This story is by ross perkal and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Introduction to Our Father’s Last Novel—“Money’s Just a Number”
Jemez Springs, N. M., September, 2034
We arrived at the place we started. We were late in cleaning out the family cabin in the Jemez National Forest, readying it for sale. Dad had been gone for almost two years now. We had clung to this cabin, as we clung to our memory of him. My younger sister, Fizz, a registered nurse in Portland, and I, an art therapist in Chicago, flew in to Albuquerque for the Labor Day weekend. We came to complete an emotional task which we had both been putting off.
That childhood haven in the Jemez National Forest had been a big part of our lives. It was a small, simple, but cozy place where our family and friends could escape the frantic pace of City life from time to time. It had been a quiet, safe place to escape to from the City, and from our childhood pain of divorce. Our time there was sweet and simple: summer floating on inner tubes down the Jemez River, which flows in front of the cabin, like a Coors beer commercial; sledding, tobogganing and throwing snowballs in winter.
Any cares were washed away by the magical, mystical river that flows through the Jemez Pueblo community and the Jemez National Forest. The sacred Pueblo’s/Forest’s proximity to the cabin made it a retreat where the three of us played, bonded and healed.
I found a faded yellowed envelope in Dad’s office desk drawer, where his second career as a writer had blossomed. Away from the city where he had lived and practiced law for 50 years, in this place, he found serenity, a second career, and ultimately, his place as a published author of legal fiction.
Fizz was busy cleaning out the bedrooms, packing up his and our belongings. I realized what the envelope held and went running into the other room. We squealed with delight at the find of this apparent treasure, sat close together, curious, and excited to hear his “voice” again.
His final message to us accompanied the manuscript which you are about to read. I read the letter aloud, my voice shaking, his familiar handwriting at age 82, hard to decipher:
For My Daughters ONLY, Nette and Fizz:
To Be Read Only When I Am No Longer Present Here and Have Gone Home—
I wanted to share with you some reflections on our lives and times together, on your separate lives as adults, to date, on your healthy and happy potential futures, and on the supreme pride, joy and happiness which you have bestowed upon me, during my lifetime.
My 1975 law school graduation propelled me down a slippery slope toward a rewarding, but ever stressful and demanding career. Small victories for clients whose ability to pay was never an issue, had kept me emotionally afloat and my career on course. My lifestyle soon became sixty hours on the client treadmill each week, racing to meet some deadline, illusory or real. I worked for others, and for myself, it did not matter.
You both saw my lifestyle and wisely chose more humane, empathetic careers, due to your eminent good judgment. I was fortunate to be able to help many people. I was fortunate to be able to share in the raising of both of you, and to learn from the times we were together, what really mattered in my life.
“Experts” say the two most stressful things in life are the death of a parent, or the occurrence of a divorce. In 1994-95, at age 47, I lost both parents and a spouse, but began a journey with you that was the royal road to me becoming a whole person. I was lucky to get to watch each of you blossom and shine. Those were the very best years of my life.
Due to your mom’s out of town job in Grants, New Mexico, to which she commuted each day, I had already been totally involved in your upbringing. For me the priorities never changed, parenting you always came first, legal career, second.
Our hectic lives raced by quickly after the divorce, our days rich and full. We were a focused team: Nette helped me raise Fizz; the two of you were best friends, and sisters, and still are today.
You both became fluent in Spanish and Fizz in Portuguese and you excelled in school. Without hesitation or fear you traveled the world to perform good deeds for others, less fortunate.
You each flew off to your chosen colleges to seek your further, intellectual edification.
Nette, like me, quiet and introspective, possessed with your own mission statement of healing the wounds of others, and your indefatigable advocating for social justice for all. You have been a scholar and a writer from birth, even getting a perfect score on the SAT writing test.
By your prior and daily good acts you have defined yourself as a sensitive, compassionate and dedicated art therapist. Every day you work to heal the wounds of adult victims of sexual abuse, in the inner city of Chicago. You make that place, where you started and all around you better.
Fizz, you are like your mother, gregarious and social. A life-long caregiver, you were always the first one on the playground with a bandage/hug when someone fell down. You received the most esteemed award in your high school–the senior with the Best Character, a unanimous choice of the faculty.
You counseled women daily about their legal rights, responsibilities, health choices and life options. Later you became a registered nurse, in order to formalize your playground skills, the place where you started.
For the past five years I have been trying to reinvent myself. The genre of literature that I have spent my life enjoying and envying the secrets of its creators is legal fiction. I have abandoned my legal vocation, turning to a creative, writing avocation. I hope that the self-esteem and comfort that “the law” has provided to our family will continue. Finding my new calling and making you both proud of me is my final frontier.
Watching both of you give back to society and attempt to improve the world is my other “raison de etre.”
The Poet Maya Angelou said:
“Do your best until you can do better, and when you can do better, do better!”
I have done my very best so far. Know that my cup of parental joy and pride overflows each day. I will be watching you grow eternally, and knowing you for the first time. As I pursue my new writing adventures here in the forest, I extend to you all my love.
Fizz and I were both sobbing and hugging each other as I tried desperately to finish Dad’s goodbye note. He was quiet and hard-working. His story was one that only a few people knew. None of them knew it all. He was a private man, dedicated to raising us, and allowing us to obtain the tools we needed.
We held a private service for him at the cabin, for us and his closest friends. We scattered his ashes on the mile high ridge, along with those of his parents and deceased infant sister, and placed his favorite verse, engraved on the native flagstone which covered them, from t.s. eliot, in “Little Giddings”:
We shall not cease from exploration,
And, the end of our exploration,
Will be to arrive at the place we started,
And know it for the first time.
Two years after his 2025 retirement, after 50 years of lawyering, Dad, at 79, self-published a satirical novel about lawyers, on Amazon. No one bought it, but it mattered not. His healing had begun.
Despite his illness, in 2031, Simon & Shuster published his first “perfect crime” novel, one that even his online mentor, James Patterson, would have approved of. This one was well received and elated him, despite his pain.
His fight ended in 2032, when the cancer prevailed. Since then, with the help of his agent, we are publishing Dad’s “final” novel. We found it at the cabin when we found him and Moose, his beloved Chihuahua, and saved it to a thumb drive, without knowing what it was.
Dad had met and worked for a gifted African-American Harvard lawyer on Wall Street in 1975-76. He always wondered what his life would have been like if he had hitched his wagon to that person’s star. That fantasy follows.
Fizz and I are glad that Dad pleased himself before leaving. Any profits from this book will go to the Moose Writers Academy, a foundation which makes grants to aspiring authors.
His last words to us were: “keep doing good!” We both miss him dearly, but vow never to cease from (our) exploration.
Please enjoy our Dad’s final work and know (how it and we all came to be) for the first time.