Chapter 1 from a forthcoming Science Fiction novel
by Joel Mendez
October 14, 2033, New York City
His father had always been a secretive man, Un desconocido, a stranger in many ways. He was neither shy, nor a man unknown in the world he worked and lived in, just the opposite. He could charm when needed and persuade even the cleverest of men. In fact, his father’s study would often be filled with men and women seeking his opinion on important matters.
Once, as a young boy he had been playing with his toys underneath his father’s desk in the study. As his father and his colleague arrived, the boy kept quiet underneath his father’s mahogany writing desk, trying not to be found and disciplined for breaking a firm rule of not playing in his father’s study.
“Wait, I think we have a mole.” Caleb could hear the voice of his father’s colleague. Then he heard steps and chair was pulled out. “Look what we have here, a spy!”
“Young man, would you like to join us?” The man drew on his cigarette, a distinct smile on his face. Caleb was fascinated by the man’s smile and his slick black hair.
Caleb looked at his father. The response to that question was obvious in his father’s angry’s eyes that followed Caleb as he ran out.
But what people knew about his father and what was true about his father were two different things. But his mother knew him. Through her glances and her subtle nature, she was able to break past his father’s facade as they created a mysterious oneness, one he could not penetrate. She was the one who could make his father laugh, willingly letting his guard down for her at the dinner table, when he came home late dressed in his elegant tan suits.
Light rain persisted throughout the funeral. The casket remained closed, careful to not flood the dead man dressed in an expensive tan suit. Caleb faked tears and choked up to avoid an insincere eulogy. What could he have said? His wife Miriam knew he was faking and quietly rebuked him by slipping her hand away from his shoulder as she covered her face to show grief while ashamed of his lack of courage. Miriam had buried both parents by the age of twenty.
Like Caleb, Miriam was an only child but their backgrounds could not have been any different. She had grown in up in close-knit family of modest means in the Midwest. Caleb came from a wealthy and well- connected family both socially and politically. Miriam was hoping in the loss of his father, Caleb could start to heal from the wounds of a father who provided him everything in the world except himself. Her intuition was that his father’s presence loomed large not only in Caleb’s life but in their future.
Earlier in the day, they had their first argument as a newlywed couple.
“So, you don’t plan to say anything about your father at his funeral?” Miriam’s tone was sharp. She was foot smaller than Caleb who stood slightly over six-feet, but she had a way to command the attention of others with grace, seriousness and gifted empathy for others, especially her husband.
“Miri, I barely knew anything about him,” Caleb said, thumbing through a series of neckties hoping the conversation would end with his response. Caleb looked at the mirror. The dark-eyed, thick-haired man looked back in fear. In the corner of his reflection, he could see Miri’s blue eyes staring at him.
“But he is your father,” Miriam persisted.
“By blood…,” Caleb spoke to the reflection of Miriam.
“Caleb…” she said in disappointment. She turned away from him thinking of what to say to convince her husband that he would regret this. She twirled a strand of her black hair which fell over her eye.
Caleb made a final adjustment to his tie. His father taught him to perfect the Windsor knot. One of the few things, his father taught him first hand.
He walked over to his wife. He held her soft delicate hands, attempting to express his fear. “Miri, I can talk about his work in his company and the philanthropy in the public sector, but there are plenty of his colleagues who can fill the blanks on that part of his life.”
“Caleb, rarely is anyone all bad.”
“It’s not that he is bad or even good, or that he is unknown. I am his son and I don’t have anything personal to say about him.”
“You will be the only family member at the funeral…,” Miriam pressed squeezing his hands.
He uncharacteristically cut her off angrily, “Don’t you think I know this?” as he let go and moved away. The death of his mother was particular difficult, a grief he had still not come to terms with.
“I have been dreading this day. This would be easier…”
Miriam shot back, “If she was here…your mother.” Caleb looked at her and nodded in approval. Why couldn’t cancer take away my father instead. Why did she have to go first? Why couldn’t she be alive to see a cure for cancer?
Caleb was close to his mother. Although his family was wealthy, Caleb was home-schooled with his mother teaching him Latin, preferring him to read the Beowulf than what she called “modern fantasy gibberish.” She traveled with her son having him experience the world rather than just reading through internet links. As her only child, she would raise him to choose any path for his destiny. His mother knew her husband was preparing Caleb for a path she was against. She was subtly preparing Caleb for a path free from the family name.
“What would your mother have said about your father at the funeral?” Miriam asked. She hoped mentioning his mother would channel his mother’s compassion for his father to Caleb.
“I don’t know,” he said weakly. She reached and touched Caleb’s shoulder.
“She didn’t get the chance and I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to her.”
The calls from his mother became less frequent and his parents would conveniently be out of town when he returned for school breaks. His mother’s cancer was kept from him until the cancer had taken her. She died weak and broken, a shell of the beautiful thick dark-haired woman with olive skin, strong features and inviting smile Caleb would inherit. It was a contrast to her husband’s fair skin, plain look and indifferent mannerisms, who died quietly in his sleep.
“I don’t have anything to say,” Caleb said without looking at her.
“I think you do, Caleb,” she raised her eyes to him and said softly.
“We are done with this conversation,” Caleb pulled away and stormed out of the room.
* * *
His father would become more reclusive after his mother’s death. Caleb blamed his father for keeping his mother’s sickness and would never forgive him. Caleb learned more about his father after his death than while he was alive. He was the last one left in a family of secrets. It was at his funeral where they first approached him.
Caleb avoided eye contact with the priest. Priest? What could his father possibly believe in? A man so distant could not rely on a form of a higher power? This was all the formality of his father’s Cuban Catholic upbringing, one he had shed and used as a form of ritual similar to his brothers. He was Batista. A lineage of power, wealth and manipulation. Also, Un cobarde, a coward.
The day before the funeral, the priest provided Caleb the invocation and set program his father had selected for his funeral. His father’s will be specific on the details of his funeral. It detailed the seating arrangements, guest list, flowers and the $75,000 casket made of a rare Indian mahogany with a technology developed by his company. It was going to be outside and not in a church. There could be religious customs from his tradition at his funeral but his father refused to have his body eulogized in a under the name of any god. It would be outside with a service and burial the same day. Quick and efficient.
“They are forecasting rain in the afternoon,” Father Marco said. “We can have some our parishioners hold umbrellas during the funeral.”
“No. Closed casket.”
“What . . .Caleb, are you sure? It’s not a burden, my son.”
“Keep it closed,” Caleb demanded.
The casket would keep his body intact from being consumed from the earth. It guaranteed his body and his tanned suit would survive the next 75 years or the next apocalypse, which ever came first. It would be buried next his mother, which quietly infuriated Caleb.
The CEO of one of his father’s firms spoke, then followed by his old fraternity friends, then an entrepreneur who his father provided him his first investment in his start-up, a former congressman, the dean of the school where he taught, his executive secretary of over twenty years, a spokesman of the non-profit his father started, a current professional basketball player, a city council official and so on.
A choir made their way behind the priest and started to sway and hum a tune. His father had rarely stepped inside a church, much less a Protestant one. However, he had given a donation to a church in Harlem to rebuild it when it burned down ten years ago. In gratitude the church choir insisted on accompanying the casket.
Eventually, a large black woman, dressed in a beautiful black dress and a matching Sunday hat, picked up the microphone. Both graceful and powerful, she sang while she looked directly at Caleb. Her hypnotic voice made it difficult to look away.
With joy she belted,
“Oh, the father brings them home
The love of a father for his children
Oh, the father brings them home
For this love
Oh, the father brings them home”
People, more desconocidos, came over to him to offer condolences. A long line of desconocidos were lined up touching the coffin and extending their hand to Caleb, comforting his shoulder or breaking down with their head falling violently on his chest. The coffin’s coating repelled water with rain bouncing off the lid, barely making it wet.
The singer continued to belt out the lyrics as the small choir swayed, unaffected by the throngs who lined up to touch the casket or the rain which continued.
“No matter the wrongs
No matter the pain
No matter the lose
For this love
Oh, the father brings them home”
From a distance, a distinguished man — slim, tall and gallant wearing a dark suit with no tie and a bright white shirt — pressed one hand on a tree while holding a nearly smoked cigarette with the other. Two men dressed in cheaper but proper black suits circled behind him as he made eye contact with Caleb and flicked his cigarette.
A young man touched the casket and, with his head low, came up to Caleb. “I am so sorry, he was a great mentor to me…,” as Caleb nodded in agreement. The young man began to cry. He covered his face as he broke down, this time Miriam comforted him. Miriam helped him over to where his wife joined them. Caleb was now left alone with the casket.
The man near the tree flashed a smile at Caleb without showing his teeth. His eyes were dark and never seemed to lose contact with him. He started to walk forward and those around him followed slowly behind him. He walked past the casket as if it never existed. “My condolences, Caleb. I am sorry this is how we meet again.”
Caleb was taken aback and said, “Again?”
“You were the first spy I caught, behind your father’s desk.”
Yes. It was him. Caleb had forgotten him and only remembered the deep stare of his father from that day.
“It was a beautiful remembrance of your father,” he said to Caleb. “Such beautiful words from so many. I was disappointed the grief was too much for you to express your memories of a great man.” He emphasized the last two words, great man.
“I am sorry …how do you know my father?”
“Oh, I just wanted to make sure he was dead,” he said deadpan.
His face widened to smile and made an attempt to laugh, “I am sorry, a terrible joke. I don’t attend many funerals.”
“No worries, I am sure my father had his share of enemies,” Caleb responded.
“Enemy?” he laughed. “Oh, Caleb, your father and I were no enemies.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and his smile and polite nature disappeared. He leaned in and whispered, “Caleb, I knew your father for a long time. When you are ready, we should meet. You can learn more about the mystery that was of your father.”
Caleb looked at him strangely speechless. The man leaned in closer.
“Dear Caleb. There is only one reason a son cannot speak at his father’s funeral – a son who hates the father – but you can’t hate a man you don’t know.”
He slipped his business card into Caleb’s suit pocket and walked away. His subordinates followed, mumbling condolences. They picked up their pace and got in front of him. A black sedan arrived perfectly to meet him as his men opened the door. He turned to look at Caleb and his strange smile returned. He entered the sedan and took off on the cloudy afternoon.
Caleb took the business card from his suit pocket and looked at it.
NAIA, The North American Intelligence Agency.
“What do you have there?” Miriam asked as she returned.
“Nothing,” he slipped the card back in suit jacket.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“No one important, just another business colleague of my father who thinks he knows my father.” It was the first time he lied to Miriam.
Caleb grabbed her hand and they walked hand in hand. To his surprise, they were left alone. The guests retired; the staff started to stack the empty white chairs. The expensive casket was already under the earth not far from his mother’s. The rain stopped but the sky quickly became grey and a thunder promising harder rain. Caleb pulled Miriam closer to him.
The choir still sang. Caleb looked at the singer as she held her final note. Her face was lit with joy and shiny with tears. He was certain she had known nothing of his father either. Her praise had been for God.
Miriam and Caleb could feel the cool breeze of fall starting to become winter. She buried her head deeper into Caleb’s chest as she wept. She wept sincerely with deep sorrow.
“No matter the wrongs
No matter the pain
No matter the loss,” Miriam sang softly as he held her.
Miriam barely knew his father but she wept for the loss of him, for his mother who loved him and for Caleb who didn’t have the courage to face his death. Caleb pulled in her tightly hoping he could receive the empathy she was bestowing to his father, but all he felt was relief his father was dead.
Joel Mendez, is a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department. A world traveler having lived in Europe, South America and Afghanistan. He is currently living in Singapore and working on his novel in the Sci-Fi genre.