
The lawyer pushed the chair back in place and instead balanced on the edge of the tufted window seat. It was an unusual choice, as though he would just be there for a minute. “Shall we get started?” he asked.
Sis and I exchanged glances. I thought she looked warmly toward me, but as I said, I was nervous. He pulled a legal-size buff envelope from his briefcase- one of those envelopes with a red string binding the opening flap. He unwound the string from the cardboard button as though the process properly executed would improve the quality of the contents. He looked inside and then up at us. Jesus, get on with it.
“I think you might find this somewhat out of the ordinary. Unexpected,” he said.
“Well, Ted, and I trust I can call you Ted, If you mean to say that father’s death is out of the ordinary, yes, I’d say so. He hardly ever dies. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I remember him doing it before. Of course it might just be that this is the first time I’ve been notified.”
Sis gave me the look. It’s too early for her to give me the look. I usually get three or four comments in before I get it. I continued: “As for unexpected, no. I don’t think so.”
Ted pulled a disc from the envelope. “What the fuck?”
“It’s a video will,” Ted said. “Quite proper.”
Quite proper. Shit. Father didn’t care about proper. Father only cared about the law as set down at 3225 Salisbury Place at the hand of the master and commander and CEO of those various and sundry companies collectively known as Egocorp.
“I’m sure your father would have found that distasteful,” Ted said.
“Did I use my outside voice?” I asked sarcastically.
Sis shook her head. “Does this have to be the usual dog and pony show? Jesus, brother, can we be civil today. Please?”
Ted got up and tentatively navigated between Sis and I and opened a cabinet door behind us, revealing an older DVD player. Sis raised one eyebrow. “Who woulda thunk it?” I said.
“Your father did have some technical savvy,” Ted answered.
“Bullshit,” replied Sis.
“Bullshit,” I repeated. “And stop calling him my father. His name was Elford Dunning. Mr. Dunning to you.”
Ted began to open another oak cabinet. Movement and light burst out of the enclosure as though escaping a dark prison cell. Father jumped out at us, the oversized monitor barely containing his image. Then he backed away, gathered up his outstretched arm, and settled behind his desk. I swiveled my chair around to see the original of the set displayed on the monitor- but without father. On the wrong side of his study, in two dimensions, father opened his desk humidor and picked up a cigar. He appeared old and shrunken. His suit was too big and his shirt cuffs dwarfed his delicate hands. “Cohiba chomping, your-body-is-your-temple hypocrite.”
I steeled myself for a judgmental tirade of epic proportions. If father hadn’t already skewered any chance of a normal life for me, this was his last opportunity. He ignited his Dunhill and sucked on the cigar as soft billows of flame engulfed his face. As he re-appeared through the smoke he gently placed the lighter between us and reclined deep into the ancient buttery leather. He looked admiringly at the Cohiba and stared off into the distance.
“Hi kids, its me.” He drew a mouthful of the rancid effluent and tilted his head back as a cloud emerged from his once-powerful jaw. Then he clamped the cigar between his teeth and pushed himself up in the chair so that he could get one hand into a pocket. You could hear the change clinking around. Everyone could hear the change clinking around in his pocket. Oh, how I hated that about the man. Meet my son…clink clink, clink… He’s in grade three…clink, clink, clink… He pulled out a coin and examined it.
“That’s about right,” he said with a chuckle. “A nickel.” He sat back and flipped the coin in the air. As he watched it fly, he said: “I leave everything I own to…” He snatched the nickel from the air and smacked it onto his forearm. Without hesitation he continued: “Tails. Second born. Michael.” He looked at us and with all the enthusiasm of a man nodding to a passer-by. He added: “Good luck Michael. Sorry about that, Katherine.” He reached out to cut us off. The screen went black.
He cut me out of his life over a fucking sweater and now he’s playing god. That’s what this is all about. He wants to be god. And he might just get his chance. See if he doesn’t knock the old guy off of his throne up there.”
“Michael,” Sis interrupted, “That’s enough. Can we talk about what to do now?” She was soft and calm.
“What are we going to do with the house?” she asked.
“I don’t want it.”
“I know you don’t. You can sell it.”
“You going to bail on me too?”
“I’ll be here if you want. But it’s yours.”
“I want. I want you to be here. I want you to help me. I want you to…” exhausted, I dropped my head into my upturned palms. Eyes closed, I could smell stale Cohiba. Her voice became white noise. As I reopened my eyes, I could make out the shape of father’s cable knit sweater in the Tabriz carpet. What a fuck-up. I wore it once. Had it dry-cleaned and back in his drawer in two days. Father and son. Sharing a sweater. To think that date cost me my family. I didn’t even get laid. I didn’t even know what getting laid was.
Father was a stickler for two things: you had to be up by dawn and you couldn’t lie. You could fuck the dog, burn the Bentley, shit on his carpet and move in with a crack-head whore for three weeks as long as you got up with the sun and told everybody exactly how twisted you were. He spent a half-million dollars to send me to private school and have me groomed for success. But for denying that I wore his hundred-dollar sweater, he’d cut me out, fuck me up, and burn me at the cross. I should’ve slept ‘till noon. “That’s what bugs me the most.” I snapped out of my trance. “I could’ve slept-in for the whole summer. Every summer. Up at five-thirty for nothing.”
“Lets talk,” Sis said. “It’ over now.” She wore her resignation heavily. Sis was always the expressive one. She couldn’t hide anything: not her marital affairs, her kleptomania, or her near-fatal cries for help. To look into her eyes was to read her biography and go through her underwear drawer.
“Yes, it’s over,” I said.
“I think I’m going to just walk out that door and keep walking.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know.”
“For how long?”
The life seemed to drain out of her. It was as if the lions were let into the Coliseum. There was no point in running, no point in screaming. The beasts turned on ancient instinct and set upon us. All of this was inevitable. Freedom of choice was a myth. I wondered what we had been expecting during all of those wasted years. She put her hand on my neck. It was warm, and much smaller than I remembered. Her warmth seemed to pull me out of the chair. Without conscious effort, I glided past father’s desk and through the study door. The room faded away as we left it behind. The long hall, the gated entrance, the cobbled walk, each floated off as we stepped away. There was no more pull, no more push, no more weight.
I shut the cab door slowly and heard the latch clunk. It wasn’t brass, or solid anything. “Drive me home,” I said, and Sis took my hand.