Extract of the novel Lone Star
My dad is the astronaut who returns home at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. He sees himself sitting up in a big bed, one minute he’s a child, the next an old man. His face behind the visor of his space helmet says: What happened to all that time?
My dad saw the movie together with my mother before I was born, in the movie theatre on Lindell Boulevard. It was when they were living in St. Louis, and even though he was only in his early thirties at the time he knew right away that the figure he saw on the screen was him, that he was all three of them, the child, the old man, the astronaut, and that the scene would haunt him for the rest of his life. Even before Kubrick made his movie, my dad had seen the same images in his mind. They held a dreadful realisation, which was that we are powerless against time. No amount of scientific discovery, not even the sum of all the information in the world can change that. Not even if he and all the other physicists climbed onto the shoulders of all the physicists who had gone before them would they be able to do a thing about it.
Time is the great mystery, he said to me once, maybe the only mystery. If only we could understand time, we could understand it all.
I was only a teenager, unable to feel it yet. But it would come, he promised. 2001 is really the story of life, he said. If I stepped backwards and narrowed my eyes, I might sense them: eons of time, washing over us.
The last time I saw my dad was when I visited him in the house his wife had bought on a whim in Belgium. It was in August last year in a small town without anything in particular to recommend it, no places of interest, nothing to look at, nowhere to go.
My dad’s wife had turned several of the rooms into bathrooms, and the living room made me think of the kind of museums where they rope off the furniture. As in St. Louis, she had furnished the place in such a way that there was nowhere to sit down together, the only thing close was the nook in the sunroom where we had our meals and where three low wicker chairs stood around a high glass-topped table with a thick basketwork base that meant you couldn’t get your legs in properly.
Artificial flowers, drape curtains that spilled onto the floor. A fridge with food items past their use-by dates. Everywhere the same sickly sweet, dusty air I remember from the house in St. Louis.
After they picked me up from the railway station and we arrived at the house, my dad asked if I wanted to go for a walk with him and their little white Maltese dog, Molly. We had not seen each other for a year, but his wife immediately got her coat to go with us. We walked down the street towards the canal, and as we passed an area of shrubs and trees enclosed by a low wall, my dad’s wife looked at me and announced in her heavy Dutch accent that it was the cemetery. And then, as if it were some peculiar custom she had just discovered to be practised by the locals in this Belgian backwater, she told me that people came there every day to visit their dead relatives.
They come and they park arll ofer the street. She gesticulated to indicate the street as she spoke.
To visit dead people! And they bring flovers too.
To the dead people!
Can you believe that?
And then, as if on further reflection, she told me I could go there myself and visit her grave after she died.
That, more than anything, unsettled me. What did she imagine? That she would be buried here, far from my dad and their children and grandchildren in St. Louis, in a town where she knew no one? And did she think I would come and visit her grave? Did she think it was she I had come to see here?
At any rate, in the week I was there it was hard to find a moment alone with my dad. Every morning she would ask restlessly: What do you vant to do today? And neither of us had the guts to say we just wanted to spend some time on our own together. To sit and dally at the computer, maybe find a second-hand bookshop with some muggy boxes we could rummage in. But instead she arranged excursions, the purpose of which evaded us. She dragged us around the streets of outlying villages and asked us what we wanted to see now that we were here. Neither of us knew what to say, having no inclination whatsoever to trudge about in such dull and empty places, it was she who had taken us there, we had simply followed.
You mean, we came all this way for nurthink?
She was seething. We had painted ourselves into a corner.
So now you just vant to go beck?
If you want, my dad replied nervously.
No matter what we did, we painted ourselves into corners.
The rest of the time we spent at the computer in his room, a converted garage where he had his bed and his desk. We visited dead relatives on Google. My dad had reached the age where the past, even the past he had never personally known, had come alive. In recent years he had taken an interest in genealogy.
We went on Google Maps and found Ruby Ranch, not far from the place in Texas where my dad grew up. It was there, on Ruby Ranch, that he and my mother once visited a wealthy relative. My mother has told me about it many times, how my dad’s Uncle Cecil had sat at the end of the dining table, the Texas patriarch, a wrathful, inebriated highway king used to having his own way, how everyone else had sat there silent and submissive, his wife and children, servants cowering in the background. Outside the windows his property stretched out into infinity, visitors had to be picked up in a jeep to even get to the house from the entrance gate. He insisted my mother drink whisky with her meal, and my mother refused. She was pregnant with me. His hysteria spiralled. At one point he was so desperate he took out his wallet and offered her money. From where my mother was seated she could see the servants, a black married couple, the man a kind of butler, his wife the cook, standing watching from the kitchen, their faces twisted with shame at the way the master of the house was carrying on just so he could have things his way. But my mother won. It was not a question of money, not even a question of having it her way, but of keeping sound judgement in the face of madness.
Later, they would refer to it as “the Tennessee Williams night”. Now, many years on, the son, my dad’s deceased cousin, turned his part of the estate into something they call the Ruby Ranch Neighborhood, an entire residential area of smaller properties on private roads. We Google-mapped about there for a while. The roads are named after the family: Walter Circle, Humphrey’s Drive, Clark Cove …
I looked at my dad’s hands at the keyboard. It’s not just that I’ve been waiting for something from those hands all my life, waiting or hoping, there’s something else too. It’s as if they hold some kind of an answer. The way they move, the pronounced joints. I’ve always spent time looking at my dad’s hands. They were busy digging in the past, but it seemed to me there was still a lot of life hidden in those hands, many stories still to be told, and I hoped that some of them involved me.
One evening, when all three of us were seated around the glass-topped table in the sunroom, conducting the nervy kind of dinner conversation that occurs when the field of discussion is littered with all manner of mines and traps, my dad’s wife found out that my stepfather back home in Denmark was ill. I could not have envisaged what this information would prompt her to exclaim: Then your murthur and farthur can get back together!
I was so astounded that I was unable to speak. My dad said nothing either. She continued her meal regardless of the state of shock into which my dad and I had been thrown. A more reasonable reaction would have been to address the sad reality my mother and stepfather now found themselves in. But her thoughts jumped ahead in time, leap-frogging the death she imagined to be the natural outcome. And they went further still, into a fantasy in which my dad, in the forty-odd years in which he had been married to her, had merely been waiting for the chance to re-marry my mother. And that my mother likewise had been waiting and would now soon be ready. That the continents would thereby glue together and everything that once was would now be again, cemented together and intact, and in the midst of it all lay I, the happiest pea in the pod.
Neither of us mentioned it afterwards.
We said our goodbyes the evening before I went home. My dad and his wife are late sleepers, and my train left before they were in the habit of waking. I got up in good time, my dad’s wife had forbidden me to use the hot water, but I took a hot shower anyway, in one of the many bathrooms, the same one my dad used. I had no idea if I would ever return to the house, or when I would see my dad again.
My dad had ordered a taxi from a firm they had used before. It was a dismal morning, foggy and cold. I dragged my little wheelie case out into it, and the driver took me to the station without a word.
Eight months later, in April, my stepfather died at Frederiksberg Hospital. He had been sitting in his chair and had suddenly felt ill, and a few hours later he could no longer get out of bed on his own. It was a Friday and my mother did not know if they could get through the weekend on their own, so she had him admitted to the medical ward in the belief that things would be all right again by Monday. The next afternoon, the Saturday, a Swedish doctor informed my mother and me that he would not be coming home again. We sat on a pair of swivel chairs in what had recently been a ward and was now a makeshift office. They were going to take him off his drip, the doctor said. Otherwise they would just be dragging it out. “Otherwise” being IV therapy.
The drip was dismantled and he stayed in room seven. My mother sat by his bed, the days and nights accumulating in her face. And yet it came as a shock. We had seen the fear in his eyes, and still it was a shock when room seven went quiet:
We are sitting on either side of his bed and can no longer hear him breathing.
The last five days and nights have been as one, a prolonged nightmare. Two weeks ago, two weeks before he was admitted, we had lunch together in one of the small garden restaurants in Frederiksberg, celebrating his birthday early. He got to his feet and showed off his new trousers, front and back, new thick-ribbed corduroy trousers.
A week later he bought steak from Lund’s the butchers. We spoke on the phone, it was the day he turned sixty-three. He told me the steaks, two whopping great tornadoes, were so impressive that the butcher had held them up for the other customers to see before he wrapped them up.
Then he was admitted to the hospital. I had brought yellow tulips, they had been standing in a bucket at a flower seller’s on Kongens Nytorv, and since he has always loved yellow flowers I bought a bunch and carried them down with me into the metro.
Five days later and he is lying underneath them.
One of the nurses says, about the flowers: They were so fresh. She stands with us for a moment. Then she looks at me and says: You look like your dad.
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.