I had been in Vince’s house several times in the past few months, had stood at the kitchen sink every time I’d visited, but I’d never taken it in. Bill had spent weeks in the house since the spring, but he didn’t notice it until I pointed it out to him. His older brother Vince had exactly three pieces of art hanging on the walls in this house: a painting of a schooner at sea, a frieze-like metal sculpture of a bridge, and this duck tile. We’d noticed the painting and sculpture immediately, but had missed the tile completely. That was odd enough, but it was odd for another reason; this cute little thing was completely out of character with the rest of the house.
Bill had been looking after his brother since March, until Vince’s health had required more professional care and equipment. With Vince’s death in early October, it was now necessary to sort and organize everything in the place he had lived since 1985. I was here for practical and moral support, but I had another motive as well.
Since meeting Bill three years ago, I had met and come to love his enormous, tight-knit family. I had never met Vince, however, despite the fact that he only lived an hour away. This wasn’t due to any hostility or bad blood between the brothers, no disapproval of Bill’s ‘alternative lifestyle’ or some such. Vince was simply not a social person. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. It wouldn’t be outrageous to call him a hermit, even—as one neighbor said—a recluse. Bill and his six sisters are close, despite geographical distance in some cases, but they had all learned not to expect to see or hear much from Vince. He would occasionally join nearby siblings for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but that might be only time he saw them all year. Nor, as far as anyone could tell, did he have a social circle outside his family. The neighbors on either side of his home knew something must be wrong when they began to see multiple cars in his driveway. Vince never had visitors, they reported. They found him cordial but reserved; unless he was checking the mail, mowing his lawn, or returning from grocery shopping they never saw him. When Bill began looking after him, I tried to get stories out of him and his sisters about Vince, but there were almost none to be had. With a seventeen year age difference between them, it wasn’t so surprising that Bill and Vince were virtually strangers, but even the sisters closer to Vince in age said he had been a private, quiet person from the beginning. They loved him as much as he allowed, and had all long since accepted that this meant leaving him alone. He had worked one place all his adult life; one hoped there were friendly connections there, but if so, none of them lasted past his retirement. As far as Bill could tell, Vince never received a single phone call or visitor outside of family, during his decline.
So while I was mostly here to help Bill take stock of the household he inherited, I was also hoping to gain some insight into this mysterious man. I hoped I might learn something from the things he had surrounded himself with.
It would be fair to say this entire ranch house was one big man-cave. An entertainment center with huge flat screen, Bose speakers and players for videos, DVDs and blue rays had pride of place in the living room. A smaller but no less sophisticated system sat in the bedroom. The office reflected Vince’s tech career with its multiple computers, printers and elaborate networking system. The whole house was protected by a high end alarm system. As I mentioned, there were only three pieces of art in the entire place. Bill was pretty sure the carpet was the same one that had been there when Vince moved into the newly constructed house. Venetian blinds and tan curtains covered every window. The walls were all painted white. The kitchen was stocked with pots and pans that were so shiny they were either brand-new, or had rarely been used. Frozen and microwaveable dinners shared the cupboards with jars of vitamins and medications.
Given the entertainment center, it’s not surprising that the possession that dominated the house was his DVD and video collection. It filled two closets, a credenza, a mini-bar and flowed onto the floor. I had thought I would gain some insight into his interests by seeing what sorts of things he collected, but this didn’t prove as illuminating as I’d hoped. Other than the sheer mass of it (‘I guess Vince really liked watching stuff on his big screen’), I don’t feel I learned much. The fact that the collection was dominated by TV shows (as opposed to movies) seemed noteworthy, as did the fact that police procedurals and detective shows had narrow majority, but it was so eclectic I was left feeling more perplexed than ever. Murder She Wrote, Perry Mason, Saved by the Bell and My Favorite Martian mingled indiscriminately with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mannix, and White Collar, just to name a few. I was oddly touched by finding two A&E shows about American light houses, mostly because I also love light houses. I wondered if that truly was a shared interest, and something we might have discussed, had we ever met. Two videos out of an enormous collection is probably slender evidence to hang a passionate interest on, but I jumped on it. Doing so showed me I wasn’t just trying to understand Vince, but connect with him. (On a side note, a heart-breaking discovery was the calendar hanging in the coat closet. It was filled with upcoming appointments, all of them for doctor visits or medical tests. The poor guy had nothing else to look forward to.)
After we had sorted the videos, our next big hurdle was the garage. This looked like the garage of a guy who had lived in a man-cave for over thirty years. There were the usual suspects: lawn mower, snow blower, saws, rakes, shovels, spades, ladders. There were also a certain amount of redundancies; there was not just one lawn mower, but three, one of them possibly older than me that had not been usable for at least ten years. Scattered willy-nilly throughout the space were bags of painting supplies, most of them unused, and more screwdrivers than any single person could possibly need. My theory is he periodically decided he was going to paint the house, went out and bought supplies, never got around to it, then the next time he got the urge to paint again, he forgot he already had what he needed. As for the screwdrivers, maybe they became like pens; he could never find one when he needed it, so he’d just buy a new one. (After I took in their ubiquity, I started finding them in almost every drawer in the house as well.)
But back to the duck tile: remember that? Does this residence sound to you like it would have a decorative tile of any kind hanging in the kitchen, let alone one with a duck? And how is it that weeks, even months had passed before either Bill or I had noticed it? Bill said it was almost as if the duck had been camouflaged, actively avoiding our notice before. What had changed? And seriously, what the hell was it doing there?
Second question first: I think it’s no coincidence that I first noticed the little duck after we had completed, or at least broken the backs of the two biggest projects in the house. I first noticed it on day four of house-cleaning. Up until then I don’t think Bill or I could see anything besides the videos and the mountain in the garage. With those finally contained, my eye was now able to notice new things. As for why the duck tile was there, we’ll probably never really know for sure. This is hardly the biggest secret Vince took with him to the grave. But here’s my theory.
Though Bill never met any of Vince’s girlfriends, he knows there were some, at least in the beginning. I wonder if maybe one woman got closer than any of the others, so close that she even stood a chance of sharing this house with him. The only other things in this house that come close to the same level of whimsy, or possibly femininity, are the small curtains hanging in the window overlooking the kitchen sink. They hang less than three feet from this tile. Could these items be the only--or only remaining--signs of a woman who once lived here, who, just maybe, broke Vince’s heart? Did he leave them up because they triggered fond memories? Or had they hung there so long by the time she left his life that he no longer saw them? Had the camouflage that fooled Bill and me kicked in by that point?
Speculating like this really amounts to fiction writing, I realize. The fact that I did it showed me something else about my reaction to Vince. I’m an introverted person myself. I love, even crave solitude in big, gluttonous chunks. I am happy being left to my own devices for days at a time. But the kind of total solitude Vince chose would, if it were me, indicate a serious problem. It would mean, most likely, that my life-long struggle with depression had taken a substantial turn for the worse. And to get to the point of not having a single visitor or phone call while I faced a terminal illness, I would have had to do some serious bridge-burning. At the very least I’d have to have spent years quietly fading away, allowing connections to dry up. This level of solitude for me would probably mean alienation.
But that’s me. I shouldn’t assume my choices or tendencies say anything about Vince’s. Just because his need for privacy was all-pervasive doesn’t mean it indicated deep suffering. Just because no one, not even his lively, loving siblings, seemed to know him doesn’t mean he was lonely. He fought to the very end to regain his health, and that suggests to me he enjoyed his life and was not yet done with it. But that silly little duck tile will probably always make me a little sad. It makes it hard for me not to wonder if he was haunted by regret, if maybe there was one heart-break that led him to build a life that was less than he hoped for. That’s a lot to hang on a duck tile, I know. I really hope I’m wrong.