By this stage, what passed for conversation was unpredictable, to say the least.
I would take him for a walk, and though he smiled at everyone and everything, he wasn’t always sure what or whom he was perceiving.
One day we saw a pair of butterflies flit into view, dip and swell away, prompting his delight. “Look at those dolphins!” he laughed. From the end of the street, where we always turned to start back, the mountain would loom up between the last houses, its face rugged with innumerable fissures and crags. “That castle,” he once told me, “used to be inhabited.”
It seemed the outer world no longer existed, its forms no more than sparks to kindle memory, revive imagination.
I had given up correcting him. My duty was to protect his reputation. In hiring me as caregiver, his son had obliged me to sign a contract, stipulating that I would reveal his father’s state to no one. Notes and letters continued to arrive, inquiring if the professor was available to review a collection of essays on gastropods, write the introduction to a book, deliver a lecture on the Banff Springs Snail. I would respond (and secretary was the term his son preferred) just as instructed: Professor Jacobsen regrets . . . so actively involved in research that he cannot afford to overextend himself. Never a word about frail health or vanishing capacities. Though, to be fair, he required little direct supervision—he could still bathe himself and was not yet, thank God, incontinent. But my employer was determined to create a myth—preserving his father’s dignity, he called it, while in reality averting his own shame. To serve as his accomplice was my paramount responsibility.
At the beginning, I prepared the balanced meals on which we had agreed; long a temperate gourmet for the last year or so, the professor had taken to a diet consisting solely of canned beans or macaroni and cheese. After a few weeks, I resigned myself; the rosemary salmon or chicken à l’orange wedged into the fridge uneaten, or tossed into the dog’s bowl before I could intervene.
That first July I made a delectable salad: organic butter lettuce, scallions, water chestnuts, slivers of Cheshire cheese; an olive-oil dressing with apple cider vinegar and fresh herbs. When I placed it before him with a little flourish (a mistake, I learned, inviting only disdain), he cried out, “What do you think I am, a slug?” When I took the plate away, fearing he might sweep it off the table, he muttered, “Pallifera secreta? Is that what you deduce? Wrong habitat, my friend.”
I finally gave up. The son had been mistaken: his father’s diet when he lived alone was not a matter of laziness or obstinacy, but a simple, childish craving no longer repressed. Our master, though, remained quite otherwise convinced, deeming it yet another token of perversity, “Like everything the old man does.” Each act designed to frustrate his son, manipulate him into feeling guilty.
“Are you so sure about that?”
Larry glared at me. “So you’re suggesting I don’t know my own father?” Had he forgotten telling me they were never close, for many years had barely spoken? Throughout childhood, his father was always traipsing off on field trips to study this or that species, in the company of colleagues and students. On those rare occasions when they did spend time together, he’d be coercing the boy to notice something, indicating lessons everywhere, making Larry feel small—he was called Lars then, a name he always hated. That was where the abuse began, I could almost hear him say.
Later, about to enter college, he had boldly pronounced that biology was boring; his father’s hand had twitched, as though barely able to refrain from striking him. Investment banking? Larry never really gave a damn about it; it was simply a precision instrument selected to repudiate his father’s vision.
Successful, yes. The father’s fury spelled his triumph.
“Life? You call that a life?”
Amidst the alternating dusk and murk the professor now inhabited, there were occasional glimmers, wisps if not shafts of light. “Isn’t it remarkable,” he might say out of the blue, or rather from his twilight, “how the eye of certain scallops is lined with mirrors?” Or he might mention the Cuban Missile Crisis, spend two or three minutes pinpointing causes, strategies, and consequences before subsiding into customary fog. He seemed perpetually aware, however, that he had disappointed his son, undermined him with his distance, his inept encouragement and scathing disapproval.
Around Thanksgiving, three years ago, he apologized to me, a fluttering hand perched on my shoulder. “I didn’t mean any harm, Lars. Meant to make you strong—prepare you for the world. Expectations, standards. Father’s duty, so I thought. Never meant to pull you down, didn’t mean to be erasive. Is that a word, Lars? Doesn’t sound right, but I think it is.”
That’s when I began to mention all the things I loved about him. Grafting my own memories onto his, and calling it our life. Everything we’d done together, all we’d meant to do. Omitting, of course, the fact that he had died when I was twelve. That loved face long since faded, reviving the more it becomes inhabited by the professor’s features. The photo album in his den—the two of them beside a cabin, or fishing in a stream—casts a dubious light, at least in my mind, on Larry’s narrative, and offers seeds for my invention.
“You remember that trip to the Blue Ridge? The awesome view from Beech Mountain trail?”
He nods, smiling. “And that red-tailed hawk above us, like a mascot. . . . Say, what about that beautiful Arion hortensis I found? Put it on your finger—you cringed at first, but when you really looked you said it was the most amazing blue you’d ever seen.”
“Never forget it,” I assure him.
Finally he muses, “Maybe I wasn’t such a bad father, after all.”
“Anything but,” I say. “What boy could ask for more?”
He sighs and gently shakes his head. “You’re so kind to me, Lars. . . . In this, my—gloaming. Is that the right word?”
“Yes, Papa,” I tell him. “That’s exactly right.”