ISSUE 3 · FALL 2009




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Copyright © 2009

Travis Hubbs

The Ghosts of Rich Men

TRAVIS HUBBS

 

 

The headstones stretch across the landscape in every direction—miles of gray rows merging into a stone floor under the horizon. A tall fence flanked by cypress trees surrounds the cemetery. The cypresses are thin and dark. In the western sky, the sun will soon sink and spread a canvas of pinks and oranges above the hundreds of thousands who have turned out for the funeral.

A man walks through the gate, brushing the trees as he passes. The arms and legs of his suit, timeworn and discolored, dangle from his body as though tailored for a very different man. He sits in the first chair he sees, between the tombstones of a mother and her baby—a boy—both of whom, according to the epitaphs, died during childbirth three thousand years earlier.

Not long after the man sits, a woman half his age approaches and stands beside him. Her face is thin and colorless. She trembles softly in her rags, shifting her weight from one angular leg to the other as she traces with her fingertips the weathered edges of the mother’s stone, waiting for the man to see her so she can ask him his name, though she already knows it.

The man is a painter who has never sold a painting; the woman is his daughter whom he has not seen in fifteen years. The funeral is for a dead rich man that neither of them knew.

The newspapers wrote that the dead rich man wanted his funeral to be held at the Presbyterian church where, all his life, he never missed a Sunday service. But the church, as the rich man knew well, holds only hundreds of people; not hundreds of thousands. He knew also that his burial would be just like the burial, eight hundred days ago, of the last man to be buried instead of cremated. He knew that the lowering of his casket would be witnessed by an audience of the countless living and the countless dead, by a patchwork of cameramen and microphones, by less friends than strangers, and that a set of aluminum bleachers would enshrine his gravesite as a forum where the attending celebrities and politicians chew on warm bagels and talk quietly amongst themselves.

Funerals, of course, for the better part of this rich man’s life, were less for the sake of the departed than for the sake of those left behind. When land got scarce (overnight, it seemed to him, private property vanished underneath the global cemetery) he was settling into middle age; it is not hard, then, for one to imagine the emotional dexterity required of him to remodel his conception of laying loved ones, and himself, to rest. It takes a certain type of man to cling to the idea of a burial—a certain type of rich man, that is, and in the long run they will no doubt grow scarcer than the earth they crave. Although this rich man—over one hundred when he died—leaves only a distant cousin behind, many men squirm in horror and shame when they realize that having their names etched in stone is well worth sentencing a loved one to bankruptcy.

The evening sun creeps toward the frontier, followed by a shade of delicate cloud cover.

The funeral lasts three hours. It is during a eulogy given by a famous television actor, thirty minutes into the procession, that the painter recognizes the woman standing above him as his daughter. His eyes widen and his breaths quicken as his daughter wrests a smile and lifts her fingers in a slight wave. The painter endures the remaining two and a half hours in anxious agony, listening but not hearing the mayor’s speech, the governor’s, the president’s, each of whom repeat what they saw on television or read in the papers, their words loud and powerful, exacting, precise.

The casket vanishes into the ground as a light breeze dispels the cloud cover and the sun eases into the crust of the vista. The stain of recent tears make filmy stripes down the woman’s cheek.

“You’re crying,” the painter says to his daughter.

“I’m not,” she says.

“You’re crying for the rich man.”

“No,” she says.

“Then why?”

“Mom once told me you’re one of those people who goes to all the funerals now.”

“Soon there won’t be any more funerals.”

“No, there won’t be.”

The woman takes her father’s arm and leads him down the aisle of chairs and gravestones.

“I have something to tell you,” the woman says.

“Then you know I’m dying,” says her father.

“I know.”

“They say they don’t know how it moves, they can’t slow it down, and I’ve got maybe a month left. Or less.”

“Or less.”

“Yes. Or less.”

“You’re in pain, then.”

“Sometimes. Sometimes not.”

The first train fills to capacity before the painter and his daughter can board. They stand on the platform and stare into the frame of dusk for the second one to arrive.

“I’m pregnant,” the woman says. “It’s a boy. Your grandson.”

“A boy,” says the painter. He wipes his forehead with his hand and stares at the faint outline of his reflection in a furrow next to the tracks where water has collected. His reflection stares back, sunken, tired. “A boy,” he says again.

“I want you to meet his father,” the woman says.

“I’ll die before he’s born.”

“You can meet his father. I want you to meet his father.”

Pallid streaks of vapor from the second train appear on the horizon, followed by the swell and roll of its smoky billows. The painter watches it pull toward them, hears its brakes scream, and he is overcome with the desire to embrace his daughter. As he pulls her close he cannot control the tremors that rattle against her emaciated frame, but he feels nothing but the tug of his memory towing him further and further back in time.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“I know,” she says.

“Forgiveness seems absurd.”

“Does it?”

“It seems.”

“I love you. Dad, I love you.”

“I don’t know you.”

“But I know you. I haven’t forgotten.”

“You haven’t forgotten.”

“I haven’t.”

“You haven’t forgotten I’m insane.”

“Not anymore.”

“That’s not what they tell me. They tell me I’m better, but still insane.”

The second train pulls away before the painter or his daughter notices the exodus of passengers, the thinning of the platform. The painter turns away, and his eyes scan the rows of graves, of names and of ghosts, and for a moment he pretends he is dead and he sees his name in newspapers, on television screens, and on the gravestone under which all these people have come to honor his passing. The fantasy fades as fast as it usually does, dismissing him before he has time to acknowledge its implications, almost on impulse, because over the years his doctors have succeeded in convincing him of his unimportance, his insignificance, his banality—the only defense mechanism against the delusions of grandeur latent in his subconscious.

“I wish you and your mother hadn’t left,” he says.

“We shouldn’t have left,” says his daughter.

“I never expected to see you again.”

“I’m here now.”

“But I always knew the trains would be full.”

“You could always expect them.”

“The trains that come here are always full and I could always expect them.”

“I’ve brought you a grandson. I’m here now and I’ve brought him for you.”

The doors to the third train open. The painter’s daughter leads him into the compartment: cramped, sticky, pungent with the overripe mingling of the smells of their class—riders of trains, allergic to wealth, destined for jars of ashes because all the land is gone and only the richest men in the world can afford to be buried.

“I’ll be dead in a month,” the painter says. “And you’ll die, too, you know. And he’ll die. My grandson. He’ll die, too, eventually. But not those names.” He points at the wall of the train where, if the train had windows, there might have been a window that faced the cemetery.

“Tell me you still have the painting,” his daughter says. He looks at her and nods.

“I still have the painting,” he says.

“It’s all you have.”

“It’s all I have.”

“But it’s a lot. Isn’t it? I know it’s a lot.”

“You have no idea.”

“It must feel nice. Being rich.”

“Yes. It feels nice.”

“Like having a son. It feels nice. Or a grandson.”

“I’ve always been a rich man,” the painter says. “Always.”

.     .     .

They trudge through the overgrown yard and climb the steps of the front porch that looks out over the burial grounds where there used to be acres of farmland. The painter follows his daughter through the screen door and into the small house. From the far corner of the pale living room, a single lamp casts shadows on the walls of the narrow entryway. The house seems larger than it is because of its emptiness—its stark, severe bareness. The living room connects with a small kitchen on one side and the bedroom hallway on the opposite side.

The painter’s daughter does not stop to inspect her childhood home, the ways it has changed, the ways it has stayed how she remembers it. She goes straight to the corner of the wall where the hallway meets the living room, and there she stops, and her father stops with her, because there it is, indeed, exactly how she remembers it, the radiant light from its thick impasto colors lighting the inside of the dim and slender hallway with a more brilliant glow than any product of electricity. The surreal landscape, perched, innocent, unassuming, returns their stares as quickly as it invites them, and for a brief moment of shared humility the painter and his daughter admire its simple beauty. Its artist, whose name anyone would recognize, has been dead—and buried—for centuries.

The painter breaks the silence with a gasp when he senses the presence of the stranger standing in the doorway of his daughter’s old bedroom. The stranger’s face, whittled, yet callow in its youth, looms blackly in its profile against the naked walls.

“This is who I wanted you to meet,” says the painter’s daughter. She pulls her father’s hand toward the profile of the stranger, who extends his own.

“It’s a beautiful picture,” the stranger says.

“I do think so,” says the painter.

“You’re an artist yourself, yeah?” the stranger asks.

“I whitewash walls,” says the painter.

“Not what I was told.”

“It’s not what I tell myself, either.”

“I’d love to see some of your work.”

“You’d love to see some of my work.”

“I would.”

The painter leaves his daughter and takes the young man around the back of the house to a shed that, long ago, was a pristine white, before its paint began to peel and chip and turn to snowflakes. He slides open the door, and the remnants of the dusk light reveal hundreds of canvases, sculptures, neglected tools. The young man takes a cautious step into the shed and gazes at the tiny warehouse of forgotten labor and violent creativity. Against the far wall of the shed lie several imitations of the famous landscape in the living room, each a meticulous replication of the swirling purples, oranges, and grays, and the creamy churns of the coolly desolate mountains in the original.

“You’re the father of my future grandson,” the painter says.

“Yes.”

“I guess you love my daughter.”

“I guess I do. Yes.”

“And the painting. You know how much it’s worth.”

“I guess I have an idea.”

There is a softness in the young man’s eyes that the painter could not ignore if he tried, and this trait stands out to him as more indicative of his character, his worth, than his tattered clothes, the sordid creases that outline his perpetual scowl, and the instant smell that reminds the painter of the train full of people who will never be buried.

“I guess you probably know my daughter better than I do,” the painter says.

“I guess I probably might,” says the young man.

“I’m sure she’s said things.”

“She’s said things. Sure.”

“I’m sure you know all about a lot of things.”

“I guess I might know what you mean.”

The painter takes a step into the shed and looks sternly into the young man’s eyes. “I’m supposed to be dead in a month. Or less,” he says.

“Sometimes doctors are wrong.”

“Most of the time they aren’t.”

“No. I guess mostly they aren’t.”

“All the things I’m sure you know—after I’m gone you can’t let any of it happen to my grandson.”

“I know I can’t.”

“He won’t have my name. But in a sense he will.”

“Yes. In a sense.”

“You’ll stay here if you want. You and her.”

“I appreciate it.”

“Unless you’ve got somewhere else you can go.”

“No. No, I guess we don’t.”

“Alright then you can stay. Until.”

“Yes. Until.”

When the painter and his daughter’s boyfriend return to the house, the television is on and a reporter is in the middle of a story about the death of a famous pianist who has purchased a full funeral from the government. The painter listens carefully to the cost of the funeral, and he cannot stop himself from thinking about the value of the picture hanging in his hallway, and its bronze border, and the swirling purple hills, and the black sun, and the lavender moon, and the stars made of fire, and about how it could buy him a funeral like the rich man and the pianist.

.     .     .

When the painter’s legs give out on him and he can no longer walk, his daughter steals a wheelchair from the grocery store at the end of the street, and she rolls it home to her father, so he can move from his bed to the living room where he can watch the news. The painter hates the wheelchair because it serves as one more weapon brandished against him, his life, his place in time.

He leaves the house less often than he used to, but it is nice having his daughter and her boyfriend to keep him company. The only problem, which begins as a small problem, is having to pretend to ignore the bruises appearing on his daughter’s arms and neck, because when she is in the same room with him he does little else but stare and speculate. If her boyfriend senses her father’s awareness, then he hides it well, but the painter suspects that the more likely, more sinister scenario, is that he senses it and does not regard it as a threat. When the painter confronts him about the bruises, the young man claims to know nothing about their origin and promises to investigate the conditions surrounding his daughter’s physical safety. The painter, at least ostensibly, lets himself be satisfied with the young man’s answers because the constant fear of death is plenty to worry about on its own.

The visitors become the bigger problem, the one that grates on his nerves, because the painter can tell just by looking at them that they care about drugs more than anything else in life, even though life is so short, so incredibly short, and he knows from experience that there is not time enough to fail to appreciate the things that really matter. In his head the painter returns more frequently than ever to the past, his own mistakes, his sins, his paternal inadequacy. When he is alone, mostly at dusk when the sky reminds him of the painting he wishes he had the talent to create, he lets his tears crawl from his face for hours until his lap and his chair are soaked. He always feels a little better afterward. There is a limit to how long a person can regret not loving the people who tried to love him; after that, it kind of just goes away for a while.

He remembers specific reasons he should ask the universe for forgiveness. The times he knew he had the power to choose to care about his wife, about his daughter, and neglected it. He remembers one particular week, several months after his last stay in the hospital, after all the doctors had been sure that this time, finally, maybe, he would be alright. Even his wife had begun to trust his mind again, which was saying something because she was usually the last one gullible enough to buy into his latest stints of stability. Nevertheless, she went to visit her sister for a week and left their daughter alone under his sole supervision—a parental task he had never shouldered on his own. His descent, his relapse into his old madness, was immediate and severe, and he locked himself in his bedroom for all seven days while his five year-old daughter sat in the living room, starving, listening to her father’s screams, and praying for her mother to return. When she finally did return, she managed to break down the bedroom door and there he was: naked, bloodied, writhing madly between polar states of consciousness, the room caked in a grotesque rainbow of wasted paint. It was not until after his daughter reached her teenage years that his wife decided to leave with her, but that week became synonymous with the beginning of the end.

After they left for good, he never asked to see his daughter and she never asked to see him. But now here she is—back at home, back with her father, waiting patiently for him to die so she can get on with her life, with her child, her father’s grandson. When he saw her at the rich man’s funeral, he nearly collapsed from joy, from the estrangement suddenly coming to an end with no warning. But the unbridled exhilaration, he notices, begins to wane with the days.

He cannot stand the visitors, these friends of his daughter’s, and their unannounced, unasked, uninvited sojourns that sometimes last for a week, or more, with no explanation. When he catches one of the visitors snooping around in his work shed, the painter loses himself in his anger, his brain summoning from hibernation a certain schism, an old confusion, and he fetches his shotgun from his closet. The stranger is gone when he returns, luckily, for the painter considers himself to be a rich man, richer than most, and rich men will only tolerate so much audacity from the poorer ranks beneath them.

The painter feels that his daughter, too, is beginning to avoid him, to stay away from the house for most of the day and many of the nights—for reasons he prefers not to guess, but his suspicions demand attention. During the times his daughter is home, he follows her wherever she goes, keeping a close eye on the bearer of his legacy, the daughter he barely knows and cannot fully trust, since, still—after a month or more of wheeling himself at her heels—he has not been able to detect any evidence that she is beyond a shadow of a doubt with child. The painter, indeed, has already exceeded the life expectancy that his doctors predicted for him, and not since the deterioration of his leg muscles and his confinement to a wheelchair has his condition shown any signs of worsening.

Afternoons find him exploring in the yard, or exercising—he pilots himself through the rows of headstones in the cemetery, or he practices moving from his chair to the ground and back again as fast as he can, or he invents a fellow mobility impaired companion against whom he races in the street.

His daughter and her boyfriend observe him from the porch or a window, whispering to themselves, worried looks scrawled onto their features. There are shouts, too, and the mysterious bruises that refuse to go away.

The painter does not remember feeling better in his life; only on days when he notices on his daughter a new bruise, or recalls an old one, does the proximity of his mortality return to his awareness and oppress his newfound levity. After all, the recent silence of his enigmatic disease, the newly decelerated erosion of his body—the doctors assure him—indicate nothing but a temporary reprieve. No reason to get his hopes up. He will die soon, they keep saying. Just wait. Soon, soon, soon, you will die.

Imagine, then, his doctors’ bewilderment when, on a warm day in April, he stands up from his wheelchair and announces to his daughter that—on account of his being a rich man—his rare mortal illness has miraculously vanished from his body.

.     .     .

The young man goes missing, is nowhere to be found for days, and during a walk through the cemetery with his daughter, the painter notices that her bruises have all but faded away. He holds his daughter’s hand as they walk, studying her face, and when she lights a cigarette she offers him one and he smokes with her.

“One cigarette,” his daughter says.

“It can’t hurt,” he says.

“I doubt it could.”

The clouds darken and float over the painter and his daughter as they stroll in and out of the gray rows. He smokes deeply and his breaths crack and heave. His daughter trails behind him to read the epitaphs as they pass.

“You’re feeling much better, then?” she asks.

“Much better,” says the painter.

The painter’s daughter stops walking and takes her father’s hands in hers and presses them to her brown cheek. In the eastern distance, an elderly woman lays yellow roses at the foot of her husband’s grave.

“When I was little—

“That’s alright. Don’t say it.”

“You used to say you’d be a rich man if it weren’t for us. If it weren’t for Mom and me.”

“I want you to stay here,” the painter says.

“Yes,” says his daughter. “I’ll stay here with you. What about him?”

On the horizon, the loping figure of the young man appears, scarred and bruised and drunk, the sun behind him like a giant gold stage curtain.

“He doesn’t love you,” says the painter. “Where’s he been?”

“Some of the same places where you used to go,” his daughter says. “If I had to guess.”

The painter watches as his daughter’s boyfriend approaches; he already knows that he will let him back into his home, despite everything, because the painter feels, somehow, a kinship with the young man, and he tricks himself into believing that his grandson—if he exists—will be better off with a crazy father than no father at all.

.     .     .

After the crashing noise wakes him, he sits up and squints into the darkness, reaching for the lamp on his bedside table, but the lamp is missing. He dangles his legs over the bed and reaches for the wall, finds it, and throws himself against it. He gropes along the wall for the doorknob, cold under his fingers. He cracks open the door. Pale gold light peeks through the crack, and he hears a man’s voice coming from down the hall—a hushed whisper that sounds strained and broken under the weight of effort.

He presses the door closed and slides down the wall to his closet. He drops himself to the floor, opens the closet, and crawls into its space, patting and feeling the grainy carpet. At the back corner of the closet, his fingers curl around the hard double barrel of a shotgun and he pulls it from its hiding place under a forgotten pile of laundry.

He opens the chamber and finds two shells ready and waiting. He snaps it shut and leans it against his shoulder. Sweat pours from his bare scalp. He hopes he is just paranoid, but deep down he knows that sad people hate to see a sick man get healthy.

He opens the door and again hears the muffled whisper. He hears footsteps, dull thuds, and something that scrapes the wall on the other side of the hallway. He peers around the corner at the spare bedroom where his daughter sleeps. Her door is shut. Soundless.

A familiar weakness creeps back into his legs as, slowly, he pulls himself into the hallway. The handle of the shotgun scrapes the corner of the door. His muscles tighten and the roar of his heartbeat becomes an echo in the darkness. He pauses to catch his breath and continues his crawl, one elbow buried in the carpet for support, the other raised as a shelf for his weapon.

He quickens his pace when he hears the front door creak open and creak closed. Then silence.

He nears the end of the hallway and lifts himself to his knees and walks using his kneecaps as feet. He tightens his death grip on the shotgun. The front door comes into view. The couches, the kitchen, the television. The rooms seem empty, but he stops and holds his breath and surveys the quiet darkness, humid, airless. He stands and forces himself to look at the wall where, instead of surrealism, there is only the pallid bruise of its absence.

He expects it to be gone, but still, his hands and fingers quiver, and his grip on the shotgun weakens. He stands paralyzed for a few moments, seconds passing, one minute, more, before he notices the baseball cap on the kitchen table. He picks it up, turns it over in his hands, trying to remember the last time he wore a baseball cap and, when he cannot remember, he puts this one on and sits at the kitchen table where he will be hidden from the front door when it opens. He curls his index finger around the trigger of the shotgun and waits.

It startles him when it finally opens and a dark figure steps into view, followed by another figure, leaner, a woman, the painter’s daughter. He levels the shotgun and stares down its barrel.

“Close the door,” he says.

The young man closes the door. “Don’t shoot,” he says.

“Put down the gun,” says the painter’s daughter. A brief memory, cold and vague, flashes through her mind, and she hopes her father is not crazy again because when she was little he was crazy and she came to know the sound a shotgun makes.

“Move to the couch,” the painter says. He motions with the gun. They sit. “Where is it?” he asks them.

“Outside,” his daughter says.

“Bring it back in.”

His daughter leaves out the front door and returns moments later cradling the creamy purple hills.

“Put it back on the wall.”

She does as she is told and returns to the couch. The painter stares at his daughter and his boyfriend. They cannot see the feral rage in his eyes because the bill of the baseball cap casts a black shadow over his face.

“Think of your grandson,” his daughter says.

“You tried to steal from me,” says the painter.

“Think of your grandson,” she says again.

“I am thinking of him.”

“Then you’ll put down the gun, Dad, alright. Put down the gun.”

“I think I’ll keep it for now.”

“Please.”

“I said I think I’ll keep it for now. Prove he exists.”

The young man sits in silence, listening, his head in his hands, calm and resigned because he knows the threat of death well and it has never been something that scares him.

“I’ll go to the doctor tomorrow. I want you to come with me. Come with me,” says the painter’s daughter.

Her father laughs and walks to the couch and rubs the bottom of her chin with the nose of the shotgun. “I guess I am crazy,” he says.

“You’re not,” says his daughter. “Really. You’re not crazy.”

“Only a crazy man would let his daughter turn out like you.”

“Alright.”

The painter puts his hand on his daughter’s stomach. He grips the shotgun tightly in his other hand. “I’m not going to the doctor with you,” he says.

“Alright.”

The painter keeps his hand on his daughter’s stomach.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“You’d better hope he moves.”

“It’s too soon for that.”

“Let’s hope not.”

“If he doesn’t?”

“Then he doesn’t exist.”

“And then you’ll keep the painting. To buy your funeral.”

“Rich men have funerals.”

“Yes. Rich men have funerals. But you aren’t dying anymore.”

“Sure I am.”

Time passes slowly and the three of them sit in silence as the hours roll by and take them into the darkness of the next morning. All three of them know how it will end, like time has already carved a place out for the ending, because they know very well that they have been moving toward it their whole lives and that the next step is just to follow and keep following until the earth has room only for dead men and even the ocean is full of their ashes.

“Did you feel that?” the painter’s daughter suddenly asks.

The painter’s eyes meet his daughter’s—both of them know that there was nothing to feel, nothing at all, but he would have to say yes and trust her that his grandson is real.

“Yes. I felt it.”

“Good.”

“You’ll raise him to be a rich man.”

“Yes.”

“It would have been better for you if I’d never been there. From the beginning, if it was just you and your mother.”

“It might have been.”

“Then you understand.”

“I guess I might.”

“You understand that this man can’t just go away, because he’ll come back.”

His daughter shifts in her seat and looks at the young man sitting next to her, then back to her father, then back to her boyfriend, who still does not raise his head. She gets to her feet and walks to the painting, stares at the tide of clashing colors, the waves of melting earth, and she notices, perhaps for the first time, the tiny form of a small boy crouched under a canopy of disintegrating cypress trees.

“Yes,” she says. “Because people always return to rich men.”

“Alright,” says the painter. “Alright. You understand.”

His daughter drops to the floor, her back against the wall under the purple hills, and she covers her colorless face with her hands, shivering.

“Listen,” the painter says. “You’ll make my grandson a man people will remember.”

“Yes,” says his daughter.

“Because if you don’t, I swear to God I’ll come back from the dead and make you wish you had.”

“Yes.”

“You know I’ll come back. I swear I’ll come back if you don’t.”

“Yes.” She begins to cry because she knows her father is crazy and there is no way to tell whether or not she is crazy, too.

“Alright,” the painter says. “It’s done then. When you get on the train tonight, remember that it’s the last time you’re ever going to take the train. Take it as far to the other side of the world as you can and don’t look back. Remember it’s the last time.”

His daughter nods.

“Alright then.”

The young man on the couch still does not look up. Even when the mother of his child takes their fortune and leaves him alone there with the painter, not saying a word to either of them as she leaves, the young man looks as though he has been oblivious to the proceedings, ignorant of the verdict, and he does not care at all when the shot lights up the room in a flash of lightning illuminating the bright red flecks of his blood that soar, suspended in mid air in the light, onto the walls and the door and the kitchen table.

.     .     .

It is not difficult to find a buyer. After careful deliberation, she chooses one and makes enough money to live far more comfortably than most people dream of. She buys a house in the mountains on the other side of the world, and she waits there for her father’s grandson to come.

Her nights are mostly sleepless. The house is too big for one person, so she keeps constant visitors. She fills the rooms with strangers, nomads, drifters, the homeless. She fills her bed with men that remind her of her father and the man her father murdered. She tells them it’s alright if they give her bruises. Sometimes she asks for them.

During her time of insomnia, she sometimes thinks she can hear her father cleaning the blood away—she pretends that she stayed there to watch him run water over the towels, and then scrub and scrub, working to erase the existence of a man. The towel scratches against the walls and carpet like sandpaper. The blood smears and vanishes under his scrubs, his violent scrubs, incessant under the soundless black of night, the sound that drowns out the drunken snores roaring from every couch, floor, and bed; and then, above the scrubbing, she hears the echoes of her father’s words, his menacing promise that stirs a great fear in her heart.

Sometimes she pretends her father is dead. Sometimes that he is alive. Sometimes that the neighbors heard the shot and called the police. She will never see her father again, and for the rest of her life she will play these guessing games with herself, because it can be a painful thing not to know about your family. But in these early days it is the most painful, and her insomnia is relentless. Sleep, after long enough without it, becomes the most precious aspect of a person’s life.

Early one morning, a little after dawn, she feels her father’s grandson kick, and suddenly she becomes aware of the cure for her sleeplessness.

On this particular morning, she must pretend that her father is dead.

She sits upright and tosses aside the comforter. Someone lying beside her groans and turns over. She climbs out of bed, cringing because her stomach feels like it has been hit with the butt of a shotgun. She dresses quickly and leaves the house without making a sound.

The car flies along the mountain road, circling, winding, constricting the mountain like a snake wrapped in a spiral showing the way to town. The car does not tremble, does not groan, does not quiver, because it is new and it glides as though on ice. But the driver, the rich girl, cannot stop from shuddering, violently, humanly, her skin crawling because she can feel the frost of what she knows is her dead father’s breath on her neck. She tilts the rear view mirror down and raises her frightened eyes to it—she knows he is in the car with her, back just like he said he would be, since ghosts can read our minds and he must already know the awful thing she is about to do.