Everybody wants to own the end of the world.
This is what my father said, standing by the contoured windows in his New York office—private wealth management, dynasty trusts, emerging markets. We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors. I studied the art in the room, variously abstract, and began to understand that the extended silence following his remark belonged to neither one of us. I thought of his wife, the second, the archaeologist, the one whose mind and failing body would soon begin to drift, on schedule, into the void.
• • •
That moment came back to me some months later and half a world away. I sat belted into the rear seat of an armored hatchback with smoked side windows, blind both ways. The driver, partitioned, wore a soccer jersey and sweatpants with a bulge at the hip indicating a sidearm. After an hour’s ride over rough roads he brought the car to a stop and said something into his lapel device. Then he eased his head forty-five degrees in the direction of the right rear passenger seat. I took this to mean that it was time for me to unstrap myself and get out.
The ride was the last stage in a marathon journey and I walked away from the vehicle and stood a while, stunned by the heat, holding my overnight bag and feeling my body unwind. I heard the engine start up and turned to watch. The car was headed back to the private airstrip and it was the only thing moving out there, soon to be enveloped in land or sinking light or sheer horizon.
I completed my turn, a long slow scan of salt flats and stone rubble, empty except for several low structures, possibly interconnected, barely separable from the bleached landscape. There was nothing else, nowhere else. I hadn’t known the precise nature of my destination, only its remoteness. It was not hard to imagine that my father at his office window had conjured his remark from this same stark terrain and the geometric slabs that blended into it.
He was here now, they both were, father and stepmother, and I’d come to pay the briefest of visits and say an uncertain farewell.
Artis was alone in the suite where she and Ross were staying. She sat in an armchair, wearing robe and slippers, and appeared to be asleep.
What do I say? How do I begin?
You look beautiful, I thought, and she did, sadly so, attenuated by illness, lean face and ash-blond hair, uncombed, pale hands folded in her lap. I used to think of her as the Second Wife and then as the Stepmother and then, again, as the Archaeologist. This last product label was not so reductive, mainly because I was finally getting to know her. I liked to imagine that she was the scientist as ascetic, living for periods in crude encampments, someone who might readily adapt to unsparing conditions of another kind.
Why did my father ask me to come here?
He wanted me to be with him when Artis died.
I sat on a cushioned bench, watching and waiting, and soon my thoughts fell away from the still figure in the chair and then there he was, there we were, Ross and I, in miniaturized mindspace.
He was a man shaped by money. He’d made an early reputation by analyzing the profit impact of natural disasters. He liked to talk to me about money. My mother said, What about sex, that’s what he needs to know. The language of money was complicated. He defined terms, drew diagrams, seemed to be living in a state of emergency, planted in the office most days for ten or twelve hours, or rushing to airports, or preparing for conferences. At home he stood before a full-length mirror reciting from memory speeches he was working on about risk appetites and offshore jurisdictions, refining his gestures and facial expressions. He had an affair with an office temp. He ran in the Boston Marathon.
What did I do? I mumbled, I shuffled, I shaved a strip of hair along the middle of my head, front to back—I was his personal antichrist.
He left when I was thirteen. I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me. He sat across the small desk where my ever-sharpened pencils jutted from an old marmalade jar. I kept doing my homework while he spoke. I examined the formulas on the page and wrote in my notebook, over and over: sine cosine tangent.
Why did my father leave my mother?
Neither ever said.Years later I lived in a room-and-a-half rental in upper Manhattan. One evening there was my father on TV, an obscure channel, poor reception, Ross in Geneva, sort of double-imaged, speaking French. Did I know that my father spoke French? Was I sure that this man was my father? He made a reference, in subtitles, to the ecology of unemployment. I watched standing up.
And Artis now in this barely believable place, this desert apparition, soon to be preserved, a glacial body in a massive burial chamber. And after that a future beyond imagining. Consider the words alone. Time, fate, chance, immortality. And here is my simpleminded past, my dimpled history, the moments I can’t help summoning because they’re mine, impossible not to see and feel, crawling out of every wall around me.
Ash Wednesday, once, I went to church and stood in line. I looked around at the statues, plaques and pillars, the stained glass windows, and then I went to the altar rail and knelt. The priest approached and made his mark, a splotch of holy ash thumb-printed to my forehead. Dust thou art. I was not Catholic, my parents were not Catholic. I didn’t know what we were. We were Eat and Sleep. We were Take Daddy’s Suit to the Dry Cleaner.
When he left I decided to embrace the idea of being abandoned, or semi-abandoned. My mother and I understood and trusted each other. We went to live in Queens, in a garden apartment that had no garden. This suited us both. I let the hair grow back on my aboriginal shaved head. We went for walks together. Who does this, mother and teenage son, in the United States of America? She did not lecture me, or rarely did, on my swerves out of observable normality. We ate bland food and batted a tennis ball back and forth on a public court.
But the robed priest and the small grinding action of his thumb implanting the ash. And to dust thou shalt return. I walked the streets looking for people who might look at me. I stood in front of store windows studying my reflection. I didn’t know what this was. Was this some freakified gesture of reverence? Was I playing a trick on Holy Mother Church? Or was I simply attempting to thrust myself into meaningful sight? I wanted the stain to last for days and weeks. When I got home my mother leaned back away from me as if to gain perspective. It was the briefest of appraisals. I made it a point not to grin—I had a gravedigger’s grin. She said something about the boring state of Wednesdays throughout the world. A little ash, at minimum expense, and a Wednesday, here and there, she said, becomes something to remember.
Don DeLillo, Zero K, 2016.