Grandma Beatrice was my father’s mother, a widow, and on Sundays my family would drive out to visit her. She lived in a big white house in South Orange, New Jersey. My aunt and uncle and cousins would visit, too; the adults would gather in the kitchen, where they ate cashews and drank screwdrivers, and my brother and my cousins and I would go to the den. In the den was a shiny roll-top desk with brass handles. We called it the candy desk. It had been my grandfather’s, the epicenter of his storied asceticism, but then he died and my grandmother threw out his papers and filled the drawers with candy.
We weren’t supposed to touch the desk—my grandmother would dole out its contents, stingily, at the end of the night—but, because we were bored, we would break the rule and roll back the top and take fistfuls of whatever was inside. The sight of those glittering foils and clear plastic wrappers gave rise to a feeling I later came to associate with the promise of sex. But there wasn’t much to be excited about. They were hard candies, off-brand, the kind only an old woman would buy. I remember the deep amber of a molasses log; I remember a white oval with a flowery tang, like dish soap.
Because the closest garbage was in the kitchen (where the adults were, with their cashews and screwdrivers), we would ball up the wrappers and flick them into the shadowy slot between the desk and the wall. Many wrappers must have piled up there over the years. Then we would sprawl across the overstuffed couch cushions, and my little brother and I would listen in amazement as our cousins spoke of the many outrages of their school, especially the music teacher who had been taken to prison for trying to kiss a child.
After dinner, if it was summer, which often it was, my cousins and brother would go to the TV room to watch a Turner Classic Movie, and I went out to the rock. The rock was in the front yard. It was a big rock, a wide hump of gray stone with quartz marbling, the size and shape of a breaching whale. It was doleful and ungiving, yet also possessed an extraterrestrial mystery—identical, I felt sure, to the surface of the moon. That year, a satellite with blue wings named Clementine had been sent to the moon to find ice. Looking up at the royal sky that arced over my grandmother’s weather vane (a tin rooster), I could make out a little white dot; I imagined I was working parallel to the blue-winged Clementine, that we were both hovering over a lifeless stone.
Once, on the drive back to Westchester, my brother asked what I’d been doing out there. “Relaxing,” I said. “Thinking.” “You can think inside,” said my brother, and in the dark of the back seat, I reached over and pinched him. The car fell silent, and then my mother said, “You do spend a lot of time out there. Your cousins must think you don’t like them.” I didn’t like my cousins—that was true—but it wasn’t why I went out to the rock. I went out to the rock because I’d read Albert Einstein: Young Thinker, and I knew what I wanted from life—to be an eccentric, an ascetic, and a genius. And I wanted to be like my grandfather, who had also been an eccentric, an ascetic, and a genius, and who had sometimes stayed up all night, at the candy desk, drafting letters to clients.
So I went out to the rock, crouched in the twilight, and poked around in the fissures with the stick end of my bubble wand. I extracted pebbles from the fissures and examined them for oddities; if they met certain criteria, I put them in my shorts pocket. I forget what I was looking for; pebbles that glittered, I think, or pebbles that were smooth. I found very little besides pebbles. An insect’s wing, once, with dark lines running through it. I found a beetle that looked alive, but it was dead. I swept all of it into a pile. On the long drive home, after the car had fallen silent, I stuck my hand in my pocket and felt my treasures.
The little red bugs weren’t a discovery, really, but something I started noticing and could not stop noticing. They were bright red and very small, and if you looked closely with your bubble wand you could see: each had six legs. They seemed to possess little intentionality; as far as I could tell, they operated only in a mode of frenzied wandering. Sometimes the red bugs would be immediately evident, but sometimes they wouldn’t appear at all. And sometimes they would appear, then disappear, and just as soon appear again. I would kill a few with my thumb, but the others seemed to take no notice. And had I even killed the ones I’d killed? There would be no mark on the rock, no mark on my thumb, no evidence of any kind.
One Sunday, after saying hello to Grandma Beatrice, hugging her, and getting kissed on the cheek, I asked if I could borrow a jar. “A jar of what?” she said. We were standing in the foyer. The adults stared down at me. “A jar with nothing in it,” I said. “For a science project.” I followed Grandma Beatrice into the kitchen, where she brought down a jar from the pantry. It was the exact kind of jar I wanted: a glass jar with a metal screw-top. “Your grandfather used to pickle herring in these,” she said. “I hate herring, and fish of all kind.” “Thank you, Grandma Beatrice,” I said, and I took the jar out to the rock. I sat and waited for the bugs. It was dusk. A light came on in the attic window of the house. Who was up there? I saw the dark swoop of a ceiling fan behind the curtain. Above the window was the tin rooster; above the tin rooster was the big sky, a herd of clouds, Clementine. When I looked back to the rock, the bugs had appeared; they swarmed over the hard wrinkles. I put the jar down, but they moved around it. Eventually, I got a few on my finger and flicked them into the jar. I closed the lid and went inside.
My brother and cousins were in the TV room. “I made a discovery,” I said, holding up the jar for them to see. No one looked. My cousins were angry about their parents’ divorce and never wanted to pay attention to anything. I had to wait for a commercial, and even then only my brother looked. He was younger, and, in those days, deferential. “What is it?” he said. “Bugs,” I told him. He took the jar and held it close to his face. I watched his expression through the glass; his mouth stretched across the curve of it. “I don’t see any bugs,” he said. I took the jar back from him. There was some dirt at the bottom, leaf flakes, but otherwise, he was right—it was empty. “I think they escaped,” I explained, though the lid was closed tightly.
I brought the jar into the kitchen. Here were the adults: my mother sat next to my father, and my uncle sat across from my mother. My mother’s hand rested on my uncle’s, on the tabletop. Nobody was speaking. I noticed that my uncle wasn’t wearing his glasses—and then I saw them, stems folded, next to a Pyrex dish of cashews. “I’m returning Grandma Beatrice’s jar,” I said. But it was as though they hadn’t heard me. “Where’s Grandma Beatrice?” “Upstairs,” said my father. “She’s resting.” I emptied the dirt into the trash, put the jar in the sink, and then I went to the den, to the candy desk, and slid back the roll-top. It was the usual assortment: hard candies and lozenges. I scanned the drawer for a Kit-Kat, or maybe a Reese’s Cup, or even one of those tiny square Milky Ways, but there wasn’t anything like that. I stuffed a fistful of the candy into my pocket, and went back through the kitchen, keeping my head down.
In the TV room, I sat on the floor next to my brother. I plucked the candies from my pocket one at a time. I tried not to crunch the hard ones—I thought I might learn to appreciate the adult flavors. On the television, sailors struggled to lift a net of fish from the ocean. A man in a knit cap gripped the railing of a storm-tossed ship. I sucked on a white oval. “Coconut,” I whispered. “Tropical relaxation.” The white oval, shrunk to a sliver, slipped down my throat. I unwrapped another candy: a dark-red globe. I put it in my mouth. The taste was deep and bitter; repulsed, I swallowed it whole. Partway down, it stuck. I couldn’t breathe! Fish flopped senselessly on the deck. I reached to touch my brother’s thigh, but my arm wasn’t long enough. Just as the panic began to whirl in me, the candy slid down, and I gasped. The knit-cap man chopped a boat rope with a hatchet. I looked at my brother and cousins. No one had noticed. I looked out the sliding glass doors, toward the rock, but it was dark; all I could see was our reflection in the glass. Above us, I thought I heard the tin rooster creaking. “This movie is incredibly boring,” I said, strangely happy.
Not long after, on a Saturday morning, at our own house, my father set the New York Times next to my placemat. “I thought you might be curious,” he said, pointing with his spatula at the headline: “Spacecraft Malfunction May Thwart Mission.” “The little Clementine spacecraft,” I read, “which completed mapping the Moon and left lunar orbit a week ago, has suffered a serious malfunction . . .” It had gathered the data on lunar ice, then left the Moon’s orbit to explore a potato-shaped stone called Geographos. But on the way to Geographos, it had set its thrusters on high, gone into a spin, and bled out its fuel supply into space. Why? “The cause is under investigation,” read the article. I was disgusted with the satellite, disgusted with the image in my mind: a stocky robot, careening embarrassingly into the eternal. “I don’t care,” I said, but my father ignored me; he was bent over the sizzling griddle.
Years and years and years later, Grandma Beatrice was diagnosed with plasma cell myeloma. When we visited her at Sloan-Kettering, her blond hair was stuck to her forehead with sweat. “If I had known you were all coming to see me,” she said, “I would have worn my pearls.” It really was all of us. My uncle leaned against the door. My cousins sat in chairs. My father stood at Grandma Beatrice’s bedside. My mother stood opposite my father, and smiled a close-lipped smile, as though politely enduring the inanities of a child. She brushed my grandmother’s hand with the back of her own. Grandma Beatrice’s hand lay on her chest, half-curled and bulging with veins, like a thing that, itself, was sick and dying. “That’s a nice thought,” said my mother. And then, after a moment, she said, “You had beautiful pearls.”
That summer, our family sold Grandma Beatrice’s house and divided up her things. My mother and father got a set of silverware in a blue plush case, some ivory miniatures, and the Haggadahs. My brother, who lived on a tree farm in Rapid City, South Dakota, got a stack of deteriorating cloth-bound tomes; although, as far as I know, the tomes stayed in the basement of my parents’ house. I got a desk. It wasn’t until, standing on the curb with it, on a cool day in February, I realized what desk it was. “This is a beautiful desk,” said my father, running his hand over the wood. “Look at the inlays.” We’d driven from South Orange to Brooklyn in a U-Haul. Now we were in front of my new home, which was the top floor of a big house on a wide block, in a neighborhood that had once been rich and was now poor. The next day I would start in the office where I am right now typing, where I am in charge of estimating resource utilization, in charge of populating spreadsheets with orange labels, and, less officially, in charge of resolving the fruit fly problem in the kitchenette.
It had taken some time to get the desk out of the U-Haul, and we still needed to carry it up three flights of stairs. We brought it from the curb to the front porch. We put it down again. My father leaned on the porch railing; he took deliberate breaths, and seemed to consider the desk anew. “This was your grandfather’s,” he said, knocking on the grooves of the roll-top. “He would fall asleep at it with a cigarette in his hand. And your grandmother would come down in the morning, and yell at him for having gotten ash all over it, and probably damaging the finish.” A moment later he added, “Your grandmother was a very interesting woman. She used to sing opera. Not professionally, of course.”
I propped open the door with a planter, and we lifted the desk again, and started up the stairs. I was in front, and moved up the stairs backwards; my father had the other end. After a few steps, I noticed he was breathing heavily, and that his face had turned red. He bared his teeth. He was sweating. When we got to the second floor landing, he said, “Hold on,” and we put the desk down again. The wood seemed to sparkle. “I think he bought it at an estate sale,” said my father. “We used to call it The Girls’ Names Desk.” He ran his hand along a brass handle. He needed a break, I saw, after only one flight.
“The Girls’ Names Desk?” I said.
“Yes,” said my father, “look,” and he slid back the roll-top, then pulled out a drawer to which I had never given much thought. The drawer was empty, and its wooden bottom was carved up. There were girls’ names, maybe twenty of them, written in jagged cursive: Clara, Edna, Su——, Willa, Jane; some were illegible. We stood there and looked at the names, and then my father said, “Your grandfather and his brother, before either of them got married, lived together in the city. They fought all the time. And they were womanizers. They competed to see who could sleep with the most girls. Whenever they slept with one, the next morning they’d carve her name into the bottom of this drawer.”
I looked for “Beatrice” among the names, but couldn’t find it. My grandfather was dead, so was my grandmother, and my great-uncle was senile, and the girls—Clara, Edna, Willa—they must have all been dead or close. And my father would be dead, too, in a year, from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But I didn’t know that yet. Something glinted in a corner of the desk, and I reached, expecting to retrieve an ancient candy wrapper, but what I came back with was cold and hard: a golden coin. My father leaned over, and, together, we considered the emblazoned image: a chubby cat with a curlicue tail and a mischievous smile on its face. Was the cat winking? Fat Black Sally, said the words above the cat. “That’s a silly thing,” said my father. It occurred to me that we had been standing on the second floor landing for a long time.
That last stretch was the most difficult. My father and I switched positions—I took up the rear, pushing against the full weight of the desk, and my father stood above me, stepping up and back, guiding our progress. As we managed up the stairs, a spasm broke across my father’s face—he winced—and I moved to help him. A drawer shot out from the desk, cleared the runners, and banged past us down the stairs. We froze. The desk swayed. I thought it had been the Girls’ Names drawer, but it had been a different drawer. “Dammit,” said my father, although without much conviction. Then, as though waking from a trance, he blinked. “What was that?” he said. “I just saw green.” But he didn’t mention it again. We resumed our climb. Past my father, I could see the open door of my new apartment; through the door, a kitchen, a smudgy window, a gleaming stove. And past all that was the living room, where we planned to set the desk down.
But it wasn’t so simple—the living room was crowded with moving boxes, and it took us a long time to find a place where the desk would fit. Eventually, we pushed it into a corner, where it blocked a shelf. Then we sat on the couch. We were exhausted, and neither of us had the heart to point out the obvious—the desk was not meant for this space. It was a haughty antique, especially compared to the things of my new apartment, where my roommate, A., had already been living for several days. What had he managed to accumulate? There were IKEA chairs and milk crates, a pile of Psychology Today magazines; on the windowsill sat a stunted little cactus in a terra-cotta planter. I caught myself wondering how I might remove the desk—A. could help—then, guilty, I asked my father if he remembered anything else about its past. But he was asleep. His chest rose and fell, and his breath, as it moved through his nostrils, whistled. I shook his arm. His eyelids fluttered. “Excuse me,” he said. For a moment, he seemed uncertain about where he was. Then he reached over and squeezed my hand, holding it for longer than seemed right. A shameful tenderness visited me, a deep, woozy feeling, and it lingered long after my father climbed into the U-Haul, and put on the blinker, and turned onto Rogers Avenue, headed for the drop-off.
Over the next few days, the desk became blocked in by other furniture, moving boxes, and stacks of books. I rarely saw A. When I did see him, it was in the kitchen, where he sat at the table I had brought from my last apartment, eating out of a Tupperware. There were stains on his T-shirt, and I thought this could mean he worked at a restaurant, or a bar. He had said once, but I’d forgotten. Neither of us mentioned the old desk in the common area, and in our silences, I felt the creeping pervasion of A.’s annoyance and disapproval.
For a little while, I did try to make the desk part of my life. I filled out a tax form on it, ate dinner, read a magazine. I put a stack of books on top. I never really liked using it, though. It was oddly low-slung, like it had been made for a child. Cracks had formed in the varnish, a musty smell rose from it, and one of the legs wasn’t flush with the ground, so that when you leaned into the desk, it rocked and creaked. My work acquaintance, K., thought it was haunted, and maybe it was; whatever the case, I felt an obligation to it. I continued to sit at it, eat takeout, and once I pulled out the drawer to see how far back the girls’ names went. Honey, said one, and also Melody, and then there was a line that said Herb doesn’t count her. The names continued, I saw, all the way into the back of the drawer, where it was dark. I wanted to see those names, too, so I pulled the drawer out further. But it stuck, and wouldn’t go back in.
One evening, a month or so later, I came home to find the apartment transformed. The moving boxes had disappeared, the chairs were pushed against the wall, and the magazines had been stuffed into a giant mahogany bookshelf, which looked about to tip over. The cactus was still there, on the windowsill, but it had been joined by a long-stemmed flower in a glass vase. And next to the flower was a purple candle, which said JINX on the side in white letters. I noticed a pair of shoes outside A.’s door: small black ballet flats. It took me a moment to realize that the desk was gone. When I did, I felt a lightness, and maybe a kind of panic. But then there it was: sticking out from the door of my room, as though someone had tried to shove it inside.
I thought of knocking on A.’s door, but instead I just stood outside of it, looking from the ballet flats to the dented brass knob, listening. I could hear the murmur of speech—one voice lower than the other—though I couldn’t discern any real meaning. The talk went on and on, and then it stopped, and there was a click. The light had gone off. As I stood there, something turned in me—a small, hard screw—and I reached out and knocked. A long time passed before the door opened. I stared into the dark space, and then someone spoke from it. “Hello,” said the voice. For a moment, the word seemed to bob in the air. “Hello,” I said, closing the door. In the morning—a Saturday—I lifted the desk from its spot, and in no time at all I had it down the stairs, and out on the curb.
My bedroom window was street-facing, and I could see the desk from it, sitting on the stained sidewalk, surrounded by trash bags and filthy clumps of snow. Cars drove by. A leafless tree grew from a square of dirt. The few people that passed the desk seemed to ignore it. But when I looked out again a few minutes later, there was a kid standing there—a teenager, probably—pulling at one of the desk legs. As he worked, hunched over, his breath came out in white clouds. He must have been freezing; he wasn’t even wearing a coat. When the leg finally gave, there was a trebly pop, and the desk tipped into the pile of fat trash bags. And it was then that, possessed by what I can only describe as excitement, I put down my coffee, I slid open the window, and I even slid open the screen. “I saw that,” I called down to him. I didn’t mean it as an accusation, but when his face swung up to meet mine, he was frowning. “The fuck you know,” he said. Then he jogged away, holding the leg like a torch.
After that, alone in my room, I felt some relief. It was winter, but the sun was bright and it shimmered in the glass of my window. I said a small prayer to the objects around me—the snow globe, the slide whistle, the Italian movie poster X. had given me at the end of our short, troubled relationship. Il Furfante, said the poster, and there was a picture of a cowboy on it, wearing spurred boots and a Stetson hat, stepping through a dark tear in the universe. His gun was drawn and the hat brim shadowed his face. A comet arced over his shoulder. I’d always thought the cowboy looked paranoid, sick with power, like some unhappy god; now, though, I saw he was merely peeking around the corner. I felt a kind of tenderness for him, and a kinship. My life was only beginning. I’d fall in love and get married, or, if that didn’t happen, I’d at least travel to Europe. An image flashed in my mind—the cat from the coin. I pushed it away, but it lingered, like a bad taste. I went on with my day: I made lunch, watched television, texted K. and S. But the cat kept returning, winking at me from the unknown.
Hours later, I found myself pausing a show on my laptop, rushing outside in a robe and slippers, pulling at the Girl’s Names drawer. I got it to budge a little, and reached in, but the golden coin was gone. I tried to yank the drawer out the rest of the way, but no matter how hard I pulled, the desk held tight. I wondered if my grandfather’s spirit was hovering over me, ashamed at the state of things—his desk in the trash, his grandson in a frenzy. After a few minutes, I realized I was standing in a mound of snow; I could feel the bite of it through my slippers. As I floated up the stairs, my body thawing, a weight descended on me, a dull pressure on my shoulders and the back of my neck. I passed by A.’s door, and imagined him rolling the cat coin over his girlfriend’s naked body. I felt a little sick. I lay down in bed and stared at my phone. I scrolled through the names. Who were these people? I called my father, but he didn’t pick up. I called my brother, and after only one ring it went to voicemail.