It would have been generous to call it a studio. A rectangle of a room, sixteen feet wide and twenty two long, with the afterthought of a bathroom stuck to the far end. There was a hot plate, and a sleeper sofa, and a small table that served as breakfast table and nightstand, catchall and writing desk. It was small and neat and spare.
The man answered a knock at the door.
They stood for several seconds, uncomfortable in each others’ presence.
“Thank you for coming, for meeting me. I know –”
“Yes, you’re welcome, of course.” Dan coughed unnecessarily and shifted on his feet. “Well, I guess we should start.”
“Is this everything, then?” Meredith said. “There’s so little.” She looked at the half dozen books on the small shelf, the photograph of her and Dan as children.
“There’s more books, piles of them in the closet. He had enough time to read.” Dan laughed.
“It’s not funny, Dan! He was a sad and lonely man!” Meredith’s eyes brimmed with tears and her voice shook.
“Christ, Meredith. He wasn’t lonely. He didn’t like people and people didn’t like him and he lived alone in this shithole because he wanted to.”
“He was our Father.” Meredith whispered, fat tears rolling down her smooth cheeks.
“He was no such thing.” Dan said, disgusted. He started tossing books into a box.
Meredith sat heavily on the sofa, quietly crying. She absently picked at a run in her stocking, watching it travel down her leg.
“Oh, Meredith. Come on, honey. I’m sorry. Let’s pack up and get out of here. We’ll go get some breakfast. How about we go to that corner joint, the one Mom used to take us to?” He rested his hand tentatively on her shoulder. He was not used to physical contact, especially not with women, not even his sister.
“I don’t understand why you hated him so, Dan!” She turned to him, her eyes big. “He wasn’t a monster, he never hurt us! He never hurt Mother!”
Dan pulled his hand away. “Meredith, you were a child. You don’t know what you’re taking about.” His voice was hard.
“Let’s pack what we can and we’ll come back for the rest tomorrow. I have to get back to work.” He gave the photograph of the two of them the briefest glance before tossing it into the box.
“What about breakfast?” Meredith asked hopefully, though she knew the answer.
“Some other time, kid,” he replied.
When they had reached a stopping point, and Dan declared them ‘done for the day’ and left for his job at the bank, Meredith stayed to tidy up. Not that there was tidying to be done; she simply wanted to be there, alone, in her Father’s rooms. She had never been to the apartment before, and it was like opening a treasure box full of the man. Surely here she could find some token, some small insight, into her Father’s very being.
She had spoken the truth when talking to Dan – her Father had never hurt them. She’d never heard him raise his voice and he’d certainly never raised a hand against them. But despite his steady presence through most of her childhood, Meredith could not recall anything her Father had ever said to her. Not a conversation, not a comfort, not a promise or platitude or even a word of warning. There was the memory of sound, but not of substance. It was if he were a ghost in their house, floating in the periphery of their everyday lives.
Then, when she was twelve, he truly did become a ghost – vanishing from their home with his characteristic silence. It was three days before Meredith noticed, and two more before she had the courage to mention it to her older brother.
“But where is he, Dan?” she asked.
Dan was seventeen, close to moving out, and hardly concerned. “He’s gone, Meredith. And don’t say anything Mother, you’ll only upset her.”
“So we’re supposed to pretend like we don’t notice Father is gone? That’s not normal, Dan. That’s not what normal people do.”
Dan smirked and she heard the unspoken – who says we’re normal? Then he added the real question, “Does it matter?”
No, she thought. I suppose it doesn’t.
Their Mother, to her credit, did her very best to insure the ghost father wouldn’t be missed. She didn't start to drink or take up with men or fall into religion, like many in her situation did. She simply worked very hard and watched their money and continued to be a good and fair example of perseverance. Meredith would like to say that she was kept awake at night by the sound of her Mother crying, but she wasn’t. Her Father’s leaving was the smallest hiccup. It was a non-event.
Dan went to college and got a job at the bank, Meredith grew up and moved in with a girl friend from her beauty school. Their Mother eventually remarried a car salesman; they had two small dogs, roast on Sundays, and a new Buick every six months. It was all very tidy.
Until last December.