Fiction

The Empty Room

Jonathan Lethem

Earliest memory: father tripping on strewn toys, hopping with toe outraged, mother’s rolling eyes. For my father had toys himself. He once brought a traffic light home to our apartment on the thirty-somethingth floor of the tower on Columbus Avenue. The light, its taxi yellow gone matte from pendulum-years above some polluted intersection and crackled like a Ming vase’s glaze where bolts had been overtightened and then eased, sat to one side of the coffee table it was meant to replace as soon as my father found an ­appropriate top. In fact, the traffic light would follow us up the Hudson, to Darby, to the house with the empty room. There it never escaped the garage.

Another memory: my playmate Max’s parents had borrowed, from mine, a spare set of china plates. I spent a lot of time visiting with Max and, when he let us inside his room, Max’s older brother. So I was present the afternoon my father destroyed the china set. Max’s family lived in a duplex, the basement and parlor floor of a brownstone, a palace of abundance . . . Max and his brother had separate rooms, and a backyard. All this would pale beside the spaciousness of our Darby farmhouse. That was the point.

The return of the china had become a running joke between our two families, or at least for Max’s parents. They kept trying to give it back, my father kept explaining that we really had no use for the second set; he claimed that it had been a gift, not a loan. In this my father struck them as facetious, when he was actually not only sincere but losing patience.

This day my father had swung by on his way home from Penn Station to pick me up. His work was taking him to Albany more often. While they stood in the kitchen, Max’s father took him by surprise, placing the stack of scrupulously cleaned china into my father’s free hands.

“You really don’t want them?” my father confirmed, in his dry way.

“No, please,” said Max’s father.

“Well, then, we’ll just do this,” declared my father, opening his hands. The plates dropped and exploded, slivers finding every corner of the kitchen and the living room carpet beyond. There, memory halts. Max and I were reduced to pen pals when my family moved.

The New York State Department of Housing and Urban Development was my father’s employer, and we went upstate to be closer to his work. The move, though, was sold to my sister and me as a kind of bodily impulse on my family’s part, like that of salmon spawning, to reject the hectic, compromising city in favor of a place where we could live. I was old enough to fantasize about the teenagerish collections of who knows what I’d cunningly display in a bedroom of my own, and how I would exclude Charlotte and her friends, and then how, later, with great ostentation, I would allow them to enter.

The movers poured our belongings into the new home. Its hugeness, the endless closets, the fact of the barn and garage: these performed a magic trick on our stuff. My father’s accumulations dwindled as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Charlotte and I ran through the house in a fever, counting the doors, including closets, attics, cellar. We lost count at sixty. We then chose our rooms. One room was appointed a den, another a guest room. My father singled out a room downstairs, formerly the doctor’s consulting office (my parents had purchased this house from the estate of a retired country optometrist), with one door and one window, otherwise a simple rectangle outlined with plain molding, and declared it the future site of the empty room. The room was empty now. So it would stay.

“What’s it for?” asked his eleven-year-old son.

“Anything we want it to be,” my father said.

“Can we play there?” asked his eight-year-old daughter.

“As long as you take your toys out with you when you’re finished, yes.”

He explained by means of a series of exclusions. I asked whether we could go inside and close the door. “There are no rules,” he said. “But—” I began. “Except that it stay empty,” he interrupted. “Can I eat in there?” I asked, a few days later. “There’s nothing you can’t do in there,” my father said, mysteriously. “Our family eats together at the table,” said my mother. Charlotte asked if it was my father’s room. “It doesn’t belong to any of us,” he said. “It’s just a part of the house. In the same way that Arfy lives with us but doesn’t belong to us.” On moving upstate we’d gained a puppy, to prove we had a backyard. “Is it Arfy’s room?” asked Charlotte, perhaps misunderstanding. “Arfy, too, is free to use the empty room,” said my father. “If Arfy poops in there, who has to clean it up?” I asked. We all glanced at my mother.

Then came a ritual cycle of first occupations, Barbies and ­G.I. ­Joes soberly scattered and collected under my father’s gaze. My mother ignored it. One Saturday morning she slept in, and my father led us in to sit cross-legged for a breakfast picnic on the smooth, cold floorboards, our Pop-Tarts raised above our heads to keep them from Arfy’s nipping bounds.

These episodes were grim and perfunctory. Mostly the empty room sat empty.

At summer’s end Charlotte and I started at Darby’s sprawling public school, an isolated compound encompassing a terrifying twelve grades. When we brought a new friend home, the room was glossed as a symptom of our in-progress expansion into the vast house, or, as a “famous” oddness of my father’s charm. Within a year, the empty room was a social asset, like my father’s collection of comedy LPs or his back issues of Playboy, like my mother’s attractiveness and her willingness to provide fresh-baked blondies during wintry Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeannie marathons. The empty room counted among the “cool” things imported from my urban existence, no matter that it was the symbolic opposite of that vanished life.

My father created a sign-in sheet at the empty room’s door. My mother spent her afternoons managing it. This was the first thing she complained of when my father slogged in for dinner. If he arrived in time to personally hound kids from the room—always checking to make certain we’d faithfully emptied the space of baseball cards, Archie anthologies, Slim Jim wrappers, what have you—he’d honor us with an arched eyebrow and one of his verbal captions: “Multifarious Doings, I Presume” or “Goings-On, Unspecified, Ensued.” Once, cigarette smoke was detected, the residue of a spontaneous radical act by my friend Mike’s annoying friend Buzz, the empty room now the default hangout for a clan of Darby High boys I hadn’t even particularly wanted to impress. My mother flushed us out, Mike and Buzz to their homes and me to my “real” room. When my father returned, she sent him in for a sniffing tour.

“This fails to pass muster at any number of levels,” he began. “The empty room is like a living organ in our family’s house.” My father’s interpretive monologues were getting arcane. We tuned him out before he’d finished ­articulating nuances of some new policy. “The lung could be seen to be the empty room of the human body, not mere negative space. By filling and emptying with the stuff of the world it stands as the most aspirational ­organ, in a literal sense.” Charlotte, who had hoped to see me dramatically punished, quit the scene in an arm-flapping show of vexation. My mother wandered off.

Under the Reagan cuts, Hugh Carey’s administration reluctantly disassembled hud. In the months before my father was fired, my mother ­colonized the empty room, setting out on her great delayed project of ­transcribing the oral histories of our grandmother and seven great-aunts, whom she’d tape-recorded for her thesis in anthropology at Hunter. Charlotte and I ceded the room readily. We’d situated our lives elsewhere, mostly in the cars of our friends, or in the booths or parking lot of Darby’s doughnut shop. My mother, wearing large headphones and operating her special tape player by treadle, labored on her project with an air of private fury like that of a ­sweatshop seamstress. But she never failed to remove her desk after each time she worked.

Months before I left for college my father quit driving to Albany ­every day. He’d been haunting the “corridors of power,” in his words—more specifically the lunch counter of Allworthy’s, the greasy spoon where the ­department had lunched and where some of his old colleagues now convened, mourning careers they’d taken for granted. Judging by the haul amassing in the attic rooms and garage, and the gilt-framed, Hudson River School knockoffs cluttering the walls of the living room, he’d begun scouring the capital’s dusty junk shops.

He brought little inside the empty room itself. A Penguin Graham Greene, a saucer stacked with five or six Oreos, a vintage transistor radio with a miraculous knack for receiving Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson’s Mets broadcasts all the way from New York, albeit wreathed in crispy static. For a brief, angry spell it was my parents who reactivated the sign-in system, vying over the clipboard at the door, my father’s original hand-ruled grid now a grainy blur in umpteenth-generation photocopies. When his claim on the room ultimately trumped my mother’s, she set up an office in the guest room, upstairs.

I registered this in passing. After I left for freshman orientation I made short work of whichever parent answered the phone, then asked them to pass the receiver Charlotte’s way. The extra length of cord my mother had installed meant that the wall-mounted kitchen phone could be stretched, barely, to slide under the closed door of the empty room. I heard Arfy whining and scratching at the door.

“It isn’t the fact that he’s always in here,” she said. “Or that half the time she’s upstairs in her pedal-operated time machine. It isn’t even that they never speak a word to each other. It’s that every time either one tries to tell me what to do they start with ‘your mother and I feel’ or ‘your father and I want you to understand’ or some other stupid fucking bullshit that makes me want to puke.”

I convinced them to pack Charlotte off on a Trailways bus to visit me during fall break, claiming we’d be treated to Thanksgiving dinner at a Northampton hotel by my girlfriend Deanna’s family. In fact, Deanna and Charlotte and I spent that week scuffling around the vacant dorm corridors, eating fast food and ramen, listening to R.E.M.’s Murmur and smoking marijuana morning, noon, and night. Deanna was the first person I’d met who smoked marijuana like it was cigarettes; she was the first person I’d met who did a lot of things. I’d been certain she and Charlotte would get along. I felt my first pang of jealousy at the bus station, just moments after Charlotte pulled her duffel from the undercarriage.

“So you’re the fun one,” said Deanna, putting her hand into Charlotte’s hair and mussing it upward into a tangle. “No wonder your brother likes me.”

“I can think of a bunch of reasons he’d like you.”

“You wanna let me do something about that hair?” Deanna mimed scissors. Charlotte widened her eyes.

On Thanksgiving Day the three of us took psilocybin mushrooms and sprawled on a dirty, marijuana seed–infested section of carpet in the middle of Deanna’s floor. Occupying Deanna’s dorm room for the drug trip, while the rest of the universe, so far as we knew, enacted a normative Rockwellian Thanksgiving, recalled my father’s notions of the suspension of ordinary life within the bounds of the empty room. But Charlotte and I didn’t speak of this. For dinner we’d bought cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli, just for the squalor, but felt no particular appetite. At four in the morning our ­flaming synapses crumbled in flames and we sagged on the carpet into catlike slumber.

Charlotte failed to hide her tears at the bus station. For a few weeks more, before the fatal New Year’s visit, I could flatter myself that my parents’ world was a place both immutable and dull, a snow globe I’d been lucky enough to escape, and which remained Charlotte’s misfortune to ­endure. I was the one engaged in chrysalid transformations. These made early December seem as remote from September, when I’d first met Deanna, as Darby’s mileage from the moon. What right did my parents have to do anything but stand stock-still for my barely attentive scorn?

When I called to say I’d be spending Christmas with Deanna (we would visit New York this time) my mother sobbed. The women of my family were on a crying jag. “Well, you can’t have Charlotte this time,” my mother said, astonishing me. I heard my sister in the background, saying, “Let me talk, Zoe.” Charlotte had begun calling them by their first names around the time our father got fired. I still said Mom and Dad.

“You have to come back,” said Charlotte. Her voice was cold. “No,” I heard her say, with the mouthpiece covered. “No, he can’t have the phone,

I don’t care. Tell him to come out if he wants the phone.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Rupert wants to talk to you.” My mother’s birdlike cheeping evaporated from the background.

“What’s taking him so long?”

“He’s getting dressed.”

My father got on the line. “Okay, college boy, I’ve been deputized to insist you give us a gander at this lady of yours. I’ve heard good things, but I’d like to see the new paradigm assert itself under my own roof.” His flippant mode was even more ponderous than his ponderous mode. I promised we’d arrive in time for New Year’s Eve. My sister called from the parking lot of Darby Donuts the next day, to tell me: Rupert had implemented a new policy of shedding clothes at the empty room’s threshold. Zoe had detected a corroded dribble down the clapboard outside the empty room’s window: urine.

I’d called from New York on Christmas Day, then treated my parents to radio silence. They believed we’d be traveling up from New York City, but Deanna and I had closed ourselves again in the quieted dorms, needing nothing but our versatile bodies. When the last day of December brought a snowstorm, we set out hitchhiking on Route 9 at one in the afternoon—early enough, we thought. But rides grew scarce in the whiteout, and the sky was dark by three-thirty, our feet frozen from trudging with our rucksacks out of the centers of villages, seeking an acceptable spot to begin thumbing again. To get warm we quit for a while in Pittsfield and spent the last of Deanna’s parents’ money on dinner, open-faced roast beef sandwiches au jus, at a place called Dewey’s. I couldn’t know if my parents understood how long ago I’d run through the funds for my daily needs at college.

Deanna and I began working the diner’s parking lot, petitioning drivers there to spare us the open road. Within an hour, though it felt much longer, we found a merciful soul, a middle-aged man in a bow tie and hunter’s cap, to drive us into Darby, three across in his pickup’s cab, our bags, already drenched, bungeed in the back. Shame sealed our lips, the journey home a surreal plunge through a cyclone of white, soundtracked by radio hymns.

Neither Deanna nor I wore a watch, but the samaritan’s dashboard said it was twenty before twelve as we disembarked. Was this a plan? No, it never was. Some unplans are destined to be remembered as if they were conspiracies. My father must, at the sight of the headlights in our driveway, have rushed from the empty room and begun dressing in the hallway. He stood in the corridor buttoning his cuffs when Deanna and I stomped out of the mudroom, through the kitchen door.

“Happy New Year, revelers!” said my father. Arfy clung to my leg.

“Where’s Charlotte?” I asked.

My mother perched on the staircase. “When you didn’t show up she called some friends,” she said. Then, “How do you do, I’m the mother.” Deanna went far enough up the stairs to take my mother’s hand and bow. I said, “Well, we did show up!” trying to meet my father’s exuberant tone, and failing.

“Your sneakers are soaked,” my mother said. This was true of both of us; Deanna plumped down beside her rucksack to pry them off, though she had difficulty even undoing the laces. “Actually, everything’s soaked,” I said. Our jeans hadn’t dried despite the samaritan’s blasts of engine fumes. “You feel like throwing this crap in the dryer?”

My parents fell silent. “Let me show you the world-famous empty room,” I said, and, before my father could speak, added, “No clothes ­allowed.” Deanna shrugged and began peeling away her outer layers. My girlfriend was a specialist in rising to occasions.

“It’s almost midnight,” my father whined.

“Will you bring us some blankets and pillows and stuff?” My father lifted a cookie from a desultory plate that had been set out, possibly many hours ago, and began gnawing. He could as well have chewed his shirtsleeve or arm.

Was my mother a conspirator, too? All I know is she executed my commands (for they really were commands) with robotic precision. She delivered pillows, copious smoothly folded sheets, and the guest bed’s duvet to the door of the empty room. By this point Deanna and I were concealed naked ­behind it, having widened the gap only a few inches in order to toss our under­garments onto the pile. Midnight came and went unremarked on either side of that barrier. “Candles,” I answered, when, as I opened the door to gather in offerings, my mother asked whether there was anything more we needed.

“Your parents seem pretty great,” Deanna said with superb neutrality, as she lit the first of the joints she’d rolled. We’d switched off the empty room’s ugly overhead, and outside the snow, dribbling down through a windless sky, glowed like blue cotton candy in the penumbra of the driveway’s single bulb. We fucked twice, quietly but concealing nothing, Deanna’s three outcries rising through the ceiling and floorboards above, Arfy curling meekly onto a pillow in the corner once it was clear no attention was available for her.

Afterward I crept out. My mother and father had retreated upstairs. Deanna and I used the bathroom and then I collected some Tupperware for future such occasions. I also gathered food, including a Saran Wrapped platter I found in the fridge, full of triangular sandwiches: chicken salad, cream cheese and cucumber, crustless and heavily salt-and-peppered, just the way we liked them. I moved the den’s stereo into the empty room, too. It wasn’t good, but good enough for Deanna’s homemade cassettes.

Charlotte came tapping at our window, clued in by our tread marks in the snow or the flickering candlelight. Wrapping myself in a sheet, I raised the sash. Arfy keened delight, nosing at the opened window, and Charlotte waved off whatever friend had delivered her home. Headlights swerved off into the night.

“What time is it, anyway?” I asked her.

Charlotte shrugged. “Four, five, beats me. Is that pee-pee?” She meant the yellow fling pattern staining the snow behind her. I nodded. “Sick,” she said approvingly.

“Climb in.”

The empty room, being a tabula rasa, bore aspects of total corruptibility, a potential we’d in childish obedience overlooked until now. Our poses, cross-legged in sheets, around the plate of triangular sandwiches, the ashtray, and the flickering candle, which illuminated the tumble of pillows and duvet like a pink-pale mountain range, evoked perhaps a Native American or Haitian voodoo ritual site. Nothing of this scene would have signified much in a dorm room. Here: revolution.

“What’s that?” asked Charlotte.

Deanna understood the question. “They’re called Echo and the Bunnymen. This is ‘The Killing Moon.’ It’s pretty much their best song.”

“You got Mom’s sandwiches? That’s crazy.” Charlotte accepted the joint from Deanna’s hand. Arfy clambered into her lap.

“It’s safe out there, if you want something from your room.”

“You guys want to fool around, huh? Dream on, unless you want to put up some kind of tent out of these sheets. Because no way am I leaving here before you.”

“You don’t have to leave,” said Deanna. “We already fooled around.”

My sister raised her hand. “Enough about that.”

“They’re upstairs,” I said.

“Well, congratulations on a unique accomplishment,” said Charlotte, with sardonic emphasis derived from my father’s manner, however much she’d have hated to believe it. “They haven’t been upstairs at the same time in a year.”

“If we keep the music playing I doubt you have to worry about them coming down.”

“What are you suggesting?”

I gestured at the empty room, a vacuum laboratory.

“Haven’t you ever wondered,” I asked my sister then, “how much stuff we could fit in here, if we tried?”

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