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Fiction

Ghosts

Sara Majka

I. XEROX CHARTS

In the summer of 1982, my father took the inheritance left by his father and bought $50,000 dollars of Xerox stock. He had been researching the advance of the computer and felt Xerox would be an important part of it. He had a few other stocks, small things that came up during his research, but the bulk of the stake was in Xerox. He held it for years, and then, despite nearly no trading experience, sold at its peak in 1999, right before the dot-com bubble burst. He had bought at just over twelve dollars a share and sold at nearly $150 a share, giving him half a million dollars. The government took their cut, but what they didn’t take he used to purchase a home on the Cape.

Why did you buy and why did you sell can be two of the most interesting questions that you can ask someone with this story. They’re not simple questions, and it’s not really about money. When someone holds for years it becomes something they’ve lived inside. You can feel the stock’s movements, and can feel when it’s losing strength. At first everyone says it’s your psyche, that’s all, that it’s going to keep climbing, but you can feel it, you can feel the floor going ahead of time. You just don’t completely admit it, so it’s hard to tell. But, also, pressure mounts, there’s now something you can lose that you didn’t have before, so you get the jitters, and maybe that’s what you’re seeing instead, ghosts trying to take the money.

Why Xerox, one asks. I know, he says, Why not Apple. Why not Apple. What’s the difference, he used to say, except a view of the sea. His home was nestled in the scrub of the Cape. Apple would have got him on a ledge overlooking the sea, but when he said that, he had been living in that home so long he would have never wanted anything else. His name for the house was the Xerox Fortune. And here is the Xerox Fortune he might say when welcoming someone in, even if they didn’t know the story, so they might wonder at his tie to the founding family or what the house might have had to do with photocopiers. It’s not the Apple fortune, but it’ll do for now. I wondered back then what would happen to the Xerox Fortune after he died, if, one day in my will, I would be passing the home down to my son in the way that ghosts once created don’t disappear. This comment sounds dramatic, and I don’t mean that, that the loss of my dad’s fortune (for he didn’t pass the house to me in his will and instead donated it to the Modern House Trust. I’ve since seen the house twice on tour, and for a time you could rent it overnight, though I hadn’t done that. He also donated money for its upkeep. He left me what money remained, which wasn’t a large amount but was not inconsequential to my life), I don’t mean that the loss haunted me and my son. I just mean ghosts in the sense that once fear or love creates another presence, it follows along always. My dad’s moment of gripping that stock, of researching into the night, trying to understand if that shaking he felt—which would result in the loss of nearly the worth of the Xerox stock—if that movement was simply his fear, or if he could trust his understanding of the tremor and that it meant to get out.


It feels, looking back at bubbles, that it’s one movement. Everything was rocketing in price, and then it collapsed. But when I think about my father holding Xerox, it wouldn’t have been as simple as he had it, then sold, and then it collapsed. It would have been several movements and each would have its own decision. I must have asked him at some point how he had handled those months, but I’m not sure he had a clear answer or, if he did, then I don’t recall it. The thing is, if it had been Amazon you held at that time, then buying back in, even if you did it too early, that would have been the right thing. But that hadn’t been the case with Xerox. He had played it perfectly.

During the time I was researching this, I was still at home. Thom was in Boston. So nothing had changed, but around us there were changes, and you felt them in your own way. To fall asleep I read about the dot-com bubble. I would watch the markets in the morning and then would drive to the harbor of a neighboring town simply to be at another harbor.


There were dozens of midcentury homes sprinkled throughout the lower Cape, built in the woods, near ponds, some designed by locals and some by Bauhaus members like Marcel Breuer. Most were rustic wood homes with large windows, but my father’s was a brutalist concrete structure. In pictures it’s rather ugly, for the magic of the work is in its proportions, as if someone with a sense of humor had shrunk a very serious home and that was the house my father selected, though he didn’t, for the most part, have a sense of humor. He must have preferred the style and failed to notice the joke of the dimensions. It also didn’t have many windows. Perhaps because of the concrete used, only the top was well lit—for though small, it climbed to three floors, with the telescope room inset on all sides with high windows and a pitched glass roof. When we talked, we mostly sat in that top room. He had thin white skin and blue eyes and all the light created a sort of transparency in him.

He’d have me carry one of the metal trays up from the kitchen with a teapot and cups. Little saucers of something or another, figs, Italian cookies. It was an open galley kitchen that had no cabinets, only shelves and hooks, so my father just kept what was necessary and each item was out as if waiting for its immediate use. The dish cloth on a hook next to the sink, an aluminum strainer, four Russel Wright mugs. He had been an environmentalist who wrote early about the coming of the computer, the dangers of climate change, the land struggles of the Native Americans, but in all the writing he was encyclopedic, dry, the legalities of each case captured in detail and only sometimes did the people come through, as if he could see them, but only from time to time. It was a wonder, then, how much my father loved beauty. His bedroom was spare except for a bed with a wool Native American blanket in earth tones and valuable framed line drawings.

Outside, surrounding a patio with an iron table set, he grew many kinds of sage. His office looked over this garden and I remember once, while making dinner, going to pick sage and seeing him at his desk through the glass door and noticing that his back was turned away from the garden. Who turns away from the garden, I wondered. I was panfrying fish and serving it with new potatoes. It wasn’t long after my divorce. I was staying for a week in his extra bedroom. He had always liked my husband, liked that he was a mathematician and liked staying up late talking to him. It was perhaps easier for him then when I was there alone. He used to buy several nice bottles of French wines when we visited having learned this was what my ex-husband preferred. This time I had tried to improve our chances by having him invite a few friends to dinner. One night he had over a man who caned chairs. Another night he had the conservationist over. I had said I would make dinner but then didn’t buy enough fish. There were several loaves of bread from the French bakery and good butter. The man then brought an olive loaf. We had a tremendous amount of bread. They had a conversation about my father’s pottery that I hadn’t understood. My father had been carefully purchasing a vintage collection piece by piece. Everything inside the home was from the appropriate time period. The blinds, the carpets, the pen set on his desk. He said something about the pottery as if here were giving it to the man. Why would he be gifting the dishes we were eating off of? The conservationist was a sensitive man in his late forties in a tweed cap. I didn’t find him handsome but was otherwise drawn to him because he had a certain kind of sadness. It was a soft sort of feeling—it wouldn’t overwhelm and instead would probably make him a good listener. He didn’t pursue the comment my father made about the pottery. He asked me about my life in New York. I’m going through a rather difficult divorce at the moment, I said.

Oh yes, he said, allowing that he’d also had one.

A mathematician, my father said, a bright man.

Oh yes, the man repeated.

I’m so sorry about the fish, I said.

It’s nothing. Never mind about the fish, my father said. He refilled our glasses. It was a good bottle of wine.

After the man left, we washed the dishes, my father at the sink and me standing next to him drying. He had taken off his dress shirt and wore an undershirt. Why not another shot at it, Janey, my father said. This was the hundredth shot, I said. Oh, he said. Oh, taking a sponge to the mixing bowl. It’s not like you think it might be, he said, where you’ll have so many other chances, but if you’ve given it time, and it hasn’t helped, sometimes that’s all that can be done.

All the beautiful Russel Wright pottery laid on a dishtowel. I find I want to talk about visiting the Russel Wright house along the Hudson River, a trip I made with a friend when I was pregnant, so far along that I was close to not being able to travel. We ate at a café that made their own hard cider, and I drank a sip from my friend’s glass, and we stopped after at the Rockefeller Church where I rested in the pew and looked at the Chagall windows. I find I want to talk about the delicateness of the Russell Wright home. That quality reminded me of Fallingwater, something that you aren’t able to tell from pictures. I’ve toured, whenever I travel, many of these kinds of homes, and prefer the smaller ones, the ones where you can tell how someone has lived. I find it easier, of course, to go to those places than to stay in the kitchen with my father, recalling him in that unguarded moment, in his undershirt, bending over the sink, the spot beneath his nape showing wayward hairs. I also don’t remember it well. It wasn’t a dramatic scene when I learned I wasn’t getting the house. I understood. It probably wasn’t that night. Though I remember parts of that night well. The divorce, the sudden and surprising failure of my nervous system, the difficulties I had in sleeping leading me to get up and make snacks that I ate off of paper towels. The smell of the conservationist when he took off his coat, like the old nutmeg we use once a year in cookies.


II. COMPOSITION DOLLS

My father never told the story of his breakdown or the recovery. He never said why. He always rushed to the part of the story that interested him, which was all the abandoned farmhouses in New Hampshire. He had driven there from his family’s home in Connecticut and broke into one to sleep, perhaps feeling he might end his life there, though that thought was let go of early, for much in the landscape and old buildings ended up interesting him. One thought he had trouble letting go of was that there was a second farmhouse just the same as the one he was in, and he was also in that one. His was a bare, white farmhouse that glowed when the afternoon light hit. That was when he felt there was another farmhouse, also a bare thing in a field, alight. He would drive in the morning to a gas station for coffee and then look for the other farmhouse. He knew it was there. He just had to drive around long enough. The problem, though, the problem that he couldn’t work out was what finding it would mean, because he didn’t think that inside would be another him, or inside would be a portal to another place. He hadn’t entirely detached from reality. He knew that when he found the second farmhouse, he would enter in the same way he had entered the other and that he would stand in the lit windows and feel the same desire, maybe a little stronger, and eventually the light would go down, and that would be what he would find and nothing else.

Did you find the farmhouse? I asked.

What? he said, confused by the question, though he had just detailed the days of looking. No, no, he said, as if I had missed the point of the story. No, the weather changed, there was a deep freeze, and I went back.

People do this, he knew as well as I did, find great loves, have epiphanies, and then if you ask them what came of it, there’s never another part of the story, except that something else happens, usually quite apart from that.


My father was in my life because he had run into my pregnant mother at the Riverbend. He had returned to the Cape months after the night he met her at the bar, and he drank sometimes there. Though she was quite pregnant, he said nothing about it, even offering to buy her a drink. It’s soda water, she said, pointing to her glass, so he ordered her that then sat there. He explained that he would be returning to the Cape frequently then asked if they could stay in touch. I’d like to help in any way, my father said. Already then, in that moment, began the seed of wanting me. What do we think children offer us? Even growing inside of us, even when we become, for a short time, a doubled self, even then we don’t have access to them. When I lay in bed, pregnant, tired from my shift, holding my stomach so I could feel his body, his elbow perhaps, through my skin, watching whatever the antenna of my old TV picked up—the Kentucky Derby that year had a horse going for the Triple Crown, but I fell asleep and woke hours later to muted golf commentary—even then my son was separate from me.

My father visited her from time to time while she was pregnant. He helped her bring a carload of stuff up when she moved. It seemed she asked everyone she knew to take over a box. Well, she was beautiful, even pregnant. Finally, as if this were the thing they had been talking about, and it had at last been decided, she said, I don’t think it’s yours. When he didn’t answer, she said, I thought you would want to know, that it was what you’d been wondering. There was something, someone else, earlier. It’s not, he said. It probably was, but the idea of it would have seemed reductive to him.


When I was a little girl, my father developed an interest in antique dolls and he would take me to flea markets and we’d bring them back to the furnished apartment he rented down Cape.

He found a doll with eyes that were crystallized, crazy looking. She’ll look fine with a little work, the woman at the table said. It’s just the rust behind them, you would just use a drop of oil. I might like them this way, my father said. Or sometimes people replace them, the woman said, but that’s more work. My father bought the doll and went home and sat at the kitchen table, detaching the doll at the neck. I sat next to him eating a bag of dried nectarines. He studied the doll, looking inside the body and at last said, I see. He picked up the head and heated it with a blow-dryer he had found under the sink and removed the eyes. The doll sat there for several days with empty eye sockets. He would be going back to Boston after he dropped me off at home. He said he would look for new eyes there. What color do you think? he said.

Blue, I said.

Why blue? I shrugged. The ocean, is that it? Do you want to walk out to the water before dinner? I shrugged again. I can’t see you shrugging while I’m working.

We drove to Truro and parked on the side of Route 6 then walked the mile of dunes to the ocean. Later in life I would travel to the south of France and stay with a friend in a family home in a small village. Sometimes we drove to neighboring villages to buy wine or cheese or sausages, but other times we stayed home and drank pastis in the village square. I would take long walks in the afternoon while he worked. Something had happened that made me unhappy, some bit of heartbreak, and I was too restless to sit and read, and he had shown me a few trails, one that ended at a plum tree. I had thought before the trip that the countryside would be gentle and soothing, but in fact it wasn’t that way, it was arid, desolate, quite beautiful but not in a calming way, instead in a way that cast your loneliness back at you. The landscape of the Cape was quite different but also had that quality. The endless stretches of the dunes down Cape played with scale, it made you feel, not necessarily your loneliness, though perhaps you felt that, too, but more your smallness. Everyone’s smallness, so it created a tableau, or an abstraction of your family—your father as a slight figure climbing a hill of sand in a khaki cap. When we got to the shoreline we swam for a little then walked back.


She was a sleeping doll, so her eyes were attached to a weighted metal bar called a rocker inside her head. He found another set and then another. None of them fit the doll, but that, after a time, wasn’t the point. He had become a collector of antique-glass doll eyes. I showed them to Thom one night. Well, not the collection, long lost, but pages of them on eBay, one pair with lashes of human hair, another with a more elegant metal contraption, another with the eyes still set in damaged plaster. The eyes looked startled to be out of the heads, as one would imagine human eyes would look, though I wouldn’t have thought it of doll eyes, where once inset they look placid, harmless. Thom asked if I was going to order any, and I said that I didn’t think so, though that wasn’t the truth. On Craigslist, I had found a composition doll with sleeping eyes in Manchester. She was photographed naked but listed as coming in the dress that she had been found in. I had liked those last words—that she had been found in—and I wrote to see if I could buy her.


I drove out to Manchester, telling Thom I was working at the library so that he would pick Lawrence up from school. The woman met me in her driveway with a box. She looked at me as if trying to understand something then said it was her mother’s and she was born in 1948, so she must be from the fifties. I gave her the ten dollars.

At home, I stuck the box under our bed and forgot about her until Thom left for New York for a few shows. I had by then learned about cleaning the doll, that I shouldn’t wash and shampoo her as I had intended, as that would deteriorate the body, and so I took off her dress and brushed her with a clean toothbrush. And then I brought her to the kitchen table, and I pulled at her head. I had read that eyes could sometimes be accessed under the skull as well, so I tugged at her wig. I didn’t want to damage her, though, so after a time I put her back in the box and opened a beer and waited for the show to be done and for Thom to call.


I liked the doll and felt there was a human quality to her—as that Craigslist woman must have felt as well, calling the doll her and not it—but I found it was the eyes I wanted or felt I needed. I had taught Hoffman’s story “The Sandman” and Freud’s “The Uncanny” for years without being able to pin down what was uncanny about dolls. I felt it had something to do with the eyes and that they were in pairs and not single. The Sandman is a mythical creature that comes at night and throws sand in children’s faces and takes their eyes. The main character of Hoffman’s story believes that it’s the Sandman who has killed his father. Later in the story, the Sandman makes an automaton, a mechanical doll, and the main character falls in love with it. Any life she possesses seems to be in her eyes, though those ultimately fall out. Eyes are mentioned often in the story—they get made, or go missing, or show love—as if, if a human were able to make eyes, then they would be able to make life. Here, eyes aren’t the window to the soul, eyes are the soul; if one made eyes, then the soul, too, would be made.

And when Freud talks about the Hoffman story in his essay “The Uncanny,” he calls the damage or loss of eyes our most primal childhood fear but then ruins the thought by saying it stands in for our fear of castration. Maybe it’s more useful to talk about our desire for eyes, why the myth of the Sandman is driven by a desire for eyes and for taking out eyes, and why, when my father got his doll, that was what he did, and why, when faced with my doll at the kitchen table, that was what I wanted.

Freud would call the feeling the uncanny, a feeling of the workings of another world on an object of this one, that thing being endowed by tracings of primitive thought or repression of our childhoods. He said that often children, when playing with dolls, don’t differentiate whether they are living or not, and so to them, the lifelikeness of dolls isn’t uncanny.

I collected doll eyes with rollers—Thom brought me a pair he had found while traveling, and I ordered several pairs—and kept them in a cabinet in the bedroom. One night he watched at the table as I took off a doll’s wig and reached in for the eyes. At my concern he said, She’s not alive. It’s beautiful how it works, I said, looking into the head while I sat her up and then lay her down, watching the lids fall down. We watched it several times, then I put the wig back on and put her away. Thom was careful with me during this time. He understood, I thought, the doll more than I did. But it turned out that he felt he might love someone else and was treating me gently as a result.

He told me everything a few days later: It was a woman in a band that he had played with in Saint Louis and had known, indirectly, for years. What do we know of love, of course, “The Sandman” asks, as the character falls in love with a doll, a delusion perhaps caused by a new pair of glasses. Thom moved out of the house. I made tea. I sat at the table. Sometimes we talked on the phone. He went to visit her and that confused him and her. I thought about the way he said her, like the doll had been referred to in the ad. That it signified life. And she did develop a life inside me that grew as he talked about her. Once, during this time, he said, Do you ever imagine how difficult you can be? How you can sound? I always thought it was precision, that I was very precise. It didn’t feel like coldness. For instance, I wanted to know what the woman looked like and so googled her band, and she was pretty with long black hair and a cute plaid skirt, and it hurt, but the details also felt significant, more significant than what I might feel or not feel.


One day I went to see Thom in Boston. He was subletting a loft space with factory-size windows and a counter with a sink and hot plate and microwave. He made a french press and we sat on stools at the counter. He talked about music, about his new album, and asked what I had been doing, and I explained that I had been trying with our friend Derek to make glass.

It had occurred to me that the heart of the Sandman story might lay in the process of making eyes, in how difficult they were to make. If those characters were attempting to create life, then the extraordinary heat needed to create glass would be the largest obstacle. I always thought it was a story about childhood loneliness, Thom said before asking if I was sleeping with Derek.

What do you think?

That you are?

I’m not, I said. It was entirely an interest in glass. We had talked about it already on the phone, but Thom had forgotten. I had told him that I’d asked Derek to make doll’s eyes and Thom said that Derek wouldn’t be able to make glass eyes, and then I said that Derek made stained glass, and Thom had said that doesn’t mean you make the glass. You just make stained glass by melting glass? I said, frustrated.

Glass takes over 2,000 degrees to make, but Derek had a friend with a kiln, so I ordered the sand and was waiting for it to come in. That was how the father died in the story—not by the Sandman or any magical properties—but simply by a blast from the furnace.

Thom was going to the South End to buy an instrument and wanted me to come. There was a large estate-sale store there. We could walk around and get a sandwich after. We were still in his apartment and had switched from coffee to bottles of Corona. I don’t think so, I said.

You know, he said, that people make mistakes, sometimes very large ones.

I make mistakes all the time.

That we are imperfect creatures. You know that, right?

We are perfect creatures, I said. This was not evidently true at the time, but if you’ve had a child and watched them sleep, it becomes true. When my son was born, I was surprised when the nurses used this word, and not as a compliment, but more to warn about the defects that babies can have. He’s perfect, one said, in a voice implying that I should be thankful. But that’s not quite it… thankful. I’m having trouble putting my finger on the word. Not thankful. And she did mean it as a compliment, a word said for my benefit, a new mother all alone. It just didn’t ring that way in my ear. It felt cruel. Why was mine better than another’s? A second nurse, finding a small flaw—a slight tongue-tie—said, Well, you can’t have perfection, you know, as if that was, after all, what I was demanding. Though maybe I had been hoping for that unknowingly. Thinking of this I looked in Hoffman’s story to see what they call the automaton they created, thinking perhaps they, too, called it perfect, but it wasn’t there. Nothing about perfection, just a lot about laboring over what they produced.

It's beautiful, I told Thom, finally, the way the light comes in here. I don’t blame you in a way.

In a way?

In all ways, in all ways I don’t blame you. I just don’t know if I can do this.

It occurred to me sometime later—after Derek and I failed to produce enough heat in the kiln, and after I ordered sets of eyes from eBay, one set and then another, and after I stripped the eyes from my doll—to realize that I had once made eyes, and not glass eyes, but actual eyes. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, or to Hoffman even, that half of humanity is capable of making eyes, and the ones I made were muted gray blue, so muted they appeared brown.

 

About the author

Sara Majka is the author of Cities I’ve Never Lived In (A Public Space/Graywolf). She lives in Providence and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.


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