Before my mother married David, the suburbs of Chicago presented a geography of sameness: the architecture, the types of cars, the color of people’s faces. Evergreen Park, Park Forest, Oak Forest. Back in the 1980s, everything was indistinguishable. Everything was crystal and gold.
The year I was born my father embezzled several thousand dollars and disappeared with a friend’s wife. He was a tall, black-haired Bosnian who worked as a financial advisor in a strip mall. He drove a banged-up 1981 Ford Pinto, preferred turtlenecks, smoked using a cigarette holder, and wore dark sunglasses to neighbors’ cocktail parties.
Four days after vanishing, my father and the woman were arrested at a small airport in Florida, both wearing wigs. At the time my mother was eight months pregnant with me. Divorce proceedings ended before I was born. Afterward I only ever saw my dad in public places, on holidays and special occasions—Christmas in the backseat of his car in a parking garage, Easter in the lobby of his lawyer.
In our cul-de-sac, it was a source of great embarrassment that my mother was divorced. Someone painted a black X on our mailbox. None one knew what it meant. Another time, after a neighbor’s barbeque where my mother was accused of laughing too loudly, someone keyed “tease” on the side of her yellow Cougar. Unpaid bills were regularly sent home from my older siblings’ school. We lived in a wealthy suburb but found we were no longer wealthy.
Also we did not look like other children. We were dark-haired with dark complexions. My older brother had an extremely low hairline. Someone once called my older sister a racial slur. In addition to all that, I had a number of humiliating medical issues. For the first five years of my life, I was forced to wear leg-braces. Both of my feet were pronated, and so I had trouble walking.
If I wasn’t pedaling away from older kids who threatened to steal my bike, I spent my days acting out parts of The Empire Strikes Back, alone, behind my neighbor’s above-ground pool. I had a rubber mask of Alec Guinness’s face, which I wore around the neighborhood. It was just easier to pretend to be someone else.
When I was seven, my mother took out a loan and brought me to several podiatrists to get my feet fixed. We spent hour after hour with strange men forcing my legs to do things they did not want to do. I became nauseous at the smell of exam rooms, upon seeing the benign, bespectacled faces, or feeling the iron hands on my ankles. I got bloody noses in the passenger seat of the car, gore pouring from my nostrils as soon we arrived in the parking lot of any sort of medical facility.
My mother met David the very same year. When he pulled up in our driveway in an older model Renault, it seemed to signal some sort of important change. I stared from behind the enormous red curtains, dumbfounded by the look of the man who climbed out. He was short, squabish, wore a beige turtleneck and matching corduroy suit jacket over his round shoulders. He sported a pair of large brown bifocals and an untrimmed beard. All of his clothes seemed to be a varying shade of brown, suggesting he was some kind of unsuccessful doctor. Immediately I began to feel a wave of bile building up in my stomach.
Later all of us sat silently on the sofa in the sunken living room. My mother turned to us and said, “Everyone, this is David. He’s a dentist and also a very important artist.”
I had never met an artist before, let alone a very important one. Sitting beside my mother, there seemed to be something ridiculous about David, about his bald spot, about his unwarranted eagerness. My mother grinned at him in a way I had never seen any other adult grin before. “David, I’d like you to meet Tim, Janice, and Jack. Everyone, please say hello to David.”
I mouthed the single word but no sound came out. It was beyond upsetting to have a doctor come inside our house.
“Children, it’s a pleasure meeting you,” he said. He turned to my older brother and grinned. “You must be Tim, the man of the house.” He extended a hand to shake and my older brother reciprocated. In a moment, there was a mild, jolting sound and my brother pulled his fingers back with a startled expression. “Sorry about that,” David frowned, holding up a metallic joy-buzzer. “Just a joke.” He handed the joy-buzzer to my brother, who stared down at it with a pained look.
David then turned to my thirteen-year-old sister and said, “Just look at those incisors. Exactly like your mother’s. I don’t know who’s more beautiful.” Then he tried to pin a plastic flower to the front of her dress but his hands were shaking. “It’s a trick-flower,” he said as he finally he got it into place. “See. It can squirt ink.”
“You’re touching my boob,” my sister complained, staring angrily at our mother.
“Jesus, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m making a mess of this.” Then he turned to me. He smiled and asked to shake my hand and I knew right then that I was going to vomit. I ran to the bathroom and began to gag. When I was finished, I became aware that everyone was listening from the other room, so I made a show of properly washing my hands and brushing my teeth.
Once I returned to the living room, my mother asked if I was okay. I nodded, keeping an eye on David. He turned to me and offered a plastic pen that featured a woman whose dress disappeared whenever you turned the object upside down. It was both amazing and terrifying all at once. Nothing was said for several moments until eventually my older sister raised her hand and asked, “What kind of artist are you?”
“I do nudes, some abstract photography. I also do children’s comics.”
None of us knew how to respond. Finally, after another lengthy silence, David asked, “Does anybody here care about dental hygiene? I brought you each a little something.”
He then gave each of us a small plastic bag containing a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, some rubber gloves, and a paper mask. I—being the youngest, always eager to please—put the mask on first. My older brother and sister followed. We sat like that on the couch for a while, a fractured family, unsure of what to do.
Later that night my older sister and I snuck down to the landing at the top of the stairs to watch David and my mother as they drank from a bottle of sherry. David had set up a portable movie screen in the living room. Together they were sipping from small glasses and watching a 8mm film, shot somewhere in California. In it, David and his friends were naked, their orange bodies overexposed, covered in coarse hair, all of them laughing.
One month later, David married my mother in a small civil ceremony with few family members present. It turned out David was Jewish and our grandparents did not approve, though we did not have any idea why as no one explained to us what it meant to be Jewish. I knew it was something you didn’t mention in the way you did not speak openly about tragedy. I also understood it had something to do with concentration camps and World War II.
David moved in with us a few days after the ceremony, taking over one of the upstairs bathrooms, filling it with several dozen bottles of cologne. The den in the basement became his art studio; an architect’s desk was mysteriously installed one day while we were all at school. Sometimes he sat at the desk sketching strange, abstract shapes, other times graphic depictions of the female body. Still other times he smoked silently, his feet up, flipping through an old issue of Modern Dentistry.
David Dog, my stepfather. My stepfather, David Dog.
Before becoming a dentist, David had wanted to be an artist, but his parents had persuaded him to stay in dental school. David Dogg, his comic strip, which appeared in Highlights For Children in the late 1980s and early 90s, was his only recognizable achievement. The series was about a dog who also happened to be a dentist. It was like a more depressing canine version of Goofus and Gallant. For some reason, all of the animals in the comic strip wore turtlenecks and suit jackets. Everyone—including the dental hygienist who was a snake—seemed to be frowning. In one episode—typical of the series—David Dogg chides a Doberman Pinscher for not flossing. The Doberman ignores David Dogg and later tries to bite a masked burglar. All of the Doberman’s teeth fall out, to which the other anthropomorphized animals laugh. The subtext was that adult life, even with healthy teeth, was a misery.
None of us had any interest in his comic strip, but David often left unfinished drafts on the kitchen table for us to see. Something about the sketchy quality of his lines seemed too adult, slightly sexualized, like the cartoons in my older brother’s Playboys.
Apparently the pranks, the practical jokes, the magic items were a part of what he did as a dentist, playing tricks on his patients, giving away gag gifts to children. It was not uncommon to come home from school to find David lying on the kitchen room floor with a plastic knife in his back, his shirt splattered with fake blood. At some point it was no longer terrifying or even vaguely remarkable. It just became something else to ignore.
Sometimes we met in my older sister’s room to discuss the problem of David Dog.
“But why did she marry him?” I asked.
“Because she was broke,” my older brother said. “She had to marry somebody.”
“Did you see his hands? He’s got hair on his knuckles. On his knuckles. It’s completely disgusting,” my sister whispered, blowing cigarette smoke out the window.
There was his cologne, which hung in the air hours after he left like the invisible man, the way he ate breakfast in his underwear, and the fact he insisted on watching cartoons with you all day on Saturday.
David Dog, David Dog, we asked ourselves. Who can make sense of David Dog?
Everything changed one Sunday when I was nine. David brought home a used video camera; the camera was irregularly-shaped, imprinted with Japanese letters, and already several years out-of-date. From that moment forward, David dedicated himself to documenting all of the important moments of our lives. The majority of my childhood memories from that point forward—birthday parties, vacations, graduations—feature him operating just out of the field of my vision, kneeling in tan slacks, his face obscured by the camera’s viewfinder, as if he had somehow always been there.
David’s interest in video peaked when I was in sixth grade. I had a short essay on Ancient Egypt due for my history class but David decided we should remake Raiders of the Lost Ark instead. It was not unheard of for David to try to wrestle control of our school assignments, pushing them to become unnecessarily complicated. We spent several weeks filming after school—David, my mother, my older sister, and I playing all the major roles. My older brother was in high school by then and refused to participate. On film, all of us look bothered in very different ways. At the end of one scene, you can actually hear my mother say, “This is asinine, David.” Moments later, she and my stepfather begin arguing. “You’re a dentist,” she insists. “Stop trying to be Steven fucking Spielberg.” The unedited film was a hundred and eight minutes long. I ended up getting a C minus.
One night a few months later, David woke me up by quietly poking me in the shoulder. He held a finger to his mouth and waved me out into the hall. I rubbed the side of my face, glanced at the clock, saw it was just past five in the morning. I climbed out of bed, followed him downstairs and yawned, not bothering to cover my mouth. I asked, “Why did you wake me up so early?”
“Look, kiddo,” David said. “Look at the light.”
Outside, just beyond our front lawn, the sky had become a frantic purple-blue, a color I had never seen before in nature. I yawned again.
“This is what we need for that final scene,” he said.
“But the assignment’s over, David. I already turned it in.”
“Come on,” he said.
I frowned, gathered up the props from the basement, and dragged myself into the backyard.
Outside the sun, the sky looked as they only ever did in movies. I put on the beat-up felt hat and leaned against a tree, pretending to be tied-up, like the end of the world was actually coming. David whispered, “Rolling,” and slowly backed away. “Go ahead and scream. Scream like your face is being burned off.” So I did. For the first time it felt like a real film, like something someone else might want to watch. I thought David might be a genius. I was not sure. All I knew is that I wanted to live in those seconds for as long as I could, somewhere between life and make-believe. I looked up and saw David murmuring to himself, attempting a long tracking shot. He seemed to be aglow. At that moment I stopped thinking of him as stranger. I began to think of him as part him as someone, something I could somehow be related to.
After that, school passed in a series of fast-forward jump cuts. Though I had been a mediocre high school student, my mother contacted an old boyfriend out East and got me into the economics program at Columbia. I dropped out after one semester, stole a computer from the computer lab, and ended up hiding out at a friend’s parent’s house for a month. David called and asked to speak with me. I walked into my friend’s parents’ den, closed the door, and carefully picked up the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
“I heard you dropped out, Jack.”
“School’s not for everybody. I want to go California. I want to make movies.”
He paused. I could hear the sound of a dental drill in the background. “Well, believe it or not, kid, I’m here to let you know sometimes it’s okay to run. It’s okay to run sometimes. You just have to be sure this is one of those times.”
I sat there silently, thinking I knew what he meant but then realized I didn’t. He must have heard the uncertainty within that silence because he asked, “Do you need any money?”
“No,” I said, even though I did.
“Okay. Be good,” he said. Then, “Take care of yourself,” and from there I knew I was on my own.
I moved to the West Coast, tried to write screenplays, couldn’t get an agent, eventually turned to washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant. I blamed David for not talking me into staying in school. California was not what I thought it would be. Everything was hazy, still distant. I got another job waiting tables at a different Mexican restaurant and moved in with a divorced woman who was seven years older and taught aerobics. She had beautiful laugh lines but said she was not interested in anything permanent.
One day Telly Savalas tipped me thirty dollars, which was the high point of my filmmaking career. Sometime later I bluffed my way into teaching a screenwriting class at the Adult Learning Annex in Long Beach. I found out that I liked teaching. I moved back to Chicago. I went to night school and got a BA when I was twenty-eight. I ended up getting adjunct work at a community college downtown, teaching ESL and Composition to undocumented immigrants burdened with preposterous student loans. At night, I continued to write screenplays I knew no one would ever read.
One year later I met Birgit. She was Danish, twenty-six, a student who worked in the registrar’s office. She was slight with short blonde hair and a dark, mischievous quality. She was pursuing a degree in psychology, was three years younger than me, had lived in five different countries, and was much more sophisticated. No matter how often I suggested it, she refused to take a creative writing course, which I thought was incredibly pragmatic. There was a no-nonsense quality to the messages she posted on the adjunct faculty board which I found alluring. It was the syntax of someone who knew who they were, what they wanted.
Before we slept together the first time, she told me she had no interest in having children. I told her I felt exactly the same. We moved in together after knowing each other for four months. At the time I remember thinking that four months seemed like just long enough to get to know somebody.
I introduced Birgit to David and my mother one Sunday night at dinner. Birgit claimed to love my parents because she was convinced they were charming, secret perverts. Maybe she was right; David had a number of canvases clad with pink, naked bodies strewn about their house, but I did not like having to think about them in that way. It seemed to me both of them had grown benumbed over the years. My mother laughed spitefully at most of what David said and they never spoke to each other directly.
Finally, at a cocktail party for their thirtieth wedding anniversary, they decided to separate. I was in the kitchen with Birgit, hoping to avoid the tension between my mother and David. Before us on the kitchen walls were a series of soft chalk sketches that David had done of various open mouths that looked both vague and grotesque. Birgit looked at them and grinned friskily, noting their resemblance to female genitalia. I tried not to smile, knowing how seriously David took his art. Eventually he appeared, dressed in a suit two sizes too small, his glasses smudgy, his forehead sweaty.
“Happy Anniversary!” Birgit announced, trying to sound bubbly. “Here’s to thirty more years.”
“I don’t know if we’ll make it to the end of the night,” David grumbled. “Your mother told me to stop pestering people about my drawings.”
I eyed my mother who was, at that moment, standing in the hallway and poking her accountant in the shoulder. “She looks like she’s had too much to drink.”
“It’s barely eight o’ clock. She’s not as drunk as she’d like us to think.”
I poured him another glass of wine. He asked me what we thought of his new drawings. Before I could answer, my mother butted-in. “Nobody wants to talk about your pictures, David.”
David turned to face her. “Sure they do. These people love to talk about art. That’s what people with artistic sentiments do.”
“I’m sure they do,” my mother mocked, refilling her glass.
David stared at her and said, “You wouldn’t know. You’ve never been a fan.”
“A fan? I didn’t marry you because I was a fan. I married you because you were nice. And everyone said you were a good dentist.”
“Exactly,” David said, arriving at some point no one seemed to recognize. I looked at Birgit and raised my eyebrows, a signal that we should leave. But it was too late—David finished his glass and turned to my mother. “You’re too suburban,” he said. “You never gave a damn about culture or art.”
“Art? You had some scribbles published in a children’s magazine thirty years ago. I had no idea anyone considered that art.”
The party ended a few minutes later. Afterwards, my mother called to say she and David were separating. Ten minutes later, David texted me to say the exact same thing.
David stopped by our apartment a week later with several large boxes. Inside were sketches, sculptures, some old magic tricks and props, and all of his published comic strips mounted on expensive wood frames. He placed the three boxes on the floor of one of our closets and said, “I’d like you to hold onto these for awhile. I’m sleeping at the office right now and I’d like to know they’re safe.”
“You’re welcome to stay here,” Birgit said.
“No. I’m fine. If you don’t mind hanging on to these until I get a new place, I’d be extremely grateful. I’m thinking of buying a condo somewhere downtown. That way we’ll be able to see each other more often.”
I looked over at Birgit and gave a weak smile, then glanced down and saw a framed episode of David Dogg. In it the canine dentist was performing a root canal on a cat that looked an awful lot like Farah Fawcett.
“And if anything should ever happen,” David said, placing his hand on my shoulder. “I hope you’ll know what to do with these.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked. “And what am I supposed to do?”
David looked at me with unease. “Can I sit down?”
We all took a seat on the futon. David opened and closed his hands a few times and then said, “I’m not well. It’s my heart. There’s a blockage of some kind. My doctor wants to put me under. Quadruple bypass.”
“Jesus, David. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. He said he has to run some more tests, but it doesn’t look good.”
“Did you tell my mother yet?”
“No. I can’t handle her pitying me. She refuses to let anyone suffer alone. Besides she’s liable to change her mind about all this right now.” He put an arm around my shoulder and then looked at Birgit and said, “You two. You’re the only people I have left.”
He pulled us both in for a long hug and held it, like the three of us were sitting for a portrait that was being painted.
One afternoon a few weeks later I found myself sorting through David’s boxes. I came across the final, unpublished episode of David Dogg, wherein all the animals decide to go camping. There they learn proper dental hygiene never takes a vacation. David Dogg makes sure to brush his teeth and all the teeth of his animal friends before they curl up in sleeping bags and look up at the stars. In these distant constellations, each animal sees something different; a bulldog pictures a sparkly-eyed cat to chase; a fancy poodle an enormous diamond dog-collar. David Dogg looks up at the sky and sees a set of sparkling teeth. There was something so surreal about that particular panel—its wistfulness, its ridiculousness, a dog dreaming of clean, white teeth—that revealed something mystifying about the inner workings of the David’s mind. It seemed to express something so sad, so ephemeral, both in the nature of his artistic career and the realm of his personal life.
The divorce went through in January. By then, I had not seen David in almost five months. I wondered how long was I supposed to hold onto his belongings. Finally I went in to get my teeth cleaned—David was the only dentist I had ever been to. After I sat down in the chair and he gently attached the paper bib around my neck, I told him I had been offered a full-time position at the community college where I had been teaching.
“That’s extraordinary, Jackie. Congratulations.”
“Well, I mean I won’t be an actual professor. There’s no tenure system at the school. Plus, I won’t have much time to write if I want.”
“You should take the job anyway. You can always write on the weekends and in the evenings.” He pulled the paper mask up over his face. “Listen, I’ve been meaning to come by and pick up those boxes. Remind me when you leave and we’ll figure out a time I can come get them.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“I appreciate that, kiddo. Okay, let’s take a look inside.” He inserted the silver metal explorer into my mouth and frowned. “How often you been flossing?”
I followed David’s advice and took the job and began grading hundreds of poorly-written essays about how hard it was to write an essay. It was not very rewarding work. Birgit and I talked about moving to Denmark. A year went by. I visited David for another check-up. He had put on a little weight. He said his doctor was still worried about his heart; I told him he looked better. Another six months went by. Birgit and I talked about moving somewhere else in Europe, but then she broke her leg in a car accident, which for some reason put everything on hold. In November, my mother called to tell me David had passed away—he’d died from a myocardial infarction. It was sudden and not so sudden. I had not spoken to him in more than a year. He was sixty-two.
David’s memorial was a rushed, dismal event. It was held in a synagogue he’d not attended in decades. Everything seemed misplaced and indifferent; the photograph they had blown up of him was blotchy, out of focus. The speakers did not seem to know who he was. I stood between my mother and David’s sister, Denise, who had come in from Cleveland. We shook the hands of several strangers, accepting dispassionate, mannered condolences. Behind us, on a small flat screen TV, several home movies featuring David played. What was most striking was David’s absence, as he was only ever the person holding the video camera. In the end, his final self-portrait was a shot of all of us—my mother and her three children—with our feet cooling in a Florida swimming pool, David’s voice speaking excitedly off-camera, his shadow lingering over our bodies, an entire life reduced to this single, bleary frame.
At the end of the service, a young woman came up to me, eyes crenulated with mascara. She told me she had been a friend of my David’s. I looked at her—she had dark hair and was wearing a blue mink that looked several decades old, even though she couldn’t be older than thirty. Her facial features were severe, her cheeks sunken. She had on layers of thick make-up, meant to cover several acne scars along her forehead and cheeks. She told me she had a few of David’s things and wanted to return them to a member of the family.
Together we went out to the parking lot. I remember it was snowing; it had been snowing for several days and the parking lot looked like a bad hotel painting. Ice covered the rear of her hatchback as she lifted open the trunk and handed me a single cardboard box. Inside was a few mothy sweaters, a brown corduroy jacket, and several well-worn, button-down shirts.
“These were your dad’s,” the young woman said.
“He was my stepdad.”
She apologized and nodded. I poked through David’s belongings and then glanced up at the woman’s sharp features again. “Were you…Were you two…”
“Yes,” she said, a little embarrassed. “For a few months near the end. He had been staying at my place for the last couple of weeks.”
“Did you know he was sick?”
“I knew he was taking something for his heart. And he had an appointment with his doctor next week to talk about getting a bypass. He kept putting it off. I think he was afraid of the operation. I kept trying to get him to go in but he wouldn’t.”
“How did you…how did you know each other?” I asked.
She seemed to go stiff for a moment and then mumbled, “We had a lot of things in common.”
I nodded and thanked the young woman, still holding the box against my chest. I watched her climb into her car and drive off, the hatchback disappearing into the shifting snow. I realized only later that I hadn’t asked her name.
In January, Birgit found out she was pregnant. Both of us had mixed feelings about it, to be honest. After a month of several emotional discussions, Birgit decided we should keep the baby. I quietly agreed but was still unsure. We sat down and began to do the math and saw how little teaching was pulling in. I signed up to teach three additional courses at an adult education center. We got a used Volvo, which Birgit considered indestructible. Everything seemed to have become serious, organized, rigid overnight. Every so often I’d look through an issue of Variety or flip through one of my screenplays. I’d fiddle around with a new draft, reworking the ending with absolutely no intention of ever sending out to anybody. Other times I’d go through one of David’s boxes, find a set of magic quarters or a never-ending silk handkerchief, and see if I could remember how David had done it.
In February I began getting angry letters from David’s landlord. I was forced to go clean out his apartment even though I had never actually been there before. It felt like breaking and entering. I looked around for things to donate, things to simply throw away. David’s place was uncharacteristically clean; clearly there had been someone in his life somewhere near the end who had helped him mitigate his own untidiness. There were his record albums, all alphabetically arranged, some dental magazines in a neat pile on the top of a glass coffee table. Then, in a box beside the television set, was my stepfather’s bulky old video camera and several large format VHS cassettes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars. I began to pack those up. Behind the first row of VHS cassettes was another stack of tapes; I knelt down and looked at them. There were three VHS tapes in all. One was labeled Pirates, another The Nitengale, its title misspelled. The third was unlabeled. I finished sorting some of his clothes, putting Post-it notes on his furniture, piecing through his stacks of art books, until I had a pile of things I wanted to keep, including his camera and the box of VHS tapes. I took these back to my apartment and placed them on a stack of his other belongings and then soon forgot about them.
Only in March when we were trying to make room for another human being in our apartment did I come across the box of VHS tapes again. Something about the titles, about their out-of-date shapes, grabbed my attention; I decided to sit down and watch one. The fact that it was a videotape made it nearly impossible to view, but then I remembered David’s camera, which I managed to hook up to the back of our tiny TV in the bedroom. I placed the first tape, Pirates, inside the camera and pressed play.
It didn’t take long to realize what Pirates was; it was amateur pornography, comprised of extreme close-ups, strange-looking body parts, and indefinable human faces. It seemed to be a soft-core remake of The Pirates of Penzance. In the background, the Rogers and Hammerstein score blared loudly from a stereo, while the woman with the sharp features from the memorial service performed parts from the musical, each with a different colored wig, in differing stages of undress. It appeared to be porn for the musical theatre set. For some reason, both my stepfather and the woman wore their glasses during their sex scenes. This small, human oversight was both strange and deeply touching. It made it almost impossible not to keep watching.
Eventually Birgit came in and sat down beside me on the bed, asking me what I was doing. I turned to her and smiled. “I’m watching some of David’s movies.”
“Movies. What kind of movies?”
“They’re sex movies. They’re kind of out there.”
“Can I watch?”
I shrugged and she took a seat beside me.
I put the second tape in, The Nitengale. It was meant to be an original story, or so the titles at the beginning of the film promised: “Written and Directed by David Dog.” In the film David pretended to be a detective of some kind. Certain scenes in the film must have been shot in David’s dental office, off-hours; there were the recognizable vinyl seats and the same coat rack. David’s peroxide-blonde hygienist, his real one, was pretending to be his gum-cracking secretary. She handed David the Detective an important message. Moments later, installed within his detective office—detritus of his career as a pediatric dentist crowding the background—there was a knock at the door. A stranger, the sharp-faced woman again, entered and presented her case. An expensive bird had gone missing from a private zoological collection. She needed his help to recover it. She had no money but was willing to make other arrangements.
Birgit looked over at me and grinned. “This is maybe the greatest movie I have ever seen. They’re too naive to bother acting. It’s like watching Robert Bresson.”
The editing was amateur, angles were purposefully off-center, sequences didn’t seem to match-up. There were grainy shots of empty stairwells, elevators closing. Birgit turned to me and smiled. “He’s trying to be artful. He wants to be an auteur.”
I turned back to the small television and frowned. It was hard to admit, but good or bad, David had begun to develop his own style.
Forty-five minutes into the film, the movie suddenly cut off, with no ending, the mystery unsolved, the expensive missing bird never recovered.
The third and final movie had no title. I inserted it into the camera and took a seat on the bed. It was unlike anything else David had made. The camera played over a pair of woman’s feet, closing in and out, then cut to a shot of the back of her neck, then her teeth. The woman held a pillow over her face and laughed. It was obviously a document of some encounter, David’s camera slowly playing over the limbs of his lover. It felt incredibly bold and personal. It was about light, and what it could do to the human body, its illusory nature, how it could momentarily change the appearance of things.
“What is this?” Birgit asked. I shook my head and looked back at the television. Onscreen, a pair of lit candles made provocative shadows along the wall, twinning every movement. The woman in the film was the one from the memorial service again. She lay in bed, smoking, while the camera seemed to be studying her. David was trying to capture something about her, his complicated feelings for her. It was restrained, abstract, though at the same time, it still seemed to qualify as soft-core pornography. Birgit turned to me when it was over, looking pleasantly shocked. “What was that?”
“I don’t know. I have no idea.” We stared at the static on the screen for a while and then turned back to smile at each other again.
“Not bad for a dentist,” I said.
“Not bad for anybody,” she said with a smile. She leaned her head against my shoulder and announced, “Now you have to try and find out.”
“Find out what?”
“Find out who that woman is, so you can give these back to her.”
I turned to face the blurry screen and nodded slowly in agreement.
The following afternoon I stopped by David’s office on the way home from teaching; I wanted to find a way to talk to the woman who had starred in his films. I tried to interrogate the receptionist about David’s last social commitments but she was not forthcoming. I asked if there was anyone whom he had met with regularly, any woman who happened to call, but the receptionist said there was no one. Apparently, like David, I was also an unconvincing detective.
About four weeks later, I caught a break. I went back to the dental office for a check-up with one of the younger associates in his practice, realizing it would be the first time in thirty years since someone besides David had looked at my teeth. I sat in the waiting room, flipping through a children’s magazine, feeling anxious. Then the oral hygienist called my name. I looked up and immediately recognized the sharp-featured woman from the memorial and David’s films. There was her name, Janet, stitched to the breast pocket of her pink scrubs. It turned out that she was one of David’s employees. She led me into one of the examination rooms. I sank into the vinyl upholstery, as she clipped a paper bib around my neck.
She looked at me and said, “You came to talk about David.”
“Actually, I just came to get my teeth cleaned. David was my dentist.”
“Oh,” she said, adjusting her glasses. I noticed the woman’s neck had broken out in mottled red spots. “I see.”
“I…I was cleaning out his place and I came across some things, some tapes. I thought…I thought you might like them back.”
“Tapes. Movies he made,” I said.
Her face also began to go flush. I looked up and saw, behind the paper mask, her eyes go wide with tears. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this right now,” she said and then rushed out of the room. After a few minutes I took the bib off and got up and left.
Back at our apartment everything had become humorless, grave. Electrical outlets were covered in clear plastic, the glass coffee table had been sold. Birgit and I took out a pair of expensive life insurance policies. I began to think about the future, about the end of my life, about the happiness of a child who had yet to be born. Who would this person be and what would they think of me? Would they see me for who I was or just a second-rate community college teacher? What did I have to offer them, other than an insurance policy I could barely afford and some unfinished screenplays? Birgit seemed untroubled by the change of tone in our lives. She devoted her free time to reading book after book about rare childhood illnesses. Sex between us became unfamiliar, somewhat uncomfortable. Everything seemed answered already, already planned for. Was this the tedium David had experienced his entire life? Was this what he had been trying to fend off with his art, his pictures, his movies? In brief moments of quiet, I stood over his remaining belongings, sorting through the strange items: itching powder, a joy-buzzer, an endless handkerchief, a fake fly in a plastic ice cube. I began to carry them around with me, for no real reason I could tell, other than to surprise myself.
Later that month I went back to the dentist’s office to speak with Janet once more and to return David’s movies. I sat in the employee parking lot in the Volvo, placing my hands before the heat pouring through the vents, waiting until the office closed at seven p.m. I watched as it continued to snow, even though it was already April.
At ten minutes after the hour, I saw the woman come out wearing the blue fur coat, the hood pulled up over her head. She walked to her hatchback and climbed inside. In a hurry, I jogged over to the passenger’s side window, holding the cardboard box under my arm. I knocked on her window and she looked up at me with an expression of alarm and then one of delayed recognition, before she carefully rolled the window down.
“I thought you might want to have these,” I said through the narrow opening. She nodded and then pushed the door open. I could not tell if she was smiling but she waved me inside. I took a seat inside the cold cabin of her car. “I’m sorry to bother you, I just…I wanted to give these back. I didn’t know what else to do with them.”
I handed her the box full of tapes and she nodded, unwilling to look me in the eye. “Thank you.” She then took the box and placed it in the backseat. Her face had gone a little red again. Outside the snow continued to pile up. I watched our breath fill the car.
“I have a few questions I’d like to ask, if it’s okay.”
“All right,” she said, fiddling with a loose thread on her mittens. “I’m sorry…I’ve never lost anyone I was this close with before.”
“It’s okay,” she said with a nod.
“I was wondering…how long did you know David? I mean how long were you together?”
“Only a few months. I got hired last April. So it was less than a year, I guess. Don’t worry. We…I didn’t even begin working there until after your mom and David were divorced.”
“Were you guys dating? I mean were you guys like a couple?”
“And he was living at your place?”
“It wasn’t anything official. We were just having a nice time. Hanging out.”
I nodded. She glanced over at me with gray-blue eyes. “Your stepdad, David. He was probably one of the most beautiful people I ever met. He was so kind. Everything he saw was art.”
I nodded, looking up at her. “Are there any other movies?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” she said with a frown.
“Did he ever finish any of them? All of them, they seem to end right in the middle.”
“He didn’t know how to end anything. He always just moved onto something else. He had such a love of life, you know, he…” and then she looked at me and smiled faintly, maybe recalling some distant memory. She paused for a moment and then said, “He was afraid that everyone thought he was a joke; that you and your brother and sister and mother were all disappointed in him.”
“Because he was a dentist. He just wanted somebody to take him seriously.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Poor David. Poor David Dog. I felt something go tight in my chest, a familiar ache that I realized had been there for some time. I looked over and saw Janet was now softly crying.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded and wiped at her eyes, then looked away.
“Do you mind me asking one more question? Do you think he was happy before he died? Do you think he might have been?”
Janet nodded decisively. She began crying again and then, unexpectedly, she put her arms around my shoulders and gave me a soft, awkward hug. We sat there for a few moments, two strangers, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. I reached into my pocket and took out a handkerchief and handed it to her. But the object kept going, changing colors—red, orange, blue, green—an embarrassment of intensities and hues. She looked over at me, confused, as I folded the object up and muttered, “I’m sorry. I …I should go.” I pushed open the passenger side door in a hurry. She turned and looked at me from across the front seat and said:
“It’s okay. None of us are any good at endings.”
I told her I thought she was right; then I climbed out of the car and watched her go. Everything in the distance looked so unfamiliar then; everything seemed so small.
Joe Meno is a writer who lives in Chicago and the author of several novels and two short story collections. He is a professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. His nonfiction work, Between Everything and Nothing, was published in June 2020.