My father-in-law, on the other hand, sometimes seemed to live down in the
basement. His office, like him, was mostly about golf. The carpet was
Bermuda-grass green, the walls were hung with maps of St. Andrews and framed
New Yorker covers of duffers, and the various hats, ashtrays, hassocks,
cigarette lighters, plaques, novelty telephones, and trophies around the room
were shaped like golf balls, tees, mashies, mulligans, and I don't know what. In
the midst of all this sat an enormous black Robber Baron desk with matching
black Captain Nemo chair; an old, vaguely Japanese-looking coffee table on its
last tour of duty in the house; a cyclopean television; and a reclining armchair
and sofa, both covered in wool patterned with the tartan of some unknown but no
doubt staunch, whiskey-drinking, golf-wild highland clan.
It is for just such circumstances, in which two men with little in common may
find themselves thrown together with no other recourse than to make friends,
that sports were invented. When my wife and I visited I went downstairs, flopped
on the sofa, and watched a game with my father-in-law. He made himself a C.C.
and soda, and sometimes, to complete the picture, I let him mix one for me. Like
many men of my generation, I found solace when unhappy in placing quotation
marks around myself and everything I did. There was I, an "unhappy husband,"
drinking a "cocktail" and "watching the game." This was the only room in the
house where I was permitted to smoke I have long since quit and I made the
most of it (a man's den often serves the same desublimating function in the
household as Mardi Gras or Las Vegas in the world; a different law obtains
there). We spent hours together, cheering on Art Monk and Carlton Fisk and other
men whose names, when by chance they arise now, can summon up that entire era of
whiskey and football and the smell of new Coupe de Ville, when the biggest
mistake I ever made came home to roost, and I briefly had one of the best
fathers I've ever found.
My ex-wife and I I won't go into the details had good times and bad
times, fought and were silent, tried and gave up and tried some more before
finally throwing in the towel, focused, with the special self-absorption of the
miserable, on our minute drama and its reverberations in our own chests. All the
while, the people who loved us were not sitting there whispering behind their
hands like spectators at a chess match. They were putting our photographs in
frames on their walls. They were uniting our names over and over on the outsides
of envelopes that bore anniversary wishes and recipes clipped from newspapers.
They were putting our birthdays in their address books, knitting us socks,
studying the fluctuating fortunes of our own favorite hitters every morning in
the box scores. They were working us into the fabric of their lives. When at
last we broke all those promises that we thought we had made only to each other,
in an act of faithlessness whose mutuality appeared somehow to make it all
right, we tore that fabric, not irrecoverably but deeply. We had no idea how
quickly two families can work to weave themselves together. When I saw him
sometime later at his mother's funeral in Portland, my father-in-law told me
that the day my divorce from his daughter came through was the saddest one in
his life. Maybe that was when I started to understand what had happened.
What was I now to him? How can it have felt to have been divorced by someone
he treated like a son? These are not considerations that comfort me or make me
especially proud. I try to remind myself that in the long course of his life, I
occupied only a tiny span of years toward the end, when everything gleams with
an unconvincing luster, moving too quickly to be real. And I try to forget that
for a short while I formed a layer, however thin, in the deep stratigraphy of
his family, so that some later explorer, rummaging through the drawers of his
big old desk, might brush aside a scorecard from the 1967 PGA Pacific Northwest
Open signed by Arnold Palmer, or an old pencil-style typewriter eraser with a
stiff brush on one end, stamped queen city ribbon co., and turn up a faded
photograph of me, in my sober blue suit, flower in my lapel, looking as if I
knew what I was doing.
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