“Do you still love me?” I asked. I don’t know why. It just popped out as I sat there watching him die, a childish question from the mouth of a grown woman. Still. Still presumed that he had loved me at one time, but might not, had some reason to not, love me anymore. But I didn’t presume he had loved me ever. In fact, there were long periods in my life when I was convinced he didn’t love me, despite what people said. And funnily enough, they said it quite often: “Your father adores you, you know.” I couldn’t imagine where they got their information. He was the least emotive person I knew, unsentimental in the extreme, untouched by Christmas and babies and weddings, ceremonies of any kind, an agnostic rather than an atheist because, obviously, one never knew. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, so this was it, the end. Death was nigh and he was looking forward to nothing, which made me feel sorry for him.
“Always have, always will,” he said to the ceiling, his desiccated profile cut like a coin against the sunlit curtain the nurses kept drawn. I was embarrassed I’d asked the question, so the fact that he didn’t turn his head and look at me, or open his eyes at all, was a relief because I didn’t know how to respond. Someone else might have said, “I love you, too.” Most people would have said that. But if he was waiting for me to speak, he didn’t wait long, because a moment later he was quietly snoring, and I got up and left him alone.
The hallway seemed unnaturally bright compared to the dusk of my father’s bedroom, every window a cacophony of glittering yellow light. My children’s voices came from outdoors, where they were playing in the swimming pool.
I stepped out onto the patio, where my stepmother sat at a glass- topped table, keeping an eye on the girls for me and paging through a mag- azine. I had left my Nikon on the table before I went inside; I picked it up and shot a picture of Jill, my eldest daughter, cannonballing into the water. I was a photographer in my real life, away from this place and the past.
“Well, they haven’t drowned yet!” my stepmother said. She was trying hard to be cheerful, I knew, though I didn’t see the point. Soon she would be a widow and there was nothing anyone could do about it. But she was a determinedly glass-half-full person, energetic and gregarious. My father had been ill for a long time, and she was undoubtedly starved of the social life they had once enjoyed. She shielded her eyes from the sun with the magazine. “They actually swim quite well.”
The “actually” was a dig, or I felt it as such, as both my daughters still wore their baby fat and weren’t interested in sports. We were all a little out of shape, including my husband, Thomas, but I was only self-conscious about it when I was around people who were obsessed with being fit. My stepmother was thin and muscular from her personal training at a gym, and though the day was blazing she wore tall boots and tight britches from her morning ride on her horse. She was my father’s third wife, and the best of the two since my mother, because she genuinely cared about him. The one before had made him a cuckold by running off with a richer man. My father called her “the gold digger” after that, and certainly she was, but no more or less so than she had been when he chose her for his wife. This one, the third one – her name was Marielle – was twenty years my father’s junior, and though unquestionably a gold digger too, she thought my father was a brilliant man. “Which shows,” Thomas said, “how stupid she is.” I didn’t think she was stupid, exactly, but I thought she didn’t know much. “Lack-of-informationitis,” was what I called her deficit, which made Thomas laugh every time.
My father’s house, in the Virginia countryside, was surrounded by white-fenced fields. At one time he kept a lot of horses, but now there were only two. Colorful flower gardens bordered the house and the pool; the long driveway that wound up from the road was canopied by twin rows of oaks. There was a butter-colored barn and a stable, and the neighboring pasture was filled with black-and-white cows. It was an idyllic spot: I was married here. But I grew up from the age of eight, when my parents divorced, in a suburb of Richmond, where my mother was from, and went to boarding school outside of Washington. After college, I moved to New York City, and that was where I settled. I was only here now, in the shocking heat of July, because my father was near death. I brought the children along because he was their grandfather and it seemed like the right thing to do. But my father and Marielle had never been interested in the girls, and all the girls cared about were the horses and the pool and a litter of kittens that belonged to the cat in the barn. They were only seven and nine. I wondered if I should send them back to New York, but Thomas, who had stayed behind, didn’t think I should.
“Why?” he said. “They’re having fun. Let them enjoy your father’s place one last time before Marielle absconds with the whole kaboodle.”
I doubt my father would have told me that he was leaving every- thing he had to Marielle if she hadn’t insisted he do so. I believe he would have preferred his lawyer tell me when he was already dead. I supposed he was expecting me to make a scene about it.
“Do what you want,” was all I said. It was the unspoken truth that he always had.
“I can’t leave Marielle destitute,” he said, as if I had suggested he should. “And this is her home, after all.”
It was wintertime, and we were sitting by the fire in the den. Marielle was sitting with us, tensely chewing her lower lip. I guess she didn’t trust my father to tell me unless she was there to make him. It couldn’t be easy to break it to your only child that you’re cutting her out of your will, especially as I had never been any trouble to him, and had always been friendly to Marielle. But he was sick then, and knew it, and Marielle would be the one to see that he was properly cared for at home, which I admit I would not have done. She was greedy and he was terrified, there was no more to it than that.
Perhaps Marielle really was stupid, because she clearly expected us to continue being friendly despite all she’d caused me to lose. But to be hateful to her seemed like a waste of energy; it was more fun to be hateful about her.
I took a few more pictures of the girls playing in the pool, then turned my camera on Marielle. She was a beautiful woman, even though she was deep into her fifties, with thick brown hair cut in a girlish bob and a light tan that she managed to maintain year round.
“Oh no, don’t, I’m a sight,” she said, putting the magazine in front of her face. The magazine was Vogue and Michelle Obama was on the cover. Marielle had the most offensive bumper sticker I’d ever seen on her car that read, LET’S PUT THE WHITE BACK INTO THE WHITE HOUSE. I’d attempted to tear it off several times. The way she held the magazine put Michelle Obama’s face squarely on her neck. I got in several shots before she put the magazine down.
“How is your Daddy, do you think?” she asked.
“Well, he could talk,” I said.
“Oh! That’s wonderful!” She smiled. “What did he say?”
“He said he was thirsty,” I lied. She looked concerned. But my father had a phalanx of nurses that came and went in shifts and saw to his smallest needs. The one who was “on” at the moment passed me as I left his room, reeking of the cigarette she’d smoked during the break I’d given her by sitting with him. “Flavia is in there,” I said.
“Oh, Flavia,” Marielle said, wrinkling her nose. “Do you know what I pay her and the others? Forty dollars an hour! It’s an outrage, really, but I couldn’t get anyone for less.”
So the money was already hers in her mind. I was surprised she was such a skinflint, but of course she wouldn’t have had any idea what a fair wage was now, or what it cost most people to live. Before she married my father, she was a hostess at a local restaurant; prior to that, she lived in Jamaica – with a man who supported her, I gathered, because no occupation during those years had ever been mentioned. Four barely visible holes curved from her left earlobe up the edge of her ear. She had removed the little gold hoops that hung from the holes when she took up with my father, who hadn’t liked them one bit; I wondered if she would put the hoops back in after he was gone. A long time ago she had been married to her high school sweetheart. “He was a loser,” she always said about him, and I didn’t doubt it because the son they had together was most pathetic person I had ever met. Hating him was worth my energy, because when Marielle died, my father’s money, the farm, the house and everything in it, would go not to me, not to my beautiful girls, but to this undeserving moron who lived in a trailer behind the stable and fed the horses for his keep at the age of thirty-five. Thomas liked to say he was retarded, but he wasn’t in the least. He was wily and shiftless and recognized a good thing when he saw it. As far as I knew, he’d never had a job. My father always referred to him as “Poor Bob,” which irritated me, and doubtless Marielle, too. He wouldn’t be poor much longer.
“How’s Bob?” I said, because I was thinking about him. I didn’t care how he was.
“Oh, he’s terribly broken up about your father,” Marielle said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What is what supposed to mean?” I said. I turned my camera on the girls again. “Great, Jill!” I called as she cannonballed for the umpteenth time. Her little sister Jenny sat at the edge of the pool, reflections from the water dancing across her face. They were both getting sunburnt on their shoulders and noses, but they were dark-haired, like me, and olive-skinned, and by tomorrow the pink would be brown.
“When you said ‘I bet,’” Marielle persisted. “About Bob.”
“Hmm? What do you bet about Bob?” I focused the camera on her face. “Gosh you look pretty today.”
“Oh, no I don’t. I’m a wreck and you know it.” She touched her hair and looked away so I wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
Dusk came late and lasted a long time; the sky was still light when I put my daughters to bed. I left the house and walked up to the highest pasture, where I looked down on my father’s domain. The long white house and the blue rectangle of the pool, the stable and the big yellow barn: in the photo I snapped from the darkening distance it looked like a child’s notion of a farm. I noticed that Bob was late collecting the horses from the field. As if he had anything else to do. I walked down to where they stood by the gate, patiently waiting to be brought in, and taking each by her halter, I led them out of the pasture and into the stable yard. They were gentle mares and easily led, one chestnut and the other bay. I put the bay into her stall and tied the chestnut to a fencepost while I went to the tack room for a bridle.
“Hey, pretty girl,” I murmured as I slipped the bridle over her head and settled the reins on her withers. The sun had dropped behind the hills but I could see what I was doing by the light I’d left on when I went into the tack room for the bridle. Clicking my tongue, I led the horse to the mounting block and swung my leg over her bare back with nearly painless agility. I pressed my knees to her flanks, tugged the reins, and she obliged by turning around. It has been said that smell, more than any other sense, is the strongest memory trigger. As I leaned into the mare’s neck and breathed her warm scent, I was reminded of a time so sweet and aban- doned that I closed my eyes and simply lay there with my nose against her rough mane. I had a pony when I was a child, before my parents divorced. “Cupcake” was the name I had given him, and I remembered loving him the way people love dogs. I didn’t know the name of the mare I was riding, but she tolerated my displaced affection as if strangers lay on her neck every day.
“The fuck you doin’?”
He had put on a lot of weight since the last time I saw him—his stomach now shadowed his belt—and lost enough hair that the tack room light glanced bright off the top of his head. His jeans puddled around his sneakers, frayed white where they dragged at the heels, and his T-shirt looked like it had been wiped with a grimy hand. That he had lost his bottom right incisor completed the picture. I itched to take a photo, but I’d left my camera on the fencepost.
“Bob,” I said. “Always a pleasure.”
“Get off a Mom’s horse,” he said.
“Bob, this is my father’s horse. I can ride her if I want to.” I could see he wasn’t listening, or understanding, and then I realized he was very drunk.
“S’Mom’s,” he said, and grabbed for the bridle. The horse abruptly shied away from him and I nearly fell off of her. Wrapping a hank of her mane around my hand, I held on tight as the mare backed away from Bob. Without a saddle, my seat was precarious, and though Bob was clumsy with liquor, I thought he wasn’t beyond doing damage to me or the horse, or both.
“Okay, Bob,” I said in a placating voice. “Just let me dismount. Okay?”
As I turned the mare toward the mounting block, she suddenly bucked hard. I lost my grip on her mane and fell into the dust. Instinctively, I rolled away from her prancing hooves and lay still until she calmed. I’d fallen on my side and lost my breath, but other than a dull pain in my ribs, I thought I was okay. I got up slowly, stiff as an old woman. Cooing sweet words, I walked over to her and carefully took her by her bridle, but she was as docile now as she was before, and went obediently into her stall. I had forgotten about Bob. Night had truly fallen and I felt in a hurry to get back to the girls. I was on my way to retrieve my camera when I noticed him passed out on the ground.
“Bob!” I called. “Get up and go home!” I walked over to him and squatted down. He smelled strongly of alcohol and sweat. His eyelids were purple and deeply creased; broken blood vessels blushed over his nose and cheeks. His mouth hung open, showing the black gap in his teeth. I shook his shoulder and tried to heave him up, but he was as heavy as a sack of cement, so I let him drop, dust flying where he fell. There was obviously something wrong with him. I had to look hard to understand what it was. In the light of the tack room I finally saw that the mare had kicked in his left temple when she bucked. There was a depression between his eye and ear where the bone under the skin had been crushed.
I didn’t try to help him. He was beyond help, anyway. I stood and got my camera and took a photograph of him splayed on the ground. His wound was so subtle he appeared to be asleep, and like most sleeping beings, innocent. I walked out of the stable yard and up the dark pasture, through the already dampening grass, and entered the house by the front door, which nobody ever used.
When I checked on the girls, I found Jenny awake and asking for a glass of water. I took her to the bathroom, then led her back to her room, which had been mine when I was her age.
“Mommy? Is that you?” she said as we walked down the hall.
I looked at the painting she was pointing to, an oil of me at seventeen. My father had asked a local artist to paint my portrait before I went away to college. I remembered being ordered to not to move as I sat in the artist’s studio, and in the end not liking the painting because he hadn’t made me look pretty. My skin was muddy, and the background dashed off; my hair was a dark mass lacking any lights. Nevertheless, he had captured me: my hooded brown eyes and dissatisfied mouth, the way I tended to turn my head to the right. I saw that now for the first time, youthful vanity put aside. Though I had passed the portrait countless times, I was startled now by my guileless young self.
After I tucked Jenny back into bed, I went to see my father. The nurse sat in a chair outside his bedroom, reading a paperback book.
“She’s in there,” she said, meaning Marielle. “He’s near the end. I told her so.”
“How near?” I said.
She shook her head. “No more than a day. He’s sleeping. I gave him a shot of morphine. He won’t wake up.”
I opened the door. Marielle was sitting in a straight chair close beside my father’s bed. I walked up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder.
“You’re tired,” I said. “Let me sit with him.You go lie down. I’ll come get you if anything changes.”
“Your Daddy is dying,” she said.
I held her hand as she stood up. I wondered if she smelled the stable on me, but she would have said so if she did. “Go on now. I’m right here.”
“I am awfully tired,” she said.
I sat down in the chair and took up my vigil. It wasn’t so late, only about ten o’clock, but I was prepared to be there all night. My father’s face was waxy pale except for the pinkish tip of his nose, as if all the life left in his body had gathered in that one spot. The morphine had done its job; he was insensible to my presence. But I was going to talk to him, anyway. I had something I wanted to say.
“You were a terrible father to me,” I said. “I never knew how bad until Thomas and I became parents and I saw how a good father behaves. My daughters, your granddaughters, will have something I never had, the knowledge that no one in the world is more important to their father. It’s a miracle to me. I’m lucky, so lucky. I escaped being married to a man like you. Isn’t that what girls do? Marry men like their fathers? Well, I didn’t, and I can only thank God for that, because I wouldn’t have known any better.”
I sat back and was quiet. What a coward I was, speaking my mind to him when he couldn’t possibly hear me. There was no purpose to what I was doing.
“Bob is dead,” I said after a while. “I didn’t kill him, but I’m not sorry.”
The sky was pink when I woke. I had slept sitting up all night. I started and reached for my father’s wrist. I felt the warmth of his skin, and heard his breathing even and calm. I sat until dawn grew into day before I went to wake Marielle.
“Daddy’s still sleeping,” I told her.
“It’s another beautiful day,” she said. “Just like yesterday. It’s strange, isn’t it? How bad things can happen on the prettiest days.”
“As if the weather is mocking you,” I said.
“It should be raining today. And cold.”
I thought of Bob waiting in the stable yard, the rising sun pulling away the blanket of night that he had slept under undisturbed. Marielle would find him when she went for her morning ride. My father would die that day. The girls and I would go home to Thomas. There would be all sorts of weather to come.