One day, a week or so after I turned eighteen, I sneaked into Manhattan with a couple of buddies from high school. We didn’t have much of a plan. We were just thinking we’d hit a couple of bars, drink a few beers, see what the city had to offer . . .
Everything was going fine until the second place we tried. It wasn’t the most salubrious of establishments, which wasn’t surprising given that most of its revenue seemed to come from selling watered-down drinks to underage kids with sketchy fake IDs. Anyway, a girl latched onto me the moment I set foot through the door. She was tall. Blond. I guess you could say she was gorgeous, although I wasn’t interested that way because I already had my eye on someone else. So I bought her a drink, just to be polite. We started to talk. Then a guy came into the bar. He was maybe in his early twenties. He had greasy hair down to his shoulders and a plaid shirt worn open over a black T-shirt with some kind of slogan about the devil printed on it. I didn’t pay him too much attention at first. Not until he squeezed by me and walked up to a couple at the next table. He didn’t say anything to them. He just stood stock-still between a pair of empty chairs for thirty, maybe forty seconds. Then he pulled out a .38 Special from the waistband at the back of his pants. Shot both of them in the head. Paused for another second. And finally turned the gun on himself.
The sound was stunning in such a confined space. Pieces of skull and brain were sprayed across the table and floor and wall. A fine haze of blood hung in the air, highlighted by the broad shaft of sunlight shining in through the open door. All around me people were diving for cover, shrieking, crying, covering their heads with their arms, or trying to run for the exits. But for some reason the mayhem didn’t affect me the same way. The girl I’d been talking to was one of the first to make for the fire escape. I wasn’t too interested in catching up with her so I stayed in my seat. Checked my clothes for anyone else’s body parts. Finished my beer. Rounded up my cowering buddies. And split before the police arrived.
I thought we’d gotten away clean, but there was one thing I hadn’t realized about that bar. It had a security camera concealed high up in the corner near the main entrance. That wasn’t something I was in the habit of thinking about in those days. Somehow footage of the shooting made it onto CNN. Inevitably my father saw it. He went absolutely crazy. Not because it showed me sitting in the bar. And not because I had a beer in my hand. But because he thought I looked way too comfortable in such proximity to the violence. He said it revealed a deep flaw in my character. Words like psychopath were used. More than once. He insisted that I get help, and ultimately demanded that I sign up for cognitive behavioral therapy.
Instead I got a haircut, and I signed up for the infantry.
My decision to join the army had been impetuous, driven by a reaction to something my father had said, so I guess it was only fitting that my decision to leave was made the same way.
There were some practical considerations, sure. I couldn’t go back to the Balkans—there’s no way I could expect to dupe the Iranians twice—so I’d have to wait around for a new posting. That wouldn’t happen until the MPs officially signed off on me having nothing to do with the disappearance of the money in Sofia. There was no doubt that they’d clear me. My guess was the Iranians had been tracking it, and came to get it back after their plant exploded, as they’d no longer need to keep me sweet as an illicit supplier. But it could just as easily have been some local guy. Someone who worked at the storage facility. When you deliberately seek out a low-rent, no-questions-asked type of place, you can’t be too surprised when things blow up in your face. The only issue was how long the cage-kickers would take to process the paperwork. And even when they did, it’s hard to wash the stink of something like that completely off your hands. How do you prove you didn’t do a thing if there’s no concrete evidence that someone else did? Especially when you have years of training and experience in concealing just the kind of underhanded thing they think you might have done. So who knew where my next assignment would be? And while I waited to find out, I’d be tethered to a desk. That prospect did weigh on my mind. But what really swayed me were the words my father had written, two years earlier.
Wedged between a fidgety Buddhist monk and an overweight college student on a flight from Frankfurt to JFK, I pulled the letter out of my jacket pocket for the twentieth time since leaving the Wiesbaden barracks and traced the jumbled series of markings plastered across both sides of the ragged envelope. From what I could make out it had followed me twice around the globe, narrowly missing me at a series of postings—London, Sarajevo, Beijing, and a dozen more—until an exasperated clerk at the embassy in Manila sent it back to the center in Arizona that’s responsible for vetting mail and forwarding it to operatives working undercover. It’s a necessary process, to ensure that secret locations aren’t compromised. I was warned when I first transferred to Military Intelligence that it could cause delays in communications, but a two-year wait for a letter? That had to be a new record. And what kind of letter? A bill? A speeding ticket? No. An olive branch from my father. Something I’d waited decades for. He’d asked for a quick reply, and must have thought I’d blown him off in return. Again. Another strike against me, as a son. And another entry in the debit column of our relationship. I just hoped he’d still be talking to me when I finally reached his house.
The plane banked steeply as it started its final descent, and I caught a glimpse of Manhattan through the window. It gave me the same warm thrill as it did when I was a kid and my father drove us down from Westchester to visit the Bronx Zoo or the Met or go to a Yankees game. I leaned a little closer to the monk and gazed down at the grid of streets, refreshingly modern and uniform after the antique chaos of Sofia and Istanbul. All my favorite buildings—the Empire State, the Chrysler, the CitiCorp—were there, reaching up to greet me like old friends.My decision to join the army had been impetuous, driven by a reaction to something my father had said, so I guess it was only fitting that my decision to leave was made the same way.
Well, almost all my favorite buildings. I hadn’t been back to New York since 9/11, so that was the first time I’d seen the city without the World Trade Center and I was shocked by how much the skyline had altered. I was one of the few people who’d liked the Twin Towers, I guess. I was drawn to their elegant simplicity. I appreciated the stark honesty of their design. I’d never been able to stomach the idea of replacing them with something that claimed to be a certain symbolic height but really came up four hundred feet short, and had to hide behind a giant antenna to make up the difference. Seeing the concept fleshed out in metal and glass made it no more palatable.
The rental car I collected at the airport came with GPS, but I didn’t use it. That was partly out of habit—why make it easy for people to trace where I’ve been?—but mainly because I didn’t care which route the system thought would be the fastest. I was navigating by nostalgia, not logic. So I ignored the stream of vehicles making for 678—usually the sensible choice—and headed for the Throgs Neck Bridge, instead.
Throgs Neck. I’d loved that name when I was a kid. I had no idea what a Throg was, but that didn’t matter. In my mind I pictured it as a hideous troll-like creature lying in wait under the bridge, ready to spring out and lay waste to any cars that dared to pass. When I was very little I’d close my eyes and pray we’d get all the way across without being attacked. When I grew a little older I imagined the Throg leaping out in front of us, causing my father to abandon his pacifist principles and fight it off, hurling its bloodied body over the railing to sink without a trace in the murky water of the East River. Then one day, after some meaningless adolescent argument, I saw myself trouncing the grotesque beast. The fantasies seemed harmless at the time. Nothing more than innocuous diversions to help pass the time cooped up in the car. But later in life they actually served a useful purpose, providing endless fodder for me to torment the army shrinks with at the regular checkups they make all us undercover guys go through.
I made it safely across the river and again ignored the Hutchinson, staying on 95 until it reached the Bronx River Parkway. I continued past the botanical garden, which was having an orchid show that day, cut across Gun Hill, through Van Cortlandt Park, and found my way onto the Saw Mill River Parkway. That had always been my father’s favorite route. He preferred it to the newer, faster alternatives. He thought it was more picturesque, with its sweeping tree-lined curves that gave occasional glimpses of the river, and he never missed an opportunity to lecture me about the value of spending a little time in search of the finer things in life. I’d thought he was crazy. To me, the finer things were all in the city. How could you find them by driving in the opposite direction? I remember swiveling around in my seat and staring through the rear window as the faded pavement unspooled in the wrong direction. I used to feel it physically, a tugging in my gut like I was attached to the metropolis by an invisible umbilical cord that was being stretched to the breaking point by the unwanted drive north.
I guess I’d been too young to understand the sentimental attachment my father had felt for our home. To me, it had just been a house. A place to wake up in. To eat breakfast. To play. To come back to after school. Where I’d do my chores. My homework. And all the other mundane activities of small-town life. But to him, I realized later, it had become a shrine to my mother. She’d died there, in an upstairs bedroom, giving birth to a little girl. I was less than three years old at the time. I hardly remembered her. And I never saw my sister. The baby only survived for a few minutes. I’d been too young to understand, even as a teenager, or in the first few years after leaving home. All I’d known was that the bedroom she’d used for the ill-fated delivery was strictly off-limits for everyone except my father. It was kept permanently locked, and he was the only one with the key. Now I could appreciate what it meant to him, and it was clear that my father would never move away. Not of his own free will.
I exited the Saw Mill at the turn for Mount Kisco Country Club, cutting through the leafy streets south of the town and heading toward Bedford. I used to like driving that way because it took me past a house where a girl I liked lived. Marian Sinclair. She was in the class below me in high school. We were inseparable for a while. We went everywhere together. Did everything together. Talked about going to college together. And then the army happened . . .
I knew I must be getting close to my destination, but the area was growing less familiar, not more. There were dozens of houses I’d not seen before. They were larger than the ones I remembered in the neighborhood. Brash. Bold. And closer to the road. It’s like they were desperate to be seen, unlike the more discreet, better-mannered properties my friends and I had lived in. Plus these places had no discernible style. They were a shambolic mishmash of components. Oversized. Out of proportion. Screaming money rather than taste. I picked up speed, the warm glow I’d started to feel now sullied by the sight of them, and hurried to find the two right turns that would lead the rest of the way to my father’s driveway.
The house looked older than I’d remembered. Its cedar siding was much paler. It had grown silvery, like an aging man’s hair. And the structure seemed dated now. The sharp angles of its contrasting planes had become stark and clichéd, rather than sleek and avant-garde. The crunch of the gravel under the car tires still sounded the same, though. I pulled up in the parking area near the path that led to the front door. The driveway broadened out at that point, temporarily, before continuing and sweeping around to the basement-level garage. My father had considered remodeling the yard several times to change the shape of the driveway, but he couldn’t find a way to do it without making access to the garage less convenient. That was a deal breaker. He wouldn’t tolerate anything that prevented him from getting his car out easily. He had a four-stall garage, but I’d only ever known him to have one car, so that meant he had plenty of space for it. And he always picked something sensible and boring, like a Cadillac. I was always pushing him to get something rare and exotic, even if it was just for the weekends. He kept saying he might, as long as it was American. Like maybe a Duesenberg, or a Studebaker. I remember waiting impatiently each month for the new issue of my classic car magazine to be delivered so that I could trawl through the “for sale” ads. I presented him with plenty of options. But he never followed through on any. As far as I knew.
I switched off the engine and climbed out of the car. I took a moment to stretch and immediately was struck by the smell of the air. It was warm, dry, and heavy with the scent of flowering shrubs and sun-bleached cedar wood. The precise aroma was unlike anything else I’d encountered, anywhere in the world. You could blindfold me and drop me in my father’s yard, and I’d know exactly where I was. I smiled at the memories that were suddenly flooding back, resisted the temptation to jump over the white picket fence as I’d done so many times as a child, and carefully opened the gate instead.
I followed the rustic brick path up the gentle slope to the covered porch at the front of the house. A pair of heavy terra-cotta urns stood on either side of the door, overflowing as always with tangles of bright flowers. Carriage lights were burning above them, even though it was bright daylight. That was typical of my father. He was tightfisted about everything, unless it held some kind of symbolic value. I shook my head and pulled the handle that operated the elaborate bell. I always thought the deep clanging it produced wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a cathedral.
The low, afternoon sun was warm on the back of my neck as I waited for an answer. A bird started to sing—something small, maybe a sparrow?—and the wind rustled through the few leaves that were still clinging to the trees and stirred the patches of wildflowers and long spindly grasses where my father had long ago tried to restore the area’s native landscape. Somewhere in the distance a leaf blower started up. That had been the constant, intrusive, unwelcome soundtrack of my childhood. I’d always said that if I never heard that noise again, I could die happy.I guess I’d been too young to understand the sentimental attachment my father had felt for our home. To me, it had just been a house.
A minute later the door opened and a woman peered out at me. It was Mrs. Vincent. My father’s housekeeper. She’d moved in with us a few months after my mother died. I remembered her as being boundlessly energetic. She never had a cross word, for me or any of my unruly friends, and was unfailingly positive and enthusiastic. Now, she just looked small and thin. I guessed the years since I last saw her had taken their toll.
Mrs. Vincent was silent for a moment. She looked puzzled, as if she didn’t recognize me. Then she burst into an uncontrollable flood of tears.
“Paul?” She pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed urgently at her eyes. “Is it really you?”
“It’s been a while, Mrs. V.” I reached out to take her hand. “But, yes. It’s really me.”
She pulled her hand away and took a quick step back. “Have you come to throw me out?”
Inside the house, everything seemed virtually identical to how it had been when I’d left. The paint was fresh, but was the same shade of lemon yellow I’d never liked. The floors had been refinished, but were the same pale oak I was always scared of scratching. Some of the furniture looked a little faded, but the same pieces were still in the same places. There were only a few things that had been added—a floral pattern china bowl on the narrow table near the door for holding keys, a cut crystal flower vase, a recent picture of my father in an ornate silver frame—making them stand out as if I was looking at one of those photographs that are edited to make one color vivid and the others washed out.
I followed Mrs. Vincent through the arch from the hallway to the living room and sat opposite her on one of the white fabric couches my father had always been obsessed with keeping clean. She seemed to need a minute to compose herself, so I passed the time by scanning the familiar spines of the books on the cases that surrounded us, covering all the available wall space.
“You’re going to have to talk me through this slowly, please, Mrs. Vincent,” I said when her breathing had returned to somewhere near normal. “Why do you think anyone would want to kick you out of the house? Least of all me?”
“Well, Mr. Ferguson—your father’s lawyer, do you remember him?—he warned me this arrangement might not last forever.” She pulled out another Kleenex and held it on her lap, just in case. “He made it perfectly clear—everything was pending your approval. And this place is a valuable asset, obviously. You never come here. So you probably want to sell.”
“My approval?” I held up my hands. “This arrangement? I don’t understand a word you’re saying. Sell the house? That’s crazy. Where’s my father? What does he think about all this?”
“Don’t you know? Isn’t that—” Mrs. Vincent stopped abruptly and turned away. When she turned back, she couldn’t look me in the eye. “Isn’t that why you came back? Didn’t you get Mr. Ferguson’s letter?”
“I did get a letter, but it’s from my father.” I took it out of my pocket to show her. “It’s two years old. It got lost in the system. The army—it doesn’t matter. The point is, I haven’t heard from any lawyer. Why would I have?”
“Paul, I’m so sorry.” Mrs. Vincent closed her eyes for a moment. “I thought you knew. Mr. Ferguson’s been trying to reach you. There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’m just going to blurt it out. Paul, your father passed away.”
From the book INVISIBLE by Andrew Grant. Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Grant. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.