The question is whether to move forward, backward, or to remain in place. The house would be the place but now that his father had died the house was a question. Dean had been in and out of it, back and forth, for the past few months. He’d fixed some things. A coat of paint here and there. At first in preparation for his father to come home. Later for himself. Later still just for something to do.
With death comes division. The body’s cells, alarm clocks ticking down. All property follows the body into division. Collected things get distributed to other houses, other relatives. There are the morbid Craigslist strangers, those death shoppers who flock to death sales. They are related to garage sale prowlers and trash-heap diggers. They come baring claws to fight over the dead’s things, assigning new ownership and purifying.
Better for strangers to take things. No one in the family wanted much. There wasn’t much to want and their own houses were full of their own lives. They wanted everything divided, discarded, broken up. They wanted the house sold away before the property bubble burst, which might happen very soon, they worried. The modest plaster box was worth several working lives and it was all wrong and it had to be sold.
The father had gone through a number of big reversals, divorces and small symbolic deaths, on the way to this California house. The final trip placed him in the company car, a khaki-colored Oldsmobile, with what he could fit in the trunk and the backseat. The son, wrecked and sad that first day, in the front seat, knees up and no seatbelt. The boy, without knowing the ramifications of the journey, melted and gradually tanned under the expanse of that vast American windshield.
The sailboat in tow, much larger and sweeping curves to the car’s flat metal, was called Diligence. It had come from a little boatyard in Maine and now hovered above alien land like a constant mirage behind. A white cloud of paint and gleaming varnish. Every morning they poured a few jugs of water into the hull to keep it from warping and splitting in the heat thrown up by the road.
The driver’s side window was down every day. His father felt the air and light change all the way across the country. He always drove this way, lost in thought to the point of being dangerous, a cancerous left hand dangling a cigarette outside. Even after he had the heart attack and had to quit smoking, the arm was always outside, holding nothing but getting ever burned resting on the metal.
In the hospital, the driver-side arm still looked darker and more spotted than the right. It looked more fit, more hopeful with color. The right arm just looked old and flabby and true to the nature of waste. Dean understood the left arm. He had no sympathy for the right.
He remembers the drive as a series of cigarettes, one after another in the vacuum roar of the highway. They were as constant as the air and made him feel safe. The other constant: motel pools. Around four each day they would play a game. Who could spot the roadside motel with a pool? They all seemed to have pools, especially after the ground flattened out the road raced straight for the sun. This seemed to happen almost immediately after escaping the eastern seaboard. The country just gained momentum and impatiently shot west.
This was in the seventies and judging from history there should have been an unceasing trail of pilgrims on that road. But the road seemed empty most of the time. Now and then, there was the throbbing rush of a passing semi. To the mind of a child trucks and the world they are in are too big. The vastness and scale of the trip were reduced to points of wherever they happened to stop and the repetition of the hot, big-car interior. He toyed with the radio broadcasts coming from somewhere out in that bad land.
There was no funeral. No one in the family wanted a tired traditional ceremony. Dad wouldn’t have wanted it, they said. But Dad was dead so the decision wasn’t his anymore. While they just wanted to scatter back to their lives and continue doing whatever it was they were doing, to Dean, a funeral, something, was more about a hold on his own immediate sanity. The mistake Dean made was in insisting they do something, some sort of party to close out the death before the house got trashed and sold. Before he trashed and sold the house. It had been his house, too and there were bound to be mental implications in taking it down.
The gravity of his error became clear when, in the middle of the drinking and the sandwich eating and the quiet recollecting, his brother had pulled out the Kodak slide projector and stacks of carousels. They had been meticulously dated and cataloged so it was easy to pick the ones pertaining to Dean. Dean in the house. Dean in some other house. Dean at the beach. Dean with a rocket. One by one, frames of his misshapen and ill-fitting childhood, the messy hair and embarrassed looks, dropped into the burning electric slot. One slide got jammed and did burn. It spidered away on the white wall like a sixties light show. Now these drunken, dopey people, the housekeeper, Dean’s college friends, his girlfriend were transfixed. No one should see your childhood slides. It was a sick and amateurish revenge. Easy. Too easy and utterly horrific.
Later, the slides were divided and the house dismantled. With death comes division. What a complete waste. This is when James arrived.