Searching For Secrets

March 10, 1991|By SUE WATERMAN

My father is a keeper-of-secrets. This is how he makes his living; he invites people into his office, listens to their secrets, and then he keeps them. I have often asked him to tell me some of the things people say to him, but he says he cannot tell me anything. They pay him, you see, to keep it a secret.

On weekends, he pays me $10 to clean his office, the waiting room and adjoining bathroom. It is easy work. He drops me off there in his car and then picks me up several hours later when I am finished. I dust and straighten, vacuum and wipe; and all the while, I look for secrets.

Usually what I find is the candy he keeps in the second drawer down on the right side of his desk. I am not really supposed to look in the desk drawers but I do because they are closed, because they are full of things, and because maybe that is where he puts the secrets. Anyway, he knows I look there because I eat some of his candy each time. It tastes especially sweet.

When I was little, we had a red sports car. It was really my father's car. He drove it to and from the office. It was small, only big enough for two people, and it was a convertible. When my father would take me for a ride in it, it was something very special because usually I had to ride in the station wagon with him and my mother and brothers and sisters. I do not remember much else about the car, but I do remember that he kept candy in the glove box. This was not candy for the family. It was only his because that was his car. But sometimes I would go out to the car in the driveway when no on was looking and open the glove box and eat some of that candy. Now, when I clean his office, I think about that car.

It takes me about two hours to clean the office and the other rooms. Each time I unlock the door and open it, I am struck by the strong smell of cigarette smoke. The room reeks of it; the ashtrays are overflowing. One of my favorite tasks is emptying them into the trash and wiping them clean. The other job I like is cleaning the desk. It is always piled high with magazines and papers, books and pens, prescription pads and stationery imprinted with my father's name. There is a statue, too, on top of the cubbyhole part of the desk; it is called "The Kiss."

I never touch the stuff in the cubbyholes. I just take everything off the top of the desk itself and set it on the coffee table behind me, the one in front of the couch. Then I spray the glass desktop with window cleaner and wipe it. And lastly I pile everything back on top, in neat piles this time; even though I know it will all be jumbled up again next time I come to clean. The whole time I am cleaning and straightening the desk, I am looking for secrets. I examine scraps of paper, hoping my father has written $l something down. But I never find anything very interesting.

I am pretty sure my father must write the secrets somewhere, just to be rid of them, just so he won't have to carry them around. He told me once about a man who was a mute; who went mad and killed himself after years of people coming to him and telling him all their problems. They thought that since he could not speak, he must not have any problems of his own; that since he never said anything, he must have somehow secretly understood them as no one else could. Finally, he could take no more of their secrets and he shot himself dead on a Sunday night.

Next to the desk, on the wall, is a bookshelf, with four shelves of books, books with titles like "The Interpretation of Dreams" and "The Direction of Desire." I have never read the books because they are big, thick volumes, too dense to really understand. Once my father told me about a famous dream in one of them, the Dream of the White Wolves. Every night, a man would have the same nightmare. He was lying in his bed and he would look out of his bedroom window and see white wolves sitting in the tree; 10, 15 white wolves perched in the bare branches of the tree, all of them still and quiet and looking at him. I did not think that was a frightening dream, but my father said it is a famous nightmare. I asked him if people ever told him their dreams. Sometimes, he answered.

I am 16 years old.

I measure time by weekends, by holidays, by the long stretch of summer which separates one year from another. I measure distance in bus rides from home to school; in car rides from home to the library, from home to the shopping center, from home to the beach. My mother makes me put the $10 from cleaning the office in the bank every week. Save it for college, she says. It seems more like I am fascinated by the huge vault in the bank, with its thick metal door and complicated lock. My money is in there, I think, waiting for me; but I cannot help feeling I will never see it again. Anyway, I do not clean my father's office just for the money.

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