(Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir: “The Man Who Would Be John Irving”)
Chapter 1: Chiaroscuro
I did not expect to hear from my father unless he was deathly ill or already a ghost. I wasn’t sure what I would do in either case, but one thing was certain: we would not speak until then.
I imagined myself going there, to his smoky sixth-floor walk-up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Just to check on him. I had musings of surprising him with a puppy or kitten. Maybe a few balloons.
I dreamed of him too. He chased me or leapt out at me from pure darkness. Stout legs, hairy arms, a bald and shiny head. His face adorned with a well-trimmed mustache. He usually wore army green camping shorts, muddied hiking boots. Sometimes he wore blue jeans. He looked fit, aware and strong. He did not look like someone about to die.
August 4, 2003
The Jamaican women at the Kings County morgue were watching One Life to Live when I arrived to identify the body.
“Turn that down, you,” one of them said. She wore long hoop earrings and acrylic nails with lightning bolts painted on them.
A woman in tight jeans muted the TV.
The room was the size of a two-car garage. Shiny file cabinets were shoved up against exposed brick walls behind a desk on one side, some of their worn labels now replaced with alphabetized post-it notes. The air smelled like my 8th grade gym locker room. Wet dogs, sweaty feet and cooked eggs.
The woman assigned to my case sat at the desk; her nametag read “Veronica.” Her hair was pulled smoothly into a bun, the earrings brushing the side of her neck. Save for a black ribbed turtleneck, she gave off the allure of a gypsy. Something about this comforted me.
I sat waiting for Veronica to find my file and imagined the four walls of the office falling outward, myself and the other two women exposed on a movie set. This was a place no one ever wanted to go. I would walk out of here today. My father would not.
What happened to all those people who died with nobody to claim them? What if I had decided to let someone else take care of him?
“Do you want a cup of coffee?” Veronica asked abruptly.
“Sure, that’d be great,” I settled my hands on my lap.
Veronica gestured to a squat card table near the door. “Behind you,” she said.
I slid the chair out, causing an awkward screech, and went over to where three pots were lined up on burners in front of a Bunn coffee machine. On the other side of the room, the woman in tight jeans now flipped through a gossip magazine. Her legs were crossed, one foot tapping the linoleum floor. A television hung above her head like a halo. It looked like it might easily fall on her, causing this day and this appointment to be cut short and to enter into another version of tragedy.
I pulled a Styrofoam cup off the table and reached for the pot of coffee that looked the freshest. I tossed a packet of sugar and a sleeve of powdered creamer into the cup. The coffee quickly turned the color of diarrhea.
I sat back down.
“There now, better?” Veronica said. I looked in her eyes, painted dark with too much eyeliner. Maybe those were fake eyelashes.
“Yes, thanks. It’s been a long morning,” I said, taking a tentative sip. My hands were shaking, my fingernail polish chipped, reduced to colorful confetti. I chewed off most of the pink lacquer the night before.
The phone rang.
“Just a moment,” Veronica held up one of the lightning bolts, “I need to take this.”
A list ran through my head. Vital information about the dead. Hair color. Eye color. Height. Weight. Address. Occupation. Mundane details, yes. But, they made up a life. In the case of murder or unexplained death, they might solve a crime or a mystery. I knew I wasn’t the first person to look for answers here.
Veronica’s voice grew louder as she spoke more deliberately to the person on the other end of the phone. “I cannot process the claim if you do not come down to the morgue. That’s what I’m trying to say to you, ma’am,” she fingered the telephone cord, her lightning bolts taking on a life of their own.
More vitals. Mother’s date of birth. Father’s date of birth. Date of death. The words fell in my head and slipped through an imaginary sidewalk crack.
Next of kin. Where I lived. Just in between the Next and Kin. I was the of. The line my father must have filled in at some point, on some form in an office like this, knowing I would be here someday to deal with this.
Next of kin. I repeated it to myself.
That’s why there was no one else. I was the next of kin.
I didn’t know the man I was claiming. He was a stranger to me, a ghost of someone I buried long ago in my child’s heart.
But yesterday, everything changed.
You have one new message. Message One. Received Friday, August 3rd, at 1:34 p.m. “Hi, this message is for Meredith Franco. I, uh, this is Stephen Greene. I am a friend of your father’s. I have some news for you. If you wouldn’t mind calling me back. It’s pretty urgent. Call me at home anytime. Thanks.”
When I first heard the message, Stephen’s name sparked nothing.
Two rings. A man answered the phone.
“Is this Stephen?” I said.
“Yes.” The voice was raspy.
“Stephen, it’s Meredith, Albert Werder’s daughter.” I said, feeling like an impostor. I hadn’t said his name out loud in a long time.
“Meredith. You don’t remember do you? I live in your father’s apartment building.”
I didn’t remember.
He continued, “I met you once when you were a teenager. You wanted to go to some party downtown and your father asked me if it was safe. I had just biked over. We were standing outside his building,” He said this last part with desperation in his voice, like if I didn’t recall these particular details, that was it — all he had.
Thankfully the muddied photograph turned clear. Stephen, Stephen Greene the painter, the guy my father secretly wanted me to end up with. He was a few years older than I — enough that it wasn’t appropriate for us to date when I was sixteen, but my father hoped we might get together later maybe once I’d moved to Manhattan and finished college. Stephen, yes Stephen. I wanted to go to a warehouse techno party. “A rave?” my father said jovially, “What a great fucking name for a party!”
Stephen thought Al should accompany me. So that night, my father took me to the party and made strange air signs with his arms as the bass pounded us into the floor. We stayed out dancing until five in the morning. Al took me for pancakes afterwards.
I told Stephen that I remembered now. I was starting to remember it all.
“You’re a pretty tough person to find,” he cough laughed here. It wasn’t a real laugh but the kind you make when you’re just trying to make light of something. To keep it relatively upbeat.
“Sorry about that,” I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Did your boss tell you I called the office?”
I told him yes, that I was surprised he was able to track me down there. The truth? I erected stronghold after stronghold during the past years in order to prevent my father from finding me.
Stephen said he Googled me and finding my name on a web page that was maintained by my office, he followed me to my job at Columbia University.
So I left a breadcrumb. One footprint in the snow between me and my father. My name, in eight-point font at the bottom of a rarely visited grants submission web site. I was found.
I didn’t tell Stephen that my boss did mention his phone call. Instinctively I knew that his call was very likely about Al being sick or dead, but part of me worried it could be a trap too. Al was known to do crazier.
It was not out of the realm of possibility to think he could have asked a friend to call me and scare me a bit so that I’d finally get in touch. After my boss told me of his call, I stepped outside for my lunch break. It was raining on Amsterdam Avenue. I stood, umbrella-less, and wondered how it had gotten to this point. How did we so easily slip from innocence to the point of no return? From a powdery baby in her new father’s arms to millions of weathered miles between us?
Back in my apartment, there was an awkward silence on the phone. Stephen and I both knew he didn’t have pleasant news and we couldn’t go on reminiscing or chitchatting.
He got right to it. My father was dead.
I screamed once, hollowly, like a distressed animal. Then, I began to cry.
Stephen told me the rest of the story. The neighbors complained of a wretched smell and the building manager, Stephen’s father, asked his son to check up on their manic depressive tenant.
“He was supposed to be in Cape Cod for the weekend,” Stephen kept saying like it would bring him back, “He was supposed to be in Cape Cod. He told me. Cape Cod.”
This was why Stephen thought nothing of Al’s car parked outside on Hicks Street. My father typically got a ride to the Cape with friends. He loved those Hicks Street spots for their convenience and because they weren’t yet beholden to alternate side parking rules.
Next, Stephen described “all those fucking flies” and the smell of the body. He said that when he finally opened Al’s door to discover the worst, he figured the body had rotted for days. He noticed my father’s feet first. They were hanging partway out of the bedroom doorway. It looked as if Al had a heart attack and couldn’t get to the phone. His medication was scattered on the floor, thrown like confetti.
He made sure to say it again. The flies were all over the apartment — everywhere. Awful. Beyond description. He said the cops were holding some of Al’s belongings at the station. His wallet. His keys.
“They even took his money clip,” Stephen said, starting to cry, “He loved that money clip. It was the Native American one he got in Arizona. Man, the police were such fucking assholes. They pulled couch cushions up to see if there was money underneath them. They took fucking change from under the couch cushions. Fucking assholes. I was standing right there, looking at my friend.”
Veronica hung up the phone. “I’m sorry about that. Shall we?”
“Now, lady. Your father is very bad, very bad. You know what I mean?” Veronica’s eyes wandered over my head to the clock just above the door.
“Yes, I know,” I said, “I spoke to the coroner a few hours ago.”
Veronica leaned closer, her earrings glinting, and placed a manila envelope in front of me. On its longest edge were printed two words and an initial.
Werder, Albert D.
So, this is what we become. A phrase, a few words, a thing to be separated by a comma or some other appropriate border between the living and the dead.
“I’m gonna show you the photos now, ok? Then, if you need to, we can look at his body in the other room.”
Veronica opened the envelope with a long fingernail and pulled out three Polaroids. Quickly, she organized the photos like a casino dealer in one hand, splayed out like playing cards with their dark, metallic backs facing me.
“I need to warn you miss, ok? Your father is badly decomposed.”
I picked a spot on Veronica’s desk and tried to focus. It was a smudge, maybe from old leftover gum. I picked this spot and I focused, knowing that if I did not, I would start to cry.
“Badly decomposed. You understand? Yes? No?” Veronica stared at me — her eyes pleading for a sign of recognition.
I straightened in the hard-backed chair, “Just so I can prepare myself, what exactly does a decomposed body look like?”
“Oh, that’s tough, very tough. I’d say it gets black like fruit. You ever see a rotted peach or plum? It’s dead, you know? The skin gets black and there’s nothin’ to hold it up so it just caves in. It just gives out.” With that, Veronica made a flimsy attempt with her lips to imitate the sound of something giving way — like a balloon losing air. “Like that, see?”
Deep breath, deep breath.
She explained that dead people typically grow hair on their faces after just a few hours. My father might look changed and his facial features could likely be unrecognizable, but she had seen to it that his face was pulled into a dignified smile. I would be able to recognize dental features. She thought I might like to know too that the forehead and hairline are great place markers.
“That’s usually a good place to start. You can make the identification from there,” she said.
“Don’t forget to look for landmarks,” my father whispered in my ear many years ago as he was teaching me how to read maps, “When you’re lost, they come in handy.”
I nodded and she flipped over the photos.
the rat-like white whiskers on his face, the strange way he seemed to look happy, not at all defeated in the pitch blackness of it all. I tried to focus on his hairline, the dark, rotten balding lines that marked his face and gave it an outline.
I knew I would never forget these things.
So, I began to cry.
“That’s him, right? I think that’s him,” I said to no one at all.
I brought a photo with me. My father, Al, standing in front of a townhouse in Brooklyn somewhere. He’s wearing an army jacket. Proud.
“Yes, that’s him. That’s my father.”