Life is a mystery.
Later he’ll show me the suicide note. First, before he’s even closed the door behind him, he says to me: “Fiction is the great art of telling the truth. I forget who said that but it’s true.”
He’s always forgetting who he’s quoting. Or claiming to quote. I suspect he just makes up his own sayings and aphorisms and attributes them to an imaginary “someone” to lend them gravitas.
He continues: “In other words, truth is narrative. Truth is the essence we distill from the larger whole. And we detectives are writers—we weave narrative for our clients from the vastness of facts.”
“So. What can I do for you, dad?” I ask.
Who but my father walks into a room and starts talking like this?
Any number of other fathers, I suppose.
These are the clues.
A man you’ve seen thousands of times appears in your office to renew an old argument. Or pick an old fight. He does this every month or two. When you look at his bald, bearded head you think it looks like the bust of some wise orator from antiquity come to life. You think this because he is your father and because he is your father you also think many other things.
If one is intimately familiar with a recurring situation (such as those created by family dynamics) it can be easy to overlook valuable clues. Immersion in a ritual can create a culture of assumption that interferes with one’s ability to detect minor variations. It seems to be human nature to experience a period of diminished perception in the presence of repetition. When one does perceive a difference, however, it is common to overestimate its importance. It seems to be human nature to attribute unwarranted significance to any deviation from the norm. It is important to avoid both of these errors.
So, I study him carefully as he stands in the doorway of my office. Olive shirt, faded. Sweat stains ringing his armpits. Corduroy pants, beige. No jacket (corduroy, matching pants) but the pit stains explain its absence: hot day. Glasses, bifocals (horn-rimmed). Desert boots, brown suede. His preferred shoe: crepe-soled so they make hardly any noise when he walks. Hair at its usual range of length, thinning. Beard also usual length, graying. No jewelry, as ever. The usual jingling in his pockets: keys, change, lighter. The shape of his overstuffed leather wallet is visible through the front of his pants, accentuated by a rectangle of faded fabric outlining the bulge of the wallet itself. From the pocket of his shirt protrudes the top of a small vinyl notebook and the small stylus that slides into its narrow spine.
None of this has changed in twenty years. The shirts and notebooks and pens and wallets and shoes are all only incidentally different, replacements for nearly identical predecessors. The difference between each iteration reveals nothing other than the usual wear and tear that occurs in an entropic universe.
He takes his place in the seat across from me then looks over the rims of his glasses and nods at the sign hanging on the wall behind me.
“Life is a mystery and these are the clues?” He says, squinting, pretending to read the words he already knows, that he has seen dozens of times. “Nadie, are you still holding to that old line after all these years?”
I don’t answer. I remain still, a bland expression on my face. It’s no use. He is pushing my buttons so something has to happen.
This is what happens: I lean towards the coffee mug on my desk. On the side of the white mug is the image of a heart (pink, fading) between two words that have long since disappeared. The mug is full of pens. I pull out a retractable ballpoint that I can click. My father hates clicking.
“Have I ever told you why I became a detective,” he says. It’s not a question. He tells me every time we talk.
“Because I couldn’t become a writer. I have no talent for staring down a blank page until it fills with narrative—no ability to bring patterns out from nothing. What I can do, however, is peer into a jumble of patterns and subtract what is not essential.”
“People need detectives,” he continues, “because everything in life is connected.”
“You make life sound like a conspiracy.”
“Life is a conspiracy,” he says.
“I don’t understand what that means.”
“Do you know the etymology of the word conspiracy?”
“No,” I say, “but I’m not really a fan of etymological arguments.”
“It means ‘to share the same breath’—what better definition of life?”
“Very clever,” I say, knowing he hates the that phrase, the conversational equivalent of a click.
“Life . . . is . . . a mysssstery,” he says looking up over his glasses, slowly tasting the words. “I suppose there is something in that. [Click, click] Life is a murder mystery and we are all the victims—like that old movie with Edmond O’Brien . . . You know the one I mean . . .”
The story of a man who is poisoned and spends his remaining days solving his own murder.
“Yes. D.O.A. We’re all solving our own murder. In that sense I think it is reasonable to say life is a mystery.”
“That’s no mystery at all,” I say. “Life is the killer. Everyone knows that.”
From his front pocket he removes his small metal lighter. He hasn’t smoked in years but he still carries the same lighter: a metal square with a cap that angles back on an embedded hinge. It makes a flicking sound followed by a ping when he flips it open with his thumb. Flick: ping. Then with a lazy twist of the wrist he snaps it shut. Snap.
Flick: ping. Snap.
My clicking pen seems weak by comparison, a solitary sound that loses potency with each repetition. So, I click a few times. He flip ping snaps a few times. We look at each other.
Click flick:ping Snap. Click click. Flip:ping Snap. ClickFlip:ping Snap. Click click.
We look at each other some more.
The moment is so familiar that it feels infinite. I could be five years old or fifteen or twenty-five or fifty. Abstraction. All of this has happened, has been happening, and will go on happening for so many years that it is like it is not happening at all.
Clicking, flicking, pinging, snapping.
Nothing happens. I am there but I imagine the scene, subtracting as much as possible. What remains is the two of us facing each other in a roomful of blackness, floating through a starless night. Or maybe there are stars: circling around us, drifting slowly, dying in the distance. The patterns and rhythms are so established that I hardly need to be present for them. None of it can happen without me but I feel like the choices are pre-ordained; not made but simply realized. Enacted. I am adrift in familiarity.
“Well, it’s always nice to see you dad. Now that we’ve each peed on one another’s leg is there anything I can do for you?”
He returns the lighter to his bulky pocket. I ease my thumb off the plunger of the pen. Truce. Down to business.
“I’d like to bring you in on an investigation,” he says.
This is new. Or, rather, old. I haven’t worked with my father since I helped with phones and filing on evenings and weekends when I was a teenager.
“I’m surprised,” I say, twisting deeper into the chair. “Is it a big case?
My father has been known to hire operatives on some of his larger cases from time to time.
“Not in the way you mean,” he says, “but the client certainly thinks so.”
“Don’t they always?”
“That they do,” he says and slings his right leg over his left at the knees. “It’s a suicide investigation.”
That can only mean one thing. Motive.
My father handles a lot of suicide investigations. Homicide detectives are only interested in homicides. Once they know that what appears to be a suicide actually is a suicide—not a homicide made to look like a suicide—their interest ends. A homicide investigation requires suspects or it dies. A suicide investigation has no suspects and is about motive.
“Is there a note?” I ask.
I expect him to say no. A suicide note is a signed confession. The presence of a note usually means the absence of an investigation.
“There’s a note,” he says and hands me a 3×5 index card. I rotate it in my hands and read over the sentence handwritten in small, tidy blue script on the unlined side of the card.
This is easier. — Donald.