Still, Dr. Golan wouldn’t let me quit. He suggested I look into Ralph Waldo Emerson, a supposedly famous old poet. “Emerson wrote his fair share of letters,” he said. “Maybe that’s what your grandfather was referring to.” It seemed like a shot in the dark, but, just to get Golan off my back, one afternoon I had my dad drop me at the library so I could check it out. I quickly discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson had indeed written lots of letters that had been published. For about three minutes I got really excited, like I was close to a breakthrough, and then two things became apparent: first, that Ralph Waldo Emerson had lived and died in the 1800s and therefore could not have written any letters dated September third, 1940, and, second, that his writing was so dense and arcane that it couldn’t possibly have held the slightest interest for my grandfather, who wasn’t exactly an avid reader. I discovered Emerson’s soporific qualities the hard way, by falling asleep with my face in the book, drooling all over an essay called “Self-Reliance” and having the vending-machine dream for the sixth time that week. I woke up screaming and was unceremoniously ejected from the library, cursing Dr. Golan and his stupid theories all the while.
The last straw came a few days later, when my family decided it was time to sell Grandpa Portman’s house. Before prospective buyers could be allowed inside, though, the place had to be cleaned out. On the advice of Dr. Golan, who thought it would be good for me to “confront the scene of my trauma,” I was enlisted to help my dad and Aunt Susie sort through the detritus. For a while after we got to the house my dad kept taking me aside to make sure I was okay. Surprisingly, I seemed to be, despite the scraps of police tape clinging to the shrubs and the torn screen on the lanai flapping in the breeze; these things—like the rented Dumpster that stood on the curb, waiting to swallow what remained of my grandfather’s life—made me sad, not scared.
Once it became clear I wasn’t about to suffer a mouth-frothing freak-out, we got down to business. Armed with garbage bags we proceeded grimly through the house, emptying shelves and cabinets and crawl spaces, discovering geometries of dust beneath objects unmoved for years. We built pyramids of things that could be saved or salvaged and pyramids of things destined for the Dumpster. My aunt and father were not sentimental people, and the Dumpster pile was always the largest. I lobbied hard to keep certain things, like the eight-foot stack of water-damaged National Geographic magazines teetering in a corner of the garage—how many afternoons had I spent poring over them, imagining myself among the mud men of New Guinea or discovering a cliff-top castle in the kingdom of Bhutan?—but I was always overruled. Neither was I allowed to keep my grandfather’s collection of vintage bowling shirts (“They’re embarrassing,” my dad claimed), his big band and swing 78s (“Someone will pay good money for those”), or the contents of his massive, still-locked weapons cabinet (“You’re kidding, right? I hope you’re kidding”).
I told my dad he was being heartless. My aunt fled the scene, leaving us alone in the study, where we’d been sorting through a mountain of old financial records.
“I’m just being practical. This is what happens when people die, Jacob.”
“Yeah? How about when you die? Should I burn all your old manuscripts?”
He flushed. I shouldn’t have said it; mentioning his half-finished book projects was definitely below the belt. Instead of yelling at me, though, he was quiet. “I brought you along today because I thought you were mature enough to handle it. I guess I was wrong.”
“You are wrong. You think getting rid of all Grandpa’s stuff will make me forget him. But it won’t.”
He threw up his hands. “You know what? I’m sick of fighting about it. Keep whatever you want.” He tossed a sheaf of yellowed papers at my feet. “Here’s an itemized schedule of deductions from the year Kennedy was assassinated. Go have it framed!”
I kicked away the papers and walked out, slamming the door behind me, and then waited in the living room for him to come out and apologize. When I heard the shredder roar to life I knew he wasn’t going to, so I stomped across the house and locked myself in the bedroom. It smelled of stale air and shoe leather and my grandfather’s slightly sour cologne. I leaned against the wall, my eyes following a trail worn into the carpet between the door and the bed, where a rectangle of muted sun caught the edge of a box that poked out from beneath the bedspread. I went over and knelt down and pulled it out. It was the old cigar box, enveloped in dust—as if he’d left it there just for me to find.
Inside were the photos I knew so well: the invisible boy, the levitating girl, the boulder lifter, the man with a face painted on the back of his head. They were brittle and peeling—smaller than I remembered, too—and looking at them now, as an almost adult, it struck me how blatant the fakery was. A little burning and dodging was probably all it took to make the “invisible” boy’s head disappear. The giant rock being hoisted by that suspiciously scrawny kid could have easily been made out of plaster or foam. But these observations were too subtle for a six-year-old, especially one who wanted to believe.
Beneath those photos were five more that Grandpa Portman had never shown me. I wondered why, until I looked closer. Three were so obviously manipulated that even a kid would’ve seen through them: one was a laughable double exposure of a girl “trapped” in a bottle; another showed a “levitating” child, suspended by something hidden in the dark doorway behind her; the third was a dog with a boy’s face pasted crudely onto it. As if these weren’t bizarre enough, the last two were like something out of David Lynch’s nightmares: one was an unhappy young contortionist doing a frightening backbend; in the other a pair of freakish twins were dressed in the weirdest costumes I’d ever seen. Even my grandfather, who’d filled my head with stories of tentacle-tongued monsters, had realized images like these would give any kid bad dreams.
Kneeling there on my grandfather’s dusty floor with those photos in my hands, I remembered how betrayed I’d felt the day I realized his stories weren’t true. Now the truth seemed obvious: his last words had been just another sleight of hand, and his last act was to infect me with nightmares and paranoid delusions that would take years of therapy and metabolism-wrecking medications to rout out.
I closed the box and brought it into the living room, where my dad and Aunt Susie were emptying a drawer full of coupons, clipped but never used, into a ten-gallon trash bag.