Fortunately from the moment I met Dan, despite the sunglasses he wore, I could tell he was blind. The way he breathlessly maneuvered his apartment, from room to room, one sensed Dan acted less from touch and more from a deeper, more hidden knowledge. His movements, a hand gesture here and a step there, betrayed the pact he had long ago made with the unseen, and the close intimacy Dan shared with his environment at times made me jealous compared to the deficient relationship I had held with my own surroundings.
Dan enjoyed smoking cigars—the Cuban partagás I’d often bring him as an occasional offering. Upon entering his apartment on Fifth Avenue, I’d find he’d let a cigar linger to smolder in the ashtray, giving his study an illusory thickness of stepping onto sacred ground, as one might burn incense before a personal shrine in China.
‘Togs, Takers and Turners,’ Dan said to me a few months before his end in his classical-cynic fashion. ‘And every last one of us wish to be at the top turning the Togs at the bottom, but there’s simply not enough room at the spike of a pyramid. Do you hear me, boy?’
‘I hear you,’ I said.
Dan had made the first of his four fortunes by inventing, and later redesigning, an ignition switch used for luxury cars—the kinds peons don’t ever get to see to even dream about never having, Dan remarked to me once upon a time—then a few major banks across Europe adapted the switch for their own needs, primarily utilized in the private boxes section in the most secured vaults.
‘What made your switch so special?’ I had asked Dan as he sipped his usual black tea one afternoon.
‘The switch created,’ Dan explained, ‘a new combination of numbers upon each entry and exit of the designated key, an endless generation of codes making the lock hack-proof.’
‘Seems like a lot of extra trouble to me.’
‘That trouble made me my first fortune and funded the idea for my second. The wheels of commerce spinning round and round. Just like the Club Boys at the top like it: keeping the rats in the maze below busy so the gears grind away.’
‘So you were a Taker then?’ I hadn’t meant for it to sound like a question but it had.
‘Like a grease fire,’ Dan replied, ‘you catch on fast.’
‘Do you regret any of it?’
‘Not one bit. I had too much fun to think of a silly childish notion as regret. Cities are built on the wretched stuff—or at least that’s what the Yale Men will have you believe. Regardless, let the peons regret.’
Dan flicked off the television showing Mad Money with Jim Cramer he’d been listening to in the background and I had wondered if Dan even knew what was going on out there in the real world, which rested outside his blindness like a stranger sleeping on the other side of an ivy-covered wall.
‘Even though you were divorced three times?’
‘Hence the four fortunes.’
I expected Dan to laugh at his own slight but his jaw tightened and his brow furrowed instead with an intensity of a memory he wanted left untouched. I changed the subject of my query.
As a ghostwriter my job was to make others look good so they could take all the credit for how well they could write, and for how honestly they had told their stories. But I was finding Dan’s story a more difficult lie to write because there seemed to be no way to leave his grit and maintain his humanity, and with each interviewing session Dan was making the choice more difficult for me.
On each occasion, Dan would have me remove my boots at the entrance of his apartment, change into slippers he especially bought for me, and then I’d scurry to the bathroom for guests next to the anteroom and wash my hands with these large, yellow bars of Tide soap, lemon scented, he had imported by the bulk from China. Upon my ritual initiation, Dan had informed me that he had picked up the intelligent habit of thorough cleanliness while in the remote town of Guilin, where the picturesque hills of legendary repute had long ago reminded him of giant elephants that had their herd petrified in place, and as the centuries passed over these timid creatures so did stone and tree until monks recognized the grace of these hills and built temples upon the heads and humps. Like the softness of life from moss growing on a deserted brick found on the roof of a building unlived in for many years, Dan lived alone. Though he never spoke of his loneliness to me, he seemed to know it so.
Dan sat me down one day over his black tea, a concomitant from his time in that sleepy little Chinese city so named for the Cassia forest, and handed me lamented polaroids of the karsts aptly named Elephant Trunk Hill, Wave-Subduing Hill, Kitten Mountain, and Nine Horse Fresco Hill. One photo Dan passed to me, the clay kettle relinquishing broken streams of steam between us, showed President Bill Clinton in 1998 giving a speech on environmental protection in front of Camel Hill, located in Seven Star Park.
Another photograph presented a younger, healthier version of Dan on a boat surrounded by fog with the hilltops in the background looking as though they housed the palace and playgrounds of the gods. Each photograph had been hastily inscribed on the back in blue pen with time and place and, later I presumed, brail detailed the same information. After his fingertips followed the journey of each upraised dot, Dan would turn his head to the warmth coming from the window and what appeared to be staring, he’d look for a time remembering each moment suspended between my hands that clutched the photograph.
It was then I imagined what Dan had been like before his blindness. I closed my eyes and tried to see as Dan saw but I couldn’t do it. He seemed to feel the fog on the boat or the touch of the woman holding his hand at the steps of Yao Temple.
‘Who is this woman?’ I asked. The two stood in snow. The Chinese woman had her head turned as she smiled at Dan, who was looking up at something out of the camera’s shot. ‘You two look close. Old friends?’
Dan grunted, his fingertips crossing the back of the next photograph before passing it over to me.
On one visit a few weeks after the session with the photographs, Dan brought me out to the covered balcony. Snow had fallen the night before and the rooftops across Manhattan glinted with the brilliance of yet another sun.
Dan cuddled back into his Scottish-wool cardigan and chair, shoved his hairy fists into the pockets and said,
‘I was wrong, before, to say I didn’t have any regrets. When you get to my age, you try to think less of your faults and focus more on living as well as you can for as long as you can.’ Dan scratched with his thumb the underbelly of his nose. ‘What is it, boy, you want to know?’ He adjusted the sunglasses on the bridge of his nose.
‘The woman in the picture. Who was she?’ My Mont Blanc pen hovered over the open Moleskine notebook poised on my right knee.
Dan sniffed a passing breeze and turned at a sound caused by the maid in the kitchen. He said,
‘I wish to hell Fräulen would hurry up with my tea.’
‘She’ll be here in a minute,’ I said. Still early, that morning reminded me of the time my older brother drank coffee with me on the deck of his cabin on Lake Tahoe and how he broke the news of his prostate cancer. My brother died a few years later. A proud, humbled man.
‘The woman in the photograph,’ Dan began, interrupting the memory of my brother, ‘had been the one.’
‘Life happened boy, as it always does.’
Fräulen the maid set a tray down on the table between Dan and I, and handed him his cup of black tea. He thanked her, said that was fine for now, we’ll call if we needed anything else.
‘Promise me, CG, you’ll put her in the book.’ Dan was talking about the woman in the photograph. ‘The whole book could really be about her but a chapter will do.’
I nodded but quickly added after realizing my mistake, ‘That shouldn’t be a problem. In the contract, you have the final say.’
‘Let’s not make this part about business, shall we?’
‘Anything you say.’
Fräulen had prepared for me a ristretto with a single cube of sugar. On my first visit Dan had asked what I’d like to drink and when he didn’t have what I asked for—the above mentioned shot of espresso—he snorted and dismissed my request and said I should have a try of his black tea, but on the following day Fräulen, without prompting, brought me my ristretto.
‘When you’re ready,’ I said to Dan, ‘I’m listening.’
Dan lifted the teacup to his nostrils, inhaled the fragrance and then sipped. He composed his thoughts for a full two minutes or more.
‘Back then, in 1983, there was no cable-car like there is today, and we had to hike up Yaoshan.’
‘Yao Mountain.’ I jotted down the note. Dan continued, ‘Yao Temple was built during the Qin Dynasty.’
‘And the woman in the photograph?’
Dan said the name as one might speak at a funeral, ‘Lin.’
He could’ve easily withdrawn into one of his quieter moods again, so I said,
‘That would place you at thirty-three years old. How old was she?’
I could tell from behind his sunglasses Dan didn’t need time to think of the answer but, rather, time to decide if he wanted to tell me the truth. The whole truth.
‘Has it been that long?’ he said.
A few moments later with no further word spoken Dan ended our session, told me to return later that afternoon, and then he retreated into his study.
When I returned that afternoon, Fräulen informed me Dan was not to be disturbed and for me to come back the following day. I did. And for the next eight days the maid repeated the same message through a slit in the door she’d push shut and bolt solid before I could slip a word in.
During that time away from Dan, I’d work over the background material of his life, fill in gaps of information here and explore missing chunks of time I’d need to question him on later.
From the surface, Dan lived a remarkable life. He’d been photographed meeting President Reagan, Carter, Nixon, and after much digging I happened across an obscure photo of Dan shaking hands with then Senator John F. Kennedy. Articles had been long ago published and forgotten of Dan’s business ventures as a financier with Formula One racing, his skydiving accident over Rio de Janeiro nearly cost him his life—luckily the reserve chute functioned perfectly, breaking his ankles, otherwise he would’ve saved us a lot of time and trouble, he said—but the period of his thirties often spent in China during the early years of Gaige Kaifang, ‘Reform and Opening,’ were like a velvet curtain at the end of an act in an opera. Dan’s life had been segmented, stopped precisely at one point and restarted instantly at another, and only Dan would be able to tell me the arias that transpired on the back-stages of his life in China during the eighties.
Dan did, however, reveal, rather unknowingly to me, one true obsession packed away in that Fifth Avenue apartment of his. Ailanthus trees. Dan loved ailanthus trees like nothing I’d ever seen a man love before. He piled books and magazines and pamphlets about or relating to these trees in his study and beneath lamps throughout his apartment so the literature was easily at reach. But Lin and her story proved more allusive.
When Dan did decide to see me again, he’d try to deceive me behind brighter hospitality—a cordial handshake and a slap on the back—a free-flowing discussion on a range of topics—from Tertullian to Svitzer tugs—and his mannerisms matched by a boisterous nonchalance appeared to me a bit too rehearsed, adopted, despite his jovial candor masking a pain I had seen far too many times in my previous clients.
On a day when the sun was clement and pure, I finally did see Dan again and he appeared solvent and rested.
‘Tell me about China.’ By then I had had enough. ‘I need to know more about Lin, the woman in the photograph.’
We were sitting in his study, full of first editions and autographed photos of Dan’s time on the F1 circuit. A replica of The Garden of Earthly Delights hung on the wall behind Dan.
He swiveled in his Herman-Miller behind a desk made from wood taken from a shipwreck for his fortieth birthday. Like a devout priest before his god, I sat ready to take notes.
‘Lin had loved games and riddles and she wouldn’t date me until I solved the first one. To know this about her, you should know this was my punishment.’
‘What was the riddle?’
‘If I remember correctly, the ditty came out something like: “No end to labor, to heaven’s decrees, but work unblessed by Heaven will fruitless be”.’
As Dan spoke I scribbled the words into my Moleskine and reread the riddle five times before I gave my answer.
‘The writing of books?’
‘Not a completely ignorant guess.’ Dan opened a bottom drawer and fiddled through folders and papers before flopping onto the desk a counting device I’d seen as a child in my grandfather’s study.
‘An abacus,’ Dan said. ‘Took me seven weeks and multiple consultations with learned men to unravel that dandy of a riddle. Back then there wasn’t any Google.’
‘Quite a puzzler.’
‘Yes, it was.’ Dan returned the abacus to the bottom drawer. ‘But there was one even greater still. Nine days later Lin posed another riddle for me. If I couldn’t get it, we wouldn’t be married.’
‘Let me see.’ Dan scratched the back of his head while I thought his words strange for a blind man to say. ‘Ah, yes.’ He came back from the reflection and said, ‘Deaf to folksongs, deaf to sutras she now hears; say not this life is a sea of darkness, for in her heart a light appears.’
I dotted a period and reread the riddle over a good ten times before asking,
‘What does it mean?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Never found out.’
‘You never found out?’
Dan seemed to notice an ongoing absurdity in the conversation and he broke short into a self-reserved silence until the energy in the room calmed a bit.
‘So you and Lin never married?’
‘A poet might write,’ Dan said, ‘the tides parted our lives, but I’m no poet.’
A knock sounded behind me and Fräulen poked her head around the door.
‘Daniel,’ she said softly as she often did, as if speaking during a movie, ‘Alexander Holcott is here to see you.’
‘Send him in.’ Dan added to me, ‘You’ll see yourself out?’
‘I’ll let myself out,’ I said.
‘Let’s pick up again tomorrow morning,’ Dan said. ‘Early and bright.’
I passed Holcott in the anteroom without a word because I couldn’t get my mind off that last riddle.
A day later, Dan removed two tissues from the box and blew his nose. He then discarded the used tissues into the can beside his desk.
‘Let’s have it, old sport.’ I had wanted to sound like Gatsby for at least one brief moment in my life and try my hand at a little humor but my voice came out all wrong, and as I look back on what would befall Dan I can’t tell you that it was at all appropriate. ‘It’s now or never,’ I said. ‘Are you going to tell me about you and Lin or do we have to keep riding this carousel?’ A grown-up version of Holden Caulfield came to mind and Dan looked every bit the part.
We were in the same study I told you about before and this time, though, all the Spanish-colonial furniture seemed egregious, and not in the archaic sense of the word either. The most shocking of Dan’s collection could’ve been the antique aparador in the corner of the study he opened to reveal a dozen or more photographs of Lin framed in silver and gold.
‘I can’t see her,’ Dan said, ‘but I know she’s there. Have a look.’
So I did.
‘The hardest thing about life and love,’ Dan said to me, his hand holding open the cabinet door to the photographs of Lin, ‘is that we know what we have at any given moment, that moment of golden fields and purple mountains with our chosen ones, will carry on even after we are gone. We shall go but the world we had grown to hate as much as love will remain. At the end, we find we were the unimportant ones.’
Dan turned from me, returned to the desk where his glass cup sat with a bit of black tea, and instead of drinking the last bit he moved over to a potted plant and poured the tea out as if in libation.
I flinched when Fräulen’s owlish laugh erupted from the next room but Dan simply lowered his head and placed a palm flat on the desk.
‘I wasn’t always tainted by cupidity and egoism,’ he said to me without turning. He didn’t need to face me. I knew he was offering his confession, at last. ‘We didn’t know it then, on Yao Mountain, but Lin was pregnant. We’d find out two weeks later but by that time my vision was beginning to fail.’
‘What happened to you?’ Each photograph of Lin seemed to me to be of happy memories. The kind rightfully treasured and protected.
‘The doctors told me one in ten thousand were affected.’ Dan grunted or laughed, I couldn’t be sure which. ‘But then again I’ve always been exceptional, set apart from all the rest.’
He waited for me to say something, to add some sort of condolence, pity or snide remark, but I offered silence. Now, to me, that seems to be a most cruel response to Dan’s suffering, regardless if I didn’t like him then.
‘Stargardt’s disease,’ Dan said, ‘that’s what I inherited from my parents.’
‘No cure?’ I asked. When I turned from Dan in the study to Lin in the photographs, she appeared to be laughing at him.
‘Back then, no. Now I hear universities are making some progress. Stem cells are being tested in rats.’ He paused. ‘How funny it would be if a rat could save a man like me?’
Hearing the accidental rhyme, I hesitated. Dan sounded sinister, darker than I had ever known him to be, and I wasn’t sure if it were another one of his games. But when the American economy collapsed in 2008, Dan would be among the first to hang himself, and it was then I had my answer to the question of his sanity.
‘And what happened to Lin?’
‘I’ve often reflected on what I needed to tell you or on how I was going to say the things I needed to say, but there’s no way to say any of it without bringing back the reality behind my loss. God, how I wish there were a switch to turn off the pain, but we both know that’s a childish fancy.’
‘Yes, to some.’ Dan traced his steps, as blind as he was, to the window and faced in the direction, I assumed, of the Alleghany hills, where he had been born and desired to be buried when his time came. ‘Before my vision left me and what I see every day upon waking is Lin with our son, but I’m no longer sure if it’s a memory or my imagination.’
‘Because each morning I see his eyes. Those eyes of my son when I wanted nothing to harm him or anything to come between us. Because when I see him born, an incompleteness over takes me. Yes, I find myself incomplete when it should be the babe in my arms. But none of it’s true.’
Dan paused and then I asked,
‘Should I be writing this down?’
‘Would it make a difference?’
Still facing the window, Dan continued,
‘I had this fantastic speech I’d rehearsed for hours but I can’t recall any of it now.’
‘There’s no substitute for the truth.’
‘That’s why after today we won’t be meeting again.’
‘Was there something I—’
Dan cut me off.
‘I’ve decided not to publish my life’s story. I’ll respect you to leave the reasons to me.’
‘You wouldn’t be the first.’
I gathered my things to make ready to leave. At the door I turned and pleaded,
‘What happened over there?’
Dan turned his head to profile and said, ‘Sit down and I’ll tell you.’
I did as he commanded.
As often as they were, Dan’s hands were in the front pockets of that cardigan I told you about. From one of these pockets he pulled a letter folded into a perfect square, worn enough along the edges to show me how frequently Dan must have handled the paper.
‘Lin’s younger sister wrote to me after it happened. To this day, she still writes.’
I didn’t open the letter. I didn’t give a reply.
‘Four months into the pregnancy I returned here, to New York, to do what I could about my eyesight. Empty as they were, Dr. Forsythe made promises—to no avail. Soon after the news of Lin’s passing my vision failed me and I no longer saw the point in seeing again or returning to China.’
‘How?’ My voice failed me. ‘I want to hear it from you.’ I placed the letter on his desk. Unopened. Unread.
‘In the Henan province, being the photographer as she was, and ignoring the better part of my advice, Lin visited Mount Yuntai. She promised me she wouldn’t exert herself too much, but compared to me, Lin was the energetic one.’
‘I don’t think I want to know.’ I thought of my brother. ‘It doesn’t seem right,’ I said.
Dan continued anyway. ‘The letter says Lin must’ve tried crossing the stream when she slipped on some moss covering the rocks and hit her head. Hikers found her body late in the day.’
‘Just like that?’ I said, disbelieving my own voice. ‘Can’t be.’
Dan seemed to follow the failing warmth of the sunlight back to the window. His hands rested in the pockets of his cardigan. ‘Just like that,’ he said, ‘you lose everything you believe you had. That’s life,’ Dan said to me then, ‘What can I say? Life rips the best parts out of you and leaves you living.”
I looked at him then and knew all the pain he’s suffered over the years when I never knew him, all that pain, would, could, be mine one day if I wasn’t careful or lucky.
A long silence hung between us and it was when I had packed my things and opened the door to go that Dan, without turning and with what appeared to be humility in his voice, said his farewell to me by saying, ‘Thank you for listening. I haven’t spoken of Lin in years.’
With those words I left Dan by the window and closed the door to the study as if I were the one who had lost so much so long ago.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.