I awoke with a start. I must have dozed off with my paper. The pipe in my hand was still warm, but the smoke had stopped sifting out of the bowl. Striking a match, I inhaled the comforting cloud into my lungs. I relaxed. My Newfoundland, Rufus, was sleeping at my slippers. He sneezed in his sleep.
I returned to the article I had been reading about a new Boeing 747, but realized the article had been the cause of my drowsiness in the first place. I shook my head and set it back down. Reaching for one of the many antique books lining the cherry wood shelf next to my chair, I cracked it open to the middle just to fill my nostrils with the scent of old book. Withdrawing it from my face, I realized I had selected Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. I’ve always felt bad for Basil Hallward. Throughout the story he held onto the hope that there was still good in Mr. Gray. It did not bode well for Mr. Hallward in the end.
As I was reading, there was a soft knock at the door. There was no need for words in that study. I looked up to see Ilsa, my beautiful wife, walk in with two glasses in her hands. Written on her face was a look of contentment. Her favorite time of the week was when we retreated to our safe haven, and it was finally Sunday, the day we set aside for the study. She smiled at me and closed the heavy wooden door behind her. She stepped to the wine rack and selected two bottles of our favorites: Pinot Noir for me and a Chardonnay for herself. She handed me my glass, leaned in for a kiss, and pulled the cord on the brass lamp above my head.
As always, I could hear my father’s voice telling a younger version of me, “Reading in the dark causes unnecessary strain on your eyes.” He’s been gone for eons, it seemed, but never have I met a man I more deeply respect.
The lamp-shade was yellowed from age and years of tobacco smoke dancing in its illumination. The bulb hummed lazily. Satisfied, my wife retired to her spot on the couch and opened to her favorite chapter in an old Louisa May Alcott novel.
How long had we been keeping up this routine? Five years? Fifteen? More? Every Sunday evening we climbed the rickety spiral staircase to reach our sanctuary of solitude.
Early on in our routine I considered whether an elevator was in store for us. Even then I wasn’t sure how much longer my tired legs could struggle up those wooden steps. My feet were like gears turning without enough grease, whining with every step.
I rose to consider this alternative to the worn brass handrails. Would I honestly disgrace my home by putting in an electric elevator? No. Back then and even now, I would rather have our son carry us up every week than to push a button to lift us to our hideaway.
I stepped behind my oak writing desk. Used strictly for handwriting, this tabletop had never felt the weight of a computer. Computers imply work or connecting to the outside world. That study was intended for escape. I had written many a letter to friends and family, yet never to businessmen or politicians here. I had written poems about happiness and loss, love and love-making, the earth and all her splendor. I had written stories about my son and my son’s son; about my travels, domestic and abroad. I had written out of joy. I had written to stay sane. I had written to remember and to be remembered.
I sipped the dark red liquid. An orange glow appeared on my wrinkled face from the singeing ash in my pipe. A large half-moon window stood behind the desk. Through it, I gazed up at the starry night sky and appreciated, as many times before, the wonder of the moon. Had it really been forty years since Ilsa and I moved into this house? It was late. Numbers meant nothing to me at this hour, whatever time it was. We had never put a clock up there. The study was intended for relaxation.
Just then I heard the door creep open. Rufus raised his head in curiosity. Sleepily, our grandson walked in with his blanket, rubbing his eyes.
“Papa, I can’t sleep. Will you read me a story?”
I glanced to Ilsa who looked as if her heart might burst with pride at the sight of our four-year-old grandson, Jack. She knew as well as I did that he had been trying not to sleep so he could sit on my lap and listen to my deep gravelly voice, and smell the sweet aroma of my Virginia leaf aflame within my pipe. Who was I to deny him his request? He brought with him his trusty blanket and the moccasin slippers we bought for his last birthday. He wanted a pair that matched Grandpa’s. While I read Andersen’s fairy tales to him, he slowly stroked Rufus with his foot and stared mesmerized at the smoke that lingered in the lamplight. I blew smoke rings just to see his eyes light up with delight. Did this remind him of his toys that lit up and sang to him when he pushed the circular button? Maybe his young mind was remembering the mobile that hung above his crib and the shapes, suspended in the air, that demanded the consciousness from his eyes. For his sake, I hoped these rings harbored similar magic.
Ilsa turned the gramophone down a notch while Etta James’s voice soothed Jack’s frazzled nerves. It must have been late. I couldn’t imagine what kind of willpower it took for him to keep awake until an opportune moment arrived for him to present his innocent request. I rewarded his hard work with a grandiose retelling of his favorite story.
Despite my theatrical execution, six pages into The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Jack was breathing slowly and steadily. His head felt heavy against my chest. I looked to my Ilsa for confirmation. Amused with my performance, she grinned and readied a makeshift bed for him on the over-stuffed leather couch. I laid him down and watched a mischievous grin appear in his sleep, almost to say how swimmingly he pulled off his deception.
I packed another pipe and surveyed my surroundings. A short book stand separated an identical leather, button-holed chair from the one I was occupying. Both were facing the davenport. On top of the book stand sat a thick, transparent cigar ash tray with the remnants of my previous smoke. Ensconced on the next shelf down was a large glass jar with a lid which caged the tobacco waiting to be burned.
In front of the chairs was a large redwood coffee table with a few of our favorite magazines and the Sunday paper. We subscribed solely for the crossword puzzles. Also, Jack loved to look at the comics. He would ask me to read the funnies to him, but I doubt he understood the irony of them. His laugh was a bit too contrived. The table legs swooped down like an old claw foot bathtub. They were intricately carved to give an essence of the stability of a kingdom tried by time. They stood their ground against any foe, natural disaster or conspiracy from within. For a coffee table, I assume that would translate to heavy platters, spilled drinks or perhaps the clambering a four-year-old.
Opposite the chairs was my wife’s favorite spot: the sofa. She was sitting on the end that was close enough to catch a bit of light from my hazy lamp. She pretended to read, but her book was upside down. She was rubbing Jack’s feet whose head was on the dark end of the sofa. Most likely, her thoughts were of what kind of man he would grow up to be. Perhaps we would have another Graham to admire. Jack’s father went above and beyond what any father could hope for. Our only son was a man of great character and honor. Would Jack follow his footsteps? Of course, though Ilsa prayed that Jack wouldn’t have to relive the hardships Graham had. When Graham’s wife died during childbirth, we thought he would come undone. But like a Phoenix, our boy rose up and grew into being the father I could only wish that I had been. The plush cushions of Ilsa’s couch enveloped her petite frame and cradled her as the worries of time passed out of mind. The study was intended for relief.
Behind her was the dark, cherry wood wine rack, half filled with half-filled bottles. The bottles were nestled in triangles that sat behind the bold frame of the hutch. It stood on the only end of the study that would allow for such a tall shelf. The ceiling swung down nearly to the floor on the opposing side of the study, but a short wall reached up to catch it just in time.
Looking back on our years in the study filled me with a sense of completeness. Yes, we had a hard go of it from time to time, but every Sunday we had the study to look forward to. Once inside, the rest of life seemed to dissipate from our thoughts. My Ilsa asked once if the world remembered we existed when we closed the heavy doors. “Yes,” I replied. “She just can’t find us right now.”
Rufus sneezed in his sleep again, returning me to the moment. Ilsa had put aside her book and joined Jack in the world of the sleeping. After all, that is what the study was intended for:
Safety to sleep like a child.