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Friday, August 9, 2013


by Anthony Santulli

        My father knew how to put himself together de rigueur. His smart casual wardrobe consisted of 3-button bespoke jackets, pleated chalk stripe pants, notched lapel blazers, mid-calf Argyle socks, Italian leather belts and Half-Windsor knots. There were, of course, times where a sale too good to pass up could lead to any number of strange purchases: tacky baseball caps, neon colored neckties, the occasional blouse left in the men's department. Poor judgment aside, he always presented himself well; to this day I have never seen him in a pair of jeans. At eight years old, I associated my father’s clean-shaven appearance with a precocious notion of what it meant to be an adult and the many luxuries that awaited me in the business world.
        He sold his first house at 28. His days as a real estate broker consisted of sporadic commissions, useless partnerships, futile attempts to sell upscale apartments on the waterfront, and paper. Always paper. His filing cabinets overflowed with numbers and letters and useless symbols. When his business went online in 2002, he still asked customers to fax their contracts, mortgage commitments, advertisements, and other information. Anything abstract confused him; he liked the idea of something tangible.
        My father had often taken me to see this work when I was a child. His office was just one of many small businesses on Jersey City’s Central Avenue: Holey Moley Tattoos & Body Piercings, Central Gold & Diamond, Rumba’s Café, $.99 Gallery, and more. Still, it was all his; the fax machine, some tangled telephone wires, the furniture inherited from his father. "One day," he used to say, "this will all be yours." A piece of him, I'm sure, was damaged when he realized that I didn’t want to sell houses or inherit my grandfather's furniture.
        Maybe it was the basement. Forty years ago, the building served as a retail store that specialized in military apparel, and several shipments of camouflaged inventory as well as a shoebox full of baseball cards from the 1960s had been left behind for my family to collect. After he started his own business there, my father used the same space for his own storage. One of my earliest memories is apocryphal; I remember wandering around that damp, dark room, trapped in a world of sealed Rubbermaids that contained everything from Christmas decorations to vintage Matchbox cars and moldy posters of Muhammad Ali. On the far wall, the boiler room's heavy steel door was barricaded by chains and locks. Its edges glowed red with chthonic intensity as they whistled and moaned to a demonic rhythm. White heat emanated from the radiators, a contrast to the obsidian and impossible chill of that infernal hall. This, I thought, was what the Catholic boys meant when they spoke of Hell.
        My father has switched buildings twice since then, both of them with only one story, yet the vastness of that place remains fresh; it floats idly like a balloon losing air. But it’s no longer the basement that I fear—I know now that Hell has moved somewhere else.
        When the Take Our Daughters to Work program was expanded to include boys in 2003, most parents were indifferent, perhaps embarrassed by their own jobs. In my class, there were no sons of astronauts or paleontologists, no daughters of doctors or superheroes. "Take Your Child to Work Day", as the elementary teachers called it, soberly reminded most parents of their status as typical middle-class suburbanites holding a 9-to-5 job. The program gave my father a chance to show me around a calculator and explain the stock market; I just looked forward to the day off.
        We got to work around eleven. To most people this is late, but my father wanted the entire morning to himself. On most days, he wakes at 5:30 and meanders around the neighborhood, showers and shaves in slow, quiet song, watches the local news, and takes in the cold air and coffee of dawn.
        I looked at my assignment sheet, full of prepackaged interview questions, and wrote my name at the top in sloppy script. This year’s theme for the program was A New Generation at Work.
        “What do you do?” I asked, mechanical pencil in hand. The phone rang with the digital tone of business. In a manner almost rehearsed, he replied,
        “I help people buy and sell houses.” He picked up the phone as I jotted down his words. “AFS—Yeah, I got the listing right here—Stop by my office tomorrow—Alright, bye.” Click. It was funny to think that half of his life had been spent like this. I stared at the certificates hung on the wall. My father dropped out of college before he could earn his associate’s degree, and my mother always joked that his epitaph would read “Died with 32 credits.”
        My mind wandered, so I began to search through the endless supply of records stored in the stainless steel file cabinets. I recited the names of different buyers and sellers under my breath as I sucked the salt off a pretzel stick. The files went all the way back to 1985; ten years before my father passed his name onto me. Ten years before all the crying and babbling slowly became words. My words. He walked towards the door.
        “Come on, we have to go to the car.” The housing market was better this year, and an older man had contacted my father a few days earlier to estimate his property’s market value.
        “What are we doing?” I asked.
        “An appraisal.” I misspelled the word in the margin of my homework for later: Aprasal Aprasal Aprasal.
        Outside, the industrial sounds of the city flooded my ears. The warm, urban air smelled of soft pretzels and gasoline. I read everything: license plates, graffiti, 1-800 numbers and street names. Even the cardboard signs of homeless men breathed a drunk, poetic life. At home, these things meant nothing; here they took on a life of their own.
        My father’s new crystal red Impala, which would one day be mine, was cluttered with Poland Spring bottles and manila folders full of papers that on any other day would have been useless, but now their language fueled my sensory addiction. I indulged in the leathery new car smell, fogged up the back window with my breath, and listened closely to the hymn of klaxons and talk radio as I mused over this new world.
        When we arrived at the apartment, my father parked along the curb of the crowded street. He pulled a ring of keys off of his belt loop and scanned the collection of silver and brass for the right fit. He paused for a moment so he could slowly run his fingers along the teeth of the blade that were shaped like shattered piano keys. As the lock turned, the door let out a death rattle as though it hadn’t been opened for years.
        Our arrival was greeted with filth. The dregs of the earth seemed to collect in puddles around the living room. There was an old Western on the television but the volume was muted. Newspapers assembled in vertical stacks along the couch cushions created a soft gradient of gray to faded yellow. Clothes embalmed the carpet along with scattered pieces of cereal, urine and milk stains, patina pennies, and hairballs. My senses rescinded and eventually succumbed to the house’s infinite, endless dissonance: the shrill mewing of cats from the bedroom, the fusillade of a leaky faucet, the drone of centralized air conditioning, the crunch of broken glass beneath my feet.
        And the smell. A horrible, animate thing. Not like fresh manure in springtime; or the decomposing body of a deer beneath August heat; or a stagnant, polluted pond. Worse.
        “Is anybody here?” My father's usually resonant voice dropped to a whisper. All words lost their music, the airy bounce and rhythm of language reduced to harsh noise. “Hello?”
        The walls of the room absorbed all sound, keeping it a secret, while the hallway stretched into an illusory labyrinth. A dizzying blur. I carefully slid my hand along the glass of the picture frames that lined the walls, some of them empty, some of them stuffed with the stock images of anonymous interracial couples kissing on their wedding day in perfect lighting, friends sharing a toast after some untold celebration at a cheap Italian restaurant, and families posing in multiple uncomfortable positions before a bright ocean backdrop. A gaunt, almost skeletal cat brushed against my father’s leg and stared at me with innocent eyes.
        I looked from the pet to my father. The thick black Mediterranean hair of his youth—identical to my own—that I only knew of in pictures was now gray and receded; his bald, dappled scalp was liver spotted from wistful days at the beach and ultraviolet rays. His clothes, which I had once held in such high regard, suddenly seemed ridiculous. Without warning, I noticed the wear in his cheap penny loafers, the black wool sports coat and matching flat front pants that did nothing to conceal his increased weight, and his white cotton shirt, ruined by tomato stains and bleach. Even his moschate cologne only seemed to add to the intolerable smell.
        With a final “Hello?” we left that place. I held my breath to escape the paralyzing odor as I exited and watched my father lock the door of the apartment and proceed to graze his thumb along the key’s bitting.
        After we left, my father took me out to lunch. We ate cheeseburgers, and my father wore a napkin around the collar of his shirt. Later, he took me to see another apartment, this time on foot. I was still in a disgusted, languid stupor from the day’s events, and I kept my gaze fixated on the sidewalk, careful not to step on any cracks or fossilized gum. Before I knew it, I had been placed on this customer’s doorstep.
        My father rang the doorbell and its buzzing swirled in my ears. A tall young man answered the door.
        “Come in,” he said. He gestured towards the foyer while his daughter, a girl of about my age, clung to his leg like a vice. I saw in her something innocent and familiar. Was there a word for that?
        The two men shook hands, their grips brimming with insincerity. My elementary mind took stock of the building’s contents. Senses and images had faded into numbers and facts. The guest room was full of bicycles—there must have been at least a dozen—old and new for both children and adults. The living room walls were covered with posters of Beavis and Butt-Head and AC/DC.
        “You want me to turn on the TV?” the owner asked me. I nodded and he put on a cartoon. The characters and faces looked familiar, but I was too numb to pay attention. My father’s trained and familiar rhetoric was at work in the other room but I could not escape the day’s earlier memory and its arresting mayhem of cat piss and rotted meat. It must have been toxic to breathe, the song of a thousand deaths. I didn’t speak of it at school the next day and my assignment was left incomplete with no explanation.
        The smell, as would later be identified by police, was the scent of a decayed body in another room. Exactly how long the lone resident had been dead I didn’t know, but an implacable sense of mortality and oblivion consumed me. My first true death. What happened to his cats? Where were his family and friends? Years later, extensive Internet searches and hours spent studying obituary records have yielded no answers. I never got to see the face of this man, and the images I created of the ugliness and heartache in his mind, an attempt to forge in him sort of new life, only cast a muddied reflection of the foulness in his own home. Recently, I asked my father if he remembered the apartment or its owner.
        “I sold the building to someone else, I think,” he told me. “Yeah, I must have.” More questions produced the same doubtful responses. I was shocked. When it came to the apartment, he couldn’t recall a single thing. No rusted faucets giving birth to brown water or ants colonizing an open container of moldy bread. I tried as well to ask him about the basement, but he didn’t remember any satanic boiler rooms or guttural whistles. Everything seemed business as usual. All the memories had been locked away in his mind’s filing cabinet, the data lost with the amnesia of aging. Within my own mind, the images encoded themselves as though they had been written down; he catalogued them away, separate from the numbers and dollar signs of his working life. The fact that my father had to handle these situations often enough to be considered normal was sickening and only served to drive me away from the calculated, almost suspicious practices of AFS Hudson Realty Corporation in the years to come.
        Several months after the incident, my father contracted a severe case of meningitis that nearly took his life. One morning, he woke with a sudden fever and refused to get out of bed. All that time, the bacteria had been metastasizing inside of him, corroding his mind by the millions. When he tried to shift his body, he couldn’t even move his neck. On the drive to the emergency room, he began to hallucinate that he was somewhere else: the northern red oaks and dirty pond water of New Jersey became the lush palm trees and ambrosial beaches of California.
        During his stay at the hospital, he didn’t even know who I was.  For a week, his body lay supine and stiff. The doctors told my family that another day without treatment would have killed him.
        The thought of my father hooked up to IV needles and hoses was hard to swallow. At his most vulnerable, I saw in him my own weaknesses, desires, and fears; I, too, wanted to escape to that other world, my California. The delusions went away after a few days and my father soon returned to the pace of work like nothing had ever happened. His days judging homes—the one place where a human is free to sleep, self-loathe, eat, love, and die—were as busy as ever.
        It was hard to believe that this was the life that awaited him every morning. Day after day, I felt myself slip away from that banal world void of all sensory pleasure and joy, the only world I had ever known. But the one thing I will never escape, the strangest of them all, was seeing my father stand amidst the chaos of that ruined apartment like a homeowner after a hurricane, dignified in knowing that he was better than the dead, and realizing that this was the place where he had always belonged.

Anthony Santulli is a New Jersey born writer currently attending Susquehanna University. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Extract(s), The Review Review, the delinquent, The Postscript Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and decomP.

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