A History of Holes




When Mark was five, his father moved out, taking with him all the family photographs but one—from which he cut himself, leaving a hole where he had been.

It was strange the way the black cylinder shaped like an arm rested on Mark’s shoulder as he stood between his mother and father beside the San Francisco bay, where a stranger had taken the picture of them together.

At first, Mark thought the darkness inside the silhouette was the shadow his father couldn’t pry off the page.

Later, he came to accept the hole for what it was – black cardboard with nothing inside.

Once, he asked his mother why his father had taken all the photographs of them together.

“He didn’t want to leave anything of himself behind,” she replied.

“Then why did he leave the picture with the hole?”

“Knowing your father, he wanted to remind me he had been here once he was gone.”

“Did you see him cut himself out of the picture.”

“No. Your father’s too much of a coward. He did it the morning he left while I was at work.  I should have thrown it out before.”

Mark ran his finger over the man-shaped hole where his father had been. “No, Mom, you gotta keep it, to show he was here.”




Mark only saw it by itself at night, when his mother would unstrap her wooden leg and lean it against the wall before going to sleep in the walk-in closet, while Mark slept on the fold-down sofa in their studio apartment San Francisco.

For years, the leg was taller than he – with a knee for a face and only one shoe. In the dark, shadowed by the street light, his mother’s prosthesis resembled a miniature man watching him.

At night the leg would come off like a long white glove, then in the morning his mother would buckle it back on and leave for work. She had been walking on an artificial leg since being run over by a train at seventeen.

San Francisco’s streets are steep and slippery. His mother fell many times when Mark was with her. Usually, he could help her get back up.

Once, though, her wooden leg shattered in half and she collapsed to the sidewalk on Sutter Street. It was raining and people kept hurrying past.

A few paused to look at them, but no one walked over to help her get up. His mother and he were marooned on an island of shame.




When his mother would get angry at him and drink, or drink and get angry at him, she would wake Mark, sometimes dousing him with cold water – to make sure he was listening.

“You’re just like your father,” she would shout.

It never made sense to Mark – the horrible things she said about his father. Which were true? Which were false? He would plead for her to leave him alone – but she wouldn’t stop.

Sometimes Mark felt she really wasn’t angry at him – but at his father, and since he wasn’t there, then he, his son, would be a hole to fill with all the pain his mother felt his father had caused.

Mark saw himself as a telephone over which she could release her rage at his father. But Mark’s father couldn’t hear her. Only he could.

Once when Mark complained she was always comparing him to his father, his mother nodded.  “The only time I think of him is when I look at you,” she said.

“You mean I look like him, too?”




Night after Mark woke up screaming — his heart pounding like it was going to explode. Each time, it was the same nightmare:  he was floating bodiless in endless space forever.  After a week of terrifying his mother, she took him to a psychiatrist on Van Ness Avenue.

Dr. Komolo gave Mark all sorts of tests – asking him what he saw in splotches of ink, and to say whatever came to his mind when he heard certain words, and to line up different shapes to make them fit together.

After the third visit, Mark’s mother was asked to accompany him the next time.

“I’ve examined your son,” said Dr. Komolo. “Frankly, I can’t find anything wrong with him. “

“Then why is he having so many nightmares?” asked Mark’s mother.

“Actually, they’re not nightmares,” replied the doctor. “They’re much stronger, what we call night terrors – where the sleeper’s heart-rate shoots up to 180 beats a minute, and he wakes in a state of panic, sometimes even temporarily psychotic.”

“What’s causing them?”

Dr. Komolo took a moment to answer – looking first at Mark then at his mother. “You’re asking him to be a man. He’s only nine. His psyche can’t withstand the stress of being a substitute for his father.”

The treatment stopped.




Every Friday night at nine o’clock, Mark would wait by the fireplace in the Little Boy’s bunkhouse for the loudspeaker to squawk and Mr. Rudy’s would call out that Mark had a phone call. He would walk through the bathroom, cross the darkened dining room and go into the kitchen – where the black telephone hung on the wall beside the window overlooking the lawn and the forest beyond.

More than anything else in his life, Mark waited for his moment, this precious moment when he would pick up the phone.

“Hi, Mom,” he would say.

Then he would hear her voice coming down the line – eliminating all the distance between him and her, between him and San Francisco, between him and everything else missing in the darkness at the boarding school along the desolate Sonoma Coast.

They would talk… of what, he could never recall exactly, only her voice and his coming together on the black wire that led away from the kitchen into the night.

Then came the terrible moment when she would have to go.

After their goodbyes, he would hang up first to avoid hearing the click on the other end of the line.

Once, his mother was in a hurry and hung up before he did. The silence she left behind hurt to hear. It was easier to put the phone down before she did, then walk back to the bunkhouse, hearing her words, warm and comforting, to carry him during the nights to come. Friday, he thought, she’ll call next Friday. Climbing into bed, he began to list all the things he would talk about the next time she called.

Less than a week to wait, Mark realized, for Friday was almost gone.




One afternoon Mark was hiking with three other boys down the  coast road to the country store to buy candy for the Friday night movie.

Gary Haines had been telling everyone about his father being a United Airlines pilot, when he glanced over at Mark. “What’s your dad do?”

Mark knew he couldn’t say, “I don’t know.” Instead, he skipped the rock he was holding across a pond, then looked back at Gary. “He’s a psychiatrist and a war hero.”

“Wow,” said Jex. “Army?”

“No, Marines.”

The boys were impressed.

Mark relaxed – now he was like them – with a dad that could stand up alongside theirs.

Three days later, Jex was vacuuming in the Main House when his saw Mark Saddler’s folder. Opening it, he read the forms filled in by his mother..

After dinner, they came for him – four boys from the Big Boys Bunkhouse and Jex.

“We don’t like liars here,” said Caldwell.

“What do you mean?” asked Mark.

“You lied about your father,” Caldwell snapped. “He’s no war hero and no shrink. Your mom wrote he’s a salesman.”

Mark didn’t know what to say. It didn’t matter, though, for the boys grabbed him and started carrying him out of the bunk house.

“Put me down!” he cried. “Let me go!”

As they brought out him of the bunkhouse, the headmaster’s son was coming up the steps, followed by his cocker spaniel.

Seeing the boys carrying Mark down the steps, Jerry stepped aside as they passed. “Horse trough, huh?” he said.

“Yea, Saddler’s a liar,” answered Bruce.

“Please let me go. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” he pleaded, as they carried toward the horse trough.

”This is what we do to liars,” said Trimmel, the biggest boy at the school. With that, they dropped him in the water.

For a moment, Mark was stunned. He didn’t know what they might do next. But they had already started away, laughing.

Climbing out, he walked up the hill in his sopping clothes to change in the bunkhouse.

The next day he was talking with Lyle outside the dining room when they grabbed him again.

“You lied,” a voice said.

“No, I didn’t. I swear.”

“Yes, you did. You told Bennet you have a rifle.”

“But I do. My mom’s going to mail it up here for my birthday.”


And off he went – carried back to the horse trough, where he was dunked again.

He hadn’t lied about the rifle – but it didn’t matter. The boys didn’t care. Their judgment of him had hardened to marble: he was a liar no matter what he said, truth or lie.

The next time he was thrown into the horse trough, he waited for a long time before getting out. Under the gray sky and the choppy sea, beyond the pasture, the horse trough felt so small– like a little grave filled with water.




Mark didn’t know what kind of punishment awaited him for running away. After dinner, reading on his bunk, he heard the clicking of paws on the tile floor and knew wherever Jerry’s cocker spaniel went, the school’s self-imposed disciplinarian was sure to follow.

He looked up and found the headmaster’s son standing before him, his jaw bones flexing under his taut skin.  With a slash of blonde hair that dropped across his forehead and pebble-like eyes, Jerry had the emotion-dead countenance of an S.S. officer.  “Get down to the barn,” he ordered.

Mark felt his breathing quicken. Pleading would do no good, not to Jerry.

He followed him outside. As they started down the steps, Jerry punched him in the jaw.

Mark was startled but he didn’t fall down — but stood waiting for the ringing in his ears to stop, and staring at Jerry, who appeared surprised Mark had taken the punch without going down or crying for him to stop.

Jerry pushed him toward the barn; and as they entered, the three boys playing basketball saw what was about happen and fled.

Walking over to the tackle, Jerry took down one of the tie ropes, then came back.  Grabbing Mark’s shoulder, he began beating him with the rope.

Mark leaped, danced, and jerked away from the rope lashing his legs and buttocks.

Then he saw it: a brown mote inside one of Jerry’s faded blue eyes.

With all his might, Mark pretended he wasn’t in the barn being beaten for running away from school – but on tiny island in the middle of a cold blue sea, and he focused on it.

Soon, the whipping seemed far away, like waves breaking ashore on a beach far from where he stood —  motionless as a statue on Easter Island.




Silence wasn’t enough to keep him from being bullied by the older boys.  To them, it was a joke to grab Mark, hoist into the air and dunk him in the horse trough.

One night, when they were dragging him out of the Little Boy’s Bunkhouse,  Mark broke free and ran ahead – boosting himself over the mossy sides of the horse trough and dropping into the water before the other boys could do it to him.

Seeing Mark sitting in the water, they seemed startled, almost hurt by his gesture…as though Mark had removed all the fun from their punishment by doing it to himself.

Mumbling among themselves, they wandered off toward the Big Boy’s Bunkhouse, leaving Mark alone in the water of the horse trough beside the black strip of road he would take to escape — and this time, he swore, he would not wake for morning to hitchhike for a ride.

His luck held. His first ride took him from Fort Ross to Monte Rio.  Another half an hour a truck driver picked him up and drove him all  the way to Vallejo, where Mark caught a Greyhound to San Francisco and then a city bus to his mother’s apartment

Hours after surprising his mother with his arrival, the phone rang.

Mark watched as she answered, then turned to hold out the phone out to him. “It’s Mr. Rudy. He want to talk to you.”

“No, I don’t want to talk to him.”

“You must.”

Taking the phone, Mark heard the deep, resonant voice of the headmaster, each word so clear as though carved of ivory. “Come back, son – it is only a few more months until the end of the school year. I heard what happened, and told all the boys there’ll be no more throwing you in the horse trough. I’ll drive down to San Francisco to get you tomorrow morning myself.”  

He shook his head, although he knew Mr. Rudy couldn’t see his gesture.

“Don’t throw away your future. Come back,” urged the headmaster.

Mark lowered the phone, shaking his head at his mother this time. “No,” he said loudly, so both people could hear him,  then he handed the phone back to his mother.

As he did, he felt himself falling inside the chimney of a thought: he’d never graduate from high school now.




A noisy blur.

One moment Mark was joking with several other young men who had taken the same flight with him from San Francisco to San Diego, and the next, a wiry, scowling man in a beige uniform with a Smokey the Bear hat appeared — and without even an introduction, began shouting, hurling one insult after another at them, calling them scum, girls and lower than whale shit.

Mark was too scared to think.

He tried to stand straight in line as the sergeant moved back and forth, shaking his head and muttering how the Marine Corps finally reached the bottom of the barrel.

Within minutes, other enlisted appeared, joining Mark’s group as they were ordered outside to board buses taking them to boot camp.

After a short ride, they reached a series of Quonset huts and were ordered off the bus to form up in a line. Again, they were treated to a gauntlet of insults by other drill instructors as they waited to enter a barber shop.

Hearing someone crying, Mark turned to see a slender dark-haired boy being confronted by a drill instructor who was standing inches from the boy’s face, hurling insults at him. “Want to go home, you little sissy?”

Glancing over, the drill instructor spotted mark looking. “What are you looking at, Shit for Brains?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Are you saying I’m nothing, Private?”

“No, sir.”

“Then you like me, do you, Private?”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

In an instant, the drill instructor was in front of him, leaning forward on the balls of his eyes. “Well, liking leads to kissing and kissing leads to marriage, and marriage leads to fucking. Now do you want to fuck me, Private?”

Not knowing how to reply, Mark could only gape at the man.

“I can’t hear you, Private.”

Mar struggled to speak. “Ah, sir…”

“Get down and give me twenty, you pussy.”


Grabbing Mark by his ear, the drill instructor pulled him down toward the sidewalk. “Pushups, numb-nuts.”

Mark struggled through nine pushups and tried for one more with his elbows when his strength gave out and he held himself up, his trembling elbows extended, when the drill instructor put his shoe in Mark’s back, forcing him back down on the ground. “You stay down there till I till you to get up. Hear me, Fuckup?”

Mark nodded.

“I can’t hear you.”

“Yes, yes, I hear you.”

The drill instructor pressed his shoe against Mark’s back. “Get it right, you lobotomized sack of shit. ‘Yes, sir, I hear you,’” he ordered.

“Yes, sir, I hear you.”

The shoe came off his back.

Waiting till he saw the corporal move off toward another recruit, Mark sat up, seeing the first recruits running out of the barber shop, their heads now shown of hair.

Mark glanced at the clock on the barbershop wall: only six hours since he left San Francisco.

How would he endure three years in the Marine Corps? He saw the military police guarding the gate the bus passed through This wasn’t Stillwater Cove. He couldn’t just walk away at night. Why? Why had he chosen the Marines?

Maybe there was a way out, a way to all tell them it was all a mistake and he didn’t want to be a marine anymore.

But minutes later, watching the barber race the electric shears back and forth on his skull, Mark saw his long dark hair fall away, and a pale thin face emerge, like a prisoner whose frightened expression exclaimed, there is no escape from here.




She was sitting beside him when he woke in the ward at Balboa Naval Hospital.

He remembered her voice talking to him and feeling her hand as she squeezed his arm. Then the corpsman rolled up the steam-producing machine with a paper bag for him to breathe in and out, clearing the phlegm rustling in his chest like old newspaper.

Coughing, he leaned over the bed to clear his throat then fell back asleep.

When he woke, she was gone.

But he knew his mother had been there.

Turning, Mark motioned to the marine recruit in the next bed. “Do you know how long ago my mom left?”

The man didn’t reply.

“Did  you see the woman who was here a while ago?” he asked, thinking the man hadn’t heard him.

Almost mechanically, the recruit looked over at Mark then coughing, he turned on his side and pulled a blanket up to his shoulders, without responding.

It didn’t matter.

His mother had come. Mark had seen her.




Forty young marine recruits – all with pneumonia, coughing in the darkness.  Coughing, hawking, spitting up inside the onyx space relieved with patches of white sheets. One Marine couldn’t stop. His coughing went on and on. There was no relief for him or the other men in the ward.

It hurt to hear – the way an untended baby’s crying grates against the ear.

The coughing kept stripping the silence of sleep every few seconds.

Finally, a Marine bolted near the wall. “Die, motherfucker!” he shouted.

Hearing the words, Mark cringed.

The coughing man jabbed an index finger into the air. “Fuck you, asshole!” he rasped.

Down the ward, the other patient got up in his shorts and walked down the aisle until stopped beside the other man’s bed and punched him so hard blood spurted across the man’s T-shirt like dark spots of paint.

A scream.

A light snapped on in the nurse’s station and a Navy corpsman came running in with a flashlight, holding the beam on the bleeding’s Marine mangled lip.

The nurse turned to the Marine walking back to his bed. “You’ll be court-martialed for this.” Placing a towel over the wounded man’s mouth, he led him away .

Mark lay back in bed, afraid to cough.




Arriving at his new duty station at Camp Schwab on Okinawa, Mark went into the nearby town the first night. Henoko was a disappointment – not the mysterious Far East, but a clutch of bordellos, gaudy bars, dreary restaurants and cut-rate tailors.

Bored, he wandered down the hill toward Ora Wan Bay and paused beside a lighted building, to watch a middle-aged Okinawa man, clad in black belt and karate suit, lead a dozen Marines through rigorous kicks and punches.

Over an hour he sat watching the martial arts class. Then an arm as thick as a fire hose draped over his shoulder. “Just get to the rock, huh?”

Mark turned to find a husky young man standing behind him.

”I can always tell new guys,” he said. “What outfit you in?”

“H & S Company, Third Amtracs.”

“Let’s get something to drink,” he said. “I’ll give you the skinny on the Rock.”

Within an hour they had emptied a liter of sake. Drunker than he had ever been, Mark began crying, saying that he wanted to go home, not at all acting like a marine.

The man said he would help him get back to the base by a shortcut. Taking his arm, the marine led him away from the main road, down a trail to the bay. As they dropped out of sight of the town, the man knocked him to the ground and straddled him.

“I’m gonna fuck you in the ass. You make a sound, you’re dead.”

Gripping Mark by the throat with one hand, the man started unbuckling his trousers with the other.

Not only did Mark know he would be hurt, but afterward, he sensed the man would want to deny what he had done – and would kill him to keep him quiet.

He only had a few seconds to act. In the next moment, he saw the alcohol vaporize from his arms. He was sobered by fear.

With a half-moon above his shoulders, the man started tugging down his pants.,

“Okay,” Mark said, “do whatever you want. But can you get up for a second? I’ve got a rock in my back.”

Grunting, the man lifted on his haunches.

His only chance – Mark hit both his knees, knocking him backward. Getting up, he started running back toward the base. In an instant, he could hear the man chasing him, so close sparks of hot spittle burned against his neck.

Finally, gasping for breath, he reached the road to the base and raced up the main gate, where two armed sentries were on duty.

“Help me. A man tried to rape me,” he said, his voice breaking.

Both sentries laughed. “Go sleep it off,” said one.

The next morning he walked into the mess hall and started moving his tray down the food line, when he glanced up.

Coming in the entrance wearing a corporal’s uniform… was the very marine who had attacked him.

Hurrying out of the mess hall, he went to find his platoon sergeant.

Without an hour, the marine was arrested. He protested his innocence, swearing he was nowhere near Henoko the night before. But his military records revealed that four years earlier at Camp Lejeune he had been accused of molesting a teenage boy. The charges had been dropped because of insufficient evidence. Now, with the new charge and witness, the man was returned to the United States and given an Undesirable Discharge.

A month later, a latter arrived with an American postage stamp, and only Mark’s name, rank and military address on the envelope.

Inside was a sheet of paper with nothing written on it.  The center of the pager had been ripped out, leaving a jagged hole.

That night Mark enrolled in the karate class.




When he started going nightly to the karate dojo in Henoko for hours of training, the other marines in his squad bay laughed at him. When his white belt turned green, the laughter subsided—hen when green became brown, the laughter stopped and the praise started.

Since arriving on Okinawa, his physique had changed. No longer slender, he was now muscular. And he had stamina, too — he could run an hour without tiring, drop, and do a hundred pushups and three hundred sit ups without stopping.

Finally, after 13 months of intense training, the day came when he rode the Navy bus down to Moromi, to Mr. Shimabuko’s Shorin-rye dojo.

Soon, he was resembled a samurai warrior – with head mask, chest plate, gloves and a groin protector. From his obi dangled a red sash to identify him from his competitor, wearing white..

They faced off in the courtyard, with two Okinawan judges, one holding a red flag, the other white – to mark individual points scored striking vital areas.

The flags dropped. He kicked the other marine under the jaw so hard the man staggered back against the well.

Brought forward by the judges, they took up their stances.

Again, he kicked the man, dropping him to one knee.

Gagging, the man was helped up by the judges and lead around until he was ready to fight.

Four more times he kicked the man — each time seeing a red flag mark his point. Finally, he reached six, the other man none.

He had won the match.

Clad in his black gi and the red belt of a ju-dan, Mr. Shimabuki came out on the porch, holding a black belt certificate written in Japanese and a folded black belt. “You sho-dan,” he said.

Black belt first-degree, Mark thought. No one could hurt him now. No more bullies. He was inside the invisible fortress he had built with his own hands.




Honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and back in San Francisco, Mark realized being a high-school drop out with a black belt in karate wasn’t much to put on a resume.

Needing a job — he found work as a bouncer at The Peppermint Tree, a topless nightclub in North Beach.  He worked at the entrance from 9 until 2, checking IDs, ejecting drunks and keeping boisterous customers from climbing on stage with the dancers.

Then, after work, he would turn up at his mother’s apartment on Green Street, letting himself in quietly, to sleep on the sofa until he could decide what to do with his life.

His mother didn’t mind if he stayed.  She even co-signed for him to buy a used Triumph 500 motorcycle.

He had earned it, she said.




Leaving the Peppermint Tree at two AM, Mark decided to ride his motorcycle to Stillwater Coves and beat Jerry Rudy with the same time rope used on him.

Taking his time along the winding Jenner cliff, Mark arrived at the school early in the morning.  Climbing off the motorcycle, he looked around at the spots still radioactive with memory: the horse trough and the Little Boys bunkhouse

Seeing movement in the barn, Mark walked over to the entrance.

Inside, Jerry was overseeing two boys hard at work polishing tackle.

The surge of the moment.

Mark felt vengeance sparking through him, and he started toward the terror of his youth. Now he was the one bigger, stronger, and tougher. Now it was his turn to hurt the man who hurt him.

As he stepped into the barn, Jerry looked up – recognition spreading across his face. “Welcome back,” he said.

“I never left,” Mark felt like saying.

“You really got muscular,” said Jerry, standing and holding out his hand. “Been lifting weights?”

“No, I went the Marines. I’m out now.”

Jerry extended his hand.

Hating himself for surrendering his anger, Mark shook the hand that had punched him – then, without a word, he walked back to his motorcycle and drove away from Stillwater Cove.

Reaching the far side of the cove, Mark pulled over, letting the engine idle as he stared back at his place of places.

Why did it seem so small, so empty of all the pain and solitude he and the other discarded boys had felt?

He shrugged, knowing there was no answer.

Pressing the transmission into gear, he drove down Highway I, half-hoping to see another boy running away so he could stop and give him a ride.




Within months of returning to San Francisco, Mark felt himself moving deeper into a dead end.  Sleeping days till noon, then spending nights hanging out at coffee shops in North Beach. He knew his future was tightening around him like a noose.

His mother must have said something to her boss, for Mr. Herd started asking Mark if he wanted to go to college.

Of course he wanted to get an education, but what college would accept him without a high school diploma?

But Mr. Herd already knew that Mark had dropped out of Stillwater Cove. He had a friend with the Department of Education who could get Mark in to take college placement tests. No questions asked.

When Mark got back the results, he was more impressed than his mom’s boss. Mark scored unusually high, especially in English. His math scores were another matter, but Mr. Herd said he’d write him a letter of recommendation — stressing how focused Mark now was on getting a college education after serving honorably in the Marine Corps.

Of the four colleges Mark applied to, only one accepted him: Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a college, he learned, that stressed independent thinking over high school accomplishments. He was awarded a partial scholarship, which, with his GI Bill, would give him enough money to live on.




At Reed, everyone seemed brilliant, Jewish and from the East Coast.  Hearing students talking about pre-Socratics, categorical imperative, Venn Diagrams, Villon, cognitive dissonance, so many terms from an unknown language, Mark felt more than stupid — retarded.

The few students he could talk to without feeling embarrassed by what he said or confused by what they did — would suddenly walk away in the middle of a sentence as though suddenly discovering Mark was barnyard stupid.

All of the students at Reed seemed too far ahead intellectually for him to catch up.  By dropping out of high school and wasting three years in the Marines, he wondered if he had doomed himself to a lifetime of reciprocal incomprehension.

“I’ll show them,” he thought, then just as quickly wondered what it was he would show them.




A mass of words. He had no idea what it meant, then or now. He simply saw his pen veer away from whatever he was trying to write for a freshman English class and become something off on its own. He didn’t know what to call it, a poem maybe – even though it was boxed inside paragraphs rather than stanzas. But the words, when Mark whispered them, sounded like those of a poem:

rich virgin rule of silence orphan infant of invisible movement

wood leafed interpreter whose thoughts gulp wisdom

a story truer than men agree

what nature constructed shade hovers about their tale

uncaused cause of time shielded wizards, yet are not

all west of here my earthly image spot

what shapes of summer shades go ghosting where shrapnel

forests do not wound the alloyed wind, the undistracted clouds

drifting in the free what soft note instrument to teach my savage ear

the eye dropped but cannot play.

He didn’t know what to do with what he had written and left the library, tightly clutching the sheet of paper as though it were a coded message to him from the future.

In the cafeteria, he saw his literature professor paying for his lunch in the serving line.  Without knowing why, he followed the white-haired man to his table.

Once he had taken a seat, Mark stepped forward. “Excuse me, Dr. Anderson, would you like to see what I wrote?”

Without answering, the professor took the sheet of paper, read it in silence, then handed it back. “Very good, Saddler. Keep at it.”

Leaving the cafeteria, Mark felt showered with recognition, as though the swirl of words was a map Dr. Anderson could read, and Mark could follow… wherever it led.




Inspired by his time at college, Mark tried to fill in all the gaps in his life – and the biggest, his father.  The father he had was a mangled idol – a hideous figure carved out of his mother’s anger at being abandoned. Mark didn’t know his father, but couldn’t believe he could resemble the man described by his mother during her rages.

He had to reconcile the image she had created with the absence Mark remembered.

Writing to his paternal grandmother in Albany, he asked for his father’s address. Soon, he learned that his father had left California and was living in Connecticut.

Mark wrote him a rather dramatic letter – letting too much of his feelings out on the page, when perhaps he should have been more understated.

He closed with, “I have your family name, yet I could pass you in the street without recognizing you. Please tell me all about yourself. I need to know who you are.”

Signing the letter, Love your son, he was about to send it… when he spotted an error.

Inserting a comma between Love, your son — Mark sent it off.

Ten days came the reply.

Mark was so excited when he saw his father’s name in the corner of the envelope that he hurried out of the mail room and went down to the stream below the campus to be alone with his letter.

Careful not to rip the paper, he opened the thick envelope.  Inside were sheets of paper  Clipped on top was a handwritten note.

Dear Mark

It would be better for you to know what I am than who.

Mark began reading the typing and realized it was not a letter.

It was a resume. His father had sent a list of all his accomplishments since graduating from the University of California at Berkeley.

He turned to the last page.

Under Family was typed:

Married with one daughter.

No mention of a son.

Crumpling the note and resume into small white balls, Mark threw them into the creek and watch the water carry them away.




Harried by three lost years in the Marine Corps, Mark was able to graduate in honors in three years. There, he was able to complete the requisite courses and write his creative thesis in a year and a half.

After receiving his MFA with honors from Columbia, he tried to find a teaching job – but found no need of creative writing instructors. Instead, he took a survival job at the Strand Bookstore on Lower Broadway. The pay was barely enough to cover his rent and food, but it would do until something better turned up.

One winter morning, he was stacking the remainder table when the front door opened and a middle-aged man entered, brushing snow off his overcoat, before passing down the aisle past Mark.

Momentarily, the loud speaker cracked. “Mr. Bass, have you seen a  special order for Art Saddler?”

Mark whirled around.

The man who had just entered was now talking with a clerk at the front counter.

Mark gaped at him. “It can’t be.” Instantly, Mark darted behind the stacks, peering through shelves of books at the tall, dark-haired man talking with the owner.

He was shaking as he ventured over to where the owner and Art Saddler were still talking.

“Excuse me, sir,” Mark said, approaching. “Do have a son named Mark?”

He realized how absurd the question sounded, but he had to ask. He couldn’t be sure it was his father. There could be two men having the same first and last name. And if it was his father, he couldn’t be sure he would remember Mark.

Appearing surprised by Mark’s question, the man nodded. “Yes, why?”

“Uh, I’m Mark, Mark Saddler.”

His father stiffened, staring at him.

Mr. Bass looked back and forth at them. “This is your father? He’s been coming here since before you were born.” Patting Mark on the shoulder, the bookstore owner smiled. “Your son’s a good worker, Art.”

Mark could hardly look at his father, let alone seek out a likeness between them.

Called away to price books, Mr. Bass left them alone in a silence that became tangible.

Finally, his father spoke. “This is certainly a surprise, Mark. Last thing I heard from your cousin was you had joined the Marines.”

Mark nodded. “That was a while ago. I just got my MFA in writing at Columbia before starting here.”

His father smiled. “I didn’t know they taught writing these days.”

“It’s to get a teaching job,” Mark replied, “which you can see hasn’t worked out too well.”

Art glanced at his wrist watch. “We’ve got a lot catch up on, but I have a meeting on Madison Avenue at two. What time do you finish here?”

“We close at seven.”

“That’s when I have to catch my train to Litchfield. If I come back at five, can you get off for coffee? We can catch up on things and make plans to get together and have you meet the family.”

“That’d be great,” he said. “I just didn’t think I’d meet you like this.”

His father smiled. “One for the books, huh,” he said, reaching out to pat Mark’s arm, then catching himself and letting his hand drop this side. “See you at five.”

In a moment, his father was gone.

Mark hurried to the window facing Lower Broadway and watched the man who was a stranger minutes before, now his father walking up the sidewalk and disappearing into the falling snow.

Then Mark went back to work.

At eight o’clock, he was still standing in front of the darkened bookstore, stamping his feet in the slush, still waiting for his father to return.

In the distance, every approaching man appeared to be Art Saddler, but growing closer, wasn’t. At last, more hurt than cold, more sad than angry, Mark quit waiting.




Late one December night, the phone rang in his sixth floor walk-up apartment in Paris.   A friend of his mother’s calling from San Diego to say that that my mother’s boyfriend had been taking to a hospital after days of drinking. Left behind at the San Diego motel where they had been staying before departing for Spain, to live out their retirement, Frances has fallen and broken injured her hip.

“Here,” Gail said, “I’ll put her on.” Mark heard whispering then his mother’s tear-broken voice cried, “You’ve abandoned me.”

Mark listened to her pour out her pain at having put all her things in storage, only to now find herself in a wheelchair with no home to return to.

“Take it easy, Mom, I’ll come back and help you,” Mark said without thinking. “Look, it’s the middle of the night here Let me figure things out and I’ll call you tomorrow.’

“Don’t abandon me, will you?” she pleaded.

“No, don’t worry, Mom. I’ll come back to help you.”

Mark hung up then sat motionless in the dark, wondering why he had promised to return to San Francisco. “I have to,” he thought. “There’s no one else to help her. She’s my mother. He’d have to relinquish his beautiful, nourishing cliché of being an American in Paris.

He tried to sleep but couldn’t.  He kept thinking how his mother had abandoned him since he was a boy — at the homes of friends and distant relatives and then at Stillwater Cove – and now she was calling, saying he had abandoned her.

It wasn’t fair, but what was “fair”?

He knew he had to go back.  No matter what had happened, he didn’t want to abandon the mother who had abandoned him when he was a boy. There had to be a stop somewhere….where he could  abandon abandonment.




Ever since he could remember,  Mark’s mother would move without telling him until it was time. He never understood the storm of movement? Why so many different rooms, apartments, houses, and boarding schools? A blurred landscape – starting in Buffalo, when he was brought home from Millard Fillmore Hospital to an apartment on Linwood street.

Then on to Delaware Street – from there, they moved to a duplex on a street whose name his mother could never recall. Next, they lived at Aunt Laura’s — before moving to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and a house near Squirrel Hill Park and,  later, to another apartment at the far end of the park.

Then came the train ride to California, where Mark and his mother stayed at his grandparents’ house in Albany. After his father moved out, his mother took him to Livermore, where she found work.  A short time later, they moved back to his aunt’s in Albany.  Next was an apartment at 6thand University in Oakland, from where they moved to a wooden house on Kavour Street in Berkeley.

After a few months, they went to stay with his mother’s friend’s in Oakland, before going on to live in a red-roofed apartment house on Hilligas Street in Berkeley.  Then came the first of the boarding schools, Glen Taylor, a summer camp in Walnut Creek.

Afterwards, he went to live with friends of his mother’s on a ranch in the Orinda Hills.  Next came the move to San Francisco with his mother, where they first lived at 960 Bay street.

He then spent a year at St. Mary’s Catholic boarding school in Peralta Park, which never made sense to Mark, for he was Protestant.  The following year, he and his mother moved to Salinas, where they first lived in a house near a hospital before moving into a duplex.

After that, he moved with his mother to an apartment in San Mateo.

They then returned to San Francisco and found a small room above a spaghetti factory on Columbus Avenue in North Beach.

His mother got a raise and they moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Green Street. Soon she found a better place, far out in the Fillmore District, on Golden Gate Avenue.  From there, they moved down to the Marina District and a one-bedroom apartment on Chestnut overlooking Funston Park.

A new job — and she moved them up to Pacific Heights, and an apartment in a brick building on Webster street before moving to a sunny apartment on Pacific Avenue.

She lost her job and they moved into a converted store front on Jackson Street. Months later, she took an apartment on Green street, in North Beach.  Then back to the Marina and a duplex on Greenwich.

Several months later, they moved down to Filbert Street, closer to the bay – then up the hill, to 3030 Fillmore street – before relocating to a wooden house on Lombard Street. Next came a small apartment overlooking a garden on Vallejo street.

Next came Mark’s three years at Stillwater Cove School along the Sonoma Coast.

And the last, a studio apartment on Polk street, before Mark enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17.

In Mark’s mind, the different addresses resembled a deck of cards, his own private Tarot, yet one whose meaning he could never interpret – only know that, yes, in the red house we lived for a few months. Or in the gray apartment house they had stayed for a while.

Once, accompanying his mother in a taxi to her doctor’s, Mark pointed out three apartments where they had lived.  It seemed addresses kept appearing every street they went down.

“I just realized how many different addresses we lived in,” he said to his mother.

She stared at him. “How many did you come up with?”

“Thirty-four before I went in the Marines.”

“That’s a record, I bet.”

For what? Mark wondered.




Early in December, Mark helped his mother prepare for a minor back operation.  Over four-seven times she had checked in and out of hospitals, the first, at seventeen, when losing her leg under a train; and the latest, at seventy-two, for a hip replacement  —  but this time she didn’t want to undergo another operation, but the pain from the stenosis in her spine had become unbearable.

At seventy-two, she was still strong and sharp – every night in her apartment answering correctly almost all the questions on Double Jeopardy.

In the year since he had moved to Los Angeles to take a teaching job at California Institute of the Arts, he and his mother had talked a great deal – more than they ever had, calmly. The pain of their shared past ebbed away, leaving them in a clearing of the present where they had become friends.

For her operation, Mark flew up from Los Angeles to take a room at the Pacific Heights Inn on Union Street and spend the weekend visiting his mother.

He went alone to meet with her surgeon, explaining his mother’s anxiety about anesthesia and not waking up — and receiving Dr. McAllan’s promise not to put her to sleep.

Taking her in a cab to check-in at the hospital, Mark hugged her and said he would be back when she came out of the recovery room. He watched as a large Black attendant rolled her wheelchair toward the elevator bank.

Turning, his mother looked back at Mark. “I don’t like this,” she said, her gruff voice betraying the look of a little girl with fear in her eyes.

“It’ll be okay, Mom.  I’ll be there when you wake up.”

He when back to her apartment to wait for the surgeon’s call.

Four hours later the phone rang. The operation was a success, the surgeon said, but unexpected complications occurred. “I had to put your  mother under,” he added, explaining that she was coming out of the anesthesia in the recovery room.

Mark hurried to the hospital and into a waiting nightmare.

The Xanax his mother had been taking for five years had been abruptly stopped the night before the operation; and now, beside her raging anxiety, his mother was disoriented, grabbing Mark’s arm and asking incoherently, “The train! Do you see the train?”

“What train?” asked the surgeon, who looked more worried than Mark.

Mark shook his head, but he knew which train…the one that severed her leg.

Her attending physician informed Mark that his mother’s body had decompressed.

A lifetime of strength acquired from her struggles as an amputee had been swept away.

She was sinking away inside a hospital bed.




When his mother’s condition stabilized, Mark flew back to Los Angeles to teach his English classes.

After a week, when she hadn’t recovered enough to be released, he returned to San Francisco to stay at her apartment on Broadway — going out daily to Children’s Hospital on California Street to visit her.

Sitting by the bed, holding he hand, he kept urging her to keep fighting, the way she always had. This time was different.

On a rainy December afternoon, three weeks after she had been hospitalized, Mark bought a tape recorder and started walking across the city, stopping to tape a message at the different addresses where they had lived, and once those were done, on to her favorite haunts.

The journey took all day.

By nightfall, he had it all on one tape, seventeen years of their time together as family, all waiting inside the Play button for her to push.

But she was too weak to press the button down.

He sat beside her, playing the tape for her then stopping it, to whisper commentary to her, anything to rouse her, to bring her back to being the unstoppable woman she had been.

“She’s a legend,” said an advertising executive Mark met one night at Spec’s Bar when he mentioned his mother was Frances Saddler, a time-buyer at BBD&O.

“Is she a tough-talking, one-legged, hard-drinking gal?”


“Your mother’s a hell of a woman.”

Later, walking back through the Broadway Tunnel, Mark kept tearing back one level of meaning after another off the expression, trying to understand what it really meant at bottom: “Hell of a woman.” What was his father then, ghost of a man?

Arriving at her hospital room the next morning, Mark found his mother slumped over in bed.

He nudged her arm, “Mom, can you hear me? It’s Mark. I’m here.”

Not a sound.

He had to strain to hear her breathing.

When a nurse came in to check her vital signs, Mark motioned at his mother. “This isn’t like her,” he whispered. “She’s not herself. What’s wrong?”

Without replying, the nurse finishing checking the monitoring device above his mother’s bed, and left.

Mark kissed his mother on the cheek. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Remember, Mom, just play the tape.”

The following day when he returned to visit her, the tape hadn’t been moved from where he left it. Lifting it to the light, he saw it the spool hadn’t moved. He turned it on and, adjusting the volume, listened to his own voice speaking, hearing the fear he recalled when walking past one former address after another.

After playing the tape to the end, he ran it back to the beginning and turned off the recorder.

It was exhausting listening to himself crossing the landscape of their past,  all the while trying to inspire his mother with a tape she couldn’t hear.

He played it again.

Not once did her did her eyes open, not once did she stir, not once did her hand move on the sheet. Not a sign did she make that she could heard either the voice of her son on the tape or the voice of her son in the room.

Mark listened for them both.




He felt his strength waning from urging the doctors to do everything to save her and from trying to rouse his mother from the morphine-induced haze where she grew frailer every day.

His energy plummeted.

A sore throat.

A cough.

Soon, ominous rales in his lungs.

As his lay sweating and coughing in her apartment,  Mark knew his nemesis from the Marine Corps had returned, double-pneumonia in both lower lobes.

With dread, his sat up in bed.

In a flash of undiluted terror, he realized that he was letting himself die so that his wouldn’t have to experience his mother’s death.

He telephoned her surgeon’s answering service and left a message for him to call him back. It’s an emergency, he said to the man taking message for   Dr. McAllan. Hours later, the surgeon called back and listened to Mark describe his symptoms.

Saying how reluctant he was to prescribe medicine for a person not his patient, the surgeon finally agreed to order antibiotics for Mark to pick up at the pharmacy his mother used.

About to thank him, Mark was racked by a spasm of coughing.

When he caught his breath, the line was dead.  The surgeon had hung up, but he did call in the prescription.




Before returning to Los Angeles to spend Christmas Day with his girlfriend, Mark decided to go by the hospital and check on his mother before he left.

Even though he had seen her the day before and would be returning the following weekend, he didn’t want her to wake on Christmas, feeling alone.

When he walked into the hospital room, Mark couldn’t believe the change that had come over his mother in 24 hours.

Only the day before, she had been awake; yes, in pain from staph infection, but still able to do what she loved: reading

But now her reading glasses lay inside an open mystery novel, and her head slumped against the pillow.

“Mother, Mother, do you hear me?”

Her only response — a gurgling sound.

He found the resident physician reading a chart at the nurse’s station. “What’s happening to my mother?”

The doctor glanced up. “Oh, you’re the son?”

“Yes. What’s wrong with her? It’s like she’s in a coma.”

“No, it’s just the morphine.”

How or why, Mark didn’t know, but at that instant he heard something in the doctor’s response – something unsaid that meant: we’re letting her go.

“You’re letting her die, aren’t you?”

Without replying, the doctor looked back at the chart.

“I know what you’re doing. You’re letting her die because she’s old,” he said, hearing his voice grow louder, “but that woman down there answered every question on Double Jeopardy the night before she was admitted for what was supposed to be a simple operation. Believe me, Doctor, she wants to live.”

The doctor slapped shut the metal chart. “What do you want me to do, transfer her to ICU at Ralph K. Davies?”

“Exactly, and right now.”

The doctor studied him; and Mark could feel an armada of machinery whirling away inside his head.

Brusquely, the doctor picked up the phone.

Within an hour, Mark’s mother was wheeled down the hall on a stretcher.

All Mark had to do was get her personal belongings, take down the seascape by Marquez that he brought her for inspiration — and bring along her artificial leg.

Walking up California Street, Mark must have looked strange to passerby: a bearded man carrying a painting in one arm and a wooden leg in the other.
At Ralph K. Davies Memorial Hospital he got directions to the Intensive Care Unit.

He could feel the anxiety mounting as the elevator rose.  Will I find her alive? he wondered.

Getting off the elevator, he started toward the nurse’s station at the end of the corridor. Halfway down the hall, he heard a scream and he knew whose it was.

A young  nurse was writing behind the counter when she looked up and saw Mark warily approaching, carrying his incongruous possessions.

With a tilt of her head, she grinned at Mark. “Now there’s a man who travels with his own art.”

The smile was for the nurse, but the irony was for him alone. If only she knew his father’s name was Art.




He stared at his mother’s oversized white phone for the hard of hearing, telling himself it was a wrong number, some distant cousin forgetting the time and telephoning from Australia, or a drunken boyfriend calling to pour anger down the line. It couldn’t be for him.

But the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, and would go on and one, he knew, until someone answered.

Why hadn’t she listened to Mark and agreed for him to get her an answering machine?  He could have listened to the message in pieces, with the volume turned down to hear the message he dreaded was for him and him alone.

Like a soldier covering his ears to think by deadening the sound of an approaching artillery shell, it wouldn’t hit, Mark went into the bathroom, closing the door, waiting for the phone to stop ringing.

But he could still hear the ringing, relentless, unwilling to fall silent with what could only be terrible news.

Out of nowhere, he thought of the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, and how the sound of the rapping hand announcing the murder of King Duncan  destroyed the silence surrounding it.

Mark went out and answered the phone, holding it away from his ear in the futile hope of softening the news.


“Is this Mrs. Frances Saddler’s son?”

“Yes. Don’t tell me…don’t tell me she’s dead.”

“No, Mr. Saddler, but her vital signs are dropping.  She’s fading fast.  Dr. Lee said to call you. If you want to see your mother, you’d better hurry.”




Not bothering to call, he ran out to Polk Street. Within minutes, he spotted a blue Desoto cab emerging from the Broadway Tunnel.

Stepping into the deserted street, Mark flagged down the taxi.

Climbing in back, he started to give directions to the driver, when he broke down crying, and leaning his head against the seat. Wiping his eyes, he sat up, trying to block off the terror building in him. “Sutter Pacific Hospital on California. Please hurry,” he mumbled to the driver.

Nodding, the driver hit the meter and pulled away, then glancing into the rear view mirror. “Somebody sick, sir?” he asked with an accent Mark couldn’t place.

Mark ignored the question, staring out at the darkened streets, trying to will himself to face what he couldn’t.

Looking up, he saw the driver watching him in the rearview mirror.

“My mother’s dying. Please hurry.”

The man’s eyes disappeared from the mirror  Sitting up, the driver began rocking slightly back and forth, whispering something Mark couldn’t make out.

All the way up Divisadero, the driver was silent. Then they turned on California, he slowed then glanced back. “Sir, there are no words, but I tell you, three years ago, I lose my mother.”

Not knowing what was coming next or really wanting to hear, Mark leaned back in the seat, staring out at the darkened apartment houses in the night.

“Sir, when mother die, you are alone like never before.  One person only always love you without letting go. When she gone…” He paused, gazing into the distance. “No more world of mother. Wife, brother, sister, children, none love like mother.”  Slowing to let a truck pass at the intersection, the driver looked back in the rearview mirror. “No more mother. Everyone stranger.”

What the hell? Mark thought. I didn’t ask for any lecture.

They rode in silence the rest of the way. Pulling up in front of the hospital entrance, the driver turned off the meter and waited as Mark handed the fare over the seat. Without a word, the man touched Mark’s hand.

Instinctively, Mark started to pull his hand free, but he let the man’s warm touch remain.

“God be with you and mother, sir,” said the driver, lifting his hand.

“Thank you,” Mark replied, then paused while opening the door. “I am sorry, too, for your loss.”

Then he got out to prepare for his own impossibility.




As Mark stepped off the elevator, the two nurses on duty behind the counter saw him and  then, as though trained for such a moment, averted their gaze.

“How’s my mother?” Mark asked,

“Dr. Wong is waiting for you outside her room,” replied the older nurse as Mark hurried away.

When he came around the corner, everything stopped.

Everything vanished except the doctor and the closed door he was standing beside.

“I’m sorry,” said the doctor. “She passed twenty minutes ago.”

Mark shuddered. “No, it can’t be.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Saddler We did all we could, but as I told you — that last antibiotic was all we had left to try and stop the staph infection.”

Mark tried to listen but he could only hear his own panicked thoughts.

“I have to tell you I have never known a son to show such dedication. You kept her alive after the operation.”

“Sixty days,” Mark mumbled.

Momentarily, a nurse stepped from a room down the hall and motioned to the doctor. Motioning he was coming, Dr. Wong turned back to Mark. “You don’t have to go in and see her. “

Mark bit his lower lip, glancing at the door then looking back at the doctor.

“Give me a minute, will you?”

“Of course, just tell the nurse when you’ve made your decision. All my condolences, Mr. Saddler. Your mother was a remarkable woman, one of the most courageous patients I have ever treated.”

“I know, Doctor.”

Oh that door, Mark thought, pacing back and forth in front of it: on this side, nothing; on the other side, everything– that was.  Now gone. To hell with “passing” and all the other euphemisms, his mother was dead.

It was more than a choice, he knew, whether he went inside to see her one last time or flee, clutching the memory of the last time he had seen his mother alive.

“Mr. Saddler?” a woman said.

Turning, he found the older nurse waiting beside him.

“Excuse me for asking, but we need to know your wishes to proceed. You don’t have to see her,” she said.

“I know,” he replied, opening the door.




Squinting so as not to see his mother clearly, he entered the room, stopping at the foot of the bed to absorb it all  — as slowly as he could take it in.

Reaching out, he moved his hand along the side of bed until feeling the outline of her body then he slowly opened his eyes, keeping his head down from seeing her all at once…then seeing her hand and taking it, cold and motionless in his.

“Oh Mom,” he sobbed, forcing himself to look at her:

Frances Saddler, his mother, the woman who brought him into the world, now gone from it.

“No, no, no,” he kept telling himself.

The door opened behind him and a woman in a business suit appeared. “Mr. Saddler, I’m Barbara Campbell with patient services. I’ll be at the nurses station to hear what you want done.”

“Done?” Mark repeated, not sure what she meant.

“With her remains, where you wish for them to be taken.”

“I don’t know.”

“Did your mother leave instructions?”

Mark didn’t want to think about it, but he nodded. “Yes, she wanted to have her ashes scattered beyond the Golden Gate.”

The woman stepped back to close the door. “Then I’ll wait for the Neptune Society to claim her remains. You’ll need to sign the release forms before you go.”

“All right, just give me a few minutes, will you?”

“Of course, take your time.” She stepped into the hall and started to close the door when she hesitated again, looking back at Mark. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Saddler?”

Mark stared at the living force of his life, now motionless forever. “Would you put her wooden leg back on? She needs to be whole.”

“Of course, Mr. Saddler,” she replied, and the door closed.




Two days later, he returned from Los Angeles with the money to pay for the rental of the boat for the service of scattering her ashes at sea and telephoned the Neptune Society and asked to speak to the director.

“I’ve have some bad news for you,” the woman said, coming on the line.

“Lady, there is no more bad news. My mother’s dead.”

“I know, Mr. Saddler, but there is more bad news, I’m afraid. Her doctor used the wrong color ink to sign the death certificate.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s not legal.”

“What color did he use?”

“Blue, but it has to be black.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The hospital won’t release the body to us.”

“Well, get the doctor to use the right color ink.”

“We can’t. Dr. Wong left for Taiwan on vacation.”

“Jesus, then get another doctor, will you?” he asked, trying to keep his voice down.

”We did. But he also used the wrong black ink. “


“He used washable black, and California law says it must be permanent black.”

“Goddamn it, lady, get that doctor to use permanent ink.”

“It’s too late. We tried. He’s gone skiing at Lake Tahoe.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“Ah, I’m so sorry, but your mother’s still there.”

“Still where?”

“At the hospital.”

“You mean, down in the morgue?”

Her silence was answer enough.

He slumped against the phone booth. “Lady, all my life my woman’s been terrified of being abandoned. She lost her leg at seventeen then her husband abandoned her when I was five. You can’t leave her down there like that.” He closed his eyes, seeing her lying on a tray in the morgue.

Anger replaced his sadness. “Lady, get the hospital director, anybody, I don’t care who, but get my mother out of there, to where she has to go.”




The following Sunday, the first clear day in weeks, with six of his mother’s friends from Notre Dame Apartments watching from inside the cabin, Mark leaned against a railing as the launch passed under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge and slowed in the swells marking the open sea.

A crewmember came forward carrying a small wooden box no larger than the one in which his mother kept her favorite jewelry.

He opened the lid. Inside was a  mound of gray powder.

His mother reduced to that.

The launch came about out of the wind and the captain motioned from the bridge of the wheel house.

It was time.

Taking a paper from his pocket, Mark braced himself against the chain railing and began to read what he had written to her years before and found among her papers.

 “Put in a nickel in my forehead and I’ll tell you a story,” you would say at night, when coming into the bedroom and sitting down beside me I would reach up and press a make-believe nickel into your forehead.And you would tell me the story of Bossy the Cow, Bessie the Bee, or Gus the Gopher, or Zeke the Zebra. I would fall asleep with your words in my ears. I loved those stories you told me for a nickel. That’s all I ever had to pay. Never once did I have put in more than five cents, but you always gave me more stories than I could stay awake to hear. Even now, Mom, all I have to do is to close my eyes to hear them again.

Clutching the paper under the wooden box, Mark emptied the ashes into the sea, watching them drift toward a swell. “Goodbye, Mom,” he said, hoping she could find her way to Warren, although her boyfriend had departed before her.

To eternity, a few years wouldn’t matter.




It had been over twenty years since Mark has spoken to his older first-cousin on his father’s side.  Mark remembered John as a quiet, introverted man, meticulously logical, perfect qualities for his job as city planner.

Even as boys playing together in their grandmother’s backyard in Albany, they were different. Both were given hand-made tin British soldiers. By the end of the week, Mark’s soldiers were broken, dirt-encrusted or mutilated by BB’s, while John’s soldier looked as though they had just been lifted from the red box they came in.

John sounded genuinely pleased to hear Mark’s voice.  “You really must come up and visit Jean and me when you can. How’s your mom?”

“She died on February seventh.”

A gulping silence from which John’s voice finally emerged, “I’m very sorry, Mark. Is there anything I can do?”

“That’s why I am calling — but let me ask you something, John. Do you know if my father is alive? I know it’s a crazy question after all these years.”

“He is. In fact, I spoke with Art no more than a month ago when I was at my mom’s.”

“You did. How is he?”

“He sounded in good physical shape for a man his age. My mom told him it’s their good genes. Only problem now is his memory, dementia. Art comes in and out of clarity. That’s why I don’t call too often anymore…he’ll forget who he’s talking at moments, but Iola’s with him at the assistant living center in Litchfield, Connecticut…”

Mark fished in his pockets for a pen to write with. “Do you have his address?”

“Don’t you want his phone number?”

“I don’t want to call him. I just need his address.”

“He may not reply if you write. Nothing personal. It’s his memory.”




After renting a car at JFK, Mark headed up the New York Turnpike, then merged with smaller highways until crossing into Connecticut.

By noon, he was in Litchfield. Getting directions at a gas station, he found the Colonial Assistant Living Center and pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine.

He remained in the car, staring at the entrance of the assisted living center, knowing beyond the front door was the stranger who had helped bring him into the world.

Now or never, he realized.

For a second, Mark imagined walking in to ask for Art Saddler, only to be told he had just died.

That’s for the movies, he thought. My father’s alive. He’s in there. I’ve come three thousand miles to see him. I gotta go.

Shivering as much from anticipation as from the frosty air, he got out and went inside.

A woman in a leisure suit was talking with an elderly couple at the counter. When they started away, the woman turned, smiling to Mark. “May I help you?”

“I’d like to see Art Saddler.”

“Oh, the professor.”

“The professor?”

“That’s what everyone calls him. You know, because of all those books he read. He got all excited when he heard about the book fair opening today, but I don’t know if his wife will be up to taking him.”

“May I see him?”

“Are you the nephew from California? The professor keeps saying you’ll be coming.”
“No, I’m the son from California.”

The woman looked so surprised she gulped. “I didn’t know he had a son.” She pushed a buzzer under the counter. A door clicked to the left. “Go right in. He and his wife are in A-104.”

Mark glanced over at the thick door. “You keep him locked up?”

She smiled. “Only for his own protection. Since his memory worsened, he has taken to walking off. We’ve had to go looking for him to bring him back.”

The woman must have read the expression on Mark’s face. “But don’t worry,” she said. “He’s fine most of the time. You’ll be talking away with him and thinking everything’s okay, then you’ll realize he’s not there, and he doesn’t remember you.”

Mark shook his head, unable to prevent himself from smiling.

The woman looked puzzled.

“Sorry, I’m not laughing at you. I’m just thinking how ironic it is… that I came all this way and he probably won’t remember me.”

“How long has it been?”

“Quite a while,” Mark replied.

The woman pursed her lips. “Then he doesn’t know you’re coming?”

“To be honest, I didn’t know myself until a couple weeks ago.”

“This will be quite a surprise for him.”

“For both of us.”

“It could be something of a shock. Do you want me to call and tell him you’re coming?”

“No, it’ll be all right, “ Mark said. “Just let me introduce myself.”

He stepped past the door and started down the carpeted hallway. To the left and right were open doors. Beyond them, elderly women sat motionless in chairs or watching television. In one room, a group was playing cards. Down the hall an elderly man shuffled behind a walker.

Mark scanned the numbers above the door… A-107, A-106, A-105, A-104… the door was open.

Mark stopped, putting his hand on his chest. He could feel his heart pounding. “Go on,” he told himself, “Get over it.”

He stepped into the room. Beyond the short corridor, an elderly woman in a heavy sweater and slacks was peeling an orange. Behind her, a tall, slender man in a beige overcoat was arranging a short stack of books on the shelf.


The woman looked up, but the man kept shifting the books.

“Are you the dietitian?” the woman asked.

“No, I’m Mark,” he said.

“Mark?” she asked, still peeling the orange with her pale gnarled hands.

“Mark Saddler, Art’s son.”

The woman put down her orange and turned. “Art, look, it’s your son.”

The man turned.

Mark stepped back. In the years since he had seen him at the Strand bookstore, his father had aged markedly. Mark felt he was staring 30 years into the future, with the future looking back at him, in the past of the present where he stood mirroring his father..

“My mother was right,” he thought, studying his father’s face. “I do resemble him. Forget the beard. It’s our long Swedish countenance and green eyes.”  Too surprised to notice the similarity that winter day at the books store in Manhattan, Mark now saw the resemblance was undeniable.

They stood staring at each other while his father’s wife looked back and forth, waiting for them to speak.

“Art, I said it’s Mark, your son.”

“Sure it is,” he said.

“How have you been?” Mark said.

“Fine, fine, couldn’t be better,” his father replied. ”Have you met the misses?”

“No, not yet.” He turned to her. “Hi, I’m Mark.”

“I’m Iola, “ she replied, wiping her hand on a paper towel and reaching out to shake Mark’s hand.

Her touch was so brittle and cold, that Mark didn’t dare more than take her hand before releasing it.

“And you, how have you been?” his father asked loudly.

“Fine,” Mark said. “I came from California to see you.”

With a look of admiration, his father shook his head. “My, my, all that way. Well, come on then. Let’s go take a look at the house. You want to come with us, Iola?”

His wife looked up, her expression more stern than curious. “Why are you going there?”

“To see if the books are okay.”

Abruptly, Iola brushed off the front of her dress. ‘All right.”  Without concealing her gesture, she followed Art and Mark out of the apartment.

When Mark’s father stepped into the hall, his wife turned back to Mark, whispering, “He doesn’t know all his books were destroyed in the flooding. Don’t let him go down in the basement. Keep him upstairs. ”

Mark glanced up and saw his father waiting for them.

“My, my, what a day this is going to be.”

His father kept up a running conversation all the way into town. When they reached the center of Litchfield, his father pointed toward an antique store. “That’s where I had my bookstore.”

“You had a bookstore.”

“Yep, gonna open it back up one of these days.”

They drove on, passing a large white tent decorated with signs announcing the Litchfield Rare Book Fair

“Yum yum,” his father said, grinning. “Iola won’t let me loose in those places.”

“Why not?”

“Why not what?”

“Why won’t she let you go to the book fair?”

“Spend all the money. Nope, she is a taskmaster, that lady.”

Mark glanced in the rear-view mirror to see whether his wife had heard him. He couldn’t’ t tell from the way she was staring at them.

Soon, they pulling up the driveway of a white colonial, two-story house that didn’t look neglected, as much as unlived in, with all the windows gaping without curtains.

No sooner had he helped his father out of the rental car, when the front door opened and a husky, grey-haired man in his fifties, emerged onto the porch. Holding a steaming cup of coffee, he nudged a Labrador Retriever behind him. “Hey, Art, unexpected visit. Afternoon, Mrs. Saddler.”

“That’s me, unexpected visit,” Art replied.

Mark nodded toward the man. “Hi, I’m Mark, Art’s son.”

The man tilted his head as though he hadn’t heard right. “Hey, Art, I didn’t know you had a son. Been keeping secrets from me.”

“That’s right,” said Art. ”I’m a secret keeper.”

“I’m Hank, the caretaker,” the man said, shaking hands with Mark.  “Art lets me live in the house in exchanging for keeping the place kept up for until he moves back home.” The man winked at Mark. “Right, Art, you’ll be coming back any day now.”

“Let’s look at the books,” Art said.

They walked back inside the house, where the caretaker  put the dog in the backyard before showing Mark through the rooms.

Art disappeared for a minute, then reappeared holding an oil painting. “I painted this.”

Mark stepped up beside him and looked. It was a self-portrait of his father when he must have been in his thirties, not long after leaving Mark and his mother.

It wasn’t a good portrait, but the likeness was unerring. “Real good, “ Mark uttered.

“Real good,” his father repeated, putting the painting down and walking across the barren living room.

“You’re really Art’s son,” Hank said.

“Yes, I came up to visit.”

“Too bad you didn’t get here a few years ago when his memory was still good, huh, Iola?”

Without replying, his father’s wife walked into the kitchen.

The handyman looked back at Mark. “Yeah, well, main thing is I’m here,” Mark’s voice trailed off.

“I’m going to take Bert for a walk. I’ll leave you two to catch up on old times.”

In a moment, the caretaker was gone.

Mark turned to find his father arranging books on a shelf. “You like Marshall McLuhan?” he asked.

“I used to,” Mark replied.

“I have all the letters he sent me. They’re downstairs in his books. Want to see them?”

“Ah, another time,” Mark replied, glancing around the living room.

Seeing an open cardboard box against the wall, Mark went over and peered inside. It was filled with photographs, hundreds of them, black & white and color, all jumbled together, as though they had been dumped inside.

He knelt down and skimmed his hand through the pictures, lifting up one of his father and Iola when they must have been in their late thirties. He dropped it into the pile then looked at another, of a little girl ice-skating.  He scooped his hand through the photographs, all of his father alone or with his wife and daughter.

“Art, do you have any pictures from when you lived with, you know, my mother in California?”

He father didn’t reply, but stood motionless staring out the window. “We’ve been getting too much snow this year. I haven’t seen any deer tracks though.” His father turned and appeared started to see Mark standing beside the open suitcase. “Why, there’s my son, “ he said.

Stunned hearing what he had wanted to hear all his life, Mark covered his eyes, forcing himself not to cry, but he failed.

“My, my, you’re a handsome man.”

Dropping his hand, Mark looked at the blur of his father through his tears. “Guess I get my looks from you.”

His father laughed and thrust both his hands into his trench coat pocket. “No, no, you get them from Fran.”

Fran, thought Mark. He remembers my mother. “Art, do you have any pictures of you and my mom?”

His father crossed the room. “Come on down to the basement, I’ll show you my library.”

Mark stepped in front of his father. “Another time, okay? Don’t you have any photographs of you and Frances? Look,” said Mark, pointing toward the sprawl of photographs in the suitcase.

His father approached the cardboard box and peered inside. “I’m down there someplace with her, I think.”

Kneeling, Mark skimmed through the photos, holding up a few. “But these are all of you and Iola and your daughter. Don’t you have any of my mom and you?”

“My mom and you?” he asked, looking confused.

“No, my mother Frances and you.”

“Frances?” he said, pausing. “I don’t know.”

“You know when you lived together in California, when I was a little boy.”

“Oh, the little picture. Down there,” he said, peering into the slush of black-and-white photographs.

Mark started sliding his hand through the pictures.

“Art, I’m getting a chill, “ Iola called from the kitchen.

Mark turned to see her standing in the doorway, arms crossed, a frown locked on her face. Not getting a response, she looked at Mark. “Can you bring Art back? I’m cold. Hank’s going to take me back to the residence.”

“Of course. Nice meeting you,” Mark said, turning to continue sorting through the photographs.

His father came up and behind him, leaning over his shoulder as Mark sifted through the morass of photographs. “My, my, where did all the pictures come from?”

Hearing the kitchen door close, Mark looked up at his father. “Where’s the little one you said you had?”

“Oh, the little one. It’s in there,” he said, pointing at a tattered manila envelope. Bending, he took the envelope and emptied its contents.

A lone black and white photograph, more a piece of one, slid to the floor.

Mark knelt down to pick it up.

There he was… his father from the photograph he had cut himself with his wife and son, leaving the silhouette of his body.

My mother didn’t lie, he thought. It was true what she said. He cut himself out of the photograph.

“May I keep this one?” he asked, holding up the picture.

“Keep anything you want,” he said, walking over to the fireplace. “I’m going to get some firewood in here. It could get cold tonight.”

Mark slid the miniature figure inside his  coat pocket then looked up, studying his father from behind, watching him staring out the window at the snow.

He could have just walked out and left him there at that moment.


No response.

He waited a moment. “Art?”

His father turned.

“Remember me?”

“Sure I remember you. You’re Hank’s assistant.”

“Right,” replied Mark. “We’d better get going.” He walked over and put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Come on, I’ll drive you back.”

“So soon?”

“It’s getting dark.”

As they passed back through Litchfield, Mark pulled off the road and found a parking spot among the rows of cars in front of the antique book fair.

“Come on.”

“This is the book fair.”

“Sure is, nothing but books, even more than at the Strand on Broadway,” he said, waiting for his father’s reaction, but there was none.

His father reached for the door. “You see any first editions of Joseph Campbell, you let me know. We’ll see if I can get the price down.”

“Whatever you say.”

Mark followed the frail man inside, watching him move up one aisle after another, stopping to check a book or peer into a glass case at a first-edition. He had the look of a little boy surrounded by the toys of his dreams.

Mark left him standing in front of books as he had left Mark standing in front of the bookstore, waiting for him to come back.

Getting into the car, he started the engine and backed out of the parking lot and started away. He wasn’t worried. They’d find him when the fair closed, or when someone from town recognized him and called the assisted living home. Then he started wondering, what if his father left the tent and wandered off into the woods and got lost in the freezing cold?

“Leave him,” he told himself, his father didn’t worry about leaving him waiting in front of the bookstore –no matter how long, Mark might have gone on waiting, waiting even until now, if he had believed his father when he said, “I’ll be back.”

Slamming his fist against the dash, Mark pulled to the side of the road and rested his head against the steering wheel, then looked up in the rearview mirror, watching the frail figure receding into the trees in the snow.

No one would know where to look for him. He might get lost, catch cold, get pneumonia and die. It would be Mark’s fault, even if he told people his father said he wanted to be left at the rare book fair. No one but Mark would know what he had done, but it would be patricide…if not for killing his father, then for letting him die.

He slammed his hand against the steering wheel. “Why should I care? He doesn’t even know who I am.”

He looked up in the rear-view mirror: his father was gone, vanished, no longer there, as always.

Mark started the engine and went back for him.




Gawking tourists must have thought Mark was crazy, holding up a small photograph as he walked along the Fort Point seawall, trying to find the spot where his father, mother and he had stood for the photograph his father had cut himself long before.

He held up the jagged photograph, aligning it with the chain barrier and San Francisco Bay beyond him.  Then he saw the oblong rock jutting up from the breaking tide before in the photograph, too. Right here, thought Mark. This is where we were. This is where my father stood.

Mark withdrew the tiny picture of his father and slid it into the hole between his mother and himself, like a puzzle whose missing piece had finally been found.

A perfect fit, he thought. Why not? His father belonged there inside the photograph.

Mark walked to the ledge overlooking the rocks and breaking waves. Cocking his arm and waiting until the wind dropped, Mark tossed the merged photograph onto the blue waters of the bay.

Turning back toward San Francisco, Mark started away, a hole filling in itself—a son rise of sorts.