On his seventy-seventh birthday, Dan Slattery drove to Hartford to spend the day with his son. The get-together was a trip down memory lane: Hartford had been home during his surgical residency forty-plus years ago, when he and his first wife lived in a two-family house on Edgewood Street with their daughter, Lydia, and with Toby, a toddler in red overalls who perpetually laughed and drooled. The idea had arisen at Christmas, when Toby, in Arizona on a magazine job, visited Slattery and his wife, Ginny, at their winter condo. Come on up next summer, his son said; we’ll play nine holes. And so here he was, golf clubs in the back of the Jeep, heading for a city obscured by memory in a fog of overwork, squalling kids, and marriage to another woman.
Slattery wasn’t given to looking back. A surgeon, he’d been trained not to dwell on losses, and the finality of all decisions comforted him: you acted for good or ill, and then life covered over the alternatives, burying them. Now that most of his decisions had been made, his own life seemed archaeological to him. After buying the condo out West, he and Ginny had cleaned out the basement in Mystic. They weren’t selling—they’d be back in Connecticut for summers—but Slattery wanted to divest. He dug, unearthing artifacts from deep in his past: notes for a wedding toast he couldn’t recall making; a Polaroid of himself in a grass skirt, labeled, in his first wife’s hand, Limbo King. He threw most of it away, saving only a few select objects from the major periods of his life. He had one with him now, in the glove box—a birthday card his son had made decades ago, a tennis-playing stick figure sketched in an eight-year-old’s errant scrawl.
To Dad!!!! it read, Happy 40th!!!!
The highway crossed the river at Hartford, and Slattery exited, driving through a maze of streets into his son’s neighborhood. It was yet another version of the same shabby Victorian neighborhood Toby had lived in in half a dozen cities: unkempt yards, porches jungly with plants, and a motley populace drawn by lack of money or a desire to affiliate with the marginalized. Here the future was anyone’s guess. Toby liked it that way; he preferred places in flux, while Slattery had spent his own adulthood at addresses that let you know you had arrived.
At the big stucco house Toby sat reading on the back porch; he came down the steps to shake hands by the garden. He wore the beatnik goatee Slattery could never get used to, along with his usual ironic smile.
“You’ve got some nice-looking tomatoes here,” Slattery observed.
“They’re heirloom. Ernestine got the seeds from a guy in Saratoga. Supposedly they’re the same ones served at Delmonico’s.” Ernestine was his son’s ex-wife. “Just think, a Diamond Jim Brady tomato. Take one to Ginny and tell her she’s your Lillian Russell.”
Slattery laughed. Always he had to shift up a gear to keep pace with his son’s jokes. It was good for him, he believed, albeit strenuous.
Inside the house, he admired once again the chandeliers and hardwood floors, the eclectic furniture assembled by Ernestine, a black-clad slip of a girl who worked in some editing capacity or another on the internet. Originally, she and Toby had lived upstairs, renting the third-floor apartment. After their divorce, Toby bought the house from his landlord; now he rented out the top floor to Ernestine’s best friend. Ernestine still visited—and not just the friend, either, but Toby as well. Slattery couldn’t fathom the relationship. He himself, divorcing his wife, had cut things off altogether, and he wondered how close Toby and his wife could have been in the first place, to part with so little spite.
“How’s Ernestine?” he asked, studying a living-room photo of the two of them taken on Tortola a few years earlier.
“Still her same passive-aggressive self. She’s at something called FamilyFun.com now. Is that a kick, or what?” Slattery grunted, and Toby looked at him. “I’m not badmouthing her, Dad. I mean, I was just as guilty. I was overbearing-smug-charming, she was passive-aggressive-sultry.”
“Sulky? I didn’t think she was sulky.”
“Sultry, Dad, sultry. You know. That whole Lana Turner thing she does.”
He nodded, though he was hard put to see Ernestine, a pale, chain-smoking waif, as America’s Sweater Girl.
“Anyway, she’s doing fine. And how about you? How’s the health?”
Slattery had the usual roster of woes for his age: his prostate was pesky; his feet, hobnailed and grotesque, looked like something out of Tolkien. “Well, by Arizona standards I’m practically boyish,” he told his son. “Know what they call Phoenix? Parking lot to heaven.”
“Yikes.” Toby grimaced. “Come upstairs. I’ve got something for you.”
He followed up to his son’s study, cluttered with books and photos. Toby wrote for magazines like Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure. Editors paid him to go biking in Zanzibar and island-hopping in the Caribbean, to dig mushrooms in the woods in Italy, accompanied by some peasant and his truffle-hunting pigs. These were magazines popular in Slattery’s circle, and he had friends in Arizona who had actually taken holidays touted by his son.
The room overflowed with stuff. In a corner Slattery discovered, propped against the side of a bookshelf, his own college and medical school diplomas—wrinkled parchment in black picture frames that had hung on his office wall for decades. He picked one up and blew dust from the glass.
“Whatever are you doing with these?” he asked.
“You unloaded them, remember? After you retired.” His son grinned. “I’m saving your life, Dad. You keep throwing it out, and I keep saving it.”
A diploma wasn’t his life, Slattery wanted to say; his life was something that happened. “Who was it,” he asked, “who said that line about the past being past?”
“You mean, ‘The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past’? That was Faulkner. If you mean, ‘History is bunk,’ you’re thinking Henry Ford.”
How typical of his son, thought Slattery, not merely to fix his ill-remembered quote, but to supply a helpful alternative. “Look,” he said, putting down the diploma. “Don’t keep this stuff on my account. Worry about your own paper trail.”
Toby offered a slight, bemused shake of his head. From a desk drawer he produced a gift wrapped in gold paper. “Happy Birthday,” he said.
Slattery pulled at the ribbon—it felt wrong to be celebrating without women around—and unwrapped the paper to find a book by Chuck Bednarik, the late great Eagles linebacker he had worshipped in his youth in Philadelphia. The title page was signed, To Jules and Mary, Twenty Years and No Fumbles, Chuck Bednarik.
Toby read over his shoulder. “Didn’t you meet him once? In a gym at Penn, when you were a student?”
“I did.” Slattery couldn’t remember telling the story. But in recent years, all he’d had to do was mention some hero from his past, and the next thing he knew, his son was handing him that person’s book—signed, no less. “Who are Jules and Mary?” he asked.
“Who knows? Probably people like you who retired and threw everything out.”
“I thought maybe you got it from them.”
“No, I got it from a book dealer, Dad. On the web.”
Slattery nodded. Standing there, he felt a disturbance in the moment—a fluidity and a bewilderment of time, as if Toby were fourteen again, wanting his approval, and yet he himself also fourteen, facing his own father. The sensation shimmered like a migraine aura, his body floating, freed from time, touching all the selves he had ever been, fourteen, forty, seventy, all at once. He wondered if he were having a stroke.
His son balled up the gold wrapping paper and threw it into the wastebasket. “So. Wanna head out? Play nine holes?”
As quickly as it came over him, the aura passed, and he was himself again. “Absolutely,” he said.
• • •