SEARCHING FOR SECRETS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

My father is a keeper-of-secrets. This is how he makes his living; he invites people into his office, listens to their secrets, and then he keeps them. I have often asked him to tell me some of the things people say to him, but he says he cannot tell me anything. They pay him, you see, to keep it a secret.

On weekends, he pays me $10 to clean his office, the waiting room and adjoining bathroom. It is easy work. He drops me off there in his car and then picks me up several hours later when I am finished. I dust and straighten, vacuum and wipe; and all the while, I look for secrets.

Usually what I find is the candy he keeps in the second drawer down on the right side of his desk. I am not really supposed to look in the desk drawers but I do because they are closed, because they are full of things, and because maybe that is where he puts the secrets. Anyway, he knows I look there because I eat some of his candy each time. It tastes especially sweet.

When I was little, we had a red sports car. It was really my father's car. He drove it to and from the office. It was small, only big enough for two people, and it was a convertible. When my father would take me for a ride in it, it was something very special because usually I had to ride in the station wagon with him and my mother and brothers and sisters. I do not remember much else about the car, but I do remember that he kept candy in the glove box. This was not candy for the family. It was only his because that was his car. But sometimes I would go out to the car in the driveway when no on was looking and open the glove box and eat some of that candy. Now, when I clean his office, I think about that car.

It takes me about two hours to clean the office and the other rooms. Each time I unlock the door and open it, I am struck by the strong smell of cigarette smoke. The room reeks of it; the ashtrays are overflowing. One of my favorite tasks is emptying them into the trash and wiping them clean. The other job I like is cleaning the desk. It is always piled high with magazines and papers, books and pens, prescription pads and stationery imprinted with my father's name. There is a statue, too, on top of the cubbyhole part of the desk; it is called "The Kiss."

I never touch the stuff in the cubbyholes. I just take everything off the top of the desk itself and set it on the coffee table behind me, the one in front of the couch. Then I spray the glass desktop with window cleaner and wipe it. And lastly I pile everything back on top, in neat piles this time; even though I know it will all be jumbled up again next time I come to clean. The whole time I am cleaning and straightening the desk, I am looking for secrets. I examine scraps of paper, hoping my father has written $l something down. But I never find anything very interesting.

I am pretty sure my father must write the secrets somewhere, just to be rid of them, just so he won't have to carry them around. He told me once about a man who was a mute; who went mad and killed himself after years of people coming to him and telling him all their problems. They thought that since he could not speak, he must not have any problems of his own; that since he never said anything, he must have somehow secretly understood them as no one else could. Finally, he could take no more of their secrets and he shot himself dead on a Sunday night.

Next to the desk, on the wall, is a bookshelf, with four shelves of books, books with titles like "The Interpretation of Dreams" and "The Direction of Desire." I have never read the books because they are big, thick volumes, too dense to really understand. Once my father told me about a famous dream in one of them, the Dream of the White Wolves. Every night, a man would have the same nightmare. He was lying in his bed and he would look out of his bedroom window and see white wolves sitting in the tree; 10, 15 white wolves perched in the bare branches of the tree, all of them still and quiet and looking at him. I did not think that was a frightening dream, but my father said it is a famous nightmare. I asked him if people ever told him their dreams. Sometimes, he answered.

I am 16 years old.

I measure time by weekends, by holidays, by the long stretch of summer which separates one year from another. I measure distance in bus rides from home to school; in car rides from home to the library, from home to the shopping center, from home to the beach. My mother makes me put the $10 from cleaning the office in the bank every week. Save it for college, she says. It seems more like I am fascinated by the huge vault in the bank, with its thick metal door and complicated lock. My money is in there, I think, waiting for me; but I cannot help feeling I will never see it again. Anyway, I do not clean my father's office just for the money.

Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can see a small circular stone wall completely surrounding me. Only if I look up can I see any light and I hear voices of people but I cannot touch them and I want more than anything to touch them. My arms are trapped at my sides and I am strangely speechless.

Once I asked my father who the people are who come into his office and tell their secrets, and he told me they were ordinary people; people like me or him, people who just needed to talk about things that bother them. One of them, he told me, goes to your school. Then I was truly curious. I spent weeks walking through the halls between classes, searching faces, looking for clues as to who it was. They must have known who I was; in fact, my father said they did. But who were they? Which one, and how could I read it in their face? After three weeks, I gave up. And my father, of course, would never tell me who it was.

Several weeks ago, I found a piece of paper under the middle cushion on the couch. My mother had told me to vacuum under the couch cushions, so I pulled them all off and found the paper. It was someone's grocery list. It must have fallen out of a pocket, so I threw it in the trash. The following week, I checked under the couch cushions, just in case; there was a bus token. I left it there. After that I found a small address book with rumpled pages, where names had been crossed out and addresses had been erased and written over; I found a pocket calendar from last year; I found a key chain with three keys, and I found a 'D button. I decided these were not things that had fallen out of someone's pocket.

Once I asked my father if he ever got bored listening to people talk about themselves, about their problems. He did not answer me at first, but at last he said, no, not really. Whatever they tell me is important to them or they would not tell me. So I always listen carefully. And once I asked my father if he ever cured anyone and he told me, we do not speak in terms of cures. From that I gathered the answer was no.

Are these things I have found the secrets? If so, I don't know what to do with them. After weeks of searching for them, dreaming about them, I do not know what to make of them. Certainly they are not what I expected. They are not secrets like I hear on the bus -- last night I stole a pack of cigarettes at the gas station; or, last weekend I drank my mother's liquor and filled the bottle up with water. They are not like secrets I have read in books -- I have loved you for years and years if only you had known; I did not mean to but I killed her with his gun. The ones I found are tiny pieces of a puzzle; a puzzle with no box and no picture to show what it is supposed to look like when it is finished.

My mother says there are things I will not understand until I am older. Somehow this seems to be the same logic as putting my money in the bank for college. And it all makes no more sense to me than all those things I found under the couch cushion. They cannot be the secrets I have been looking for. I know real people come into that office, and talk. They are sad people and angry people and scared people; people with something wrong with them. My father cannot cure them. He told me so. And still they come to him and tell him everything. I feel sorry for them. Probably their mother told them that they would understand things when they got older.

Yesterday I went to my father's office after staying late at school. I got a ride there with a friend and I had to wait in his waiting room for about an hour for him to be finished and take me home. When I got there, I found a girl about my age sitting in the waiting room, waiting to see my father. I did not recognize her but she looked like anyone I might see at school. We sat opposite each other and looked at each other carefully, trying not to seem too curious. I wondered why she had to see my father. I wondered who she thought I was. We passed the 10 minutes in utter silence although I desperately wanted to ask her everything. At last the door to the office opened and she went in, leaving me alone in the waiting room.

I think I will let my little sister clean the office this week. She has been begging my father to let her do it anyway.

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