Playing the Keys 

The gift of pity.

Over the course of his sixty years, my dad accumulated a well-deserved reputation for being a scary man. The log of his misdeeds could fill a spicy Nick Broomfield documentary: Running off to California with one of my mom's friends; locking his stepchildren in lightless solitary confinement; attacking a neighbor in his office park.

I grew up a thousand miles away from my father's temper. I'd fly out to San Diego to see him once a year at Christmas, and the older I got, the better I became at finding excuses to avoid even that minimal amount of contact. When I moved to Berkeley for college, though, I lost the convenience of geography's limits. By my sophomore year, I had put off the inevitable long enough, and I reluctantly traveled down to San Diego for a visit.

On the ride back to his home from the airport, I learned that things had gone a little awry in my dad's life. His third wife had just left him, his business was failing, and he had been forced to leave his San Diego townhouse for an ant-infested apartment inland.

Despite the state of his finances, he had just bought a CD player, and when we got back to his new place, he proudly showed me the black Sony and his library of discs -- the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack and Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time.

After dinner during the first night of my visit, as an awkward silence settled in between us, my dad fired up the stereo. With the air of a scientist, he carefully plucked the Bonnie Raitt CD from its jewel case and set it in the player. "Thing Called Love" blared out into the room and my dad settled back on the couch, enraptured, to begin his lecture. Raitt, he said, didn't screw around. Her music was soulful dynamite, and just because she wasn't well-known didn't mean she wasn't one of the best songwriters out there.

At no point during his presentation did I mention that I -- along with most of America -- had heard Nick of Time endlessly on the radio three years earlier. Nor did I tease him about finding deep personal meaning in songs like "Cry on My Shoulder" or "Real Man."

I didn't want to prolong the conversation. The only thing more mortifying for a teenager than hearing your parents enjoying sex is hearing your parents enjoying music. That late-night scene -- my dad, drunk on box wine, laboriously educating his estranged son about an undiscovered singer everybody knew -- changed our relationship forever. The fear I had felt for him was still there. But for the first time, it was mingled with something I later recognized as pity.

I was in Germany this spring when I got the news that my dad had committed suicide. I didn't need to hurry home, my aunt explained in an e-mail, as there would be no funeral. He had prepaid for his ashes to be scattered at sea, and arranged for a young couple to come clean out his apartment. By the time I got back from Europe, nothing remained of him. It was as if his life had been written on one of those kids' cellophane tablets that can be erased just by lifting the page.

Recently, though, a set of keys turned up at the San Diego coroner's office. The keys had come in with my dad's body, apparently, and the coroner was going to throw them away unless someone showed up to claim them.

My first response was to let the keys disappear along with everything else. But after a day or so I then changed my mind.

I called a friend, who agreed to pick up the keys and put them in the mail. They arrived in my post office box this week, packed tidily in a beige carton the size of an 8-track tape.

I haven't opened the package. I just keep picking it up and shaking it back and forth, listening to the musical clink of the metal inside. And you know what? I'm not sure I ever will get around to opening it. The keys themselves are useless to me; any treasure chests they unlocked have already been Dumpstered or donated.

The sound of the keys tinkling around in the confines of their wrappings, though, is a good one. It's comforting, in the same way a last e-mail or letter from him might have been. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I've started seeing the tiny package as his accidental last gift to me. A taped-up cardboard music box, playing the quiet coda to a father's miserable life.


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