Richard paid for the Hartley book using his credit card, putting an end to the strangest transaction I have ever begun. With only the barest hint of a smile directed at me, he turned his attention to the blank envelope on the table between us. We were staring down at it like it was a chessboard.
“After all this, I am happy to say that I have learned something. It isn’t that I did not know my father. I already knew that. I also know that that was something I chose. Sometime after I left the home that I grew up in, I resolved that I would never go back. And that meant that I could never really get to know him. He had a daughter-in-law and a grandson he never met. And that was intended to punish him. But I no longer have them either, so I guess it punished me as well.”
There was not much I could say in response. My role as a go-between had drawn to a close, and nothing I could offer him would bring him any solace. I had begun to suspect that whatever was written on the piece of paper inside that envelope wouldn’t bring him much either. If there was one lesson I took from a lifetime in retail, it was that the thing being bought is not necessarily the thing being sold. As he continued to speak, it occurred to me that he was forestalling the inevitable.
“I said I learned something,” he began again,” but instead I told you what I already know. What I came to understand was that, while I did not know my father, he knew me. I think, in the final tally, my father was me. He understood my life as I was living it… before I even lived it. He did not intervene, he did not interfere, and most importantly, he did not even guide. For him, it was imperative that my mistakes were wholly mine. And so they were. I cannot tell you whether I am angrier at him or at me. I’ve spent the past year in pursuit of a book that may or may not give me the key to understanding him.”
I hesitated briefly before I answered.
“I should probably tell you what Dr. Steve said when he gave me the envelope. He said that books are meant to light the way but are not to be confused with the way itself.”
Richard seemed to mull that over in his mind for a moment. Then he grabbed the envelope from the table and tore open the flap. He removed the sheet and looked at it without opening it.
“I can see the printing on the paper.”
He set the envelope back on the table, putting the sheet on top it, and spoke again.
“My father understood my life because he had already lived my life. The resentment he showed me was meant for himself and was a vain attempt to divert the course of my life away from his. In a way he succeeded, and in a way he failed. Perhaps there is only one way to change the course of my life away from his.”
Richard looked directly in my eyes and said, “Thank you for your effort on my behalf.”
With that, he turned, and went out the door.
I looked down at the partially open sheet of paper on the table. It reminded me of a child’s drawing of a teepee. I left it where it was for the rest of the afternoon. There is always a need to know the whole story, to understand how it all fits together. Was the passage from “The Street of Crocodiles” even remotely meaningful? Did Dr. Steve identify the right passage in the first place? Was there even a passage, or did he make it up? If all the stars aligned, is there a remote chance that Bruno Schulz could reach across the better part of a century and heal a rift between a father and a son? Whatever the outcome, I knew that one more set of eyes would only complicate matters. I picked up the disposable lighter that was sitting in my desk drawer, replaced the unread sheet of paper back into the envelope, went to the back door and opened it. I stood in the doorway, set the envelope on fire, and held it as long as I could. I watched as the blackened words dropped off, were taken up by the gentle wind, and drifted away, in search of readers elsewhere.