It rained the entire day of the service. Old men feeling older stood with bent backs beneath black umbrellas, listening to the priest read passages from the dog-eared pages of a brown, leather-bound bible. Each of their faces was as different as all their days past, yet made same by their patient stoicism; the suit of armor worn to shield them from the crippling absurdity of their brief existence. Stone faced masks concealed the wide-eyed astonishment and drop-jawed despair at realization that time accelerates exponentially with every passing year.
Elena quietly watched the slowly shrinking rectangle of white sky reflected in the polished lacquer lid of the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. “It’s really for us, isn’t it?”
Anton leaned toward her. “What?”
“Walnut and bronze. Hand stitched silk. Padded with eider down. Stupid, isn’t it?”
“Not if it’s what he wanted.”
“No. It was for me. To make me feel better.”
She squeezed Anton’s hand and looked up into the white beyond the rim of her black umbrella. “There’s something to be said for the Tibetans.”
Anton looked up at the white sky while the priest, to his left, continued to recite scripture.
Elena tipped the umbrella back and closed her eyes, letting the light rain fall on her face. “The family wears white.”
Anton smoothed his pants legs with his hands. “But I look good in black.”
“And the Buddhist monks feed the dead to the vultures. It’s a sort of transformation. As your body is consumed by the birds your spirit supposedly takes flight. That’s what I want.”
Anton shuddered. “You want me to take your body to Tibet so you can be dismembered and fed to the vultures?”
Elena nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”
“You’re not Buddhist.”
Elena glanced over at the priest. “The vultures don’t care.”
The priest exhausted his funerary repertoire ending with the signum crucis – a reflex born of a profound devotion to habitual practices.
As Elena and Anton walked back to the waiting limousine, Anton sensed he was being watched. He opened the door and held the umbrella over Elena as she took her seat in the back of the car. Anton looked back at a solitary figure standing by the graveside. Without knowing why, he waved to the stranger in the distance.
In the car, Elena took a compact mirror from purse and examined her eyes, dabbing at their edges with a tissue. “Who did you wave to?”
Anton shook his head. “I thought I recognized him, but maybe not.”
* * *
Elena examined the items on the antique oak desktop in her father’s study. She gently held each of them with the reverence of a pilgrim seeking the divine among religious relics: a Montblanc fountain pen and drafting pencil, a pair of tortoise shell spectacles, a pad of linen writing paper, a rotary telephone, a crystal decanter of eighteen year old single malt Scotch whisky.
Slowly working her way around the room, as though viewing a museum exhibit, she gently ran her fingers down the sleeve of a tweed jacket that hung on the stand beside the fireplace. She leaned closer, breathing in the lingering traces of Russian Leather from the collar. The scent transported her simultaneously to a dozen different places and times. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled and she closed her eyes, giving in to the flood of memories.
Anton silently approached from behind and put his arms gently around her waist.
She leaned her head back, resting it on his shoulder. “I don’t want to miss him. He doesn’t deserve it. Son of a bitch.”
Anton combed her hair back with his fingers and kissed her temple.
“I remember coming in here when I was four years old. I climbed on his lap, right there, behind that desk. I wanted to talk to him about something, I don’t remember what, but when I said ‘Daddy’ he cut me off. He told me I was too old call him that. From then I had to call him Peter. Who does that?”
Anton tightened his embrace. He could feel her rib cage tense as she struggled to keep from crying.
“I used to come in here and watch him work. I’d sit right here on the edge of the hearth with my own little notepad and a pencil, pretending to be just like him. Sometimes I’d come in when he wasn’t here and sit behind his desk. I’d look through all these books – diagrams, equations, schematics. I tried to make sense of them. I’d stare at them for hours, until my eyes and my head ached, but I could never make any sense of them. I knew I’d never be like him. He knew it too.” Her chest heaved and her voice cracked. “No one would ever be like him.”
Anton slid his hands down onto the sides of Elena’s belly, waiting to feel a kick from inside. “I don’t think your father and I ever exchanged a full sentence.”
“He didn’t speak to anyone. He would drew his diagrams and wrote his equations. Even when he sat next to you at the dinner table, he was miles away, searching – always searching.” Elena broke away from Anton’s arms. She returned to the desk and sat in her father’s leather chair beneath the window in the fading afternoon light.
Anton knew she had more to say, but knew he couldn’t coax it out of her. Elena would let him know when she was ready. He watched while she opened and closed the top desk drawer. She removed the cap from the fountain pen and signed her name on the top sheet of the linen note paper. She clicked on the architect’s lamp.
That was Anton’s cue. “You said he was searching. What did you mean?”
The lamp gave a warm glow to the room. Elena stared into the shadows. “For meaning. For answers. The classic existential dilemma.”
Anton sat in a green, leather, wingback chair next to the fireplace, facing the desk. “I think, deep down, we all search for meaning – even if most of us never acknowledge it.”
“Peter was obsessed. It defined him. He was a true polymath; a renaissance man with a god complex. Medicine, mathematics, physics, philosophy – it was all his.”
“Husband and father, too. How did he keep it all together?”
Elena laughed quietly, but bitterly. “With Planck-like precision.”
Anton had no idea what that meant. Not wanting to seem ignorant, he just nodded his usual nod.
“I spent thirty-three years trying to earn his love but I never got it. For thirty-three years I just wanted to be his daughter but to him I was just a B-student. He didn’t feel love like others feel it. Or if he did, he never showed it. That part of him was broken. I loved him. And I hated him.”
“He must have loved your mother.”
“Like you and I love a hand or a foot, I suppose. A utilitarian sort of love.”
Elena used her sleeve to dry her cheeks. She reached forward and tapped her fingernails on the bottle of Scotch. “I’d kill for a glass right now.”
Anton’s brow furrowed and his eyes scanned the bookshelves behind the desk. “You haven’t been reading Kafka, have you?”
“Kafka? No. Why?”