Excerpt from the novel PERSONAL EFFECTS by Tom Casey

by Tom Casey on May 23, 2013

A novel
Tom Casey

The unexpected deaths of David and Kathryn Tobin in a mountaineering accident made it necessary to dispose of their personal effects. There were no immediate relatives competent to do it; Kathryn’s parents were deceased; she had a sister in Alaska, but they weren’t close. David’s mother was a resident in a nursing home and his father was a patient in an asylum; he had a brother in Texas with drug problems who was out of touch with the family. Therefore the task fell to Jeffrey Stevens, the closest friend of the couple. He had been asked by David’s attorney, who was also his attorney, to go to their home and sort through their belongings.
“We’ll make arrangements with a moving company in a few days,” the attorney had told him.
“What will happen to their possessions?”
“Eventually they’ll be sold at auction.”
“Sold at auction?”
“Any items not specifically designated to beneficiaries in their wills.”
“Have you seen their wills?”
“I haven’t reviewed them yet, but I drew them up a few years ago.”
“Do you remember anything exceptional in them?”
“When they moved from New York they revised their previous testament. There were changes in beneficiaries; Kathryn’s father died that year and David’s mother was moved to a full care facility. As I recall there were trusts to secure their future.” The attorney shrugged. “The house will be sold and assets liquidated. In the meantime, it’s a good idea, as a friend, to gather up items that would be of no interest in an estate sale. The need for discretion makes it essential to have someone like you, a close friend, protect their trust.” He paused, adding, “It’s a delicate duty; I think you understand.”
Jeffrey understood.
After leaving the attorney, Jeffrey went back to his boat, a sloop, Moonstruck, moored in the Five Mile River at Rowayton, where in summer he lived aboard. A writer of novels and a minor celebrity in the village, he sat with a glass of wine, watching the movement of sailing vessels in the harbor channel. He tried unsuccessfully to comprehend the enormity of this sudden loss of his best friends, coming less than a year after the death of his fiancé. David was a seasoned climber; it was his passion. Kathryn was less enthusiastic about it, but, naturally athletic, she accompanied him happily enough when time and opportunity allowed.
A butterfly landed on the boom. It rested nervously for a moment and then resumed its flight, circling above the cockpit in a hullabaloo of whirls, and then shooting a straight course for the garden basket on Mrs. Murphy’s kitchen window. He had read that some butterflies migrated thousands of miles each year. Thousands of miles! Jeffrey sipped his wine, wondering what perils a butterfly might expect to meet on a journey like that.


The sun was bright in late morning on the first Saturday of May when Jeffrey Stevens turned on to the street where the Tobins had happily lived for many years. As their home came into view, an unexpected discomfort came over him. The neighborhood had that cheerful aspect of spring’s sudden fecundity, one of those quiet and peaceful suburban precincts that feels like happy memories of childhood. Their house, a New England white clapboard cottage with gabled windows and an attached garage, stood as though awaiting their return, but it was Jeffrey who turned into the driveway, parked, switched off the motor and sat silently for a moment with a growing sense of foreboding. Nothing felt right about any of it. When he got out of his car he walked up the flagstone path to the main entrance. He found the false rock by the front door, picked it up and turned it over. His thumb slid the plate back and a hidden key fell into the palm of his hand. He fit the key into the brass keyhole, turned it, and the lock tumbled. He paused for a moment then pushed the door open but lingered outside, an irrational resistance keeping him standing there. The sun disappeared behind a cloud and then reappeared, reconstituting bright colors and defining shadows into the neighborhood’s mosaic of security and optimism.

They had seemed to everyone the perfect couple, and in many ways they were: a psychiatrist and an artist of recognized talent; if you knew them it felt right: a speculative scientist and an abstract impressionist, each deeply involved in the secular spirit of the human experience. Jeffrey had often noted how well they communicated on that non-verbal level possible only when sympathies are intertwined so that the voice of one speaks for the spirit of the other.
They had moved to the suburbs five years earlier. Until then, they had lived happily in New York’s Greenwich Village, on Barrow Street. The move to Darien was a natural progression; this old line Sound shore town forty miles from midtown had a peaceful settled atmosphere. David moved his practice and Kathryn had ample space to establish a studio in the back yard, where she spent her days painting and sculpting.

Still standing at the front door as though waiting for an invitation to enter, Jeffrey could see inside where sunlight falling brightly in the room enhanced a sense of life ongoing. Jeffrey at last entered into their home; dread shaded his mood as the door closed behind him.
Off to the left of the small foyer was the living room; beyond it, to the rear, was the kitchen and dining area. On the right, down a hall that went past the stairs, was David’s study. David’s taste coincided with his own; their furniture was comfortable, unpretentious, and arranged to give a welcoming impression of warmth. These spaces were familiar to Jeffrey; these rooms knew him; as he moved through them he had a sense that the rooms were alive to his presence.
The glassed door to the study was open; Jeffrey went in. It wasn’t a big space, but it had a wide greenhouse window that curved out at the top and overlooked the garden. The garden was well tended and defined with a fieldstone border. Flowers had begun to blossom, and in sunlight their colors seemed to deepen the richness of the green lawn. Beyond the garden to the right was Kathryn’s studio. Old growth elm and sycamore trees gave the yard a woodsy character, and on the far side, in contrast to these, a large weeping willow spread its limbs over a frog pond completing a composition of great natural beauty. On the lawn birds strutted, squirrels gamboled, butterflies tinkerbelled, and in the tweet and twitter of it all, bumble bees hovered over buttercups in the sun. Jeffrey studied the view: freezing to death had nothing to do with this.
He sat down at the desk of his lost friend. From his pocket he withdrew a notebook he habitually carried and began to write: “He died of misjudgment, of hubris. He died stupidly and unnecessarily. He died of a mistaken belief that certain gifts of mind made him immune to nature’s indifference. He was ultimately unwise.”
Jeffrey paused, put down his pen, and stared out the window in abstraction. These were not words he’d intended to write. He’d meant to write something affectionate, a note to himself in a way to express his fondness for both of them. Instead, his hand wrote an angry remonstrance. Well, wasn’t anger a form of regret? Quite without warning tears welled in Jeffrey’s eyes; his friends were gone, this was a fact, but part of him had been lost also.
He stood up suddenly, put away his pen and notebook, and went through old fashioned pocket doors to the adjacent family room, where photos on the wall revealed David’s lean handsome face smiling with its hint of boyish misdemeanor; Kathryn’s dark good looks and the circumspect, somewhat skeptical seriousness of her natural expression. A cluster of framed pictures stood on a table behind the couch: David and Kathryn skiing; David and Kathryn sailing; David and Kathryn at the beach, and in the Rocky Mountains on their first climb. Jeffrey’s thoughts drifted: David and Kathryn dead. This was a notion at odds with evidence everywhere of vigorous life.
Two large oil paintings by Kathryn dominated the wall opposite the fireplace. Jeff had thought the paintings colorful but indecipherable; Kathryn had a more coherent style; but these were favorites of her husband. Jeff speculated that David’s enthusiasm for such art could be correlated to the scattershot verbal effusions of his troubled patients.
Book shelves from floor to ceiling on both sides of the fireplace gave the room particular warmth. These suited Jeffrey’s taste admirably. Here were Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Huysman, Proust, the Brontes, Wilde, Lowry, Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Conrad, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and other writers of fiction arranged on one side roughly according to country and chronology. Then biographies: all of the same writers in several treatments, and others; Boswell’s Johnson; Freud, his complete works; the complete works of Harry Stack Sullivan; the works of Churchill including a shelf devoted to twentieth century history, and many books of Kathryn’s on art and artists. It was a room of erudition, an impressive collection of volumes that had been read and annotated and re-read.
In addition to photographs on the table, black and white photos in black frames covered the best part of one wall. These photographs continued a pictorial story of their life, and Jeffrey and his late fiancé were featured in many of them. A large red and green vegetable dye Persian carpet finished the room with a richness of soft natural tones.
This is clearly a home, Jeffrey thought, turning his head slowly, surveying the room and the good feeling it resonated. The house itself was not large, which was part of its charm. The furnishings and art and objects within were tasteful but not excessive. They had lived, thought Jeffrey, with what Virginia Woolf insisted was all anyone needed: enough space and a few good things.


Minutes passed. Jeffrey Stevens contemplated death. His thoughts were indecisive, insistent but unresolved, running in circles the way they hover when you’re half-asleep. The neat composition of the family room, the photographs, paintings and books made a still life of spirit alive with verve. What does it signify when life ends so quickly and with such finality? Jeffrey’s mind reached for elusive meaning. This matter of personal effects implied something, a means to penetrate larger understanding. He and David had endlessly sought larger understanding.
“If you stand back from our culture,” David said one night when they were talking about America, “and view Hollywood as our collective fantasy life, with product advertising as an indicator of our insecurities, we are a nation of sexually and intellectually repressed imbeciles who, when not sedated, seek themselves through automobiles, professional sports, and pornography. Is there anything more ludicrous than a football fan? And pornography amounts to the same thing: you’re not in the game; you’re standing by, peering through a keyhole. Americans are infantile, mired in fantasy.”
Jeffrey recalled David’s speaking manner at these times which, when inspired, was reminiscent of those films of clouds forming over landscapes in fast motion. David was not from the intellectual mainstream, yet it was hard to take issue with him. He was a keen observer, quick to spot a phony argument or a lie: he didn’t suffer fools gladly or otherwise. He was the brightest individual Jeffrey knew, yet, as he now reflected ruefully, he had died unwise. That was a judgment Jeffrey would not want pronounced on himself. The sun came out from behind a cloud and the room brightened suddenly; Jeffrey went back into the study.
The greenhouse window was a nice touch, he thought, peering into the garden. Yellow forsythia, lilacs, violets, daisies, and a host of other early flowers flourished magnificently in the strong sun outside. It was well known that Kathryn had a green thumb. A green thumb, yet she was barren; a barren woman gifted with alternative fecundity: in ironies of life exist a queer balance, abundance in one sphere almost certainly indicating deficit in another. But if Kathryn couldn’t have children, David didn’t want them anyway.
“You’ve never wanted a child of your own?” Jeffrey had asked him once.
“I’ve never felt the parental instinct.” His eyes were honest but Jeffrey was skeptical; he supposed there was more to it than that, but David was content in his childless world with Kathryn. They had been a couple for so long it was impossible to imagine one without the other; the loss of one would have left the other inconsolable, so perhaps it was better that they had perished together.
Coming out of abstraction, Jeffrey Stevens left the study and went back once again into the family room. He stood at the fireplace around which they had passed many fond hours in happy years. How to live? From the window Jeffrey could see down the street where driveways were delineated by mailboxes with signs announcing the names of the inhabitants: the Bradley’s; the Carmichaels, a conceit that struck him in vague ways as ludicrous. What went on behind the closed doors of those homes? The truth of America was its endless pursuit of a dream of perfection embodied in the false enchantments of desire. Happiness was always just out of reach, a newer car away, a bigger home, a second wife or absent that, a pill. A man appeared holding a leaf blower. Jeffrey mused: if you should visit them, their nameplate declared not that you’ve arrived, but that the Bradley’s have. These citadels, he thought, these monuments to unsatisfied needs: America: What did it mean when loneliness was expressed as a three car garage and despair as the evolution of the weed-whacker?


Jeffrey had been in the house less than thirty minutes. Clouds were making the sunlight appear and disappear, changing the mood of the rooms suddenly and unpredictably. He noticed the hall light on and turned it off. Something bothered him. With his attention returning to the task at hand, it seemed suddenly an extraordinary responsibility. It was a duty of discretion, as the attorney had implied, but his emotions were brimming. It was inconceivable that David and Kathryn were dead. In the kitchen he noticed two coffee cups in the sink; one of them had a faint lipstick mark on it. They had left this place nine days ago and they would never return to it. Everything he saw was electric with that part of them not yet dead; everything he touched therefore, or rearranged, instantly corrupted their imprimatur with his own, subtracting from the evidence of their having existed at all. The truth was he had been asked to further annihilate them.

In the days when they both lived in New York, Jeffrey and David frequently met to walk in Central Park to keep off cabin fever. At the zoo red pandas in trees stared at them like intelligent life from a different planet.
“Do you suppose they know where they are?” Jeffrey mused.
“Do we?”
They continued slowly down from the pandas toward the arctic cage where the polar bear, unmighty on his rock, regarded them with the bored contempt of a seasoned captive. From there they went to the sea lions and watched them swim in circles, doing rolls under water and leaping over rocks with astonishing grace.
The two men exited the zoo and walked along a path that circled north toward the center of the park. The air was saturated and chill: winter muted the furious energy of the city; Jeffrey shivered. “It’s getting colder.” He pulled up his collar.
“It’s the mist. But it’s good to get out of the apartment. I don’t walk enough in winter. Inactivity invites depression.” David turned to Jeffrey with a scrutinizing expression. “You seem a little down.”
Jeff’s eyebrows rose with resignation to the query, and then he gave David a confiding smile. “I’m in one of those funks where time passes quickly but I’m living in slow motion,” He relished his friend’s perception. “I’m in between projects. I should probably take a vacation, but I don’t like to leave Fiona.”
“I’m sorry for her and for you. What’s happening is wrong, Jeff.”
“It’s been six months since the accident. Six months of life support — supporting what?” Jeffrey’s face darkened with incredulity, anger and grief. Fiona loved the outdoors; she loved to walk; she loved to drive her car. Jeffrey remembered a day they spent together hiking in the Appalachians just before her accident. They had driven from New York to the Delaware Water Gap, where paths into the woods led up the mountain high above the river. There was a map at the start of the walk. Four miles in was a glacial lake called Sunfish Pond. They hiked all morning, following the trail through forest canopy and rock formations, past camp sites and along cliffs that looked out across the lower lands. Jeffrey vividly recalled Fiona’s strong legs, her muscles, the sinuous lines of her body as she took steps on uneven ground like a fine animal. The sun was blocked by canopy, and that gave the woods a cathedral effect; the enfolding path led them up into hidden worlds where birds made music that echoed in the rocks. The surroundings were poetic; walking had an erotic charge, and when they reached Sunfish Pond, emerging from the woods into the sun shining brightly on its green waters, they stood together in silent accord.
They swam naked in the chill waters; submersion had that sacramental effect on spirit, cooling them, cleansing them, sealing the bond between them. And they kissed in the sunshine, standing in the shallows; this private ritual of union adumbrating marriage, witnessed by squirrels, by birds, by chipmunks, bees and serpents. In a week’s time this dream was over; a drunken driver made her a living corpse.
“She could be on life support forever, and precisely what moral principle does this serve?”
“None. Technology has outdistanced the ethical dialogue, religious at its base. This is America.”
“The stupid cruelty of it leaves me breathless,” Jeffrey said. The subject had no answer. David let silence intervene to calm Jeffrey. They continued walking.
Two mounted policeman appeared in the fog, their equestrian dignity in great contrast to the cop in a squad car. David mused: “A hundred years ago human beings were, for the most part, riding on the backs of beasts.”
“We’ve seen big changes in a hundred years.”
“Where is it taking us?”
The two friends walked silently for a while, comfortable in their thoughts. Fog made observable advances through the trees and along the paths; a veil of mist lowered and raised up; objects appeared and disappeared giving the park an aspect of mystery oddly comforting for that immunity from harm one feels in close familiar places.
David’s aspect changed slightly as a thought occurred to him; he turned to Jeff and spoke through a faint grin. “I notice you don’t wear a watch anymore.”
Jeffrey shrugged, “Every cell phone is a pocket watch.”
“Some men like the heft of a Rolex Presidential.”
Jeff smiled through pursed lips.
“How old were you when you became aware of time?” David asked.
“Five or six, I guess. Why?”
“There are two large epiphanies in childhood: becoming aware of time is one of them.”
“What’s the other?”
“Telling your first successful lie.”
Jeffrey laughed. “I don’t remember my first lie, but I do remember very clearly asking God, in a prayer, not to let me get older than five years old.”
“What frightened you so?”
“I had become aware suddenly that I was part of a process much larger than I had supposed, and that it had something to do with time.” Jeffrey noticed that the tops of buildings across the park had disappeared into the fog.
David said, “What did you fear?” He turned his head to look directly at Jeffrey as they walked, a signal that he was listening closely.
“I didn’t want to start kindergarten. I feared change.”
“Tell me what you remember about the thoughts you had.”
“You sound like a psychiatrist.”
David smiled. “Should that surprise you?”
Jeffrey’s expression grew reflective. “It was the first instance I can recall of thinking abstractly. Time was invisible and everywhere at once; it could be measured but not touched; it was involved in the cause and result of everything, but was not a material part of anything. It was something you were in: in time I would start school; in time I would learn to read; in time I would grow up; in time I would have to establish a family of my own; in time I would learn how these formidable tasks were accomplished. But the sudden certainty that time would put me up against all this overwhelmed my belief that I could meet any of these challenges.”
“It’s a lot for five year old to absorb.”
“So I prayed to God to stop time,” Jeffrey laughed.
“He didn’t hear your prayer?”
“Even as I prayed I knew my prayers were certain to go unanswered. I didn’t believe in God.”
“Not then?”
“Not then, not now, not ever. And yet suddenly, in this abstract frame of mind, I began to wonder about this concept of an unseen power so many seemed to embrace: maybe Time was God because they shared so many similarities; both were invisible and ubiquitous, causal, and so on. It got very confusing and frightening because I was alone in a new world given to me by my own original thoughts. And I became sure of something: time would have it that one day I would grow apart from my parents and be forced to live among strangers. The next day I thought about how I’d better begin to find a wife.”
“At five years old?”
“I felt I had to make a beginning. I put on a red cowboy hat and walked up and down the street looking for a suitable girl.”
David’s amused aspect became contemplative. “If you could sum up that boy in one word,” he said, “what would it be?”
“Yes! Exactly! And so you see the burden insight brings even to a five year old.” Consternation passed through David’s features like a brief breeze; he was threading thoughts. “But I’m curious. What is behind your disinclination to wear a watch?”
“It’s my rebellion against the sway of time; a willful denial; a way of giving the finger to death I think.”
“And God, too?”
Jeffrey shrugged and laughed. “Very good, doctor.”
The two friends strolled in the direction of the poet’s walk. A statue of William Shakespeare stood at the head of the tree-lined promenade. They paused to look down the line of tall leafless American elm trees shrouded in fog that gave the promenade a proscenium aspect, life as a play within a dream.
They walked on in silence, and then David said, “I’m curious. Do you find it easier to write as you get older?”
Jeffrey, aware of David’s thwarted efforts, found it hard to explain the act of writing. The difficulties answered to no formula or devise that would explain how obstacles to inspiration were overcome, mysteries that only the artist himself could solve as he met each one separately during the effort. But there were analogies he could offer.
“Writing a novel is like having a love affair, one that will fail after truths you are obliged to face exert their force. The further along you go the more pain you feel: the pleasures are keen and intense, however; it’s a rocket ride. The price of success is the degree of truth you can identify and the amount of pain you’re willing to endure for the pleasures of the game. It’s quite exhausting on every level.”
“Talent is a fragile gift,” David said.
“Or curse. I haven’t decided which yet.”
“Is that how you experience the process?”
“I might tell you something different on another day, but the Muse is a fickle mistress; you will be given exquisite moments, and then be abandoned suddenly in a crisis. A muse unlocks emotions.” And he might have continued and said they were often painful emotions; often the muse was a bitch of accusation and complaint, a mistreater; unavailable when needed, appearing at inconvenient times, conniving, sometimes rather stupid, often unreasoning and critical, yet always compelling, sublimely erotic and in conference with death. The writer compensated for these glaring inconsistencies with his imagination: all writers are revisionists. Sometimes, rashly, the writer found a woman who embodied his insufficiencies and made her a part of his life. He did this in order to hold on to an ideal, much as the mechanic who has broken machines in his yard sees materials as perfectible. Life must be perfectible: writers, like gamblers, are optimists.
“Do you grieve when you’re finished a book, when the affair ends, so to speak?” David was speaking in earnest.
“Yes, I suppose,” Jeffrey smiled, “But one also wants to get on to the next thing. It’s not so different from your relationship with patients, I imagine; in the end, you have to let them go, but by working through problems together you have grown in understanding.”
“You’re a Freudian,” David teased, “You just don’t acknowledge it.”
“I’m nothing of the kind,” Jeffrey objected, “I resist orthodoxies.”
“You think like a Freudian.”
Jeffrey waved the comment away, “But I’ll agree that truth hides in what we fear. I write about what frightens me. I write to know what my fears are.”
David said, “I think it was Aniis Nin who wrote, ‘Psychology tries to reestablish the basis of life not on ideals, but on sincerity with one’s self.’ We’re always feeling for our contours. Fears loom large.”
Jeffrey scratched his temple as he thought about that. Then he said, “You are what you think about doing, what you do, and how you feel about having done it.”
“Or what you are unable to do, and how you feel about that.”
David’s gaze fell on a pigeon; he watched the pigeon peck at the pavement and his mind picked up a new train of thought; he paused; a half-smile appeared on his face. “You and I are not so different in one aspect of our professions,” he said. “I spend long hours with patients who come to therapy with warped notions about themselves and the world; I give them guidance to a brighter view of both. Your course is just opposite: You invent characters with a brighter view, put them in a warped world of your own devising and watch them disintegrate in disillusionment.”
“Or grow through the challenges they survive.”
They were approaching the balustrades of the Bethesda Terrace and the Moorish design surrounding the fountain that magically integrates the pastoral view of the lake into its effect. David seemed about to say something, but he had a second thought and waved off the first.
“You have an artistic sentiment that can bring significance to living acts that otherwise have no meaning; you’re able to articulate emotions, create characters and explore the human condition with a pen. It’s an ultimate way of playing.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing enough with my life.”
David paused, leaned against the balustrade to look at the lake, and then turned to Jeff. “Trust me, you’re doing fine.”
David was musing; his expression registered traces of irony and humor. “I started out as a person who wanted to change the world and ended up as someone who helps people who want to change their lives.”
Jeffrey turned to his friend and laughed, “Which changes the world.”
“In small and inglorious ways.”
“Small inglorious acts have a large reverberation. And who needs glory anyway?”
“I guess that’s my point. As a therapist, I have a modest influence on the few. As a writer you have a greater influence on the many. We’re both helping to create better lives, more truthful lives.”
“On good days I like to think so.”
David put his hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder, “Nobody’s going to name a building after us, but maybe we represent a quiet revolution.”
They began to walk again, down the steps from the terrace to the fountain and then to the right, following a path up to the Boathouse for a glass of wine. The restaurant was at a lull but the bar inside had a number of patrons drinking and talking. After the wintry landscape a roaring fire was particularly cheerful. The two men sat together silently.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: