When the doorbell rang, I at first had no inkling of who was there or what his or her business might be. I was sitting at the dining table in a room that had never been used for entertaining. Books and notepads, two weeks’ worth of newspapers, and a few stacks of dirty dishes were piled here and there around the dark-stained hickory plank. I had been writing a letter to my sister about the death of our brother in the fall.
It was spring now, and I had missed the funeral. Our brother had been buried in Cincinnati by Dearby, his fourth wife. She, Dearby, told me that if she was going to pay for the burial, then he’d be interred in the same cemetery as her and the rest of her family.
I was having a hard time, financially, when Seth passed. I’d just lost my job as a regional manager for Lampley Car Insurance, and unemployment benefits hadn’t been enough to pay the rent. I couldn’t take time off from my temp position at Lenny’s Auto Parts, and the funeral was on a Wednesday, a workday. My boss, Alan Renee Bertrand, didn’t particularly like me, and so I couldn’t even take the chance of asking him for the time off. Lenny’s paid $22.50 an hour, the best temp rate in town, and so I sent a dozen white lilies and a note thanking Dearby for honoring my brother.
You see, I knew that Dearby and Seth were on the outs when he died. My sister had told me that Seth had been seeing his second wife, Althea, again, and Dearby had been threatening to kick him out of the house.
She, Dearby, called to tell me about Seth.
“He had a heart attack,” she said. “I warned him about the high blood pressure and fatty foods. He wouldn’t listen. He never listened.”
I was thinking that Dearby was pretty big herself.
As if she could read my thoughts across the 2,000-plus miles that separated us, she said, “I know that I’m big, but my heft is fruit fat, weight from fresh fruit with fiber and natural sugars. My doctors tell me that I’m okay the way I am.”
“I know you are,” I said, to fill the empty space in our conversation that loomed like the blank line at the bottom of a boilerplate contract.
“What do you want me to do with him?” she asked.
“The body, Roger. What do you want me to do with the body?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I said. “He’s dead.”
“I know that,” Dearby said. “He’s gone, and somebody has to bury him.”
“Oh … oh, yeah. Right. Um …”
I got up from the table, remembering that awkward moment half a year earlier when I had to tell Dearby that I didn’t have the money to help pay for a funeral.
The walk from my worktable to the front door wasn’t long. No distance in the 634-square-foot half-home was that great. The other side of the subdivided Wilshire District house was inhabited by a woman named Rose Henley. I had seen Rose only once, a few days after I’d moved in seven years and ten months before. She’d rung my bell and introduced herself as my neighbor.
Rose Henley was old, maybe sixty, and she had one gold tooth. She was fairly short, even for a woman, and her black hair was sliding into white. She was a white woman, broad-faced and stout.
“Mr. Vaness?” she had said, all those years ago.
“I’m Rose Henley, your neighbor.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt, just wanted you to see my face. And I wanted to see yours.”
“Would you like to come in?,” I asked, not putting much heart into it.
“No, no, no,” she said. “I just wanted to greet you. I don’t get out very much.”
This was no exaggeration. I never saw or heard my neighbor again.
But that day, when I was writing to my sister, Angeline, about our brother’s death, I was sure that Rose was at my door. I hadn’t got much company since losing my job. My friends liked to party, and I couldn’t afford the gas money, much less my part of the bill at our favorite bars and restaurants.
After I was fired, I had asked my girlfriend, Terri, if she would move in, so we could share the rent.
Terri broke it off with me three days later.
No one ever knocked at my door, and Rose was the only person I was acquainted with in the neighborhood. It had to be her, I thought; that was just cold hard logic.
So I opened the door looking down, expecting to see my diminutive neighbor’s wide face under a thatch of black hair turned gray.
Instead I was looking at the red-and-blue vest of a white man even taller than me. He had a bald head and not much facial hair. His skin was the color of yellowing ivory and his eyes were a luminous gray—like a mist-filled valley at dawn.
“Mr. Vaness?” the stranger asked, in a magnificent tenor voice.
“My name is Harding, Lance Harding. I am here representing the last wish of Seth Vaness.”
“I work for a small firm called Final Request Co. We execute the last wishes of clients who have passed on.”
“You’re a lawyer?”
I looked the slender tenor up and down. He had on a nice suit, but it was reddish-brown, not a lawyer’s color, in my estimation.
“No, Mr. Vaness. We at FRC don’t execute wills. Our job is to deliver messages from the dead.” He smiled after the last word, giving me a slight chill.
“Uh-huh. You use a Ouija board or somethin’?”
“We are engaged by the deceased before their demise.”
“My brother hired you to give me a message after he was dead?”
Harding smiled and nodded.
“He died six and a half months ago,” I said. “What took you so long?”
“His wish was for us to execute his instructions not less than half a year after his demise.”
“Is this some kinda legal thing?”
“It is a simple agreement between FRC and your brother,” Lance Harding said, maintaining an aura of imperturbable patience. “Often individuals wish to pass on knowledge outside of the rubric of wills and other legal formats. Some leave a spoken message, others might wish to pass along a note or a small package.”
“Seth didn’t have much,” I said. “He couldn’t have anything to hide.”
“We all have something to hide, Mr. Vaness. Either that or something is hidden from us.”
“May I come in?,” Harding asked, cutting off my question.
“Oh,” I said.
“Is this a bad time?”
“No, no, it’s okay, I just … ”
“I came by on Wednesday, but you weren’t here,” Harding said. “Your neighbor, Mrs. Henley, told me that you were at work.”
“You talked to Rose?”
“May I come in?”
My house was untidy, to say the least. When I have a girlfriend, I usually pick up and air out my little place at least once a week, but I lose the drive when I’m unattached. As a rule, the mess doesn’t bother me unless I have unexpected guests.
Harding didn’t seem put off by the clutter. I moved a small stack of old comic books from a chair next to the one I had been sitting in and gestured for him to take a seat.
“Fantastic Four,” he said, looking at the topmost magazine as I set the stack on the table next to him.
“They were my father’s,” I said. “I have one through twelve. Know anybody who might want to buy them?”
“Your blood father?” he asked. “Patrick Hand?”
I nodded, wondering how he knew my real father’s name.
He flipped through the issues, smiling slightly. Harding was maybe ten years older than me. That would have made him about fifty.
“Not in mint or near-mint condition,” he said. “That makes them nearly worthless. At any rate, these books call up your father from across the pale. That’s a connection that money can’t buy.”
“How do you know my father’s dead?”
“Both of your fathers,” he said. “Patrick, who sired you, and Norland, who married your mother and adopted her three children.”
“How do you know all that?”
“They were Seth’s fathers too.”
“Oh … yeah. That’s why you’re here.”
“Shall we begin?”
“It’s funny that you came here just now,” I said. “I mean, not funny, but … I was just writing to my sister—”
“Angeline Vaness-Brownley,” Lance Harding of the FRC interjected. “She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Ivan Brownley, the union organizer.”
“Wha—? Oh, right, Seth’s sister too. How much do you know about us?”
“About you, particularly, we know that you have never been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime, and that most of your working life you were either employed or at college. You have three years’ matriculation at Cal State. Your concentration was in history, but you dropped out and began to work for various businesses. You’ve never been married, but you were once engaged to a woman named Irene Littleton.”
“Seth told you all that?”
“Then where’d you hear about it?”
Harding’s face was oblong, a little larger than even his tall frame might predict. For the most part his expression was tranquil, but my question teased out a mild frown.
“I am here at your brother’s request,” he said.
“But you know all this shit about me, and he didn’t tell you. So I’d like to know how you know it.”
“Nora Dunbar,” he replied, his face once again at peace.
“She is the statistical and research analyst at our firm. When a client engages our services, Miss Dunbar does a background check on the client and the recipient of the message or package.”
Harding sighed and then said, “Suppose the message that someone wished to pass on was a name and an address. If the recipient was a known killer, or maybe someone who had a grudge against a person with the name we were being asked to deliver, we would refuse the job. We are not bound by fealty to the state, but we are a moral corporation.”
“So you wanted to make sure that I wasn’t a hit man or a stalker or somethin’?”
“But you figured that I was a good bet and that you could deliver your message without messin’ anything up.”
The great sculpted face smiled and bobbed.
“You got a sliding scale you charge?,” I asked. I realized that I wasn’t eager to obtain information passed on to me across the border of death.
“We charge $5,000, plus expenses, for every message a client wishes to entrust to us.”
Lance Harding smiled and seemed to relax a bit. He seemed to have surrendered to my fear of his task.
“Once,” he said, “we were engaged by a woman to deliver an apple pie she’d baked to the man she’d loved but never married. In order to keep the pie in fair condition, we had to freeze it. The accommodations were made, and she was charged accordingly.”
“So Seth paid $5,000 for you to deliver this message to me?”
“That is the fee all clients are charged,” he said, “plus expenses.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Three reasons. First, I can’t see Seth payin’ that kinda money when he coulda sent a letter to my sister or our mother to give me after he died. Second, I can’t see Seth spendin’ that kinda money on me—period. And third, travelin’ all over the country and the world, makin’ these kinda visits, would cost a lot more than $5,000.”
I would have talked all day long to keep this man, the most official man I had ever met, from discharging his message.
“As to your first two arguments—we question our clients, but never their money, once they’ve passed our qualification test. Your third dispute would make sense if the FRC didn’t have regions of responsibility divided among its various agents. My area is California. You asked why I’m late delivering this message. That is because I was in Central and Northern California for the past two weeks. We would like to have delivered this communication exactly at the six-month mark, but the wording of Seth Vaness’s last request allowed me some leeway: ‘Not less than six months after my demise.’ ”
I had nothing left to ask, but I still was not ready for any information from the dead.
“Are all the people who work for the FCR white?” The question was one my stepfather would have had me ask.
“FRC,” Lance Harding corrected. “Most of the employees of the company are Caucasian, but not all. Now, may I deliver my message?”
I took in a deep breath, exhaled, and then nodded.
Lance Harding reached into the left side of his reddish-brown jacket with his right hand.
I leaped up from my chair, sure that he was going to take out a gun or a knife; my fear was that great.
But the FRC agent merely brought out an ivory envelope, almost exactly the same color as his skin.
“This is the letter that your brother charged us to deliver,” he said. “As I hand it to you, our duty in this matter is fulfilled.”
He extended his hand, offering me the rectangle of paper. I hesitated before taking it.
The mood was so ceremonial that I expected some kind of devastation or revelation to follow. But nothing happened.
The FRC agent stood abruptly.
“I will leave you to do with the letter as you will,” he said.
“Don’t you want me to sign something,” I asked, “to prove that you actually gave me this?”
“The client didn’t ask for corroboration,” he said, smiling. “That usually means that the delivery contains nothing of material value. I can see myself out.”
I sat there at the messy table, holding the still-sealed envelope for long minutes after Lance Harding was gone. Something about the white man’s demeanor and the fact that I was writing a letter concerning Seth when the note from him arrived was strange—something having to do with me not attending his funeral, and now he was reaching out to me …
I put the letter down and picked up my smartphone. I entered A-N-G, and Angeline’s number appeared.
She answered on the fourth ring.
“Where are you?” she said, instead of hello.
“But you’re on your cell.”
“I had the landline disconnected. Figured I didn’t need two numbers. People hardly ever call one.”
“You’re not a kid anymore, Roger. Having your phone disconnected makes you seem transient.”
“How’s Boston, Sis?”
“Cold. They’re predicting snow for tomorrow.”
“Snow? But it’s spring.”
“How are you, Rog?”
“All right. Have you heard from Seth?”
“A letter, package, or somethin’?”
“Seth is dead.”
“I know,” I said. “I know, but a guy just dropped by and hand-delivered a letter to me that Seth wrote before he died.”
Angeline didn’t say a word for at least a minute. This told me more than any confession or lie. Whatever it was that Seth was telling me, Angeline knew about it already.
“Did you read it?” she asked at last.
“No. Not yet. I was wondering if he’d sent the same note to you and Mom.”
“You should burn it, Roger,” she said. “Nothing good can come from a dead man’s hand.”
“The guy who brought it to me was very much alive.”
“Burn it, shred it, or just throw it away, Roger,” she said, in her best big-sister voice. “You know how Seth was always trying to mess with you.”
“What does it say, Angeline?”
“How do you expect me to know?”
“Don’t you mess with me, Sis.”
“I haven’t heard anything from Seth, and neither has Mom, as far as I know. I talked to her last Monday, and she didn’t say anything about any letters.”
“How is Mom?”
“Fine. She said that she hasn’t heard from you in over six months. You know, you could go to her house. She’s a few miles from your place. I see her more often than you do, and here I live 3,000 miles away.”
All the anger that I had at my mother and sister and deceased stepfather, Norland Reese, came up in my breast.
“I gotta go, Angeline,” I said.
“Wait, Roger. What about that letter—?”
I pressed the red button on my phone, and the connection was broken. I put the little device down and picked up the sealed envelope again.
Seth had terrorized me when we were children. He locked me in closets and big trunks just for a laugh. I learned the value of silence from him. Because when he put me in the big trunk in the attic of our house, I learned that he would never let me out as long as I yelled. But if I was quiet, he worried that maybe I had suffocated or something. He was the kind of torturer who fed off the screams of his victims.
I might have hated my brother, but his brand of torment wasn’t nearly as bad as that of my parents—I should say my mother and her husband, Norland. My blood father was a white man named Patrick Hand. The story goes that he abandoned our family when I was two, Angeline was four, and Seth was five.
“He just ran off and left me with three children and a dollar seventy-five,” my mother would say. Then she’d spit on the ground, cursing him.
Seth never believed that our father abandoned us. Patrick Hand was a known gambler, and Seth was convinced that he had been slaughtered over a bad debt and that our mother, instead of cursing him, should have gone out looking for his killers.
Norland wouldn’t let Seth tell that tale. He was of my mother’s opinion, and ruled over us with an iron hand.
In my mind I managed to believe both Seth and my mother. Sometimes I hated my father; other times, I prayed for his murdered soul.
I know that we haven’t talked in a long time. We might not ever talk again if what the doctors say about my heart is true. That in mind, I thought I should write you a letter and get the bitter truth off my chest. I guess you remember back when you were seventeen and you were going with that white girl, Timberly Alexander. I know that you broke up with her because Mama and Norland leaned on you so hard. I know it wasn’t your fault for breaking Timberly’s heart, and so I went over to her house out in West Covina after the breakup. I told her how much Mama and Norland thought that interracial relations only ended in heartbreak. I tried to explain how much you needed Mama and that her rules were too much for you to deny.
That’s when Timberly told me that she was pregnant. I didn’t even know what to say. She asked me whether she told you would you be able to break away from Mama and Norland and start a life with her. I told her that I didn’t believe that you could.
So for the past twenty years I’ve been giving Timmy a couple hundred dollars a month and her little girl, Sovie (named after Sojourner Truth), has called me Uncle Seth.
Timmy didn’t want me to tell you about your daughter, because she was mad and hurt that you left her and never called again. I probably should have told you, but I guess I got a little possessive. Anyway, the doctors are telling me that I’d better settle up my business, because the world is soon going to have to learn to live without me.
At the bottom of the page is Sovie’s address in Los Angeles. Yes, she lives in L.A., just like you.
Timmy died a year ago from breast cancer and so, when I’m gone, Sovie’s going to be alone in the world.
I’m sorry for keeping this from you, Little Brother. I know it’s worse than anything else I ever did.
I love you.
My heart started beating rapidly a minute or two after the third time I read the letter. I could have sat there and guessed for a hundred years and never come up with what Seth had to say. I had a child in the world and hadn’t known it. I was a father with none of the responsibilities, fears, or joys of parenthood.
I went out to the liquor store and bought two fifths of Jack Daniel’s and three packs of filterless Camels.
For a day and a half, all I did was drink and smoke. I had given up both habits when I was twenty-three years old. I’d realized one day that I was trying to kill myself with the legal drugs of my culture. And every day for seventeen years I’d wanted to end my smokeless sobriety.
I crashed around the house, cursing my brother and mother, my sister, who knew, and even Timberly for trusting Seth more than she did me. At one point, near the end of my private orgy, I raised a hickory chair up above my head and smashed it on the hardwood floor. Then, melodramatically, I crumpled to my knees and cried over the broken furniture.
Maybe five minutes after my outburst a rapping came at the door. A few seconds later I heard another, bolder knock.
I climbed to my feet, suppressed a gag reflex, and stumbled to the front of my boxy little home.
Standing there on our common porch was Rose Henley. She was as short as ever, but her hair had not yet turned completely white.
“Are you all right, Mr. Vaness?”
“No, ma’am, I am not.”
“Nothing I can point at, but everything else.”
“I don’t understand. I heard a crash, and I wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt.”
“You’re a brave woman,” I said, barely aware of what I was saying. “Somebody could have been killing me over here.”
“Does it have to do with that man who came here a few days ago?”
“Yes. But he was only the bearer of the message that I have fucked up everything.”
“Why don’t you come over to my house and have a cup of coffee?” she suggested. “Sober up a little bit.”
Rose Henley’s home was everything that my apartment was not. The floor was carpeted, and not a thread was out of place. A painting on the living-room wall was of a reclining nude woman who looked somewhat like a younger version of my neighbor.
She had me sit on a tan sofa and served me a weak cup of percolated coffee.
“Now,” she said, when we were both settled, “what’s the problem?”
Her face was broad, but her black eyes were set close together. The concern in that face was something I didn’t remember ever having been shown me before.
I told her everything, all about how Seth had tortured me, and how my sister probably knew about the child I’d fathered, about my mother and father and stepfather, my failure to surpass the image that everyone seemed to hold of me.
“I don’t even know why I dropped out of college,” I said at one point. “I don’t know when I gave up on myself.”
“You haven’t been to work in a few days, have you?” she asked.
“I’m sure they fired me. The temp agency called, but I didn’t answer.”
“You need to take a cold shower, get a good night’s sleep, and then go to see your daughter,” Rose said.
“I have to get a job first,” I replied. “You know Mr. Poplar wants his rent.”
“Poplar works for the landlord,” she said. “I don’t think the owner would kick you out under these circumstances.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because I own this house, Mr. Vaness. And I like you.”
The address for Sojourner “Sovie” Alexander was on Overland, just south of Pico Boulevard. It was the smallest house on the block and in need of a paint job. But the lawn was green and manicured. There were healthy rose bushes under the front windows.
The door was open and the screen closed. I saw a doorbell, but knocked anyway. After a few moments a tallish, honey-colored girl in her early twenties appeared.
“Miss Alexander?,” I said. I’d practiced calling her Miss.
“No,” she replied, pursing her lips as if she was going to whistle, or maybe kiss someone. “Who are you?”
“I’m here to see Miss Alexander,” I said. “Is she home?”
Staring quizzically at me, the honey-colored young woman shouted, “Sovie! It’s for you!”
The young woman went away, and before I could count to ten, a young white girl of the same age as her roommate walked up. She had light-blond hair and looked at me with a furrowed brow. She took in a quick breath and then realized something.
“Roger Vaness?” she said.
“You look a lot like Uncle Seth. Three days ago I got a letter from him,” she said. “This tall bald guy brought it. The man told me that Uncle Seth had died. He said—Uncle Seth said in the letter—that my real father was … was you.”
“I got the same letter. I never knew. Nobody—not your mother or Seth or anybody—ever told me that I had a little girl.”
We stared at each other through the gray haze of the screen, both of us unsure of what to do.
“Can I take you out for coffee?,” I asked.
“I’ll get my sweater,” she said.
We commandeered a small round table at the window of a coffeehouse on Westwood, near Pico. There we talked for hours.
Timmy had told her daughter that she didn’t know who her father was, that she had been wild as a child but sobered up when Sovie came. Seth was an old friend who dropped by regularly. Sovie had often wished that Seth was her father, or at least her real uncle.
“I guess he was my uncle,” she said at one point, realizing for the first time the blood relation.
“But Timmy never told you that I was black?,” I asked.
“Does that bother you?”
“It bothers me that she lied about you.”
“I mean it doesn’t bother you that you’re black?”
“Oh,” she said, looking very much like me and not. “I didn’t even think about that. Wow.”
“I don’t know what to say to you, Sojourner. I’m sittin’ here with a stranger, but I feel so much love that has been lost.”
“Me too. When I read Seth’s letter, I I felt like … I don’t know … I felt like an old-time explorer on the verge of discovering a new continent.”
“Did he give you my address?”
“Yes,” she said, meekly. “I drove by, but I couldn’t make myself stop. I was just so nervous.”
“That’s okay. It’s better that I came to you. A father should be there for his daughter.”
I could see in Sojourner’s eyes that she had been waiting her entire life to call a man Father. I put my big brown hand on her clenched white fists. She relaxed, and I thought that this was how I would have wanted it to be with my own father.
I called Absolute Temps and talked to the receptionist, Tanya Reed. I explained to Tanya exactly what happened, and she hooked me up with a six-week gig at Leonine Records, on Sunset. It was only $16.75 an hour, but that covered the rent and gas.
For the next month, Sovie and I saw or talked to each other every day.
She was a history major, like I had been, and had a boyfriend, Chad, who I met and liked very much. I gave her my blood father’s stack of Fantastic Four comics, saying that it was the only thing of value I owned. She didn’t like comic books but took them anyway. I don’t know why, but giving her those magazines felt like taking a two-ton weight off my skull.
Another month later, on a Saturday, I was cleaning my apartment to prepare for her and her roommate, Ashanti Bowles, to come over for dinner the next day.
When the knock came on the door, I didn’t think before opening it.
Lance Harding was wearing a pink suit with a red shirt and no tie. I wondered then if agents of the FRC had a dress code.
“Mr. Vaness,” he said.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I said, opening the door wide and ushering him into my clean house. “Come in, come in.”
Sitting in the same chairs as before, we faced each other. Harding crossed his left leg over the right one and nodded.
“I wanted to call you, but I couldn’t find a number for the FRC in the Yellow Pages,” I said. “I planned to get on somebody’s computer and look it up soon.”
“Why were you looking for us?”
“For you,” I said. “I wanted to ask you something that I didn’t think of the last time we met.”
“And what was that?”
“You mentioned my real father when we talked before. Do you know when he died?”
When Harding reached into his breast pocket, I was reminded of the fear I’d had of him the first time he sat at my table.
He came out with a small notepad and flipped through the pages. He stopped for a moment, read something, and then turned a leaf.
“In 1974,” he said, “when you were two years old. He was found murdered in the home of a young prostitute named Pearl Watson.”
“Do you know if anybody claimed the body?”
“Have you gone to see your daughter?” the FRC agent asked.
“How do you even know to ask that?”
“I’m here with another wish.”
“Have you visited your daughter?”
“Yes. Yes I have.”
“Do you love her?”
“I do. This has to do with Seth’s last wish?”
Instead of answering, Harding took another ivory envelope from his pocket.
Again he handed me a letter.
Again I hesitated.
When at last I accepted the letter, I expected Harding to leap up and leave like he did the first time. But he remained seated, staring at me.
“I am supposed to wait for a reply,” he said.
“A reply to a dead man?”
Harding hunched his shoulders, and I tore open the envelope.
By now you’ve probably met Sovie, and I know because you’re reading this letter that you at least say that you love her. I’ve been telling Dearby that I’ve been visiting with Althea because she has cancer and is dying. Althea does have cancer and she is dying, but I’ve also been doing my old thing in her house on her phone. Seems like bookies are back in style. I couldn’t tell Dearby, because she’d want the money I’m making, and I needed that money for Sovie. I also needed to tell you about your daughter and to make sure that you cared for her.
The man sitting in front of you has a third envelope. This one has a legal document saying that the bearer should be allowed access to my safe-deposit box at Concordia Bank in downtown Cincinnati. There’s $137,941 in that box.
I saved that money for Sovie, but I owe you something too. And so you can either accept the document and help the child with her bills or you can turn the whole thing over to her and let her decide how to handle it.
It’s up to you, Brother.
I folded the note and put it in my pocket.
“I got another question for you, Mr. Harding.”
“Do you take on trainee agents now and then?”
“Could I apply for that job?”
“I can make the proper connections. I happen to need an assistant, and your background fits our major criteria.”
“Then you give that envelope you got in your pocket to Sojourner Alexander and send me the application form.”