When I first saw my father’s notebooks I myself was a very old man. My father lived to be 127 years old and he was cogent to the end. On his deathbed, in the hospital wing of one of our Guest Houses, he revealed his secret to me.
As I sat next to him, reading in my favorite highback chair, he quietly asked me to come over to his bedside.
“There’s something you need to know,” he said to me in his hushed, weakened voice.
“Can it wait until I finish this chapter,” I said.
“It’s just two more pages,” I said leafing ahead.
“Just get over here!” Dying men can get terribly impatient.
I walked over. He lifted his head and looked around. “Are the doctors gone?”
“They’re all asleep.” We had a team of doctors that lived with us. Well, they had their own apartments in the hospital wing.
“Just Nurse Cratchett down the hall.”
He motioned me closer with a bent finger. He looked me in the eyes, he seemed afraid, guilty, I was worried about becoming the recipient of his last confession, or, to be more precise, I was worried that he thought it was time for a last confession, that he felt the end was near.
My father was much more than a father to me. He was my mentor, then my partner, a business partner extraordinaire. He was a genius and we made vast sums of money together. Incredible wealth during a time of global transformation. Catastrophic changes racked the planet and my father and I navigated through them, fearless captain and loyal lieutenant.
Beyond the success, the wealth, the luxury, though, there stood the unprecedented longevity. On that fateful day in his last bedroom, I was 95 years old. We had been together, I mean inseparable, for damn near a century. For three quarters of a century we worked side by side in adjoining offices atop the West Tower. We never left the complex alone. It had been that way for so long I never even questioned it. He even bought a house in Cambridge when I went to Harvard. He moved to Paris while I did graduate work at the Sarbonne.
The prospect of losing my father was no ordinary thing. I don’t want to give you the idea that it was devastating. When a guy passes 125 you had better have come to grips with the idea that this person is going to die some day. If you haven’t, you’ve lost your grasp on reality.
Reality had been difficult to grasp, though. The world was nothing like it had been when I was young. But more on that later, we were at the dramatic bedside scene.
He was looking at me with eyes that lacked confidence, and that in itself was shocking. My father was always the most cocksure man in the room. He saw things differently, people talk about seeing the big picture, that 30,000 foot view, well he had that in spades, but he never flaunted it. He never blustered, he wasn’t the belligerent, obnoxious, know-it-all CEO we so often had to deal with.
He would sit in meetings, quietly taking things in from the end of the board room table, then smile his Cheshire cat smile and tell us how it was going to be, like he was letting us in on a little secret. And people couldn’t resist him. His fiercest opponents were always, ultimately, swayed to his way of thinking, and it was his eyes that did it, those calm, piercing, confident eyes.
At that moment, though, as I looked at him for nearly the last time, that fire was fading, the light had dimmed. So, yes, I was worried, but hardly saddened. We couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling relationship. Never in history had such a man existed, had such a family as ours flourished so.
How many men get to golf with their great great grandson? To be honest, though, he wasn’t that great. My grandson was a much better golfer than him at his age. When the course we’d built couldn’t challenge him anymore, we had to redesign it and then we had to build a brand new one, another 18 hole track nearly 2,000 yards longer. Again, though, I digress.
In short, my father had lived a full life. Now, I was ready for some prescient last words, but I never expected the impact, the ground-shaking magnitude, of the simple words he spoke that day.
He looked up at me and told me cryptically, as if handing me a key, both literally and figuratively as it turned out, to the most remarkable story I’d ever heard, and, trust me, in this day and age, I’ve heard some pretty remarkable stories. He told me in an uncharacteristically fluttering voice, “I knew it would happen.”
“You knew what would happen, dad?”
“All of it. Everything.”
I stared down at him carefully, with care. I didn’t want him to think I thought he was losing it if he wasn’t losing it. Lord knows how many times that had happened in the last 20 years. He could get pretty offended when people thought he was going crazy. 'Just cuz a guy turns 118 doesn’t mean he’s senile!' he’d shout.
“What do you mean, ‘everything’?”
“Listen,” he said, softer still. “I have a safe. No one knows about it. The men who built it are long dead.” He paused to catch his breath. “I want you to open it…when…not until,” he emphasized that ‘not until’, “not until I’m gone.”
“Okay…” I said slightly shakily.
He pursed his lips and chastised me with his eyes. “Don’t give me that look you little shit, I’m still your father and I’m still sane. I’ll beat your ass.”
That reassured me.
“Where is it?”
“It’s in the New House.”
The ‘New’ House was built 80 years ago. Since then dozens of buildings had gone up on the compound, but we still called it the New House.
“In the basement. Under the stairs.”
“Under the stairs?”
“Are you deaf, you old coot. I said under the stairs, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but dad, there’s nothing under those stairs, that basement was carved out of solid rock.”
“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re my son. Are you going to have to write this down? I designed that building, you imbecile, I know what’s under those stairs.”
“OK, OK, geez, you don’t have to bite my head off.”
He smiled, “You’re still the same. Nearly 100, one of the most powerful men in the world, and you’re still a stupid teenager.”
I sighed in exasperation. “Right, right.” Like a hadn’t heard that a million times before. “Back to the safe under the stairs, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, a secret safe under the stairs? – really, it’s a bit cliché don’t you think?”
“Fuck you. I was only in my forties, it sounded like a cool idea. And, anyway, it’s worked. No one but me, and now you, knows it exists.”
“So, what’s in it?”
“I’m not going to tell you, you moron, haven’t you been listening.”
His face turned grave again, embarrassed, afraid.
“I just can’t,” he said. I decided I had to respect that. Looking back now I understand why, I understand entirely. Then, I took it on faith, on the look in his face, in his eyes, on that understanding we had between us. I wouldn’t ask him what it was he had hidden in that safe again.
We sat quietly for awhile before he spoke again.
“You need to find stone 47.”
I’d always wondered why he had numbered those stones.
“Behind stone 47 you’ll find a key. You getting this?”
“Yes, dad,” I whined.
“Take that key and go to stone 98, or was it 99? 98?”
I looked at him impatiently.
“I’m joking, I’m joking. It’s stone 98. You think I’d forget this. It’s around the corner on the wall of my old office.”
“OK. Stone 98…”
“Remove that stone, behind it, there’s…”
“That’s my boy. Now go open it.”
“I hate to break the news to you, son, but I don’t have all day.”
“Oh, come on…I thought you said…”
“Just do it!” he fairly shouted, as much of a shout as a dying 127-year old could shout.
I had no choice.
I left the hospital wing of Guest House #2 and headed across the 18th fairway of Course #2, what we called the New Course - we weren’t much for creative nomenclature – to the New House.
At that hour most everyone was asleep. A guard sat at the door, he stood when I approached, and as soon as he recognized me, opened the door, greeting me with a nod of the head. “Late night, sir?”
“You said it, Maurice.” It took me awhile to get used to men in their 70s calling me “sir” but that’s the way of the world.
I grabbed a torch and went downstairs to the basement. It was a dark, cold place now, but I remember when I was a child running down there to roust my father from his office. He kept it bright with an abundance of lighting, dozens of floorlamps, little desklamps on filing cabinets and the like to compensate for the total absence of sunlight. He usually had a fire going in the woodstove, that cat of his curled up beside it, even long into the summer. Without it, the place quickly grew damp and chilly like it was now.
I pushed the torch in front of me and sought the stone. We’d long ago shut down the New House, no point in wasting the electricity. And now I can see my father’s ulterior motive – no point in having people mucking around his secret hiding place.
Father left few things to chance.
When I found number 47, I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be quickly accomplished. The stone would not budge. I had to rummage around in the tool shed for a screwdriver and a hammer. I wondered if Maurice could hear me as I chipped away the mortar around the stone. My father and his flair for the dramatic. I finally, prized it loose and, sure enough, found a key in a small metal container with “Hide-a-Key” printed on it. One of dad’s clever jokes.
I then had to go around the corner and repeat the process with stone 98. This time there was a rectangular metal piece affixed sidewise with a small handle, which I pulled. The plate came free with some difficulty and revealed the lock, it still shone like new in the shaky torchlight. I inserted the key, turned it and heard a loud click. A roughly three foot by three foot, but by no means square, section of the wall snapped out of place. It was a great piece of handiwork. The rounded stones fit into place like puzzle pieces, and the hinged door swung open easily.
There was the safe. A combination safe. He had not given me any combination.
Cursing, I made my way back to the hospital. Father must have heard me stomping down the hall because he had a childish impish grin on his face when I stopped next to his bed.
“The combination?” I said.
“Be patient. I’m not dead yet.”
I miss him dearly, of course, but he could be a real pain in the ass.
“Did you close it up?”
“Was Maurice there?”
“Good man, Maurice. Did I ever tell you I knew his wife?”
This was one of my father’s favorite euphemisms. He had countless lovers, if that is indeed the proper word for it. Concubine doesn’t work either. They were more like playthings, hors d’oeuvres, carnal snacks.
You see everyone knew he was a breeder, that he wasn’t sterile. So, women would come to him in the hope that he could impregnate them. Often their husbands brokered the deal, they were so desperate for children. There was The Test, certainly everyone took The Test, yet people still wanted to make sure. Trust, but verify, right? And, my dad was almost always willing to oblige.
“No, dad, I don’t think you did,” I deadpanned. “And, how did Maurice feel about that?”
“Oh, he was most grateful. ‘It took a load off’ he had said.” He snickered, “It took a load off me, too.”
“You’re a dirty old man.”
“And you aren’t?”
He had me there. The temptation was too great, unbearable. What would you do?
“So, what’s the combination?”
“Hold your horses. We need to talk seriously. I have important things to tell you.”
“What did The Manic-Depressive say when he pushed his son on the swing?”
“You told me this joke 40 years ago in Lyon. I don’t know how you’re going to manage without me, you feeble-minded nincompoop.”
“You doubt me? You dare doubt your father after all these years.”
“So, what’s the punchline…”
“’Ennui…Ennui-eee’. Now, can we get serious?”
He had the schooling of a peasant, but the memory of an elephant.
“OK. What’s so important that you had to wait until your deathbed to tell me.”
“Listen to me.”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Are you sure you’re listening?”
“Yes, I’m listening!”
He paused for effect, raised one finger, and said, barely able to restrain the laughter…”Plastics.” He thought he was hilarious.
“I thought we were done with the jokes.”
“It’s not a joke, it’s a line from a great movie.”
“There are no movies anymore, dad. There are no actors, hell, there hasn’t even been any film for more than 40 years.”
“So, I still remember them.”
“Yeah, you and about 10 other people in the world.”
That seemed to strike home, and the smile faded from his lips. The laughter died in the room, and the silence became oppressive. If I hadn’t known all the moisture had long dried out of the old cur’s tearducts, I would have sworn I’d seen a watering in his eyes.
“You’re right,” he said glumly.
“A rare concession.”
“Well, you’re going to have to be right a lot more often. You’re not going to have me watching your back anymore and things are only going to get worse.”
The mood of the room had changed entirely. The stillness of the night grew more obvious. The darkness, the lateness of the hour, our alone-ness, all contributed to the proper ambience, at last, for our important exchange.
He sighed and I could see his exhaustion, he let his guard down and for the last time I noticed that dejected countenance of his, his “sad mask” I used to call it. It would come and go, fleeting, yet now it lingered.
“No film. No tape. No compact disks, DVDs…floppies,” he scoffed.
“No, dad, they’re all gone. Things for the history books.”
“Except there are no history books.”
“No historians,” he added flatly.
“Not exactly the highest priority.”
“No, probably not. Not yet, at least. But there will come a time. And, now that I think about it that’s part of what I want to tell you.”
He had my attention.
“In that safe are documents, files. There are tape recordings and videotapes, but I had to make transcripts of those when I realized there weren’t going to be any of the devices needed to play them left. They’re there in case you ever track one down. Mostly, everything is recorded on paper. The old-fashioned way.”
“No gold doubloons?”
“You know as well as I do that all the gold in the world is worthless now.”
I smiled inwardly at how much we’d made selling gold short and then going long on grains. One of our masterstrokes.
“Look, I’ve done some things I’m ashamed of,” he said as if he were reading my mind. We destroyed people. Sure, they were going to die anyway, but still it wasn’t very nice. Laissez faire and C’est la vie only go so far.
“There are things in that safe that I want to explain to you. I’m not trying to justify myself, I don’t think, in the end, that I ever had much choice in the matter. They chose me. It was my fate. You, though, and everyone else, I’m sorry to say, are the ones that are going to have to do the hard work, and you should know, you should be aware of how this all came about, this dying off.”
“You know how? I mean, sometimes I suspected something…”
“Well, you always seemed to know too much, to be too farsighted, as if you could see the future.”
“Ridiculous! You’re just saying that now because I told you.”
“Stop. You always did have to be a know-it-all. Just like your mother.”
“No matter. It all really doesn’t matter at this point. I just want you to know. I want you to know what happened and why I did it. And I don’t want you to judge me too harshly. Out of everyone, everyone who’s left, even most everyone who’s gone, I respect your opinion the highest.”
“’Most’ everyone?” I asked.
“You’re still a competitive little bugger. Sometimes I thought you enjoyed all this a bit too much.”
“Life is suffering. It’s better to suffer less, I’ve always felt.”
“I suppose that’s been a good way for you to look at things. But, you have to change, you have to teach the rest of them to change when they come back, if they come back. It’s the only way we’ll get back to the way things were, to a better way if we are to believe, if we are to believe them…”
He trailed off. “Who?” I asked. “If we are to believe who? Who are them, I mean who are they?”
But he wouldn’t answer. He just shook his head. That was one of the secrets I was going to find in the safe, I would have to wait. He simply handed me an envelope and whispered, “Not until I’m gone.”