You never really know what your mind’s gonna run to when you’re dropped in the middle of a perfect quiet. I’m walking down Sherman and Main, about to hit the bookstore, and the sky’s staring back at me blue as anything, like somebody took a slice of the hottest star they could find and wrapped it around the world. It’s a weird sky. No clouds, no sun, just this unbelievable ice blue like the world’s folding in on itself, all those glaciers at the poles tearing through the air right above my head.
But even with the cold sky hanging over everything, everybody around me is wrapped up in their happiness. It’s zipped up to their necks. A girl with a shaved blonde head rolls a stroller past, and she’s laughing on the phone with someone. Across the street a sweet-looking old lady is sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper, and I start to smile until I realize the newspaper’s about the urban problem. But I know the day’s quiet when my biggest issue’s an elderly asian lady reading a racist paper. A blue Civic drives by just as I’m reaching the flower shop at the intersection, and it’s blasting All Along the Watchtower, the Jimi Hendrix version.
I’m wondering, not for the first time, if the Fro-Yo Palace is open right now. Yeah, it’s only like 9 a.m. but cravings are cravings, and I woke up on the side of the bed that had me itching for a cup of Mega Berry Blast like a motherfucker.
I’m coming up on this lady in a super nice fall coat when somebody, can’t tell you who it is, pulls the bag over my head. Shock is different for everyone, like fingerprints. You can speculate about it all you want, but you can’t ever know what you’d do if some scary shit happened to you until it actually happens. Me, my shock brings that quiet with it. Silence wraps itself around my skull like a wet towel till the only sounds I can recognize are inside the cramped room of my head.
I can’t hear anything that’s going on around me, can’t make sense of any of the noises that aren’t already inside me. I imagine people shouting, screaming like you do before you realize just how bad things actually are, when fear’s just blurry and indistinct. Before anybody turns the resolution up to like 100 and you realize exactly why and how you’re fucked.
My mind runs home, runs to that time Bryce was chasing me through the house and face-planted into the tile, gave himself a bloody nose that he couldn’t really blame anybody else for. Then it’s chasing after that one time Ana and I went around the kitchen, pulled out as many things we could find, flour, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and baked all of it into one big stomach bomb. I still have no idea how we didn’t have the runs for the rest of our natural born lives. Then it’s trying to reach one of those million times I went into my mami’s room while she was lying down watching TV, climbed into her bed and used her stomach as a pillow while HGTV played like muted rain behind me. The forever soundtrack to my saturday nights.
The amount of time it takes for them to snatch me and throw me into the back of that car? I’d have to say it rounds out to about 45 seconds. But I cross days i nside my head. Isn’t that wild?
I feel the big hands tight around my biceps, feel my shoulder hit an armrest when whoever it is that grabs me tosses me into the backseat like a bookbag (always was the weaker son; what a fucking joke). So I’m face down in the backseat for a little bit, my shoulder one wrong rollover away from snapping like a twig. The car speeds up and I feel someone behind me, tying my arms behind my back so my forearms are pressed up against each other. They sit me up. No one’s talking and all I can think is wow, are kidnappers supposed to be this quiet? The person next to me, the one that sat me up, speaks, and it’s a guy. He sounds more like somebody three-quarters of the way through their eight-hour at the DMV than anything else when he says,
I could laugh. Like I could scream even if I wanted to. Like my voice isn’t hiding from me, deep inside my chest where fear’s growing like a forest between my ribs.
And the sack. The damn sack over my head. Jesus, I’d really taken it for granted, hadn’t I? Breathing open air. My whole head is hot, and I feel like I’m gonna pass out. And I do. I fall into Big Guy’s lap, and what little dignity I had left runs out into the street to get hit by a semi truck.
I wake up to a loud purple room. The brightness is a little undercut by the peeling lavender paint, and for a second I think the walls are melting. I shift a little, and I realize my arms are still tied tight, except this time they’re wrapped behind the back of the chair I’m sitting in. I’m looking out at the room now through eyes like foggy glass, at the rickety wooden table in front of me with all the scratches on its surface, at the blacked out window just a few feet past it, and I’m thinking, kind of bizarrely, that this is what that interrogation room in the Bahamas must’ve looked like to my dad. He used to tell me a bunch of stuff, used to say that in the Caribbean, color pools in all of life’s parts, collects everywhere like runoff. No matter what happens there, good or bad, it happens hard, with more force than you could ever imagine.
But I’m not in Nassau right now (I don’t think?) and I’m not my dad (I thank God). There’s a sad little bulb hanging from the ceiling, trying its level best to do the work of a better light. Except for the chair I’m sitting in and the tiny table, the room’s empty.
I’m wrong though, because when I blink again, when all those things in my line of vision, the purple paint, the table, the slate gray cement floor, press up against each other and reality snaps closed behind them like a heavy vault door, I see the kid sitting in the corner. He’s in one of those white plastic chairs, the kind that can’t make it through a single barbecue without the legs bowing and splitting.
His head’s turned away from me, and he’s staring at one of the blackout windows like he’s waiting for the sun to come.
If you’re looking at his face he’s around the same age as me. Pretty like a girl, the kind of face the douchebags I hung out with in junior high would’ve had a field day with. But his eyes age him. They’re blacker than those bits of the universe light can’t touch. Creepy in that sad kind of way, like a house people can’t live in anymore.
And get this—the first thing I feel, looking at the kid who’s been tasked with literally keeping me hostage, is a little pity. Just enough to throw me for a loop. The guy looks too much like those half-naked little kids we’d see sometimes when mami drove too far downtown, the ones wearing sneakers that looked like they were one tag game away from falling apart.
One time we were driving downtown past the farmer’s market, mami, Bryce, and I (Ana was still a baby then; mami had left her home with the nanny). I must’ve been six or seven, which would’ve made Bryce nine or ten. While we were waiting at the intersection, waiting for the light to turn green, a Buick came in from the street to our left, blew right through the intersection, hit a little brown girl as she was crossing the street with her mom and an older lady I took to be her grandma. The Buick stopped. Some tall guy got out of it, some investment-banker, I’d-foreclose-on-your-house-at-the-drop-of-a-hat type. He was dressed in a black suit. And yeah, I was little, but I’ll never forget this—the guy walked up to the family, to the sobbing mom and grandma, took out his wallet, and offered them some bills. The mom was crouched over her unconscious little girl on the street, too distraught to pay attention to the guy. But the grandma? Oh, you should’ve seen that little old lady. Imagine this—an elderly woman in a pressed black wig and a pink floral print church dress launching herself at some guy twice her size. I don’t know how many times she hit him in the face (my memory says four or five) before he pushed her back and she fell.
Mr. Buick threw the bills down at the ground, at the family, got back into his car, and drove away. When our light turned green and mami drove past, I looked out at the window and watched as the mom picked up her unconscious little girl and walked back over to the sidewalk, the grandma limping behind her. The wind picked up the scattered money, and I watched green paper swirl around itself.
Mami never talked about it. Bryce tried to bring it up once, a few weeks after it happened, but she gave him this look that made him never want to bring it up again. And me? I was still little so I couldn’t understand exactly what had happened, but I knew how it made me feel. It made me nauseous to think about it, so I made sure I never did. Till now, staring up at this kid who has downtown written all over his field coat with all those damn pockets. All over his jeans, his boots, his face. And now I’m looking for anything, anything at all, that might tamp down the nausea. I need something to swallow up all that empty space in my head, because that morning at the intersection is trying to live inside it.
“Hey,” I call out.
He looks over at me and I’m thinking, damn, maybe he would’ve been able to handle those assholes I went to school with.
He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me like he’s waiting for me to finish. I’m surprised by how self-conscious that makes me feel. Now I gotta choose whatever I’m gonna say carefully, make sure it lands somewhere inside that tenuous middle ground of you’re so fucking screwed and but actually, can you tell me where the hell I am?
I was scared before, when they pulled that sack over my head and threw me into the back of that car. But now that my heart’s not beating so fast inside me, now that there’s not some huge guy with his hands tight around my arms, I’m mostly just annoyed. Irritated. Tired. Mentally emotionally spiritually exhausted. My dad— God, that fucking asshole.
“So,” I start, but my voice comes out rough. I clear my throat and try again. “I’m assuming you’re not just gonna tell me where I am, without any prompting?”
He’s completely still for a moment, and I’m immediately on my guard. Then, he gets up, long black hair sliding across his face. He’s coming towards me and I’m shuffling through all the cabinets in my head, looking for that hatred I should probably have for my dad. Trying to figure out where I left it. He walks around me, and the flat cold of a tiny blade brushes my wrist. The tension lets up in my arms when the binding snaps, and I bring my hands into my lap to rub the feeling back into them. The kid walks back around me, takes his seat. He’s looking at the window again.
“Can I take that as a sign of good faith, then?”
He glances at me out of the corner of his eye. Well, now that we’re doing around 60 down this road to friendship, I decide it’s as good a time as ever to keep going.
“You trust me not to run?” He doesn’t even look at me when he says, “no trust. I’d catch you.” Doesn’t matter that it’s probably true. “You don’t know that.” It’s quiet again. Then, “okay, so you didn’t untie me because you trust me. Why then?” “Because you’re not a prisoner.” I look around the room that I can’t leave, the peeling purple paint like a sunset cage. “Well you’re doing a real good job of convincing me otherwise.” He’s looking at me directly now, and those stupid eyes are the most unreadable things I’ve ever seen. That static dark the Earth sits in.
“You’re not a prisoner, you’re a hostage.” “That really clears things up.” He looks at me, unimpressed. “You hold onto a prisoner because it hurts them. You hold on to a hostage because you need them.”
“And why do you need me?” I ask, like I didn’t have the answer as soon as those people threw me into the back of that car. And the kid’s looking back at me while the truth’s just glaring at the both of us, petulant. The truth’s a brat. Who knew?
Instead of answering me, the kid gets up and grabs the plasti chair. He moves into the corner right next to me, right across from the door. He’s frowning a little now, but I can’t really imagine what’s brought on the sudden mood change. I like to think I’ve been just as annoying from the beginning of this conversation as I have at its end.
He mutters, “your commentary” under his breath, and the door bangs open.
A guy in a green plaid shirt is standing in the doorway, and he looks like he should be walking his kindergartners to school, not aiming a two-tone 9mm at my head. And you know what the crazy thing is? I can tell you what color his eyes are, brown like packed earth after the hard rain lets up and not a moment before. I can tell you he didn’t shave that morning. I can tell you his hair’s wet with sweat, but not because he’s nervous about what he’s trying to do. No, he’s ready for that. The room’s hot, the room is so hot it’s like the thick air is sitting in my lap, pressing up against my chest like a person.
The barrel of a gun. Looking into that kid’s eyes is like staring down the barrel of a gun, when you know the bullet’s there, you know it, but you can’t see it for shit.
I don’t even get a full breath out before that kid’s tackling me to the floor, and the bullet meant for my head hits the wall behind me. Looks like my right shoulder’s getting no love today. It slams into the floor before my face can. My heart’s beating heavy inside my chest and one two three milliseconds later, my shoulder’s hurting so bad that I’m kind of wishing that guy hadn’t missed.
Pain’s trying to bring a hazy film over my eyes, but I still see it when the kid jumps up, fast as anything. Through the blur he’s pulling out his own gun, pulling the trigger before Green Plaid even has a chance to realize he missed me. I might not be able to see all that well, but that shot is the loudest thing in the world.
Damn. He really would have caught me.
The body hits the floor, and the kid walks up to it, looks down. It twitches, so he aims for the head and shoots again.
No hesitation. The kid didn’t wait a single second before— Oh my God. I’m lying on the concrete floor with my (probably broken, at least sprained) shoulder under me and I’m thinking oh my god. Green Plaid doesn’t move again. I’m staring at the soles of his loafers, and they remind me so fucking much of those stupid little race tracks Bryce and I used to play with when we were really little. I’m gonna cry. I’m gonna throw up. I’m gonna shatter.
He walks over to where I’m laying on my side. Kneels down, wraps my good arm around his neck and helps me to my feet, as careful as anything. When he rips a strip of fabric off his shirt to tie it around my eyes. Something’s rattling inside of me. I’m looking forward to the chance to not see anything at all for a little while, even though everything in front of me is cast in that blurriness that rides in with the pain. The murkiness I’m still telling myself aren’t tears waiting for me to let them through.
He leads me out of the room. The air outside’s probably warm at best, but after all that heat it’s gorgeously cold against my neck. I never knew the sound of crickets singing could make me feel so relieved.
We walk for days, months, years. Time stacks up on itself inside my head, entire bricks of it piled up so high I’m afraid it’s gonna tear through the sky, leave the Earth open and raw. We were walking on concrete and asphalt before, now we’re on soft dirt. Something like a leaf brushes up against my face. We stop, and I hear the kid take something out of his pocket. A little while later I hear him say,
“They found us.”
Some chattering on the other line fills in the nighttime quiet. Then the kid says, “Okay.” He leans me up against a tree, on my good side. I can hear him crunching some dead leaves underfoot while he walks away from me. He’s not gonna leave me in the middle of the woods with a broken shoulder, is he? This isn’t any way to treat your hostages. I hear nothing, and then I hear a smashing, like a... is that a rock? I hear something like a rock hitting a... I guess that makes sense. When he’s done smashing the phone, I can hear him walking up to me again. There’s a reservoir pooling up inside my head. Oh fuck, it’s gonna happen. I can feel my eyes getting hot, and it scares the shit out of me
“Can you walk?” His voice is too loud for the dark. “As romantic as it was to have my arm draped around your neck, the answer’s yes.” “I already knew you could talk,” he mutters. He grabs my good elbow and leads me from the tree. “How’s your shoulder?”
“How would your shoulder be if you got tackled into cement?” I’m half expecting him to lead me into a tree, just to spite me. He breathes out hard and it sounds kind of like a chuckle. “Actually, I don’t think it ever healed quite right.”
I don’t know what to do with this, this thing that’s hanging between us that’s equal parts him and me. You’re not supposed to have anything in common with the people that hurt you. My dad’s face keeps coming up in front of my blindfold and I can’t blink him away.
We walk for a thousand years. When we stop again, the kid leans me up against another tree, and I hear a door creak open. Then he’s grabbing me, telling me to get down on my knees and bringing my good hand to the cold rung of a ladder. My shoulder pain’s still knocking hard at the door of me, so it takes me a little while to realize that we’re at an underground bunker.
“Sooo,” I say, fingers drumming on the metal rung, “you got a plan for getting me down there?”
“I do,” he starts off, slow, “but you’re not gonna like it.”
He’s right. I hate it. Moments later I’m on this kid’s back, uninjured arm wrapped around his neck for dear life while my other arm’s hanging against my side. I swear I can feel the whole thing throbbing, and the blood in my head falls into its rhythm. And then I can’t help it, I’m thinking of Ana, when she was really little. When she used to jump onto my back, and I used to run up and down the house with her tiny fists tight in the fabric of my shirt, her laughs hitting the tile underneath our feet, coming back up so loud the whole house sounded like her.
Our dad used to come see us every few weeks, back before mom took us and left. He used to stagger his visits, make sure he and his shipments were never in the state at the same time. When I was little, I used to think he was a private investigator, like Magnum. When Ana was little, I let her think it too. Sometimes the truth doesn’t come up to meet you. Sometimes it waits for you on the top shelf till you get big enough, tall enough, old enough to reach it. Bryce loves dad with that kind of sighted love that turns whatever it actually sees into the shit it wants to see. The man could blow up the space station on a whim and Bryce would tell you all about how NASA had it coming.
It’s kind of impressive how quickly the kid makes it to the ground with me on his back, but soon I’m down in the bunker, and he’s climbing back up the ladder to close the door. I’m standing in the dark until he steps out into the bunker again and takes off my blindfold.
“Guess I wasn’t missing out on much,” I say when I’m blinking against the blackness of the bunker.
He finds the light switch, and there’s a plastic card table with two rough metal chairs at the center of the room. There’s a little stove in the corner, right next to an old wooden dresser. I don’t notice that there’s a little fridge, too, until the kid’s walking towards it. I stumble over to one of the chairs before I can collapse. My eyesight’s better now, but with that little development comes all the shit that just happened in that purple room. It’s all sprinting down the hallways of my head now, coming up at me. I’m staring at the kid’s back while he’s kneeling down, scraping some ice from the sad little freezer inside the fridge. Where’d he put the gun? Bang, then the full wet sound of softness coming down into hardness. Could’ve been me, blood like paint on that cement. Would he cry for me? Could tears live inside a person like that?
The kid takes off his thin bomber jacket, and I can see the place on his shirt where my makeshift blindfold came from. He scoops some ice into his jacket, then turns back to me. His black black eyes are eating up the light, he’s his own singularity. I wish I could be infinitely dense like that, wish I could fall through the earth, sink through its core, cut this planet so deep it could never heal.
He hands me the ice pack he made, and I take it, hold it up against my shoulder. I must be more delirious with pain and shock than I thought, because before long I’m saying,
“I know you.” He raises a brow. “Really?” “I know kids like you. Guys like my dad... they love kids like you.” “Guys like your dad...” he repeats. “Yeah. You work for one, right? Wolf.” It feels weird to say it. I knew it, had known it from the moment that big guy told me not to scream. Wolf is the only person who could ever be this bold, the only person batshit crazy enough to snatch one of Solomon’s kids, on their way to get some fro-yo. Someone should’ve told him that he’d gotten the wrong kid, though. That if he really wanted to get a rise out of my dad, don’t snatch Kit, snatch Bryce. Sure, with me, he’d be a little annoyed about having to pay the ransom, but with Bryce... with Bryce he would’ve razed the entire surface of this planet, Wolf and his assholes right along with it. He would’ve dared God to come down and see, if He dared.
He breathes out hard again, that chuckle. “Kids like me scare the shit out of you. It’s okay though. They scare the shit out of me too.” He slouches back into his chair, stares up at the ceiling. “I would’ve starved without guys like your dad.”
His voice is rigid, like it’s doing the twin work of trying to convince both himself and me.
I shift, bring the ice pack a little harder into my shoulder. “Kind of sounds like you wish you had.”
He brings his head down to look at me, and I don’t really know when his eyes stopped creeping me out. Now the sadness I see there makes my heart want to catch fire inside my chest, burn its way out my body until I can’t ever feel for somebody again like I feel for this long-haired kid with the girl’s face sitting right across from me.
“You know what it’s like to be hungry for two weeks straight? Give me the 9 mil to the head.”
That’s what does it. Breaks all the levees inside my head, makes the tears inside me swell up and surge until I feel like I could drown inside myself. I’m holding the ice pack to my shoulder and I feel the tears coming down my cheeks. I can’t even wipe them away because I’m holding the ice pack to my fucking shoulder. I feel the pain from my shoulder and the nausea from that day and the fear from that purple room and the sadness for this kid whirling up inside me, dissolving into my blood and my bones until my body’s made up of every shitty thing I’ve ever felt.
Over the sound of my heart cracking inside me I hear the kid say something. He says, softly,
“You’ve never been hungry.” And I know it’s not a question but I answer anyway. I shake my head. He doesn’t even sound bitter. This kid should be bitter. So, so angry. Why does it feel like I’m madder than he is?
Through my tears, I choke out, “it’s fucked up.” He laughs. “You’re crying for me, Kit?” I squeeze my eyes shut tight, press the ice pack into my shoulder until it hurts. I cry harder.
This morning you sailed a boat.
Not only that, but you taught your best friend how to sail a boat, both of your bare feet slipping on the floor of the Sunfish, leaning out over the Maine lakewater against the tug of the wind on the mainsheet, laughing as she wiggled the tiller back and forth, forgetting if left meant left or left meant right, throwing caution to the breeze until you scraped up against some underwater rocks and you—you, thirteen years old, heart beating faster as you discovered this opportunity for responsibility, imagining the shawl of your mother’s care finally slipping from your shoulders—climbed out of the boat and risked the soft pink soles of your feet against barnacles that could cut like knives, just to push the boat back into open water and save the morning.
In the afternoon the two of you are on a dock and your head is still buzzing with the thrill of adulthood (and of knowing how to do something she doesn’t, which is a warm pomegranate seed in your mouth that tastes slightly like poison) when the little girl stares at you from the end of the dock and says that her brother wants to take you on a date.
Which one of us? you ask, but she doesn’t know, so half an hour later you both end up in the woods with a boy named Dallas.
Your flip-flops weren’t made for forest paths. Twigs and pine needles squirm their way between your feet and your sandals, making your soles itch, but you don’t really mind because the whole thing is rather exciting, after all.
Dallas leads the way. Sometimes he says This way, and sometimes he just walks. He is a year younger than you both, but acts two years older. You’re giddy—a date with a boy!—but Cynthia is quiet, reverential even, as though showing respect for the sacred silence of the forest. So although you want nothing more than to giggle, to take off your flip-flops and skip down the path, you stay silent and count moss patches on trees. The air smells like damp wood and also dandelions and smoke.
It makes perfect sense, in a twisted way. You and Cynthia have pretended to be sisters all your lives. When you were a little bit younger and a little bit odder, you color-coordinated your outfits and walked around the mall speaking in over-precise British accents, telling anyone who would listen that you were twins. In your mind, you were identical. Never mind the hazel eyes, the brown; never mind the curly auburn hair, the straight black. And yes, sometimes you know things that she doesn’t know, but you teach her, when you can, because you want her to learn as well. If you pretend there is no pomegranate seed, there must not be one. There cannot be one, because then you couldn’t be twins.
This is what you tell yourself when you think about how you know things that she does not.
You are in a cemetery in the woods and the light is somehow both golden and grey, and this morning you taught your best friend how to sail a boat, and now you are both here, in a forest that smells like moss and dandelions, and you are with a boy but there are two of you, and you know that this is not how love stories go. You think about it and you decide that perhaps the boy is almost irrelevant. Neither of you will end up with him, no matter how giddy his blue eyes make you feel. The cemetery is what he wanted to show you, and it’s a strange place to go on a date, but it reminds you that he is younger than you and gets excited about strange things. No, he is just there as a symbol of your burgeoning adulthood, a figure for you to tell a story about when you get back to school.
You are examining the headstones ones by one, reading names, calculating ages, when you hear the giggle. Two rows ahead of you, they’re holding hands. Shh. 1892 minus 1878. Twenty-four? No, fourteen. Another giggle. Fourteen is only a year older than you.
When you reach the end of the row and look over towards them again they are gone and you’re alone. But there are more headstones to examine, more lives to imagine, more ages to calculate, more thoughts to suppress as you walk along each row.
It doesn’t take long—there are seven rows in total—so then you sit in the tall grass besides Ann Pennebaker and weave a dandelion crown. When the dandelion crown is finished, you make another one. Then you split a wide blade of grass in half as many times as you can before it barely exists anymore.
When you hear a rustle in the woods you jump to your feet, but no one’s there. And then it occurs to you that you are in a cemetery, unseen and unheard, with no proof of your own existence. You think about this for a while but can’t decide what it means.
And when you realize neither of them is coming back for you, you stand and begin to retrace your steps, taking that dirt path with your shoes full of pine needles and breathing in the damp air and trying to remember what it felt like this morning, when you thought you were older and wiser, with a warm pomegranate seed in your mouth. It tasted like poison and you thought it was forbidden knowledge, but now you know better.
Among the son's bright fucking ideas, that last summer they worked together, was the suggestion that since there was good money in sport fishing they ought to start taking out parties of tourists. Shug could savor a rank cigar, resting up his bad shoulder while doctors and lawyers baited hooks for a change, and when brain-surgeon fingers fumbled and bled or a senator's pate burned neon pink Shug could smile around the last skunky inch and salt the wound. Nate figured guys like that would secretly dig the condescension and would come back for more because, basically, no matter what he said or did or how he treated people Shug was forgiven, a dispensation Nate had not inherited. He did get his share of the Dawe looks—lank black hair that came to a widow's peak in front, large homely ears, scarps of cheekbone—but the mix could go different ways, in Nate a semicomic near miss, in his father strong-boned, remorseless beauty that fallaciously suggested great depth of character. Women, sure—the beauty of women was supposed to cause trouble, but Nate would not have believed such havoc could be wreaked by a man if he hadn't witnessed the consequences firsthand. He was sometimes asked by unsmiling women how his dad was doing these days and had figured out that the right answer was, "Not so good," though it was never true. Once Nate was given a packet of red licorice by a high-heeled out-of-town-looking woman who said earnestly, "I know he's your father but he's a liar." And then: "You know better than to tell your mom where you got that, right? Yeah, I can see you do."
Fishing guide is a serious comedown, and Shug will surely see it as such, but Nate's plan holds out the promise of small, redeeming pleasures. The same stories that cause Nate to grind his teeth lightly together, the freighter lit up like a nighttime skyscraper bearing down on Shug through fog, the mast clustered with barnacles that flaked upward as a whirlwind of monarch butterflies, the shark in whose sliced-open belly Shug found a cat, will be taken for gospel by tourists anxious to experience the real Mendocino. If there are wives along Shug can charm them—saying this, Nate suffered the usual pang. Shug did more than charm. Shug would grin right back at the big black sunglasses hiding the wives' curiosity, and at some point Shug and one of the wives would rendezvous in a fifty-dollar room with a factory seascape over the creaky bed, but Nate could handle this if it means saving the boat, and whether Shug acknowledges it or not they're in dire straits along with every other fisherman they know, government regulations hemming them in on every side. Reborn as a party boat the Louise would be completely booked and they would be sure, day by day, where the money was coming from, a certainty no Dawe had ever before possessed, and worth a try, Dad, right?
Over my dead body.
Which phrase caused Nate to walk carefully, eyes averted, past that dead body, cast up on the pebbled beach of consciousness.
Like most who rely on intuition Shug had his ritual, resting scarred knuckles against the bone over his dark eye and waiting. His green eye perceived no more than any other, but the tortoiseshell one saw down through the world's surfaces to its deep, shifting currents of luck, and even when other boats came home empty the Louise was nearly always in the fish. When, seven years old, Nate first said he wished he had a weird eye, the confession met with the mild, for Shug, rebuke that he was imagining things.
This was on the Louise, a diamond afternoon shattering across the - ocean, waves hurrying at the pace of a fire-drawn crowd, Nate captive in childhood, in an old life jacket, arms dangling like a fat boy's, meaning his tall graceful father was even more likely to lash out than usual because he was irked by awkwardness as a cat is irked by wet paws. The dirty, mildewy, sunwarmed hug of the life-jacket braced Nate for confrontation. He was seven and alone. This was life then, this bravery, this scaredness, this love of the truth in your possession, the thing you had seen that set you apart and somehow was you. You and no one else. When his mother had squatted to fasten the buckles of his life-jacket that morning Nate had looked down into the center parting in her red hair and seen a tiny jog the parting made to accommodate a pink mole, and this revelation, that she had oddities and flaws previously undisclosed to him, drove home the extent of her vulnerability and he would have given anything to protect her from his father's hectoring, his father saying don't fucking teach him that, no real fisherman wears one, fall overboard and you're dead so you don't fucking fall. His mother said he's a kid, kids have accidents. As if Nate was not listening she said Say he falls. Nate tried to get in I won't fall but already (and it was not like her: she was not an insister) she was saying it again, Say he falls, Shug, tell me what would you do then, a protest, a demand, a bargain because she was letting his father take him, entrusting his life to his father and his father did not say what she wanted him to say, I would find him, of course I would find him, but then he never said what she wanted him to, and it was dismaying that she still nursed reckless hopes. Now, on the boat, Nate reasoned that if Shug was wrong about his own eyes, as he plainly was, he could be wrong about other things, and that in the gap between what his father insisted was true and what was true Nate's private perceptions could take root and thrive and send out shy leaves of oppositeness, and he stood there in his sissy lifejacket confronting this prospect, with scarcely time to rejoice before the big rough hand cupped his head and his dad said, "All right now? Back to work," as if Nate worked as hard as he did, as if they were together all day long. As they ended up being.
Another memory, harder to explain, in which there was no lifejacket: once when he had done something wrong his dad had picked him up under the arms and swung him back and forth over the edge of the boat, out over the dazzling drop. Below the half-moons of white rubber capping his Keds, an abyss reeled past, scintillae shuttling back and forth at the speed of panic. Nate hung there, legs dangling, hating with such concentration he feared his father would sense it and, as punishment, let go. Instead his feet thumped down on the deck and Shug said, "There you are," as if this were a natural initiation into terror and Nate should have known to expect it. And as if he, the father, had performed it ably and even with a measure of affection. And Nate stood there, and among the things he felt was love, as if what had happened had been pure rescue.
Nate’s friends didn't like when he started in on Shug, first because they'd been through stuff and they didn't go into it, second because Shug took them out on the boat for their birthdays and asked how's it going and if there was a problem with some girl he told them what to do with an easy authority only Nate understood was completely bogus, since Shug hadn't ever stayed around for problems but simply disappeared until the woman concluded it was over. Still, when things got rough for him at home Nate's best friend Petey Crews sometimes said he wished Shug was his father, wistfulness that caused Nate to glance away: not his job to set anybody straight. Then one night Petey upped the ante and confessed Shug had told him he got the wrong son. What the fuck did that mean, the wrong son? Petey tried to get out of it. He likes a good time, right? You gotta admit you're not a lot of laughs. Maybe that had something to do with working for a living and maybe Petey should try it, Nate said, and then report back about the laughs. Petey said Nate, man, you know you're too hard on your old man, you need to—. It could have been Nate's look that caused him to break off, or the quicksand shame of condescension going awry, but whatever it was Petey said softly It's just we're more alike, him and me. Nate thought softly Both motherfuckers. If he had said that aloud the friendship would have ended then and there, and not because he had called Petey a motherfucker, because he had called Shug one. But it was Petey who couldn't leave it alone. It's lost on you, while me, I would fucking love it, that's all Shug wants, a son to love what he loves, out on the ocean every single fucking day, who gets to live like that, only you, right, the last of the last? On your own, live or die, make it or don't make it, it's down to you and your dad and how hard you work and whether your luck holds and, man, I would fucking love that.
For a long while after that they didn't talk, but it was only on hearing about Petey's enlistment from Rafe that Nate understood how wrong things had gone. He'd had emails from Iraq that sounded as if they were still best friends but it seemed cruel to write back about his wife and his baby, and besides thinking of Petey aroused an obscure and guilty sense of finality. He just didn't want any more to do with the guy, and he let the emails accumulate unanswered.
But before that, while they were in high school, the best times were Nate and Petey Crews jammed into the cab of Rafe Figueredo's truck, talking about driving down to the city or farther, L.A., Baja, Austin Texas, if we want to we can just take off, ending up at the little beach they thought of as their own, the brothers Owen and Jeff Jennings and Boone Salazar there already along with Boone's girl, brown-eyed Annie Brown leaning back on one arm in the damp sand tossing mussel shells into the driftwood bonfire for the glassy tink of breakage, Nate liking that, not sure why, standing there nursing his longneck, another Saturday burning down to embers, wind from the west pasting his shirt to his skin, his abs impressive, he'd gone too long between haircuts but he thought he looked pretty good, he liked brown eyes and it would be nice having a girlfriend, telling his mom they were thinking about getting married, his troubles recounted to somebody who cared, who would argue it wasn't right Nate worked for his dad when he should be an equal partner, with an equal say in business decisions, if you could call the Louise a business.
Nate turned nineteen, then twenty, and when somebody wanted to talk about him in town they said you know—Shug Dawe's boy, that's out on the boat with Shug. Thought he might go away to college but he never did. In the Smoke River fashion the thought was unattributed, detached from any particular thinker. In Smoke River a thought was scarcely conceived before it was presented as common knowledge. That way if the thought turned out to be wrong nobody could be held responsible; that way the basis for an assertion was clouded. Nate had wanted to get out, had imagined the drowsy seashell acoustics of old lecture halls, a stack of pleasantly overdue books, calls where he explained he couldn't come home over the weekend because there was this big paper due Monday. Because there was this girl. Because if he went home he would be asked to help, spend half a day on the boat maybe, and the old life would take hold and insist that it alone was real and nothing out there, certainly no other means of making a living, would ever come close, and the fantasized Nate, the Nate who had gotten away, would have to stay away long enough to build up immunity, and how long would that take? Shug swept an arm toward the horizon, dove gray below slate gray, mother-of-pearl cloud scrolling toward a waning sun made of naked pink light, and said Another rough day at the office.
As close as he ever came to saying beautiful.
Even as fishermen went bankrupt the tourist trade flourished, and with a wide spectrum of out-of-towners to hate Shug singled out for particular venom the abalone divers who flocked to Smoke River each August and stood around their SUVs hoisting beers, wetsuits unzipped to display boastful white bellies. Inevitably one or more of their photos would appear in the Smoke River Sentry in their new guise, as drowned men.
The only divers Shug respected were the Vietnamese poachers whose fine-boned clean-shaven clever faces never made the front page, though sometimes one of their vans with the dark-tinted windows figured in a photo with Fish and Game guys swarming over it, and their names, Lu and Tran and Vinh and Ng, chimed through the court report, which detailed the number of abalone taken and the fines and jail sentences assessed, but as Shug said, for every ferrety Tran they caught a hundred drove home to San Francisco or Sac with a fortune in abalone. They sold to Chinese dealers who, with abalone increasingly scarce, paid not by the pound but the gram. The poachers ran calculated risks for serious money, five, ten, twenty grand worth of abalone in the coolers inside the black vans with tinted windows parked at night near remote coves. Within, the funk of unwashed maleness, neatly stashed diving gear, glossy black heads protruding from cheap sleeping bags—so said Boone Salazar, a classmate Nate had never liked: the guy was arrogant. He was hired by Fish and Game when Shug put a word in for him, and had fallen into the habit of stopping by the house for a beer with Shug, which seemed odd at first, a guy Nate's age hanging out with his dad, but made a kind of sense. They were two of a kind, Boone and Shug, inclined when pleasantly drunk to taunt each other in the glottal stops and high-pitched whines of made-up Vietnamese. Maybe it was reassuring, having another person echo your own racist views: Nate didn't want to think too hard about it.
Nobody had been doing well this summer, but this morning the salmon had started biting so hard before dawn that they didn't have time "to shit, shower or shave," Shug said, and when Nate poured the last of the coffee from the thermos and handed the cup to his dad, Shug said, "Kept up with me pretty good." Under its mask of salt spray Nate's face warmed at the praise; he felt high as a giddy child, light as if buoyed by a funky life-jacket. As if he could do no wrong, as if disappointment would never again narrow Shug's eyes or turn him sarcastic. Money worries were eating at Shug, and on a boat there is no escaping somebody else's foul mood. Late at night when Shug was topside, bullshitting on the radio, Nate sought consolation by imagining different girls from high school seated above him, their hair swinging forward, palms on his chest as if they were embarking on CPR, the fantasy heightened if he didn't will the girl into being but simply waited. The appearance of one girl, Ollie something, was surprising; he had never gone out of his way to talk to Ollie, nobody did, but sometimes they ended up together on the grafitti'd boulder jutting from the weedy slope descending to the football field, the boulder the designated site for pairings permitted nowhere else, the refuge where she set about dismantling his naivete. What had gone wrong in Newfoundland was going wrong all over and within fifty years every fishery on the planet would collapse, did he know that? Or: a tsunami, and there were going to be lots, could roll right over the cliffs and plunge across the field below with its scatter of seven-year-old soccer players jogging white-legged into the wind. They sat on their boulder smoking and picturing drowning second-graders. Ollie was their school's oddball star, the kind of student teachers wanted too much from: flashes suited her, intuitions, but not structure, not obligation or rules or any voice urging responsibility or goals in life. Boundaries repelled her, a fact that partly explained why she systematically violated his, pinching the cigarette without asking, exhaling with eyes slitted, comically vamping. He could not overcome his sense that she was a disaster, but this was not entirely off-putting. Ollie with no last name, or none he can recall. She clasped her knees in her arms and rocked, or she tinkered with her hair, fooling with this project on her head, tatty homegrown security blanket. Faithful as she seemed to her obscure devotion to him she was rumored to sleep around, and Petey Crews added her name to the bathroom tally of girls who gave blowjobs, but Nate didn't believe it, not this girl who wanted to crew on a Greenpeace boat, whose T-shirt claimed Fur Is Murder, who believed the world needed saving, starting with him, Nate. Had her name really been Ollie? Ollie what? He remembers asking about her dreads once. Why do you want to look like you don't give a shit? Had she been hurt, had she cared what he thought? He was pretty sure she had, even if the realization is late—almost two years late—in coming. After graduation she must have left town. She had never talked about what things were like at home, and he can't remember any mother or other family showing up at high-school events. Her dad had died when she was nine, and another girl would have incorporated the tragedy into her persona, but Ollie told him no details. Nate invokes the nimble theft of his cigarette, the pointy chin tilted up, the crawl of smoke from her parted lips, but this version is too accurate, friendly, failing to mine the erotic potential of her vehemence, and fuck this, he was too old to live in such close quarters with his dad, two berths angled toward each other in the V of the bow, the funky iron wood-stove crowding the space even more and smelling sickeningly of the boot polish Shug had dabbed on its scratches. Jesus, get a fucking life, he imagines a good friend telling him, but what friend? Petey Crews is in Iraq, Rafe works for Aboriginal Lumber. Nights off, when Nate made it to the inn at the crossroads south of town, its gingerbread eaves laced with Christmas-tree lights nobody ever bothers to take down and its marquee promising live music, he had that feeling of waiting for someone, but it wasn't clear who until, one night, Rafe slid onto the next barstool saying "N Dawg," Petey's usual greeting. After they had gone over what they knew about Petey and how he was doing Nate asked Rafe if he remembered a girl named Ollie something.
"Who had a thing for you."
"She had a thing?"
Rafe smiled down at his beer.
Nate made sure he could be heard over the music: "I was thinking she might of left town, right? Nothing to keep her here. I mean why're we still around?"
The crease at the corner of his mouth deepened as Rafe appreciated his beer. "'Member Annie Brown? A year behind us? Teaches second grade now.*
"Sure. Annie. Went out with Boone Salazar." He was pretty sure what was coming next, and he was right. "Not anymore," Rafe said, and his left hand did a shy stiff-fingered hula till Nate identified the gleam and said, keeping his tone warm, "What the fuck."
Rafe said, "At the county courthouse over in Ukiah. Spur of the moment or I would've called." They had vowed to be there for each other, to work it out so they each got a shot at best-man-dom, Rafe and Nate and Petey Crews, but Nate didn't hear any real apology in Rafe's tone, and his embarrassed sense of exclusion, disguised by rapping the bar for another couple of beers, drove home the sadness of their having gone separate ways. Petey had been the glue, Petey had seemed to have the most at stake in their comradeship and had gone to great lengths to keep them entertained, or as entertained as they could be in Smoke River.
This luminous afternoon when their luck turned for the better, Nate said, "I guess we ought to get back to it." The hard morning had left Shug's face sweaty and sunburned, his pulse tripping where a vein swelled in his temple, this visibly hard-working vein striking Nate as dangerous. But the veins that were really troublesome were deep in the brain, he told himself, not right out there where you could see. "Dad?" "Give me a minute"—not an answer Shug had ever given before. "My fucking shoulder again. You go ahead"—two more things he had never said. What it came down to was that time was taking its toll, and at least for this one radiant day he couldn't keep up with his son.
Past midnight now, and Nate hoped Shug had done the smart thing and gone to bed instead of staying up bullshitting on the radio. In the ice hold's echoing chill, his two or three different and overlapping shadows flaring in the corners as the fluorescence quickened, Nate's boots imprinted a melting dark meander as he crossed back and forth, slinging fish into the silver dune, tired enough that the prospect of sleep made him want to sink to his knees in the ice like one of those climbers yielding to death on Everest. He clicked off the light before climbing to the deck for a last look around. They were far enough from shore to drift for the night and the Louise had settled into a rare silence. Below in the fo'c's'le he found Shug asleep, longish black hair fanned across the ticking of the pillow, tattered and filthy, he refused to part with or let Louise wash because he believed it was lucky. Disgusting, Nate said, but his mother laughed and said it could be worse, it could be underwear. The shushing of the sea against the hull turned the tiny space chapel-like, and the need to keep quiet as he undressed made Nate feel like a good child, respectful, or as if he was in the presence of his dead father, feeling what he was supposed to feel, no more and no less.
Not that night but the next, Nate woke knowing that Shug's bunk was empty. "Hey, Dad? Where'd you get to?" The deck gleamed back at the moon, the day's blood sluiced away, Shug working while Nate slept: walk barefoot the length of the boat and your feet would stay clean as a newborn babe's. Nate retrieved the toilet seat and clapped it on the bucket, the seat an old wooden one, paint rubbed away in a bottom-shaped arc, his dad's arse and his, any other son would have conceded no more than a cryptic postcard, Santa Fe, Seattle, some wild little postmark north of the Arctic Circle. Nate emptied the bucket over the side.
An arm extended from the door of the cabin, the hand sloppy as a dead thing when Nate gathered it up, when he crouched saying, "No, no," his fingers against the inside of the wrist finding nothing, hoping, finding nothing nothing nothing nothing. Nate let shock carry him a short way into death after his father by neither moving nor blinking, concentrating on the death in his father's face but not knowing what it was like or how to go deeper, to take part in this death that intolerably excluded you and left you hanging. Then stupefaction as the pulse flailed against your fingertips and the need to make sure you weren't deceived by the force of longing. The sea slid past, the moon poured down, and Shug sat up sick and dishevelled with a look that said Nate was responsible.
"I think you fell, Dad. Fell and must of banged your head. Hold on, hold on, don't be thrashing or you could hurt yourself worse."
In trying to get him to lie back Nate was reminded that Shug was a big man, his back broader across than his son's and showing a distinct slide and play when Shug works shirtless, a bunching and cording along his forearm when he threads the hook into the herring and trims its tail till the glint of metal is perceptible, baitfish and hook coequal, no excess for salmon to snatch unscathed. On first demonstrating the technique to Nate he had said This is sex. Nothing to spare, no little bit to nibble off. The beauty of it: it's all hook. Nate had been, what? Nine? Shocked. Hiding it.
"You got to lie back down, Dad."
Nate's boots squeaking against the deck, they struggle in moonlight bright enough to contract the pupils in Shug's devastated glare. The core of bright mind he's left with refuses to trust his son.
Even now: refuses.
Under his dirty T-shirt Shug's collarbones are set against him like bull's horns. Gaining secure footing at last Nate levers his weight into his dad's bad shoulder, and when he yields his fury is terrifying, Shug gaping up from the deck with his hair strewn across his sweat-polished temples and crazy disbelief in his eyes at having been handled thus. This wrong somehow whistles up more wrong and Nate leans in and says savagely, "You're fucked up, Dad. Now let me do what I need to."
Nate called from the hospital in Eureka to tell Louise that she should come as soon as she could. Yes the doctor was a good one. Yeah, a bypass, kind of thing they do all the time, they said it takes four or five hours and Shug's chances were good but they don't tell you more than that cause they don't want to be liable. He had resolved not to lie for the sake of reassurance, though the impulse was strong. Nate rested his knuckles against his brow and then realized that was his father's gesture for summoning the right answer and dropped his hand, as embarrassed as if he'd stolen something small and personal from Shug. He, Nate, didn't know what to do and whether he should hang around here in the hospital or get back to the harbor where he had left the Louise. Nate thought of her as knowing nothing about the boat but his mother answered that he should stay where he was, the catch could wait until tomorrow, there were plenty of buyers in Eureka and it would all work out, he'd see. He had expected her to fall apart and was still braced for her tears but she went on calmly. Night driving was hard for her and she wasn't going to rush out the door. Nate heard her light a cigarette, and then she said it was ironic that it wasn't her heart attack, she was the smoker. Nate knocked his forehead against the wall, needing to bump up against something that behaved exactly as expected, and she said she would leave early and get there by ten or eleven. When there was no reply she said, "Are you crying, honey? You did fine. You got the boat into the nearest harbor, you got to the hospital. It's not helping, you going to pieces." He hadn't foreseen that she would be this rational; he had expected her to hold him responsible for Shug's overexertion. Without meaning to he had absorbed his father's sense that she could not handle things, but now he understood: she had always handled things, she had seen and understood and had been dealing with god knows how much truth they believed they had kept from her. The thought that came to him was, All that fucking work. Whose? Theirs. Theirs as a family. He was astonished to the point of tears—more tears. Whatever he confessed would be absorbed and answered in this same intimate, practical tone that only wanted to figure out what they should do next. Treasure was within reach, the treasure of being listened to and honestly forgiven, but what he came up with was "Mom, I'm so dirty. Right from the boat. I smell," and she answered that he should find the men's and wash as best he could because he had a long night ahead of him. He should wash his face in cold water. He'd see, that would help.
He told her goodbye and was tapped on the shoulder. Nate could go in for a couple minutes before they put Shug under. He was led through a series of hallways into the room where his father lay on a gurney, his rakish black hair hidden, his large ears jutting from a crinkled shower cap. Against the crisp gown his windburned forearms, the backs of his hands scribbled with white fishhook scars, looked used. He was not sure how he had ended up here; he was balking at the notion of surgery and would have walked out if he could have gotten to his feet, but they had given him something that left him subdued and lost. The heart attack and Nate's rough handling had vanished. They kept snagging Nate's attention, the raked-up brows of his father's bewilderment, and he took Shug's hand and said You're gonna do fine, Dad, shocked by the grateful response, Shug's big-knuckled fingers awkwardly interlacing with his, their two hands clasping, tightening, unwilling to part. Their sustained silence made the nurse frown when she returned, as if they should have been using this time to say last things. In the waiting room Nate found, in a corner, a shabby wing chair, upholstery already so far gone he didn't worry about the stink on his clothes rubbing off. It must be destined for replacement sometime soon, this chair. Hospitals didn't usually tolerate the threadbare companionability of long use. Throughout the murmuring public night people came and went, speaking the cryptic language of anguished uncertainty and, once or twice, breaking down and crying, for which Nate pitied them in his sleep.
"Good news," a male nurse said, waking Nate. "Your dad did great! He did fantastic! You can go in and visit. Frankly some people seem a little taken aback but I told them there is a lot of mileage left in that handsome old man. But who listens to me."
With Shrug housebound Nate was able to take out a couple of persuasive Sacramento lobbyists for several highly illegal jaunts, and the lobbyists let some friends in on the secret, and those friends told others. Getting caught with scuba gear and abalone would mean a steep fine, suspended fishing license, even jail time, but the lobbyists basked in the risk as if it were sunshine. When they went back to Sacramento Nate figured he had better do a couple days' hard fishing to account for the cash in case the IRS or Shug ever ran a cold eye over the books, and he was alone, leaning to toss a bucket of refuse when a wave lolloped into the bow and the Louise shrugged him into the sea. Opening his eyes underwater he had a vision of fish guts unknitting in a bumbling cloud. He slid down as if he had let go of a rope and the speed of his descent scared him into kicking. He surfaced in breathable light, scales gumming his hair and lashes. He spat and gagged. Ten minutes to hypothermia, the cold already searing, and how far had he been carried, and look out. Concentrating underwater, he scraped his toes down his heel, shedding one sluggish boot, then the other. He surfaced and the shadow of a gull rumpled interestedly across his head, followed immediately by a wave. He strove against the cataract and lost, borne backward into a hollow rolling with echoes, and despite this setback he felt his body coming back after long years' absence, gathered and intent and smoothly useful, his soul right here too, pleasurably distinct, a thing that could be torn from him, and he wished to cradle and save it, his soul, and to do that he had only to swim, it was so clear, he was for once brilliantly aligned with necessity, rejoicing in the clear, clear light of live or die, taking pleasure in his strength, which had been given a stinging outline by the cold, stroke, breathe, stroke, narrowing in on what he needed to do next, which was to swim around and take hold of the rungs and climb. A Jacob's ladder, wooden rungs on sturdy ropes. There she was, a neat small craft, handsomely white in the early light, illumined from behind, so that he noted the faint opalescence of spindrift within her shadow, the changeable, suddenly darkened, redoubled green of a wave sliding through the slanting tent of the boat's shadow and casting a shattered pearliness up through the shadow into the brighter air, where it floated in a brief-lived haze. No boat used for trawling salmon had a ladder. Potbellied, arrogant, the lobbyists had been in such bad shape it was hard to believe they wanted to dive, and it wasn't a pretty sight watching them lurch and clamber up that ladder, but now they're about to save his skin. Without the ladder he would have been treading water between the swells, keeping the Louise in sight though she was no use to him, staring at her as long as he could because she was the one known thing, the last human thing out there with him, because it would almost seem she wanted to help.
In the cabin, whose disorder proved it was no longer Shug's domain, Nate found a change of clothes, his dad's, and washed his face and rinsed his mouth clean of the lingering taste of salt with bottled water, rubbing his hair dry with a rag saturated with engine oil. To his scoured senses the world was a glittering, reeling heaven of sensation: he would forever after associate the smell of engine oil with the shock of being alive. Elation like this won't last long—even a minor setback can confound it, by introducing reality, but once the Louise was docked, the gladness was still there, and in hopes of sustaining it he stopped in at the Harbor Cafe on the wharf. Leaning back in his booth, he greeted the approach of the waitress with a smile inspired more by his own exhilaration than her familiarity, and this smile, which wasn't about her, which suggested a wild, causeless pleasure in being alive, caught her off-guard. Her hair was a blonde ponytail falling not down her back but across her shoulder, as if she'd drawn it forward to show off its length. She had something in her left eye, and the compulsive blinking made her feel ridiculous. In her distraction she lost his name and sought it in a quick inner stammer of guesses. Blinking, she poured coffee into the cup he nudged forward, and he beat her to it. "Ollie."
Then he said something she was never to understand. He said, "There you are.
It wasn’t Shug's heart that gave out, it was Louise's, in her sleep. Peaceful, people said, and So lucky she lived long enough to hold the baby.
Nate and Ollie and the baby lived in a trailer set on cinderblocks behind Nate's parents' house, in a yard knee-deep in thistles and sorrel and wild radish that Ollie resolved every spring to turn into an organic garden, but before they knew it it was midsummer and that plan, like their others, withered into endless bemused postponement. Sometimes it was Ollie who said wearily Look at this place and sometimes it was Nate, coming home exhausted and needing some gesture from her that would redeem his frustration and the weirdness of having to pay rent to his own father and his fear that he would never get them out of this trailer into a real house. Where had it gone, the scruffy dreadlocked rebelliousness of that girl on the boulder? If she was tamed was she even the same girl? They were trapped; the future was closing down fast and soon would shut them out altogether. Up to her to convince him otherwise, to reason with, comfort, and settle him down, but how? He said (and regretted it during the saying) there must have been a time when the prospect of giving him a blow job didn't turn her stomach. The girl on the boulder would have had turned on him the Medusa gaze of murderous feminism, but she was gone, leaving behind what? They could come back from this—find their way back. They had to. In a clearing in the trailer's mess the baby sat and blinked and sucked, muzzled by the lima-bean-shaped handle of his binkie. They crouched and warmed their hands at him like aborigines who have managed to strike a flame from rocks. Before long their friends with kids started to shake their heads. Indulge his every whim, let him think your lives revolve around him, and you're creating a monster: such was the advice directed at Nate and Ollie, who shrugged and smiled. I pity you two guys, Rafe announced one stoned midnight when Ollie and Nathan both jumped up at a bad-dream whimper from the bedroom. If it ever comes to working out joint custody. Rafe didn't have a big mouth usually, but Nate kicked him out for that remark and volunteered, because Ollie was crying, that Rafe was an asshole and jealous of what they had, and what happened to Rafe and Annie will never happen to them. Which only made Ollie set her two fists against her face, her elbows poked out as if she wanted to punch her own eyes.
This scared him and he pried her fists away, but she would not talk.
Fourteen-hour days for days on end, he worked. Let her work, now. Let her pick away at the crazy knot of resistance to him that had tied itself in secret. He didn't know why it had, but it had.
Left over from the brief spellbound time that had followed his finding her in the cafe, she had one trick, and when their drought had gone on long enough—almost too long to permit backtracking—she used it, turning to Nate and saying, "What if it was the last time we were ever going to see each other and you knew it, how would you fuck me, what would you do?"
She had taken a chance. He rested rough hands—so like his father's—on either side of her pointy chin, and gazing down past her everyday self to the deep-down soul-shelter where treachery stirred—they both knew she was not entirely pretending—he said, "I would kill you," with something close to the ferocity she needed.
Petey Crews was back from Iraq, and Rafe said they needed to celebrate, the three of them, hit the beach, that little cove where they used to hang out, make a bonfire and get high and drink some beer.
Petey and Nate got an early start and were already drunk, so Rafe drove Nate's truck, hauling hard at the wheel as if caught off-guard by each curve. Jammed together in the cab they were not as easy as they had once been—they had lost the hang of shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy. Nate felt treacherous, as if having once been Petey's best friend he was obliged to feel what he always had, but could not. Rafe kept wanting to know if he should turn now, was this that little road to the cove?, and they all three squinted at the road snaking out of the dusk, their disorientation a fall from grace, each separately determined to ignore this failure and do what he could to regain the old sense of rightness, because without it who were they, what had they become? This had been their kingdom—this half moon of nondescript beach, streamers of foam borne lightly toward them, flung high, disintegrating, drained away in pebble-glittering rills. The moon. The companionable shapes of dunes embracing the dead end that served as a parking lot. Where there was, gradually looming into visibility, another vehicle, a black van with opaque windows and mud-obscured license plate. "Don't tell me," Rafe said.
They got out and prowled around the van.
"Nobody in there now," Nate said.
"How do you know?" Petey drank and wiped his mouth, drank again and flung the bottle away, but that was a good thing, not at the van, away into the dark.
"Tracks and scuff-marks heading off but none coming back," Nate said. "Jesus. Tonto."
"Let's just leave it," Rafe said. "Go further down the beach. Make our fire." Once the fire was sending seething mares-tails of sparks upward Petey said, "Isn't it too dark for them to be out there, still?"
"Using lights maybe," Rafe said.
"If they were using lights wouldn't we see them?"
"Or they saw us, driving up."
"Shug wants to go out early. I'm fucked. I haven't been drunk in forever," Nate said.
They couldn't help watching the surf while they drank.
"Here he comes," Rafe said.
Ushered onto the beach by a gentle wave the slender figure advanced with a hampered frog-footed delicacy, his raft rasping and hissing across the sand. Pausing, he slid his mask onto the top of his head, revealing a naked oval face hooded all round in sleek black and aimed uncertainly in their direction. When he moved little points and glimmers from their fire skidded across his oily pelt. He set down a heavy bag whose clatter they could hear from where they sat.
Petey said, "Too heavy to carry, the greedy fuck."
"Gonna be more than one of them," Rafe said, but they waited and no others emerged from the surf.
"He's alone," Nate said.
"Dangerous diving alone," Petey observed.
"You know Fish and Game really fucks with these guys," Rafe said. "Hits them with these ridiculous fines, basically ruins their families. Bankrupts 'em. Five or more over the limit means they go to jail, and, Jesus, it's not like they're dealing heroin. They're just trying to get by."
"All I know is Shug really hates them," Nate said.
Petey ground his cigarette out in the sand and got to his feet. "This is for Shug."
Rafe said, "Petey. Come on—who is he hurting."
But Petey was already halfway to the slender figure, who turned and tried to run, tripping on his fins, curling up with his arms wrapped around his tight black bulb of a skull when Petey drove the toe of his boot once, twice, again into the unprotected small of his back, then moved around to the head clasped in slender arms, Rafe and Nate pounding across the sand, Rafe screaming, "Not his head," Nate screaming too, unsure in the end whether the diver had made any sound at all, and when Petey backed away and Nate knelt with a flash of &ja vu, he believed that upward gaze was the one he had been waiting for all along, the dark gaze that had seen to the end and had nothing to report.
But the limp black frog-footed figure was hoarsely breathing, and it became a question of what to do with him. Petey stood off to one side while they tried to figure out whether they had to take him somewhere or whether he could be left right there in the sand. "Where he bleeds to death from internal injuries," Rafe said.
"I dunno," Petey said quietly. "It could be worse to move him. His back took some pretty hard hits. Maybe his spine." As if he had nothing to do with it.
"We're taking him," Nate said. "Count of three, we all lift. Petey, you get his hands."
"This is how we get caught." Soft-voiced, but throwing down his cigarette. "You get his hands."
"I'm telling you this is the mistake, not what I did. And fuck you, I can carry him myself."
Staggering over the sand with the diver cradled in his arms, Petey went down on one knee but didn't drop the guy.
Rafe said, sliding two fingers down inside the black cowl, finding a pulse in the throat and nodding first to Petey and then to Nate. "Still with us."
"Now what do we do."
"Drop him off in front of the Emergency Room. In that grass in front of the hospital," Nate decided. "Being careful not to get seen."
After they settled the unconscious figure on a sleeping bag in the camper—Nate remembered just in time that he should be arranged on his side so that if he vomited he wouldn't choke on it—and were climbing into the cab Petey said, "Wait, man. The goody bag."
Petey slogged back across the sand toward the raft and came back, tilting comically to demonstrate the bag's weight. "More money than any of us've made this year. Who wants it."
"Put it in the back."
Within a quarter mile Rafe had to pull over to permit another vehicle, a huge SUV none of them recognized, to buck and lunge past them with inches to spare, Nate swearing at the other driver for almost scratching his paint job, Rafe saying, "What the fuck, nobody used to come here but us."
Before light, the phone rang, and Nate reached from the futon to answer it, knocking it from the wine-crate nightstand and leaning to feel across the carpet—sandy rumpled topography of his discarded jeans, the ringing chiming through the trailer, rabbit's tail tuft of a balled baby sock, the ringing, slick foil of a condom package, when was that, ringing, constellation of faintly glowing buttons that he held to his ear, scared, remembering, sick, life as he knew it over, a last importuning ring before he hit the right button.
"N Dawg. I fucked up."
Nate said the first thing that came to him: "It's gonna be all right." "Who was he hurting?" Petey was crying.
Ollie sat up, the T-shirt she slept in whiter than her nakedness would have been. "Who is it?"
"Listen to me," Nate said. "It will all be all right."
Back jammed against the wall, arms around her knees, Ollie said, "Is it Shug?"
"I've called the hospital like five times and they won't tell me alive or dead. I said I was his brother. I made up some Vietnamese name but they laughed—the nurse laughed. That has to mean he was awake and told them his name. If he was dead nobody would laugh about any little bit of it, right?"
Aware of Ollie listening with her back to the wall, Nate said, "Yeah that's a good sign. Now listen to me."
"One of your famous plans, N? I got a plan. Mexico. Tell Rafe so long and he was right, but then you had to go and say that thing about Shug, and Shug is like a father to me and I lost it. Why didn't you two fuckers hold me down." He coughed.
No longer caring that Ollie could hear Nate said, "Shug isn't like a father to anyone."
Ollie uncrossed her arms. Fur Is Murder. She crossed her arms again.
"My big mouth, shit, I'm sorry, man. That was unjust. You would've stopped me if you could, I know that rationally. I got to get going. Hey, I left the bag in your back yard."
"What bag?" Nate said.
But Petey was gone.
In the five A.M. kitchen Shug was dabbling together a breakfast heavy on salt and lard, whisking eggs and amening the cadences of his favorite talk-show host. When Nate came through the door Shug dialed down the volume—the jackal voice hectored from a dollhouse—and shook his big head in sullen wonder. "Left it right out there where anybody could come across it. Boone's been after me about buying the old truck and he could have come by. Then where would we be. Well, you. You would of still been in bed. But me, Boone trips over that bag and I'm looking at jail time. Fish and Game," Shug added, in case Nate had forgotten who Boone worked for.
Nate barely managed not to say Jesus Dad put your shirt on. It didn't matter how used to each other they were on the boat, here in Louise's kitchen he was bothered by Shug's ribby, potent, belly-hanging nakedness, and especially by the scar between the old man's slabby breasts, the naked pink millipede that should have been decently covered by the shirt hanging on the chair. Curious, that Shug had brought the shirt downstairs but not tugged it on over his shaggy head. Or had he taken it off when he began cooking. Though this time it was a trivial matter Nate tried once more to figure out why Shug did what he did.
"If it was just you running the risk, I would almost agree you have the right to screw up your own life, but when your lying cheating deviousness threatens this family I can't turn a blind eye. You think I don't mean it, or that I can't handle the Louise on my own or that I'll never draw the line because I'm your father, but you fucked up for good, and Ollie and the baby can stay but you've got to go. Now. Today. I don't want you spending another night under my roof."
Every angle in the kitchen sharpened as if a knife had shaved vagueness away. Nate's body recognized catastrophe before his brain did. His heart began a purposeful gallop but his mind, groping wildly, discovered not a single word of protest, and this was too bad—later he would understand that the one way he could have saved the situation was to get right into the old man's face. That might have worked. It might have meant their lives could go on. Much, much too late he was to grasp the consequences of his silence and wonder why, when his very life depended on it, he had not been able to come up with the straightforward Fuck you of a blameless man. Instead, as he had too many times before, Nate placed his faith in explanation. The problem was his dad did not understand. Look how quickly he could clear this up! "Somebody left the abalone in the yard while I was sleeping. Left them without my knowing."
"Ah, now. Like I don't know how this world works. Like anybody would leave that bag if you weren't in on the deal. You think I never wanted to break the rules? Cheat some? But did you ever see me? How much do you think was in that bag? Did you count? I'm guessing—ten, twenty grand? You think I don't know you take divers out? A blind man could tell from the mess you leave behind. You got your cut, and if you hadn't been drunk you wouldn't have left the bag out where I would find it. But part of you wants to screw up. Part of you always has."
"No, Dad, this is about you. What you've been waiting for," Nate said. "And here it is, your chance to end this, because now that Mom is gone there's nothing to keep me from hating you."
He ducked, but then stood shaking his head, aware that nothing more would happen, now that Shug had tried to hit him. The words had come out wrong and he would have liked to explain that piece of it. He wasn't the hater. In his confusion it had come out wrong. What he meant was: nothing to keep you from hating me.
He was almost through town, Highway 1 running between dark old false-front buildings housing four antiques stores and a used bookstore and a shoe store and an art gallery and a hardware store doomed to another day of almost no sales, when he noticed the star sparkling in the rearview, twinkling from red to blue, sharpening, fading, falling behind, his truck running well though he'd neglected to get the oil changed—well, he hadn't been contemplating any long trips, and even now he wasn't sure where he was going, except that he had an aunt he had liked when he was a kid, and she lived in a little town in Oregon, and that might work for a while, long enough for his dad to calm down. They could use a cooling-off period. Shug was right, Nate couldn't see him handling the Louise on his own—it was only a matter of time, and if Nate chose a lucky evening to call, Shug would answer the phone as if there had been no fight and Nate had inexplicably taken off, leaving him shorthanded. That was exactly how Shug would play it, as if Nate was in the wrong, and this cradling, forgiving, exasperating recognition of his dad's ability to put him endlessly in the wrong was complicated by the sudden realization that the ricocheting red-blue twinkle was for him and then as clearly as he had ever seen anything in his life he saw Shug rest his knuckles over his dark eye, recollecting the numbers of Nate's license and reciting to the officer on the other end of the phone, and as it gained on Nate that scurrying to-and-fro light-show would burn brighter and brighter and more righteously, its anger justified when Boone Salazar or whoever swung down the tailgate and dug under the tarps in the pickup bed until, aha, the goodie bag was hefted and swung before Nate's believing, disbelieving eyes, the shells within chattering like stones poured down a well except these would not be poured anywhere, but held against him as evidence, and it didn't matter what he said or didn't say, they had the proof in the Vietnamese diver's bag, which smelled of the bottom of the sea, and if Petey was wrong and the man had in fact died this could get very, very bad and Nate could be gone for years, and there would be Ollie alone with their little boy in the trailer in the yard knee-deep in thistles and bindweed, and nothing Nate could do about it when Shug crossed that yard, and he would cross that yard, he'd already been crossing that yard and with this recognition Nate was alone in icy water with the keen sense that it was time for him to go down and he really didn't care. It was just too bad that the end was on him before he understood his life. The end had been coming forever and now that it was here he saw no reason to object. He downshifted and pulled onto the shoulder without worrying about it because he was cradled in the shadow of his destined wave, heaping itself, its high rim a spitting, flinging banner of foam, and Nate rolled the window down and rested his face in his crossed arms on the steering wheel and waited.
It was Boone, and he said into the open window, "I'm gonna need to see in the camper," and Nate said, "Yeah, okay," but before he could get out of the truck Boone said, "Did you know that diver was a kid when you-all broke his ribs?" and Nate said, shocked, "It was not a kid," and then, "How old?" Boone said "Seventeen," and then, "Well, now things get more complicated, because he's hurt pretty bad," and Nate figured he might as well ask, "How bad?"
"Well yes it is," Boone said, "yes it is and I'm surprised you're so damn calm in the face of important good news like this, but maybe you called to check on the kid during the night."
"I didn't know it was a kid and I didn't call."
"It's been a night of interesting phone calls. A couple to the hospital during the night and an anonymous one to my office a half hour ago. Christ, Nate, how could you get into shit like this, break your old man's heart?" And then: "Look, I'm gonna do something I'm going to regret, so don't say anything and don't give me any fucked reason to think twice. Just drive." He slapped the roof of the cab twice. "Just drive away." He stepped back. "This is for Shug. Now you tell him that the next time you talk."
In the rearview mirror Boone Salazar was backlit by alternating shocks of crimson and blue, his hand lifted in a wave, but it took an hour of dark highway, winding through the woods with no lights whatsoever in his rearview, before Nate could believe that he was free, and more miles passed before, remembering what he was supposed to tell Shug, he began to laugh, seeing the beauty of it.
There’s this old man who walks along the fence next to the hospital, or, say, down near town, wobbling in his loose, flapping shoes, digging around in the garbage can on the corner, smoking a cigarette, clutching it between his battered fingers, or simply walking with his shoulders braced as if he knew he was some kind of fodder for speculation, because it seems to be so consistent, his homeless rooting, keeping to a pattern, moving south on Midland Avenue for a half mile to Franklin Place and then left on Franklin and down Franklin to River Road, along River Road to Front Street, left on Front and up Front back to Midland, and then, presumably, around again. By virtue of his consistency, he has edged his way into the consciousness of just about everybody who has driven more than once down Midland Avenue, or Front Street, or, to a lesser degree, Franklin Place.
Rain or shine, for about a year and a half, give or take, he has slogged with the same gimp, the same loping swing of arms, the same cigarette burning between his fingers, and he’s rooted in the same trash cans—the one on the corner of Midland and Franklin, or the one on the corner of River and Front. Leaning down with his underwear showing in winter, pale yellow, say, or his pants hiked up too far over his shirt in summer, he goes against the elemental facts in a disconcerting way that makes those passing him shrug and wonder brie y what his story might be before going back to their lives, half caring and half not caring, subsumed in the responsibilities at hand, so to speak, or caring deeply with a flash of intense sadness and wonder, resolving to sign up to work at the shelter in town, the Soup Haven, or whatever it’s called, or not caring one iota and getting riled up thinking about the ease with which a man can pass his life in what must be a pleasurable vortex of non-time that comes from following a set path day after day, say, insane or on the edge of insanity, as a way of escaping responsibilities, dodging them for the poetic stance of being the odd homeless gent, strangely formal in the way he daintily roots, poking at the trash with a stick, his face like that of an old sea captain, say, or of a farmhand of some type, which leads some to speculate that he was once one of those ship workers, river pilots who at times come in to land at the dock on the river to catch a cab down to the Bronx, expounding stories of bridge heights and the way the tides have to be calculated before you take a ship upriver, attesting to the way it all works—one man captaining the boat from the harbor to the river mouth, another bringing it upriver. Weather-beaten, some think while passing him on a windy day, watching the way he lists with his arms out at his sides, winglike, the tail of his shirt uttering behind him as he walks.
The way he roots through the garbage cans in the winter snow and in the summer heat with an admirable persistence serves as a touchstone, fuelled by the concept of mental illness a oat over the land, even, say, for the less educated observers who just see him and think, Fucking crazy old homeless bastard hanging in there, still going, still doing his thing. The phrase “mental illness” shrouds his body as he walks, and orients him, slips him like a peg into whatever dreamy ideas of madness ll the minds of those passing and pushes away the thought that he is, in a way, say, a re ection of some part of themselves that might, someday, under the right circumstances—a nancial loss leading to ruin, say, or some neurological disorder, an improper linking of nerves, or a shady haze of undetected tumor, or some sharp trauma abrupt enough to throw off their general balance—irrevocably force them into the same circumstances, wandering day after day, sticking to the same general pattern, stopping to dig in the public trash can for discarded bottles or scraps of food or newspapers to read.
Those who pass have had a sense that perhaps, at least in theory, at least as some kind of innate potential, they may—unlikely, hugely unlikely—someday and themselves in the same circumstances, although with variations, of course, and themselves feeling something that isn’t simply shame but something deeper in the self, an obliviousness that allows for wandering in ice-cold air with your shirt wide open, a deprivation of life force, or of gumption, or of will that could leave you shuffling through a limited space, say, always keeping close to the safety of shelter if there is shelter, or to the house of older parents who, bewildered by the state of your life, will take you in and give you a bed and care for you as best as they can, telling you to stay in when it’s cold, building a fire, listening and waiting for you to speak with coherence, to give a sign that somehow you are going to pull out of this and get your life back together, say, or that you are just gathering your equilibrium and finding a foothold in reality, or at least in common sense, having known you—your parents—when you were a full-blown functioning adult in the world, making deals, establishing relationships with others, cleaning your body and dressing in accordance with the climatic conditions, enjoying good days and bad days, lingering over the beauty of the world, over, say, an amazingly graceful football play in which the receiver hooks his arm up without looking to clutch the ball in a way that seems to defy not only the nature of physics itself but something more, the potential in the act itself, or, better yet, over, say, the way a kid, like your own son or daughter, if you have one, looks up at you, beaming after accomplishing some new task, such as putting a round peg into a round hole instead of a square one, or, even better, over, say, the way the pianist Sviatoslav Richter occasionally held back from playing while the audience waited and grew impatient, first making noise, mumbling and talking, anxious and expectant, while he sat on the bench and held his fingers poised to play, letting the sound of the Moscow hall reverberate with all the coughing and tense laughter, the whispering, and then waited and waited until a deep quiet fell, a silence that anticipated the first notes and then grew even deeper, it was said, until there was nothing but the creak of the seats and the soft, muted thump of shoe soles against wooden floorboards, and then an even deeper, astonished silence that seemed, in all its starkness, accusatory and frank, judging the ineptitude of those who would, in a few minutes—or by that point perhaps never—listen to the beautiful music that his fingers would produce if they received the proper instruction from the brain of the virtuoso, who was temperamental and elegant and oddly dumb at the same time, a man holding his fingers clawed over the keys and casting back upon the world an innate sense of that which lies between the flesh and the soul, forcing it on the audience with his unusual—albeit par for the course when it comes to creative geniuses—behavior.
It’s not just that you went to visit him when he was in Rockland, now called Blaisdell Addiction Treatment Center, stopping on the way to pick up some hard candies and a bagel and a large coffee, as he had requested, and that you went in and checked in with the receptionist and signed the register and ignored (as best you could) her blunt, bored stare from the other side of the window—the grille of the voice-hole mute and silent—and then went through what seemed like a set of air-lock doors to the elevator, standing alongside one or two other visitors who also held bags of food, and then went up to attend the obligatory class, hearing the same nurse give the same speech about freedom (Focus on thought, Remember where it leads, Eliminate the error, Explore other options, Don’t react, respond, Organize thoughts, Motivate to do better), her face slack and sweet but also bored, everyone uncomfortable on the hard steel chairs, with the sense that through the door the patients were gathering, waiting.
It’s not just that you drove over there and parked and felt the sorrow of the locked ward from the outside—the building relatively new on the old hospital grounds, the other buildings, some barracks-like, others elegant and Gothic, their windows boarded up with blank sheets of plywood, mildewed gray, gaping—knowing that you’d enter his building and go through the above-mentioned routine, also aware as you sat in the car for a minute that the same hospital had a mention in the Ginsberg poem, again and again (“I’m with you in Rockland!”), which made you feel part of literary history somehow, and also made you wonder if perhaps you could use this in a story, take advantage of the fact that you were in a real situation with your real brother, who was back again in what might be the terminal treatment for his condition.
It’s not just that the third time you visited him you sat in the car and rehashed the way it would happen, at least until you got in and sat with him face to face, listening to whatever he was going to say, sharing the food, leaning back, taking in the room—the little kids visiting fathers, the older folks visiting young patients, the celebratory hilarity of the homecomings lifting the air with a sweet vibration—sat in the car and rehashed the way you’d go in, face the mute receptionist, go through the air-lock device, and then sit through the talk on freedom again, after checking your food bag with the orderly. It’s not just that the third time you went to visit, on an autumnal day with the leaves brilliant in the sharp morning sunlight, you’d go through the routine and then sense again, while you were talking, trying to coax him into a positive vision of what he might become, the cycle of the entire story up to that point, rolling in hoops, swinging around both of you, and you’d shrug it off and watch while your brother removed the lid of his cup, blew across the surface, and took a sip and then another sip and then leaned his head back and swallowed, flexing his throat and the sinewy muscles of his neck, exposing his gaunt breastbone, which looked covered in tissue paper, and then, when his head came back down, met your gaze with deep brown eyes while between you, in the quiet, unspoken silence that suddenly opened, there would be such a thick exchange of information that you’d both tear up and clear your throats and you’d push the bag forward and say, I brought you a bagel, like you asked, and some hard candies, and he’d give you a look that was so thankful, so absurdly out of proportion to your act of kindness that you would know right there—amid the din of love talk between visitors and patients—that the tenor of his thank-you would come back to haunt you later, no matter what happened.
It’s not just that in the car before going up on the third visit you’d granted yourself a bitter kind of solace, because you were not locked up there and he was, and you were able to find words to situate yourself in life, and he didn’t seem able to do so at that moment—a kind of purity of resolve (in the car) that sat behind your eyelids when you shut your eyes and let the sunlight purge through in a blood burst of warm red. It’s not just the clean, hard facts that you understood, in the car, and that were so threadbare and old hat that almost anyone could have recited them, beginning with the use of chemicals that sparked dopamine production and lodged themselves in organic compounds called receptors, and then from there took over what was originally a unique story—the Hudson River house, the art work, his stone-carved faces in the front yard, the view of the river from his back patio, his name, Frank, the minutiae of his story—and transmuted it into a clichéd tale that changed only in the terms that were used to describe it, so that those who were once known as mad, Skid Row bums, stumblebums and drunkards and junkies were now seen as diseased victims who might be treated.
It’s not just the fact that in the car, or a few minutes later, riding up in the elevator with an older couple who told you they were from the Bronx, both working people, you were aware that part of the tragedy of the situation was the loss of story inherent in the hospital walls, the sealed doors, the sign-in sheet, and the folding chairs that were standard issue for this sort of place, along with the social worker who had a heavy Haitian accent and told you, when you were done with the visit, that he’d watch out for your brother in particular, responding to your politeness (you were extra polite), his face wide, moonlike, and his eyes watery, at his place behind the nurse’s desk outside the meeting room. It’s not just the way he told you that your brother stood out as a lively patient, that he was getting his act together, and that he would, quote, soon find his path, he likes to draw and everyone knows he’s an artist, unquote.
It’s not just that you went home and read Thomas Merton and reread a line you’d underlined in his book “Seeds of Contemplation,” which stated in no uncertain terms that humility was the only antidote to despair—that you read it a few times and then went into a deep contemplation out on your back deck, smoking a cigar, wondering if there was a way to become humble before the preordained humiliation of a chemical addiction, wondering if the narrative thrown around your brother would look just as absurd when folks in the future found out that it had nothing at all to do with the way the compounds locked into receptors but originated with something else that was, at that time, out on the deck, out in the world, as mysterious to you as it was to everyone else.
It’s not just that he went from a halfway house called Open Arms, a neat and tidy little house in the town of Haverstraw, tucked up amid the river-town streets, with a view of the river—a glint of blue through the trees in the summer, more stark and open in the winter—to the hospital cleanup ward, and then up to Rockland for the first time, and then back to Open Arms again for a second stay, and then back to the emergency-room cleanup ward, and then up to Rockland (as you’d think of it some of the time), and then out of Blaze (as you began to call it later) into Open Arms again, and then to Blaze for a third, final time, which seemed to matter so much the third time you went to visit him, sitting in the car, watching the rain come down, the smell of the bagel and the coffee in the air, ruminating over the way the names of the institutions seemed to map out with neat concision, to make orderly what wasn’t orderly, as if language itself were straining to show in clear terms the structure of the story that was forming around him, just as his wife’s name had matched the name of his first roommate in the halfway house, and he had felt the mockery of fate itself, had said to you, Jesus, what are the chances that I’d have a roommate with a slightly feminine name and a wife with a slightly masculine name, and that somehow I’d be put in with this guy who is half my age and just going through this for the first time, with his life spread out before him, for God’s sake, while I’m here with my life not spreading at all, because even if I stay clean I’ve only got, what, a dozen years left?
It’s not just that it seemed, on the third visit, as you signed the clipboard, that you were a signatory to some insoluble time-sense, and that the duration of your visit would be a stasis of time that would forever play itself out in the revisiting of the situation from that particular point of time in relation to what happened later, and that would, in hindsight, seem marked, somehow, in relation to the way the hospital ward stood, even as you signed in, as a momentary, fleeting refuge from the wild torments of the outside world, the indelible real places—the old house on the river that had been empty since your brother’s divorce, and the old art studio in the rehabilitated mill building where he had worked on his paintings, and the river itself, the shoreline down near the state park where he’d hiked with his son—that would when he thought back on them spark in him a need, a desire, to rehash his relationship with the chemicals that eased the pain they produced. It’s not just that you’re constantly embarrassed by or ashamed of the circularity of the story when you think of it. It’s not just that no matter how hard you try to see his story in simple tragic terms, as an Aristotelian process, you also feel yourself spinning back into the cycle that might eventually devour him, losing touch with whatever cathartic elements might lie hidden within the structure of his story as it relates to your own, partly because you are still part of the story and it has yet to reach its terminus and therefore the overarching arc hasn’t been reached yet—at least, so it seems.
It’s not just that you went to the state park to walk one afternoon and found his boots near the edge of the palisade, the sheer drop-off to the shore of the river. It’s not just that no matter how often you sort and pick through the story, alongside your parents and your sister and everyone else, you can’t help but find yourself, against your better nature, feeling the big sway and spin of the cosmos—the dark eternal matter of the stars, which, however isotropic or evenly balanced, seem, when you think of him, to be moving in a circular pattern that reminds you that the nurse explained, each time, during each pre-visit orientation, that part of the healing process was to step off the merry-go-round and never step back on.
It’s not just that so many of the organic compounds, landlocked by their restricting bonds, all those fuzzy quantum orbitals, tend toward formations that are elegantly circular. It’s not just that he took his boots off and leaped from the palisade and lifted his hands and flew out over the river and then back and that he felt himself relinquished of his condition and totally free for a few seconds, with the water below him. It’s not just that you imagined this as you sat in the car in the parking lot, after the third, maybe the fourth, visit, with the smell of damp paper bag and steaming coffee and—between those smells—the bready bagel smell. It’s not just that you only imagined the boots and then felt strange about the image, and remembered hiking back down the trail and along the railroad tracks to the road, stopping to stare at his house, now under new ownership, situated a quarter mile up the road from the stone quarry, the one you used in one of your stories, years back, when you were first beginning to locate the sober source of your own vision.
No, it’s the fact that he never had a chance to fly and that you never really found those boots and that each time you visited him he seemed to be only slightly better. It’s the fact that when you left him behind, speeding down the road past the old Rockland buildings, boarded up and unused now that most of the mad and crazy are outpatients, medicated, wandering the streets and the homeless shelters, you felt a keen elation. It’s the fact that once again you were joyfully facing the harsh limitations of reality, admitting that it all had to be taken and turned into a story of some kind. Otherwise, it would just be one more expression of precise discontent. And expressions of discontent—you think in the car, sitting in front of your own house now—no matter how beautiful, never solve the riddle of the world, or bring the banality of sequential reality to a location of deeper grace.
I have not yet learned to smile without my gums. In a year I will become an expert at twisting my mouth into a demure crescent, lowering my upper lip to hide the pink flesh holding shelves of teeth in place, lifting my bottom lip instead of stretching it sideways. I will learn to keep my eyes open when I smile, crinkling only the corners so as not to look terrifying or fake. I will begin tilting my chin down to give the illusion of cheekbones.
But in this picture, my smile is still a flurry of teeth and gum, a joyful elasticated gape. My eyes have disappeared into pouches of baby fat, my cheeks are glistening peaches in the afternoon sun. I lean my head into your neck, my hair wet and stringy, perhaps deliciously cold against your bare shoulder. Your skin is walnut brown, shiny from afternoons spent on canoes and wakeboards and walking me home. The sun beats down on our prickly necks.
We are on a beach. The beach is manmade, like most things in this country, and where we are standing now was once nothing but sea. Still, it is a fine beach, with soft white sand that scalds the tender skin between our toes and a shallow bay in which we splash water at each other’s faces like the insufferable teenagers we are. When the salt stings my eyes I stop and remind you that I am wearing contact lenses, and you fold me into your cold hard arms, putting your lips over my ear as if that has anything to do with eye infections at all.
In the picture, you are smiling too. The same gummy smile and squinty eyes and your head resting gently against mine. In a year you would ask me how I could have done it. How I could have stroked the palm of your hand with my thumb just outside the frame of the picture being taken, as I planned a life without you in a place with no artificial beaches or year-round sun. In a year, you would look at a picture of me online, trace the edges of my new smile, your fingertips brushing my disciplined lips, my wide unblinking eyes. Your nails lightly scratching the surface of my newly bleached teeth.
We lie in your bed. A sheen of perspiration slicks our limbs.
“My mom’s called the aircon man. He’s coming tomorrow,” you say.
The fan beats weakly overhead and you kiss my damp forehead. It is hot and not in a good way, so I shift myself out of reach. But you lunge and pull me close. I laugh and wriggle, you won’t let me go, and as we struggle we roll slowly off the low bed.
“Ow,” I say, though you have taken the brunt of the fall. The marble floor is ice against my shins and I hike my skirt up to press the whole length of my bare legs against it.
“Mmmm.” You place your warm hands on the backs of my thighs. “What have we here?”
“It’s too hot,” I whine, rolling over and swatting your hands away.
“A nymph?” you say, undeterred. We are both still in our school uniforms. Your hands find my belly, begin unbuttoning my shirt. “Bathing all by herself in a crystal clear river?”
I feel your hard-on against my thigh, the heat of your breath on my cheek. The marble tiles chill the backs of my calves. I imagine the relief of being naked against the smooth floor.
I slide my hands under your shirt, feeling the silky knot of your body under the wash-worn cotton. “Oh Zeus,” I say. “I’m just a lowly nymph. Please let me go, Zeus.”
I never told you, but when I was thirteen, a girl in my class with the long white face like an elongated moon asked us all when we thought we’d lose our virginity. I’d seen the movies and read the books. At that point in our lives, my best friend and I were shameless consumers of Lesley Pearce and other age-inappropriate chick lit. But my best friend was from a good middle class Christian family, and had shame about her body instilled in her from a young age. I did not come from such a family.
So I answered with ‘eighteen,’ what I thought was a conservative estimate, based on what I had read up till then. The girl who asked the question howled in disbelief. She exhausted herself that day telling everyone who would listen that ‘Celeste Tan said she would lose her virginity at eighteen,’ and I realized for the first time that the values espoused in American chick lit did not apply in Singapore. For days I had people coming up to me asking if it was true, if I planned to have pre-marital sex at eighteen. Even as the shame twisted my insides I knew better than to get angry or backtrack or try to treat it as a joke. Instead I met the hungry mocking gazes of my classmates straight on, said yes, I did, and I didn’t see what the big deal was at all.
It happens a year earlier than I predict. I am seventeen, when we meet in the cheesiest of ways. We have just arrived at junior college, fresh from rigorous single-sex schools, awash in hormones and ambition. I have joined three extracurricular clubs—netball, choir and photography—securing leadership positions that will look impressive on my college applications.
As creative director of the photography club, I am in charge of marketing our first exhibition, which I have creatively titled ‘Exposure.’ I therefore need a naked torso for the poster, I decide, the more defined the abs, the better. Years later, I will write essays about subverting the male gaze, but right now all I really want is to photograph a hot guy.
I don’t remember who suggests you, but I do remember the way they put it. They say it’s the kind of thing you would do. I don’t think then about what they mean, but I remember it years later. You are the kind of person who would do the kind of thing you do.
We meet at your house. It is a large house in a nice neighborhood, quietly, confidently prosperous. A single floor with high ceilings, no second or third floors tacked on to maximize space. Along with the large house you have a large family, parents and three brothers and a maid, and there are enough rooms for you all.
We go into the garden, where the light is better. The garden is the size of my grandmother’s flat, where I live with my mother and brother now that my father is gone. I do not think about this. Instead I tell you to take your shirt off and stand against the white exterior wall of the house. In my hands I hold one of the photography club’s DSLRs, a heavy beast of a camera with an aggressively phallic lens. My shoulder aches where the camera strap digs in, but when I lift it to my face and look through the viewfinder, all I see is you.
After the day I take your picture, the flirtation begins. It is as predictable and mundane as all other flirtations, but we are seventeen, and do not know that yet. There are no nude selfies, for I am ever concerned about my prospects of winning a college scholarship, but there are suggestive phone calls and lewd texts that we believe are daring and unique. Two weeks later I go back to your house, this time wearing matching underwear under my t-shirt and shorts. When we sit on your bed and you lean into me, my skin grows hot but I pull away. I tell you that I would only kiss a boy if he were my boyfriend and you respond without skipping a beat.
When you ask me to be your girlfriend, your voice is husky and I think it is the emotion of the moment, but many years later I will think of myself thinking this and laugh. I say okay and kiss you before you can kiss me.
No one says slut but they say other things, things like someone heard a rumor that we had a threesome with your ex-girlfriend, or we had sex outdoors in a playground, or we are in an open relationship. No one says slut but they ask me loaded questions about birth control and whether I want to go to church with them this weekend.
The problem, I am told, is that you already had a girlfriend when you hooked up with me. Never mind that I did not know, never mind that you broke up with her the day after the day I went to your house. I know that is only one of the problems. The other problem is that we are having sex at all.
No one says slut until someone does, and once the word is pried loose from their mouths it won’t go back in, it follows me everywhere I go.
It is unfair, my friends say when I find strings of strawberry-flavored condoms in my locker one day, stapled to the now-familiar word scrawled across crumpled notepad paper. The word is written in blue ballpoint, a pen that the perpetrator likely uses for homework assignments, to write in the notepad that resides in his or her backpack. A backpack that is sitting somewhere in this school. Seeing the word written like that makes something curdle and harden in the base of my stomach.
I swallow the feeling, narrow my eyes and give a practiced smile. My friends laugh in relief. I tell them I don’t care and it lifts the burden from their shoulders. Soon the incident is forgotten and we move onto other topics. They laugh as we throw the condoms away, make jokes about the poor cleaning lady who will find them. I laugh too. They do not see me slip the crumpled paper into my bag. They do not see me at home that night, smoothing it out under the yellow light of my desk lamp as my baby brother snores in the bed next to mine.
I don’t tell you about what is happening at school. You have recently transferred to a different school and haven’t heard the stories. Or you pretend you don’t. Either way, I don’t bring it up.
I go to your house most afternoons now. Your mother likes me, because I bring my homework. I make you study too. You are smart but unfocused, aimless and undisciplined in the way that intelligent teenage boys often are.
As a joke, I tell you I will break up with you if you fail your first year of junior college. But to my surprise, and your mother’s, you take me seriously. You begin studying with me in the afternoons. We argue about trigonometry and Shakespeare. I am usually right, or perhaps you let me win. We spread our textbooks across the veined emerald marble that is your dining table. Your younger brothers creep past us stealthily, shushed by your mother if she happens to be home.
When we are not working, we are in your bed. The music we have sex to depends on your mood, alternating between John Mayer, Nirvana and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Perhaps it is on a day when we are listening to the latter that you bring up your thing for the classics. You quote Plato and Herodotus, even though none of it is on the syllabus. You confess you sometimes jerk off while imagining yourself as a Greek god.
“Which one?” I ask, ever practical.
“There isn’t one,” you bluster, avoiding my eyes. “Forget it. I was only joking.”
I let the silence reign as I draw you into my arms, running my fingernails down your back the way I know you enjoy. I put my face in your neck but you have no smell. It is the one thing about you that is unexpected, for you have the greasy skin and oily hair of an athlete in a tropical country. But it is unmistakable. You always smell of nothing; no sweat, no sweetness, no human salt. Vampiric.
The air-conditioning has been fixed. It hums quietly, filling your room with cold recycled air as the afternoon festers outside.
“Zeus,” you say at last.
“Mm. Lord Zeus.” I let my fingers trail down your spine, hook my nails under the elastic band of your shorts. “I am your most humble slave.”
You don’t respond, but I feel your breathing quicken. I think about the hundreds, thousands of times this fantasy has played out in your head, alone, in solitude, perhaps on your childhood bed that we are lying on now. I think about the box of tissues on the window ledge beside us and I am overcome with tenderness. I feel something inside me crack, a hairline fracture that threatens to widen into a chasm. I wonder if this is love.
It is as if I can already see the full rise and fall of our relationship, as if I can see how this will end. A sad thought, so I buck my hips under you and whisper nymph-like nothings in your ear. It doesn’t take long for you to respond.
Your mother has bought me a pair of expensive earrings. Earrings that cost as much as what my entire family spends on groceries in a year.
It is the latest in a string of gifts that begin when you tell her about my ‘family background.’
“You don’t mind, do you?” you say to me. An afterthought.
I don’t. Seeing myself through your mother’s eyes, I feel my shape coming into focus, my edges sharpening in the fog. I never thought my life was different than yours or any of those around me, but now I see what the houses and cars and parents who help with homework add up to.
Your mother gives me other things: a string of freshwater pearls, a travel makeup set, a bracelet. To me they are shockingly lavish gifts. They gleam with the implication of a different life, a life where clothes are not secondhand, where buying textbooks does not mean cutting back on eating meat, where the quality of a life is unrelated to the charity of relatives.
I keep these gifts in a bookshelf behind novels, hidden away from my own mother, who does not know about you. She thinks I spend my afternoons at after-school clubs. The gifts stay in their boxes and from time to time I take them out, brushing the dust from their plastic housings and savoring their weight in my hands.
I study harder. I want to make your mother proud.
You joke that my accepting the expensive earrings means we have to get married. I laugh, but remember the way your lip curled when I asked you once how you would feel if I went to college in a different country, and the joke becomes not very funny after that.
Then you say seriously that our sex is so good you wish other people could see. You say that you wish other people knew what they were missing out on, that maybe we should one day run a school for sex. A sex academy.
You like doing it in front of the bathroom mirror. I see you watching yourself, I see you thinking about the other people.
I think about other people too, but not in the same way. It is a little more than a year into our relationship, and I have met someone. He is more muscular and less intelligent than you, but I still find myself responding to his texts, looking forward to his calls.
When I meet him in his car one night and let him kiss me even though I find his conversation dull, I think of the condoms in my locker. And the note, which I have smoothed out and folded and carefully saved. Slut. I should have saved the condoms too, that would have shown the classmate with the long white face. Celeste said she would lose her virginity at eighteen. As I slip my hand under the boring attractive boy’s shirt, I think about how I have surpassed expectations yet again.
On my eighteenth birthday, we go to the beach. When we get there my closest friends jump out from behind a tree, where they are badly hidden. There is a picnic: brownies, fried chicken wings, sweet Taiwanese sausages. You have gotten them to bring my favorite food. There is also a cake, giving off an oily sheen as its chocolate icing liquefies in the blazing sun.
In a year I will get a scholarship to go to a famous school in a country that I can only get to by being on a plane for twenty-two hours.
The first flight will be agonizing. A vague ache will develop in my lower back, and no matter how I twist and turn in the narrow gray seat, pull my knees up to my chest, curl into a ball on my side, it will remain. Even when the plane finally lands at its destination, a city where none of my clothes make sense and no one believes English is my first language, even when I stand up and step off the plane and into the airport and onto the subway, even then, the ache will still be there. I will be struck by the worry that it will never go away, that I will spend the rest of my life with pain lodged in my spine.
In a year, I will leave you in the cruelest of ways. Though I still wear the earrings that your mother gave me, I will morph into a new me, an American me, one that has nothing to do with the girl on the beach eating a chocolate cake baked by you. I will not call. I will not respond to emails. I will ignore the pictures that you send me in the post, of us knee-deep in the sea at my eighteenth birthday, hair matted with salt and eyes lit with love. I will think of you rarely, briefly, while some other boy bites my earlobe or strokes my thigh.