‘The Empty Room’ by Jonathan Lethem


From The Paris Review:

Earliest memory: father tripping on strewn toys, hopping with toe outraged, mother’s rolling eyes. For my father had toys himself. He once brought a traffic light home to our apartment on the thirty-somethingth floor of the tower on Columbus Avenue. The light, its taxi yellow gone matte from pendulum-years above some polluted intersection and crackled like a Ming vase’s glaze where bolts had been overtightened and then eased, sat to one side of the coffee table it was meant to replace as soon as my father found an ­appropriate top. In fact, the traffic light would follow us up the Hudson, to Darby, to the house with the empty room. There it never escaped the garage.

Another memory: my playmate Max’s parents had borrowed, from mine, a spare set of china plates. I spent a lot of time visiting with Max and, when he let us inside his room, Max’s older brother. So I was present the afternoon my father destroyed the china set. Max’s family lived in a duplex, the basement and parlor floor of a brownstone, a palace of abundance . . . Max and his brother had separate rooms, and a backyard. All this would pale beside the spaciousness of our Darby farmhouse. That was the point.

The return of the china had become a running joke between our two families, or at least for Max’s parents. They kept trying to give it back, my father kept explaining that we really had no use for the second set; he claimed that it had been a gift, not a loan. In this my father struck them as facetious, when he was actually not only sincere but losing patience.

This day my father had swung by on his way home from Penn Station to pick me up. His work was taking him to Albany more often. While they stood in the kitchen, Max’s father took him by surprise, placing the stack of scrupulously cleaned china into my father’s free hands.

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