If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. . . . His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
— Hunter S. Thompson
When Wendy murdered her father in her dreams, she used a coat hanger or a wood-handled kitchen knife. She always stabbed him right in the heart. She dreamed of killing him so many times that when he finally died for real, her whole life felt like a dream for a few days.
Wendy’s father died on her thirty-ninth birthday. She and her husband were on sabbatical in England at the time. At the moment he died, they were riding their bicycles down a bumpy lane to a meadow by the River Cam, where they sat in summer twilight. It was good to smell the hay and talk about the kids, the future, and the trees they would plant when they got back to Los Angeles.
They biked home, and the baby sitter met them at the door with a strained look on her face. Wendy knew what it was, but she didn’t listen to the message on the machine until she had paid the woman nine pounds and watched her climb into her small red car and drive off, her taillights glowing against the deep pink Cambridgeshire sky. Wendy and Dennis checked on both boys: Alex in his bed and Teddy in his crib. Then Dennis held Wendy’s hand while she pushed the button on the black box.
Half a year earlier, when they were still living in Los Angeles, Wendy had received a Christmas package from her father of a dozen flavors of crumpets with nine kinds of jam. Three days later there came another one, of aged beef, smoked salmon, and white truffles.
When Howard grew manic, he always started with gifts. Over the years she had opened packages containing cashmere shawls, ceramics, CD sets of Bach or Ellington, eighteen-karat gold earrings, framed original art, and thick, crisp reference books. Her father ran up these purchases on credit cards. Six or ten months later, the bills unpaid and the interest snowballing, he would be depressed again, saying, “All I want is to pay off my debts and die.”
A week after he sent the meat package, Howard phoned to say he’d booked a flight to visit Wendy in Los Angeles.
For a moment, she couldn’t reply. By the phone in her kitchen hung a bright, glue-stiff calendar made by her son Alex. From the December page stared out Alex’s stick-figure family, all of them smiling by their Christmas tree. Snow fell in white crayoned blobs the size of small pancakes.
Howard arrived in January, running at high speed. He had so many projects planned, he would interrupt a speech about one to start in on another: nominating his local Oregon newspaper for a Pulitzer Prize; establishing a national yearly award, like a Fulbright, that would pay for journalists to take sabbaticals; writing the Great American Novel, which he’d been brewing for years; creating a national radio network to reach the common man; publishing an essay in French about the use of Joe Camel as a promotional tool; writing his autobiography; and, of course, taking the test to be on the Jeopardy! game show — the real reason he’d come to LA. He waved the appointment letter from Fox Studios at anybody who got near him.
Her father didn’t tell these plans just to Wendy. He told them to the housekeeper, who spoke no English, to two-year-old Teddy, to her patient husband, Dennis, to taxi drivers and waitresses. Howard wouldn’t stop talking until he noticed his audience was gone.
Wendy hadn’t seen Howard in more than a year. He looked terrible. His million plans left him too busy for unimportant tasks like a medical checkup or even a shower. Cigarettes and alcohol, the two essentials in his life, only made things worse. Sores spotted his arms, hands, and ankles. Fissures in his long bony fingers had grown infected and oozed pus. Urine stained his trousers. And he radiated the stink of concentrated ammonia and a chain smoker’s dark, glossy reek.
Ever since Wendy was a kid, her father had seemed to hate his body. Gashed legs, smashed thumbs, cigarette burns, bloodied fingers — all were routine. He had rearranged burning logs in the living-room fireplace with his bare hands. Drunken falls in the last five years had knocked out teeth and sent his huge red-gray nose veering to the left in a loony curve. He had stopped eating regular meals because he was too busy with important projects. His always-thin body now showed every bone. He panted for breath after crossing a room. Even while sitting, he breathed fast.
As if this weren’t enough, Howard (like his brother, now dead) had a mysterious degenerative nerve disorder that left him barely able to walk, even with two canes. Of course he refused any medical attention for his condition, which had progressed so in the previous twelve months that, when Wendy met his flight, he needed a wheelchair for the long stretches of airport walkways.
On the hour-long drive from the airport, Wendy tried to persuade Howard to see a doctor.
“Money-grubbing bastards,” he said. “What for?”
She tried to decide which reason to give first. “When was your last physical?”
Howard laughed. “ ‘Physical.’ I love it. The entire concept was invented by doctors to make you pay when there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Those sores on your fingers look painful.”
“These?” He flicked his fingers in the air. “They’re nothing, just a scratch I got the other day.”
“You seem so short of breath.”
“I’m just excited to see you, honey.” He chuckled and looked out the window at the freeway and the regimented lines of palm trees. “Look at those trees. They just cry out for an article on the phallic elements of LA city design.” He pulled a tattered spiral notebook from his pocket and began making notes in tiny print.
The first thing Howard did after he had settled himself on Wendy’s couch was to slide two twenties out of his wallet and wave them at her. “Would it be too much to ask for my daughter to make a detour in her grocery shopping to pick up a supply of Beefeater?”
She took the money. What were her alternatives? Refuse outright? Tie him up and call an ambulance? Pretend to forget to buy it? No, she would be a good daughter and do as he asked.
When she returned from the supermarket, she put the huge plastic bottle of gin on the counter, along with the milk, Cheerios, ground turkey, and apples. Her father limped into the kitchen, holding the countertops for support, and went straight for the liquor. By the time she had put away the groceries, he had disappeared with the bottle to his room.
While at Wendy’s house, Howard refused to use his canes except as gavels to emphasize his points. He fell a lot. When drunk, he would just crawl from room to room. He drank every night until he passed out.
Wendy’s father had once been a man people looked up to. Born in China and educated at Harvard, Howard had held senior editorial positions with Time, Newsweek, and the Washington Post. He wrote volumes of Congressional history and editorials on a variety of political issues. He had never let his family pin him down about his CIA involvement, but it was always there, a hazy silhouette in the background. His friends traveled back and forth to Nairobi or Calcutta, toting presents of sleek carvings and pungent spices. He was fluent in Chinese, Russian, and French. Norman Mailer and the current king of Thailand were his Harvard ’43 classmates. He loved to hold forth on early Miles Davis recordings or his interview with JFK when the president was still a senator, and their single-malt drinking session afterward.
Wendy always gave the right responses to his stories: amazement and glee at her good luck to have him for a father.
The first few days of his visit, he spent many hours on her phone, using long-ago contacts to try to speak with Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Susan Stamberg, and a dozen-odd congressmen. Before his untreated manic-depression had ruined him, Howard had actually known these people. But that was twenty or thirty years ago. It seemed cruel to point out to him that, even if they remembered him, they might refuse to talk. His hands shook so much that, half the time, he would dial wrong numbers, yet he would talk nonstop to whoever answered.
While Howard stayed with Wendy, his appetite returned. In addition to the meals she cooked, he grazed in her cupboards. Cookies, cereal, prunes, chips, and canned soups disappeared. At the dinner table he would finish his own food and then eat off the kids’ plates. At first he ate what they didn’t eat. Then he started to take food away from them, even if they protested, sometimes grabbing their entire plate and shoveling the contents onto his.
Howard made nightly plans for entertaining at Wendy’s house, but everyone he called declined. Twice a day he called a woman he had met once in LA, now a widow. She never called him back. His explanation: “She probably isn’t ready yet for the truly physical relationship she knows I would expect from her.” A meal at a local deli sent him into such a fit of pleasure he made a speech comparing it to a wet dream. Luckily the kids didn’t understand him.
Since publishing her modestly competent, well-reviewed first novel, Wendy had dedicated her few child-free hours to writing. But Howard’s visit took up all her spare time. The first few nights, while Dennis was wisely working late, Wendy drank with Howard and listened to his poisonous words about her mother (who had been smart enough to leave him years ago), his ex-girlfriends, and women in general. After the third drink or so, he would start in on Wendy.
“So you’re calling yourself a writer now,” he always began, his voice dropping to a low snarl. “As if you knew the first thing about American literature. Let’s be honest: romantic crap, that’s all you produce. You know it’s true.” He said this though he’d never read anything she wrote. “I never read fiction by women,” he’d say, laughing. “It has too much description.”
“Take your grandfather,” Howard went on. “Now there was a true man of letters. Until the day he died, he read an hour of Chinese a day.” (This same grandfather had written, late in life, “I was fortunate in many things, including the fact that, of my eleven grandchildren, only three of them were girls.”)
Wendy slowly realized that, now that her father couldn’t walk very well, she could leave the room when he started to insult her. It didn’t stop him from talking — he never seemed to notice she was gone — but hearing his voice grow fainter and fainter was wonderful.
For so many years, whenever Wendy had thought her father might be manic, or depressed, or even psychotic, people whose opinions she trusted would say, “He’s going through a bad time,” or, “He’ll be fine in a few weeks,” or, “He can’t be crazy; look how wonderful his writing is. This is the beginning of a new phase for him.”
So she would shelve her thoughts. And since he wasn’t crazy, then his opinion of her wasn’t crazy either. He was right: she was weak, silly, ignorant, limited, and invisible.
On Tuesday morning, the Jeopardy! audition came around.
Five years earlier, Wendy had tried out for the show on a whim. (Many game-show contestants are out-of-work LA writers and actors.) She’d made it on and actually won, twice, bringing home more than twenty thousand dollars. She’d lost the third game because she didn’t know what God had made on the third day.
Afterward Howard had said, “If you could win, anybody could.” But it had taken him this long to actually try out for the show himself.
Wendy drove her father right up to the front gate of the Hollywood studio.
“Any last-minute tips?” he asked.
It was the first time he had even discussed it with her. She racked her brain to remember that first test, which a hundred people had taken and only she had passed. “Diogenes,” she said. “Gloria Vanderbilt. And there’s always the Bible —”
Before she could finish, he got out of the car and, using his two canes adroitly enough, staggered away.
Three hours later Howard came home in a cab, which idled in the driveway for twenty minutes while he talked to the cabby. Once inside, Howard went straight to his room and closed the door.
The next night, Howard drank his usual amount and passed out on the couch. Wendy and Dennis had to hoist him fully clothed into bed, where he peed all over himself. She tried to help him clean up, but he was so belligerent that finally she just covered him and left him there.
Lying in bed that night, she and Dennis held each other and counted out the days: only six more to go. Dennis fell asleep before Wendy did. He always seemed to sleep so deeply, reaching some grassy, breeze-combed hillside that she had yet to find. His arm around her waist felt like an extension of his peaceful sleep world, solid as stone.
First came the noise. Wendy woke up on the floor, Dennis on top of her and furniture and window glass crashing around them. Their house and car alarms howled, along with every other alarm in the neighborhood. The floor rose and fell like the deck of a ship. The din of creaking and breaking wood was deafening.
Earthquake. The Big One.
Another warm body, not Dennis’s, was curled next to hers. Teddy must have climbed from his crib and crawled into their bed after they were asleep, as he often did. Amazingly, he was still asleep in his furry footed pajamas. He seemed fine, as far as she could tell in the total darkness. “Stay with him!” she shouted to Dennis. “I’ll get Alex!” She thought of rafter beams and electrical cables crashing down, and Dennis’s strong body over Teddy, like a roof. But what roof would be over Dennis?
She watched herself crawl through the hall, believing that Alex was alive. She braced herself for the before-and-after her life would become if he wasn’t. Broken glass from Dennis’s framed tennis-team photos cut her knees, but the pain was easier to bear because it was part of the few seconds of before still left to her.
She reached the kids’ room and in the pitch-dark climbed over what she later found out was the collapsed seven-foot shelf unit to reach Alex where he sat, upright and trembling, in bed. She dragged him over the small mountain of obstacles to the doorway, supposedly the safest place to be in an earthquake. “It’s OK. Mom’s here,” she said right into his ear, speaking over the background noise. “It’s just a silly little earthquake. Everything will be fine.”
She felt his head, his neck, his arms and legs: except for a gritty dusting of crumbled drywall all over, he was solid, unhurt. He remained quiet as long as she held him, but when she let go to feel around her for more broken glass, Alex gave a strange, low moan, like she’d never heard from him before. So she stayed put and held him, rocking as if they were riding the elephant at the LA Zoo.
The shaking slowed. The worst of it seemed to be over. Beneath the blare of the alarm, she heard scraping noises from her father’s doorway. “Are the phones working?” he shouted through the darkness. “I’ve got to find a phone! This story has to get out!”
“Stay in the doorway!” she shouted. “Don’t try to walk.”
With her luck, he would break a hip and she’d be stuck with him forever. Though her nostrils were filled with dust, she could smell his ammonia and tobacco. Even stronger, she could sense his speeding thoughts ticking away.
After a big aftershock, she picked up Alex and staggered down the hallway back to Dennis and to Teddy, who was awake now and very curious. They decided to head for the front yard, where nothing could fall on them.
Small aftershocks kept coming. Her father allowed her to shepherd him and his canes to the front door. Out in the driveway, Howard was too weak to sit upright, so he lay on the cement and let her cover him with blankets while Dennis retrieved necessities from the house: folding chairs, water, more blankets, boxes of crackers. The boys sat on the blankets next to their grandfather, staring at the sky. Explosions lit the dark skyline with yellow and orange auras. A fire burned a half mile away, lighting the base of the Hollywood Hills. Pajama-clad neighbors roamed the still-quivering street, checking on each other.
The kids couldn’t be left alone with Howard for a second. (The day before, she had left them with him for twenty minutes, and when she returned, both boys were painting her sofa with green poster paint while Howard read the paper.) Wendy and Dennis took turns with the one flashlight, rummaging through their tumbled rooms for shoes, band-aids, warm kids’ clothes, and bottled water.
By the time they found a chair for her father to sit on, he was wide awake and already had a title for his earthquake story. After enough light had filled the sky, Howard staggered to his room with newfound strength in his legs. When Wendy checked on him thirty minutes later, he had meticulously dressed himself, as if for a lunch with a congressman: camel’s-hair jacket, tie, clean pants, white strands of hair perfectly combed across his skull. He had also righted the fallen chest of drawers in his room, replaced all the clothes and books, and made his damp bed. The shattered glass from his window he had piled against the wall, cutting himself in the process. When Wendy fussed over his bloody hands, he batted her away and wiped them on a handkerchief.
Full light came. They moved to the backyard. Armed with cigarettes and a radio, her father took up a perch and watched for the next twelve hours while she and Dennis struggled to clean up the mess and care for the kids. Glued to the radio, Howard could talk only of his plans. He kept thinking of things he wanted to do that week: museums, restaurants, lunch dates, give a party, shop for a shower curtain, and buy computer math programs for Alex and Teddy. And Wendy kept having to say, “That freeway crumbled,” or, “That mall pancaked” (a new verb for her), or, “That restaurant burned down.” It was all on the radio, but Howard seemed not to hear it. She was the negative, cranky adult, while he was the creative, enthusiastic child.
A day of salvage work passed, and another. Each morning Howard made elaborate speeches about his plans for the day: how long he would write, when he would take a break, when he would be available if she wished to meet with him. He never wrote a word, but once the phone was working again, he made lots of calls. He spent an entire morning trying to reach a writer who knew another writer who had covered the Mexico City quake seven years earlier. After many calls to his local newspaper in Oregon, he finally spoke to someone who left him thinking they would print whatever he wrote and that he should fax it to them as soon as possible.
Friends from less shaken parts of town came to help out. Dennis patiently hauled load after load of debris from the house to the curb. Heaps of broken furniture, smashed toilets, soaked rugs, and crumbled cinder blocks became the natural landscape of the neighborhood.
A house down the street had lost its front half. Stilt-supported houses up the canyon had completely collapsed, one killing two parents and a girl the same age as Teddy. The newspaper picture of the curly-haired child in her new cowgirl suit sent Wendy into a fifteen-minute fit of sobs.
Anytime anyone got within earshot of Howard, he would begin a monologue on “the philosophical implications of disaster,” or “the strength of community ties within the framework of the governmental hierarchy.” As the days passed, Howard got more emotional in these speeches, his blue eyes tearing up and growing red-veined. Sometimes the tears even spilled down his cheeks.
“Dad?” asked Wendy, pausing in front of him with a cracked two-foot flowerpot in her arms. “Are you OK?”
“What are you talking about?” he barked, wiping away tears with the back of his hand. “There’s nothing the matter with me.”
When nothing appeared on Howard’s yellow pad day after day, a grim satisfaction grew over Wendy. Against her own father she intoned the writer’s curse: May your words be blocked and your books be remaindered.
On the second-to-last night, Wendy lay in the dark listening to Howard careen around his room, knocking into furniture and setting off an occasional chain-reaction crash. Then things got quiet, and she heard the first percussive tap-taps of her old electric typewriter, which she had unearthed for him a few days before. He was finally starting on the Great Earthquake Article, typing in the old two-finger style that had sent her to sleep so many nights as a child.
In the morning he continued to tap-tap-tap. He wrote straight through the day. Close to four, when Wendy had done as much cleaning as she could stand and was leaving to pick up Alex at kindergarten, Teddy said, “Grandpa’s shouting.” Then she heard him herself, calling from his bedroom: “Let’s go! Find me a fax machine. I’ve got to get this off.” He staggered into the living room clutching a sheaf of papers. A few sheets fluttered to the floor as he angled his long arms into his senator’s jacket.
“I can’t,” she said. “I have to go get Alex.”
He stared at her a long moment, his mouth hanging open, his face slack. I’ve given him a stroke, she thought.
“I’ll call a cab, then,” he finally said. “Get me a phone book.”
“I have to leave right now. The phone books are on the kitchen shelf.” She had, in fact, spent an hour that afternoon wiping applesauce and ketchup off the phone books and cookbooks.
By the time she was halfway out the door, he had changed his mind: he would dictate the article to the Oregon paper over the phone.
She paused in the doorway to listen. They were obviously foisting him off on one assistant after another. He kept saying into the phone, “But I talked to him just yesterday.” Finally he hung up in disgust.
On the last night of Howard’s visit, Wendy, unable to sleep, thought she would check her computer to see if everything on her hard drive was intact. In her wrecked office at three in the morning, she found her father sitting in her desk chair, going through her tumbled drawers, secreting into his pajama pockets her vital notes, letters, addresses, and promotional material for her novel. He had one of her old journals open in front of him. He looked up, startled, his expression soft enough to appear vulnerable, almost appealing. Then a strange, one-sided smirk broke over his face.
“Put those back.” Her voice cracked. “Those are my things!” Her volume surprised her.
His hands went up as if she were pointing a toy gun at him. “OK, OK,” he laughed. He shone with that wild glee of a child whose spirits couldn’t be dampened by grumpy adults. He pushed himself up out of the chair, sending it rolling backwards with a triumphant shove, as if he had just finished an important meeting. Then he turned sideways to pass Wendy in the narrow hall outside her office. She smelled his sour odor. He stood there for a moment, glaring at her. Her papers fanned from his front pocket. What were they? Credit-card receipts? The precious scraps of fiction that came to her when she was driving to the nursery school or standing in the checkout line at the grocery? Wendy wanted to snatch them back, but she couldn’t stand to put her hand anywhere near him.
He breathed hard. “You . . . you women,” he said, and with his right hand Howard shoved Wendy against the wall and held her there, mashing her shoulder against the frame of a cheap full-length mirror that had miraculously survived the earthquake. His strength shocked her.
He leaned so close to her that his silver cheek bristles filled her vision. His red-rimmed eyes glittered. She held her breath, waiting for him to be gone, wanting to believe this wasn’t happening. But it was happening.
With one twisting motion she freed herself and pushed him away from her. Her hand pressed the exact spot on his chest where in her dreams the wire coat hanger had plunged, the knife blade had sunk. Touching him was more horrible than the bruise he had just given her. She grabbed her papers, pulled back her hand, and ran.
At six the next morning Wendy called a taxi to take Howard to the airport, even though his flight wasn’t until that afternoon. After the taxi had backed out of the driveway, Wendy found a pile of scabs on the tile counter in the guest bathroom. She used toilet paper to sweep them into the sink and scrubbed the entire room with disinfectant.
Weeks later, the article did come out in the Oregon paper, and, considering Howard’s mental status, it was amazingly lucid and well written. But every sentence had factual errors. In her father’s version of the quake it was Dennis, not Wendy, who called out directions to him in the dark. It was Dennis who extracted the kids from the rubble. Howard was in there with him, hauling debris and comforting the neighbors. The condo behind them slid forty feet instead of three. And he sited her house north of Ventura Boulevard instead of south, cutting its value by half.
Eight weeks after the earthquake, Wendy and Dennis left for their six-month sabbatical in England. They had no problem renting their LA house (which turned out to be without serious structural damage), because so many people needed a place to live while their own wrecked houses were being rebuilt.
After just a few weeks in Cambridge, Wendy got a warning letter from her mother in Oregon: Howard was more out of control than ever and had reserved a plane ticket to come and stay with Wendy in England, then hire himself out on an oil tanker and sail to Asia, see China again.
Wendy wrote her father the first handwritten letter she’d sent in years. She used her blackest pen and tried to keep her strokes strong, her words short. She wrote everything she wanted to say. She left none of it out. Then she biked to the tiny local market, which was also the drugstore and post office, and put the envelope in the slot labeled foreign.
For days she expected Howard to show up on her doorstep and club her over the head with his canes. But he sent no answer.
Instead, the very next week, the phone calls from her mother began: Howard was in the hospital dying of respiratory failure. He wouldn’t last more than a day or two. He was on a respirator and was unconscious. They would be removing the respirator in a few days. There was no point in her coming all that way to see him.
Wendy pictured Howard clutching her letter as he collapsed, saying, “She did it. It’s her fault.”
The next day Wendy bought a nonrefundable ticket to Oregon to take part in the murder. Not with a coat hanger after all.
Before she left, another call came: Howard had regained consciousness and had detached the respirator himself. He was sitting up in bed, asking for a ham sandwich.
At the hospital, with a new white beard and a childlike smile, Howard looked paradoxically much younger. The doctor warned Wendy that, though he was able to breathe on his own for now, he couldn’t last long: a few weeks at best. Emphysema was drowning his lungs and had been for years.
“I can’t believe no one diagnosed him earlier than this,” said the doctor. “Who was taking care of him?”
Wendy didn’t even try to answer.
Howard was still hyper, and had grown more sexual in his mania. When Wendy and her mother returned from a nearby restaurant and told him about the chocolate torte they’d had for dessert, he leered and waggled the tip of his tongue back and forth in a satyr-like gesture of sensual pleasure. He didn’t bother to cover his body. In fact, he seemed to deliberately pull his covers away, so that Wendy had to move to various points in the room to avoid seeing his penis. This was not dementia; she had visited him during other episodes when he would begin changing his clothes, even his underwear, right in front of her. Yet nobody remarked on it now as anything but a sign of his illness. “He’s hypoxic,” the doctors and nurses said. “He’s disoriented; he’s adjusting to the reality of his disability.” But he had always been like this around her.
At her mother’s request, Wendy went to Howard’s apartment, where he had lived alone for three years, and began the task of packing up his things to put them in storage. In his bedroom, darkened by dingy gold acrylic curtains, stood a single bed covered only by a stained mattress pad. A few articles of clothing lay scattered on the floor. There were no pictures and no personal touches. A pile of handkerchiefs were carefully folded and stacked on the dresser, though they were stained and frayed.
In the front room, his desk was piled with clippings and letters and xeroxed documents. Wendy looked briefly for her letter, but found no sign of it. A glass with an inch of gin and one pickled onion left a damp ring on the wooden desktop: his last martini. Boxes of cassette tapes lay everywhere: recordings her father had ordered from National Public Radio, spending thousands of dollars on any interview he thought was remotely connected to his encyclopedic plans. Puzzling dark holes dotted the gold shag carpeting. A closer look revealed they were tunnel-like spider webs burrowed into the rotted fibers. Black cobwebs festooned the windows. Before Howard had left Wendy’s house in LA, his breathing had sounded so bad she’d pressed him to take a few of her asthma inhalers with him until he could see a doctor. The empty aluminum inhalers lay all around the room, glinting in the light.
Wendy had a few hours alone with Howard before her flight back to London. The nurses said he probably wouldn’t last much longer. His breathing was so bad he had to pause between every word, but still he talked nonstop.
Wendy didn’t ask Howard about the letter she had sent from England. She didn’t say she forgave him for his violence and the pain he had caused her. She only asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk to her about.
He paused, as if considering his answer carefully. Then he began an elaborate introduction to what she thought might be a real conversation about their relationship, but turned out to be an emotional, eloquent speech about the mass media, the information superhighway, virtual reality, and the space-time continuum. His eyes began to water as they had in her backyard after the earthquake. His lips trembled. She didn’t contradict him when he made no sense. She knew better than anyone else what he wanted: an audience. She even walked across the street to that expensive restaurant to buy him a piece of the chocolate torte she’d had two nights before.
Together, between his speeches about the media and the conspiracy behind the Internet, they watched Nixon’s funeral on television. Howard broke into sobs at every detail: American hymns sung in plain four-part harmonies; Nixon’s prime remembered; the military band’s bright brass mourning; Nixon’s tragedy relived. With each old shot of Johnson or Kennedy or Nixon in his prime, her father began to cry again, his right hand pleading, his gray face open, almost reaching out for a connection.
More than once she gently put her hand in his, trying not to injure the scabs and fissures, so rough against her fingers. But every time she did, his mouth tightened, and he pulled his hand away.
He lived a month after she left. During those weeks her mother mailed her snapshots she’d unearthed, of Howard at twenty in five inches of 1940 snow, leaning against a rough-barked tree, wearing a well-cut black overcoat. The Charles River spread in the background. He was agile and handsome, smiling a happy, sane smile Wendy had never seen.
When she tried to picture the moment of Howard’s death, she saw his gray, gasping face on the pillow. Yet the handsome young man in the black overcoat was there too, slumped in a straight-backed chair next to the bed, his head in his hands, weeping as her father had over Nixon.