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October 2014 Issue [Readings]

In My Father’s Study upon His Death


By Dylan Landis, the author of several books, including Rainey Royal, her first novel, published last month by Soho Press.

An article on Vincent van Gogh, explaining that one year to the day before van Gogh was born, his mother gave birth to another son, also named Vincent. The infant died and was upheld as a kind of angel, the most perfect and most adored son. The article suggests that Vincent, in second place, despaired of ever earning his mother’s love and approval, and fell into a lifelong depression.

A painting by my father of himself sitting with his own father — two thin men with somber, distracted faces, staring into separate distances, leaning away from each other in art as they did in life.

A file marked courage, containing clippings and book reviews in which my father has underlined imperturbability, intention, and fixed resolve.

A file marked breathing and emotions, containing my father’s writings and a slip of paper on which he has tightly handwritten:

She takes your breath away
You can breathe freely around him
He suffocates me
I gasped when I saw how she changed
It knocked the wind out of me
I’d like some breathing room

An unlabeled file containing patient notes from my father’s days as a psychoanalyst. The patient, now deceased, was a famous man, and the notes are faded and nearly illegible, but two phrases stand out as the shredder sucks in the pages: “The idiocy of fear.” “I feel I ought to be better.”

A photograph of my mother in her thirties, wearing a two-piece leopard-print bathing suit, vamping for the camera. (One room away, my mother now sleeps on the sofa, a tracheostomy tube jutting from her throat, a feeding tube snaking from her stomach.)

A fake book with the words main street and sinclair lewis stamped in gold on the spine. It is hollow and contains an envelope on which my father has written “Emergency $300.” The envelope holds a twenty-dollar bill. At one point it held $300. At another point it held $80, but an aide needed money for parking in New York City. My father was convinced that aides were stealing from him over the months of his long neurological illness. Sole item missing from my father’s study: an ivory carving no larger than a D battery that he had kept close by for years.

Seventy-eight artist’s paintbrushes, most stained blue and green, one fan-shaped and never used, arranged in several dense bouquets.

His final painting, made on a square of corrugated cardboard, a field of darkest blues and greens penetrated by a meandering white line.

Two files marked dylan, containing every letter I ever wrote him.

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October 2014

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