"Like father, like daughter"
Sunset Villas Independent and Assisted Living Apartments sulked by a pond tucked in a corner of Inman Park you wouldn’t know existed unless you’d been there. Oak trees like advancing sentries lined the property, bearing down on the squat brick buildings, the foamy pond, a tennis court without a net. Frank seemed to like it here, taking ceramics courses and learning conversational French, but to Grant, the place looked like the punchline to a really bad joke. A lot of build-up, long years of eating, breathing, working, just to end up here.
It had been months since the last time he brought Frank a Chick-fil-a sandwich (no pickles) and a medium Iced Dream, the only food he claimed to crave despite the gray beef Grant once ate with him in the dining room, the mashed potatoes you could drink through a straw. But that was Frank, always content and placid, as even-keeled as a Midwest highway.
Grant parked his truck in the visitor’s lot and walked up the ramp to the sliding doors, thankful for the curtain of dusty heat that settled on him as he entered the lobby. At the front desk, he found a clipboard and a dull-faced teenager mashing buttons on her phone.
“Name, date, and time, please,” she instructed, without looking up. Grant obliged.
Once through this cracker-jack security system, he took the elevator to the second floor and followed a network of beige hallways to the door with Frank’s nameplate. He shuffled the keys he’d taken from the man’s pants that morning, and after a couple of tries, he was in.
Frank’s apartment looked a lot like the man himself. Tidy and unadorned, all muted earth tones and sturdy fabrics that could hide any stain. A square room with predictable doorways. A kitchenette with little sign of use. It smelled like Frank too, a blend of soap and cigar smoke. Despite himself, Grant smiled.
The social worker had explained Frank’s condition as simply as she could. He had a tangle in his brain, she told Grant, a knot of arteries and veins confusing their roles. The doctors needed to operate fast, or he’d never recover. The nurses were prepping him for surgery as they spoke. She insisted Grant couldn’t do any good in the hospital waiting room. He’d be far more useful if he found Frank’s living will. So here he was, in the home of another absent Wiley, afraid of what might happen if he let himself sit down.
He started in the living room. A square box, it held two recliners, a plaid upholstered bench, a box TV on top of a flimsy chest of drawers, and the Wiley’s old China cabinet, nearly scraping the ceiling and four inches longer than its wall. He checked the drawers first, pulling them off their tracks to shuffle their piles of loose leaf notebook paper and empty boxes of light bulbs. He found the manual for Frank’s TV, some expired coupons for batteries, and a Sudoku book completed in ink, but no legal documents. Nothing that wouldn’t make just as much sense in the trash.
In the bedroom, he opened more drawers. The room was small, barely bigger than the bed itself, so it didn’t take long to realize Frank kept only socks in his sock drawer, only dust mites under his bed. He slid coat hangers back and forth in the closet to unpack the shoeboxes at their feet. Most held shoes or polish, but one larger box held files for bill stubs penciled with the date of payment. Like father, like daughter, Grant figured, and he tugged the cord to turn out the light.
The bathroom medicine cabinet offered bottles of pills Grant didn’t recognize and a perfectly flattened tube of Crest. He checked under the sink, but found only toilet bowl cleaner and a plunger. On the counter sat a book of knock-knock jokes.
Grant heard his stomach before he felt it, but then hunger scratched at him impatiently. He opened the mini-fridge in the kitchenette and found only eight cans of vanilla Ensure and a sweet potato. He popped a can and went back to the living room. He could see almost the entire apartment from the recliners, and he scanned it, hoping for some corner he’d missed. Maybe Frank had a safe deposit box somewhere. An early adopter, maybe he’d gone paperless and his records were stored in the cloud. But Grant didn’t see a computer, or even a tablet. He closed in eyes to think.
Blips of this morning in El’s apartment clicked through his mind. The whiff of bleach from her countertops. The empty trashcans. The nearly spotless floor. He hadn’t seen her laptop either, though he knew she had one. He could almost hear the clomp-clomp of her typing if he listened hard enough. Where had it gone? He wondered if, maybe, she’d hidden it behind another dresser or even the couch. Maybe he should have pulled more furniture from the wall.
“Like father, like daughter,” he said aloud, as he set about moving Frank’s furniture. First the recliners, the TV and chest of drawers. Then the mini-fridge, the microwave, the space heater. He flipped the mattress in the bedroom and lifted the toilet tank lid. Once he’d found nothing more than 14 cents in pennies, he went back to the living room to stare down the China cabinet.
Inside it was Frank’s collection of handmade pitchers—some he’d made since moving here, but most culled from mountain flea markets he’d visited with El over the years, beachside stands and truck stops. Eliot often teased her father for the size of his collection—can’t we buy a bowl just once? she would laugh—but Grant had seen the length of bubble wrap she kept in her suitcase. He knew some of these pitchers were souvenirs from trips Frank never took.
There must have been a hundred of them, maybe more. The time it would take to unload them, plus the size of the cabinet, meant Frank wouldn’t be able to move it on his own. The glass shelves proved nothing hid underneath the pitchers, not even the biggest ones, but Grant still opened the paned doors and ran his fingers across their lips. Some were small enough to fit in his palm, almost disappearing when he made a fist. Others took two hands to lift. One had the face of a grizzled old man frowning. Another a thistle etched in white clay. A few bared abstract swaths of color, teal blues and papery pinks. He noticed one he remembered so clearly, a frilly spout in orange milk glass.
When he put this one back, he noticed a lidded clay jar beside it, brown with a yellow rim. The only jar in the collection. Maybe he’d seen it before but didn’t notice. What would he have cared, even if he had? But today, he reached for it slowly, as if it might sting. He lifted it to read the words in painted script across it, hoping his eyes were playing tricks, but they weren’t. The letters were as clear as the thump in his chest: Brasstown Bald.
The carpet had a low nap, but still kept the jar from breaking when he dropped it. A pouf of ash spilled onto the carpet. Grant stood there, a vanilla curdle in his throat. He’d never seen a person’s ashes, but the more he stared at them, the more they looked like the coils of a cigar, white-gray and clumped. This had to be Frank’s ashtray, he told himself, as he bent to sweep it up. But still. Why use a jar advertising the place his wife committed suicide? Why choose to see those words every day?
He was cupping his hand to scoop the ashes when he heard a phone ring. It wasn’t his, which he kept on vibrate, but the chirpy tune still rose from his pocket. He’d almost forgotten he had El’s phone. He took it out and checked the screen. J calling, it said.
Grant could feel his heartbeat in his ears as he settled on the floor to answer. His hands trembled a little. His mouth went dry. “Hello,” he managed.
“There you are. I thought you said you’d be right back.” Her words sounded practiced to him now, memorized.
“I—I tried calling you.”
“I got, like, no service in the library. But listen. You won’t believe what I found.”
“Jules,” he started, but he didn’t know what to say next. Should he tell her what Kenny had told him? Should he hang up and call the police?
She didn’t give him the chance to decide. “I’m following up som—” The reception gulped out and back in. “—how long. Can you meet me in the morning? At Oct—”
“What?” Grant asked. “You’re breaking up.”
“Tomorrow morning,” she said, clearer now. “Westside Octane. 8:00?”
“I’ll be there,” Grant said, glad to have the night ahead of him, time to figure out what to do.
They said goodbye, and he lowered the phone, scooping the last sprig of ashes into the jar. That’s when he saw it: a clear plastic disk beneath the cabinet leg. He looked to the opposite leg and saw another. As quickly as his knee would let him, he stood and brought his shoulder to the side of the cabinet. With barely a push, the whole thing slid toward the bathroom. The pitchers teetered but stayed in their place.
He stepped back. There, built into the wall, a stainless steel rectangle with a dial. The door to a safe.
He tried Eliot’s birthday first: right to 08, left past zero to 06, then right again to 82. He reversed the day and month when that didn’t work, then the month and year. He tried Frank’s birthday the same way. Then, without pausing to consider what it might mean, he tried the day Susannah disappeared: 03-12-91. He heard a click, and the clasp sprang open.
Inside he found a box that once held printer paper and removed the lid. One manila envelope held Frank’s car title, his rental agreement, the receipt for new tires. Another, stacks of photographs out of order: Eliot at college graduation, as a newborn, at prom. Frank was in a few of them, Grant too, but none were of Susannah. The final envelope held coverage statements from Frank’s insurance and a list of all medications he’d taken in the last five years. With them, two copies of his living will, notarized and witnessed. Grant almost cried at the relief of finding one thing lost.
He would stop by the hospital on his way home, he figured, check on Frank, maybe call his parents. Just in case, he decided to take the whole box with him. Sliding it out, he realized there was something underneath it. He reached down and tugged it free. Another manila envelope, but this one with Eliot’s handwriting across the front:
To be opened in case of my death.