Whenever Celeste said my father’s name, she made a face; the four syllables, RICH-ard EN-tee, left her pursed lips like the taste of something rotten. Richard Empty, she called him, but when I asked what she meant, whether my father had really been empty, she only shook her head, as though to say that actually she had meant the opposite, and I was not supposed to understand. Despite my mothers, and to spite them, I was endlessly curious about Richard Ente. I collected facts about him the way other children collect stamps or baseball cards, and I assembled them into a story that I reviewed from time to time, solemnly, just as I went over the deposits and withdrawals in my savings account, checking and double-checking the total even though it was never more than a hundred dollars.
This is my father’s story: once upon a time there was a lawyer named Richard Ente. Six foot two, eyes of blue, nonetheless a New York Jew, Richard came to Thebes in 1969 to sue Joe Regenzeit on my grandfather’s behalf. Richard was handsome, and my mothers didn’t meet many strangers. They couldn’t get enough of him and—to their surprise, probably—he didn’t find them silly, or provincial, or young. Richard must have been fifty at the time, my grandfather’s age; my mothers were sixteen. I don’t know how Richard chose between them, but in the end, the one he fell in love with was Marie, and their love was, what, I don’t know, lovely, but brief. Oliver caught his lawyer romancing his daughter; Richard fled in my grandfather’s sports car, and my grandfather chased him in my grandmother’s station wagon. For some reason the two cars collided, and it was a miracle neither Richard nor my grandfather was hurt. The love-suit was over but the lawsuit went on, until, on the morning of the day when the jury was to announce the verdict in Oliver Rowland et al. v. Snowbird Resort, Inc., Richard Ente ran away from Thebes. He died of a heart attack in Denver, that summer, three months before I was born.
I tried to supplement this little collection of facts with information from my grandparents, but they had less to offer than I hoped. “Richard was a genius,” my grandfather said, but when I asked him how my father was a genius he declined to give concrete examples. The most he would say was, “It was impossible to beat him in an argument, although I certainly tried.”
My further questions got no answer so I turned to my grandmother. “What was my father like?”
“He was very intelligent,” she said judiciously. “He worked very hard.” I had the feeling she was sugarcoating the truth, in the hope that she could create a better father in my mind than the one who was already working mischief in my blood.
“Was he a good arguer?”
“I suppose he must have been. He was a lawyer, after all.”
“Why did he run away?”
My grandmother shrugged.
“Did he know he was going to lose the lawsuit?”
“I have no idea. Now stop grilling me, and get some peas from the garden. They’re just big enough to eat.”
That was the sum of the information I had about the Richard Ente Period, which lasted from the summer of 1969 until the spring of 1970, from Woodstock until about Kent State. Over the years I added to it scraps of less relevant or less assimilable information which my mothers let slip in careless moments. When I said I didn’t want to go to school because I was smarter than everyone there, Celeste said I sounded just like my father. When I wouldn’t go to bed before my mothers, when I protested that if there were rules then they ought to apply to everyone, adult and child, equally, Marie told me to stop layering, for Christ’s sake, it made me sound like a little Richard Ente. From these and other reproaches I learned that my father was a selfish person who didn’t do homework and hardly ever slept, who didn’t say thank you when he received a gift, who forgot to call when he was going to be late, who watched television during the day, who made up stories about places he had not been and people he had not met and told them as if they were the truth. All of which made me think he must have been very interesting, and made me regret not having known him.
Years later, when I was in college, I learned that Richard hadn’t died of a heart attack. My grandmother was very ill; she had a rare blood disease that carried her off to a teaching hospital in Syracuse. I went to see her there, and came in as a medical student was drawing her blood. “Does this hurt, Mrs., uh, Rowland?” he asked, as though he had been thinking about her disease so intently he’d forgotten that she was a person also.
“Of course it hurts,” she said.
The medical student left, and we talked about her illness, which was causing quite a sensation in the hospital. Specialists from several departments had been in to see her; she showed me the bruises on her forearms where they’d drawn vial after vial of blood. On the whole, she seemed pleased to be the object of so much attention. “If I’m lucky,” she said dryly, “they’ll publish me. I asked if there’s any chance they can use my real name.” My grandmother told me about the people who had been to visit: an aunt I hadn’t seen in years, cousins I barely knew. Charles had come several times to resupply her with the mystery novels she loved. My mothers came once. “For an hour,” my grandmother said. “It takes four hours to get here.”
“They should have stayed longer,” I said.
“I worry about them,” my grandmother said. “They want to live like they came out of a clamshell.” It took me a long moment to understand that she was referring to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. “But everyone has a family, even in New York City.” She looked at me with alarming lucidity. “Do they ever talk to you about what happened?”
“In New York?”
“With Richard,” my grandmother said impatiently. She took my hand. She must have known that her own life would soon be over, and that whatever secrets she kept would then be known by no one at all. Her time to tell was limited. And she was selfish, as I imagine many people are at the end of their lives; my feelings mattered less to her than they had when she was well. “You poor boy,” she said, “do you even know Richard shot himself?”
So it came out. One night in the summer of 1970, a police detective called from Denver and told Oliver that Richard Ente was dead of a gunshot wound, in all likelihood self-inflicted. The detective wanted to know if Richard had any next of kin. The only reason he called Oliver was because he’d found a check from him in Richard’s wallet. “We couldn’t help the gentleman,” my grandmother said. “Richard never talked about his family.”
“They didn’t tell me,” I said numbly.
“Exactly,” my grandmother said.
This story flattened me, and it weakened my grandmother also: maybe she had come without knowing it to the age when her last few secrets were what kept her alive. She leaned back against the pillows of her hospital bed. Her eyes closed and her lips trembled, as though she wanted to say more, but when she did speak, finally, what she said was, “Ring for the nurse.” I did, and a minute later the nurse came in and chided my grandmother because she hadn’t eaten her vegetables.
“These aren’t vegetables,” my grandmother said, “they’re,” and she shrugged, her face lit up with disgust.
I called my mothers that night from my motel room in Syracuse and had a bad conversation. Why hadn’t they told me? Why had Richard shot himself in Denver? The first question was easier to answer than the second. My mothers had been trying to protect me from having to feel what they still felt, a kind of baffled sadness, which made Richard Ente impossible either to dismiss or to forgive. They wanted me to have two parents and not be haunted by the ghost of a third. But why did he do it? My mothers didn’t know. Celeste believed Richard’s suicide had to do with things that had happened a long time ago, before he came to Thebes. “Any fifty-year-old man who falls in love with a sixteen-year-old girl has serious problems,” she said.
Marie sobbed into the phone; she didn’t know either.
“Let him go,” Celeste said. “Suicide is a mystery with no solution.”
“I’m so sorry,” Marie said. “I wish I could have done something to stop him.” She could have done something, but I wouldn’t know that until much later. Finally I got off the phone with my mothers, wiped my eyes, and tried to take Celeste’s advice and put Richard out of my mind. Dead was dead. The fact that Richard had killed himself didn’t make him any more lost to me than he had been already. How could it matter if he died of a bullet or a heart attack? But I couldn’t let go of the question, why?
When I came back from Syracuse, I looked for my father in the Bleak College (not its real name, but that’s another story) library, but nothing I found cast any light on his death. The membership directories of the New York State Bar Association told me that Richard Ente practiced law in New York from 1949 until 1970. He worked for Silberman & Mischeaux, a personal-injury firm, then in 1961 he went into private practice. His office was a few blocks from Times Square, in a building that has since been demolished. Lexis, which was just becoming available at the time, and which I got access to with the help of a friend in the law school, confirmed that my father was of counsel in Oliver Rowland et al. v. Snowbird Resort, Inc. The lawsuit, which my family had talked about only in vague terms, turned out to be stranger and more significant than I’d expected. According to Lexis, my grandfather sued for an injunction to prevent Joe Regenzeit from “interfering with the clouds and the natural condition of the air, sky, atmosphere and air space over plaintiffs’ lands and in the area of plaintiffs’ lands to in any manner, degree or way affect, control or modify the weather conditions on or about said lands,” which, reading farther down in the document, seems to have been a response to Joe Regenzeit’s “cloud-seeding devices and equipment generally used in a weather modification program,” the purpose of which was, in short, to make it snow. As if it didn’t snow enough in Thebes! Beginning sometime in the autumn of 1968, Joe Regenzeit was sprinkling the clouds with silver iodide, bringing further gloom to the gloomy mountain town, with the intention of turning it into a winter paradise.
My grandfather objected. He, or rather his counsel, Richard Ente, Esq., argued that Regenzeit’s snow had encumbered the land, choked the roads, and clouded the minds of Thebes’s inhabitants, who were already unhappy enough come winter. He did not prevail. Having failed to demonstrate, in the first place, that Joe Regenzeit’s weather modification program was responsible for any particular snowfall, and, in the second, that the plaintiffs’ hardships were brought on by snow, specifically, as distinguished from cold, darkness, old age, excessive consumption of alcohol, rheumatoid arthritis, poor eyesight, poor diet, unusual devotion to their domestic animals, acts of God, or any other cause, the injunction was not granted, and Rowland v. Snowbird assumed its place in the history of weather-modification law, an important precedent, but one with few successors. According to an articled titled “Who Owns the Clouds Now?” 73 Mich. L. Rev. 129, Rowland v. Snowbird established, tacitly, a doctrine of “modified natural rights,” which is to say that if Regenzeit could make money off the clouds, and my grandfather didn’t lose any money thereby, then the clouds belonged to Regenzeit, which would have made him, my law-school friend said, the first person in American history ever to own a cloud. I took copious notes, and even thought of writing a science-fiction story that would take the case as its starting point, and project from it a world where not only the clouds but all natural phenomena, rain, wind, sunlight, fog, and even such intangibles as “clear skies” and “autumn chill” were privately owned, so that the experience of the outdoors would involve an endless series of payments, and become in all likelihood a pastime for the rich.
Lexis had nothing to say on the subject of Richard Ente’s character. Since childhood, I had pictured my father as a handsome man, a distinguished lawyer in a dark suit and a blue-and gold Bleak College necktie, because yes, he went to Bleak, just the same as my grandfather, the same as me, and I wonder if I didn’t go there in part because I hoped I’d find some trace of him. I imagined Richard Ente sitting at dinner with my grandfather, twirling a glass of wine between his fingers, like an old version of the young Sean Connery, if you see what I mean. Richard Ente offering his considered opinion on legal matters, then turning and catching Marie’s eye. Richard Ente pressing my mother’s hand as they said goodbye, and murmuring something in her ear. Richard Ente under cover of darkness climbing the roof of the garage, still in his dark suit, and slipping through my mothers’ open window. My love! said his love. Ssh, Richard Ente murmured, a cross now between James Bond and Humbert Humbert, although I suppose Humbert Humbert is already that. We don’t want to wake them, do we? Marie’s hands at the knot of his tie. Richard’s hairy fingers—with a ring, perhaps, on the third left one?—undoing the top of Marie’s dress. Then an unclarity, willful, on my part. Then Richard Ente murmured, You mustn’t tell your father. —Damn my father, Marie said, rolling away from him and snugging her back to his chest. He’s a good man, Richard said softly. Not as good as you, Marie said. Hm, said Richard. He got up and dressed in the moonlight. Is my tie straight? —You look dashing, Marie said. —Then adieu. —No! But Richard Ente was gone; he had climbed out the window and down to the ground, and now he walked to where his sports car idled silently among the trees. None of this explained him taking his own life. I invented other scenes in which Richard Ente’s suicidal tendency would be manifest: Richard draining a flask before he gets into his car. Richard growling, I can’t go on with this charade! Richard speeding around a curve and closing his eyes. No. The story I’d made up about my father had petrified in my memory; adding the story of his death in Denver didn’t change him any more than the addition of paint to a rock would make it not a rock. My story was beyond contradiction, to the point where even now I think of it as being about my real father, even though I know for a fact that it is wrong in almost every particular.
Finally I stopped looking for the truth about Richard Ente. I was left with a mystery, a love of library research, and a desire to get as far away from my family as I could: these last two came in handy when I went to Stanford to study American history.