“Everything waits, radiant. Life is okay.” — Dorothea Tanning, Between Lives
What. Now? Suddenly. They stop.
The deadline days, the to-do ticks, the ideas that had preceded whatever had reliably and rushedly come next—and I think of my father in his hawk-hunch at his desk, his thumb and forefinger cradling his thoughts, his lamplight slashing in from the left, his pens thickened with old ink and his pencils stubbed and a nearby coil of FOREVER stamps uncoiling, a perpetuating coil of unsent stamps. My father—twice retired from his final corporate stint (he’d gone back after the first quit; he could not quit) and still, at eighty-six, eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine, working phantom jobs.
My father, spreadsheeting the void.
Just wanted to talk.
Work to do.
I think of my father, who had known himself by the work he’d done, who had re-enacted work in retirement days, who had taught the equation, across the expanse of his life, work = worth = you.
And my deadline days are gone.
When I open the window, the silence is bird soprano and the fizzle of the red leaves on the branched tree that has grown too strong beside the house. Today the wind sounds like Jersey Shore wind, on that part of the beach where the gulls swoop and the carcass of a horse-shoe crab undulates, alive-like, in a tide pool.
I push the glass up. The wind and its chill enter in.
thesaurus.com lists lazy, loss, and failure as antonyms of work—perilous, disreputable words. Fun is listed too, but still: the industrious years being the illustrious years; timesheet hours being utility hours; utility being the purpose. The unfailed. The unlost.
Just an hour, Dad?
Just to talk, Dad?
By his desk in the family house, I’d stand. By his desk in his retirement villa. By his desk in the first room of the two rooms in the independent living quarters, the final stop in his tour of final homes. He’d begun taping his passwords to his computer screen by then. He’d built elaborate filing systems for not forgetting. He’d festooned his couple hundred square feet with ink cartridges and paper clips, mailing labels and Fed Ex slips, scores of multicolored folders. He’d press the finger and thumb to the thoughts in his head, those thoughts increasingly and only in his head. He’d rotate the spreadsheets, this way and that—empty columns, empty rows.
Today’s wind is like the wind on a late-September Jersey day. The cool of it presses against my cheek, and time. I stand into this room. I look about at its drawers and shelves of empty paper—unwritten upon, unstoried paper. Its tins of buttons and clay beads. Its needled pincushion and spools of waxed thread. Its box of messy acrylic paints. Because in the absence of deadlines, tick lists, ideas, I make blank books. In the absence of lists, I stitch.
A concertina book is valleys and peaks; I sew the blankness into each sharp, bone-folded crease. A casebound book hides its binding threads; I brush the glue onto the spine, align, press, wait. A stab-bound book is not nearly as violent as it sounds, though smoke does rise when the drill whees down up down up through the Yellow Tsharsho Edgeworthia, the 6E Hanshi, the Blick sulfite—the afterward air smelling of ash.
I like the harsh and the sweet of the ash.
Now the sounds in the room are snip pierce pull pause and the songs of the birds in the chill. Now the sounds in my head are all the ways my father implied, insinuated, never directly said, or was it directly said: work = worth. All the ways he spreadsheet-sighed, his columns and his rows mounting zero.
What is the worth of a blank book?
What might have been the worth of time, of me?
Growing up, my father’s only genuinely unworked hours were the hours he spent by the sea—warming his chest with the sun, digging his toes through the sand, watching the waves for dolphin fins. Unworking the Jersey Shore. Unworking Hilton Head Island. My father unhunched. I’d sit beside him on the scratch-plastic upholstery of the low beach chair, alerting him to fins. I’d watch him doze as the fore edge of the wave foamed toward and away. I’d keep him safe while the briny air blew, lifting the thin threads of his auburn hair that never finally grayed.
Still, work was the abiding lesson of my becoming—the posture and pose, the language my father spoke most persuasively, the spectacle of his identity. I was a student of his early rise, his briefcase, his late nights, his weekend worries. I postured after him. I posed. I took my first job, retail, when I was sixteen. After that: a mimeograph shop, a catering gig, a library, a realtor’s office, an investment firm, plural architectural interior design engineering firms, a compensation consultancy, then eighty-hour weeks of freelancing words for the pharmaceutical, real estate, and non-profit industries, all preliminary to a strange eight-month stint with public broadcast TV. There was writing, then there was teaching, in between.
I was holy unto myself when I was working. I was purposed. I was my father’s oldest daughter, and the work that I did was my father’s pride in me. My busy was his pride. My late nights. My weekend worries. My early rise. My stumbling, complicated, compiling exhaustions, my inability to confess that what I wanted most was the brine of simply being.
Keep the wish for it unsaid.
Keep the working going.
My father died not far from the fortress, his desk. Not far from his curdled ink and pencil stubs and dented files and quarantined spreadsheets. I held the hand that no longer held his thoughts until he took his final, violent breath. What are you doing here? were his last words to me. As if I should be elsewhere, purposed. Elsewhere and unfilled and unlost.
In the days afterwards, I emptied his two rooms, his drawers, his desk.
I released the hunch of him to the breeze, the thoughts he’d kept in the press of his hand, the voids he’d calculated.
I stole the uncoil of his FOREVER stamps.
I was his first daughter, not a daughter. I was empty columns and empty rows, mounting toward nothing.
There is time now. There is the Jersey Shore nature of the breeze. There is all this empty paper in all these empty books, the hidden cheat knots of the coptic stitches, the miniature brass keys I sew into the khadi paper that sleeves the signatures, the differently complicating exhaustion, the math I cannot do on time, on worth, on me.
Outside, in the breeze, in the street, a girl has started to scream, abbreviated blasts and bleats that seem designed to test the fierce in her, to articulate her power, to name her place in the scheme of things. A girl who screams only to scream, or that is how it seems to me.
The bookbinding needle goes in, goes through. I pull the waxed linen taut and stop. What are you doing here? What are you doing? Pay attention to the sound of the knots, to the birds in their song, to the rustle in the trees. Pay attention to the outside girl. Who stops and now again who screams.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her new book is Wife | Daughter | Self: a memoir in essays. More at bethkephartbooks.com.