William James Glackens, View of West Hartford, 1907

Unearthing

A Short Story

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.

• • •

It came back to him now, the anxious feeling of those years: buried alive by work, with no money coming in, and his wife turning into someone far knottier than the charmed and carefree person he thought he had married.

Hartford’s public course sat at the northern edge of the city, not far from where Slattery had lived years ago. Back then he’d been too busy working to play—flabby and pale, a cave dweller with no time for games. Later in his thirties, he’d emerged again into the sunlight of an athlete’s life: skiing and rec-league basketball; dutiful, if uninspired, jogging. In those years Toby had joined in, the two of them shooting baskets in the driveway after dinner, playing tennis in the park. In college, his son threw aside games with a vengeance: the angry decade, Slattery’s children punishing him for leaving their mother. But that too had passed, and Toby had rediscovered sports, had hiked and biked and parasailed and bungee-jumped and yes, even golfed. Slattery had given him some clubs ten years ago, and Toby still had them, a set of Wilsons he toted as he and Slattery played the near-deserted front nine.

The course was poorly maintained, its fairways parched, its bunkers stamped with footprints. The fifth tee featured the stub of a cigar.

“Golf, Hartford-style,” his son said, smacking it away with his driver. Toby’s game was careless, his hurried stroke churning out mammoth slices and feeble rollers. But he didn’t agonize; golf to him was a lark, something to do on a summer afternoon while interrogating the old man about his past. “What do you remember most about living here?” he asked as Slattery lined up a tricky chip shot.

What Slattery remembered most was his dread of the chief of neurosurgery, a notorious tyrant, and his own constant fatigue—trudging home after yet another thirty-hour shift to collapse on the couch as his daughter, Lydia, played horsey with him. “I was exhausted,” he said. “All the time.”

“And what about Mom? What was she like back then?”

Slattery gestured vaguely. An unwritten term of his divorce, observed for over twenty years, forbade him from criticizing his ex-wife. He pitched onto the green, and turned to his son. “Your mother was something of a mystery to me. I didn’t always respond well.”

They finished up the hole, Toby hastily four-putting, and walked to the next tee, in a glade that faced a vale of gleaming fairway. His son teed up a neon orange ball and smacked a low liner out through the mouth of the woods. “I’d love to have a video of the two of you together, just to see,” he said, picking up his tee. “I mean, what was it like to be you back then?”

The question struck Slattery as unanswerable. Could being yourself be like anything? “How about letting me concentrate here,” he said.

Teeing his ball up, he took a practice swing. He was remembering a day his first wife had had him paged at the hospital, calling in tears to say something had happened. He’d rushed home, only to find that the emergency was nothing more or less than his wife’s claiming to have seen her dead mother—her recently-dead mother’s ghost—in the basement laundry room.  It came back to him now, the anxious feeling of those years: buried alive by work, with no money coming in, and his wife turning into someone far knottier than the charmed and carefree person he thought he had married.

The memory distracted, and his drive hooked left. “Great,” he muttered, and followed his son toward the fairway. They emerged from the woods to discover a hidden gully, falling steeply away to a pit of rocks and weeds. Slattery’s ball hung on the very precipice, held by a wisp of grass.

“Ouch,” said Toby. “You’re right on the edge.”

Taking a five-iron from his bag, Slattery turned to his son. “You wanted to know what it was like back then, being me?” He nodded toward the ball. “Bingo,” he said.

• • •

Slattery turned to find his real, live, middle-aged son staring at him. Live your own life, he wanted to tell him.

Afterward, they drove around Hartford, Toby taking the wheel and giving a guided tour. In just four years his son had seemingly amassed a lifetime of knowledge about the city. Did Slattery know, for instance, that the church built by the Colt family had pistols sculpted into its bas relief? That world-class tobacco wrapper leaf was still grown just north of the city? That Charles Nelson Reilly had gone to Hartford High?

“Charles Nelson who?”

“Reilly. The actor. He hosted The Match Game after Gene Rayburn.”

Slattery snorted, marveling at his son’s mind. If it were his, he thought, he’d throw out half the stuff in it.

The city had not fared well over the decades. Beach-ball-sized potholes pitted its streets, and the once-elegant houses along Pope Park stood boarded up. Hartford was out of control, Toby informed him.

“You don’t sound too upset about it,” Slattery said.

“The place still has its charms.” They were on Albany Avenue, near his former neighborhood. Toby pointed to a brick building with a yellow and green awning. A Jamaican café, he said. “Best curried goat north of Kingston.”

Slattery nodded. Recently in Tucson he’d read his son’s truffle-hunting article, opening to the sentence, These obscenely expensive fungi taste of cheese, garlic, cauliflower and sex. Such exquisite thoughts could only be grown, he supposed, in the hothouse kind of life Toby lived—forty-four years old, no wife, no kids, a passport stamped full of exotic ports of call. He contemplated the progression from his own father, a store clerk for whom the extent of travel had been the Jersey shore, to his son: a paid adventurer; a man whose work was play.

“What are you smiling at?” Toby asked.

“Cauliflower. And sex.”

His son grinned. “Did you like that?”

“Well, it certainly brings a new thrill to cauliflower,” Slattery said. “I’m not sure what it does for sex.”

They turned onto Edgewood, his old street. He wouldn’t have recognized it. On the corner a black kid in a leather coat—in the middle of July—yelled something as they drove past. Behind him, in the rubble of a lot where Slattery recalled a mom-and-pop store, a car sat stripped and gutted.

“What was it like here way back then?” his son asked.

“A nice place. Hard-working.” Slattery shrugged. Looking back, he recalled a mix of people, black and brown and white, mailmen and factory workers and widows; he seemed to discern something like the happy working poor, a vanished class to which he and his wife had temporarily belonged, without shame or chagrin.

“Pull over here,” he told Toby, when they reached number 57.

The top half of their old house looked inhabited, but the ground floor, where they had lived, was boarded up. A torn sofa stood in the yard. At the house next door, three tiny girls danced to music from a boom box, performing for an old lady on the stoop whose straw hat held a big orange flower.

“What did you guys do for fun?” Toby asked.

“We played bridge with the family across the street. And walked you and Lydia over to Keney Park.”

Slattery studied his old house. He imagined the living room, the collapsed walls and scattered plaster, the rubble and scurrying rats. His son chattered on. An actor on ER had grown up on this same street, he was saying. Paul Robeson had lived in Hartford as well. And Katharine Hepburn. Her father was—

“A doctor,” Slattery interrupted. “A prominent surgeon at St. Francis.”

“That’s right. Did you know him?”

Slattery watched a cat emerge from beneath the porch and arch its back, luxuriating. It crossed the yard and leapt up onto the old sofa. Slattery could feel Toby’s eyes on him, studying him. He found it strange to think that all these years later, his son had ended up living not one mile from where he had toddled and drooled. He wondered what it was about, their day together, what his son wanted from him.

“Shall we?” he said.

Toby eased the Jeep back into the street, and they drove up the block to Keney Park, stopping before a path that led through high rhododendrons. Light poured through in a familiar, five o’clock slant, and delivered to Slattery an image of his wife and children, walking away from him into the park—his wife holding Lydia’s hand on one side and guiding Toby’s stroller on the other, all three heading through the arch of bushes. The image was fringed in golden light: his wife in culottes and pixie haircut, his daughter’s bobby socks gleaming, and his son looking back, grinning from beneath his large and perfectly bald head, a dome they liked to rub, for luck and laughter. Slattery turned to find his real, live, middle-aged son staring at him. Live your own life, he wanted to tell him.

He looked at his watch, with a show of impatience. “Any chance there’s a decent restaurant left in this town?”

• • •

Returning the map to his glove box, he found the birthday card his son had drawn thirty-four years before; he had forgotten to show it to him. He held it up, letting the highway lights play across the silly drawing. The string of exclamation marks reminded him how unsinkably cheerful Toby had been as a boy. Sergeant Smiley, they called him. And nowadays? Toby was alone, but as far as Slattery could tell, he seemed to like it that way; he lived for himself, that was all. Looking back, Slattery found he could imagine having done the same. He was glad he hadn’t.They lingered over steaks and scotch, and in the end Slattery, who of late had developed a stubborn aversion to night driving, was left to find his way home through the maze of dark streets. Not far from Toby’s house, he briefly lost his bearings. The highway lay ahead, but where? He had a map of Hartford on the passenger seat, and in case of emergency his cell phone, all but unused in two years and present only at Ginny’s insistence. There was no need to panic, Slattery told himself.  And sure enough, moments later he emerged onto one of the city’s east-west avenues, where he spied the big blue sign for I-84. He drove up the ramp and joined the stream of traffic.

He slipped the birthday card into the Bednarik book. First Ted Williams, then Bill Tilden, and now Bednarik—all his old heroes, zapped by Toby from some remote reach of the web, straight into Slattery’s hands. And not only his heroes. Talking to his son, Slattery might mention an old college friend and wonder aloud what had happened to him; and three days later he’d receive a letter from Toby, with a mini-dossier on the friend: address and phone number, organizations the friend had joined, conferences attended and boards served on, perhaps even a photo. His son was relentless. People and events, whole eras sank beneath the avalanche of time, but here came Toby, digging up the relics of Slattery’s past and polishing them clean, as if to prove that Slattery had once lived and thrived, that he had flourished.

And that was why he hadn’t told his son the story of how he had come out of St. Francis one sunny April morning of 1970 to find five inches of fresh spring snow; how, squinting into the bluish-white morning, he’d noticed an attractive woman approaching along the other side of the U-shaped hospital walk, longish hair bouncing on the shoulders of a camel’s hair coat; how on an impulse, buoyed by the shining morning, he had scooped up a snowball and lobbed it at her. And how, when it plopped on the walk at her feet, she turned with a surprised Hey!—and he’d found himself exchanging smiles across thirty feet of hospital parking lot with none other than Katharine Hepburn. The movie star herself, shockingly beautiful for a woman her age, raising an eyebrow and tossing him a distinctly flirtatious look.

Slattery did not want to be presented, come Christmas or Father’s Day, with a signed Katharine Hepburn book. But he had to smile. It was like some silly Disney comedy, the way he kept trying to bury these things of his life, only to have his son, his loyal son, dig them up and bring them back. He hoped Toby would have children someday. With their future to look forward to, maybe Slattery’s past could rest.

He took the cell phone and laboriously managed to key in the number. “Can you hear me, old buddy?” he said when Toby answered.

“Dad? Where are you?”

Slattery reconnoitered. As far as he could tell, he had just crossed the Connecticut River. “I just remembered something I forgot to tell you.”

He related the Katharine Hepburn story, drawing out the details—the shining snow, the flirtatious smile, his own steep exhilaration at being thirty and a doctor. When he was done, they said goodbye and hung up, and he pictured his son switching on his computer, frisking forth into cyberspace to dig up the bone Slattery had buried for him. Go ahead, he thought, keep saving my life

Published in the July 6, 2018 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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