My father is a hard man to know. He never emerges from the cellar. My mother says he is a great artist. I have to take her word for it. I have never seen him. I only hear his incessant clanking―metal upon metal, hammer striking anvil―and sniff the sharp smell of acetylene as he cuts through the pieces my ever-attentive mother scavenges for him.
She’s the only one who does see him. Three times each day, she opens the trapdoor and brings him meals. She shuffles down the wooden steps, careful of her footing. She stays down there while he eats, talking, I suppose, about household matters. I hope they talk about me, but it’s probably mostly about him. “He works so hard,” she says when she returns. “His work makes him famished.”
I wish he would come up and play with me sometimes, when I come home from school, but I know he has more important things to do. My older brother, Ephraim, has given up hope of ever seeing him again. When he was very young, Ephraim saw him, but he says he no longer remembers what he looked like. “I don’t care anymore. He can do what he likes. I no longer have anything to do with him.”
I imagine my father to be in his forties or fifties, strong and muscular, with long black hair. I picture, as well, a drooping mustache tipped with gray. And his eyes! Cold blue, looking straight through me.
It’s my mother’s job to prowl the neighborhood for something he might find interesting. Perhaps a damaged bumper from a wrecked car or an old mattress spring sitting in someone’s trash. She seems to be good at anticipating my father’s wishes. As far as I know, he has never rejected anything she brought. Every week, she descends with an armload of scrap, which he changes into beautiful objects, or so my mother says. She constantly marvels at his creativity. “Oh, what he can do with a bicycle frame. You wouldn’t believe!” A few leftover objects sit in a corner, things he threw together in the past. I keep looking at them, searching for hidden meaning. But I confess: they are incomprehensible to me.
I wonder how he manages to sell his finished work. Perhaps my mother takes them to a dealer when my brother and I are out. She must sell some of them, otherwise how could she afford to feed us or buy us clothes?
When my mother approaches an art dealer, does she haggle over the price? I somehow think that my father would consider that beneath him, but she would be good at it. I’ve seen her argue with the fishmonger and she always gets her way.
Once, I asked how my father became an artist. My mother said, “He was already an artist when I first met him. But he was a painter then. Collectors would line up outside the door to look at his work. Dealers pleaded to represent him. Gallery owners begged him to let them put together shows.”
I wanted to know if she still had some of those paintings. “No. We don’t have any of those things anymore. They all sold out.”
“But why did he switch to those contraptions he makes downstairs?”
“That’s a complicated story,” she said, sitting down at the kitchen table. “But let me tell it to you simply. Times changed. People changed. Tastes changed. Nobody wanted the merely beautiful anymore.”
“What did those pictures look like?” I asked.
“Like an infinity of silence. Stars burning in heaven. The earth surrounded by a golden haze.”
“And then what happened?”
“Beautiful became passé. Yesterday’s business. Old news. People began demanding something more modern. Perhaps something that incorporated technology. Maybe something with a cynical edge. So your father tinkered. He vowed to give them something they would like. With style, of course, and with his personality embedded on everything he touched.”
“Why doesn’t he ever come up? Why do I never see him?”
“Shush. He’s an artist. He has his ways. He’s a good father. Don’t you ever forget that. I don’t want you saying anything against him. Do you understand?”
I never asked her again, but I wanted him to show himself, to tell me that he loved me.
A morning came when my mother fell ill, and Ephraim had to take her to the doctor. “What about father?” I asked Ephraim. “Who’s going to bring him his food?”
“Forget him already. He’s forgotten us. If he’s hungry, maybe he’ll take it in his head to come upstairs and feed himself for a change.”
“No. That’s not right. He has work to do.”
“If you’re so worried, why don’t you prepare it yourself? Do you know how?”
Of course I did. For years I watched my mother in the kitchen. As soon as Ephraim took her out the front door, I started to peel vegetables, began heating leftover meat and, when everything was ready, fetched beer from the refrigerator. But then I was frightened. Would he reject my offering? Slam down my tray? Slap me? Would I feel like a fool in his presence? Would I disappoint him?
I opened the trapdoor and, clutching the tray in both hands, slowly felt my way down unfamiliar stairs. “Father! Father!” I shouted. “Don’t be angry. It’s only me. Your son. Bringing your food. Mother can’t make it today. Are you there? Are you hungry?”
The trapdoor slammed behind me, shutting me off from my world. I walked slowly forward, drawn toward a far light. “Are you there?” I shouted. “Do you remember me?” I listened for his response. “Do you love me?”
Silence echoed off the rough stone walls. The light seemed far away.