The Goldfinch
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FOR M OTHER,
FOR CLAUDE
I.
The absurd does not liberate; it binds.
—ALBERT CAMUS
Chapter 1.
Boy with a Skull
i.
WHILE I WAS STILL in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for
the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a
week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart
scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises:
elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling
the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an
inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the
bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch-language news on television
(which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when
I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my
camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes—for I’d left New York
in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even
indoors.
Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights
twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en
heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the
cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their
bicycles. In the afternoons, an amateur band played Christmas
carols that hung tinny and fragile in the winter air.
Chaotic room-service trays; too many cigarettes; lukewarm
vodka from duty free. During those restless, shut-up days, I got to
know every inch of the room as a prisoner comes to know his cell.
It was my first time in Amsterdam; I’d seen almost nothing of the
city and yet the room itself, in its bleak, drafty, sunscrubbed
beauty, gave a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the
Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-
mingled with deep-dyed luxury brought in merchant ships from the
East. I spent an unreasonable amount of time scrutinizing a tiny
pair of gilt-framed oils hanging over the bureau, one of peasants
skating on an ice-pond by a church, the other a sailboat flouncing
on a choppy winter sea: decorative copies, nothing special, though
I studied them as if they held, encrypted, some key to the secret
heart of the old Flemish masters. Outside, sleet tapped at the
windowpanes and drizzled over the canal; and though the brocades
were rich and the carpet was soft, still the winter light carried a
chilly tone of 1943, privation and austerities, weak tea without
sugar and hungry to bed.
Early every morning while it was still black out, before the
extra clerks came on duty and the lobby started filling up, I walked
downstairs for the newspapers. The hotel staff moved with hushed
voices and quiet footsteps, eyes gliding across me coolly as if they
didn’t quite see me, the American man in 27 who never came down
during the day; and I tried to reassure myself that the night
manager (dark suit, crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses) would probably
go to some lengths to avert trouble or avoid a fuss.
The Herald Tribune had no news of my predicament but the
story was all over the Dutch papers, dense blocks of foreign print
which hung, tantalizingly, just beyond the reach of my
comprehension. Onopgeloste moord. Onbekende. I went upstairs
and got back into bed (fully clad, because the room was so cold)
and spread the papers out on the coverlet: photographs of police
cars, crime scene tape, even the captions were impossible to
decipher, and although they didn’t appear to have my name, there
was no way to know if they had a description of me or if they
were withholding information from the public.
The room. The radiator. Een Amerikaan met een strafblad.
Olive green water of the canal.
Because I was cold and ill, and much of the time at a loss
what to do (I’d neglected to bring a book, as well as warm clothes),
I stayed in bed most of the day. Night seemed to fall in the middle
of the afternoon. Often—amidst the crackle of strewn newspapers
—I drifted in and out of sleep, and my dreams for the most part
were muddied with the same indeterminate anxiety that bled
through into my waking hours: court cases, luggage burst open on
the tarmac with my clothes scattered everywhere and endless
airport corridors where I ran for planes I knew I’d never make.
Thanks to my fever I had a lot of weird and extremely vivid
dreams, sweats where I thrashed around hardly knowing if it was
day or night, but on the last and worst of these nights I dreamed
about my mother: a quick, mysterious dream that felt more like a
visitation. I was in Hobie’s shop—or, more accurately, some
haunted dream space staged like a sketchy version of the shop—
when she came up suddenly behind me so I saw her reflection in a
mirror. At the sight of her I was paralyzed with happiness; it was
her, down to the most minute detail, the very pattern of her
freckles, she was smiling at me, more beautiful and yet not older,
black hair and funny upward quirk of her mouth, not a dream but a
presence that filled the whole room: a force all her own, a living
otherness. And as much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t turn
around, that to look at her directly was to violate the laws of her
world and mine; she had come to me the only way she could, and
our eyes met in the glass for a long still moment; but just as she
seemed about to speak—with what seemed a combination of
amusement, affection, exasperation—a vapor rolled between us and
I woke up.
ii.
T HINGS WOULD HAVE TURNED out better if she had lived. As it was,
she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened
to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I
lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace
happier, to some more populated or congenial life.
Her death the dividing mark: Before and After. And though
it’s a bleak thing to admit all these years later, still I’ve never met
anyone who made me feel loved the way she did. Everything came
alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her
so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter
colors than ordinary—I remember a few weeks before she died,
eating a late supper with her in an Italian restaurant down in the
Village, and how she grasped my sleeve at the sudden, almost
painful loveliness of a birthday cake with lit candles being carried
in procession from the kitchen, faint circle of light wavering in
across the dark ceiling and then the cake set down to blaze amidst
the family, beatifying an old lady’s face, smiles all round, waiters
stepping away with their hands behind their backs—just an
ordinary birthday dinner you might see anywhere in an inexpensive
downtown restaurant, and I’m sure I wouldn’t even remember it
had she not died so soon after, but I thought about it again and
again after her death and indeed I’ll probably think about it all my
life: that candlelit circle, a tableau vivant of the daily, commonplace
happiness that was lost when I lost her.
She was beautiful, too. That’s almost secondary; but still, she
was. When she came to New York fresh from Kansas, she worked
part-time as a model though she was too uneasy in front of the
camera to be very good at it; whatever she had, it didn’t translate
to film.
And yet she was wholly herself: a rarity. I cannot recall ever
seeing another person who really resembled her. She had black hair,
fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light
in them; and in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an
eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that
sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic. In fact, she was half
Irish, half Cherokee, from a town in Kansas near the Oklahoma
border; and she liked to make me laugh by calling herself an Okie
even though she was as glossy and nervy and stylish as a
racehorse. That exotic character unfortunately comes out a little
too stark and unforgiving in photographs—her freckles covered
with makeup, her hair pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of her
neck like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji—and what doesn’t
come across at all is her warmth, her merry, unpredictable quality,
which is what I loved about her most. It’s clear, from the stillness
she emanates in pictures, how much she mistrusted the camera; she
gives off a watchful, tigerish air of steeling herself against attack.
But in life she wasn’t like that. She moved with a thrilling
quickness, gestures sudden and light, always perched on the edge
of her chair like some long elegant marsh-bird about to startle and
fly away. I loved the sandalwood perfume she wore, rough and
unexpected, and I loved the rustle of her starched shirt when she
swooped down to kiss me on the forehead. And her laugh was
enough to make you want to kick over what you were doing and
follow her down the street. Wherever she went, men looked at her
out of the corner of their eyes, and sometimes they used to look at
her in a way that bothered me a little.
Her death was my fault. Other people have always been a
little too quick to assure me that it wasn’t; and yes, only a kid, who
could have known, terrible accident, rotten luck, could have
happened to anyone, it’s all perfectly true and I don’t believe a
word of it.
It happened in New York, April 10th, fourteen years ago.
(Even my hand balks at the date; I had to push to write it down,
just to keep the pen moving on the paper. It used to be a perfectly
ordinary day but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.)
If the day had gone as planned, it would have faded into the
sky unmarked, swallowed without a trace along with the rest of
my eighth-grade year. What would I remember of it now? Little or
nothing. But of course the texture of that morning is clearer than
the present, down to the drenched, wet feel of the air. It had rained
in the night, a terrible storm, shops were flooded and a couple of
subway stations closed; and the two of us were standing on the
squelching carpet outside our apartment building while her favorite
doorman, Goldie, who adored her, walked backwards down FiftySeventh with his arm up, whistling for a taxi. Cars whooshed by in
sheets of dirty spray; rain-swollen clouds tumbled high above the
skyscrapers, blowing and shifting to patches of clear blue sky, and
down below, on the street, beneath the exhaust fumes, the wind
felt damp and soft like spring.
“Ah, he’s full, my lady,” Goldie called over the roar of the
street, stepping out of the way as a taxi splashed round the corner
and shut its light off. He was the smallest of the doormen: a wan,
thin, lively little guy, light-skinned Puerto Rican, a former
featherweight boxer. Though he was pouchy in the face from
drinking (sometimes he turned up on the night shift smelling of
J&B), still he was wiry and muscular and quick—always kidding
around, always having a cigarette break on the corner, shifting from
foot to foot and blowing on his white-gloved hands when it was
cold, telling jokes in Spanish and cracking the other doormen up.
“You in a big hurry this morning?” he asked my mother. His
nametag said BURT D. but everyone called him Goldie because of his
gold tooth and because his last name, de Oro, meant “gold” in
Spanish.
“No, plenty of time, we’re fine.” But she looked exhausted
and her hands were shaky as she re-tied her scarf, which snapped
and fluttered in the wind.
Goldie must have noticed this himself, because he glanced
over at me (backed up evasively against the concrete planter in
front of the building, looking anywhere but at her) with an air of
slight disapproval.
“You’re not taking the train?” he said to me.
“Oh, we’ve got some errands,” said my mother, without
much conviction, when she realized I didn’t know what to say.
Normally I didn’t pay much attention to her clothes, but what she
had on that morning (white trenchcoat, filmy pink scarf, black and
white two-tone loafers) is so firmly burned into my memory that
now it’s difficult for me to remember her any other way.
I was thirteen. I hate to remember how awkward we were
with each other that last morning, stiff enough for the doorman to
notice; any other time we would have been talking companionably
enough, but that morning we didn’t have much to say to each other
because I’d been suspended from school. They’d called her at her
office the day before; she’d come home silent and furious; and the
awful thing was that I didn’t even know what I’d been suspended
for, although I was about seventy-five percent sure that M r.
Beeman (en route from his office to the teachers’ lounge) had
looked out the window of the second-floor landing at exactly the
wrong moment and seen me smoking on school property. (Or,
rather, seen me standing around with Tom Cable while he smoked,
which at my school amounted to practically the same offense.) M y
mother hated smoking. Her parents—whom I loved hearing stories
about, and who had unfairly died before I’d had the chance to
know them—had been affable horse trainers who travelled around
the west and raised M organ horses for a living: cocktail-drinking,
canasta-playing livelies who went to the Kentucky Derby every
year and kept cigarettes in silver boxes around the house. Then my
grandmother doubled over and started coughing blood one day
when she came in from the stables; and for the rest of my mother’s
teenage years, there had been oxygen tanks on the front porch and
bedroom shades that stayed pulled down.
But—as I feared, and not without reason—Tom’s cigarette
was only the tip of the iceberg. I’d been in trouble at school for a
while. It had all started, or begun to snowball rather, when my
father had run off and left my mother and me some months before;
we’d never liked him much, and my mother and I were generally
much happier without him, but other people seemed shocked and
distressed at the abrupt way he’d abandoned us (without money,
child support, or forwarding address), and the teachers at my
school on the Upper West Side had been so sorry for me, so eager
to extend their understanding and support, that they’d given me—a
scholarship student—all sorts of special allowances and delayed
deadlines and second and third chances: feeding out the rope, over a
matter of months, until I’d managed to lower myself into a very
deep hole.
So the two of us—my mother and I—had been called in for a
conference at school. The meeting wasn’t until eleven-thirty but
since my mother had been forced to take the morning off, we were
heading to the West Side early—for breakfast (and, I expected, a
serious talk) and so she could buy a birthday present for someone
she worked with. She’d been up until two-thirty the night before,
her face tense in the glow of the computer, writing emails and
trying to clear the decks for her morning out of the office.
“I don’t know about you,” Goldie was saying to my mother,
rather fiercely, “but I say enough with all this spring and damp
already. Rain, rain—” He shivered, pulled his collar closer in
pantomime and glanced at the sky.
“I think it’s supposed to clear up this afternoon.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m ready for summer.” Rubbing his
hands. “People leave town, they hate it, complain about the heat,
but me—I’m a tropical bird. Hotter the better. Bring it on!”
Clapping, backing on his heels down the street. “And—tell you
what I love the best, is how it quietens out here, come July—?
building all empty and sleepy, everyone away, you know?”
Snapping his fingers, cab speeding by. “That’s my vacation.”
“But don’t you burn up out here?” M y standoffish dad had
hated this about her—her tendency to engage in conversation with
waitresses, doormen, the wheezy old guys at the dry cleaner’s. “I
mean, in winter, at least you can put on an extra coat—”
“Listen, you’re working the door in winter? I’m telling you it
gets cold. I don’t care how many coats and hats you put on.
You’re standing out here, in January, February, and the wind is
blowing in off the river? Brrr.”
Agitated, gnawing at my thumbnail, I stared at the cabs flying
past Goldie’s upraised arm. I knew that it was going to be an
excruciating wait until the conference at eleven-thirty; and it was all
I could do to stand still and not blurt out incriminating questions. I
had no idea what they might spring on my mother and me once
they had us in the office; the very word “conference” suggested a
convocation of authorities, accusations and face-downs, a possible
expulsion. If I lost my scholarship it would be catastrophic; we
were broke since my dad had left; we barely had money for rent.
Above all else: I was worried sick that M r. Beeman had found out,
somehow, that Tom Cable and I had been breaking into empty
vacation houses when I went to stay with him out in the
Hamptons. I say “breaking” though we hadn’t forced a lock or
done any damage (Tom’s mother was a real estate agent; we let
ourselves in with spare keys lifted from the rack in her office).
M ainly we’d snooped through closets and poked around in dresser
drawers, but we’d also taken some things: beer from the fridge,
some Xbox games and a DVD (Jet Li, Unleashed) and money,
about ninety-two dollars total: crumpled fives and tens from a
kitchen jar, piles of pocket change in the laundry rooms.
Whenever I thought about this, I felt nauseated. It was
months since I’d been out to Tom’s but though I tried to tell
myself that M r. Beeman couldn’t possibly know about us going
into those houses—how could he know?—my imagination was
flying and darting around in panicked zig-zags. I was determined
not to tell on Tom (even though I wasn’t so sure he hadn’t told on
me) but that left me in a tight spot. How could I have been so
stupid? Breaking and entering was a crime; people went to jail for
it. For hours the night before I’d lain awake tortured, flopping back
and forth and watching the rain slap in ragged gusts against my
windowpane and wondering what to say if confronted. But how
could I defend myself, when I didn’t even know what they knew?
Goldie heaved a big sigh, put his hand down and walked
backward on his heels to where my mother stood.
“Incredible,” he said to her, with one jaded eye on the street.
“We got the flooding down in SoHo, you heard about that, right,
and Carlos was saying they got some streets blocked off over by
the UN.”
Gloomily, I watched the crowd of workers streaming off the
crosstown bus, as joyless as a swarm of hornets. We might have
had better luck if we’d walked west a block or two, but my mother
and I had enough experience of Goldie to know that he would be
offended if we struck out on our own. But just then—so suddenly
that we all jumped—a cab with its light on skidded across the lane
to us, throwing up a fan of sewer-smelling water.
“Watch it!” said Goldie, leaping aside as the taxi plowed to a
stop—and then observing that my mother had no umbrella.
“Wait,” he said, starting into the lobby, to the collection of lost and
forgotten umbrellas that he saved in a brass can by the fireplace
and re-distributed on rainy days.
“No,” my mother called, fishing in her bag for her tiny candystriped collapsible, “don’t bother, Goldie, I’m all set—”
Goldie sprang back to the curb and shut the taxi door after
her. Then he leaned down and knocked on the window.
“You have a blessed day,” he said.
iii.
I LIKE TO THINK of myself as a perceptive person (as I suppose we
all do) and in setting all this down, it’s tempting to pencil a shadow
gliding in overhead. But I was blind and deaf to the future; my
single, crushing, worry was the meeting at school. When I’d called
Tom to tell him I’d been suspended (whispering on the land line;
she had taken away my cell phone) he hadn’t seemed particularly
surprised to hear it. “Look,” he’d said, cutting me off, “don’t be
stupid, Theo, nobody knows a thing, just keep your fucking mouth
shut”; and before I could get out another word, he said, “Sorry,
I’ve got to go,” and hung up.
In the cab, I tried to crack my window to get some air: no
luck. It smelled like someone had been changing dirty diapers back
there or maybe even taken an actual shit, and then tried to cover it
up with a bunch of coconut air freshener that smelled like suntan
lotion. The seats were greasy, and patched with duct tape, and the
shocks were nearly gone. Whenever we struck a bump, my teeth
rattled, and so did the religious claptrap dangling from the rear view
mirror: medallions, a curved sword in miniature dancing on a plastic
chain, and a turbaned, bearded guru who gazed into the back seat
with piercing eyes, palm raised in benediction.
Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as
we sped by. Bollywood pop—turned down to a low, almost
subliminal whine—spiraled and sparkled hypnotically, just at the
threshold of my hearing. The leaves were just coming out on the
trees. Delivery boys from D’Agostino’s and Gristede’s pushed
carts laden with groceries; harried executive women in heels
plunged down the sidewalk, dragging reluctant kindergartners
behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into
a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrokers held their palms
out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky. As we jolted
up the avenue (my mother looking miserable, clutching at the
armrest to brace herself) I stared out the window at the dyspeptic
workaday faces (worried-looking people in raincoats, milling in
grim throngs at the crosswalks, people drinking coffee from
cardboard cups and talking on cell phones and glancing furtively
side to side) and tried hard not to think of all the unpleasant fates
that might be about to befall me: some of them involving juvenile
court, or jail.
The cab swung into a sharp sudden turn, onto Eighty-Sixth
Street. M y mother slid into me and grabbed my arm; and I saw she
was clammy and pale as a cod.
“Are you carsick?” I said, forgetting my own troubles for the
moment. She had a woeful, fixed expression that I recognized all
too well: her lips were pressed tight, her forehead was glistening
and her eyes were glassy and huge.
She started to say something—and then clapped her hand to
her mouth as the cab lurched to a stop at the light, throwing us
forward and then back hard against the seat.
“Hang on,” I said to her, and then leaned up and knocked on
the greasy plexiglass, so that the driver (a turbaned Sikh) started in
surprise.
“Look,” I called through the grille, “this is fine, we’ll get out
here, okay?”
The Sikh—reflected in the garlanded mirror—gazed at me
steadily. “You want to stop here.”
“Yes, please.”
“But this is not the address you gave.”
“I know. But this is good,” I said, glancing back at my mother
—mascara-smeared, wilted-looking, scrabbling though her bag for
her wallet.
“Is she all right?” said the cabdriver doubtfully.
“Yes, yes, she’s fine. We just need to get out, thanks.”
With trembling hands, my mother produced a crumple of
damp-looking dollars and pushed them through the grille. As the
Sikh slid his hand through and palmed them (resignedly, looking
away) I climbed out, holding the door open for her.
M y mother stumbled a little stepping onto the curb, and I
caught her arm. “Are you okay?” I said to her timidly as the cab
sped away. We were on upper Fifth Avenue, by the mansions
facing the park.
She took a deep breath, then wiped her brow and squeezed
my arm. “Phew,” she said, fanning her face with her palm. Her
forehead was shiny and her eyes were still a little unfocused; she
had the slightly ruffled aspect of a sea-bird blown off course.
“Sorry, still got the wobblies. Thank God we’re out of that cab. I’ll
be fine, I just need some air.”
People streamed around us on the windy corner: schoolgirls
in uniform, laughing and running and dodging around us; nannies
pushing elaborate prams with babies seated in pairs and threes. A
harried, lawyerly father brushed past us, towing his small son by
the wrist. “No, Braden,” I heard him say to the boy, who trotted
to keep up, “you shouldn’t think that way, it’s more important to
have a job you like—”
We stepped aside to avoid the soapsuds that a janitor was
dumping from a pail on the sidewalk in front of his building.
“Tell me,” said my mother—fingertips at her temple—“was
it just me, or was that cab unbelievably—”
“Nasty? Hawaiian Tropic and baby poo?”
“Honestly—” fanning the air in front of her face—“it would
have been okay if not for all the stopping and starting. I was
perfectly fine and then it just hit me.”
“Why don’t you ever just ask if you can sit in the front
seat?”
“You sound just like your father.”
I looked away, embarrassed—for I’d heard it too, a hint of his
annoying know-it-all tone. “Let’s walk over to M adison and find
some place for you to sit down,” I said. I was starving to death and
there was a diner over there I liked.
But—with a shudder almost, a visible wave of nausea—she
shook her head. “Air.” Dashing mascara smudges from under her
eyes. “The air feels good.”
“Sure,” I said, a bit too quickly, anxious to be
accommodating. “Whatever.”
I was trying hard to be agreeable but my mother—fitful and
woozy—had picked up on my tone; she looked at me closely,
trying to figure out what I was thinking. (This was another bad
habit we’d fallen into, thanks to years of life with my father: trying
to read each other’s minds.)
“What?” she said. “Is there someplace you want to go?”
“Um, no, not really,” I said, taking a step backwards and
looking around in my consternation; even though I was hungry, I
felt in no position to insist on anything.
“I’ll be fine. Just give me a minute.”
“M aybe—” blinking and agitated, what did she want, what
would please her?—“how about we go sit in the park?”
To my relief, she nodded. “All right then,” she said, in what I
thought of as her M ary Poppins voice, “but just till I catch my
breath,” and we started down toward the crosswalk at SeventyNinth Street: past topiaries in baroque planters, ponderous doors
laced with ironwork. The light had faded to an industrial gray, and
the breeze was as heavy as teakettle steam. Across the street by
the park, artists were setting up their stalls, unrolling their
canvases, pinning up their watercolor reproductions of St.
Patrick’s Cathedral and the Brooklyn Bridge.
We walked along in silence. M y mind was whirring busily on
my own troubles (had Tom’s parents got a call? Why hadn’t I
thought to ask him?) as well as what I was going to order for
breakfast as soon as I could get her to the diner (Western omelet
with home fries, side of bacon; she would have what she always
had, rye toast with poached eggs and a cup of black coffee) and I
was hardly paying attention where we were going when I realized
she had just said something. She wasn’t looking at me but out over
the park; and her expression made me think of a famous French
movie I didn’t know the name of, where distracted people walked
down windblown streets and talked a lot but didn’t actually seem
to be talking to each other.
“What did you say?” I asked, after a few confused beats,
walking faster to catch up with her. “Try more—?”
She looked startled, as if she’d forgotten I was there. The
white coat—flapping in the wind—added to her long-legged ibis
quality, as if she were about to unfurl her wings and sail away over
the park.
“Try more what?”
“Oh.” Her face went blank and then she shook her head and
laughed quickly in the sharp, childlike way she had. “No. I said
time warp.”
Even though it was a strange thing to say I knew what she
meant, or thought I did—that shiver of disconnection, the missing
seconds on the sidewalk like a hiccup of lost time, or a few frames
snipped out of a film.
“No, no, puppy, just the neighborhood.” Tousling my hair,
making me smile in a lopsided, half-embarrassed way: puppy was
my baby name, I didn’t like it any more nor the hair-tousling
either, but sheepish though I felt, I was glad to see her in a better
mood. “Always happens up here. Whenever I’m up here it’s like
I’m eighteen again and right off the bus.”
“Here?” I said doubtfully, permitting her to hold my hand,
not normally something I would have done. “That’s weird.” I knew
all about my mother’s early days in M anhattan, a good long way
from Fifth Avenue—on Avenue B, in a studio above a bar, where
bums slept in the doorway and bar fights spilled out on the street
and a crazy old lady named M o kept ten or twelve illegal cats in a
blocked-off stairwell on the top floor.
She shrugged. “Yeah, but up here it’s still the same as the
first day I ever saw it. Time tunnel. On the Lower East Side—well,
you know what it’s like down there, always something new, but
for me it’s more this Rip van Winkle feeling, always further and
further away. Some days I’d wake up and it was like they came in
and rearranged the storefronts in the night. Old restaurants out of
business, some trendy new bar where the dry cleaner’s used to be.
…”
I maintained a respectful silence. The passage of time had
been much on her mind lately, maybe because her birthday was
coming up. I’m too old for this routine, she’d said a few days
before as we’d scrambled together over the apartment, rummaging
under the sofa cushions and searching in the pockets of coats and
jackets for enough change to pay the delivery boy from the deli.
She dug her hands in her coat pockets. “Up here, it’s more
stable,” she said. Though her voice was light I could see the fog in
her eyes; clearly she hadn’t slept well, thanks to me. “Upper Park
is one of the few places where you can still see what the city
looked like in the l890s. Gramercy Park too, and the Village, some
of it. When I first came to New York I thought this neighborhood
was Edith Wharton and Franny and Zooey and Breakfast at
Tiffany’s all rolled into one.”
“Franny and Zooey was the West Side.”
“Yeah, but I was too dumb to know that. All I can say, is, it
was pretty different from the Lower East, homeless guys starting
fires in trash cans. Up here on the weekends it was magical—
wandering the museum—lolloping around Central Park on my own
—”
“Lolloping?” So much of her talk was exotic to my ear, and
lollop sounded like some horse term from her childhood: a lazy
gallop maybe, some equine gait between a canter and a trot.
“Oh, you know, just loping and sloping along like I do. No
money, holes in my socks, living off oatmeal. Believe it or not I
used to walk up here, some weekends. Saving my train fare for the
ride home. That was when they still had tokens instead of cards.
And even though you’re supposed to pay to get in the museum?
The ‘suggested donation’? Well, I guess I must have had a lot more
nerve back then, or maybe they just felt sorry for me because—Oh
no,” she said, in a changed tone, stopping cold, so that I walked a
few steps by her without noticing.
“What?” Turning back. “What is it?”
“Felt something.” She held out her palm and looked at the
sky. “Did you?”
And just as she said it, the light seemed to fail. The sky
darkened rapidly, darker every second; the wind rustled the trees in
the park and the new leaves on the trees stood out tender and
yellow against black clouds.
“Jeez, wouldn’t you know it,” said my mother. “It’s about to
pour.” Leaning over the street, looking north: no cabs.
I caught her hand again. “Come on,” I said, “we’ll have better
luck on the other side.”
Impatiently we waited for the last few blinks on the Don’t
Walk sign. Bits of paper were whirling in the air and tumbling
down the street. “Hey, there’s a cab,” I said, looking up Fifth; and
just as I said it a businessman ran to the curb with his hand up, and
the light popped off.
Across the street, artists ran to cover their paintings with
plastic. The coffee vendor was pulling down the shutters on his
cart. We hurried across and just as we made it to the other side, a
fat drop of rain splashed on my cheek. Sporadic brown circles—
widely spaced, big as dimes—began to pop up on the pavement.
“Oh, drat!” cried my mother. She fumbled in her bag for her
umbrella—which was scarcely big enough for one person, let alone
two.
And then it came down, cold sweeps of rain blowing in
sideways, broad gusts tumbling in the treetops and flapping in the
awnings across the street. M y mother was struggling to get the
cranky little umbrella up, without much success. People on the
street and in the park were holding newspapers and briefcases over
their heads, scurrying up the stairs to the portico of the museum,
which was the only place on the street to get out of the rain. And
there was something festive and happy about the two of us,
hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrella,
quick quick quick, for all the world as if we were escaping
something terrible instead of running right into it.
iv.
T HREE IMP ORTANT THINGS HAD happened to my mother after she
arrived in New York on the bus from Kansas, friendless and
practically penniless. The first was when a booking agent named
Davy Jo Pickering had spotted her waiting tables in a coffee shop
in the Village: an underfed teenager in Doc M artens and thrift-shop
clothes, with a braid down her back so long she could sit on it.
When she’d brought him his coffee, he’d offered her seven hundred
and then a thousand dollars to fill in for a girl who hadn’t shown
up for work at the catalogue shoot across the street. He’d pointed
out the location van, the equipment being set up in Sheridan Square
park; he’d counted out the bills, laid them on the counter. “Give
me ten minutes,” she’d said; she’d brought out the rest of her
breakfast orders, then hung up her apron and walked out.
“I was only a mail-order model,” she always took pains to
explain to people—by which she meant she’d never done fashion
magazines or couture, only circulars for chain stores, inexpensive
casuals for junior misses in M issouri and M ontana. Sometimes it
was fun, she said, but mostly it wasn’t: swimsuits in January,
shivering from flu; tweeds and woolens in summer heat, sweltering
for hours amid fake autumn leaves while a studio fan blew hot air
and a guy from makeup darted in between takes to powder the
sweat off her face.
But during those years of standing around and pretending to
be in college—posing in mock campus settings in stiff pairs and
threes, books clutched to her chest—she’d managed to sock away
enough money to send herself to college for real: art history at
NYU. She’d never seen a great painting in person until she was
eighteen and moved to New York, and she was eager to make up
for lost time—“pure bliss, perfect heaven,” she’d said, up to the
neck in art books and poring over the same old slides (M anet,
Vuillard) until her vision started to blur. (“It’s crazy,” she’d said,
“but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half
dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way
to go insane.”)
College was the second important thing that had happened to
her in New York—for her, probably the most important. And if
not for the third thing (meeting and marrying my father—not so
lucky as the first two) she would almost certainly have finished her
master’s and gone on for her PhD. Whenever she had a few hours
to herself she always headed straight to the Frick, or M oM A, or
the M et—which is why, as we stood under the dripping portico of
the museum, gazing out across hazy Fifth Avenue and the
raindrops jumping white in the street, I was not surprised when
she shook her umbrella out and said: “M aybe we should go in and
poke around for a bit till it stops.”
“Um—” What I wanted was breakfast. “Sure.”
She glanced at her watch. “M ight as well. We’re not going to
get a cab in all this.”
She was right. Still, I was starving. When are we going to eat?
I thought grumpily, following her up the stairs. For all I knew, she
was going to be so mad after the meeting she wouldn’t take me out
to lunch at all, I would have to go home and eat a bowl of cereal or
something.
Yet the museum always felt like a holiday; and once we were
inside with the glad roar of tourists all around us, I felt strangely
insulated from whatever else the day might hold in store. The
Great Hall was loud, and rank with the smell of wet overcoats. A
drenched crowd of Asian senior citizens surged past, after a crisp
stewardessy guide; bedraggled Girl Scouts huddled whispering near
the coat check; beside the information desk stood a line of militaryschool cadets in gray dress uniforms, hats off, clasped hands
behind their backs.
For me—a city kid, always confined by apartment walls—
the museum was interesting mainly because of its immense size, a
palace where the rooms went on forever and grew more and more
deserted the farther in you went. Some of the neglected
bedchambers and roped-off drawing rooms in the depths of
European Decorating felt bound-up in deep enchantment, as if no
one had set foot in them for hundreds of years. Ever since I’d
started riding the train by myself I’d loved to go there alone and
roam around until I got lost, wandering deeper and deeper in the
maze of galleries until sometimes I found myself in forgotten halls
of armor and porcelain that I’d never seen before (and,
occasionally, was unable to find again).
As I hung behind my mother in the admissions line, I put my
head back and stared fixedly into the cavernous ceiling dome two
stories above: if I stared hard enough, sometimes I could make
myself feel like I was floating around up there like a feather, a trick
from early childhood that was fading as I got older.
M eanwhile my mother—red-nosed and breathless from our
dash through the rain—was grappling for her wallet. “M aybe when
we’re done I’ll duck in the gift shop,” she was saying. “I’m sure
the last thing M athilde wants is an art book but it’ll be hard for her
to complain much about it without sounding stupid.”
“Yikes,” I said. “The present’s for M athilde?” M athilde was
the art director of the advertising firm where my mother worked;
she was the daughter of a French fabric-importing magnate,
younger than my mother and notoriously fussy, apt to throw
tantrums if the car service or the catering wasn’t up to par.
“Yep.” Wordlessly, she offered me a stick of gum, which I
accepted, and then threw the pack back in her purse. “I mean,
that’s M athilde’s whole thing, the well-chosen gift shouldn’t cost a
lot of money, it’s all about the perfect inexpensive paperweight
from the flea market. Which would be fantastic, I guess, if any of
us had time to go downtown and scour the flea market. Last year
when it was Pru’s turn—? She panicked and ran into Saks on her
lunch hour and ended up spending fifty bucks of her own money
on top of what they gave her, for sunglasses, Tom Ford I think,
and M athilde still had to get her crack in about Americans and
consumer culture. Pru isn’t even American, she’s Australian.”
“Have you discussed it with Sergio?” I said. Sergio—seldom
in the office, though often in the society pages with people like
Donatella Versace—was the multimillionaire owner of my
mother’s firm; “discussing things with Sergio” was akin to asking:
“What would Jesus do?”
“Sergio’s idea of an art book is Helmut Newton or maybe
that coffee-table book that M adonna did a while back.”
I started to ask who Helmut Newton was, but then had a
better idea. “Why don’t you get her a M etroCard?”
M y mother rolled her eyes. “Believe me, I ought to.” There
had recently been a flap at work when M athilde’s car was held up
in traffic, leaving her stranded in Williamsburg at a jeweler’s studio.
“Like—anonymously. Leave one on her desk, an old one
without any money on it. Just to see what she’d do.”
“I can tell you what she’d do,” said my mother, sliding her
membership card through the ticket window. “Fire her assistant
and probably half the people in Production as well.”
M y mother’s advertising firm specialized in women’s
accessories. All day long, under the agitated and slightly vicious
eye of M athilde, she supervised photo shoots where crystal
earrings glistened on drifts of fake holiday snow, and crocodile
handbags—unattended, in the back seats of deserted limousines—
glowed in coronas of celestial light. She was good at what she did;
she preferred working behind the camera rather than in front of it;
and I knew she got a kick out of seeing her work on subway
posters and on billboards in Times Square. But despite the gloss
and sparkle of the job (champagne breakfasts, gift bags from
Bergdorf’s) the hours were long and there was a hollowness at the
heart of it that—I knew—made her sad. What she really wanted
was to go back to school, though of course we both knew that
there was little chance of that now my dad had left.
“Okay,” she said, turning from the window and handing me
my badge, “help me keep an eye on the time, will you? It’s a
massive show”—she indicated a poster, PORTRAITURE AND
NATURE M ORTE: NORTHERN M ASTERWORKS OF THE GOLDEN
AGE —“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few
things…”
Her voice drifted away as I trailed behind her up the Great
Staircase—torn between the prudent need to stick close and the
urge to slink a few paces back and try to pretend I wasn’t with her.
“I hate to race through like this,” she was saying as I caught
up with her at the top of the stairs, “but then again it’s the kind of
show where you need to come two or three times. There’s The
Anatomy Lesson, and we do have to see that, but what I really
want to see is one tiny, rare piece by a painter who was Vermeer’s
teacher. Greatest Old M aster you’ve never heard of. The Frans
Hals paintings are a big deal, too. You know Hals, don’t you? The
Jolly Toper? And the almshouse governors?”
“Right,” I said tentatively. Of the paintings she’d mentioned,
The Anatomy Lesson was the only one I knew. A detail from it was
featured on the poster for the exhibition: livid flesh, multiple
shades of black, alcoholic-looking surgeons with bloodshot eyes
and red noses.
“Art One-oh-one stuff,” said my mother. “Here, take a left.”
Upstairs it was freezing cold, with my hair still wet from the
rain. “No, no, this way,” said my mother, catching my sleeve. The
show was complicated to find, and as we wandered the busy
galleries (weaving in and out of crowds, turning right, turning left,
backtracking through labyrinths of confusing signage and layout)
large gloomy reproductions of The Anatomy Lesson appeared
erratically and at unexpected junctures, baleful signposts, the same
old corpse with the flayed arm, red arrows beneath: operating
theater, this way.
I was not very excited at the prospect of a lot of pictures of
Dutch people standing around in dark clothes, and when we
pushed through the glass doors—from echoing halls into carpeted
hush—I thought at first we’d gone into the wrong hall. The walls
glowed with a warm, dull haze of opulence, a generic mellowness
of antiquity; but then it all broke apart into clarity and color and
pure Northern light, portraits, interiors, still lifes, some tiny,
others majestic: ladies with husbands, ladies with lapdogs, lonely
beauties in embroidered gowns and splendid, solitary merchants in
jewels and furs. Ruined banquet tables littered with peeled apples
and walnut shells; draped tapestries and silver; trompe l’oeils with
crawling insects and striped flowers. And the deeper we wandered,
the stranger and more beautiful the pictures became. Peeled lemons,
with the rind slightly hardened at the knife’s edge, the greenish
shadow of a patch of mold. Light striking the rim of a half-empty
wine glass.
“I like this one too,” whispered my mother, coming up
alongside me at a smallish and particularly haunting still life: a
white butterfly against a dark ground, floating over some red fruit.
The background—a rich chocolate black—had a complicated
warmth suggesting crowded storerooms and history, the passage of
time.
“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters
—ripeness sliding into rot. The fruit’s perfect but it won’t last, it’s
about to go. And see here especially,” she said, reaching over my
shoulder to trace in the air with her finger, “this passage—the
butterfly.” The underwing was so powdery and delicate it looked
as if the color would smear if she touched it. “How beautifully he
plays it. Stillness with a tremble of movement.”
“How long did it take him to paint that?”
M y mother, who’d been standing a bit too close, stepped
back to regard the painting—oblivious to the gum-chewing security
guard whose attention she’d attracted, who was staring fixedly at
her back.
“Well, the Dutch invented the microscope,” she said. “They
were jewelers, grinders of lenses. They want it all as detailed as
possible because even the tiniest things mean something. Whenever
you see flies or insects in a still life—a wilted petal, a black spot
on the apple—the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s
telling you that living things don’t last—it’s all temporary. Death
in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. M aybe you
don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck
of rot. But if you look closer—there it is.”
I leaned down to read the note, printed in discreet letters on
the wall, which informed me that the painter—Adriaen Coorte,
dates of birth and death uncertain—had been unknown in his own
lifetime and his work unrecognized until the 1950s. “Hey,” I said,
“M om, did you see this?”
But she’d already moved on. The rooms were chilly and
hushed, with lowered ceilings, and none of the palatial roar and
echo of the Great Hall. Though the exhibition was moderately
crowded, still it had the sedate, meandering feel of a backwater, a
certain vacuum-sealed calm: long sighs and extravagant exhalations
like a room full of students taking a test. I trailed behind my
mother as she zigzagged from portrait to portrait, much faster than
she usually went through an exhibition, from flowers to card tables
to fruit, ignoring a great many of the paintings (our fourth silver
tankard or dead pheasant) and veering to others without hesitation
(“Now, Hals. He’s so corny sometimes with all these tipplers and
wenches but when he’s on, he’s on. None of this fussiness and
precision, he’s working wet-on-wet, slash, slash, it’s all so fast.
The faces and hands—rendered really finely, he knows that’s what
the eye is drawn to but look at the clothes—so loose—almost
sketched. Look how open and modern the brushwork is!”). We
spent some time in front of a Hals portrait of a boy holding a skull
(“Don’t be mad, Theo, but who do you think he looks like?
Somebody”—tugging the back of my hair—“who could use a
haircut?”)—and, also, two big Hals portraits of banqueting officers,
which she told me were very, very famous and a gigantic influence
on Rembrandt. (“Van Gogh loved Hals too. Somewhere, he’s
writing about Hals and he says: Frans Hals has no less than
twenty-nine shades of black! Or was it twenty-seven?”) I followed
after her with a sort of dazed sense of lost time, delighted by her
preoccupation, how oblivious she seemed of the minutes flying. It
seemed that our half hour must be almost up; but still I wanted to
dawdle and distract her, in the infantile hope that time would slip
away and we would miss the meeting altogether.
“Now, Rembrandt,” my mother said. “Everybody always
says this painting is about reason and enlightenment, the dawn of
scientific inquiry, all that, but to me it’s creepy how polite and
formal they are, milling around the slab like a buffet at a cocktail
party. Although—” she pointed—“see those two puzzled guys in
the back there? They’re not looking at the body—they’re looking
at us. You and me. Like they see us standing here in front of them
—two people from the future. Startled. ‘What are you doing here?’
Very naturalistic. But then”—she traced the corpse, midair, with
her finger—“the body isn’t painted in any very natural way at all,
if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien
autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking
down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s
painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw
our eye to it—make it jump out at us. And here”—she pointed to
the flayed hand—“see how he calls attention to it by painting it so
big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned
it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see? Well, he
didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand—we see it
immediately, something very wrong—but by reversing the thumb
he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if
we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not
right. Very clever trick.” We were standing behind a crowd of
Asian tourists, so many heads that I could see the picture scarcely
at all, but then again I didn’t care that much because I’d seen this
girl.
She’d seen me, too. We’d been eyeing each other as we were
going through the galleries. I wasn’t quite even sure what was so
interesting about her, since she was younger than me and a little
strange-looking—nothing at all like the girls I usually got crushes
on, cool serious beauties who cast disdainful looks around the
hallway and went out with big guys. This girl had bright red hair;
her movements were swift, her face sharp and mischievous and
strange, and her eyes were an odd color, a golden honeybee brown.
And though she was too thin, all elbows, and in a way almost
plain, yet there was something about her too that made my
stomach go watery. She was swinging and knocking a batteredlooking flute case around with her—a city kid? On her way to a
music lesson? M aybe not, I thought, circling behind her as I
followed my mother into the next gallery; her clothes were a little
too bland and suburban; she was probably a tourist. But she
moved with more assurance than most of the girls I knew; and the
sly, composed glance that she slid over me as she brushed past
drove me crazy.
I was trailing along behind my mother, only half paying
attention to what she was saying, when she stopped in front of a
painting so suddenly that I almost ran into her.
“Oh, sorry—!” she said, without looking at me, stepping
back to make room. Her face was like someone had turned a light
into it.
“This is the one I was talking about,” she said. “Isn’t it
amazing?”
I inclined my head in my mother’s direction, in an attitude of
attentive listening, while my eyes wandered back to the girl. She
was accompanied by a funny old white-haired character who I
guessed from his sharpness of face was related to her, her
grandfather maybe: houndstooth coat, long narrow lace-up shoes as
shiny as glass. His eyes were close-set, and his nose beaky and
birdlike; he walked with a limp—in fact, his whole body listed to
one side, one shoulder higher than the other; and if his slump had
been any more pronounced, you might have said he was a
hunchback. But all the same there was something elegant about
him. And clearly he adored the girl from the amused and
companionable way he hobbled at her side, very careful where he
put his feet, his head inclined in her direction.
“This is just about the first painting I ever really loved,” my
mother was saying. “You’ll never believe it, but it was in a book I
used to take out of the library when I was a kid. I used to sit on the
floor by my bed and stare at it for hours, completely fascinated—
that little guy! And, I mean, actually it’s incredible how much you
can learn about a painting by spending a lot of time with a
reproduction, even not a very good reproduction. I started off
loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended
up loving the way he was painted.” She laughed. “The Anatomy
Lesson was in the same book actually, but it scared the pants off
me. I used to slam the book shut when I opened it to that page by
mistake.”
The girl and the old man had come up next to us. Selfconsciously, I leaned forward and looked at the painting. It was a
small picture, the smallest in the exhibition, and the simplest: a
yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its
twig of an ankle.
“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother
said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between
the two of them—that clear pure daylight, you can see where
Vermeer got his quality of light from. Of course, I didn’t know or
care about any of that when I was a kid, the historical significance.
But it’s there.”
I stepped back, to get a better look. It was a direct and
matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and
something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside
itself—its brightness, its alert watchful expression—made me think
of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-
capped finch with steady eyes.
“It was a famous tragedy in Dutch history,” my mother was
saying. “A huge part of the town was destroyed.”
“What?”
“The disaster at Delft. That killed Fabritius. Did you hear the
teacher back there telling the children about it?”
I had. There had been a trio of ghastly landscapes, by a
painter named Egbert van der Poel, different views of the same
smouldering wasteland: burnt ruined houses, a windmill with
tattered sails, crows wheeling in smoky skies. An official looking
lady had been explaining loudly to a group of middle-school kids
that a gunpowder factory exploded at Delft in the 1600s, that the
painter had been so haunted and obsessed by the destruction of his
city that he painted it over and over.
“Well, Egbert was Fabritius’s neighbor, he sort of lost his
mind after the powder explosion, at least that’s how it looks to me,
but Fabritius was killed and his studio was destroyed. Along with
almost all his paintings, except this one.” She seemed to be waiting
for me to say something, but when I didn’t, she continued: “He
was one of the greatest painters of his day, in one of the greatest
ages of painting. Very very famous in his time. It’s sad though,
because maybe only five or six paintings survived, of all his work.
All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did.”
The girl and her grandfather were loitering quietly to the side,
listening to my mother talk, which was a bit embarrassing. I
glanced away and then—unable to resist—glanced back. They were
standing very close, so close I could have reached out and touched
them. She was batting and plucking at the old man’s sleeve, tugging
his arm to whisper something in his ear.
“Anyway, if you ask me,” my mother was saying, “this is
the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is
making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no
painter in the world knew before him—not even Rembrandt.”
Very softly—so softly I could barely hear her—I heard the
girl whisper: “It had to live its whole life like that?”
I’d been wondering the same thing; the shackled foot, the
chain was terrible; her grandfather murmured some reply but my
mother (who seemed totally unaware of them, even though they
were right next to us) stepped back and said: “Such a mysterious
picture, so simple. Really tender—invites you to stand close, you
know? All those dead pheasants back there and then this little
living creature.”
I allowed myself another stealthy glimpse in the girl’s
direction. She was standing on one leg, with her hip swung out to
the side. Then—quite suddenly—she turned and looked me in the
eye; and in a heart-skip of confusion, I looked away.
What was her name? Why wasn’t she in school? I’d been
trying to make out the scribbled name on the flute case but even
when I leaned in as far as I dared without being obvious, still I
couldn’t read the bold spiky marker strokes, more drawn than
written, like something spray-painted on a subway car. The last
name was short, only four or five letters; the first looked like R, or
was it P?
“People die, sure,” my mother was saying. “But it’s so
heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure
carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions
storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history
is a miracle.”
The grandfather had drifted away, a few paintings over; but
she was loitering a few steps behind, the girl, and kept casting
glances back at my mother and me. Beautiful skin: milky white,
arms like carved marble. Definitely she looked athletic, though too
pale to be a tennis player; maybe she was a ballerina or a gymnast
or even a high diver, practicing late in shadowy indoor pools,
echoes and refractions, dark tile. Plunging with arched chest and
pointed toes to the bottom of the pool, a silent pow, shiny black
swimsuit, bubbles foaming and streaming off her small, tense
frame.
Why did I obsess over people like this? Was it normal to
fixate on strangers in this particular vivid, fevered way? I didn’t
think so. It was impossible to imagine some random passer-by on
the street forming quite such an interest in me. And yet it was the
main reason I’d gone in those houses with Tom: I was fascinated
by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes
they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they
listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret
drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats.
Often I saw interesting-looking people on the street and thought
about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up
stories about them on the subway or the crosstown bus. Years had
passed, and I still hadn’t stopped thinking about the dark-haired
children in Catholic school uniforms—brother and sister—I’d seen
in Grand Central, literally trying to pull their father out the door of
a seedy bar by the sleeves of his suit jacket. Nor had I forgotten
the frail, gypsyish girl in a wheelchair out in front of the Carlyle
Hotel, talking breathlessly in Italian to the fluffy dog in her lap,
while a sharp character in sunglasses (father? bodyguard?) stood
behind her chair, apparently conducting some sort of business deal
on his phone. For years, I’d turned those strangers over in my
mind, wondering who they were and what their lives were like, and
I knew I would go home and wonder about this girl and her
grandfather the same way. The old man had money; you could tell
from how he was dressed. Why was it just the two of them?
Where were they from? M aybe they were part of some big old
complicated New York family—music people, academics, one of
those large, artsy West Side families that you saw up around
Columbia or at Lincoln Center matinees. Or, maybe—homely,
civilized old creature that he was—maybe he wasn’t her
grandfather at all. M aybe he was a music teacher, and she was the
flute prodigy he had discovered in some small town and brought to
play at Carnegie Hall—
“Theo?” my mother said suddenly. “Did you hear me?”
Her voice brought me back to myself. We were in the last
room of the show. Beyond lay the exhibition shop—postcards,
cash register, glossy stacks of art books—and my mother,
unfortunately, had not lost track of the time.
“We should see if it’s still raining,” she was saying. “We’ve
still got a little while”—(looking at her watch, glancing past me at
the Exit sign)—“but I think I’d better go downstairs if I’m going to
try to get something for M athilde.”
I noticed the girl observing my mother as she spoke—eyes
gliding curiously over my mother’s sleek black ponytail, her white
satin trenchcoat cinched at the waist—and it thrilled me to see her
for a moment as the girl saw her, as a stranger. Did she see how my
mother’s nose had the tiniest bump at the top, where she’d broken
it falling out of a tree as a child? or how the black rings around the
light blue irises of my mother’s eyes gave her a slightly wild
quality, as of some steady-eyed hunting creature alone on a plain?
“You know—” my mother looked over her shoulder—“if you
don’t mind, I just might run back and take another quick look at
The Anatomy Lesson before we leave. I didn’t get to see it up close
and I’m afraid I might not make it back before it comes down.” She
started away, shoes clacking busily—and then glanced at me as if
to say: are you coming?
This was so unexpected that for a split second I didn’t know
what to say. “Um,” I said, recovering, “I’ll meet you in the shop.”
“Okay,” she said. “Buy me a couple of cards, will you? I’ll
be back in a sec.”
And off she hurried, before I had a chance to say a word.
Heart pounding, unable to believe my luck, I watched her walking
rapidly away from me in the white satin trenchcoat. This was it,
my chance to talk to the girl; but what can I say to her, I thought
furiously, what can I say? I dug my hands in my pockets, took a
breath or two to compose myself, and—excitement fizzing bright
in my stomach—turned to face her.
But, to my consternation, she was gone. That is to say, she
wasn’t gone; there was her red head, moving reluctantly (or so it
seemed) across the room. Her grandpa had slipped his arm through
hers and—whispering to her, with great enthusiasm—was towing
her away to look at some picture on the opposite wall.
I could have killed him. Nervously, I glanced at the empty
doorway. Then I dug my hands deeper in my pockets and—face
burning—walked conspicuously across the length of the gallery.
The clock was ticking; my mother would be back any second; and
though I knew I didn’t have the nerve to barge up and actually say
something, I could at the very least get a last good look at her. Not
long before, I had stayed up late with my mother and watched
Citizen Kane, and I was very taken with the idea that a person
might notice in passing some bewitching stranger and remember her
for the rest of his life. Someday I too might be like the old man in
the movie, leaning back in my chair with a far-off look in my eyes,
and saying: “You know, that was sixty years ago, and I never saw
that girl with the red hair again, but you know what? Not a month
has gone by in all that time when I haven’t thought of her.”
I was more than halfway across the gallery when something
strange happened. A museum guard ran across the open doorway
of the exhibition shop beyond. He was carrying something in his
arms.
The girl saw it, too. Her golden-brown eyes met mine: a
startled, quizzical look.
Suddenly another guard flew out of the museum shop. His
arms were up and he was screaming.
Heads went up. Someone behind me said, in an odd flat voice:
oh! The next instant, a tremendous, earsplitting blast shook the
room.
The old man—with a blank look on his face—stumbled
sideways. His outstretched arm—knotty fingers spread—is the
last thing I remember seeing. At almost exactly the same moment
there was a black flash, with debris sweeping and twisting around
me, and a roar of hot wind slammed into me and threw me across
the room. And that was the last thing I knew for a while.
v.
I DON’ T KNOW HOW long I was out. When I came to, it seemed as if
I was flat on my stomach in a sandbox, on some dark playground
—someplace I didn’t know, a deserted neighborhood. A gang of
tough, runty boys was bunched around me, kicking me in the ribs
and the back of the head. M y neck was twisted to the side and the
wind was knocked out of me, but that wasn’t the worst of it; I had
sand in my mouth, I was breathing sand.
The boys muttered, audibly. Get up, asshole.
Look at him, look at him.
He don’t know dick.
I rolled over and threw my arms over my head and then—
with an airy, surreal jolt—saw that nobody was there.
For a moment I lay too stunned to move. Alarm bells clanged
in a muffled distance. As strange as it seemed, I was under the
impression that I was lying in the walled-in courtyard of some
godforsaken housing project.
Somebody had beaten me up pretty good: I ached all over,
my ribs were sore and my head felt like someone had hit me with a
lead pipe. I was working my jaw back and forth and reaching for
my pockets to see if I had train fare home when it came over me
abruptly that I had no clue where I was. Stiffly I lay there, in the
growing consciousness that something was badly out of joint. The
light was all wrong, and so was the air: acrid and sharp, a chemical
fog that burned my throat. The gum in my mouth was gritty, and
when—head pounding—I rolled over to spit it out, I found myself
blinking through layers of smoke at something so foreign I stared
for some moments.
I was in a ragged white cave. Swags and tatters dangled from
the ceiling. The ground was tumbled and bucked-up with heaps of
a gray substance like moon rock, and blown about with broken
glass and gravel and a hurricane of random trash, bricks and slag
and papery stuff frosted with a thin ash like first frost. High
overhead, a pair of lamps beamed through the dust like off-kilter
car lights in fog, cock-eyed, one angled upward and the other rolled
to the side and casting skewed shadows.
M y ears rang, and so did my body, an intensely disturbing
sensation: bones, brain, heart all thrumming like a struck bell.
Faintly, from somewhere far away, the mechanical shriek of alarms
rang steady and impersonal. I could hardly tell if the noise was
coming from inside me or outside me. There was a strong sense of
being alone, in wintry deadness. Nothing made sense in any
direction.
In a cascade of grit, my hand on some not-quite-vertical
surface, I stood, wincing at the pain in my head. The tilt of the
space where I was had a deep, innate wrongness. On one side,
smoke and dust hung in a still, blanketed layer. On the other, a
mass of shredded materials slanted down in a tangle where the roof,
or the ceiling, should have been.
M y jaw hurt; my face and knees were cut; my mouth was
like sandpaper. Blinking around at the chaos I saw a tennis shoe;
drifts of crumbly matter, stained dark; a twisted aluminum walking
stick. I was swaying there, choked and dizzy, not knowing where
to turn or what to do, when all of a sudden I thought I heard a
phone going off.
For a moment I wasn’t sure; I listened, hard; and then it
spieled off again: faint and draggy, a little weird. Clumsily I
grappled around in the wreckage—upending dusty kiddie purses
and day packs, snatching my hands back at hot things and shards
of broken glass, more and more troubled by the way the rubble
gave under my feet in spots, and by the soft, inert lumps at the
edge of my vision.
Even after I became convinced I’d never heard a phone, that
the ringing in my ears had played a trick on me, still I kept looking,
locked into the mechanical gestures of searching with an
unthinking, robot intensity. Among pens, handbags, wallets,
broken eyeglasses, hotel key cards, compacts and perfume spray
and prescription medications (Roitman, Andrea, alprazolam .25 mg
) I unearthed a keychain flashlight and a non working phone (half
charged, no bars), which I threw in a collapsible nylon shopping
bag I’d found in some lady’s purse.
I was gasping, half-choked with plaster dust, and my head
hurt so badly I could hardly see. I wanted to sit down, except there
was no place to sit.
Then I saw a bottle of water. M y eyes reverted, fast, and
strayed over the havoc until I saw it again, about fifteen feet away,
half buried in a pile of trash: just a hint of a label, familiar shade of
cold-case blue.
With a benumbed heaviness like moving through snow, I
began to slog and weave through the debris, rubbish breaking under
my feet in sharp, glacial-sounding cracks. But I had not made it
very far when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement on the
ground, conspicuous in the stillness, a stirring of white-on-white.
I stopped. Then I waded a few steps closer. It was a man, flat
on his back and whitened head to toe with dust. He was so well
camouflaged in the ash-powdered wreckage that it was a moment
before his form came clear: chalk on chalk, struggling to sit up like a
statue knocked off his pedestal. As I drew closer, I saw that he
was old and very frail, with a misshapen hunchback quality; his
hair—what he had—was blown straight up from his head; the side
of his face was stippled with an ugly spray of burns, and his head,
above one ear, was a sticky black horror.
I had made it over to where he was when—unexpectedly fast
—he shot out his dust-whitened arm and grabbed my hand. In
panic I started back, but he only clutched at me tighter, coughing
and coughing with a sick wetness.
Where—? he seemed to be saying. Where—? He was trying
to look up at me, but his head dangled heavily on his neck and his
chin lolled on his chest so that he was forced to peer from under
his brow at me like a vulture. But his eyes, in the ruined face, were
intelligent and despairing.
—Oh, God, I said, bending to help him, wait, wait—and then
I stopped, not knowing what to do. His lower half lay twisted on
the ground like a pile of dirty clothes.
He braced himself with his arms, gamely it seemed, lips
moving and still struggling to raise himself. He reeked of burned
hair, burned wool. But the lower half of his body seemed
disconnected from the upper half, and he coughed and fell back in a
heap.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings, deranged from the
crack on the head, with no sense of time or even if it was day or
night. The grandeur and desolation of the space baffled me—the
high, rare, loft of it, layered with gradations of smoke, and
billowing with a tangled, tent-like effect where the ceiling (or the
sky) ought to be. But though I had no idea where I was, or why,
still there was a half-remembered quality about the wreckage, a
cinematic charge in the glare of the emergency lamps. On the
Internet I’d seen footage of a hotel blown up in the desert, where
the honeycombed rooms at the moment of collapse were frozen in
just such a blast of light.
Then I remembered the water. I stepped backwards, looking
all around, until with a leap of my heart I spotted the dusty flash
of blue.
—Look, I said, edging away. I’m just—
The old man was watching me with a gaze at once hopeful
and hopeless, like a starved dog too weak to walk.
—No—wait. I’m coming back.
Like a drunk, I staggered through the rubbish—weaving and
plowing, stepping high-kneed over objects, muddling through
bricks and concrete and shoes and handbags and a whole lot of
charred bits I didn’t want to see too closely.
The bottle was three quarters full and hot to the touch. But at
the first swallow my throat took charge and I’d gulped more than
half of it—plastic-tasting, dishwater warm—before I realized what
I was doing and forced myself to cap it and put it in the bag to take
back to him.
Kneeling beside him. Rocks digging into my knees. He was
shivering, breaths rasping and uneven; his gaze didn’t meet mine
but strayed above it, fixed fretfully on something I didn’t see.
I was fumbling for the water when he reached his hand to my
face. Carefully, with his bony old flat-pad fingers, he brushed the
hair from my eyes and plucked a thorn of glass from my eyebrow
and then patted me on the head.
“There, there.” His voice was very faint, very scratchy, very
cordial, with a ghastly pulmonary whistle. We looked at each
other, for a long strange moment that I’ve never forgotten, actually,
like two animals meeting at twilight, during which some clear,
personable spark seemed to fly up through his eyes and I saw the
creature he really was—and he, I believe, saw me. For an instant
we were wired together and humming, like two engines on the same
circuit.
Then he lolled back again, so limply I thought he was dead.
—“Here,” I said, awkwardly, slipping my hand under his shoulder.
“That’s good.” I held up his head as best I could, and helped him
drink from the bottle. He could only take a little and most of it ran
down his chin.
Again falling back. Effort too much.
“Pippa,” he said thickly.
I looked down at his burnt, reddened face, stirred by
something familiar in his eyes, which were rusty and clear. I had
seen him before. And I had seen the girl too, the briefest snapshot,
an autumn-leaf lucidity: rusty eyebrows, honey-brown eyes. Her
face was reflected in his. Where was she?
He was trying to say something. Cracked lips working. He
wanted to know where Pippa was.
Wheezing and gasping for breath. “Here,” I said, agitated,
“try to lie still.”
“She should take the train, it’s so much faster. Unless they
bring her in a car.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, leaning closer. I wasn’t worried.
Someone would be in to get us shortly, I was sure of it. “I’ll wait
till they come.”
“You’re so kind.” His hand (cold, dry as powder) tightening
on mine. “I haven’t seen you since you were a little boy again. You
were all grown up the last time we spoke.”
“But I’m Theo,” I said, after a slightly confused pause.
“Of course you are.” His gaze, like his handclasp, was steady
and kind. “And you’ve made the very best choice, I’m sure of it.
The M ozart is so much nicer than the Gluck, don’t you think?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“It’ll be easier the two of you. They’re so hard on you
children in the auditions—” Coughing. Lips slick with blood, thick
and red. “No second chances.”
“Listen—” It felt wrong, letting him think I was someone
else.
“Oh, but you play it so beautifully, my dear, the pair of you.
The G major. It keeps running through my mind. Lightly, lightly,
touch and go—”
Humming a few shapeless notes. A song. It was a song.
“… and I must have told you, how I went for piano lessons,
at the old Armenian lady’s? There was a green lizard that lived in
the palm tree, green like a candy drop, I loved to watch for him…
flashing on the windowsill… fairy lights in the garden… du pays
saint… twenty minutes to walk it but it seemed like miles…”
He faded for a minute; I could feel his intelligence drifting
away from me, spinning out of sight like a leaf on a brook. Then it
washed back and there he was again.
“And you! How old are you now?”
“Thirteen.”
“At the Lycée Français?”
“No, my school’s on the West Side.”
“And just as well, I should think. All these French classes!
Too many vocabulary words for a child. Nom et pronom, species
and phylum. It’s only a form of insect collecting.”
“Sorry?”
“They always spoke French at Groppi’s. Remember
Groppi’s? With the striped umbrella and the pistachio ices?”
Striped umbrella. It was hard to think through my headache.
M y glance wandered to the long gash in his scalp, clotted and dark,
like an axe wound. M ore and more, I was becoming aware of
dreadful bodylike shapes slumped in the debris, dark hulks not
clearly seen, pressing in silently all around us, dark everywhere and
the ragdoll bodies and yet it was a darkness you could drift away
upon, something sleepy about it, frothy wake churned and
vanished on a cold black ocean
Suddenly something was very wrong. He was awake, shaking
me. Hands flapping. He wanted something. He tried to press
himself up on a whistling in-breath.
“What is it?” I said, shaking myself alert. He was gasping,
agitated, tugging at my arm. Fearfully I sat up and looked around,
expecting to see some fresh danger rolling in: loose wires, a fire, the
ceiling about to collapse.
Grabbing my hand. Squeezing it tight. “Not there,” he
managed to say.
“What?”
“Don’t leave it. No.” He was looking past me, trying to point
at something. “Take it away from there.”
Please, lie down—
“No! They mustn’t see it.” He was frantic, gripping my arm
now, trying to pull himself up. “They’ve stolen the rugs, they’ll
take it to the customs shed—”
He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board,
virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than
my laptop computer at home.
“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of
wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels.
“That’s what you want?”
“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing
so hard he could barely speak.
I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt
surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of
broken frame clung to one corner.
Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow
bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust. The Anatomy Lesson was in
the same book actually but it scared the pants off me.
Right, I answered drowsily. I turned, painting in hand, to
show it to her, and then realized she wasn’t there.
Or—she was there and she wasn’t. Part of her was there, but
it was invisible. The invisible part was the important part. This
was something I had never understood before. But when I tried to
say this out loud the words came out in a muddle and I realized
with a cold slap that I was wrong. Both parts had to be together.
You couldn’t have one part without the other.
I rubbed my arm across my forehead and tried to blink the
grit from my eyes and, with a massive effort, like lifting a weight
much too heavy for me, tried to shift my mind where I knew it
needed to be. Where was my mother? For a moment there had been
three of us and one of these—I was pretty sure—had been her. But
now there were only two.
Behind me, the old man had begun to cough and shudder again
with an uncontrollable urgency, trying to speak. Reaching back, I
tried to hand the picture over to him. “Here,” I said, and then, to
my mother—in the spot where she had seemed to be—“I’ll be
back in a minute.”
But the painting wasn’t what he wanted. Fretfully he pushed
it back at me, babbling something. The right side of his head was
such a sticky drench of blood I could hardly see his ear.
“What?” I said, mind still on my mother—where was she?
“Sorry?”
“Take it.”
“Look, I’ll be back. I have to—” I couldn’t get it out, not
quite, but my mother wanted me to go home, immediately, I was
supposed to meet her there, that was the one thing she had made
very clear
“Take it with you!” Pressing it on me. “Go!” He was trying
to sit up. His eyes were bright and wild; his agitation frightened
me. “They took all the light bulbs, they’ve smashed up half the
houses in the street—”
A drip of blood ran down his chin.
“Please,” I said, hands flustering, afraid to touch him. “Please
lie down—”
He shook his head, and tried to say something, but the effort
broke him down hacking with a wet, miserable sound. When he
wiped his mouth, I saw a bright stripe of blood on the back of his
hand.
“Somebody’s coming.” Not sure I believed it, not knowing
what else to say.
He looked straight into my face, searching for some flicker of
understanding, and when he didn’t find it he clawed to sit up again.
“Fire,” he said, in a gargling voice. “The villa in M a’adi. On a
tout perdu.”
He broke off coughing again. Red-tinged froth bubbling at his
nostrils. In the midst of all that unreality, cairns and broken
monoliths, I had a dreamlike sense of having failed him, as if I’d
botched some vital fairy-tale task through clumsiness and
ignorance. Though there wasn’t any visible fire anywhere in that
tumble of stone, I crawled over and put the painting in the nylon
shopping bag, just to get it out of his sight, it was upsetting him
so.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll—”
He had calmed down. He put a hand on my wrist, eyes
steady and bright, and a chill wind of unreason blew over me. I had
done what I was supposed to do. Everything was going to be all
right.
As I was basking in the comfort of this notion, he squeezed
my hand reassuringly, as if I’d spoken the thought aloud. We’ll get
away from here, he said.
“I know.”
“Wrap it in newspapers and pack it at the very bottom of the
trunk, my dear. With the other curiosities.”
Relieved that he’d calmed down, exhausted with my
headache, all memory of my mother faded to a mothlike flicker, I
settled down beside him and closed my eyes, feeling oddly
comfortable and safe. Absent, dreamy. He was rambling a bit,
under his breath: foreign names, sums and numbers, a few French
words but mostly English. A man was coming to look at the
furniture. Abdou was in trouble for throwing stones. And yet it all
made sense somehow and I saw the palmy garden and the piano
and the green lizard on the tree trunk as if they were pages in a
photograph album.
Will you be all right getting home by yourself, my dear? I
remember him asking at one point.
“Of course.” I was lying on the floor beside him, my head
level with his rickety old breastbone, so that I could hear every
catch and wheeze in his breath. “I take the train by myself every
day.”
“And where did you say you were living now?” His hand on
my head, very gently, the way you’d rest your hand on the head of
a dog you liked.
“East Fifty-Seventh Street.”
“Oh, yes! Near Le Veau d’Or?”
“Well, a few blocks.” Le Veau d’Or was a restaurant where
my mother had liked to go, back when we had money. I had eaten
my first escargot there, and tasted my first sip of M arc de
Bourgogne from her glass.
“Towards Park, you say?”
“No, closer to the river.”
“Close enough, my dear. M eringues and caviare. How I loved
this city the first time I saw it! Still, it’s not the same, is it? I miss
it all terribly, don’t you? The balcony, and the…”
“Garden.” I turned to look at him. Perfumes and melodies. In
my swamp of confusion, it had come to seem that he was a close
friend or family member I’d forgotten about, some long-lost
relative of my mother’s.…
“Oh, your mother! The darling! I’ll never forget the first time
she came to play. She was the prettiest little girl I ever saw.”
How had he known I was thinking about her? I started to ask
him but he was asleep. His eyes were closed but his breath was
fast and hoarse like he was running from something.
I was fading out myself—ears ringing, inane buzz and a
metallic taste in my mouth like at the dentist’s—and I might have
drifted back into unconsciousness and stayed there had he not at
some point shaken me, hard, so I awoke with a buck of panic. He
was mumbling and tugging at his index finger. He’d taken his ring
off, a heavy gold ring with a carved stone; he was trying to give it
to me.
“Here, I don’t want that,” I said, shying away. “What are
you doing that for?”
But he pressed it into my palm. His breath was bubbled and
ugly. “Hobart and Blackwell,” he said, in a voice like he was
drowning from the inside out. “Ring the green bell.”
“Green bell,” I repeated, uncertainly.
He lolled his head back and forth, punch-drunk, lips
quivering. His eyes were unfocused. When they slid over me
without seeing me they gave me a shiver.
“Tell Hobie to get out of the store,” he said thickly.
In disbelief, I watched the blood trickling bright from the
corner of his mouth. He’d loosened his tie by yanking at it; “here,”
I said, reaching over to help, but he batted my hands away.
“He’s got to close the register and get out!” he rasped. “His
father’s sending some guys to beat him up—”
His eyes rolled up; his eyelids fluttered. Then he sank down
into himself, flat and collapsed-looking like all the air was out of
him, thirty seconds, forty, like a heap of old clothes but then—so
harshly I flinched—his chest swelled on a bellows-like rasp, and he
coughed a percussive gout of blood that spewed all over me. As
best he could, he hitched himself up on his elbows—and for thirty
seconds or so he panted like a dog, chest pumping frantically, up
and down, up and down, his eyes fixed on something I couldn’t see
and all the time gripping my hand like maybe if he held on tight
enough he’d be okay.
“Are you all right?” I said—frantic, close to tears. “Can you
hear me?”
As he grappled and thrashed—a fish out of water—I held his
head up, or tried to, not knowing how, afraid of hurting him, as all
the time he clutched my hand like he was dangling off a building
and about to fall. Each breath was an isolated, gargling heave, a
heavy stone lifted with terrible effort and dropped again and again
to the ground. At one point he looked at me directly, blood welling
in his mouth, and seemed to say something, but the words were
only a burble down his chin.
Then—to my intense relief—he grew calmer, quieter, his
grasp on my hand loosening, melting, a sense of sinking and
spinning almost like he was floating on his back away from me, on
water.—Better? I asked, and then—
Carefully, I dripped a bit of water on his mouth—his lips
worked, I saw them moving; and then, on my knees, like a servant
boy in a story, I wiped some of the blood off his face with the
paisley square from his pocket. As he drifted—cruelly, by degrees
and latitudes—into stillness, I rocked back on my heels and looked
hard into his wrecked face.
Hello? I said.
One papery eyelid, half shut, twitched, a blue-veined tic.
“If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.”
But his hand in mine was limp. I sat there and looked at him,
not knowing what to do. It was time to go, well past time—my
mother had made that perfectly clear—and yet I could see no path
out of the space where I was and in fact in some ways it was hard
to imagine being anywhere else in the world—that there was
another world, outside that one. It was like I’d never had another
life at all.
“Can you hear me?” I asked him, one last time, bending close
and putting my ear to his bloodied mouth. But there was nothing.
vi.
NOT WANTING TO DISTURB him, in case he was only resting, I was as
quiet as I could be, standing up. I hurt all over. For some moments
I stood looking down at him, wiping my hands on my school jacket
—his blood was all over me, my hands were slick with it—and
then I looked at the moonscape of rubble trying to orient myself
and figure the best way to go.
When—with difficulty—I made my way into the center of
the space, or what seemed like the center of the space, I saw that
one door was obscured by rags of hanging debris, and I turned and
began to work in the other direction. There, the lintel had fallen,
dumping a pile of brick almost as tall as I was and leaving a smoky
space at the top big enough to drive a car through. Laboriously I
began to climb and scramble for it—over and around the chunks of
concrete—but I had not got very far when I realized that I was
going to have to go the other way. Faint traces of fire licked down
the far walls of what had been the exhibition shop, spitting and
sparkling in the dim, some of it well below the level where the floor
should have been.
I didn’t like the looks of the other door (foam tiles stained
red; the toe of a man’s shoe protruding from a pile of gravel) but at
least most of the material blocking the door wasn’t very solid.
Blundering back through, ducking some wires that sparked from
the ceiling, I hoisted the bag over my shoulder and took a deep
breath and plunged into the wreckage headlong.
Immediately I was choked by dust and a sharp chemical
smell. Coughing, praying there were no more live wires hanging
loose, I patted and groped in the dark as all sorts of loose debris
began to patter and shower down in my eyes: gravel, crumbs of
plaster, shreds and chunks of god-knows-what.
Some of the building material was light, and some of it was
not. The further I worked in, the darker it got, and the hotter.
Every so often my way dwindled or closed up unexpectedly and in
my ears a roaring crowd noise, I wasn’t sure where it came from. I
had to squeeze around things; sometimes I walked, sometimes I
crawled, bodies in the wreckage more sensed than seen, a disturbing
soft pressure that gave under my weight but worse than this, the
smell: burnt cloth, burnt hair and flesh and the tang of fresh blood,
copper and tin and salt.
M y hands were cut and so were my knees. I ducked under
things and went around things, feeling my way as I went, edging
with my hip along the side of some sort of long lathe, or beam,
until I found myself blocked in by a solid mass that felt like a wall.
With difficulty—the spot was narrow—I worked around so I
could reach into the bag for a light.
I wanted the keychain light—at the bottom, under the picture
—but my fingers closed on the phone. I switched it on—and
almost immediately dropped it, because in the glow I’d caught
sight of a man’s hand protruding between two chunks of concrete.
Even in my terror, I remember feeling grateful that it was only a
hand, although the fingers had a meaty, dark, swollen look I’ve
never been able to forget; every now and then I still start back in
fear when some beggar on the street thrusts out to me such a hand,
bloated and grimed with black around the nails.
There was still the flashlight—but I wanted the phone. It cast
a weak glimmer up into the cavity where I was, but just as I
recovered myself enough to stoop for it, the screen went dark. An
acid-green afterburn floated before me in the blackness. I got down
on my knees and crawled around in the dark, grabbling with both
hands in rocks and glass, determined to find it.
I thought I knew where it was, or about where it was, and I
kept looking for it probably longer than I should have; and it was
when I’d given up hope and tried to get up again that I realized I’d
crawled into a low spot where it was impossible to stand, with
some solid surface about three inches above my head. Turning
around didn’t work; going backwards didn’t work; so I decided to
crawl forward, hoping that things would open up, and soon found
myself inching along painfully with a smashed, desperate feeling
and my head turned sharply to one side.
When I was about four, I’d gotten partially stuck inside a
M urphy bed in our old apartment on Seventh Avenue, which
sounds like a humorous predicament but wasn’t really; I think I
would have suffocated if Alameda, our housekeeper back then,
hadn’t heard my muffled cries and pulled me out. Trying to
maneuver in that airless space was somewhat the same, only
worse: with glass, hot metal, the stink of burned clothes, and an
occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to
think about. Debris was pattering down on me heavily from above;
my throat was filling with dust and I was coughing hard and
starting to panic when I realized I could see, just barely, the rough
texture of the broken bricks that surrounded me. Light—the
faintest gleam imaginable—crept in subtly from the left, about six
inches from floor level.
I ducked lower, and found myself looking over into the dim
terrazzo floor of the gallery beyond. A disorderly pile of what
looked like rescue equipment (ropes, axes, crowbars, an oxygen
tank that said FDNY) lay harum-scarum on the floor.
“Hello?” I called—not waiting for an answer, dropping to
wriggle through the hole as fast as I could.
The space was narrow; if I’d been a few years older or a few
pounds heavier I might not have got through. Partway, my bag
caught on something, and for a moment I thought I might have to
slip free of it, painting or no painting, like a lizard shedding its tail,
but when I gave it one last pull it finally broke free with a shower
of crumbled plaster. Above me was a beam of some sort, which
looked like it was holding up a lot of heavy building material, and
as I twisted and squirmed beneath it, I was lightheaded with fear
that it would slip and cut me in two until I saw that somebody had
stabilized it with a jack.
Once clear, I climbed to my feet, watery and stunned with
relief. “Hello?” I called again, wondering why there was so much
equipment around and not a fireman in sight. The gallery was dim
but mostly undamaged, with gauzy layers of smoke that thickened
the higher they rose, but you could tell that a tremendous force of
some sort had blown through the room just from the lights and the
security cameras, which were knocked askew and facing the ceiling.
I was so happy to be out in open space again that it was a moment
or so before I realized the strangeness of being the only person
standing up in a room full of people. Everybody else was lying
down except me.
There were at least a dozen people on the floor—not all of
them intact. They had the appearance of having been dropped from
a great height. Three or four of the bodies were partially covered
with firemen’s coats, feet sticking out. Others sprawled glaringly in
the open, amidst explosive stains. The splashes and bursts carried
a violence, like big blood sneezes, an hysterical sense of movement
in the stillness. I remember particularly a middle aged lady in a
bloodspattered blouse that had a pattern of Fabergé eggs on it, like
a blouse she might have bought in the museum gift shop, actually.
Her eyes—lined with black makeup—stared blankly at the ceiling;
and her tan was obviously sprayed on since her skin had a healthy
apricot glow even though the top of her head was missing.
Dim oils, dulled gilt. Taking tiny steps, I walked out into the
middle of the room, swaying, slightly off balance. I could hear my
own breath rasping in and out and there was a strange shallowness
in the sound, a nightmare lightness. I didn’t want to look and yet I
had to. A small Asian man, pathetic in his tan windbreaker, curled
in a bellying pool of blood. A guard (his uniform the most
recognizable thing about him, his face was burned so badly) with
an arm twisted behind his back and a vicious spray where his leg
should have been.
But the main thing, the important thing: none of the lyingdown people was her. I made myself look at them all, each
separately, one by one—even when I couldn’t force myself to look
at their faces, I knew my mother’s feet, her clothes, her two-tone
black and white shoes—and long after I was sure of it I made
myself stand in their midst, folded deep inside myself like a sick
pigeon with its eyes closed.
In the gallery beyond: more dead. Three dead. Fat Argyll-vest
man; cankered old lady; a milky duckling of a little girl, red abrasion
at her temple but otherwise hardly a mark on her. But then, there
were no more. I walked through several galleries littered with
equipment but despite the bloodstains on the floor, there were no
dead at all. And when I walked into the far-seeming gallery where
she’d been, where she’d gone, the gallery with The Anatomy
Lesson—eyes closed tight, wishing hard—there were only the
same stretchers and equipment and there, as I walked through, in
the oddly screaming silence, the only two observers were the same
two puzzled Dutchmen who had stared at my mother and me from
the wall: what are you doing here?
Then something snapped. I don’t even remember how it
happened; I was just in a different place and running, running
through rooms that were empty except for a haze of smoke that
made the grandeur seem insubstantial and unreal. Earlier, the
galleries had seemed fairly straightforward, a meandering but logical
sequence where all tributaries flowed into the gift shop. But
coming back through them fast, and in the opposite direction, I
realized that the path wasn’t straight at all; and over and over I
turned into blank walls and veered into dead-end rooms. Doors and
entrances weren’t where I expected them to be; freestanding
plinths loomed out of nowhere. Swinging around a corner a little
too sharply I almost ran headlong into a gang of Frans Hals
guardsmen: big, rough, ruddy-cheeked guys, bleary from too much
beer, like New York City cops at a costume party. Coldly they
stared me down, with hard, humorous eyes, as I recovered, backed
off, and began to run again.
Even on a good day, I sometimes got turned around in the
museum (wandering aimlessly in galleries of Oceanic Art, totems
and dugout canoes) and sometimes I had to go up and ask a guard
to point the way out. The painting galleries were especially
confusing since they were rearranged so often; and as I ran around
in the empty halls, in the ghostly half-light, I was growing more
and more frightened. I thought I knew my way to the main
staircase, but soon after I was out of the Special Exhibitions
galleries things started looking unfamiliar and after a minute or two
running light-headed through turns I was no longer quite sure of, I
realized I was thoroughly lost. Somehow I’d gone right through the
Italian masterworks (crucified Christs and astonished saints,
serpents and embattled angels) ending up in England, eighteenth
century, a part of the museum I had seldom been in before and did
not know at all. Long elegant lines of sight stretched out before me,
mazelike halls which had the feel of a haunted mansion: periwigged
lords, cool Gainsborough beauties, gazing superciliously down at
my distress. The baronial perspectives were infuriating, since they
didn’t seem to lead to the staircase or any of the main corridors but
only to other stately baronial galleries exactly like them; and I was
close to tears when suddenly I saw an inconspicuous door in the
side of the gallery wall.
You had to look twice to see it, this door; it was painted the
same color as the gallery walls, the kind of door which, in normal
circumstances, looked like it would be kept locked. It had only
caught my attention because it wasn’t completely closed—the left
side wasn’t flush with the wall, whether because it hadn’t caught
properly or because the lock wasn’t working with the electricity
out, I didn’t know. Still, it was not easy to get open—it was
heavy, steel, and I had to pull with all my strength. Suddenly—
with a pneumatic gasp—it gave so capriciously I stumbled.
Squeezing through, I found myself in a dark office hallway
under a much lower ceiling. The emergency lights were much
weaker than in the main gallery, and it took my eyes a moment to
adjust.
The hallway seemed to stretch for miles. Fearfully I crept
along, peering into the offices where the doors happened to stand
ajar. Cameron Geisler, Registrar. Miyako Fujita, Assistant
Registrar. Drawers were open and chairs were pushed away from
desks. In the doorway of one office a woman’s high-heeled shoe
lay on its side.
The air of abandonment was unspeakably eerie. It seemed
that far in the distance I could hear police sirens, maybe even
walkie-talkies and dogs, but my ears were ringing so hard from the
explosion that I thought I might well be hearing things. It was
starting to unnerve me more and more that I had seen no firemen,
no cops, no security guards—in fact not a single living soul.
It wasn’t dark enough for the keychain flashlight in the Staff
Only area, but neither was there nearly enough light for me to see
well. I was in some sort of records or storage area. The offices were
lined with filing cabinets floor to ceiling, metal shelves with plastic
mailroom crates and cardboard boxes. The narrow corridor made
me feel edgy, closed in, and my footsteps echoed so crazily that
once or twice I stopped and turned around to see if somebody was
coming down the hall after me.
“Hello?” I said, tentatively, glancing into some of the rooms
as I passed. Some of the offices were modern and spare; others
were crowded and dirty-looking, with untidy stacks of paper and
books.
Florens Klauner, Department of Musical Instruments.
Maurice Orabi-Roussel, Islamic Art. Vittoria Gabetti, Textiles. I
passed a cavernous dark room with a long workshop table where
mismatched scraps of cloth were laid out like pieces of a jigsaw
puzzle. In the back of the room was a jumble of rolling garment
racks with lots of plastic garment bags hanging off them, like racks
by the service elevators at Bendel’s or Bergdorf’s.
At the T-junction I looked this way and that, not knowing
where to turn. I smelled floor wax, turpentine and chemicals, a tang
of smoke. Offices and workshops stretched out to infinity in all
directions: a contained geometrical network, fixed and featureless.
To my left, light flickered from a ceiling fixture. It hummed
and caught, in a staticky fit, and in the trembling glow, I saw a
drinking fountain down the hall.
I ran for it—so fast my feet almost slid out from underneath
me—and gulped with my mouth pressed against the spigot, so
much cold water, so fast, that a spike of pain slid into my temple.
Hiccupping, I rinsed the blood from my hands and splashed water
in my sore eyes. Tiny splinters of glass—almost invisible—tinkled
to the steel tray of the fountain like needles of ice.
I leaned against the wall. The overhead fluorescents—
vibrating, spitting on and off—made me feel queasy. With effort, I
pulled myself up again; on I walked, wobbling a bit in the unstable
flicker. Things were looking decidedly more industrial in this
direction: wooden pallets, a flatbed pushcart, a sense of crated
objects being moved and stored. I passed another junction, where a
slick shadowy passageway receded into darkness, and I was just
about to walk past it and keep going when I saw a red glow at the
end that said EXIT.
I tripped; I fell over my feet; I got up again, still hiccupping,
and ran down the endless hall. Down at the end of the corridor was
a door with a metal bar, like the security doors at my school.
It pushed open with a bark. Down a dark stairwell I ran,
twelve steps, a turn at the landing, then twelve steps to the
bottom, my fingertips skimming on the metal rail, shoes clattering
and echoing so crazily that it sounded like half a dozen people
were running with me. At the foot of the steps was a gray
institutional corridor with another barred door. I threw myself
against it, pushed it open with both hands—and was slapped hard
in the face by rain and the deafening wail of sirens.
I think I might have screamed out loud, I was so happy to be
outside, though nobody could have heard me in all that noise: I
might as well have been trying to scream over jet engines on the
tarmac at LaGuardia during a thunderstorm. It sounded like every
fire truck, every cop car, every ambulance and emergency vehicle in
five boroughs plus Jersey was howling and caterwauling out on
Fifth Avenue, a deliriously happy noise: like New Year’s and
Christmas and Fourth of July fireworks rolled into one.
The exit had spat me out in Central Park, through a deserted
side door between the loading docks and the parking garage.
Footpaths stood empty in the gray-green distance; treetops
plunged white, tossing and foaming in the wind. Beyond, on the
rainswept street, Fifth Avenue was blocked off. Through the
downpour, from where I stood, I could just see the great bright
bombardment of activity: cranes and heavy equipment, cops
pushing the crowds back, red lights, yellow and blue lights, flares
that beat and whirled and flashed in quicksilver confusion.
I put my elbow up to keep the rain out of my face and took
off running through the empty park. Rain drove in my eyes and
dripped down my forehead, melting the lights on the avenue to a
blur that pulsed in the distance.
NYPD, FDNY, parked city vans with the windshield wipers
going: K-9, Rescue Operations Battalion, NYC Hazmat. Black rain
slickers flapped and billowed in the wind. A band of yellow crime
scene tape was stretched across the exit of the park, at the M iners’
Gate. Without hesitation, I lifted it up and ducked underneath it
and ran out into the midst of the crowd.
In all the welter, nobody noticed me. For a moment or two, I
ran uselessly back and forth in the street, rain peppering in my
face. Everywhere I looked, images of my own panic dashed past.
People coursed and surged around me blindly: cops, firemen, guys
in hard hats, an elderly man cradling a broken elbow and a woman
with a bloody nose being shooed toward Seventy-Ninth Street by a
distracted policeman.
Never had I seen so many fire trucks in one place: Squad 18,
Fighting 44, New York Ladder 7, Rescue One, 4 Truck: Pride of
M idtown. Pushing through the sea of parked vehicles and official
black raincoats, I spotted a Hatzolah ambulance: Hebrew letters on
the back, a little lighted hospital room visible through the open
doors. Attendants were bending over a woman, trying to press her
down as she struggled to sit up. A wrinkled hand with red
fingernails clawed at the air.
I beat on the door with my fist. “You need to go back inside,”
I yelled. “People are still in there—”
“There’s another bomb,” yelled the attendant without looking
at me. “We had to evacuate.”
Before I had time to register this, a gigantic cop swooped
down on me like a thunderclap: a thickheaded, bulldoggish guy,
with pumped-up arms like a weightlifter’s. He grabbed me roughly
by the upper arm and began to hustle and shove me to the other
side of the street.
“What the fuck are you doing over here?” he bellowed,
drowning out my protests, as I tried to wrench free.
“Sir—” A bloody-faced woman coming up, trying to get his
attention—“Sir, I think my hand is broken—”
“Get back from the building!” he screamed at her, throwing
her arm off and then, at me—“Go!”
“But—”
With both hands, he shoved me so hard I staggered and nearly
fell. “GET BACK FROM THE BUILDING!” he screamed,
throwing up his arms with a flap of his rain slicker. “NOW!” He
wasn’t even looking at me; his small, bearish eyes were riveted on
something going on over my head, up the street, and the expression
on his face terrified me.
In haste, I dodged through the crowd of emergency workers
to the opposite sidewalk, just above Seventy-Ninth Street—
keeping an eye out for my mother, though I didn’t see her.
Ambulances and medical vehicles galore: Beth Israel Emergency,
Lenox Hill, NY Presbyterian, Cabrini EM S Paramedic. A bloody
man in a business suit lay flat on his back behind an ornamental
yew hedge, in the tiny, fenced yard of a Fifth Avenue mansion. A
yellow security tape was strung up, snapping and popping in the
wind—but the rain-drenched cops and firemen and guys in hard
hats were lifting it up and ducking back and forth under it as if it
weren’t even there.
All eyes were turned uptown, and only later would I learn
why; on Eighty-Fourth Street (too far away for me to see) the
Hazmat cops were in the process of “disrupting” an undetonated
bomb by shooting it with a water cannon. Intent on talking to
someone, trying to find out what had happened, I tried to push my
way towards a fire truck but cops were charging through the
crowds, waving their arms, clapping their hands, beating people
back.
I caught hold of a fireman’s coat—a young, gum-chewing,
friendly-looking guy. “Somebody’s still in there!” I screamed.
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” shouted the fireman without looking
at me. “They ordered us out. They’re telling us five minutes,
they’re letting us back in.”
A swift push in the back. “M ove, move!” I heard somebody
scream.
A rough voice, heavily accented: “Get your hands off me!”
“NOW! Everybody get moving!”
Somebody else pushed me in the back. Firemen leaned off the
ladder trucks, looking up towards the Temple of Dendur; cops
stood tensely shoulder to shoulder, impassive in the rain.
Stumbling past them, swept along by the current, I saw glazed
eyes, heads nodding, feet unconsciously tapping out the
countdown.
By the time I heard the crack of the disrupted bomb, and the
hoarse football-stadium cheer rising from Fifth Avenue, I had
already been swept well along towards M adison. Cops—traffic
cops—were windmilling their arms, pushing the stream of stunned
people back. “Come on people, move it, move it.” They plowed
through the crowd, clapping their hands. “Everybody east.
Everybody east.” One cop—a big guy with a goatee and an earring,
like a professional wrestler—reached out and shoved a delivery
guy in a hoodie who was trying to take a picture on his cell phone,
so that he stumbled into me and nearly knocked me over.
“Watch it!” screamed the delivery man, in a high, ugly voice;
and the cop shoved him again, this time so hard he fell on his back
in the gutter.
“Are you deaf or what, buddy?” he yelled. “Get going!”
“Don’t touch me!”
“How ’bout I bust your head open?”
Between Fifth and M adison, it was a madhouse. Whap of
helicopter rotors overhead; indistinct talking on a bullhorn. Though
Seventy-Ninth Street was closed to traffic, it was packed with cop
cars, fire trucks, cement barricades, and throngs of screaming,
panicky, dripping-wet people. Some of them were running from
Fifth Avenue; some were trying to muscle and press their way
back toward the museum; many people held cell phones aloft,
attempting to snap pictures; others stood motionless with their
jaws dropped as the crowds surged around them, staring up at the
black smoke in the rainy skies over Fifth Avenue as if the M artians
were coming down.
Sirens; white smoke billowing from the subway vents. A
homeless man wrapped in a dirty blanket wandered back and forth,
looking eager and confused. I looked around hopefully for my
mother in the crowd, fully expecting to see her; for a short time I
tried to swim upstream against the cop-driven current (standing on
my toes, craning to see) until I realized it was hopeless to push
back up and try to look for her in that torrential rain, that mob. I’ll
just see her at home, I thought. Home was where we were
supposed to meet; home was the emergency arrangement; she must
have realized how useless it would be, trying to find me in all that
crush. But still I felt a petty, irrational pang of disappointment—
and, as I walked home (skull-cracking headache, practically seeing
double) I kept looking for her, scanning the anonymous,
preoccupied faces around me. She’d gotten out; that was the
important thing. She’d been rooms away from the worst part of
the explosion. None of the bodies was her. But no matter what we
had agreed upon beforehand, no matter how much sense it made,
somehow I still couldn’t quite believe she had walked away from
the museum without me.
Chapter 2.
The Anatomy Lesson
WHEN I WAS LITTLE , four or five, my greatest fear was that some
day my mother might not come home from work. Addition and
subtraction were useful mainly insofar as they helped me track her
movements (how many minutes till she left the office? how many
minutes to walk from office to subway?) and even before I’d
learned to count I’d been obsessed with learning to read a clock
face: desperately studying the occult circle crayoned on the paper
plate that, once mastered, would unlock the pattern of her comings
and goings. Usually she was home just when she said she’d be, so
if she was ten minutes late I began to fret; any later, and I sat on
the floor by the front door of the apartment like a puppy left alone
too long, straining to hear the rumble of the elevator coming up to
our floor.
Almost every day in elementary school I heard things on the
Channel 7 news that worried me. What if some bum in a dirty
fatigue jacket pushed my mother onto the tracks while she was
waiting for the 6 train? Or muscled her into a dark doorway and
stabbed her for her pocketbook? What if she dropped her hair
dryer in the bathtub, or got knocked in front of a car by a bicycle,
or was given the wrong medicine at the dentist’s and died, as had
happened to the mother of a classmate of mine?
To think of something happening to my mother was
especially frightening because my dad was so unreliable. Unreliable
I guess is the diplomatic way of putting it. Even when he was in a
good mood he did things like lose his paycheck and fall asleep with
the front door to the apartment open, because he drank. And when
he was in a bad mood—which was much of the time—he was redeyed and clammy-looking, his suit so rumpled it looked like he’d
been rolling on the floor in it and an air of unnatural stillness
emanating from him as from some pressurized article about to
explode.
Though I didn’t understand why he was so unhappy, it was
clear to me that his unhappiness was our fault. M y mother and I
got on his nerves. It was because of us he had a job he couldn’t
stand. Everything we did was irritating. He particularly didn’t
enjoy being around me, not that he often was: in the mornings, as I
got ready for school, he sat puffy-eyed and silent over his coffee
with the Wall Street Journal in front of him, his bathrobe open and
his hair standing up in cowlicks, and sometimes he was so shaky
that the cup sloshed as he brought it to his mouth. Warily he eyed
me when I came in, nostrils flaring if I made too much noise with
the silverware or the cereal bowl.
Apart from this daily awkwardness, I didn’t see him much.
He didn’t eat dinner with us or attend school functions; he didn’t
play with me or talk to me a lot when he was at home; in fact, he
was seldom home at all until after my bedtime, and some days—
paydays, especially, every other Friday—he didn’t come clattering
in until three or four in the morning: banging the door, dropping his
briefcase, crashing and bumping around so erratically that
sometimes I bolted awake in terror, staring at the glow-in-the-dark
planetarium stars on the ceiling and wondering if a killer had broken
into the apartment. Luckily, when he was drunk, his footsteps
slowed to a jarring and unmistakable cadence—Frankenstein steps,
as I thought of them, deliberate and clumping, with absurdly long
pauses between each footfall—and as soon as I realized it was only
him thudding around out there in the dark and not some serial
murderer or psychopath, I would drift back into a fretful doze. The
following day, Saturday, my mother and I would contrive to be out
of the apartment before he woke from his sweaty, tangled sleep on
the sofa. Otherwise we would spend the whole day creeping
around, afraid of shutting the door too loudly or of disturbing him
in any way, while he sat stony-faced in front of the television with
a Chinese beer from the takeout place and a glassy look in his eye,
watching news or sports with the sound off.
Consequently, neither my mother nor I had been overly
troubled when we woke up one Saturday and found he hadn’t
come home at all. It was Sunday before we started getting
concerned, and even then we didn’t worry the way you normally
would; it was the start of the college football season; it was a
pretty sure thing that he had money on some of the games, and we
thought he’d gotten on the bus and gone to Atlantic City without
telling us. Not until the following day, when my father’s secretary
Loretta called because he hadn’t shown up at work, did it start to
appear that something was seriously wrong. M y mother, fearing
he’d been robbed or killed coming out drunk from a bar, phoned the
police; and we spent several tense days waiting for a phone call or
a knock on the door. Then, towards the end of the week, a sketchy
note from my dad arrived (postmarked Newark, New Jersey)
informing us in a high-strung scrawl that he was heading off to
“start a new life” in an undisclosed location. I remember pondering
the phrase “new life” as if it actually might reveal some hint of
where he’d gone; for after I’d badgered and clamored and pestered
my mother for about a week, she’d finally consented to let me see
the letter myself (“well, all right,” she said resignedly, as she
opened her desk drawer and fished it out, “I don’t know what he
expects me to tell you, you might as well hear it from him”). It was
written on stationery from a Doubletree Inn near the airport. I’d
believed it might contain valuable clues to his whereabouts, but
instead I was struck by its extreme brevity (four or five lines) and
its speedy, careless, go-to-hell sprawl, like something he’d dashed
off before running out to the grocery store.
In many respects it was a relief to have my father out of the
picture. Certainly I didn’t miss him much, and my mother didn’t
seem to miss him either, though it was sad when she had to let our
housekeeper, Cinzia, go because we couldn’t afford to pay her
(Cinzia had cried, and offered to stay and work for free; but my
mother had found her a part time job in the building, working for a
couple with a baby; once a week or so, she stopped in to visit my
mother for a cup of coffee, still in the smock she wore over her
clothes when she cleaned.) Without fanfare, the photo of a
younger, suntanned dad atop a ski slope came down from the wall,
and was replaced by one of my mother and me at the rink in
Central Park. At night my mother sat up late with a calculator,
going over bills. Even though the apartment was rent stabilized,
getting by without my dad’s salary was a month-by-month
adventure, since whatever new life he’d fashioned for himself
elsewhere did not include sending money for child support.
Basically we were content enough doing our own laundry down in
the basement, going to matinees instead of full-price movies, eating
day-old baked goods and cheap Chinese carry-out (noodles, egg foo
yung) and counting out nickels and dimes for bus fare. But as I
trudged home from the museum that day—cold, wet, with a toothcrunching headache—it struck me that with my dad gone, no one in
the world would be particularly worried about my mother or me;
no one was sitting around wondering where we’d been all morning
or why they hadn’t heard from us. Wherever he was, off in his
New Life (tropics or prairie, tiny ski town or M ajor American
City) he would certainly be riveted to the television; and it was
easy to imagine that maybe he was even getting a little frantic and
wound-up, as he sometimes did over big news stories that had
absolutely nothing to do with him, hurricanes and bridge collapses
in distant states. But would he be worried enough to call and check
on us? Probably not—no more than he would be likely to call his
old office to see what was happening, though certainly he would be
thinking of his ex-colleagues in midtown and wondering how all the
bean counters and pencil-pushers (as he referred to his co-workers)
were faring at 101 Park. Were the secretaries getting scared,
gathering their pictures off their desks and putting on their walking
shoes and going home? Or was it turning into a subdued party of
sorts on the fourteenth floor, people ordering in sandwiches and
gathering around the television in the conference room?
Though the walk home took forever, I don’t remember much
about it except a certain gray, cold, rain-shrouded mood on
M adison Avenue—umbrellas bobbing, the crowds on the sidewalk
flowing silently downtown, a sense of huddled anonymity like old
black and white photos I’d seen of bank crashes and bread lines in
the 1930s. M y headache, and the rain, constricted the world to
such a tight sick circle that I saw little more than the hunched backs
of people ahead of me on the sidewalk. In fact, my head hurt so
badly that I could hardly see where I was going at all; and a couple
of times I was nearly hit by cars when I plowed into the crosswalk
without paying attention to the light. Nobody appeared to know
exactly what had happened, though I overheard “North Korea”
blaring from the radio of a parked cab, and “Iran” and “al-Qaeda”
muttered by a number of passersby. And a scrawny black man
with dreadlocks—drenched to the bone—was pacing back and
forth out in front of the Whitney museum, jabbing at the air with
his fists and shouting to nobody in particular: “Buckle up,
M anhattan! Osama bin Laden is rockin us again!”
Though I felt faint, and wanted to sit down, somehow I kept
hobbling along with a hitch in my step like a partially broken toy.
Cops gestured; cops whistled and beckoned. Water dripped off the
end of my nose. Over and over, blinking the rain from my eyes, the
thought coursed through my mind: I had to get home to my mother
as soon as I could. She would be waiting frantically for me at the
apartment; she would be tearing her hair out with worry, cursing
herself for having taken my phone. Everyone was having problems
getting calls through and pedestrians were lined ten and twenty
deep at the few pay phones on the street. Mother, I thought,
Mother, trying to send her a psychic message that I was alive. I
wanted her to know I was all right but at the same time I remember
telling myself it was okay I was walking instead of running; I
didn’t want to pass out on the way home. How lucky that she had
walked away only a few moments before! She had sent me directly
into the heart of the explosion; she was sure to think that I was
dead.
And to think of the girl who’d saved my life made my eyes
smart. Pippa! An odd, dry name for a rusty, wry little redhead: it
suited her. Whenever I thought of her eyes on mine, I felt dizzy at
the thought that she—a perfect stranger—had saved me from
walking out of the exhibition and into the black flash in the
postcard shop, nada, the end of everything. Would I ever get to tell
her she’d saved my life? As for the old man: the firemen and rescue
people had rushed the building only minutes after I got out, and I
still had hopes that someone had made it back in to rescue him—
the door was jacked, they knew he was in there. Would I ever see
either of them again?
When I finally made it home, I was chilled to the bone,
punch-drunk and stumbling. Water streamed from my sodden
clothes and wound behind me in an uneven trail across the lobby
floor.
After the crowds on the street, the air of desertion was
unnerving. Though the portable television was going in the package
room, and I heard walkie talkies spluttering somewhere in the
building, there was no sign of Goldie or Carlos or Jose or any of
the regular guys.
Farther back, the lighted cabinet of the elevator stood empty
and waiting, like a stage cabinet in a magic act. The gears caught and
shuddered; one by one, the pearly old deco numbers blinked past
as I creaked up to the seventh floor. Stepping into my own, drab
hallway, I was overwhelmed with relief—mouse-brown paint,
stuffy carpet-cleaner smell and all.
The key turned noisily in the lock. “Hello?” I called, stepping
into the dimness of the apartment: shades down, all quiet.
In the silence, the refrigerator hummed. God, I thought, with a
terrible jolt, isn’t she home yet?
“M other?” I called again. With rapidly sinking heart, I walked
fast through the foyer, and then stood confused in the middle of
the living room.
Her keys weren’t on the peg by the door; her bag wasn’t on
the table. Wet shoes squelching in the stillness, I walked through to
the kitchen—which wasn’t much of a kitchen, only an alcove with
a two-burner stove, facing an airshaft. There sat her coffee cup,
green glass from the flea market, with a lipstick print on the rim.
I stood staring at the unwashed coffee cup with an inch of
cold coffee at the bottom and wondered what to do. M y ears were
ringing and whooshing and my head hurt so badly I could scarcely
think: waves of blackness on the edge of my vision. I’d been so
fixed on how worried she would be, on making it home to tell her
that I was okay, that it had never occurred to me that she might not
be home herself.
Wincing with every step, I walked down the hallway to my
parents’ bedroom: essentially unchanged since my father had left
but more cluttered and feminine-looking now that it was hers alone.
The answering machine, on the table by the tumbled and mussedup bed, was dark: no messages.
Standing in the doorway, half-reeling with pain, I tried to
concentrate. A jarring sensation of the day’s movement jolted
through my body, as if I’d been riding in a car for far too long.
First things first: find my phone, check my messages. Only I
didn’t know where my phone was. She had taken it away after I
was suspended; the night before, when she was in the shower, I’d
tried to find it by calling the number but apparently she’d turned it
off.
I remember plunging my hands in the top drawer of her
bureau and clawing through a bewilderment of scarves: silks and
velvets, Indian embroideries.
Then, with immense effort (even though it wasn’t very
heavy) I dragged over the bench at the end of her bed and climbed
on it so I could look on the top shelf of her closet. Afterwards, I
sat on the carpet in a semi-stupor, with my cheek leaning against
the bench and an ugly white roar in my ears.
Something was wrong. I remember raising my head with a
sudden blaze of conviction that gas was seeping out of the kitchen
stove, that I was being poisoned from a gas leak. Except I couldn’t
smell any gas.
I might have gone into the little bathroom off her bedroom
and looked in the medicine cabinet for an aspirin, something for my
head, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that at some point I was
in my room, not knowing how I got there, bracing myself with one
hand against the wall by the bed and feeling like I was going to be
sick. And then everything was so confused I can’t give a clear
account of it at all until I sat up disoriented on the living room sofa
at the sound of something like a door opening.
But it wasn’t the front door, only somebody else down the
hall. The room was dark and I could hear afternoon traffic, rushhour traffic, out on the street. In the dimness, I was still for a
heartstopping moment or two as the noises sorted themselves out
and the familiar lines of table lamp, lyre-shaped chair backs grew
visible against the twilight window. “M om?” I said, and the crackle
of panic was plainly audible in my voice.
I had fallen asleep in my gritty wet clothes; the sofa was
damp too, with a clammy, body-shaped depression where I’d been
lying down on it. A chilly breeze rattled in the venetian blinds,
through the window my mother had left partly open that morning.
The clock said 6:47 p.m. With growing fear, I walked stiffly
around the apartment, turning on all the lights—even the overhead
lights in the living room, which we generally didn’t use because
they were so stark and bright.
Standing in the doorway of my mother’s bedroom, I saw a
red light blinking in the dark. A delicious wave of relief washed
over me: I darted around the bed, fumbled for the button on the
answering machine, and it was several seconds before I realized
that the voice was not my mother at all but a woman my mother
worked with, sounding unaccountably cheerful. “Hi, Audrey, Pru
here, just checking in. Crazy day, eh? Listen, the galley proofs are
in for Pareja and we need to talk but the deadline’s been postponed
so no worries, for now anyway. Hope you’re holding up, love,
give a call when you’ve got a chance.”
I stood there for a long time, looking down at the machine
after the message beeped off. Then I lifted up the edge of the blinds
and peeked out at the traffic.
It was that hour: people coming home. Horns honked faintly
down on the street. I still had a splitting headache and the feeling
(new to me then, but now unfortunately all too familiar) of waking
up with a nasty hangover, of important things forgotten and left
undone.
I went back to her bedroom, and with trembling hands,
punched in the number of her cell phone, so fast that I got it wrong
and had to dial again. But she didn’t answer; the service picked up.
I left a message (Mom, it’s me, I’m worried, where are you?) and
sat on the side of her bed with my head in my hands.
Cooking smells had begun to drift from the lower floors.
Indistinct voices floated in from neighboring apartments: abstract
thumps, somebody opening and shutting cabinets. It was late:
people were coming home from work, dropping their briefcases,
greeting their cats and dogs and children, turning on the news,
getting ready to go out for dinner. Where was she? I tried to think
of all the reasons why she might have been held up and couldn’t
really come up with any—although, who knew, maybe a street
somewhere had been closed off so she couldn’t get home. But
wouldn’t she have called?
M aybe she dropped her phone? I thought. M aybe she broke
it? M aybe she gave it to someone who needed it more?
The stillness of the apartment unnerved me. Water sang in the
pipes, and the breeze clicked treacherously in the blinds. Because I
was just sitting uselessly on the side of her bed, feeling like I
needed to do something, I called back and left yet another message,
this time unable to keep the quaver out of my voice. Mom, forgot
to say, I’m at home. Please call, the second you get a chance, okay?
Then I called and left a message on the voice mail at her office just
in case.
With a deadly coldness spreading in the center of my chest, I
walked back into the living room. After standing there for a few
moments, I went to the bulletin board in the kitchen to see if she
had left me a note, though I already knew very well she hadn’t.
Back in the living room, I peered out the window at the busy
street. Could she have run to the drugstore or the deli, not wanting
to wake me? Part of me wanted to go out on the street and look for
her, but it was crazy to think I would spot her in rush-hour crowds
and besides if I left the apartment, I was scared I’d miss her call.
It was past time for the doormen to change shifts. When I
phoned downstairs, I was hoping for Carlos (the most senior and
dignified of the doormen) or even better Jose: a big happy
Dominican guy, my favorite. But nobody answered at all, for ages,
until finally a thin, halting, foreign-sounding voice said: “Hello?”
“Is Jose there?”
“No,” said the voice. “No. You cah back.”
It was, I realized, the frightened-looking Asian guy in safety
goggles and rubber gloves who ran the floor waxer and managed the
trash and did other odd jobs around the building. The doormen
(who didn’t appear to know his name any more than I did) called
him “the new guy,” and griped about management bringing in a
houseman who spoke neither English nor Spanish. Everything that
went wrong in the building, they blamed on him: the new guy
didn’t shovel the walks right, the new guy didn’t put the mail
where it was supposed to go or keep the courtyard clean like he
should.
“You cah back later,” the new guy was saying, hopefully.
“No, wait!” I said, as he was about to hang up. “I need to talk
to somebody.”
Confused pause.
“Please, is anybody else there?” I said. “It’s an emergency.”
“Okay,” said the voice warily, in an open-ended tone that
gave me hope. I could hear him breathing hard in the silence.
“This is Theo Decker,” I said. “In 7C? I see you downstairs a
lot? M y mother hasn’t come home and I don’t know what to do.”
Long, bewildered pause. “Seven,” he repeated, as if it were
the only part of the sentence he understood.
“M y mother,” I repeated. “Where’s Carlos? Isn’t anybody
there?”
“Sorry, thank you,” he said, in a panicky tone, and hung up.
I hung up the phone myself, in a state of high agitation, and
after a few moments standing frozen in the middle of the living
room went and switched on the television. The city was a mess;
the bridges to the outer boroughs were closed, which explained
why Carlos and Jose hadn’t been able to get in to work, but I saw
nothing at all that made me understand what might be holding my
mother up. There was a number to call, I saw, if someone was
missing. I copied it down on a scrap of newspaper and made a deal
with myself that if she wasn’t home in exactly one half hour, I
would call.
Writing the number down made me feel better. For some
reason I felt sure that the act of writing it down was going to
magically make her walk through the door. But after forty-five
minutes passed, and then an hour, and still she hadn’t turned up, I
finally broke down and called it (pacing back and forth, keeping a
nervous eye on the television the whole time I was waiting for
somebody to pick up, the whole time I was on hold, commercials
for mattresses, commercials for stereos, fast free delivery and no
credit required). Finally a brisk woman came on, all business. She
took my mother’s name, took my phone number, said my mother
wasn’t “on her list” but I would get a call back if her name turned
up. Not until after I hung up the phone did it occur to me to ask
what sort of list she was talking about; and after an indefinite
period of misgiving, walking in a tormented circuit through all four
rooms, opening drawers, picking up books and putting them down,
turning on my mother’s computer and seeing what I could figure
out from a Google search (nothing), I called back again to ask.
“She’s not listed among the dead,” said the second woman I
spoke to, sounding oddly casual. “Or the injured.”
M y heart lifted. “She’s okay, then?”
“I’m saying we’ve got no information at all. Did you leave
your number earlier so we can give you a call back?”
Yes, I said, they had told me I would get a call back.
“Free delivery and set up,” the television was saying. “Be
sure and ask about our six months’ free financing.”
“Good luck then,” said the woman, and hung up.
The stillness in the apartment was unnatural; even the loud
talking on the television didn’t drive it away. Twenty-one people
were dead, with “dozens more” injured. In vain, I tried to reassure
myself with this number: twenty-one people wasn’t so bad, was
it? Twenty-one was a thin crowd in a movie theatre or even on a
bus. It was three people less than my English class. But soon fresh
doubts and fears began to crowd around me and it was all I could
do not to run out of the apartment yelling her name.
As much as I wanted to go out on the street and look for her,
I knew I was supposed to stay put. We were supposed to meet at
the apartment; that was the deal, the ironclad agreement ever since
elementary school, when I’d been sent home from school with a
Disaster Preparedness Activity Book, featuring cartoon ants in
dust masks gathering supplies and preparing for some unnamed
emergency. I’d completed the crosswords and dim questionnaires
(“What is the best clothing to pack in a Disaster Supply Kit? A.
Bathing suit B. Layers C. Hula Skirt D. Aluminum foil”) and—
with my mother—devised a Family Disaster Plan. Ours was
simple: we would meet at home. And if one of us couldn’t get
home, we would call. But as time crawled by, and the phone did
not ring, and the death toll on the news rose to twenty-two and
then twenty-five, I phoned the city’s emergency number again.
“Yes,” said the woman who answered, in an infuriatingly
calm voice, “I see here that you’ve phoned in already, we’ve got
her down on our list.”
“But—maybe she’s in the hospital or something?”
“She might be. I’m afraid I can’t confirm that, though. What
did you say your name was? Would you like to speak to one of
our counselors?”
“What hospital are they taking people to?”
“I’m sorry, I really can’t—”
“Beth Israel? Lenox Hill?”
“Look, it depends on the type of injury. People have got eye
trauma, burns, all sorts of stuff. There are people undergoing
surgery all over the city—”
“What about those people that were reported dead a few
minutes ago?”
“Look, I understand, I’d like to help you, but I’m afraid
there’s no Audrey Decker on my list.”
M y eyes darted nervously around the living room. M y
mother’s book (Jane and Prudence, Barbara Pym) face-down on
the back of the sofa; one of her thin cashmere cardigans over the
arm of a chair. She had them in all colors; this one was pale blue.
“M aybe you should come down to the Armory. They’ve set
up something for families there—there’s food, and lots of hot
coffee, and people to talk to.”
“But what I’m asking you, are there any dead people that
you don’t have names for? Or injured people?”
“Listen, I understand your concern. I really, really wish I
could help you with this but I just can’t. You’ll get a call back as
soon as we have some specific information.”
“I need to find my mother! Please! She’s probably in a
hospital somewhere. Can’t you give me some idea where to look
for her?”
“How old are you?” said the woman suspiciously.
After a shocked silence, I hung up. For a few dazed moments
I stared at the telephone, feeling relieved but also guilty, as if I’d
knocked something over and broken it. When I looked down at my
hands and saw them shaking, it struck me in a wholly impersonal
way, like noticing the battery was drained on my iPod, that I
hadn’t eaten in a while. Never in my life except when I had a
stomach virus had I gone so long without food. So I went to the
fridge and found my carton of leftover lo mein from the night
before and wolfed it at the counter, standing vulnerable and
exposed in the glare from the overhead bulb. Though there was also
egg foo yung, and rice, I left it for her in case she was hungry when
she came in. It was nearly midnight: soon it would be too late for
her to order in from the deli. After I was finished, I washed my
fork and the coffee things from that morning and wiped down the
counter so she wouldn’t have anything to do when she got home:
she would be pleased, I told myself firmly, when she saw I had
cleaned the kitchen for her. She would be pleased too (at least I
thought so) when she saw I’d saved her painting. She might be
mad. But I could explain.
According to the television, they now knew who was
responsible for the explosion: parties that the news was alternately
calling “right wing extremists” or “home-grown terrorists.” They
had worked with a moving and storage company; with help from
unknown accomplices inside the museum, they had concealed the
explosives within the hollow, carpenter-built display platforms in
the museum shops where the postcards and art books were
stacked. Some of the perpetrators were dead; some of them were in
custody, others were at large. They were going into the particulars
in some detail, but it was all too much for me to take in.
I was now working with the sticky drawer in the kitchen,
which had been jammed shut since long before my father left;
nothing was in it but cookie cutters and some old fondue skewers
and lemon zesters we never used. She’d been trying for well over a
year to get someone from the building in to fix it (along with a
broken doorknob and a leaky faucet and half a dozen other
annoying little things). I got a butter knife, pried at the edges of the
drawer, careful not to chip the paint any more than it was chipped
already. The force of the explosion still rang deep in my bones, an
inner echo of the ringing in my ears; but worse than this, I could
still smell blood, taste the salt and tin of it in my mouth. (I would
be smelling it for days, though I didn’t know that then.)
While I worked and worried at the drawer, I wondered if I
should call somebody, and, if so, who. M y mother was an only
child. And though, technically I had a set of living grandparents—
my father’s dad and stepmother, in M aryland—I didn’t know how
to get in touch with them. Relations were barely civil between my
dad and his stepmother, Dorothy, an immigrant from East
Germany who had cleaned office buildings for a living before
marrying my grandfather. (Always a clever mimic, my dad did a
cruelly funny imitation of Dorothy: a sort of battery-operated
hausfrau, all compressed lips and jerky movements, and an accent
like Curt Jurgens in Battle of Britain.) But though my dad disliked
Dorothy enough, his chief enmity was for Grandpa Decker: a tall,
fat, frightening-looking man with ruddy cheeks and black hair
(dyed, I think) who wore lots of waistcoats and loud plaids, and
believed in belt beatings for children. No picnic was the primary
phrase I associated with Grandpa Decker—as in my dad saying
“Living with that bastard was no picnic” and “Believe me,
dinnertime was never any picnic at our house.” I had met Grandpa
Decker and Dorothy only twice in my life, tense charged occasions
where my mother leaned forward on the sofa with her coat on and
her purse in her lap and her valiant efforts to make conversation all
stumbled and sank into quicksand. The main thing I remembered
were the forced smiles, the heavy smell of cherry pipe tobacco and
Grandpa Decker’s not-very-friendly warning to keep my sticky
little mitts off his model train set (an Alpine village which took up
an entire room of their house and according to him was worth tens
of thousands of dollars).
I’d managed to bend the blade of the butter knife by stabbing
it too hard into the side of the stuck drawer—one of my mother’s
few good knives, a silver knife that had belonged to her mother.
Gamely, I tried to bend it back, biting my lip and concentrating all
my will on the task, as all the time ugly flashes of the day kept
flying up and hitting me in the face. Trying to stop thinking about
it was like trying to stop thinking of a purple cow. The purple cow
was all you could think of.
Unexpectedly the drawer popped open. I stared down at the
mess: rusty batteries, a broken cheese grater, the snowflake cookie
cutters my mother hadn’t used since I was in first grade, jammed in
with ragged old carry-out menus from Viand and Shun Lee Palace
and Delmonico’s. I left the drawer wide open—so it would be the
first thing she saw when she walked in—and wandered over to the
couch and wrapped myself up in a blanket, propped up so I could
keep a good eye on the front door.
M y mind was churning in circles. For a long time I sat
shivering and red-eyed in the glow of the television, as the blue
shadows flickered uneasily in and out. There was no news, really;
the picture kept returning to night shots of the museum (looking
perfectly normal now, except for the yellow police tape still strung
up on the sidewalk, the armed guards out front, rags of smoke
blowing up sporadically from the roof into the Klieg-lit sky).
Where was she? Why hadn’t she come home yet? She would
have a good explanation; she would make this into nothing, and
then it would seem completely stupid how worried I’d been.
To force her from my mind I concentrated hard on an
interview they were running again, from earlier in the evening. A
bespectacled curator in tweed jacket and bow tie—visibly shaken
—was talking about what a disgrace it was that they weren’t
letting specialists into the museum to care for the artwork. “Yes,”
he was saying, “I understand that it’s a crime scene, but these
paintings are very sensitive to changes in air quality and
temperature. They may have been damaged by water or chemicals
or smoke. They may be deteriorating as we speak. It is of vital
importance that conservators and curators be allowed into the
crucial areas to assess the damage as soon as possible—”
All of a sudden the telephone rang—abnormally loud, like an
alarm clock waking me from the worst dream of my life. M y surge
of relief was indescribable. I tripped and nearly fell on my face in
my headlong dive to grab it. I was certain it was my mother, but
the caller ID stopped me cold: NYDoCFS.
New York Department of—what? After half a beat of
confusion, I snatched up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hello there,” said a voice of hushed and almost creepy
gentleness. “To whom am I speaking?”
“Theodore Decker,” I said, taken aback. “Who is this?”
“Hello, Theodore. M y name is M arjorie Beth Weinberg and
I’m a social worker in the Department of Child and Family
Services?”
“What is it? Are you calling about my mother?”
“You’re Audrey Decker’s son? Is that correct?”
“M y mother! Where is she? Is she all right?”
A long pause—a terrible pause.
“What’s the matter?” I cried. “Where is she?”
“Is your father there? M ay I speak to him?”
“He can’t come to the phone. What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry, but it’s an emergency. I’m afraid it’s really very
important that I speak to your father right now.”
“What about my mother?” I said, rising to my feet. “Please!
Just tell me where she is! What happened?”
“You’re not by yourself, are you, Theodore? Is there an adult
with you?”
“No, they’ve gone out for coffee,” I said, looking wildly
around the living room. Ballet slippers, askew beneath a chair.
Purple hyacinths in a foil-wrapped pot.
“Your father, too?”
“No, he’s asleep. Where’s my mother? Is she hurt? What’s
happened?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to wake your dad up,
Theodore.”
“No! I can’t!”
“I’m afraid it’s very important.”
“He can’t come to the phone! Why can’t you just tell me
what’s wrong?”
“Well then, if your dad’s not available, maybe it’s best if I
just leave my contact information with you.” The voice, while soft
and sympathetic, was reminiscent to my ear of Hal the computer
in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Please tell him to get in touch with me
as soon as possible. It’s really very important that he returns the
call.”
After I got off the telephone, I sat very still for a long time.
According to the clock on the stove, which I could see from where
I sat, it was two-forty-five in the morning. Never had I been alone
and awake at such an hour. The living room—normally so airy and
open, buoyant with my mother’s presence—had shrunk to a cold,
pale discomfort, like a vacation house in winter: fragile fabrics,
scratchy sisal rug, paper lamp shades from Chinatown and the
chairs too little and light. All the furniture seemed spindly, poised
at a tiptoe nervousness. I could feel my heart beating, hear the
clicks and ticks and hisses of the large elderly building slumbering
around me. Everyone was asleep. Even the distant horn-honks and
the occasional rattle of trucks out on Fifty-Seventh Street seemed
faint and uncertain, as lonely as a noise from another planet.
Soon, I knew, the night sky would turn dark blue; the first
tender, chilly gleam of April daylight would steal into the room.
Garbage trucks would roar and grumble down the street; spring
songbirds would start singing in the park; alarm clocks would be
going off in bedrooms all over the city. Guys hanging off the backs
of trucks would toss fat whacking bundles of the Times and the
Daily News to the sidewalks outside the newsstand. M others and
dads all over the city would be shuffling around wild-haired in
underwear and bathrobes, putting on the coffee, plugging in the
toaster, waking their kids up for school.
And what would I do? Part of me was immobile, stunned
with despair, like those rats that lose hope in laboratory
experiments and lie down in the maze to starve.
I tried to pull my thoughts together. For a while, it had
almost seemed that if I sat still enough, and waited, things might
straighten themselves out somehow. Objects in the apartment
wobbled with my fatigue: halos shimmered around the table lamp;
the stripe of the wallpaper seemed to vibrate.
I picked up the phone book; I put it down. The idea of calling
the police terrified me. And what could the police do anyway? I
knew only too well from television that a person had to be missing
twenty-four hours. I had just about convinced myself that I ought
to go uptown and look for her, middle of the night or no, and the
hell with our Family Disaster Plan, when a deafening buzz (the
doorbell) shattered the silence and my heart leaped up for joy.
Scrambling, skidding harum-scarum to the door, I fumbled
with the lock. “M om?” I called, sliding the top bolt, throwing open
the door—and then my heart plunged, a six-story drop. Standing
on the doormat were two people I had never seen in my life: a
chubby Korean woman with a short, spiky haircut, a Hispanic guy
in shirt and tie who looked a lot like Luis on Sesame Street. There
was nothing at all threatening about them, quite the contrary; they
were reassuringly dumpy and middle-aged, dressed like a pair of
substitute school teachers, but though they both had kindly
expressions on their faces, I understood the instant I saw them that
my life, as I knew it, was over.
Chapter 3.
Park Avenue
i.
T HE SOCIAL WORKERS P UT me in the back seat of their compact car
and drove me to a diner downtown, near their work, a fake-grand
place glittering with beveled mirrors and cheap Chinatown
chandeliers. Once we were in the booth (both of them on one side,
with me facing) they took clipboards and pens from their
briefcases and tried to make me eat some breakfast while they sat
sipping coffee and asking questions. It was still dark outside; the
city was just waking up. I don’t remember crying, or eating either,
though all these years later I can still smell the scrambled eggs they
ordered for me; the memory of that heaped plate with the steam
coming off it still ties my stomach in knots.
The diner was mostly empty. Sleepy busboys unpacked
boxes of bagels and muffins behind the counter. A wan cluster of
club kids with smudged eyeliner were huddled in a nearby booth. I
remember staring over at them with a desperate, clutching attention
—a sweaty boy in a M andarin jacket, a bedraggled girl with pink
streaks in her hair—and also at an old lady in full make-up and a
fur coat much too warm for the weather who was sitting by herself
at the counter, eating a slice of apple pie.
The social workers—who did everything but shake me and
snap their fingers in my face to get me to look at them—seemed to
understand how unwilling I was to absorb what they were trying
to tell me. Taking turns, they leaned across the table and repeated
what I did not want to hear. M y mother was dead. She had been
struck in the head by flying debris. She had died instantly. They
were sorry to be the ones who broke the news, it was the worst
part of their job, but they really really needed me to understand
what had happened. M y mother was dead and her body was at
New York Hospital. Did I understand?
“Yes,” I said, in the long pause where I realized they were
expecting me to say something. Their blunt, insistent use of the
words death and dead was impossible to reconcile with their
reasonable voices, their polyester business clothes, the Spanish
pop music on the radio and the peppy signs behind the counter
(Fresh Fruit Smoothie, Diet Delite, Try Our Turkey Hamburger!).
“¿Fritas?” said the waiter, appearing at our table, holding
aloft a big plate of french fries.
Both social workers looked startled; the man of the pair (first
names only: Enrique) said something in Spanish and pointed a few
tables over, where the club kids were gesturing to him.
Sitting red-eyed in my shock, before my rapidly cooling plate
of scrambled eggs, I could scarcely grasp the more practical aspects
of my situation. In light of what had happened, their questions
about my father seemed so wholly beside the point that I had a
hard time understanding why they kept asking so insistently about
him.
“So when’s the last time you saw him?” said the Korean
lady, who’d asked me several times to call her by her first name
(I’ve tried and tried to recall it, and can’t). I can still see her
plumpish hands folded on the table, though, and the disturbing
shade of her nail polish: an ashen, silvery color, something between
lavender and blue.
“A guesstimate?” prompted the man Enrique. “About your
dad?”
“Ballpark will do,” the Korean lady said. “When do you
think you last saw him?”
“Um,” I said—it was an effort to think—“sometime last
fall?” M y mother’s death still seemed like a mistake that might be
straightened out somehow if I pulled myself together and
cooperated with these people.
“October? September?” she said, gently, when I didn’t
respond.
M y head hurt so badly I felt like crying whenever I turned it,
although my headache was the least of my problems. “I don’t
know,” I said. “After school started.”
“September, would you say then?” asked Enrique, glancing
up as he made a note on his clipboard. He was a tough-looking guy
—uneasy in his suit and tie, like a sports coach gone to fat—but
his tone conveyed a reassuring sense of the nine-to-five world:
office filing systems, industrial carpeting, business as usual in the
borough of M anhattan. “No contact or communication since then?”
“Who’s a buddy or close friend who might know how to
reach him?” said the Korean lady, leaning forward in a motherly
way.
The question startled me. I didn’t know of any such person.
Even the suggestion that my father had close friends (much less
“buddies”) conveyed a misunderstanding of his personality so
profound I didn’t know how to respond.
It was only after the plates had been taken away, in the edgy
lull after the meal was finished but no one was getting up to leave,
that it crashed down on me where all their seemingly irrelevant
questions about my father and my Decker grandparents (in
M aryland, I couldn’t remember the town, some semi-rural
subdivision behind a Home Depot) and my nonexistent aunts and
uncles had so plainly been leading. I was a minor child without a
guardian. I was to be removed immediately from my home (or “the
environment,” as they kept calling it). Until my father’s parents
were contacted, the city would be stepping in.
“But what are you going to do with me?” I asked for the
second time, pushing back in my chair, a crackle of panic rising in
my voice. It had all seemed very informal when I’d turned off the
television and left the apartment with them, for a bite to eat as
they’d said. Nobody had said a word about removing me from my
home.
Enrique glanced down at his clipboard. “Well, Theo—” he
kept pronouncing it Teo, they both did, which was wrong
—“you’re a minor child in need of immediate care. We’re going to
need to place you in some kind of emergency custody.”
“Custody?” The word made my stomach crawl; it suggested
courtrooms, locked dormitories, basketball courts ringed with
barbed-wire fence.
“Well, let’s say care then. And only until your grandpa and
grandma—”
“Wait,” I said—overwhelmed at exactly how fast things were
spinning out of control, at the false assumption of warmth and
familiarity in the way he’d said the words grandpa and grandma.
“We’ll just need to make some temporary arrangements until
we reach them,” said the Korean lady, leaning close. Her breath
smelled minty but also had the slightest underbite of garlic. “We
know how sad you must be, but there’s nothing to worry about.
Our job is just to keep you safe until we reach the people who love
you and care about you, okay?”
It was too awful to be real. I stared at the two strange faces
across the booth, sallow in the artificial lights. Even the
proposition that Grandpa Decker and Dorothy were people who
cared about me was absurd.
“But what’s going to happen to me?” I said.
“The main concern,” said Enrique, “is that you’re in a capable
foster situation for the time being. With someone that’ll work hand
in hand with Social Services to implement your care plan.”
Their combined efforts to soothe me—their calm voices and
sympathetic, reasonable expressions—made me increasingly
frantic. “Stop it!” I said, jerking away from the Korean lady, who
had reached over the table and was attempting to clasp my hand in
a caring way.
“Look, Teo. Let me explain something. Nobody’s talking
about detention or a juvenile facility—”
“Then what?”
“Temporary custody. All that means, is that we take you to
a safe place with people who will act as guardians for the state—”
“What if I don’t want to go?” I said, so loudly that people
turned to stare.
“Listen,” Enrique said, leaning back and signalling for more
coffee. “The city has certified crisis homes for youth in need. Fine
places. And right now, that’s just one option we’re looking at.
Because in a lot of cases like yours—”
“I don’t want to go to a foster home!”
“Kid, you sure don’t,” the pink-haired club girl said audibly
at the next table. Recently, the New York Post had been full of
Johntay and Keshawn Divens, the eleven-year-old twins who had
been raped by their foster father and starved nearly to death, up
around M orningside Heights.
Enrique pretended not to hear this. “Look, we’re here to
help,” he said, refolding his hands on the tabletop. “And we’ll also
consider other alternatives if they keep you safe and address your
needs.”
“You never told me I couldn’t go back to the apartment!”
“Well, city agencies are overburdened—sí, gracias,” he said
to the waiter who’d come to refill his cup. “But sometimes other
arrangements can be made if we get provisional approval,
especially in a situation like yours.”
“What he’s saying?” The Korean lady tapped her fingernail
on the Formica to get my attention. “It’s not set in stone you go
into the system if there’s somebody who can come stay with you
for a little while. Or vice versa.”
“A little while?” I repeated. It was the only part of the
sentence that had sunk in.
“Like maybe there’s somebody else we could call, that you
might be comfortable staying with for a day or two? Like a teacher,
maybe? Or a family friend?”
Off the top of my head, I gave them the telephone number of
my old friend Andy Barbour—the first number that came to me,
maybe because it was the first phone number besides my own I’d
learned by heart. Though Andy and I had been good friends in
elementary school (movies, sleepovers, summer classes in Central
Park in map and compass skills), I’m still not quite sure why his
name was the first to fall out of my mouth, since we weren’t such
good friends any more. We’d drifted apart at the start of junior
high; I’d hardly seen him in months.
“Barbour with a u,” said Enrique as he wrote the name down.
“Who are these people? Friends?”
Yes, I replied, I’d known them all my life, practically. The
Barbours lived on Park Avenue. Andy had been my best friend
since third grade. “His dad has a big job on Wall Street,” I said—
and then I shut up. It had just occurred to me that Andy’s dad had
spent some unknown amount of time in a Connecticut mental
hospital for “exhaustion.”
“What about the mother?”
“She and my mom are good friends.” (Almost true, but not
quite; though they were on perfectly friendly terms, my mother
wasn’t nearly rich or connected enough for a social-pages lady like
M rs. Barbour.)
“No, I mean, what does she do for a living?”
“Charity work,” I said, after a disoriented pause. “Like the
Antiques Show at the Armory?”
“So she’s a stay-at-home mom?”
I nodded, glad she’d supplied the phrase so handily, which
though technically true was not how anyone who knew M rs.
Barbour would ever think to describe her.
Enrique signed his name with a flourish. “We’ll look into it.
Can’t promise anything,” he said, clicking his pen and sticking it
back in his pocket. “We can certainly drop you over with these
folks for the next few hours, though, if they’re who you want to be
with.”
He slid out of the booth and walked outside. Through the
front window, I could see him walking back and forth on the
sidewalk, talking on the phone with a finger in one ear. Then he
dialed another number, for a much shorter call. There was a quick
stop at the apartment—less than five minutes, just long enough for
me to grab my school bag and a few impulsive and ill-considered
articles of clothing—and then, in their car again (“Are you buckled
up back there?”) I leaned with my cheek to the cold glass and
watched the lights go green all up the empty dawn canyon of Park
Avenue.
Andy lived in the upper Sixties, in one of the great old whiteglove buildings on Park where the lobby was straight from a Dick
Powell movie and the doormen were still mostly Irish. They’d all
been there forever, and as it happened I remembered the guy who
met us at the door: Kenneth, the midnight man. He was younger
than most of the other doormen: dead-pale and poorly shaven,
often a bit slow on the draw from working nights. Though he was a
likable guy—had sometimes mended soccer balls for Andy and me,
and dispensed friendly advice on how to deal with bullies at school
—he was known around the building for having a bit of a drinking
problem; and as he stepped aside to usher us in through the grand
doors, and gave me the first of the many God, kid, I’m so sorry
looks I would be receiving over the next months, I smelled the
sourness of beer and sleep on him.
“They’re expecting you,” he said to the social workers. “Go
on up.”
ii.
IT WAS M R. BARBOUR who opened the door: first a crack, then all
the way. “M orning, morning,” he said, stepping back. M r. Barbour
was a tiny bit strange-looking, with something pale and silvery
about him, as if his treatments in the Connecticut “ding farm” (as
he called it) had rendered him incandescent; his eyes were a queer
unstable gray and his hair was pure white, which made him seem
older than he was until you noticed that his face was young and
pink—boyish, even. His ruddy cheeks and his long, old-fashioned
nose, in combination with the prematurely white hair, gave him the
amiable look of a lesser founding father, some minor member of the
Continental Congress teleported to the twenty-first century. He
was wearing what appeared to be yesterday’s office clothes: a
rumpled dress shirt and expensive-looking suit trousers that looked
like he had just grabbed them off the bedroom floor.
“Come on in,” he said briskly, rubbing his eyes with his fist.
“Hello there, dear,” he said to me—the dear startling, from him,
even in my disoriented state.
Barefoot, he padded ahead of us, through the marble foyer.
Beyond, in the richly decorated living room (all glazed chintz and
Chinese jars) it felt less like morning than midnight: silk-shaded
lamps burning low, big dark paintings of naval battles and drapes
drawn against the sun. There—by the baby grand, and a flower
arrangement the size of a packing case—stood M rs. Barbour in a
floor-sweeping housecoat, pouring coffee into cups on a silver
tray.
As she turned to greet us, I could feel the social workers
taking in the apartment, and her. M rs. Barbour was from a society
family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone
that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a
masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her
upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the
magnetic pull of beauty—a stillness so powerful that the molecules
realigned themselves around her when she came into a room. Like a
fashion drawing come to life, she turned heads wherever she went,
gliding along obliviously without appearing to notice the turbulence
she created in her wake; her eyes were spaced far apart, her ears
were small, high-set, and very close to her head, and her body was
long-waisted and thin, like an elegant weasel’s. (Andy had these
features as well, but in ungainly proportions, without her slinky
ermine grace.)
In the past, her reserve (or coldness, depending how you saw
it) had sometimes made me uncomfortable, but that morning I was
grateful for her sang froid. “Hi there. We’ll be putting you in the
room with Andy,” she said to me without beating around the bush.
“I’m afraid he’s not up for school yet, though. If you’d like to lie
down for a while, you’re perfectly welcome to go to Platt’s room.”
Platt was Andy’s older brother, away at school. “You know where
it is, of course?”
I said that I did.
“Are you hungry?”
“No.”
“Well, then. Tell us what we can do for you.”
I was aware of them all looking at me. M y headache was
bigger than anything else in the room. In the bull’s-eye mirror
above M rs. Barbour’s head, I could see the whole scene replicated
in freakish miniature: Chinese jars, coffee tray, awkward-looking
social workers and all.
In the end, it was M r. Barbour who broke the spell. “Come
along, then, let’s get you squared away,” he said, clapping his hand
on my shoulder and firmly steering me out of the room. “No—
back here, this way—aft, aft. Right back here.”
The only time I’d ever set foot in Platt’s room, several years
before, Platt—who was a champion lacrosse player and a bit of a
psychopath—had threatened to beat the everliving crap out of
Andy and me. When he’d lived at home, he’d stayed in there all the
time with the door locked (and, Andy told me, smoked pot). Now
all his posters were gone and the room was very clean and emptylooking, since he was away at Groton. There were free weights,
stacks of old National Geographics, an empty aquarium. M r.
Barbour, opening and closing drawers, was babbling a bit. “Let’s
see what’s in here, shall we? Bedsheets. And… more bedsheets.
I’m afraid I never come in here, I do hope you’ll forgive me—ah.
Swimming trunks! Won’t be needing those this morning, will we?”
Scrabbling around in yet a third drawer, he finally produced some
new pyjamas with the tags still on, ugly as hell, reindeer on electric
blue flannel, no mystery why they’d never been worn.
“Well then,” he said, running a hand through his hair and
cutting his eyes anxiously towards the door. “I’ll leave you now.
Hell of a thing that’s happened, good Lord. You must be feeling
awfully rough. A good solid sleep will be the best thing in the
world for you. Are you tired?” he said, looking at me closely.
Was I? I was wide awake, and yet part of me was so glassedoff and numb I was practically in a coma.
“If you’d rather have company? Perhaps if I build a fire in
the other room? Tell me what you want.”
At this question, I felt a sharp rush of despair—for as bad as
I felt there was nothing he could do for me, and from his face, I
realized he knew that, too.
“We’re only in the next room if you need us—that is to say,
I’ll be leaving soon for work but someone will be here.…” His pale
gaze darted around the room, and then returned to me. “Perhaps
it’s incorrect of me, but in the circumstances I wouldn’t see the
harm in pouring you what my father used to call a minor nip. If
you should happen to want such a thing. Which of course you
don’t,” he added hastily, noting my confusion. “Quite unsuitable.
Never mind.”
He stepped closer, and for an uncomfortable moment I
thought he might touch me, or hug me. But instead he clapped his
hands and rubbed them together. “In any case. We’re perfectly
happy to have you and I hope you’ll make yourself as comfortable
as you can. You’ll speak right up if you need anything, won’t
you?”
He had hardly stepped out when there was whispering
outside the door. Then a knock. “Someone here to see you,” M rs.
Barbour said, and withdrew.
And in plodded Andy: blinking, fumbling with his glasses. It
was clear that they had woken him up and hauled him out of bed.
With a noisy creak of bedsprings, he sat beside me on the edge of
Platt’s bed, looking not at me but at the wall opposite.
He cleared his throat, pushed his glasses up on the bridge of
his nose. There followed a long silence. Urgently the radiator
clanked and hissed. Both his parents had gotten out of there so fast
it was like they’d heard the fire alarm.
“Wow,” he said, after some moments, in his eerie flat voice.
“Disturbing.”
“Yeah,” I said. And together we sat in silence, side by side,
staring at the dark green walls of Platt’s room and the taped
squares where his posters had once been. What else was there to
say?
iii.
EVEN NOW, TO REMEMBER that time fills me with a choking,
hopeless sensation. Everything was terrible. People offered me
cold drinks, extra sweaters, food I couldn’t eat: bananas, cupcakes,
club sandwiches, ice cream. I said yes and no when I was spoken
to, and spent a lot of time staring at the carpet so people wouldn’t
see I’d been crying.
Though the Barbours’ apartment was enormous by New
York standards, it was on a low floor and practically lightless, even
on the Park Avenue side. Though it was never quite night there, or
exactly day, still the glow of lamplight against burnished oak gave
off an air of conviviality and safety like a private club. Friends of
Platt’s called it “the creepatorium” and my father, who’d come
there once or twice to pick me up after sleepovers, had referred to
it as “Frank E. Campbell’s” after the funeral home. But I found a
solace in the massive, opulent, pre-war gloom, which was easy to
retreat into if you didn’t feel like talking or being stared at.
People stopped by to see me—my social workers of course,
and a pro-bono psychiatrist who’d been sent to me by the city,
but also people from my mother’s work (some of whom, like
M athilde, I’d been expert at imitating in order to make her laugh),
and loads of friends from NYU and her fashion days. A semifamous actor named Jed, who sometimes spent Thanksgiving with
us (“Your mother was the Queen of the Universe, as far as I was
concerned”), and a slightly punked-out woman in an orange coat,
named Kika, who told me how she and my mother—dead broke in
the East Village—had thrown a wildly successful dinner party for
twelve people for less than twenty dollars (featuring, among other
things, cream and sugar packets lifted from a coffee bar, and herbs
picked surreptitiously from a neighbor’s windowbox). Annette—a
fireman’s widow, in her seventies, my mother’s former neighbor
down on the Lower East Side—showed up with a box of cookies
from the Italian bakery around where she and my mother used to
live, the same butter cookies with pine nuts she always brought us
when she visited at Sutton Place. Then there was Cinzia, our old
housekeeper, who burst into tears when she saw me, and asked me
for a picture of my mother to keep in her wallet.
M rs. Barbour broke up these visits if they dragged on too
long, on the grounds that I got tired easily, but also—I suspect—
because she couldn’t handle people like Cinzia and Kika
monopolizing her living room for indefinite periods of time. After
forty-five minutes or so she would come and stand quietly in the
door. And if they didn’t take the hint, she would speak up and
thank them for coming—perfectly polite, but in such a way that
people realized that the time was getting on and rose to their feet.
(Her voice, like Andy’s, was hollow and infinitely far away; even
when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she were
relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri.)
Around me, over my head, the life of the household went on.
Every day, the doorbell rang many times: housekeepers, nannies,
caterers, tutors, the piano instructor, social-pages ladies and tasselloafer business guys connected with M rs. Barbour’s charities.
Andy’s younger siblings, Toddy and Kitsey, raced through the
gloomy halls with their school friends. Often, in the afternoons,
perfume-smelling women with shopping bags dropped by for
coffee and tea; in the evenings, couples dressed for dinner
congregated over wine and fizzy water in the living room, where
the flower arrangements were delivered every week from a swanky
M adison Avenue florist and the newest issues of Architectural
Digest and the New Yorker were fanned just so on the coffee table.
If M r. and M rs. Barbour were terribly inconvenienced to
have an extra kid dumped on them, at scarcely a moment’s notice,
they were graceful enough not to show it. Andy’s mother, with her
understated jewelry and her not-quite-interested smile—the kind of
woman who could get on the phone with the mayor if she needed a
favor—seemed to operate somehow above the constraints of New
York City bureaucracy. Even in my confusion and grief, I had a
sense that she was managing things behind the scenes, making it all
easier for me, shielding me from the rougher aspects of the Social
Services machinery—and, I’m now fairly sure, the press. Calls
were forwarded from the insistently ringing telephone directly to
her cell phone. There were conversations in low voices,
instructions to the doormen. After coming in on one of Enrique’s
many tireless interrogations about my father’s whereabouts—
interrogations that often brought me close to tears; he might as well
have been grilling me about the location of missile sites in Pakistan
—she sent me out of the room and then in a controlled monotone
put a stop to it (“Well I mean, obviously the boy doesn’t know
where he is, the mother didn’t know either… yes, I know you’d
like to find him but clearly the man doesn’t want to be found, he’s
taken measures not to be found… he wasn’t paying child support,
he left a lot of debts, he more or less flew town without a word so
frankly I’m not quite sure what you mean to accomplish by
contacting this stellar parent and fine citizen and… yes, yes, all
well and good, but if the man’s creditors can’t run him down and
your agency can’t either then I’m not sure what’s to be gained
from continuing to badger the child, are you? Can we agree to put a
stop to this?”)
Certain elements of the martial law imposed since my arrival
had inconvenienced the household: no longer, for instance, were the
housemaids permitted to listen to Ten Ten WINS, the news
station, while they worked (“No, no,” said Etta the cook, with a
warning glance at me, when one of the cleaners tried to turn the
radio on) and in the mornings, the Times was taken immediately to
M r. Barbour and not left out for the rest of the family to read.
Clearly, this was not the usual custom—“Somebody’s carried the
paper off again,” Andy’s little sister Kitsey would wail before
falling into guilty silence after a look from her mother—and I soon
gathered that the newspaper had begun vanishing into M r.
Barbour’s study because there were things in it that it was thought
preferable for me not to see.
Thankfully Andy, who had been my companion in adversity
before, understood that the last thing I wanted was to talk. Those
first few days, they let him stay home from school with me. In his
musty plaid room with the bunk beds, where I had spent many a
Saturday night in elementary school, we sat over the chessboard,
Andy playing for both of us, since in my fog I scarcely
remembered how to move the pieces. “Okay,” he said, pushing his
glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “Right. Are you absolutely
sure you want to do that?”
“Do what?”
“Yes, I see,” said Andy, in the wispy, irritating voice which
had driven so many bullies to shove him to the sidewalk out in
front of our school over the years. “Your rook is in danger, that’s
perfectly correct, but I would suggest you take a closer look at
your queen—no, no, your queen. D5.”
He had to say my name to get my attention. Over and over, I
was reliving the moment where my mother and I had run up the
museum steps. Her striped umbrella. Rain peppering and driving in
our faces. What had happened, I knew, was irrevocable, yet at the
same time it seemed there had to be some way I could go back to
the rainy street and make it all happen differently.
“The other day,” said Andy, “somebody, I really believe it
was M alcolm whats-his-name or some other supposedly respected
writer—anyway, he made a big production the other day in the
Science Times of pointing out that there are more potential games
of chess than there are grains of sand in the entire world. It’s
ridiculous that a science writer for a major newspaper would feel
compelled to belabor a fact so obvious.”
“Right,” I said, returning with effort from my thoughts.
“Like who doesn’t know that grains of sand on the planet,
however numerous, are finite? It’s absurd that someone would
even comment on such a non-issue, you know, like, Breaking News
Story! Just throwing it out there, you know, as a supposedly
arcane fact.”
Andy and I, in elementary school, had become friends under
more or less traumatic circumstances: after we’d been skipped
ahead a grade because of high test scores. Everyone now appeared
to agree that this had been a mistake for both of us, though for
different reasons. That year—bumbling around among boys all
older and bigger than us, boys who tripped us and shoved us and
slammed locker doors on our hands, who tore up our homework
and spat in our milk, who called us maggot and faggot and
dickhead (sadly, a natural for me, with a last name like Decker)—
during that whole year (our Babylonian Captivity, Andy called it,
in his faint glum voice) we’d struggled along side by side like a pair
of weakling ants under a magnifying glass: shin-kicked, suckerpunched, ostracized, eating lunch huddled in the most out-of-theway corner we could find in order to keep from getting ketchup
packets and chicken nuggets thrown at us. For almost two years he
had been my only friend, and vice versa. It depressed and
embarrassed me to remember that time: our Autobot wars and Lego
spaceships, the secret identities we’d assumed from classic Star
Trek (I was Kirk, he was Spock) in an effort to make a game of our
torments. Captain, it would appear that these aliens are holding us
captive in some simulacrum of your schools for human children, on
Earth.
Before I’d been tossed in with a tight, competitive bunch of
older boys, with a label reading “gifted” tied around my neck, I’d
never been especially reviled or humiliated at school. But poor
Andy—even before he was skipped ahead a grade—had always
been a chronically picked-upon kid: scrawny, twitchy, lactoseintolerant, with skin so pale it was almost transparent, and a
penchant for throwing out words like ‘noxious’ and ‘chthonic’ in
casual conversation. As bright as he was, he was clumsy; his flat
voice, his habit of breathing through his mouth due to a chronically
blocked nose, gave him the appearance of being mildly stupid
instead of excessively smart. Among the rest of his kittenish,
sharp-toothed, athletic siblings—racing around between their
friends and their sports teams and their rewarding after-school
programs—he stood out like a random pastehead who had
wandered out onto the lacrosse field by mistake.
Whereas I’d managed to recover, somewhat, from the
catastrophe of fifth grade, Andy had not. He stayed home on
Friday and Saturday nights; he never got invited to parties or to
hang out in the park. As far as I knew, I was still his only friend.
And though thanks to his mother he had all the right clothes, and
dressed like the popular kids—even wore contact lenses some of
the time—no one was fooled: hostile jock types who remembered
him from the bad old days still pushed him around and called him
“Threepio” for his long-ago mistake of wearing a Star Wars shirt to
school.
Andy had never been overly talkative, even in childhood,
except in occasional pressured bursts (much of our friendship had
consisted of wordlessly passing comic books back and forth).
Years of harassment at school had rendered him even more closetongued and uncommunicative—less apt to employ Lovecraftian
vocabulary words, more prone to entomb himself in advanced-
placement math and science. M ath had never interested me much—
I was what they called a high verbal—but while I’d fallen short of
my early academic promise, in every area, and had no interest in
good grades if I had to work for them, Andy was in AP everything
and at the very top of our class. (Certainly he would have been
sent off to Groton like Platt—a prospect that had terrified him, as
far back as third grade—had not his parents worried with some
justification about sending away to school a son so persecuted by
his classmates that he had once been nearly suffocated at recess by
a plastic bag thrown over his head. And there were other worries as
well; the reason I knew about M r. Barbour’s time in the “ding
farm” was that Andy had told me, in his matter-of-fact way, that
his parents were afraid he might have inherited something of the
same vulnerability, as he put it.)
During his time home from school with me, Andy apologized
for having to study, “but unfortunately it’s necessary,” he said,
sniffling and wiping his nose on his sleeve. His course load was
incredibly demanding (“AP Hell on wheels”) and he couldn’t afford
to fall even a day behind. While he labored over what seemed
endless amounts of schoolwork (Chem and Calculus, American
History, English, Astronomy, Japanese) I sat on the floor with my
back against the side of his dresser, counting silently to myself:
this time only three days ago she was alive, this time four days, a
week. In my mind, I went over all the meals we’d eaten in the days
leading up to her death: our last visit to the Greek diner, our last
visit to Shun Lee Palace, the last dinner she’d cooked for me
(spaghetti carbonara) and the last dinner before that (a dish called
chicken Indienne, which she’d learned to make from her mother
back in Kansas). Sometimes, to look occupied, I turned through old
volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist or an illustrated H. G. Wells he had
in his room, but even the pictures were more than I could absorb.
M ostly I stared out at the pigeons flapping on the window ledge as
Andy filled out endless grids in his hiragana workbook, his knee
bouncing under the desk as he worked.
Andy’s room—originally one large bedroom that the
Barbours had divided in half—faced Park Avenue. Horns cried in
the crosswalk at rush hour and the light burned gold in the
windows across the street, dying down around the same time as
the traffic began to thin. As the night wore on (phosphorescent in
the streetlamps, violet city midnights that never quite faded to
black) I turned from side to side, the low ceiling over the bunk
pressing down on me so heavily that sometimes I woke convinced
I was lying underneath the bed instead of on top of it.
How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed
my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical
longing, like a craving for air underwater. Lying awake, I tried to
recall all my best memories of her—to freeze her in my mind so I
wouldn’t forget her—but instead of birthdays and happy times I
kept remembering things like how a few days before she was killed
she’d stopped me halfway out the door to pick a thread off my
school jacket. For some reason, it was one of the clearest memories
I had of her: her knitted eyebrows, the precise gesture of her
reaching out to me, everything. Several times too—drifting uneasily
between dreaming and sleep—I sat up suddenly in bed at the
sound of her voice speaking clearly in my head, remarks she might
conceivably have made at some point but that I didn’t actually
remember, things like Throw me an apple, would you? and I
wonder if this buttons up the front or the back? and This sofa is in a
terrible state of disreputableness.
Light from the street flew in black bands across the floor.
Hopelessly, I thought of my bedroom standing empty only a few
blocks away: my own narrow bed with the worn red quilt. Glowin-the-dark stars from the planetarium, a picture postcard of James
Whale’s Frankenstein. The birds were back in the park again, the
daffodils were up; this time of year, when the weather got nice,
sometimes we woke up extra early in the mornings and walked
through the park together instead of taking the bus to the West
Side. If only I could go back and change what had happened, keep
it from happening somehow. Why hadn’t I insisted we get
breakfast instead of going to the museum? Why hadn’t M r.
Beeman asked us to come in on Tuesday, or Thursday?
Either the second night after my mother died or the third—
some time at any rate after M rs. Barbour took me to the doctor to
get my headache seen to—the Barbours were throwing a big party
at the apartment that it was too late for them to cancel. There was
whispering, a flurry of activity that I could scarcely take in. “I
think,” said M rs. Barbour when she came back to Andy’s room,
“you and Theo might enjoy staying back here.” Despite her light
tone, clearly it was not a suggestion but an order. “It’ll be such a
bore, and I really don’t think you’ll enjoy yourselves at all. I’ll ask
Etta to bring you a couple of plates from the kitchen.”
Andy and I sat side by side on the lower bunk of his bed,
eating cocktail shrimp and artichoke canapés from paper plates—
or, rather, he ate, while I sat with the plate on my knees,
untouched. He had on a DVD, some action movie with exploding
robots, showers of metal and flame. From the living room: clinking
glasses, smells of candle wax and perfume, every now and then a
voice rising brilliantly in laughter. The pianist’s sparkling, uptempo arrangement of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” seemed to
be floating in from an alternate universe. Everything was lost, I had
fallen off the map: the disorientation of being in the wrong
apartment, with the wrong family, was wearing me down, so I felt
groggy and punch-drunk, weepy almost, like an interrogated
prisoner prevented from sleeping for days. Over and over, I kept
thinking I’ve got to go home and then, for the millionth time, I
can’t.
iv.
AFTER FOUR DAYS, OR maybe it was five, Andy loaded his books in
his stretched-out backpack and returned to school. All that day,
and the next, I sat in his room with his television turned to Turner
Classic M ovies, which was what my mother watched when she
was home from work. They were showing movies adapted from
Graham Greene: Ministry of Fear, The Human Factor, The Fallen
Idol, This Gun for Hire. That second evening, while I was waiting
for The Third Man to come on, M rs. Barbour (all Valentino-ed up
and on her way out the door to an event at the Frick) stopped by
Andy’s room and announced that I was going back to school the
next day. “Anybody would feel out of sorts,” she said. “Back here
by yourself. It isn’t good for you.”
I didn’t know what to say. Sitting around on my own
watching movies was the only thing I’d done since my mother’s
death that had felt even vaguely normal.
“It’s high time for you to get back into some sort of a routine.
Tomorrow. I know it doesn’t seem so, Theo,” she said when I
didn’t answer, “but keeping busy is the only thing in the world
that’ll make you feel better.”
Resolutely I stared at the television. I hadn’t been at school
since the day before my mother died and as long as I stayed away
her death seemed unofficial somehow. But once I went back it
would be a public fact. Worse: the thought of returning to any kind
of normal routine seemed disloyal, wrong. It kept being a shock
every time I remembered it, a fresh slap: she was gone. Every new
event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only
separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an
ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of
my life, she would only be further away.
“Theo.”
Startled, I looked up at her.
“One foot after the other. There’s no other way to get
through this.”
The next day, they were having a World War II spy marathon
(Cairo, The Hidden Enemy, Code Name: Emerald) that I really
wanted to stay home and see. Instead, I dragged myself out of bed
when M r. Barbour stuck his head in to wake us (“Up and at ’em,
hoplites!”) and walked to the bus stop with Andy. It was a rainy
day, and cold enough that M rs. Barbour had forced me into
wearing an embarrassing old duffel coat of Platt’s over my clothes.
Andy’s little sister, Kitsey, danced ahead of us in her pink
raincoat, skipping through puddles and pretending she didn’t know
us.
I knew it was going to be horrible and it was, from the second
I stepped into the bright hall and smelled the familiar old school
smell: citrus disinfectant and something like old socks. Handlettered signs in the hallway: sign-up sheets for tennis lab and
cooking classes, tryouts for The Odd Couple, field trip to Ellis
Island and tickets still available for the Swing into Spring concert,
hard to believe that the world had ended and yet somehow these
ridiculous activities kept grinding on.
The strange thing: the last day I’d been in the building, she
was alive. I kept on thinking it, and every time it was new: last
time I opened this locker, last time I touched this stupid fucking
Insights in Biology book, last time I saw Lindy M aisel putting on
lip gloss with that plastic wand. It seemed hardly credible that I
couldn’t follow these moments back to a world where she wasn’t
dead.
“Sorry.” People I knew said it, and people who had never
spoken to me in my life. Other people—laughing and talking in the
hallways—fell silent when I walked by, throwing grave or
quizzical looks my way. Others still ignored me completely, as
playful dogs will ignore an ill or injured dog in their midst: by
refusing to look at me, by romping and frolicking around me in the
hallways as if I weren’t there.
Tom Cable, in particular, avoided me as assiduously as if I
were a girl he’d dumped. At lunch, he was nowhere to be found. In
Spanish (he sauntered in well after class started, missing the
awkward scene where everyone crowded somberly around my
desk to say they were sorry) he didn’t sit by me as usual but up
front, slouched down with his legs thrown out to the side. Rain
drummed on the windowpanes as we translated our way through a
series of bizarre sentences, sentences that would have done
Salvador Dalí proud: about lobsters and beach umbrellas, and
M arisol with the long eyelashes taking the lime-green taxi to
school.
After class, on the way out, I made a point of going up and
saying hi as he was getting his books.
“Oh, hey, how’s it going,” he said—distanced, leaning back
with a smart-ass arch to the brow. “I heard an’ all.”
“Yeah.” This was our routine: too cool for everyone else,
always in on the same joke.
“Tough luck. That really bites.”
“Thanks.”
“Hey—shoulda played sick. Told you! M y mom blew up
over all that shit too. Hit the fucking ceiling! Well, er,” he said,
half-shrugging in the stunned moment that followed this, looking
up, down, around, with a who, me? look, like he’d thrown a
snowball with a rock in it.
“Anyway. So,” he said in a moving-right-along voice.
“What’s with the costume?”
“What?”
“Well”—ironic little back-step, eyeing the plaid duffel coat
—“first place, definitely, in the Platt Barbour Look-Alike Contest.”
And despite myself—it was a shock, after days of horror and
numbness, an eruptive Tourette’s-like spasm—I laughed.
“Excellent call, Cable,” I said, adopting Platt’s hateful drawl.
We were good mimics, both of us, and often conducted entire
conversations in other people’s voices: dumb newscasters, whiny
girls, wheedling and fatuous teachers. “Tomorrow I’m coming
dressed as you.”
But Tom didn’t reply in kind or pick up the thread. He’d lost
interest. “Errr—maybe not,” he said, with a half-shrug, a little
smirk. “Later.”
“Right, later.” I was annoyed—what the fuck was his
problem? Yet it was part of our ongoing dark-comedy act, amusing
only to us, to abuse and insult each other; and I was pretty sure
he’d come find me after English or that he’d catch up with me on
the way home, running up behind me and bopping me on the head
with his algebra workbook. But he didn’t. The next morning before
first period he didn’t even look at me when I said hi, and his
blanked-out expression as he shouldered past stopped me cold.
Lindy M aisel and M andy Quaife turned at their lockers to stare at
each other, giggling in a half-shocked way: oh my God! Next to me
my lab partner, Sam Weingarten, was shaking his head. “What a
dick,” he said, in a loud voice, so loud everybody in the hall turned.
“You’re a real dick, Cable, you know that?”
But I didn’t care—or, at least, I wasn’t hurt or depressed.
Instead I was furious. M y friendship with Tom had always had a
wild, manic quality, something unhinged and hectic and a little
perilous about it, and though all the same old high energy was still
there, the current had reversed, voltage humming in the opposite
direction so that now instead of horsing around with him in study
hall I wanted to push his head in the urinal, yank his arm out of the
socket, beat his face bloody on the sidewalk, make him eat dogshit
and garbage off the curb. The more I thought about it, the more
enraged I grew, so mad sometimes that I walked back and forth in
the bathroom muttering to myself. If Cable hadn’t fingered me to
M r. Beeman (“I know, now, Theo, those cigarettes weren’t
yours”)… if Cable hadn’t got me suspended… if my mom hadn’t
taken the day off… if we hadn’t been at the museum at exactly the
wrong time… well, even M r. Beeman had apologized for it, sort of.
Because, sure, there were issues with my grades (and plenty of
other stuff M r. Beeman didn’t know about) but the inciting
incident, the thing that had got me called in, the whole business
with the cigarettes in the courtyard—whose fault was that?
Cable’s. It wasn’t like I expected him to apologize. In fact it
wasn’t like I would have said anything to him about it, ever. Only
—now I was a pariah? Persona non grata? He wouldn’t even talk
to me? I was smaller than Cable but not by a lot, and whenever he
cracked wise in class, as he couldn’t prevent himself from doing, or
ran past me in the hall with his new best friends Billy Wagner and
Thad Randolph (the way we’d once raced around together, always
in overdrive, that urge to danger and craziness)—all I could think
was how much I wanted to beat the shit out of him, girls laughing
as he cowered from me in tears: oooh, Tom! boo hoo hoo! are you
crying? (Doing my best to provoke a fight, I cracked him in the
nose accidentally on purpose by swinging the bathroom door in his
face, and shoved him into the drinks dispenser so he dropped his
disgusting cheese fries on the floor, but instead of jumping on me—
as I longed for him to do—he only smirked and walked off without
a word.)
Not everyone avoided me, of course. Lots of people put
notes and gifts in my locker (including Isabella Cushing and
M artina Lichtblau, the most popular girls in my year) and my old
enemy Win Temple from fifth grade surprised me by coming up
and giving me a bear hug. But most people responded to me with a
cautious, half-terrified politeness. It wasn’t as if I went around
crying or even acting disturbed but still they’d stop in the middle
of their conversations if I sat down with them at lunch.
Grown-ups, on the other hand, paid me an uncomfortable
amount of attention. I was advised to keep a journal, talk with my
friends, make a “memory collage” (crackpot advice, as far as I was
concerned; other kids were uneasy around me no matter how
normally I acted, and the last thing I wanted was to call attention
to myself by sharing my feelings with people or doing therapeutic
crafts in the Arts room). I seemed to spend an inordinate amount
of time standing in empty classrooms and offices (staring at the
floor, nodding my head senselessly) with concerned teachers who
asked me to stay after class or pulled me aside to talk. M y English
teacher, M r. Neuspeil, after sitting on the side of his desk and
delivering a tense account of his own mother’s horrifying death at
the hands of an incompetent surgeon, had patted me on the back
and given me a blank notebook to write in; M rs. Swanson, the
school counselor, showed me a couple of breathing exercises and
suggested that I might find it helpful to discharge my grief by going
outside and throwing ice cubes against a tree; and even M r.
Borowsky (who taught math, and was considerably less brighteyed than most of the other teachers) took me aside out in the hall
and—talking very quietly, with his face about two inches away
from mine—told me how guilty he’d felt after his brother had died
in a car accident. (Guilt came up a lot in these talks. Did my
teachers believe, as I did, that I was guilty of causing my mother’s
death? Apparently so.) M r. Borowsky had felt so guilty for letting
his brother drive home drunk from the party that night that he’d
even thought for a brief while about killing himself. M aybe I’d
thought about suicide too. But suicide wasn’t the answer.
I accepted all this counsel politely, with a glassy smile and a
glaring sense of unreality. M any adults seemed to interpret this
numbness as a positive sign; I remember particularly M r. Beeman
(an overly clipped Brit in a dumb tweed motoring cap, whom
despite his solicitude I had come to hate, irrationally, as an agent of
my mother’s death) complimenting me on my maturity and
informing me that I seemed to be “coping awfully well.” And
maybe I was coping awfully well, I don’t know. Certainly I wasn’t
howling aloud or punching my fist through windows or doing any
of the things I imagined people might do who felt as I did. But
sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left
me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself
looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so
lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that
the world had ever been anything but dead.
v.
QUITE HONESTLY, MY DECKER grandparents were the last thing on
my mind, which was just as well since Social Services was unable
to run them down right away on the scanty information I had given
them. Then M rs. Barbour knocked at the door of Andy’s room and
said, “Theo, may we speak for a moment, please?”
Something in her manner spoke distinctly of bad news,
though in my situation it was hard to imagine how things could
possibly be worse. When we were seated in the living room—by a
three foot tall arrangement of pussy willow and blossoming apple
branches fresh from the florist—she crossed her legs and said:
“I’ve had a call from the Social Services. They’ve contacted your
grandparents. Unfortunately it seems that your grandmother is
unwell.”
For a moment I was confused. “Dorothy?”
“If that’s what you call her, yes.”
“Oh. She’s not really my grandmother.”
“I see,” said M rs. Barbour, as if she didn’t actually see and
didn’t want to. “At any rate. It seems she’s not well—a back
ailment, I believe—and your grandfather is looking after her. So the
thing is, you see, I’m sure they’re very sorry, but they say it’s not
practical for you to be down there right now. Not to stay with
them in their home, anyway,” she added, when I didn’t say
anything. “They’ve offered to pay for you to stay in a Holiday
Inn near their house, for the time being, but that seems a bit
impractical, doesn’t it?”
There was an unpleasant buzzing in my ears. Sitting there
under her level, ice-gray gaze, I felt for some reason terribly
ashamed of myself. I had dreaded the thought of going to Grandpa
Decker and Dorothy so much that I’d blocked them almost
completely from my mind, but it was quite another thing to know
they didn’t want me.
A flicker of sympathy passed over her face. “You mustn’t
feel bad about it,” she said. “And in any case you mustn’t worry.
It’s been settled that you’ll stay with us for the next few weeks
and at the very least, finish your year at school. Everyone agrees
that’s best. By the way,” she said, leaning closer, “that’s a lovely
ring. Is that a family thing?”
“Um, yes,” I said. For reasons I would have found hard to
explain, I had taken to carrying the old man’s ring with me almost
everywhere I went. M ostly I toyed around with it while it was in
my jacket pocket, but every now and then I slipped it on my
middle finger and wore it, even though it was too big and slid
around a bit.
“Interesting. Your mother’s family, or your father’s?”
“M y mother’s,” I said, after a slight pause, not liking the way
the conversation was going.
“M ay I see it?”
I took it off and dropped it in her palm. She held it up to the
lamp. “Lovely,” she said, “carnelian. And this intaglio. GrecoRoman? Or a family crest?”
“Um, crest. I think.”
She examined the clawed, mythological beast. “It looks like a
griffin. Or maybe a winged lion.” She turned it sideways into the
light and looked inside of the ring. “And this engraving?”
M y expression of puzzlement made her frown. “Don’t tell
me you never noticed it. Hang on.” She got up and went to the
desk, which had lots of intricate drawers and cubbyholes, and
returned with a magnifying glass.
“This will be better than my reading glasses,” she said,
peering through it. “Still this old copperplate is hard to see.” She
brought the magnifying glass close, then farther away. “Blackwell.
Does that ring a bell?”
“Ah—” In fact it did, something beyond words, but the
thought had blown away and vanished before it fully materialized.
“I see some Greek letters, too. Very interesting.” She
dropped the ring back in my hand. “It’s an old ring,” she said.
“You can tell by the patina on the stone and by the way it’s worn
down—see there? Americans used to pick up these classical
intaglios in Europe, back in the Henry James days, and have them
set as rings. Souvenirs of the Grand Tour.”
“If they don’t want me, where am I going to go?”
For a blink, M rs. Barbour looked taken aback. Almost
immediately she recovered herself and said: “Well, I wouldn’t
worry about that now. It’s probably best anyway for you to stay
here a bit longer and finish out your year at school, don’t you
agree? Now”—she nodded—“be careful with that ring and mind
that you don’t lose it. I can see how loose it is. You might want to
put it someplace safe instead of wearing it around like that.”
vi.
BUT I DID WEAR IT. Or—rather—I ignored her advice to put it in a
safe place, and continued to carry it around in my pocket. When I
hefted it in my palm, it was very heavy; if I closed my fingers
around it, the gold got warm from the heat of my hand but the
carved stone stayed cool. Its weighty, antiquated quality, its
mixture of sobriety and brightness, were strangely comforting; if I
fixed my attention on it intensely enough, it had a strange power to
anchor me in my drifting state and shut out the world around me,
but for all that, I really didn’t want to think about where it had
come from.
Nor did I want to think about my future—for though I had
scarcely been looking forward to a new life in rural M aryland, at
the chill mercies of my Decker grandparents, I now began to
seriously worry about what was going to happen to me. Everyone
seemed profoundly shocked at the Holiday Inn idea, as if Grandpa
Decker and Dorothy had suggested I move into a shed in their back
yard, but to me it didn’t seem so bad. I’d always wanted to live in
a hotel, and even if the Holiday Inn wasn’t the kind of hotel I’d
imagined, certainly I would manage: room service hamburgers, payper-view, a pool in summer, how bad could it be?
Everyone (the social workers, Dave the shrink, M rs.
Barbour) kept telling me again and again that I could not possibly
live on my own at a Holiday Inn in suburban M aryland, that no
matter what, it would never actually come to that—not seeming to
realize that their supposedly comforting words were only
increasing my anxiety a hundredfold. “The thing to remember,”
said Dave, the psychiatrist who had been assigned to me by the
city, “is that you’ll be taken care of no matter what.” He was a
thirtyish guy with dark clothes and trendy eyeglasses who always
looked as if he’d just come from a poetry reading in the basement
of some church. “Because there are tons of people looking out for
you who only want what’s best for you.”
I had grown suspicious of strangers talking about what was
best for me, as it was exactly what the social workers had said
before the subject of the foster home came up. “But—I don’t think
my grandparents are so wrong,” I said.
“Wrong about what?”
“About the Holiday Inn. It might be an okay place for me to
be.”
“Are you saying that things are not okay for you at your
grandparents’ home?” said Dave, without missing a beat.
“No!” I hated this about him—how he was always putting
words in my mouth.
“All right then. M aybe we can phrase it another way.” He
folded his hands, and thought. “Why would you rather live at a
hotel than with your grandparents?”
“I didn’t say that.”
He put his head to the side. “No, but from the way you keep
bringing up the Holiday Inn, like it’s a viable choice, I’m hearing
you say that’s what you prefer to do.”
“It seems a lot better than going into a foster home.”
“Yes—” he leaned forward—“but please hear me say this.
You’re only thirteen. And you just lost your primary caregiver.
Living alone right now is really not an option for you. What I’m
trying to say is that it’s too bad your grandparents are dealing with
these health issues, but believe me, I’m sure we can work out
something much better once your grandmother is up and around.”
I said nothing. Clearly he had never met Grandpa Decker and
Dorothy. Though I hadn’t been around them very much myself,
the main thing I remembered was the complete absence of blood
feeling between us, the opaque way they looked at me as if I was
some random kid who’d wandered over from the mall. The
prospect of going to live with them was almost literally
unimaginable and I’d been racking my brains trying to remember
what I could about my last visit to their house—which wasn’t
very much, as I’d been only seven or eight years old. There had
been handstitched sayings framed and hanging on the walls, a
plastic countertop contraption that Dorothy used to dehydrate
foods in. At some point—after Grandpa Decker had yelled at me
to keep my sticky little mitts off his train set—my dad had gone
outside for a cigarette (it was winter) and not come back inside the
house. “Jesus God,” my mother had said, once we were out in the
car (it had been her idea that I should get to know my father’s
family), and after that we never went back.
Several days after the Holiday Inn offer, a greeting card
arrived for me at the Barbours’. (An aside: is it wrong to think that
Bob and Dorothy, as they signed themselves, should have picked
up the telephone and called me? Or got in their car and driven to
the city to see about me themselves? But they did neither of these
things—not that I exactly expected them to rush to my side with
wails of sympathy, but still, it would have been nice if they’d
surprised me with some small, if uncharacteristic, gesture of
affection.)
Actually, the card was from Dorothy (the “Bob,” plainly in
her hand, had been squeezed in alongside her own signature as an
afterthought). The envelope, interestingly, had the look of having
been steamed open and resealed—by M rs. Barbour? Social
Services?—although the card itself was definitely in Dorothy’s
stiff up-and-down European handwriting that appeared exactly
once a year on our Christmas cards, writing that—as my father had
once commented—looked as if it ought to be on the chalkboard at
La Goulue listing the daily fish specials. On the front of the card
was a drooping tulip, and—underneath—a printed slogan: There are
no endings.
Dorothy, from the very little I remembered of her, was not
one to waste words, and this card was no exception. After a
perfectly cordial opening—sorry for my tragic loss, thinking of me
in this time of sorrow—she offered to send me a bus ticket to
Woodbriar, M D, while simultaneously alluding to vague medical
conditions that made it difficult for her and Grandpa Decker to
“meet the demands” for my care.
“Demands?” said Andy. “She makes it sound as if you’re
asking for ten million in unmarked notes.”
I was silent. Oddly, it was the picture on the greeting card
that had troubled me. It was the kind of thing you’d see in a
drugstore card rack, perfectly normal, but still a photograph of a
wilted flower—no matter how artistically done—didn’t seem quite
the thing to send to somebody whose mother had just died.
“I thought she was supposed to be so sick. Why’s she the
one writing?”
“Search me.” I had wondered the same thing; it did seem
weird that my actual grandfather hadn’t included a message or even
bothered to sign his own name.
“M aybe,” said Andy gloomily, “your grandfather has
Alzheimer’s and she’s holding him prisoner in his own home. To
get his money. That happens quite frequently with the younger
wives, you know.”
“I don’t think he has that much money.”
“Possibly not,” said Andy, clearing his throat ostentatiously.
“But one can never rule out the thirst for power. ‘Nature red in
tooth and claw.’ Perhaps she doesn’t want you edging in on the
inheritance.”
“Chum,” said Andy’s father, looking up rather suddenly from
the Financial Times, “I don’t think this is a terribly productive line
of conversation.”
“Well, quite honestly, I don’t see why Theo can’t stay on
with us,” said Andy, voicing my own thoughts. “I enjoy the
company and there’s plenty of space in my room.”
“Well certainly we’d all like to keep him for ourselves,” said
M r. Barbour, with a heartiness not as full or convincing as I would
have liked. “But what would his family think? The last I heard,
kidnapping was still against the law.”
“Well, I mean, Daddy, that hardly seems to be the situation
here,” said Andy, in his irritating, faraway voice.
Abruptly M r. Barbour got up, with his club soda in his hand.
He wasn’t allowed to drink because of the medicine he took.
“Theo, I forget. Do you know how to sail?”
It took me a moment to realize what he’d asked me. “No.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Andy had the most outstanding time at
his sailing camp up in M aine last year, didn’t you?”
Andy was silent. He had told me, many times, that it was the
worst two weeks of his life.
“Do you know how to read nautical flags?” M r. Barbour
asked me.
“Sorry?” I said.
“There’s an excellent chart in my study I’d be happy to
show you. Don’t make that face, Andy. It’s a perfectly handy skill
for any boy to know.”
“Certainly it is, if he needs to hail a passing tugboat.”
“These smart remarks of yours are very tiresome,” said M r.
Barbour, although he looked more distracted than annoyed.
“Besides,” he said, turning to me, “I think you’d be surprised how
often nautical flags pop up in parades and movies and, I don’t
know, on the stage.”
Andy pulled a face. “The stage,” he said derisively.
M r. Barbour turned to look at him. “Yes, the stage. Do you
find the term amusing?”
“Pompous is a lot more like it.”
“Well, I’m afraid I fail to see what you find so pompous
about it. Certainly it’s the very word your great-grandmother
would have used.” (M r. Barbour’s grandfather had been dropped
from the Social Register for marrying Olga Osgood, a minor movie
actress.)
“M y point exactly.”
“Then what would you have me call it?”
“Actually, Daddy, what I would really like to know is the
last time you saw nautical flags showcased in any theatrical
production.”
“South Pacific,” said M r. Barbour swiftly.
“Besides South Pacific.”
“I rest my case.”
“I don’t believe you and M other even saw South Pacific.”
“For God’s sake, Andy.”
“Well, even if you did. One example doesn’t sufficiently
establish your case.”
“I refuse to continue this absurd conversation. Come along,
Theo.”
vii.
FROM THIS P OINT ON, I began trying especially hard to be a good
guest: to make my bed in the mornings; to always say thank you
and please, and to do everything I knew my mother would want
me to do. Unfortunately the Barbours didn’t exactly have the kind
of household where you could show your appreciation by
babysitting the younger siblings or pitching in with the dishes.
Between the woman who came to look after the plants—a
depressing job, since there was so little light in the apartment the
plants mostly died—and M rs. Barbour’s assistant, whose main job
seemed to be rearranging the closets and the china collection—they
had somewhere in the neighborhood of eight people working for
them. (When I’d asked M rs. Barbour where the washing machine
was, she’d looked at me as if I’d asked for lye and lard to boil up
for soap.)
But though nothing was required of me, still the effort to
blend into their polished and complicated household was an
immense strain. I was desperate to vanish into the background—to
slip invisibly among the Chinoiserie patterns like a fish in a coral
reef—and yet it seemed I drew unwanted attention to myself
hundreds of times a day: by having to ask for every little item,
whether a wash cloth or the Band-Aids or the pencil sharpener; by
not having a key, always having to ring when I came and went—
even by my well-intentioned efforts to make my own bed in the
morning (it was better just to let Irenka or Esperenza do it, M rs.
Barbour explained, as they were used to doing it and did a better
job with the corners). I broke off a finial on an antique coat stand
by throwing open a door; twice managed to set off the burglar
alarm by mistake; and even blundered into M r. and M rs. Barbour’s
room one night when I was looking for the bathroom.
Luckily, Andy’s parents were around so little that my
presence didn’t seem to inconvenience them very much. Unless
M rs. Barbour was entertaining, she was out of the apartment from
about eleven a.m.—popping in for a couple of hours before dinner,
for a gin and lime and what she called “a bit of a tub”—and then
not home again until we were in bed. Of M r. Barbour I saw even
less, except on weekends and when he was sitting around after
work with his napkin-wrapped glass of club soda, waiting for M rs.
Barbour to dress for their evening out.
By far the biggest issue I faced was Andy’s siblings. Though
Platt, luckily, was off terrorizing younger children at Groton, still
Kitsey and the youngest brother, Toddy, who was only seven,
clearly resented having me around to usurp what minor attention
they got from their parents. There were a lot of tantrums and
pouting, a lot of eye rolling and hostile giggling on Kitsey’s part, as
well as a baffling (to me) upset—never fully resolved—where she
complained to her friends and the housekeepers and anyone who
would listen that I’d been going in her room and messing around
with the piggy-bank collection on the shelf above her desk. As for
Toddy, he grew more and more disturbed as the weeks went by
and still I was there; at breakfast, he gaped at me unashamed and
frequently asked questions that made his mother reach under the
table and pinch him. Where did I live? How much longer was I
going to stay with them? Did I have a dad? Then where was he?
“Good question,” I said, provoking horrified laughter from
Kitsey, who was popular at school and—at nine—as pretty in her
white-blonde way as Andy was plain.
viii.
PROFESSIONAL MOVERS WERE COMING, at some point, to pack my
mother’s things and put them in storage. Before they came, I was
to go to the apartment and pick out anything I wanted or needed. I
was aware of the painting in a nagging but vague way which was
entirely out of proportion to its actual importance, as if it were a
school project I’d left unfinished. At some point I was going to
have to get it back to the museum, though I still hadn’t quite
figured out how I was going to do that without causing a huge fuss.
Already I had missed one chance to give it back—when M rs.
Barbour had turned away some investigators who had shown up at
the apartment looking for me. That is: I understood they were
investigators or even police from what Kellyn, the Welsh girl who
looked after the younger children, told me. She had been bringing
Toddy home from day care when the strangers showed up asking
for me. “Suits, you know?” she said, raising a significant eyebrow.
She was a heavy, fast-talking girl with cheeks so flushed she
always looked like she’d been standing next to a fire. “They had
that look.”
I was too afraid to ask what she meant by that look; and
when I went in, cautiously, to see what M rs. Barbour had to say
about it, she was busy. “I’m sorry,” she said, without quite
looking at me, “but can we please talk about this later?” Guests
were arriving in half an hour, among them a well-known architect
and a famous dancer with the New York City Ballet; she was
fretting over the loose catch to her necklace and upset because the
air conditioner wasn’t working properly.
“Am I in trouble?”
It slipped out before I knew what I was saying. M rs. Barbour
stopped. “Theo, don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “They were
perfectly nice, very considerate, it’s just that I can’t have them
sitting around just now. Turning up, without telephoning.
Anyway, I told them it wasn’t the best time, which of course they
could see for themselves.” She gestured at the caterers darting back
and forth, the building engineer on a ladder, examining inside the
air-conditioning vent with a flashlight. “Now run along. Where’s
Andy?”
“He’ll be home in an hour. His astronomy class went to the
planetarium.”
“Well, there’s food in the kitchen. I don’t have a lot of the
miniature tarts to spare, but you can have all the finger sandwiches
you want. And after the cake’s cut, you’re welcome to have some
of that too.”
Her manner had been so unconcerned that I forgot about the
visitors until they showed up at school three days later, at my
geometry class, one young, one older, indifferently dressed,
knocking courteously at the open door. “We see Theodore
Decker?” the younger, Italian-looking guy said to M r. Borowsky
as the older one peered cordially inside the classroom.
“We just want to talk to you, is that okay?” said the older
guy as we walked down to the dreaded conference room where I
was to have had the meeting with M r. Beeman and my mother on
the day she died. “Don’t be scared.” He was a dark-skinned black
man with a gray goatee—tough-looking but nice-seeming too, like a
cool cop on a television show. “We’re just trying to piece together
a lot of things about that day and we hope you can help us.”
I had been frightened at first, but when he said don’t be
scared, I believed him—until he pushed open the door of the
conference room. There sat my tweed-cap nemesis M r. Beeman,
pompous as ever with his waistcoat and watch chain; Enrique my
social worker; M rs. Swanson the school counselor (the same
person who had told me I might feel better if I threw some ice
cubes against a tree); Dave the psychiatrist in his customary black
Levi’s and turtleneck—and, of all people, M rs. Barbour, in heels
and a pearl-gray suit that looked like it cost more money than all
the other people in the room made in a month.
M y panic must have been written plainly on my face. M aybe
I wouldn’t have been quite so alarmed if I’d understood a little
better what wasn’t clear to me at the time: that I was a minor, and
that my parent or guardian had to be present at an official
interview—which was why anyone even vaguely construed as my
advocate had been called in. But all I understood, when I saw all
those faces and a tape recorder in the middle of the table, was that
the official parties had convened to judge my fate and dispose of
me as they saw fit.
Stiffly I sat and endured their warm-up questions (did I have
any hobbies? Did I play any sports?) until it became clear to
everyone that the preliminary chit-chat wasn’t loosening me up
very much.
The bell rang for the end of class. Bang of lockers, murmur of
voices out in the hall. “You’re dead, Thalheim,” some boy shouted
gleefully.
The Italian guy—Ray, he said his name was—pulled up a
chair in front of me, knee to knee. He was young, but heavy, with
the air of a good-natured limo driver, and his downturned eyes had
a moist, liquid, sleepy look, as if he drank.
“We just want to know what you remember,” he said. “Probe
around in your memory, get a general picture of that morning, you
know? Because maybe by remembering some of the little things,
you might remember something that will help us.”
He was sitting so close I could smell his deodorant. “Like
what?”
“Like what you ate for breakfast that morning. That’s a good
place to start, huh?”
“Um—” I stared at the gold ID bracelet on his wrist. This
wasn’t what I’d been expecting them to ask. The truth was: we
hadn’t eaten breakfast at all that morning because I was in trouble
at school and my mother was mad at me, but I was too
embarrassed to say that.
“You don’t remember?”
“Pancakes,” I burst out desperately.
“Oh yeah?” Ray looked at me shrewdly. “Your mother make
them?”
“Yes.”
“What’d she put in them? Blueberries, chocolate chips?”
I nodded.
“Both?”
I could feel everybody looking at me. Then M r. Beeman said
—as loftily as if he were standing in front of his M orals in Society
class—“There’s no reason to invent an answer, if you don’t
remember.”
The black guy—in the corner, with a notepad—gave M r.
Beeman a sharp warning glance.
“Actually, there seems to be some memory impairment,”
interjected M rs. Swanson in a low voice, toying with the glasses
that hung from a chain around her neck. She was a grandmother
who wore flowing white shirts and had a long gray braid down her
back. Kids who got sent to her office for guidance called her “the
Swami.” In her counseling sessions with me at school, besides
dispensing the advice about the ice cubes, she had taught me a
three-part breath to help release my emotions and made me draw a
mandala representing my wounded heart. “He hit his head. Didn’t
you, Theo?”
“Is that true?” said Ray, glancing up at me frankly.
“Yes.”
“Did you get it checked out by a doctor?”
“Not right away,” said M rs. Swanson.
M rs. Barbour crossed her ankles. “I took him to the
emergency room at New York–Presbyterian,” she said coolly.
“When he got to my house, he was complaining of a headache. It
was a day or so before we had it seen to. Nobody seems to have
thought to ask him if he was hurt or not.”
Enrique, the social worker, began to speak up at this, but
after a look from the older black cop (whose name has just come
back to me: M orris) fell silent.
“Look, Theo,” said the guy Ray, tapping me on the knee. “I
know you want to help us out. You do want to help us, don’t
you?”
I nodded.
“That’s great. But if we ask you something and you don’t
know? It’s okay to say you don’t know.”
“We just want to throw a whole lot of questions out there
and see if we can draw your memory out about anything,” M orris
said. “Are you cool with that?”
“You need anything?” said Ray, eyeing me closely. “A drink
of water, maybe? A soda?”
I shook my head—no sodas were allowed on school property
—just as M r. Beeman said: “Sorry, no sodas permitted on school
property.”
Ray made a give me a break face that I wasn’t sure if M r.
Beeman saw or not. “Sorry, kid, I tried,” he said, turning back to
me. “I’ll run out and get you a soda at the deli if you feel like it
later on, how about it? Now.” He clapped his hands together.
“How long do you think you and your mother were in the building
prior to the first explosion?”
“About an hour, I guess.”
“You guess or you know?”
“I guess.”
“You think it was more than an hour? Less than an hour?”
“I don’t think it was more than an hour,” I said, after a long
pause.
“Describe to us your recollection of the incident.”
“I didn’t see what happened,” I said. “Everything was fine
and then there was a loud flash and a bang—”
“A loud flash?”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant the bang was loud.”
“You said a bang,” said the guy M orris, stepping forward.
“Do you think you might be able to describe to us in a little more
detail what the bang sounded like?”
“I don’t know. Just… loud,” I added, when they kept on
looking at me like they expected something more.
In the silence that followed, I heard a stealthy clicking: M rs.
Barbour, with her head down, discreetly checking her BlackBerry
for messages.
M orris cleared his throat. “What about a smell?”
“Excuse me?”
“Did you notice any particular smell in the moments prior?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Nothing at all? You sure?”
As the questioning wore on—the same stuff over and over,
switched around a little to confuse me, with every now and then
something new thrown in—I steeled myself and waited hopelessly
for them to work around to the painting. I would simply have to
admit it and face the consequences, no matter what the
consequences were (probably fairly dire, since I was well on my
way to becoming a Ward of the State). At a couple of points, I was
on the verge of blurting it out, in my terror. But the more questions
they asked (where was I when I’d hit my head? Who had I seen or
spoken to on my way downstairs?) the more it dawned on me that
they didn’t know a thing about what had happened to me—what
room I’d been in when the bomb exploded, or even what exit I’d
taken out of the building.
They had a floor plan; the rooms had numbers instead of
names, Gallery 19A and Gallery 19B, numbers and letters in a
mazelike arrangement all the way up to 27. “Were you here when
the initial blast occurred?” Ray said, pointing. “Or here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Take your time.”
“I don’t know,” I repeated, a bit frantically. The diagram of
the rooms had a confusing, computer-generated quality, like
something from a video game or a reconstruction of Hitler’s bunker
that I’d seen on the History Channel, that in truth didn’t make any
sense or seem to represent the space as I remembered it.
He pointed to a different spot. “This square?” he said.
“That’s a display plinth, with paintings on it. I know these rooms
all look alike, but maybe you can remember where you were in
relation to that?”
I stared hopelessly at the diagram and didn’t answer. (Part of
the reason it looked so unfamiliar was that they were showing me
the area where my mother’s body was found—rooms away from
where I’d been when the bomb went off—although I didn’t realize
that until later.)
“You didn’t see anybody on your way out,” said M orris
encouragingly, repeating what I’d already told them.
I shook my head.
“Nothing you remember at all?”
“Well, I mean—bodies covered up. Equipment lying around.”
“Nobody coming in or out of the area of the explosion.”
“I didn’t see anybody,” I repeated doggedly. We had been
over this.
“So you never saw firemen or rescue personnel.”
“No.”
“I suppose we can establish, then, that they’d been ordered
out of the building by the time you came to. So we’re talking about
a time lapse of forty minutes to an hour and a half after the initial
explosion. Is that a safe assumption?”
I shrugged, limply.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
Staring at the floor. “I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“I don’t know,” I said again, and the silence that followed
was so long and uncomfortable I thought I might break down
crying.
“Do you recall hearing the second blast?”
“Pardon me for asking,” said M r. Beeman, “but is this really
necessary?”
Ray, my questioner, turned. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not sure I see the purpose of putting him through this.”
With careful neutrality, M orris said: “We’re investigating a
crime scene. It’s our job to find out what happened in there.”
“Yes, but surely you must have other means of doing so for
such routine matters. I would think they had all manner and variety
of security cameras in there.”
“Sure they do,” said Ray, rather sharply. “Except cameras
can’t see through dust and smoke. Or if they’re blown up to face
the ceiling. Now,” he said, settling back in his chair with a sigh.
“You mentioned smoke. Did you smell it or see it?”
I nodded.
“Which one? Saw or smelled?”
“Both.”
“What direction do you think it was coming from?”
I was about to say I didn’t know again, but M r. Beeman had
not finished making his point. “Forgive me, but I entirely fail to see
the purpose in security cameras if they don’t operate in an
emergency,” he said, to the room in general. “With technology
today, and all that artwork—”
Ray turned his head as if to say something angry, but M orris,
standing in the corner, raised his hand and spoke up.
“The boy’s an important witness. The surveillance system
isn’t designed to withstand an event like this. Now, I’m sorry, but
if you can’t stop it with the comments we’ll have to ask you to
leave, sir.”
“I’m here as this child’s advocate. I’ve the right to ask
questions.”
“Not unless they pertain directly to the child’s welfare.”
“Oddly enough, I was under the impression that they did.”
At this Ray, in the chair in front of me, turned around. “Sir?
If you continue to obstruct the proceedings?” he said. “You will
have to leave the room.”
“I have no intention of obstructing you,” said M r. Beeman in
the tense silence that followed. “Nothing could be further from my
mind, I assure you. Go on, please continue,” he said, with an
irritated flick of the hand. “Far be it from me to stop you.”
On the questioning dragged. What direction had the smoke
come from? What color was the flash? Who went in and out of the
area in the moments prior? Had I noticed anything unusual,
anything at all, before or after? I looked at the pictures they
showed me—innocent vacation faces, nobody I recognized.
Passport photos of Asian tourists and senior citizens, moms and
acned teenagers smiling against blue studio backgrounds—ordinary
faces, unmemorable, yet all somehow smelling of tragedy. Then we
went back to the diagram. Could I maybe just try, just one more
time, to pinpoint my location on this map? Here, or here? What
about here?
“I don’t remember.” I kept on saying it: partly because I
really wasn’t sure, partly because I was frightened and anxious for
the interview to come to a close, but also because there was an air
of restlessness and distinct impatience in the room; the other adults
seemed already to have agreed silently among themselves that I
didn’t know anything, and should be left alone.
And then, before I knew it, it was over. “Theo,” said Ray,
standing up and placing a meaty hand on my shoulder, “I want to
thank you, buddy, for doing what you could for us.”
“That’s okay,” I said, jarred by how abruptly it had all come
to an end.
“I know exactly how hard this was for you. Nobody but
nobody wants to relive this type of stuff. It’s like—” he made a
picture frame with his hands—“we’re putting together pieces of a
jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out what went on in there, and
you’ve maybe got some pieces of the puzzle that nobody else has
got. You really helped us a lot by letting us talk to you.”
“If you remember anything else,” said M orris, leaning in to
give me a card (which M rs. Barbour quickly intercepted and tucked
in her purse), “you’ll call us, won’t you? You’ll remind him, won’t
you, miss,” he said to M rs. Barbour, “to phone us if he has
anything else to say? The office number’s right on that card but—”
he took a pen from his pocket—“you don’t mind, can I have it
back for a second, please?”
Without a word, M rs. Barbour opened her bag and handed
the card back to him.
“Right, right.” He clicked the pen out and scribbled a number
on the back. “That’s my cell phone there. You can always leave a
message at my office, but if you can’t reach me there, phone me on
my cell, all right?”
As everyone was milling around the entrance, M rs. Swanson
floated up and put her arm around me, in the cozy way she had.
“Hi there,” she said, confidentially, as if she were my tightest
friend in the world. “How’s it going?”
I looked away, made an okay, I guess face.
She stroked my arm like I was her favorite cat. “Good for
you. I know that must have been tough. Would you like to go to
my office for a few minutes?”
With dismay, I noticed Dave the psychiatrist hovering in the
background, and behind him Enrique, hands on hips, with an
expectant half-smile on his face.
“Please,” I said, and my desperation must have been audible
in my voice, “I want to get back to class.”
She squeezed my arm, and—I noticed—threw a glance at
Dave and Enrique. “Sure,” she said. “Where are you this period?
I’ll walk you down.”
ix.
BY THEN IT WAS English—last class of the day. We were studying
the poetry of Walt Whitman:
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the
Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall
shine out again
Vacant faces. The classroom was hot and drowsy in the late
afternoon, windows open, traffic noises floating up from West End
Avenue. Kids leaned on their elbows and drew pictures in the
margins of their spiral notebooks.
I stared out the window, out at the grimy water tank on the
roof opposite. The interrogation (as I thought of it) had disturbed
me greatly, kicking up a wall of the disjointed sensations that
crashed over me at unexpected moments: a choking burn of
chemicals and smoke, sparks and wires, the blanched chill of
emergency lights, overpowering enough to blank me out. It
happened at random times, at school or out on the street—frozen
in mid-step as it washed over me again, the girl’s eyes locked on
mine in the queer, skewed instant before the world blew apart.
Sometimes I’d come to, uncertain what had just been said to me, to
find my lab partner in biology staring at me, or the guy whose way
I was blocking in front of the cold-drinks case at the Korean market
saying look kid, move it, I aint got all day.
Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?
They had shown me no photographs I recognized of the girl
—or of the old man either. Quietly, I put my left hand in my jacket
pocket and felt around for the ring. On our vocabulary list a few
days before we’d had the word consanguinity: joined in blood. The
old man’s face had been so torn up and ruined I couldn’t even say
exactly what he’d looked like, and yet I remembered all too well
the warm slick feel of his blood on my hands—especially since in
some way the blood was still there, I could still smell it and taste it
in my mouth, and it made me understand why people talked about
blood brothers and how blood bound people together. M y English
class had read Macbeth in the fall, but only now was it starting to
make sense why Lady M acbeth could never scrub the blood off her
hands, why it was still there after she washed it away.
x.
BECAUSE, AP P ARENTLY, SOMETIMES I woke Andy by thrashing and
crying out in my sleep, M rs. Barbour had started giving me a little
green pill called Elavil that she explained would keep me from being
scared at night. This was embarrassing, especially since my dreams
weren’t even full-blown nightmares but only troubled interludes
where my mother was working late and stranded without a ride—
sometimes upstate, in some burned-out area with junked cars and
chained dogs barking in the yards. Uneasily I searched for her in
service elevators and abandoned buildings, waited for her in the
dark at strange bus stops, glimpsed women who looked like her in
the windows of passing trains and just missed grabbing up the
telephone when she called me at the Barbours’ house—
disappointments and near-misses that thumped me around and
woke me with a sharp hiss of breath, lying queasy and sweaty in
the morning light. The bad part wasn’t trying to find her, but
waking up and remembering she was dead.
With the green pills, even these dreams faded into airless
murk. (It strikes me now, though it didn’t then, that M rs. Barbour
was well out of line by giving me unprescribed medication on top
of the yellow capsules and tiny orange footballs Dave the Shrink
had prescribed me.) Sleep, when it came, was like tumbling into a
pit, and often I had a hard time waking up in the morning.
“Black tea, that’s the ticket,” said M r. Barbour one morning
when I was nodding off at breakfast, pouring me a cup from his
own well-stewed pot. “Assam Supreme. As strong as M other
makes it. It’ll flush the medication right out of your system. Judy
Garland? Before shows? Well, my grandmother told me that Sid
Luft used to always phone down to the Chinese restaurant for a
big pot of tea to knock all the barbs out of her system, this was
London, I believe, the Palladium, and strong tea was the only thing
that did the trick, sometimes they’d have a hard time waking her
up, you know, just getting her out of bed and dressed—”
“He can’t drink that, it’s like battery acid,” said M rs.
Barbour, dropping in two sugar cubes and pouring in a heavy slug
of cream before she handed the cup over to me. “Theo, I hate to
keep harping on this, but you really must eat something.”
“Okay,” I said sleepily, but without moving to take a bite of
my blueberry muffin. Food tasted like cardboard; I hadn’t been
hungry in weeks.
“Would you rather have cinnamon toast? Or oatmeal?”
“It’s completely ridiculous that you won’t let us have
coffee,” said Andy, who was in the habit of buying himself a huge
Starbucks on the way to school and on the way home every
afternoon, without his parents’ knowledge. “You’re very behind
the times on this.”
“Possibly,” M rs. Barbour said coldly.
“Even half a cup would help. It’s unreasonable for you to
expect me to go into Advanced Placement Chemistry at 8:45 in the
morning with no caffeine.”
“Sob, sob,” said M r. Barbour, without looking up from the
paper.
“Your attitude is very unhelpful. Everyone else is allowed to
drink it.”
“I happen to know that’s not true,” said M rs. Barbour.
“Betsy Ingersoll told me—”
“M aybe M rs. Ingersoll doesn’t let Sabine drink coffee, but it
would take a whole lot more than a cup of coffee to get Sabine
Ingersoll into Advanced Placement anything.”
“That’s uncalled for, Andy, and very unkind.”
“Well, it’s only the truth,” said Andy coolly. “Sabine is as
dumb as a post. I suppose she may as well safeguard her health
since she has so little else going for her.”
“Brains aren’t everything, darling. Would you eat an egg if
Etta poached you one?” M rs. Barbour said, turning to me. “Or
fried? Or scrambled? Or whatever you like?”
“I like scrambled eggs!” Toddy said. “I can eat four!”
“No you can’t, pal,” said M r. Barbour.
“Yes I can! I can eat six! I can eat the whole box!”
“It’s not as if I’m asking for Dexedrine,” Andy said.
“Although I could get it at school if I felt like it.”
“Theo?” said M rs. Barbour. Etta the cook, I noticed, was
standing in the door. “What about that egg?”
“Nobody ever asks us what we want for breakfast,” Kitsey
said; and even though she said it in a very loud voice, everyone
pretended not to hear.
xi.
ONE SUNDAY MORNING, I climbed up to the light from a weighty
and complicated dream, nothing of it left but a ringing in my ears
and the ache of something slipped from my grasp and fallen into a
crevasse where I would not see it again. Yet somehow—in the
midst of this profound sinking, snapped threads, fragments lost
and untrackable—a sentence stood out, ticking across the darkness
like a news crawler at the bottom of a TV screen: Hobart and
Blackwell. Ring the green bell.
I lay staring at the ceiling, not wanting to stir. The words
were as clear and crisp as if someone had handed them to me typed
on a slip of paper. And yet—most wonderfully—an expanse of
forgotten memory had opened up and floated to the surface with
them, like one of those paper pellets from Chinatown that bloom
and swell into flowers when dropped into a glass of water.
Adrift in an air of charged significance, doubt struck me: was
it a real memory, had he really spoken those words to me, or was I
dreaming? Not long before my mother died, I’d woken convinced
that a (nonexistent) schoolteacher named M rs. M alt had put
ground glass in my food because I had no discipline—in the world
of my dream, a perfectly logical series of events—and I’d lain in a
muddle of worry for two or three minutes before I came to my
senses.
“Andy?” I said, and then leaned over and peered at the lower
bunk, which was empty.
After lying wide-eyed for several moments, staring at the
ceiling, I climbed down and retrieved the ring from the pocket of
my school jacket and held it up to the light to look at the
inscription. Then, quickly, I put it away and dressed. Andy was
already up with the rest of the Barbours, at breakfast—Sunday
breakfast was a big deal for them, I could hear them all in the dining
room, M r. Barbour rambling on indistinctly as he sometimes did,
holding forth a bit. After pausing in the hall, I walked the other
way, to the family room, and got the White Pages in its
needlepoint cover from the cabinet under the telephone.
Hobart and Blackwell. There it was—clearly a business,
though the listing didn’t say what sort. I felt a bit dizzy. Seeing the
name in black and white gave me a strange thrill, as of unseen cards
falling into place.
The address was in the Village, West Tenth Street. After
some hesitation, and with a great deal of anxiety, I dialed the
number.
As the phone rang, I stood fiddling with a brass carriage clock
on the table in the family room, chewing my lower lip, looking at
the framed prints of water birds over the telephone table: Noddy
Tern, Townsend’s Cormorant, Common Osprey, Least Water Rail.
I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to explain who I was or ask
what I needed to know.
“Theo?”
I jumped, guiltily. M rs. Barbour—in gossamer-gray cashmere
—had come in, coffee cup in hand.
“What are you doing?”
The phone was still ringing away on the other end.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, hurry up. Your breakfast is getting cold. Etta’s made
French toast.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll be right there,” just as a mechanical
voice from the phone company came on the line and told me to try
my call again later.
I joined the Barbours, preoccupied—I had hoped that at least
a machine would pick up—and was surprised to see none other
than Platt Barbour (much bigger and redder in the face than the last
time I’d seen him) in the place where I usually sat.
“Ah,” said M r. Barbour—interrupting himself mid-sentence,
blotting his lips with his napkin and jumping up—“here we are,
here we are. Good morning. You remember Platt, don’t you? Platt,
this is Theodore Decker—Andy’s friend, remember?” As he was
speaking, he had wandered off and returned with an extra chair,
which he wedged in awkwardly for me at the sharp corner of the
table.
As I sat down on the outskirts of the group—three or four
inches lower than everyone else, in a spindly bamboo chair that
didn’t match the others—Platt met my gaze without much interest
and looked away. He had come home from school for a party, and
he looked hung over.
M r. Barbour had sat down again and resumed talking about
his favorite topic: sailing. “As I was saying. It all boils down to
lack of confidence. You’re unsure of yourself on the keelboat,
Andy,” he said, “and there’s just no darn reason you should be,
except you’re short of experience on single-hand sailing.”
“No,” said Andy, in his faraway voice. “The problem
essentially is that I despise boats.”
“Horsefeathers,” said M r. Barbour, winking at me as if I were
in on the joke, which I wasn’t. “I don’t buy that ho-hum attitude!
Look at that picture on the wall in there, down in Sanibel two
springs ago! That boy wasn’t bored by the sea and the sky and the
stars, no sir.”
Andy sat contemplating the snow scene on the maple syrup
bottle while his father rhapsodized in his dizzying, hard-to-follow
way about how sailing built discipline and alertness in boys, and
strength of character as in mariners of old. In past years, Andy had
told me, he hadn’t minded going on the boat quite so much because
he’d been able to stay down in the cabin, reading and playing card
games with his younger siblings. But now he was old enough to
help crew—which meant long, stressful, sun-blinded days toiling
on deck alongside the bullying Platt: ducking beneath the boom,
completely disoriented, doing his best to keep from getting tangled
in the lines or knocked overboard as their father shouted orders and
rejoiced in the salt spray.
“God, remember the light on that Sanibel trip?” Andy’s
father pushed back in his chair and rolled his eyes at the ceiling.
“Wasn’t it glorious? Those red and orange sunsets? Fire and
embers? Atomic, almost? Pure flame just ripping and pouring out
of the sky? And remember that fat, smacking moon with the blue
mist around it, off Hatteras—is it M axfield Parrish I’m thinking of,
Samantha?”
“Sorry?”
“M axfield Parrish? That artist I like? Does those very grand
skies, you know—” he threw his arms out—“with the towering
clouds? Excuse me there, Theo, didn’t mean to knock you in the
snoot.”
“Constable does clouds.”
“No, no, that’s not who I mean, this painter is much more
satisfying. Anyway—my word, what skies we had out on the
water that night. M agical. Arcadian.”
“Which night was that?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember! It was absolutely the
highlight of the trip.”
Platt—slouched back in his chair—said maliciously: “The
highlight of Andy’s trip was when we stopped for lunch that time
at the snack bar.”
Andy said, in a thin voice: “M other doesn’t care for sailing
either.”
“Not madly, no,” said M rs. Barbour, reaching for another
strawberry. “Theo, I really do wish you would eat at least a small
bite of your breakfast. You can’t go on starving yourself like this.
You’re starting to look very peaked.”
Despite M r. Barbour’s impromptu lessons from the flag
chart in his study, I had not found much to engage me in the topic
of sailing, either. “Because the greatest gift my own father ever
gave to me?” M r. Barbour was saying very earnestly. “Was the
sea. The love for it—the feel. Daddy gave me the ocean. And it’s a
tragic loss for you, Andy—Andy, look at me, I’m talking to you—
it’s a terrible loss if you’ve made up your mind to turn your back
on the very thing that gave me my freedom, my—”
“I have tried to like it. I have a natural hatred of it.”
“Hatred?” Astonishment; dumbfoundment. “Hatred of what?
Of the stars and the wind? Of the sky and the sun? Of liberty?”
“Insofar as any of those things have to do with boating, yes.”
“Well—” looking around the table, including me in the appeal
—“now he’s just being pigheaded. The sea—” to Andy—“deny it
all you may but it’s your birthright, it’s in your blood, back to the
Phoenicians, the ancient Greeks—”
But as M r. Barbour went on about M agellan, and celestial
navigation, and Billy Budd (“I remember Taff the Welshman when
he sank/And his cheek it was the budding pink”), I found my own
thoughts drifting back to Hobart and Blackwell: wondering who
Hobart and Blackwell were, and what exactly they did. The names
sounded like a pair of musty old lawyers, or even stage magicians,
business partners shuffling about in candle-lit darkness.
It seemed a hopeful sign that the telephone number was still
in service. M y own home phone had been disconnected. As soon
as I could decently slip away from breakfast and my untouched
plate, I went back to the telephone in the family room, with Irenka
flustering around and running the vacuum and dusting the bric-abrac all around me, and Kitsey across the room on the computer,
determined not to even look at me.
“Who are you calling?” said Andy—who, in the manner of all
his family, had come up behind me so quietly that I didn’t hear
him.
I might not have told him anything, except I knew that I could
trust him to keep his mouth shut. Andy never talked to anybody,
certainly not his parents.
“These people,” I said quietly—stepping back a little bit, so I
was out of the sight line of the doorway. “I know it sounds weird.
But you know that ring I have?”
I explained about the old man, and I was trying to think how
to explain about the girl, too, the connection I’d felt with her and
how much I wanted to see her again. But Andy—predictably—had
already leapt ahead, away from personal aspects to the logistics of
the situation. He eyed the White Pages, open on the telephone
table. “Are they in the city?”
“West Tenth.”
Andy sneezed, and blew his nose; spring allergies had hit him
very hard. “If you can’t get them on the phone,” he said, folding
up his handkerchief and putting it in his pocket, “why don’t you
just go down there?”
“Really?” I said. It seemed creepy not to call first, just show
up. “You think so?”
“That’s what I would do.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “M aybe they don’t remember me.”
“If they see you in person, they’ll be more likely to
remember,” said Andy reasonably. “Otherwise you could just be
any weirdo calling and pretending. Don’t worry,” he said, glancing
over his shoulder, “I won’t tell anybody if you don’t want me to.”
“A weirdo?” I said. “Pretending what?”
“Well, I mean, you get lots of strange people calling you
here,” said Andy flatly.
I was silent, not knowing how to absorb this.
“Besides, they’re not picking up, what else are you going to
do? You won’t be able to get down there again until next weekend.
Also, is this a conversation you want to have—” he cast his eyes
down the hallway, where Toddy was jumping up and down in
some kind of shoes that had springs on them, and M rs. Barbour
was interrogating Platt about the party at M olly Walterbeek’s.
He had a point. “Right,” I said.
Andy pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “I’ll go
with you if you want.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said. Andy, I knew, was doing Japanese
Experience for extra credit that afternoon—a study group at the
Toraya teahouse, then on to see the new M iyazaki at Lincoln
Center; not that Andy needed extra credit but class outings were as
much as he had of a social life.
“Well here,” he said, digging around in his pocket and coming
up with his cell phone. “Take this with you. Just in case. Here—”
he was punching stuff on the screen—“I’ve taken off the security
code for you. Good to go.”
“I don’t need this,” I said, looking at the sleek little phone
with an anime still of Virtual Girl Aki (naked, in porny thigh-high
boots) on the lock screen.
“Well, you might. Never know. Go ahead,” he said, when I
hesitated. “Take it.”
xii.
AND SO IT WAS that around half past eleven, I found myself riding
down to the Village on the Fifth Avenue bus with the street
address of Hobart and Blackwell in my pocket, written on a page
from one of the monogrammed notepads M rs. Barbour kept by the
telephone.
Once I got off the bus at Washington Square, I wandered for
about forty-five minutes looking for the address. The Village, with
its erratic layout (triangular blocks, dead-end streets angling this
way and that) was an easy place to get lost, and I had to stop and
ask directions three times: in a news shop full of bongs and gay
porn magazines, in a crowded bakery blasting opera, and of a girl in
white undershirt and overalls who was outside washing the
windows of a bookstore with a squeegee and bucket.
When finally I found West Tenth—which was deserted—I
walked along, counting the numbers. I was on a slightly shabby
part of the street that was mainly residential. A group of pigeons
strutted ahead of me on the wet sidewalk, three abreast, like small
officious pedestrians. M any of the numbers weren’t clearly
posted, and just as I was wondering if I’d missed it and ought to
double back, I suddenly found myself looking at the words Hobart
and Blackwell painted in a neat, old-fashioned arch upon the
window of a shop. Through the dusty windows I saw
Staffordshire dogs and majolica cats, dusty crystal, tarnished silver,
antique chairs and settees upholstered in sallow old brocade, an
elaborate faience birdcage, miniature marble obelisks atop a marbletopped pedestal table and a pair of alabaster cockatoos. It was just
the kind of shop my mother would have liked—packed tightly, a
bit dilapidated, with stacks of old books on the floor. But the gates
were pulled down and the place was closed.
M ost of the stores didn’t open until noon, or one. To kill
some time I walked over to Greenwich Street, to the Elephant and
Castle, a restaurant where my mother and I ate sometimes when
we were downtown. But the instant I stepped in, I realized my
mistake. The mismatched china elephants, even the ponytailed
waitress in a black T-shirt who approached me, smiling: it was too
overwhelming, I could see the corner table where my mother and I
had eaten lunch the last time we were there, I had to mumble an
excuse and back out the door.
I stood on the sidewalk, heart pounding. Pigeons flew low in
the sooty sky. Greenwich Avenue was almost empty: a bleary
male couple who looked like they’d been up fighting all night; a
rumple-haired woman in a too-big turtleneck sweater, walking a
dachshund toward Sixth Avenue. It was a little weird being in the
Village on my own because it wasn’t a place where you saw many
kids on the street on a weekend morning; it felt adult,
sophisticated, slightly alcoholic. Everybody looked hung over or as
if they had just rolled out of bed.
Because nothing much was open, because I felt a bit lost and I
didn’t know what else to do, I began to wander back over in the
direction of Hobart and Blackwell. To me, coming from uptown,
everything in the Village looked so little and old, with ivy and vines
growing on the buildings, herbs and tomato plants in barrels on the
street. Even the bars had handpainted signs like rural taverns:
horses and tomcats, roosters and geese and pigs. But the intimacy,
the smallness, also made me feel shut out; and I found myself
hurrying past the inviting little doorways with my head down,
very aware of all the convivial Sunday-morning lives unrolling
around me in private.
The gates on Hobart and Blackwell were still down. I had the
feeling that the shop hadn’t been open in a while; it was too cold,
too dark; there was no sense of vitality or interior life like the other
places on the street.
I was looking in the window and trying to think what I
should do next when suddenly I saw motion, a large shape gliding
at the rear of the shop. I stopped, transfixed. It moved lightly, as
ghosts are said to move, without looking to either side, passing
quickly before a doorway into darkness.
Then it was gone. With my hand to my forehead, I peered
into the murky, crowded depths of the shop, and then knocked on
the glass.
Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell.
A bell? There wasn’t a bell; the entrance to the shop was
enclosed by an iron gate. I walked to the next doorway—number
12, a modest apartment building—and then back to number 8, a
brownstone. There was a stoop, going up to the first floor, but this
time, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: a narrow doorwell,
tucked halfway between number 8 and number 10, half-hidden by a
rack of old-fashioned tin garbage cans. Four or five steps led down
to an anonymous-looking door about three feet below the level of
the sidewalk. There was no label, no sign—but what caught my
eye was a flash of kelly green: a flag of green electrical tape, pasted
beneath a button in the wall.
I went down the stairs; I rang the bell and rang it, wincing at
the hysterical buzz (which made me want to run away) and taking
deep breaths for courage. Then—so suddenly I started back—the
door opened, and I found myself gazing up at a large and
unexpected person.
He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed,
heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish
poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father
liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and
his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows
around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken.
Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to
his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a
leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still
impressive.
I was so surprised that all my words left me. There was
nothing impatient in his manner, quite the opposite. Blankly he
looked at me, with dark-lidded eyes, waiting for me to speak.
“Excuse me—” I swallowed; my throat was dry. “I don’t
want to bother you—”
He blinked, mildly, in the silence that followed, as if of course
he understood this perfectly, would never dream of suggesting such
a thing.
I fumbled in my pocket; I held out the ring to him, on my
open palm. The man’s large, pallid face went slack. He looked at
the ring, and then at me.
“Where did you get this?” he said.
“He gave it to me,” I said. “He told me to bring it here.”
He stood and looked at me, hard. For a moment, I thought he
was going to tell me he didn’t know what I was talking about.
Then, without a word, he stepped back and opened the door.
“I’m Hobie,” he said, when I hesitated. “Come in.”
Chapter 4.
Morphine Lollipop
i.
A WILDERNESS OF GILT, gleaming in the slant from the dust-furred
windows: gilded cupids, gilded commodes and torchieres, and—
undercutting the old-wood smell—the reek of turpentine, oil paint,
and varnish. I followed him through the workshop along a path
swept in the sawdust, past pegboard and tools, dismembered
chairs and claw-foot tables sprawled with their legs in the air.
Though a big man he was graceful, “a floater,” my mother would
have called him, something effortless and gliding in the way he
carried himself. With my eyes on the heels of his slippered feet, I
followed him up some narrow stairs and into a dim room, richly
carpeted, where black urns stood on pedestals and tasseled
draperies were drawn against the sun.
At the silence, my heart went cold. Dead flowers stood
rotting in the massive Chinese vases and a shut-up heaviness
overweighed the room: the air almost too stale to breathe, the exact,
suffocating feel of our apartment when M rs. Barbour took me back
to Sutton Place to get some things I needed. It was a stillness I
knew; this was how a house closed in on itself when someone had
died.
All at once I wished I hadn’t come. But the man—Hobie—
seemed to sense my misgiving, because he turned quite suddenly.
Though he wasn’t a young man he still had something of a boy’s
face; his eyes, a childish blue, were clear and startled.
“What’s the matter?” he said, and then: “Are you all right?”
His concern embarrassed me. Uncomfortably I stood in the
stagnant, antique-crowded gloom, not knowing what to say.
He didn’t seem to know what to say either; he opened his
mouth; closed it; then shook his head as if to clear it. He seemed to
be around fifty or sixty, poorly shaven, with a shy, pleasant, largefeatured face neither handsome nor plain—a man who would
always be bigger than most of the other men in the room, though he
also seemed unhealthy in some clammy, ill-defined way, with
black-circled eyes and a pallor that made me think of the Jesuit
martyrs depicted in the church murals I’d seen on our school trip
to M ontreal: large, capable, death-pale Europeans, staked and
bound in the camps of the Hurons.
“Sorry, I’m in a bit of a tip.…” He was looking around with a
vague, unfocused urgency, as my mother did when she’d misplaced
something. His voice was rough but educated, like M r. O’Shea my
History teacher who’d grown up in a tough Boston neighborhood
and ended up going to Harvard.
“I can come back. If that’s better.”
At this he glanced at me, mildly alarmed. “No, no,” he said—
his cufflinks were out, the cuff fell loose and grubby at the wrist
—“just give me a moment to collect myself, sorry—here,” he said
distractedly, pushing the straggle of gray hair out of his face, “here
we go.”
He was leading me towards a narrow, hard-looking sofa, with
scrolled arms and a carved back. But it was tossed with pillow and
blankets and we both seemed to notice at the same time that the
tumble of bedding made it awkward to sit.
“Ah, sorry,” he murmured, stepping back so fast we almost
bumped into each other, “I’ve set up camp in here as you can see,
not the best arrangement in the world but I’ve had to make do since
I can’t hear properly with all the goings-on…”
Turning away (so that I missed the rest of the sentence) he
sidestepped a book face-down on the carpet and a teacup ringed
with brown on the inside, and ushered me instead to an ornate
upholstered chair, tucked and shirred, with fringe and a
complicated button-studded seat—a Turkish chair, as I later
learned; he was one of the few people in New York who still knew
how to upholster them.
Winged bronzes, silver trinkets. Dusty gray ostrich plumes in
a silver vase. Uncertainly, I perched on the edge of the chair and
looked around. I would have preferred to be on my feet, the easier
to leave.
He leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. But
instead of saying a word he only looked at me and waited.
“I’m Theo,” I said in a rush, after much too long a silence.
M y face was so hot I felt about to burst into flames. “Theodore
Decker. Everybody calls me Theo. I live uptown,” I added
doubtfully.
“Well, I’m James Hobart, but everyone calls me Hobie.” His
gaze was bleak and disarming. “I live downtown.”
At a loss I glanced away, unsure if he was making fun.
“Sorry.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them.
“Don’t mind me. Welty—” he glanced at the ring in his palm
—“was my business partner.”
Was? The moon-dial clock—whirring and cogged, chained and
weighted, a Captain Nemo contraption—burred loudly in the
stillness before gonging on the quarter hour.
“Oh,” I said. “I just. I thought—”
“No. I’m sorry. You didn’t know?” he added, looking at me
closely.
I looked away. I had not realized how much I’d counted on
seeing the old man again. Despite what I’d seen—what I knew—
somehow I’d still managed to nurture a childish hope that he’d
pulled through, miraculously, like a murder victim on TV who after
the commercial break turns out to be alive and recovering quietly in
the hospital.
“And how do you happen to have this?”
“What?” I said, startled. The clock, I noticed, was way off:
ten a.m., ten p.m., nowhere even near the correct time.
“You said he gave it to you?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Yes. I—” The shock of his death
felt new, as if I’d failed him a second time and it was happening all
over again from a completely different angle.
“He was conscious? He spoke to you?”
“Yes,” I began, and then fell silent. I felt miserable. Being in
the old man’s world, among his things, had brought the sense of
him back very strongly: the dreamy underwater mood of the room,
its rusty velvets, its richness and quiet.
“I’m glad he wasn’t alone,” said Hobie. “He would have
hated that.” The ring was closed in his fingers and he put his fist to
his mouth and looked at me.
“M y. You’re just a cub, aren’t you?” he said.
I smiled uneasily, not sure how I was meant to respond.
“Sorry,” he said, in a more businesslike tone that I could tell
was meant to reassure me. “It’s just—I know it was bad. I saw.
His body—” he seemed to grasp for words—“before they call you
in, they clean them up as best they can and they tell you that it
won’t be pleasant, which of course you know but—well. You
can’t prepare yourself for something like that. We had a set of
M athew Brady photographs come through the shop a few years
ago—Civil War stuff, so gruesome we had a hard time selling it.”
I said nothing. It was not my habit to contribute to adult
conversation apart from a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when pressed, but all the
same I was transfixed. M y mother’s friend M ark, who was a
doctor, had been the one who’d gone in to identify her body and no
one had had very much to say to me about it.
“I remember a story I read once, a soldier, was it at Shiloh?”
He was talking to me but not with his whole attention.
“Gettysburg? a soldier so mad with shock that he started burying
birds and squirrels on the battlefield. You had a lot of little things
killed too, in the crossfire, little animals. M any tiny graves.”
“24,000 men died at Shiloh in two days,” I blurted.
His eyes reverted to me in alarm.
“50,000 at Gettysburg. It was the new weaponry. M inié
balls and repeating rifles. That was why the body count was so
high. We had trench warfare in America way before World War I.
M ost people don’t know that.”
I could see he had no idea what to do with this.
“You’re interested in the Civil War?” he said, after a careful
pause.
“Er—yes,” I said brusquely. “Kind of.” I knew a lot about
Union field artillery, because I’d written a paper on it so technical
and fact-jammed that the teacher had made me write it again, and I
also knew about Brady’s photographs of the dead at Antietam: I’d
seen the pictures online, pin-eyed boys black with blood at the
nose and mouth. “Our class spent six weeks on Lincoln.”
“Brady had a photography studio not far from here. Have
you ever seen it?”
“No.” There had been a trapped thought about to emerge,
something essential and unspeakable, released by the mention of
those blank-faced soldiers. Now it was all gone but the image: dead
boys with limbs akimbo, staring at the sky.
The silence that followed this was excruciating. Neither of us
seemed to know how to move forward. At last Hobie recrossed his
legs. “I mean to say—I’m sorry. To press you,” he said falteringly.
I squirmed. Coming downtown, I’d been so filled with
curiosity that I’d failed to anticipate that I might be expected to
answer any questions myself.
“I know it must be difficult to talk about. It’s just—I never
thought—”
M y shoes. It was interesting how I’d never really looked at
my shoes. The toe scuffs. The frayed laces. We’ll go to
Bloomingdale’s Saturday and buy you a new pair. But that had
never happened.
“I don’t want to put you on the spot. But—he was aware?”
“Yes. Sort of. I mean—” his alert, anxious face made some
remote part of me want to burst out with all kinds of stuff he
didn’t need to know and it wasn’t right to tell him, splattered
insides, ugly repetitive flashes that broke in on my thoughts even
while I was awake.
M urky portraits, china spaniels on the mantelpiece, golden
pendulum swinging, tockety-tock, tockety-tock.
“I heard him calling.” Rubbing my eye. “When I woke up.” It
was like trying to explain a dream. You couldn’t. “And I went over
to him and I was with him and—it wasn’t that bad. Or, not like
you’d think,” I added, since this had come out sounding like the lie
it was.
“He spoke to you?”
Swallowing hard, I nodded. Dark mahogany; potted palms.
“He was conscious?”
Again I nodded. Bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t something
you could summarize, stuff that didn’t make sense and didn’t have
a story, the dust, the alarms, how he’d held my hand, a whole
lifetime there just the two of us, mixed-up sentences and names of
towns and people I hadn’t heard of. Broken wires sparking.
His eyes were still on me. M y throat was dry and I felt a bit
sick. The moment wasn’t moving on to the next moment like it was
supposed to and I kept waiting for him to ask more questions,
anything, but he didn’t.
At last he shook his head as if to clear it. “This is—” He
seemed as confused as I was; the robe, the gray hair loose gave him
the look of a crownless king in a costume play for children.
“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head again. “This is all so
new.”
“Excuse me?”
“Well, you see, it’s just—” he leaned forward and blinked,
quick and agitated—“It’s all very different from what I was told,
you see. They said he died instantly. Very, very emphatic on that
point.”
“But—” I stared, astonished. Did he think I was making it
up?
“No, no,” he said hastily, putting a hand up to reassure me.
“It’s just—I’m sure it’s what they say to everyone. ‘Died
instantly’?” he said bleakly, when still I stared at him. “ ‘Perfectly
painless’? ‘Never knew what hit him’?”
Then—all at once—I did see, the implications slithering in on
me with a chill. M y mother too had “died instantly.” Her death
had been “perfectly painless.” The social workers had harped on it
so insistently that I’d never thought to wonder how they could be
quite so sure.
“Although, I do have to say, it was difficult to imagine him
going that way,” Hobie said, in the abrupt silence that had fallen.
“The flash of lightning. Falling over unawares. Had a sense, you do
sometimes, that it wasn’t like they said, you know?”
“Sorry?” I said, glancing up, disoriented by the vicious new
possibility I’d stumbled into.
“A goodbye at the gate,” said Hobie. He seemed to be talking
partly to himself. “That’s what he would have wanted. The
parting glimpse, the death haiku—he wouldn’t have liked to leave
without stopping to speak to someone along the way. ‘A teahouse
amid the cherry blossoms, on the way to death.’ ”
He had lost me. In the shadowy room, a single blade of sun
pierced between the curtains and struck across the room, where it
caught and blazed up in a tray of cut glass decanters, casting
prisms that flickered and shifted this way and that and wavered
high on the walls like paramecia under a microscope. Though there
was a strong smell of wood smoke, the fireplace was burnt-out and
black looking and the grate choked with ashes, as if the fires hadn’t
been lit in a while.
“The girl,” I said timidly.
His glance came back to me.
“There was a girl too.”
For a moment, he did not seem to understand. Then he sat
back in his chair and blinked rapidly as if water had been flicked in
his face.
“What?” I said—startled. “Where is she? She’s okay?”
“No—” rubbing the bridge of his nose—“no.”
“But she’s alive?” I could hardly believe it.
He raised his eyebrows in a way that I understood to mean
yes. “She was lucky.” But his voice, and his manner, seemed to
say the opposite.
“Is she here?”
“Well—”
“Where is she? Can I see her?”
He sighed, with something that looked like exasperation.
“She’s meant to be quiet and not have visitors,” he said, rummaging
in his pockets. “She’s not herself—it’s hard to know how she’ll
react.”
“But she’s going to be all right?”
“Well, let us hope so. But she’s not out of the woods yet. To
employ the highly unclear phrase the doctors insist on using.”
He’d taken cigarettes from the pocket of his bathrobe. With
uncertain hands he lit one then with a flourish threw the pack on
the painted Japanese table between us.
“What?” he said, waving the smoke from his face, when he
caught me staring at the crumpled packet, French, like people
smoked in old movies. “Don’t tell me you want one too.”
“No thank you,” I said, after an uneasy silence. I was pretty
sure he was joking although I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure.
He, in return, was blinking at me sharply through the tobacco
haze with a sort of worried look, as though he had just realized
some crucial fact about me.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” he said unexpectedly.
“Excuse me?”
“You’re the boy, aren’t you? Whose mother died in there?”
I was too stunned to say anything for a moment.
“What,” I said, meaning how do you know, but I couldn’t
quite get it out.
Uncomfortably, he rubbed an eye and sat back suddenly,
with the fluster of a man who’s spilled a drink on the table. “Sorry.
I don’t—I mean—that didn’t come out right. God. I’m—” vaguely
he gestured as if to say I’m exhausted, not thinking straight.
Not very politely, I looked away—blindsided by a queasy,
unwelcome swell of emotion. Since my mother’s death, I had cried
hardly at all and certainly not in front of anyone—not even at her
memorial service, where people who barely knew her (and one or
two who had made her life Hell, such as M athilde) were sobbing
and blowing their noses all around me.
He saw I was upset; started to say something; reconsidered.
“Have you eaten?” he said unexpectedly.
I was too surprised to answer. Food was the last thing on my
mind.
“Ah, I thought not,” he said, rising creakily to his big feet.
“Let’s go rustle up something.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, so rudely I was sorry. Since my
mother’s death, all anyone seemed to think of was shovelling food
down my throat.
“No, no, of course not.” With his free hand he fanned away a
cloud of smoke. “But come along, please. Humor me. You’re not
vegetarian, are you?”
“No!” I said, offended. “Why would you think that?”
He laughed—short, sharp. “Easy! Lots of her friends are veg,
so is she.”
“Oh,” I said faintly, and he looked down at me with a sort of
lively, unhurried amusement.
“Well, just so you know, I’m not a vegetarian either,” he said.
“I’ll eat any old sort of ridiculous thing. So I suppose we’ll manage
all right.”
He pushed open a door, and I followed him down a crowded
hallway lined with tarnished mirrors and old pictures. Though he
was walking ahead of me fast, I was anxious to linger and look:
family groupings, white columns, verandahs and palm trees. A
tennis court; a Persian carpet spread on a lawn. M ale servants in
white pyjamas, solemnly abreast. M y eye landed on M r.
Blackwell—beaky and personable, dapperly dressed in white, back
hunched even in youth. He was lounging by a seaside retaining wall
in some palmy locale; beside him—atop the wall, hand on his
shoulder and standing a head taller—smiled a kindergarten-aged
Pippa. As tiny as she was, the resemblance sounded: her coloring,
her eyes, her head cocked at the same angle and hair as red as his.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” I said—at the same instant I realized it
couldn’t possibly be her. This photo, with its faded colors and
outmoded clothes, had been taken long before I was born.
Hobie turned, came back to look. “No,” he said quietly, hands
behind his back. “That’s Juliet. Pippa’s mother.”
“Where is she?”
“Juliet—? Dead. Cancer. Six years last M ay.” And then,
seeming to realize he’d spoken too curtly: “Welty was Juliet’s big
brother. Half brother, rather. Same father—different wives—thirty
years apart. But he brought her up like his own child.”
I stepped in for a closer look. She was leaning against him,
cheek inclined sweetly against the sleeve of his jacket.
Hobie cleared his throat. “She was born when their father was
in his sixties,” he said quietly. “Far too old to interest himself in a
small child, particularly since he’d had no weakness for children to
start with.”
A door in the opposite side of the hallway stood ajar; he
pushed it open and stood looking into darkness. On tiptoe, I
craned behind, but almost immediately he backed away and clicked
the door shut.
“Is that her?” Though it had been too dark to see very much,
I had caught the unfriendly glow of animal eyes, an unnerving
greenish sheen from across the room.
“Not now.” His voice was so low I could barely hear him.
“What’s that in there with her?” I whispered—lingering by
the doorway, reluctant to move along. “A cat?”
“Dog. The nurse doesn’t approve, but she wants him in the
bed with her and honestly, I can’t keep him out—he scratches at
the door and whines—Here, this way.”
M oving slowly, creakily, with an old person’s forwardleaning quality, he pushed open a door into a crowded kitchen with
a ceiling skylight and a curvaceous old stove: tomato red, with
svelte lines like a 1950s spaceship. Books stacked on the floor—
cookbooks, dictionaries, old novels, encyclopedias; shelves closely
packed with antique china in half a dozen patterns. Near the
window, by the fire escape, a faded wooden saint held up a palm in
benediction; on the sideboard alongside a silver tea set, painted
animals straggled two by two into a Noah’s Ark. But the sink was
piled with dishes, and on the countertops and windowsills stood
medicine bottles, dirty cups, alarming drifts of unopened mail, and
plants from the florist’s dry and brown in their pots.
He sat me down at the table, pushing away Con Ed bills and
back issues of Antiques magazine. “Tea,” he said, as if remembering
an item on a grocery list.
As he busied himself at the stove, I stared at the coffee rings
on the tablecloth. Restlessly, I pushed back in my chair and looked
around.
“Er—” I said.
“Yes?”
“Can I see her later?”
“M aybe,” he said, with his back to me. Whisk beat against
blue china bowl: tap tap tap. “If she’s awake. She’s in a good deal
of pain and the medicine makes her sleepy.”
“What happened to her?”
“Well—” His tone was both brisk and subdued and I
recognized it at once since it was much the tone I employed when
people asked about my mother. “She’s had a bad crack on the
head, a skull fracture, to tell you the truth she was in a coma for a
while and her left leg was broken in so many pieces she came near
to losing it. ‘M arbles in a sock,’ ” he said, with a mirthless laugh.
“That’s what the doctor said when he looked at the x-ray. Twelve
breaks. Five surgeries. Last week,” he said, half-turning, “she had
the pins out, and she begged so to come home they said she could.
As long as we had a nurse part time.”
“Is she walking yet?”
“Goodness, no,” he said, bringing his cigarette up for a drag;
he was somehow managing to cook with one hand and smoke with
the other, like some tugboat captain or lumber camp cook in an old
movie. “She can hardly sit up more than half an hour.”
“But she’ll be fine.”
“Well, that’s what we hope,” he said, in what did not seem an
overly hopeful tone. You know,” he said, glancing back at me, “if
you were in there too, it’s remarkable that you’re okay.”
“Well.” I never knew how to respond when people
commented, as they often did, on my being “okay.”
Hobie coughed, and put out the cigarette. “Well.” I could see,
from his expression, that he knew he’d disturbed me, and was
sorry. “I suppose they spoke to you too? The investigators?”
I looked at the tablecloth. “Yes.” The less said about this, I
felt, the better.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I found them very decent
—very informed. This one Irishman—he’d seen a lot of these
things, he was telling me about suitcase bombs in England and in
the Paris airport, some sidewalk café thing in Tangier, you know,
dozens dead and the person right next to the bomb isn’t hurt at all.
He said they see some pretty strange effects, you know, in older
buildings especially. Enclosed spaces, uneven surfaces, reflective
materials—very unpredictable. Just like acoustics, he said. The
blast waves are like sound waves—they bounce and deflect.
Sometimes you have shop windows broken miles off. Or—” he
pushed the hair out of his eyes with his wrist—“sometimes, closer
to hand, there’s what he called a shielding effect. Things very close
to the detonation remain intact—the unbroken teacup in the
blown-out IRA cottage or what have you. It’s the flying glass and
debris that kills most people, you know, often at pretty far range.
A pebble or a piece of glass at that speed is as good as a bullet.”
I traced my thumb along the flower pattern of the tablecloth.
“I—”
“Sorry. M aybe not the right thing to talk about.”
“No no,” I said hurriedly; it was actually a huge relief to hear
someone speak directly, and in an informed way, about what most
people tied themselves in knots to avoid. “That’s not it. It’s just
—”
“Yes?”
“I was wondering. How’d she get out?”
“Well, it was a stroke of luck. She was trapped under a lot of
rubbish—the firemen wouldn’t have found her if one of the dogs
hadn’t alerted. They worked partway in, jacked up the beam—I
mean, the amazing thing too, she was awake, talked to them the
whole time, though she doesn’t remember a bit of it. The miracle of
it was they got her out before the call came to evacuate—how long
were you knocked out, did you say?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, you were lucky. If they’d had to go off and leave her
there, still pinned, which I understand did happen to some people
—Ah, here we go,” he said as the kettle whistled.
The plate of food, when he set it before me, was nothing to
look at—puffy yellow stuff on toast. But it smelled good.
Cautiously, I tasted it. It was melted cheese, with chopped-up
tomato and cayenne pepper and some other things I couldn’t figure
out, and it was delicious.
“Sorry, what is this?” I said, taking another careful bite.
He looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, it doesn’t really have a
name.”
“It’s good,” I said, slightly astonished how hungry I really
was. M y mother had made a cheese-on-toast very similar which
we ate sometimes on Sunday nights in winter.
“You like cheese? I should have thought to ask.”
I nodded, mouth too full to answer. Even though M rs.
Barbour was always pressing ice cream and sweets on me,
somehow it felt as if I’d hardly eaten a normal meal since my
mother died—at least, not the kind of meals that had been normal
for us, stir fry or scrambled eggs or macaroni and cheese from the
box, while I sat on the kitchen step-ladder and told her about my
day.
As I ate, he sat across the table with his chin in his big white
hands. “What are you good at?” he asked rather suddenly.
“Sports?”
“Sorry?”
“What are you interested in? Games and all that?”
“Well—video games. Like Age of Conquest? Yakuza
Freakout?”
He seemed nonplussed. “What about school, then? Favorite
subjects?”
“History, I guess. English too,” I said when he didn’t answer.
“But English is going to be really boring for the next six weeks—
we stopped doing literature and went back to the grammar book
and now we’re diagramming sentences.”
“Literature? English or American?”
“American. Right now. Or we were. American history too,
this year. Although it’s been really boring lately. We’re just getting
off the Great Depression but it’ll be good again once we get to
World War II.”
It was the most enjoyable conversation I’d had in a while. He
asked me all kinds of interesting questions, like what I’d read in
literature and how middle school was different from elementary
school; what was my hardest subject (Spanish) and what was my
favorite historical period (I wasn’t sure, anything but Eugene Debs
and the History of Labor, which we’d spent way too much time
on) and what did I want to be when I grew up? (no clue)—normal
stuff, but still it was refreshing to converse with a grown-up who
seemed interested in me apart from my misfortune, not prying for
information or running down a checklist of Things to Say to
Troubled Kids.
We’d gotten off on the subject of writers—from T. H. White
and Tolkien to Edgar Allan Poe, another favorite. “M y dad says
Poe’s a second-rate writer,” I said. “That he’s the Vincent Price of
American Letters. But I don’t think that’s fair.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Hobie, seriously, pouring himself a cup of
tea. “Even if you don’t like Poe—he invented the detective story.
And science fiction. In essence, he invented a huge part of the
twentieth century. I mean—honestly, I don’t care as much for him
as I did when I was a boy, but even if you don’t like him you can’t
dismiss him as a crank.”
“M y dad did. He used to go around reciting ‘Annabel Lee’ in
a stupid voice, to make me mad. Because he knew I liked it.”
“Your dad’s a writer then.”
“No.” I didn’t know where he’d gotten that. “An actor. Or he
was.” Before I was born, he’d played guest roles on several TV
shows, never the star but the star’s spoiled playboy friend or
corrupt business partner who gets killed.
“Would I have heard of him?”
“No. Now he works in an office. Or he did.”
“And what’s he doing now, then?” he asked. He had slipped
the ring over his little finger, and from time to time he twisted it
between thumb and forefinger of his other hand, as if to make sure
it was still there.
“Who knows? He ditched us.”
To my surprise, he laughed. “Good riddance?”
“Well—” I shrugged—“I don’t know. Sometimes he was
okay. We’d watch sports and cop shows and he’d tell me how
they did the special effects with the blood and all. But, it’s like—I
don’t know. Like, sometimes he was drunk when he came to pick
me up from school?” I hadn’t really talked about this with Dave
the Shrink or M rs. Swanson or anyone. “I was scared to tell my
mother but then one of the other mothers told her. And then—” it
was a long story, I was feeling embarrassed, I wanted to cut it
short—“he got his hand broken in a bar, he was fighting somebody
in a bar, he had this bar he liked to go to every day only we didn’t
know that’s where he was because he said he was working late, and
he had this whole set of friends we didn’t know about and they
sent him postcards when they went on vacation to places like the
Virgin Islands? to our home address? which was how we found out
about it? and my mother tried to make him go to AA but he
wouldn’t go. Sometimes the doormen used to come and stand in
the hall outside the apartment and make a lot of noise so he could
hear them—so he knew they were out there, you know? So he
didn’t get too out of hand.”
“Out of hand?”
“There was a lot of yelling and stuff. It was mostly him doing
it. But—” uncomfortably aware that I’d said more than I meant to
—“it was mainly him making a bunch of noise. Like—oh, I don’t
know, like when he had to stay with me, when she had to work?
He was always in a really bad mood. I couldn’t talk to him when
he was watching news or sports, that was the rule. I mean—” I
paused, unhappily, feeling I’d talked myself into a corner.
“Anyway. That was a long time ago.”
He sat back in his chair and looked at me: a big, selfcontained, guarded man, though his eyes were the worried blue of
boyishness.
“And now?” he said. “Do you like the people you’re staying
with?”
“Um—” I paused, with full mouth, at a loss how to explain
the Barbours. “They’re nice, I guess.”
“I’m glad. I mean, I can’t say I know Samantha Barbour,
although I’ve done some work for her family in the past. She has a
good eye.”
At this, I stopped eating. “You know the Barbours?”
“Not him. Her. Though his mother was quite a collector—I
gather it all went to the brother, though, due to some family
quarrel. Welty would have been able to tell you more about it. Not
that he was a gossip,” he added hastily, “Welty was very discreet,
buttoned up to here, but people confided in him, he was that sort,
you know? Strangers opened up to him—clients, people he hardly
knew, he was the kind of man people liked to entrust with their
sadnesses.
“But yes.” He folded his hands. “Every art dealer and
antiquario in New York knows Samantha Barbour. She was a Van
der Pleyn before she married. Not a great buyer, though Welty saw
her at auction sometimes, and she certainly has some pretty
things.”
“Who told you I was staying with the Barbours?”
He blinked, rapidly. “It was in the paper,” he said. “You
didn’t see it?”
“The paper?”
“The Times. You didn’t read it? No?”
“There was something in the paper about me?”
“No, no,” he said quickly. “Not about you. About children
who had lost family members in the museum. M ost of them were
tourists. There was one little girl… a baby, really… diplomat’s
child from South America—”
“What did they say about me in the paper?”
He made a face. “Oh, an orphan’s plight… charity-minded
socialite steps in… that kind of thing. You can imagine.”
I stared into my plate, feeling embarrassed. Orphan? Charity?
“It was a very nice piece. I gather you protected one of her
sons from bullies?” he said, lowering his large gray head to catch
my eye. “At school? The other gifted boy who was put ahead?”
I shook my head. “Sorry?”
“Samantha’s son? Whom you defended from a group of older
boys at school? Took beatings for him—that kind of thing?”
Again I shook my head—completely bewildered.
He laughed. “Such modesty! You shouldn’t be embarrassed.”
“But—it wasn’t like that,” I said, baffled. “We both got
picked on and beaten up. Every day.”
“So the story said. Which made it all the more remarkable
that you stood up for him. A broken bottle?” he said, when I
didn’t respond. “Someone was trying to cut Samantha Barbour’s
son with a broken bottle, and you—”
“Oh, that,” I said, embarrassed. “That was nothing.”
“You were cut yourself. When you tried to help him.”
“That’s not how it happened! Cavanaugh jumped on both of
us! There was a piece of broken glass on the sidewalk.”
Again he laughed—a big man’s laugh, rich and rough and at
odds with his carefully cultivated voice. “Well, however it
happened,” he said, “you’ve certainly tipped up in an interesting
family.” Standing, he went to the cupboard, where he retrieved a
bottle of whiskey and poured a couple of fingers in a not-veryclean glass.
“Samantha Barbour doesn’t seem the warmest and most
welcoming of hearts—at least that’s not the impression,” he said.
“Yet she seems to do an awful lot of good in the world with the
foundations and fundraising, doesn’t she?”
I kept quiet as he put the bottle back in the cupboard. Above,
through the skylight, the light was gray and opalescent; a fine rain
peppered at the glass.
“Are you going to open the shop again?” I said.
“Well—” he sighed. “Welty handled all that end of it—the
clients, the sales. M e—I’m a cabinet maker, not a businessman.
Brocanteur, bricoleur. Barely set foot up there—I’m always below
stairs, sanding and polishing. Now he’s gone—well, it’s still very
new. People calling for things he sold, things still being delivered I
never knew he bought, don’t know where the paperwork is, don’t
know who any of it’s for… there are a million things I need to ask
him, I’d give anything if I could talk to him for five minutes.
Particularly—well, particularly as regards Pippa. Her medical care
and—well.”
“Right,” I said, aware how lame I sounded. We were heading
into the clumsy territory of my mother’s funeral, stretched-out
silences, wrong smiles, the place where words didn’t work.
“He was a lovely man. Not many like him. Gentle, charming.
People always felt sorry for him because of his back, though I’ve
never met anyone so naturally gifted with a happy disposition, and
of course the customers loved him… outgoing fellow, very
sociable, always was… ‘the world won’t come to me,’ he used to
say, ‘so I must go to it’—”
Quite suddenly, Andy’s iPhone chimed: text message coming
in.
Hobie—glass halfway to his mouth—started, violently.
“What was that?”
“Wait a second,” I said, digging in my pocket. The text was
from Phil Lefkow, one of the kids in Andy’s Japanese class: Hi Theo,
A ndy here, are you ok? Hastily, I switched the phone off and stuck it
back in my pocket.
“Sorry?” I said. “What were you saying?”
“I forget.” He stared into space for a moment or two, then
shook his head. “I never thought I’d see this again,” he said,
looking down at the ring. “So like him to ask you to bring it here—
to put it in my hand. I—well, I didn’t say anything but I thought
for sure someone had pocketed it at the morgue—”
Again the phone chimed its annoying, high-pitched note.
“Gosh, sorry!” I said, scrambling for it. Andy’s text read:
Just making sure your not being killed!!!!
“Sorry,” I said—holding the button down, just to make sure
—“it really is off this time.”
But he only smiled, and looked into his glass. Rain tapped
and dripped at the skylight, casting watery shadows that streamed
down the wall. Too shy to say anything, I waited for him to pick
up the thread again—and when he didn’t, we sat there peacefully,
while I sipped my cooling tea (Lapsang Souchong, smoky and
peculiar) and felt the strangeness of my life, and where I was.
I pushed my plate aside. “Thank you,” I said dutifully, eyes
wandering round the room, “that was really good”—speaking (as
had become my habit) for my mother’s benefit, in case she was
listening.
“Oh, how polite!” he said—laughing at me but not unkindly,
in a way that felt friendly. “Do you like it?”
“What?”
“M y Noah’s Ark.” He nodded at the shelf. “You were
looking at it over there, I thought.” The worn wooden animals
(elephants, tigers, oxen, zebras, all the way down to a tiny pair of
mice) stood patiently in line, waiting to board.
“Is it hers?” I asked, after a fascinated silence; for the animals
were so lovingly positioned (the big cats ignoring each other; the
male peacock turned away from his hen to admire his reflection in
the toaster) I could imagine her spending hours arranging them and
trying to get them exactly right.
“No—” his hands came together on the table—“it was one of
the first antiques I ever bought, thirty years ago. In an American
Folk sale. I’m not a great one for the folk art, never have been—
this piece, not of the first quality, doesn’t fit with anything else I
own, and yet isn’t it always the inappropriate thing, the thing that
doesn’t quite work, that’s oddly the dearest?”
I pushed back in my chair, unable to keep my feet still. “Can
I see her now?” I said.
“If she’s awake—” he pursed his lips—“well, don’t see the
harm. But only for a minute, mind.” When he stood, his bulky,
stoop-shouldered height took me by surprise all over again. “I
warn you, though—she’s a bit muddled. Oh—” he turned in the
doorway—“and best not to bring up Welty if you can help it.”
“She doesn’t know?”
“Oh yes—” his voice was brisk—“she knows, but sometimes
when she hears it she gets upset all over again. Asks when it
happened and why nobody told her.”
ii.
WHEN HE OP ENED THE door, the shades were down, and it took my
eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, which was aromatic and
perfume-smelling, with an undertone of sickness and medicine.
Over the bed hung a framed poster from the movie The Wizard of
Oz. A scented candle guttered in a red glass, among trinkets and
rosaries, sheet music, tissue-paper flowers and old valentines—
along with what looked like hundreds of get-well cards strung up
on ribbons, and a bunch of silver balloons hovering ominously at
the ceiling, metallic strings hanging down like jellyfish stingers.
“Someone here to see you, Pip,” said Hobie, in a loud and
cheerful tone.
I saw the coverlet stir. An elbow went up. “Umn?” said a
sleepy voice.
“It’s so dark, my dear. Won’t you let me open the curtains?”
“No, please don’t, the light hurts my eyes.”
She was smaller than I remembered, and her face—a blur in
the gloom—was very white. Head shaven, all but a single lock in
front. As I drew closer, a bit fearfully, I saw a glint of metal at her
temple—a barrette or hairpin, I thought, before I made out the steel
medical staples in a vicious coil above one ear.
“I heard you in the hallway,” she said, in a small, raspy voice,
looking from me to Hobie.
“Heard what, pigeon?” said Hobie.
“Heard you talking. Cosmo did too.”
At first I didn’t see the dog, and then I did—a gray terrier
curled alongside her, amidst the pillows and stuffed toys. When he
raised his head, I saw from his grizzled face and cataract-clouded
eyes that he was very old.
“I thought you were asleep, pigeon,” Hobie was saying,
reaching out to scratch the dog’s chin.
“You always say that, but I’m always awake. Hi,” she said,
looking up at me.
“Hi.”
“Who are you?”
“M y name’s Theo.”
“What’s your favorite piece of music?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and then, so as not to appear stupid:
“Beethoven.”
“That’s great. You look like somebody who would like
Beethoven.”
“I do?” I said, feeling overwhelmed.
“I meant that in a nice way. I can’t listen to music. Because
of my head. It’s completely horrible. No,” she said to Hobie, who
was clearing books and gauze and Kleenex packets out of the
bedside chair so I could sit down in it, “let him sit here. You can sit
here,” she said to me, shifting over slightly in the bed to make
room.
After a glance back at Hobie to make sure it was okay, I sat
down, gingerly, with one hip, careful not to disturb the dog, who
raised his head and glared.
“Don’t worry, he won’t bite. Well, sometimes he bites.” She
looked at me with drowsy eyes. “I know you.”
“You remember me?”
“Are we friends?”
“Yes,” I said without thinking, and then glanced back at
Hobie, embarrassed I’d lied.
“I forgot your name, I’m sorry. I remember your face
though.” Then—stroking the dog’s head—she said: “I didn’t
remember my room when I came home. I remembered my bed, and
all my stuff, but the room was different.”
Now that my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I saw the
wheelchair in the corner, the bottles of medicine on the table by her
bed.
“What Beethoven do you like?”
“Uh—” I was staring at her arm, resting atop the coverlet, the
tender skin on the inside of her arm with a Band-Aid in the crook
of the elbow.
She was pushing up in bed—looking past me, to Hobie,
silhouetted in the bright doorway. “I’m not supposed to talk too
much, am I?” she said.
“No, pigeon.”
“I don’t think I’m too tired. But I can’t tell. Do you get tired
during the day?” she asked me.
“Sometimes.” After my mother’s death, I had developed a
tendency to fall asleep in class and conk out in Andy’s room after
school. “I never used to.”
“I do, too. I feel sleepy all the time now. I wonder why? I
think it’s so boring.”
Hobie—I noticed, looking back at the lighted doorway—had
stepped away for a moment. Although it was very unlike me, for
some strange reason I had been itching to reach out and take her
hand, and now that we were alone, I did.
“You don’t mind, do you?” I asked her. Everything seemed
slow like I was moving through deep water. It was very strange to
be holding somebody’s hand—a girl’s hand—and yet oddly
normal. I had never done anything of the sort before.
“Not at all. I think it’s nice.” Then, after a brief pause—
during which I could hear the little terrier snoring—she said: “You
don’t mind if I close my eyes for a few seconds, do you?”
“No,” I said, running a thumb over her knuckles, tracing the
bones.
“I know it’s rude, but I just absolutely have to.”
I looked down at her shaded eyelids, chapped lips, pallor and
bruises, the ugly hashmark of metal over one ear. The strange
combination of what was exciting about her, and what wasn’t
supposed to be, made me feel light-headed and confused.
Guilty, I glanced back, and noticed Hobie standing in the
door. After tiptoeing out to the hall again, I closed the door quietly
behind me, grateful that the hall was so dark.
Together, we walked back through to the parlor. “How does
she seem to you?” he said, in a voice so low I could hardly hear
him.
What was I supposed to say to that? “Okay, I guess.”
“She’s not herself.” He paused, unhappily, with his hands
dug deep into the pockets of the bathrobe. “That is—she is, and
she isn’t. She doesn’t recognize a lot of people who were close to
her, speaks to them very formally, and yet sometimes she’s very
open with strangers, very chatty and familiar, people she’s never
seen before, treats them like old friends. Quite common, I’m told.”
“Why isn’t she supposed to listen to music?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, she does, sometimes. But
sometimes, late in the day especially, it tends to upset her—she
thinks she has to practice, that she has to prepare a piece for
school, she gets distraught. Very difficult. As far as playing on
some amateur level, that’s perfectly possible someday, or so they
tell me—”
Quite suddenly, the doorbell rang, startling us both.
“Ah,” said Hobie—looking distressed, glancing at what I
noticed was an extremely beautiful old wristwatch, “that’ll be her
nurse.”
We looked at each other. We weren’t finished talking; there
was so much still to say.
Again the doorbell rang. Down the hall, the dog was barking.
“She’s early,” said Hobie—hurrying through, looking a bit
desperate.
“Can I come back? To see her?”
He stopped. He seemed appalled that I had even asked. “But
of course you can come back,” he said. “Please come back—”
Again the doorbell.
“Any time you like,” said Hobie. “Please. We’re always glad
to see you.”
iii.
“SO, WHAT HAP P ENED DOWN there?” said Andy as we were
dressing for dinner. “Was it weird?” Platt had left to catch the train
back to school; M rs. Barbour had a supper with the board of some
charity; and M r. Barbour was taking the rest of us out to dinner at
the Yacht Club (where we only went on nights when M rs. Barbour
had something else to do).
“He knew your mother, the guy.”
Andy, knotting his necktie, made a face: everybody knew his
mother.
“It was a little weird,” I said. “But it’s good I went. Here,” I
said, fishing in my jacket pocket, “thanks for your phone.”
Andy checked it for messages, then switched it off and
slipped it in his pocket. Pausing, with his hand still in the pocket,
he looked up, not straight at me.
“I know things are bad,” he said unexpectedly. “I’m sorry
everything is so fucked up for you now.”
His voice—as flat as the robot voice on an answering machine
—kept me for a moment from realizing quite what he’d said.
“She was awfully nice,” he said, still without looking at me.
“I mean—”
“Yeah, well,” I muttered, not anxious to continue the
conversation.
“I mean, I miss her,” Andy said, meeting my eye with a sort
of half-terrified look. “I never knew anybody that died before.
Well, my grandpa Van der Pleyn. Never anybody I liked.”
I said nothing. M y mother had always had a soft spot for
Andy, patiently drawing him out about his home weather station,
teasing him about his Galactic Battlegrounds scores until he went
bright red with pleasure. Young, playful, fun-loving, affectionate,
she had been everything his own mother wasn’t: a mother who
threw Frisbees with us in the park and discussed zombie movies
with us and let us lie around in her bed on Saturday mornings to eat
Lucky Charms and watch cartoons; and it had annoyed me
sometimes, a little, how goofy and exhilarated he was in her
presence, trotting behind her babbling about Level 4 of whatever
game he was on, unable to tear his eyes from her rear end when she
was bending to get something from the fridge.
“She was the coolest,” said Andy, in his faraway voice. “Do
you remember when she took us on the bus to that horror-fan
convention way out in New Jersey? And that creep named Rip
who kept following us around trying to get her to be in his vampire
movie?”
He meant well, I knew. But it was almost unbearable for me
to talk about anything to do with my mother, or Before, and I
turned my head away.
“I don’t think he was even a horror person,” Andy said, in
his faint, annoying voice. “I think he was some kind of fetishist.
All that dungeon stuff with the girls strapped to the laboratory
tables was pretty much straight-up bondage porn. Do you
remember him begging her to try on those vampire teeth?”
“Yeah. That was when she went up to talk to the security
guard.”
“Leather pants. All those piercings. I mean, who knows,
maybe he really was making a vampire film but he was definitely a
huge perv, did you notice that? Like, that sneaky smile? And the
way he kept trying to look down her top?”
I gave him the finger. “Come on, let’s go,” I said. “I’m
hungry.”
“Oh, yes?” I’d lost nine or ten pounds since my mother died
—enough weight that M rs. Swanson (embarrassingly) had started
weighing me in her office, on the scale she used for girls with eating
disorders.
“What, you’re not?”
“Yeah, but I thought you were watching your weight. So
you’d fit in your prom dress.”
“Fuck you,” I said good-naturedly as I opened the door—and
walked straight into M r. Barbour, who had been standing right
outside, whether eavesdropping or about to knock it was hard to
say.
M ortified, I began to stammer—swearing was seriously
against the rules at the Barbours’ house—but M r. Barbour didn’t
seem greatly perturbed.
“Well, Theo,” he said dryly, looking over my head, “I’m
certainly glad to hear that you’re feeling better. Come along now,
and let’s go get a table.”
iv.
DURING THE NEXT WEEK , everyone noticed that my appetite had
improved, even Toddy. “Are you done with your hunger strike?”
he asked me curiously, one morning.
“Toddy, eat your breakfast.”
“But I thought that was what it was called. When people
don’t eat.”
“No, a hunger strike is for people in prison,” Kitsey said
coolly.
“Kitten,” said M r. Barbour, in a warning tone.
“Yes, but he ate three waffles yesterday,” said Toddy,
looking eagerly between his uninterested parents in an attempt to
engage them. “I only ate two waffles. And this morning he ate a
bowl of cereal and six pieces of bacon, but you said five pieces of
bacon was too much for me. Why can’t I have five pieces, too?”
v.
“WELL, HELLO THERE, GREETINGS,” said Dave the psychiatrist as he
closed the door and took a seat across from me in his office: kilim
rugs, shelves filled with old textbooks (Drugs and Society; Child
Psychology: A Different Approach); and beige draperies that parted
with a hum when you pushed a button.
I smiled, awkwardly, eyes going all around the room, potted
palm tree, bronze statue of the Buddha, everywhere but him.
“So.” The faint traffic drone floating up from First Avenue
made the silence between us seem vast, intergalactic. “How’s
everything today?”
“Well—” I dreaded my sessions with Dave, a twice-weekly
ordeal not incomparable to dental surgery; I felt guilty for not
liking him more since he made such an effort, always asking what
movies I enjoyed, what books, burning me CDs, clipping articles
from Game Pro he thought I’d be interested in—sometimes he
even took me over to EJ’s Luncheonette for a hamburger—and yet
whenever he started with the questions I froze stiff, as if I’d been
pushed onstage in a play where I didn’t know the lines.
“You seem a little distracted today.”
“Um…” It had not escaped me that a number of the books on
Dave’s shelves had titles with the word sex in them: Adolescent
Sexuality, Sex and Cognition, Patterns of Sexual Deviance and—my
favorite: Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction.
“I’m okay, I guess.”
“You guess?”
“No, I’m fine. Things are good.”
“Oh yeah?” Dave leaned back in his chair, Converse sneaker
bobbing. “That’s great.” Then: “Why don’t you bring me up to
speed a little bit on what’s been going on?”
“Oh—” I scratched my eyebrow, looked away—“Spanish is
still pretty difficult—I have another make-up test, I’ll probably
take that M onday. But I got an A on my Stalingrad paper. So it
looks like that’ll bring my B minus in history up to a B.”
He was quiet so long, looking at me, that I began to feel
cornered and started casting around for something else to say.
Then: “Anything else?”
“Well—” I looked at my thumbs.
“How has your anxiety been?”
“Not so bad,” I said, thinking how uneasy it made me that I
didn’t know a thing about Dave. He was one of those guys who
wore a wedding ring that didn’t really look like a wedding ring—or
maybe it wasn’t a wedding ring at all and he was just super-proud
of his Celtic heritage. If I’d had to guess, I would have said he was
newly married, with a baby—he gave off a glazed vibe of exhausted
young fatherhood, like he might have to get up and change diapers
in the night—but who knew?
“And your medication? What about the side effects?”
“Uh—” I scratched my nose—“better I guess.” I hadn’t even
been taking my pills, which made me so tired and headachey I’d
started spitting them down the plughole of the bathroom sink.
Dave was quiet for a moment. “So—would it be out of line to
say that you’re feeling better generally?”
“I guess not,” I said, after a silence, staring at the wall hanging
behind his head. It looked like a lopsided abacus made of clay
beads and knotted rope, and I had spent what felt like a massive
portion of my recent life staring at it.
Dave smiled. “You say that like it’s something to be ashamed
of. But feeling better doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about your
mother. Or that you loved her any less.”
Resenting this supposition, which had never occurred to me, I
looked away from him and out the window, at his depressing view
of the white brick building across the street.
“Do you have any idea why you might be feeling better?”
“No, not really,” I said curtly. Better wasn’t even the word
for how I felt. There wasn’t a word for it. It was more that things
too small to mention—laughter in the hall at school, a live gecko
scurrying in a tank in the science lab—made me feel happy one
moment and the next like crying. Sometimes, in the evenings, a
damp, gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as
the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for
the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into
summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell
of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds
and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out,
everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and
struggling to live. For weeks, I’d been frozen, sealed-off; now, in
the shower, I would turn up the water as hard as it would go and
howl, silently. Everything was raw and painful and confusing and
wrong and yet it was as if I’d been dragged from freezing water
through a break in the ice, into sun and blazing cold.
“Where did you go just now?” said Dave, attempting to catch
my eye.
“Sorry?”
“What were you just thinking about?”
“Nothing.”
“Oh yeah? Pretty hard to think about absolutely nothing.”
I shrugged. Aside from Andy, I’d told no one about going
down on the bus to Pippa’s house, and the secret colored
everything, like the afterglow of a dream: tissue-paper poppies,
dim light from a guttering candle, the sticky heat of her hand in
mine. But though it was the most resonant and real-seeming thing
that had happened in a long time, I didn’t want to spoil it by
talking about it, especially not with him.
We sat there for another long moment or two. Then Dave
leaned forward with a concerned expression and said: “You know,
when I ask you where you go during these silences, Theo, I’m not
trying to be a jerk or put you on the spot or anything.”
“Oh, sure! I know,” I said uneasily, picking at the tweed
upholstery on the arm of the sofa.
“I’m here to talk about whatever you want to talk about. Or
—” creak of wood as he shifted in his chair—“we don’t have to
talk at all! Only I wonder if you have something on your mind.”
“Well,” I said, after another never-ending pause, resisting the
temptation to peek sideways at my watch. “I mean I just”—how
many more minutes did we have? Forty?
“Because I hear, from some of the other adults in your life,
that you’ve had a noticeable upswing of late. You’ve been
participating in class more,” he said, when I didn’t answer.
“Engaging socially. Eating normal meals again.” In the stillness, an
ambulance siren floated up faintly from the street. “So I guess I’m
wondering if you could help me understand what’s changed.”
I shrugged, scratched the side of my face. How were you
supposed to explain this kind of thing? It seemed stupid to try.
Even the memory was starting to seem vague and starry with
unreality, like a dream where the details get fainter the harder you
try to grasp them. What mattered more was the feeling, a rich
sweet undertow so commanding that in class, on the school bus,
lying in bed trying to think of something safe or pleasant, some
environment or configuration where my chest wasn’t tight with
anxiety, all I had to do was sink into the blood-warm current and
let myself spin away to the secret place where everything was all
right. Cinnamon-colored walls, rain on the windowpanes, vast
quiet and a sense of depth and distance, like the varnish over the
background of a nineteenth-century painting. Rugs worn to
threads, painted Japanese fans and antique valentines flickering in
candlelight, Pierrots and doves and flower-garlanded hearts.
Pippa’s face pale in the dark.
vi.
“LISTEN ,” I SAID TO Andy several days later, as we were coming
out of Starbucks after school, “can you cover for me this
afternoon?”
“Certainly,” said Andy, taking a greedy swallow of his
coffee. “How long?”
“Don’t know.” Depending on how long it took me to change
trains at Fourteenth Street, it might take forty-five minutes to get
downtown; the bus, on a weekday, would be even longer. “Three
hours?”
He made a face; if his mother was at home, she would ask
questions. “What shall I tell her?”
“Tell her I had to stay late at school or something.”
“She’ll think you’re in trouble.”
“Who cares?”
“Yes, but I don’t want her to phone school to check on you.”
“Tell her I went to a movie.”
“Then she’ll ask why I didn’t go too. Why don’t I say you’re
at the library.”
“That’s so lame.”
“All right, then. Why don’t we tell her that you have a
terribly pressing engagement with your parole officer. Or that you
stopped in to have a couple of Old Fashioneds at the bar of the
Four Seasons.”
He was imitating his father; the impression was so dead-on, I
laughed. “Fabelhaft,” I replied, in M r. Barbour’s voice. “Very
funny.”
He shrugged. “The main branch is open tonight until seven,”
he said, in his own bland and faint-ish voice. “But I don’t have to
know which branch you went to, if you forget to tell me.”
vii.
T HE DOOR OP ENED QUICKER than I’d expected, while I was staring
down the street and thinking of something else. This time, he was
clean-shaven, smelling of soap, with his long gray hair neatly
combed back and tucked behind his ears; and he was just as
impressively dressed as M r. Blackwell had been when I’d seen
him.
His eyebrows came up; clearly he was surprised to see me.
“Hello!”
“Have I come at a bad time?” I said, eyeing the snowy cuff of
his shirt, which was embroidered with a tiny cypher in Chinese
red, block letters so small and stylized they were nearly invisible.
“Not at all. As a matter of fact I was hoping you’d stop by.”
He was wearing a red tie with a pale yellow figure; black oxford
brogues; a beautifully tailored navy suit. “Come in! Please.”
“Are you going somewhere?” I said, regarding him timidly.
The suit made him seem a different person, less melancholy and
distracted, more capable—unlike the Hobie of my first visit, with
his bedraggled aspect of an elegant but mistreated polar bear.
“Well—yes. But not now. Quite frankly, we’re in a bit of a
tip. But no matter.”
What did that mean? I followed him inside—through the
forest of the workshop, table legs and unsprung chairs—and up
through the gloomy parlor into the kitchen, where Cosmo the
terrier was pacing fretfully back and forth and whimpering, his
toenails clicking on the slate. When we came in, he took a few
steps backwards and glared up at us aggressively.
“Why’s he in here?” I asked, kneeling to stroke his head, and
then pulling my hand back when he shied away.
“Hmn?” said Hobie. He seemed preoccupied.
“Cosmo. Doesn’t he like to be with her?”
“Oh. Her aunt. She doesn’t want him in there.” He was filling
the teakettle at the sink; and—I noticed—the kettle shook in his
hands as he did it.
“Aunt?”
“Yes,” he said, putting the kettle on to boil, then stooping to
scratch the dog’s chin. “Poor little toad, you don’t know what to
make of it, do you? M argaret’s got very strong opinions on the
subject of dogs in the sickroom. No doubt she’s right. And here
you are,” he said, glancing over his shoulder with an odd bright
look. “Washing up on the strand again. Pippa’s been talking of you
ever since you were here.”
“Really?” I said, delighted.
“ ‘Where’s that boy.’ ‘There was a boy here.’ She told me
yesterday that you were coming back and presto,” he said, with a
warm and young-sounding laugh, “here you are.” He stood, knees
creaking, and wiped the back of his wrist against his knobbly white
brow. “If you wait a bit, you can go in and see her.”
“How is she doing?”
“Much better,” he said, crisply, without looking at me. “Lots
of goings-on. Her aunt is taking her to Texas.”
“Texas?” I said, after a stunned pause.
“Afraid so.”
“When?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“No!”
He grimaced—a twinge that vanished the moment I saw it.
“Yes, I’ve been packing her up to go,” he said, in a cheerful voice
that did not match the flash of unhappiness that he’d let slip.
“People have been in and out. Friends from school—in fact, this is
the first quiet moment we’ve had in a while. It’s been quite a busy
week.”
“When is she coming back?”
“Well—not for a while, actually. M argaret’s taking her down
there to live.”
“Forever?”
“Oh no! Not forever,” he said, in a voice that made me realize
that forever was exactly what he meant. “It’s not as if anyone’s
leaving the planet,” he added, when he saw my face. “Certainly I’ll
be going down to see her. And certainly she’ll be back for visits.”
“But—” I felt like the ceiling had collapsed on top of me. “I
thought she lived here. With you.”
“Well, she did. Until now. Although I’m sure she’ll be much
better off down there,” he added, without conviction. “It’s a big
change for us all, but in the long run I’m sure it’s all for the best.”
I could tell he didn’t believe a word of what he was saying.
“But why can’t she stay here?”
He sighed. “M argaret is Welty’s half sister,” he said. “His
other half sister. Pippa’s nearest relative. Blood, in any case, which
I am not. She thinks that Pippa will be better off in Texas, now
that she’s well enough to move.”
“I wouldn’t want to live in Texas,” I said, taken aback. “It’s
too hot.”
“I don’t think the doctors are as good there either,” said
Hobie, dusting his hands off. “Although M argaret and I disagree
about that.”
He sat down, and looked at me. “Your glasses,” he said. “I
like them.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t want to talk about my new eyeglasses, an
unwelcome development, although they did actually help me to see
better. M rs. Barbour had picked out the frames for me at E. B.
M eyrowitz after I’d failed an eye test with the school nurse. They
were round tortoiseshell, a little too grown-up and expensivelooking, and adults had been going a little too far out of their way
to assure me how great they looked.
“How are things uptown?” said Hobie. “You can’t imagine
the stir your visit has caused. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of
coming uptown to see you myself. The only reason I didn’t was
that I hated to leave Pippa since she’s going away so soon. This
has all happened very fast, you see. The business with M argaret.
She’s like their father, old M r. Blackwell—she gets something in
her head and off she goes, it’s done.”
“Is he going to Texas too? Cosmo?”
“Oh no—he’ll be fine here. He’s lived here in this house since
he was twelve weeks old.”
“Won’t he be unhappy?”
“I hope not. Well—quite honestly—he’ll miss her. Cosmo
and I get on fairly well, though he’s been in a terrible slump since
Welty died. He was Welty’s dog really, he’s only taken up with
Pippa quite recently. These little terriers like Welty always had
aren’t always so crazy about children, you understand—Cosmo’s
mother Chessie was a holy terror.”
“But why does Pippa have to move down there?”
“Well,” he said, rubbing his eye, “it’s really the only thing
that makes sense. M argaret is the technical nearest of kin. Though
M argaret and Welty scarcely spoke while Welty was alive—not in
recent years, anyway.”
“Why not?”
“Well—” I could tell he didn’t want to explain it. “It’s all
very complicated. M argaret was quite against Pippa’s mother, you
see.”
Just as he said this, a tall, sharp-nosed, capable-looking
woman walked into the room, the age of a young-ish grandmother,
with a thin, patrician-harpy face and iron-rust hair going gray. Her
suit and shoes reminded me of M rs. Barbour, only they were a
color that M rs. Barbour would never have worn: lime green.
She looked at me; she looked at Hobie. “What is this?” she
said coldly.
Hobie exhaled audibly; he looked exasperated. “Never mind,
M argaret. This is the boy who was with Welty when he died.”
She peered over her half-glasses at me—and then laughed
sharply, a high self-conscious laugh.
“But hello,” she said—all charm all of a sudden, holding out
to me her thin red hands covered with diamonds. “I’m M argaret
Blackwell Pierce. Welty’s sister. Half sister,” she corrected herself,
with a glance over my shoulder at Hobie, when she saw my
eyebrows go down. “Welty and I had the same father, you see.
M y mother was Susie Delafield.”
She said the name as if it ought to mean something. I looked
at Hobie to see what he thought about it. She saw me doing it, and
glanced at him sharply before she returned her attention—all
sparkle—to me.
“And what an adorable little boy you are,” she said to me.
Her long nose was slightly pink at the end. “I’m awfully glad to
meet you. James and Pippa have been telling me all about your
visit—the most extraordinary thing. We’ve all been abuzz about it.
Also—” she clasped my hand—“I have to thank you from the
bottom of my heart for returning my grandfather’s ring to me. It
means an awful lot to me.”
Her ring? Again, in confusion, I looked at Hobie.
“It would have meant a lot to my father, as well.” There was
a deliberate, practiced quality to her friendliness (“buckets of
charm,” as M r. Barbour would have said); and yet her coppery
tang of resemblance to M r. Blackwell, and Pippa, drew me in
despite myself. “You know how it was lost before, don’t you?”
The kettle whistled. “Would you like some tea, M argaret?”
said Hobie.
“Yes please,” she replied briskly. “Lemon and honey. A tiny
bit of scotch in it.” To me, in a more friendly voice, she said: “I’m
terribly sorry, but I’m afraid we have some grown-up business to
attend to. We’re to meet with the lawyer shortly. As soon as
Pippa’s nurse arrives.”
Hobie cleared his throat. “I don’t see any harm if—”
“M ay I go in and see her?” I said, too impatient for him to
finish the sentence.
“Of course,” said Hobie quickly, before Aunt M argaret could
intervene—turning expertly away to evade her annoyed
expression. “You remember the way, don’t you? Just through
there.”
viii.
T HE FIRST THING SHE said to me was: “Will you please turn off the
light?” She was propped in bed with the earbuds to her iPod in,
looking blinded and disoriented in the light from the overhead bulb.
I switched it off. The room was emptier, cardboard boxes
stacked against the walls. A thin spring rain was hitting at the
windowpanes; outside, in the dark courtyard, the foamy white
blossoms of a flowering pear were pale against wet brick.
“Hello,” she said, folding her hands a little tighter on the
coverlet.
“Hi,” I said, wishing I didn’t sound quite so awkward.
“I knew it was you! I heard you talking in the kitchen.”
“Oh, yeah? How’d you know it was me?”
“I’m a musician! I have very sharp ears.”
Now that my eyes had adjusted to the dim, I saw that she
seemed less frail than she had on my previous visit. Her hair had
grown back in a bit and the staples were out, though the puckered
line of the wound was still visible.
“How do you feel?” I said.
She smiled. “Sleepy.” The sleep was in her voice, rough and
sweet at the edges. “Do you mind sharing?”
“Sharing what?”
She turned her head to the side and removed one of the
earbuds, and handed it to me. “Listen.”
I sat down by her on the bed, and put it in my ear: aethereal
harmonies, impersonal, piercing, like a radio signal from Paradise.
We looked at each other. “What is it?” I said.
“Umm—” she looked at the iPod—“Palestrina.”
“Oh.” But I didn’t care what it was. The only reason I was
even hearing it was because of the rainy light, the white tree at the
window, the thunder, her.
The silence between us was happy and strange, connected by
the cord and the icy voices thinly echoing. “You don’t have to
talk,” she said. “If you don’t feel like it.” Her eyelids were heavy
and her voice was drowsy and like a secret. “People always want
to talk but I like being quiet.”
“Have you been crying?” I said, looking at her a bit more
closely.
“No. Well—a little.”
We sat there, not saying anything, and it didn’t feel clumsy or
weird.
“I have to leave,” she said presently. “Did you know?”
“I know. He told me.”
“It’s awful. I don’t want to go.” She smelled like salt, and
medicine, and something else, like the chamomile tea my mother
bought at Grace’s, grassy and sweet.
“She seems nice,” I said, cautiously. “I guess.”
“I guess,” she echoed gloomily, trailing a fingertip along the
border of the coverlet. “She said something about a swimming
pool. And horses.”
“That should be fun.”
She blinked, in confusion. “M aybe.”
“Do you ride?”
“No.”
“M e neither. M y mother did though. She loved horses. She
always stopped to talk to the carriage horses on Central Park
South. Like—” I didn’t know how to say it—“it was almost like
they’d talk to her. Like, they’d try to turn their heads, even with
their blinkers on, to where she was walking.”
“Is your mother dead too?” she said timidly.
“Yes.”
“M y mother’s been dead for—” she stopped and thought
—“I can’t remember. She died after my spring holidays from
school one year, so I had spring holidays off and the week after
spring holidays too. And there was a field trip we were supposed
to go on, to the Botanical Gardens, and I didn’t get to go. I miss
her.”
“What’d she die of?”
“She got sick. Was your mother sick too?”
“No. It was an accident.” And then—not wanting to venture
more upon this subject: “Anyway, she loved horses a lot, my
mother. When she was growing up she had a horse she said got
lonely sometimes? and he liked to come right up to the house and
put his head in at the window to see what was going on.”
“What was his name?”
“Paintbox.” I’d loved it when my mother told me about the
stables back in Kansas: owls and bats in the rafters, horses
nickering and blowing. I knew the names of all her childhood horses
and dogs.
“Paintbox! Was he all different colors?”
“He was spotted, sort of. I’ve seen pictures of him.
Sometimes—in the summer—he’d come and look in on her while
she was having her afternoon nap. She could hear him breathing,
you know, just inside the curtains.”
“That’s so nice! I like horses. It’s just—”
“What?”
“I’d rather stay here!” All at once she seemed close to tears.
“I don’t know why I have to go.”
“You should tell them you want to stay.” When did our
hands start touching? Why was her hand so hot?
“I did tell them! Except everyone thinks it’ll be better there.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know,” she said fretfully. “Quieter, they said. But I
don’t like the quiet, I like it when there’s lots of stuff to hear.”
“They’re going to make me leave, too.”
She pushed up on her elbow. “No!” she said, looking alarmed.
“When?”
“I don’t know. Soon, I guess. I have to go live with my
grandparents.”
“Oh,” she said longingly, falling back on the pillow. “I don’t
have any grandparents.”
I threaded my fingers through hers. “M ine aren’t very nice.”
“I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” I said, in as normal a voice as I could, though
my heart was pounding so hard that I could feel my pulse jumping
in my finger-tips. Her hand, in mine, was velvety and fever-hot,
just the slightest bit sticky.
“Don’t you have any other family?” Her eyes were so dark in
the wan light from the window that they looked black.
“No. Well—” Did my father count? “No.”
There followed a long silence. We were still connected by the
earbuds: one in her ear, one in mine. Seashells singing. Angel choirs
and pearls. Things had gotten way too slow all of a sudden; it was
as if I’d forgotten how to breathe properly; over and over I found
myself holding my breath, then exhaling raggedly and too loud.
“What did you say this music was?” I asked, just for
something to say.
She smiled sleepily, and reached for a pointed, unappetizinglooking lollipop that lay atop a foil wrapper on her nightstand.
“Palestrina,” she said, around the stick in her mouth. “High
mass. Or something. They’re all a lot alike.”
“Do you like her?” I said. “Your aunt?”
She looked at me for several long beats. Then she put the
lollipop carefully back on the wrapper and said: “She seems nice. I
guess. Only I don’t really know her. It’s weird.”
“Why do you? Have to go?”
“It’s about money. Hobie can’t do anything—he isn’t my
real uncle. M y pretend uncle, she calls him.”
“I wish he was your real uncle,” I said. “I want you to stay.”
Suddenly she sat up, and put her arms around me, and kissed
me; and all the blood rushed from my head, a long sweep, like I
was falling off a cliff.
“I—” Terror struck me. In a daze, by reflex, I reached to wipe
the kiss away—only this wasn’t soggy, or gross, I could feel a
trace of it glowing all along the back of my hand.
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I don’t want to, either.”
“Do you remember seeing me?”
“When?”
“Right before.”
“No.”
“I remember you,” I said. Somehow my hand had found its
way to her cheek, and clumsily I pulled it back and forced it to my
side, making a fist, practically sitting on it. “I was there.” It was
then I realized that Hobie was in the door.
“Hello, old love.” And though the warmth in the voice was
mostly for her, I could tell a little was for me. “I told you he’d be
back.”
“You did!” she said, pushing herself up. “He’s here.”
“Well, will you listen to me next time?”
“I was listening to you. I just didn’t believe you.”
The hem of a sheer curtain brushed a windowsill. Faintly, I
heard traffic singing on the street. Sitting there on the edge of her
bed, it felt like the waking-up moment between dream and daylight
where everything merged and mingled just as it was about to
change, all in the same, fluid, euphoric slide: rainy light, Pippa
sitting up with Hobie in the doorway, and her kiss (with the
peculiar flavor of what I now believe to have been a morphine
lollipop) still sticky on my lips. Yet I’m not sure that even
morphine would account for how lightheaded I felt at that moment,
how smilingly wrapped-up in happiness and beauty. Half-dazed,
we said our goodbyes (there were no promises to write; it seemed
she was too ill for that) and then I was in the hallway, with the
nurse there, Aunt M argaret talking loud and bewilderingly and
Hobie’s reassuring hand on my shoulder, a strong, comforting
pressure, like an anchor letting me know that everything was okay.
I hadn’t felt a touch like that since my mother died—friendly,
steadying in the midst of confusing events—and, like a stray dog
hungry for affection, I felt some profound shift in allegiance, blooddeep, a sudden, humiliating, eyewatering conviction of this place is
good, this person is safe, I can trust him, nobody will hurt me here.
“Ah,” cried Aunt M argaret, “are you crying? Do you see
that?” she said to the young nurse (nodding, smiling, eager to
please, clearly under her spell). “How sweet he is! You’ll miss her,
won’t you?” Her smile was wide and assured of itself, of its own
rightness. “You’ll have to come down and visit, absolutely you
will. I’m always happy to have guests. M y parents… they had
one of the biggest Tudor houses in Texas…”
On she prattled, friendly as a parrot. But my loyalties were
elsewhere. And the flavor of Pippa’s kiss—bittersweet and strange
—stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as
I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a
starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite:
my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.
ix.
I HATED TO THINK of her leaving. I couldn’t stand thinking of it. On
the day she was going, I woke feeling heartsick. Looking at the sky
over Park Avenue, blue-black and threatening, a roiling sky straight
from a painting of Calvary, I imagined her looking out at the same
dark sky from her airplane window; and—as Andy and I walked to
the bus stop, the downcast eyes and the sober mood on the street
seemed to reflect and magnify my sadness at her departure.
“Well, Texas is boring, all right,” said Andy, between
sneezes; his eyes were pink and streaming from pollen so he
looked even more like a lab rat than usual.
“You went there?”
“Yes—Dallas. Uncle Harry and Aunt Tess lived there for a
while. There’s nothing to do but go to the movies and you can’t
walk anywhere, people have to drive you. Also they have
rattlesnakes, and the death penalty, which I think is primitive and
unethical in ninety-eight per cent of cases. But it’ll probably be
better for her there.”
“Why?”
“The climate, primarily,” said Andy, swiping his nose with
one of the pressed cotton handkerchiefs he plucked every morning
from the stack in his drawer. “Convalescents do better in warm
weather. That’s why my grandpa Van der Pleyn moved to Palm
Beach.”
I was silent. Andy, I knew, was loyal; I trusted him, I valued
his opinion, and yet his conversation sometimes made me feel as
though I was talking to one of those computer programs that mimic
human response.
“If she’s in Dallas she should definitely go to the Nature and
Science M useum. Although I think she’ll find it small and
somewhat dated. The IM AX I saw there wasn’t even 3-D. Also
they ask for extra money to get into the planetarium, which is
ridiculous considering how inferior it is to Hayden.”
“Huh.” Sometimes I wondered exactly what it might take to
break Andy out of his math-nerd turret: a tidal wave? Decepticon
invasion? Godzilla tromping down Fifth Avenue? He was a planet
without an atmosphere.
x.
HAD ANYONE EVER FELT so lonely? Back at the Barbours’, amidst
the clamor and plenitude of a family that wasn’t mine, I now felt
even more alone than usual—especially since, as the end of the
school year neared, it wasn’t clear to me (or Andy either, for that
matter) if I would be accompanying them to their summer house in
M aine. M rs. Barbour, with her characteristic delicacy, managed to
skirt the topic even in the midst of the cardboard boxes and open
suitcases that were appearing all over the house; M r. Barbour and
the younger siblings all seemed excited but Andy regarded the
prospect with frank horror. “Sun and fun,” he said
contemptuously, pushing his glasses (like mine, only a lot thicker)
up on the bridge of his nose. “At least with your grandparents
you’ll be on dry land. With hot water. An Internet connection.”
“I don’t feel sorry for you.”
“Well, if you do have to go with us, see how you like it. It’s
like Kidnapped. The part where they sell him into slavery on that
boat.”
“What about the part where he has to go to his creepy
relative in the middle of nowhere that he doesn’t even know?”
“Yes, I was thinking that,” said Andy seriously, turning in his
desk chair to look at me. “Although at least they aren’t scheming
to kill you—it’s not as if there’s an inheritance at stake.”
“No, there’s certainly not.”
“Do you know what my advice to you is?”
“No, what?”
“M y advice,” said Andy, scratching his nose with the eraser
of his pencil, “is to work as hard as you possibly can when you
get to your new school in M aryland. You’ve got an advantage—
you’re ahead a year. That means you’ll graduate when you’re
seventeen. If you apply yourself, you can be out of there in four
years, maybe even three, with a scholarship anywhere you want to
go.”
“M y grades aren’t that good.”
“No,” said Andy seriously, “but only because you don’t
work. Also I think it fair to assume that your new school,
wherever it is, won’t be quite as demanding.”
“I pray to God not.”
“I mean—public school,” said Andy. “M aryland. No
disrespect to M aryland. I mean, they do have the Applied Physics
Laboratory and the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns
Hopkins, to say nothing of the Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt. Definitely it’s a state with some serious NASA
commitment. You tested in what percentile back in junior high?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, it’s fine if you don’t want to tell me. M y point is, you
can finish with good marks when you’re seventeen—maybe
sixteen, if you bear down hard—and then you can go to college
wherever you want.”
“Three years is a long time.”
“It is to us. But in the scheme of things—not at all. I mean,”
said Andy reasonably, “look at some poor dumb bunny like Sabine
Ingersoll or that idiot James Villiers. Forrest fucking Longstreet.”
“Those people aren’t poor. I saw Villiers’s father on the
cover of the Economist.”
“No, but they’re as dumb as a set of sofa cushions. I mean—
Sabine can barely put one foot in front of the other. If her family
didn’t have money and she had to manage on her own, she’d have
to be, I don’t know, a prostitute. Longstreet—he’d probably just
crawl in the corner and starve. Like a hamster you forgot to feed.”
“You’re depressing me.”
“All I’m saying is—you’re smart. And grownups like you.”
“What?” I said doubtfully.
“Sure,” said Andy, in his wan, irritating voice. “You
remember names, do the eye-contact stuff, shake hands when
you’re supposed to. At school they all tie themselves in knots for
you.”
“Yeah, but—” I didn’t want to say it was because my mother
was dead.
“Don’t be stupid. You get away with murder. You’re smart
enough to figure it out on your own.”
“Why haven’t you figured out this sailing business then?”
“Oh, I’ve figured it out, all right,” said Andy grimly, returning
to his hiragana workbook. “I’ve figured that I have four summers
of Hell, at absolute worst. Three if Daddy lets me go to early
college when I’m sixteen. Two if I bite the bullet junior year and go
to that summer program at the M ountain School and learn organic
farming. And after that, I’m never setting foot on a boat again.”
xi.
“IT’ S DIFFICULT TO TALK to her on the phone, alas,” said Hobie. “I
wasn’t anticipating that. She doesn’t do well at all.”
“Doesn’t do well?” I said. Scarcely a week had passed, and
though I’d had no thought of returning to see Hobie somehow I
was down there again: sitting at his kitchen table and eating my
second dish of what had, upon first glance, appeared to be a black
lump of flowerpot mud but was actually some delicious mess of
ginger and figs, with whipped cream and tiny, bitter slivers of
orange peel on top.
Hobie rubbed his eye. He’d been repairing a chair in the
basement when I’d arrived. “It’s all very frustrating,” he said. His
hair was tied back from his face; his glasses were around his neck
on a chain. Under his black work smock, which he’d removed and
hung on a peg, he was wearing old corduroys stained with mineral
spirit and beeswax, and a thin-washed cotton shirt with the sleeves
rolled above the elbow. “M argaret said she cried for three hours
after she got off the telephone with me on Sunday night.”
“Why can’t she just come back?”
“Honestly, I wish I knew how to make things better,” said
Hobie. Capable-looking and morose, his knobbly white hand flat
on the table, there was something in the set of his shoulder that
suggested a good-natured draft horse, or maybe a workman in the
pub at the end of a long day. “I’d thought I might fly down and see
about her, but M argaret says no. That she won’t settle in properly
if I’m hovering about.”
“I think you should go anyway.”
Hobie raised his eyebrows. “M argaret’s hired a therapist—
someone famous, apparently, who uses horses to work with
injured children. And yes, Pippa loves animals, but even if she was
perfectly well she wouldn’t want to be outdoors and riding horses
the whole time. She’s spent most of her life in music lessons and
practice halls. M argaret’s full of enthusiasm about the music
program at her church but an amateur children’s choir can hardly
hold much interest for her.”
I pushed the glass dish—scraped clean—aside. “Why did
Pippa not know her before?” I said timidly, and then, when he
didn’t answer: “Is it about money?”
“Not so much. Although—yes. You’re right. M oney always
has something to do with it. You see,” he said, leaning forward
with his big, expressive hands on the table, “Welty’s father had
three children. Welty, M argaret, and Pippa’s mother, Juliet. All
with different mothers.”
“Oh.”
“Welty—the eldest. And I mean—eldest son, you’d think,
wouldn’t you? But he contracted a tuberculosis of the spine when
he was about six, when his parents were up in Aswan—the nanny
didn’t recognize how serious it was, he was taken to the hospital
too late—he was a very bright boy, so I understand, personable
too, but old M r. Blackwell wasn’t a man tolerant of weakness or
infirmity. Sent him to America to live with relatives and barely
gave him another thought.”
“That’s awful,” I said, shocked at the unfairness of this.
“Yes. I mean—you’ll get quite a different picture from
M argaret, of course—but he was a hard man, Welty’s father. At
any rate, after the Blackwells were expelled from Cairo—expelled
isn’t the best term, perhaps. When Nasser came in, all the
foreigners had to leave Egypt—Welty’s father was in the oil
business, luckily for him he had money and property elsewhere.
Foreigners weren’t allowed to take money or anything of much
value out of the country.
“At any rate.” He reached for another cigarette. “I’ve gone off
track a little. The point is that Welty scarcely knew M argaret, who
was a good twelve years younger. M argaret’s mother was Texan,
an heiress, with plenty of money of her own. That was the last and
longest of old M r. Blackwell’s marriages—the great love affair, to
hear M argaret tell it. Prominent couple in Houston—lots of
drinking and chartered airplanes, African safaris—Welty’s father
loved Africa, even after he had to leave Cairo, he could never stay
away.
“At any rate—” The match flared up, and he coughed as he
exhaled a cloud of smoke. “M argaret was their father’s princess,
apple of his eye, all that. But still and all, throughout the marriage,
he carried on with coat check girls, waitresses, the daughters of
friends—and at some point, when he was in his sixties, he fathered
a baby with a girl who cut his hair. And that baby was Pippa’s
mother.”
I said nothing. In second grade there had been a huge fuss
(documented, daily, in the gossip pages of the New York Post)
when the father of one of my classmates had a baby with a woman
not Eli’s mother, which had meant that a lot of the mothers took
sides and stopped speaking to each other out in front of school
while they were waiting to pick us up in the afternoons.
“M argaret was in college, at Vassar,” said Hobie fitfully.
Though he was speaking to me as if I were a grownup (which I
liked), he didn’t seem particularly comfortable with the subject. “I
think she didn’t speak to her father for a couple of years. Old M r.
Blackwell tried to pay the hairdresser off but his cheapness got the
better of him, his cheapness where his dependents were concerned,
anyway. And so you see M argaret—M argaret and Pippa’s mother
Juliet never even met, except in the courtroom, when Juliet was
practically still a babe in arms. Welty’s father had grown to hate
the hairdresser so much that he’d made it plain in the will that
neither she nor Juliet was to get a cent, apart from whatever mingy
child support was required by law. But Welty—” Hobie stubbed
out his cigarette—“Old M r. Blackwell had some second thoughts
where Welty was concerned, and did the right thing by him in the
will. And throughout all this legal fracas, which went on for years,
Welty grew to be terribly disturbed by how the baby was shunted
off and neglected. Juliet’s mother didn’t want her; none of the
mother’s relatives wanted her; old M r. Blackwell had certainly
never wanted her, and M argaret and her mother, frankly, would
have been happy enough to see her on the street. And, in the
meantime, there was the hairdresser, leaving Juliet alone in the
apartment when she went to work… bad situation all around.
“Welty had no obligation to put his foot in but he was an
affectionate man, without family, and he liked children. He invited
Juliet here for a holiday when she was six years old, or ‘JuleeAnn’
as she was then—”
“Here? In this house?”
“Yes, here. And when the summer was over and it was time
to send her back and she was crying about having to leave and the
mother wasn’t answering her telephone, he cancelled the plane
tickets and phoned around to see about enrolling her in first grade.
It was never an official arrangement—he was afraid to rock the
boat, as they say—but most people assumed she was his child
without inquiring too deeply. He was in his mid-thirties, plenty
old enough to be her father. Which, in all the essential respects, he
was.
“But, no matter,” he said, looking up, in an altered tone. “You
said you wanted to look around the workshop. Would you like to
go down?”
“Please,” I said. “That would be great.” When I’d found him
down there working on his up-ended chair, he’d stood and
stretched and said he was ready for a break but I hadn’t wanted to
come upstairs at all, the workshop was so rich and magical: a
treasure cave, bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside,
with the light filtering down from the high windows, fretwork and
filigree, mysterious tools I didn’t know the names of, and the
sharp, intriguing smells of varnish and beeswax. Even the chair he’d
been working on—which had goat’s legs in front, with cloven
hooves—had seemed less like a piece of furniture than a creature
under enchantment, like it might up-end itself and hop down from
his work bench and trot away down the street.
Hobie reached for his smock and put it back on. For all his
gentleness, his quiet manner, he was built like a man who moved
refrigerators or loaded trucks for a living.
“So,” he said, leading me downstairs. “The shop-behind-theshop.”
“Sorry?”
He laughed. “The arrière-boutique. What the customers see is
a stage set—the face that’s displayed to the public—but down
here is where the important work happens.”
“Right,” I said, looking down at the labyrinth at the foot of
the stairs, blond wood like honey, dark wood like poured molasses,
gleams of brass and gilt and silver in the weak light. As with the
Noah’s Ark, each species of furniture was ranked with its own
kind: chairs with chairs, settees with settees; clocks with clocks,
desks and cabinets and highboys standing in stiff ranks opposite.
Dining tables, in the middle, formed narrow, mazelike paths to be
edged around. At the back of the room a wall of tarnished old
mirrors, hung frame to frame, glowed with the silvered light of old
ballrooms and candlelit salons.
Hobie looked back at me. He could see how pleased I was.
“You like old things?”
I nodded—it was true, I did like old things, though it was
something I’d never realized about myself before.
“It must be interesting for you at the Barbours’, then. I
expect that some of their Queen Anne and Chippendale is as good
as anything you’ll see in a museum.”
“Yes,” I said, hesitantly. “But here it’s different. Nicer,” I
added, in case he didn’t understand.
“How so?”
“I mean—” I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to collect my
thoughts—“down here, it’s great, so many chairs with so many
other chairs… you see the different personalities, you know? I
mean, that one’s kind of—” I didn’t know the word—“well, silly
almost, but in a good way—a comfortable way. And that one’s
more nervous sort of, with those long spindly legs—”
“You have a good eye for furniture.”
“Well—” compliments threw me, I was never sure how to
respond except to act like I hadn’t heard—“when they’re lined up
together you see how they’re made. At the Barbours’—” I wasn’t
sure how to explain it—“I don’t know, it’s more like those scenes
with the taxidermy animals at the Natural History M useum.”
When he laughed, his air of gloom and anxiety evaporated;
you could feel his good-nature, it radiated off him.
“No, I mean it,” I said, determined to plow on and make my
point. “The way she has it set up, a table on its own with a light
on it, and all the stuff arranged so you’re not supposed to touch it
—it’s like those dioramas they place around the yak or whatever,
to show its habitat. It’s nice, but I mean—” I gestured at the chair
backs lined against the wall. “That one’s a harp, that one’s like a
spoon, that one—” I imitated the sweep with my hand.
“Shield back. Although, I’ll tell you, the nicest detail on that
one is the tasselled splats. You may not realize it,” he said, before I
could ask what a splat was, “but it’s an education in itself seeing
that furniture of hers every day—seeing it in different lights, able
to run your hand along it when you like.” He fogged his glasses
with his breath, wiped them with a corner of his apron. “Do you
need to head back uptown?”
“Not really,” I said, though it was getting late.
“Come along then,” he said. “Let’s put you to work. I could
use a hand with this little chair down here.”
“The goat foot?”
“Yes, the goat’s foot. There’s another apron on the peg—I
know, it’s too big, but I just coated this thing with linseed oil and I
don’t want you to spoil your clothes.”
xii.
DAVE THE SHRINK HAD mentioned more than once that he wished I
would develop a hobby—advice I resented, as the hobbies he
suggested (racquetball, table tennis, bowling) all seemed incredibly
lame. If he thought a game or two of table tennis was going to help
me get over my mother, he was completely out to lunch. But—as
evidenced by the blank journal I’d been given by M r. Neuspeil, my
English teacher; M rs. Swanson’s suggestion that I start attending
art classes after school; Enrique’s offer to take me down to watch
basketball at the courts on Sixth Avenue; and even M r. Barbour’s
sporadic attempts to interest me in chart markers and nautical flags
—a lot of adults had the same idea.
“But what do you like to do in your spare time?” M rs.
Swanson had asked me in her spooky, pale gray office that smelled
like herb tea and sagebrush, issues of Seventeen and Teen People
stacked high on the reading table and some kind of silvery Asian
chime music floating in the background.
“I don’t know. I like to read. Watch movies. Play Age of
Conquest II and Age of Conquest: Platinum Edition. I don’t
know,” I said again, when she kept on looking at me.
“Well, all those things are fine, Theo,” she said, looking
concerned. “But it would be nice if we could find some group
activity for you. Something with teamwork, something you could
do with other kids. Have you ever thought about taking up a
sport?”
“No.”
“I practice a martial art called Aikido. I don’t know if you’ve
heard of it. It’s a way of using the opponent’s own movements as
a form of self-defense.”
I looked away from her and at the weathered-looking panel
board of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging behind her head.
“Or perhaps photography.” She folded her turquoise-ringed
hands on her desk. “If you’re not interested in art classes.
Although I have to say, M rs. Sheinkopf showed me some of the
drawings you did last year—that series of rooftops, you know,
water towers, the views from the studio window? Very observant
—I know that view and you caught some really interesting line and
energy, I think kinetic was the word she used, really nice quickness
about it, all those intersecting planes and the angle of the fire
escapes. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not so much what you
do—I just wish that we could find a way for you to be more
connected.”
“Connected to what?” I said, in a voice that came out
sounding far too nasty.
She looked nonplussed. “To other people! And—” she
gestured at the window—“the world around you! Listen,” she said,
in her gentlest, most hypnotically-soothing voice, “I know that
you and your mother had an incredibly close bond. I spoke to her. I
saw the two of you together. And I know exactly how much you
must miss her.”
No you don’t, I thought, staring her insolently in the eye.
She gave me an odd look. “You’d be surprised, Theo,” she
said, leaning back in her shawl-draped chair, “what small, everyday
things can lift us out of despair. But nobody can do it for you.
You’re the one who has to watch for the open door.”
Though I knew she meant well, I’d left her office head down,
tears of anger stinging my eyes. What the hell did she know about
it, the old bat? M rs. Swanson had a gigantic family—about ten kids
and thirty grandkids, to judge from the photos on her wall; M rs.
Swanson had a huge apartment on Central Park West and a house
in Connecticut and zero idea what it was like for a plank to snap so
it was all gone in a minute. Easy enough for her to sit back
comfortably in her hippie armchair and ramble about extracurricular
activities and open doors.
And yet, unexpectedly, a door had opened, and in a most
unlikely quarter: Hobie’s workshop. “Helping” with the chair
(which had basically involved me standing by while Hobie ripped
the seat up to show me the worm damage, slapdash repairs, and
other hidden horrors under the upholstery) had rapidly turned into
two or three oddly absorbing afternoons a week, after school:
labeling jars, mixing rabbit-skin glue, sorting through boxes of
drawer fittings (“the fiddly bits”) or sometimes just watching him
turn chair legs on the lathe. Though the upstairs shop stayed dark,
with the metal gates down, still, in the shop-behind-the-shop, the
tall-case clocks ticked, the mahogany glowed, the light filtered in a
golden pool on the dining room tables, the life of the downstairs
menagerie went on.
Auction houses all over the city called him, as well as private
clients; he restored furniture for Sotheby’s, for Christie’s, for
Tepper, for Doyle. After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the
tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different
woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the
frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even
their different scents—“sometimes, when you’re not sure what
you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany,
dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the
flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks,
rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitreblocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and
tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony,
between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails,
how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale
bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same
vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the
“exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.
Downstairs—weak light, wood shavings on the floor—there
was something of the feel of a stable, great beasts standing
patiently in the dim. Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of
good furniture, in how he talked of pieces as “he” and “she,” in the
muscular, almost animal quality that distinguished great pieces
from their stiff, boxy, more mannered peers and in the affectionate
way he ran his hand along the dark, glowing flanks of his
sideboards and lowboys, like pets. He was a good teacher and very
soon, by walking me through the process of examination and
comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction: by
wear that was too even (antiques were always worn
asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of handplaned (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor
light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a
certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched
and used and passed through human hands. To contemplate the
lives of these dignified old highboys and secretaries—lives longer
and gentler than human life—sank me into calm like a stone in deep
water, so that when it was time to go I walked out stunned and
blinking into the blare of Sixth Avenue, hardly knowing where I
was.
M ore than the workshop (or the “hospital,” as Hobie called
it) I enjoyed Hobie: his tired smile, his elegant big-man’s slouch,
his rolled sleeves and his easy, joking manner, his workman’s habit
of rubbing his forehead with the inside of his wrist, his patient
good humor and his steady good sense. But though our talk was
casual and sporadic there was never anything simple about it. Even
a light “How are you” was a nuanced question, without it seeming
to be; and my invariable answer (“Fine”) he could read easily
enough without my having to spell anything out. And though he
seldom pried, or questioned, I felt he had a better sense of me than
the various adults whose job it was to “get inside my head” as
Enrique liked to put it.
But—more than anything—I liked him because he treated me
as a companion and conversationalist in my own right. It didn’t
matter that sometimes he wanted to talk about his neighbor who
had a knee replacement or a concert of early music he’d seen
uptown. If I told him something funny that happened at school, he
was an attentive and appreciative audience; unlike M rs. Swanson
(who froze and looked startled when I made a joke) or Dave (who
chuckled, but awkwardly, and always a beat too late), he liked to
laugh, and I loved it when he told me stories of his own life:
raucous late-marrying uncles and busybody nuns of his childhood,
the third-rate boarding school on the Canadian border where his
teachers had all been drunks, the big house upstate that his father
kept so cold there was ice on the inside of the windows, gray
December afternoons reading Tacitus or M otley’s Rise of the
Dutch Republic. (“I loved history, always. The road not taken! M y
grandest boyhood ambition was to be a professor of history at
Notre Dame. Although what I do now is just a different way of
working with history, I suppose.”) He told me about his blind-inone-eye canary rescued from a Woolworth’s who woke him singing
every morning of his boyhood; the bout of rheumatic fever that
kept him in bed for six months; and the queer little antique
neighborhood library with frescoed ceilings (“torn down now,
alas”) where he’d gone to get away from his house. About M rs. De
Peyster, the lonely old heiress he’d visited after school, a former
Belle of Albany and local historian who clucked over Hobie and fed
him Dundee cake ordered from England in tins, who was happy to
stand for hours explaining to Hobie every single item in her china
cabinet and who had owned, among other things, the mahogany
sofa—rumored to have belonged to General Herkimer—that got
him interested in furniture in the first place. (“Although I can’t
quite picture General Herkimer lounging on that decadent old
Grecian-looking article.”) About his mother, who had died shortly
after his three-days-old sister, leaving Hobie an only child; and
about the young Jesuit father, a football coach, who—telephoned
by a panicky Irish housemaid when Hobie’s father was beating
Hobie “to flinders practically” with a belt—had dashed to the
house, rolled up his sleeves, and punched Hobie’s father to the
ground. (“Father Keegan! He was the one who came to the house
that time when I had rheumatic fever, to give me communion. I was
his altar boy—he knew what the story was, he’d seen the stripes
on my back. There’ve been so many priests lately naughty with
the boys, but he was so good to me—I always wonder what
happened to him, I’ve tried to find him and I can’t. M y father
telephoned the archbishop and next thing you knew, done and
dusted, they’d shipped him off to Uruguay.”) It was all very
different from the Barbours’, where—despite the general
atmosphere of kindness—I was either lost in the throng or else the
uncomfortable subject of formal inquiry. I felt better knowing he
was only a bus ride away, a straight shot down Fifth Avenue; and
in the night when I woke up jarred and panicked, the explosion
plunging through me all over again, sometimes I could lull myself
back to sleep by thinking of his house, where without even
realizing it you slipped away sometimes into 1850, a world of
ticking clocks and creaking floorboards, copper pots and baskets of
turnips and onions in the kitchen, candle flames leaning all to the
left in the draft of an opened door and tall parlor windows
billowing and swagged like ball gowns, cool quiet rooms where old
things slept.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to explain my absences,
however (dinnertime absences, often), and Andy’s powers of
invention were being taxed. “Shall I go up there with you and talk
to her?” said Hobie one afternoon when we were in the kitchen
eating a cherry tart he’d bought at the farmers’ market. “I’m happy
to go up and meet her. Or maybe you’d like to ask her here.”
“M aybe,” I said, after thinking about it.
“She might be interested to see that Chippendale chest-onchest—you know, the Philadelphia, the scroll-top. Not to buy—
just to look at. Or, if you’d like, we could invite her out to lunch at
La Grenouille—” he laughed “—or even some little joint down here
that might amuse her.”
“Let me think about it,” I said; and went home early on the
bus, brooding. Quite apart from my chronic duplicity with M rs.
Barbour—constant late nights at the library, a nonexistent history
project—it would be embarrassing to admit to Hobie that I’d
claimed M r. Blackwell’s ring was a family heirloom. Yet, if M rs.
Barbour and Hobie were to meet, my lie was sure to emerge, one
way or another. There seemed no way around it.
“Where have you been?” said M rs. Barbour sharply, dressed
for dinner but without her shoes on, emerging from the back of the
apartment with her gin and lime in her hand.
Something in her manner made me sense a trap. “Actually,” I
said, “I was downtown visiting a friend of my mother’s.”
Andy turned to stare at me blankly.
“Oh yes?” said M rs. Barbour suspiciously, with a sideways
glance at Andy. “Andy was just telling me that you were working
at the library again.”
“Not tonight,” I said, so easily that it surprised me.
“Well, I must say I’m relieved to hear that,” said M rs.
Barbour coolly. “Since the main branch is closed on M ondays.”
“I didn’t say he was at the main branch, M other.”
“I think you might actually know him,” I said, anxious to
draw fire from Andy. “Know of him, anyway.”
“Who?” said M rs. Barbour, her gaze coming back to me.
“The friend I was visiting. His name is James Hobart. He
runs a furniture shop downtown—well, doesn’t run it. He does the
restorations.”
She brought her eyebrows down. “Hobart?”
“He works for lots of people in the city. Sotheby’s,
sometimes.”
“You wouldn’t mind if I gave him a call, then?”
“No,” I said defensively. “He said we should all go out to
lunch. Or maybe you’d like to come down to his shop sometime.”
“Oh,” said M rs. Barbour, after a beat or two of surprise.
Now she was the one thrown off-balance. If M rs. Barbour ever
went south of Fourteenth Street, for any reason whatsoever, I
didn’t know about it. “Well. We’ll see.”
“Not to buy anything. Just to look. He has some nice things.”
She blinked. “Of course,” she said. She seemed strangely
disoriented—something fixed and distracted about the eyes. “Well,
lovely. I’m sure I would enjoy meeting him. Have I met him?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“In any case. Andy, I’m sorry. I owe you an apology. You
too, Theo.”
M e? I didn’t know what to say. Andy—sucking furtively at
the side of his thumb—gave a one-shouldered shrug as she spun
out of the room.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him quietly.
“She’s upset. It’s nothing to do with you. Platt’s home,” he
added.
Now that he mentioned it, I was aware of muffled music
emanating from the rear of the apartment, a deep, subliminal
thump. “Why?” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Something happened at school.”
“Something bad?”
“God knows,” he said tonelessly.
“He’s in trouble?”
“I assume so. No one will talk about it.”
“But what happened?”
Andy made a face: who knows. “He was here when we got
home from school—we heard his music. Kitsey was excited and
ran back to tell him hello but he screamed and slammed the door in
her face.”
I winced. Kitsey idolized Platt.
“Then M other came home. She’s been back in his room. Then
she was on the telephone for a while. I slightly think Daddy’s on
his way home now. They were supposed to have dinner with the
Ticknors tonight but I think that’s been cancelled.”
“What about supper?” I said, after a brief pause. Normally on
school nights we ate in front of the television while doing our
homework—but with Platt home, M r. Barbour on his way, and the
evening’s plans abandoned, it was starting to look more like a
family dinner in the dining room.
Andy straightened his glasses, in the fussy, old-womanish
way he had. Although my hair was dark and his was light, I was
only too aware how the identical eyeglasses M rs. Barbour had
chosen for us made me look like Andy’s egghead twin—especially
since I’d overheard some girl at school calling us “the Goofus
Brothers” (or maybe “the Doofus brothers”—whatever, it wasn’t a
compliment).
“Let’s walk over to Serendipity and get a hamburger,” he
said. “I’d really rather not be here when Daddy gets home.”
“Take me, too,” said Kitsey unexpectedly, galloping in and
stopping just short of us, flushed and breathless.
Andy and I looked at each other. Kitsey didn’t even like to be
seen standing in line next to us at the bus stop.
“Please,” she wailed, looking back and forth between us.
“Toddy’s doing soccer practice, I have my own money, I don’t
want to be by myself with them, please.”
“Oh, come on,” I said to Andy, and she flashed me a grateful
look.
Andy put his hands in his pockets. “All right, then,” he said
to her expressionlessly. They were a pair of white mice, I thought
—only Kitsey was a spun-sugar, fairy-princess mouse whereas
Andy was more the kind of luckless, anemic, pet-shop mouse you
might feed to your boa constrictor.
“Get your stuff. Go,” he said, when she still stood there
staring. “I’m not waiting for you. And don’t forget your money
because I’m not paying for you either.”
xiii.
I DIDN’ T GO DOWN to Hobie’s for the next few days, out of loyalty
to Andy, although I was greatly tempted in the atmosphere of
tension that hung over the household. Andy was right: it was
impossible to figure out what Platt had done, since M r. and M rs.
Barbour behaved as if absolutely nothing were wrong (only you
could tell that something was) and Platt himself wouldn’t say a
word, only sat sullenly at meals with his hair hanging in his face.
“Believe me,” said Andy, “it’s better when you’re around.
They talk, and make more of an effort to be normal.”
“What do you think he did?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
“Sure you do.”
“Well, yes,” said Andy, relenting. “But I really don’t have
the foggiest.”
“Do you think he cheated? Stole? Chewed gum in chapel?”
Andy shrugged. “The last time he was in trouble, it was for
hitting somebody in the face with a lacrosse stick. But that wasn’t
like this.” And then, out of the blue: “M other loves Platt the best.”
“You think?” I said evasively, though I knew very well this
was true.
“Daddy loves Kitsey best. And M other loves Platt.”
“She loves Toddy a lot too,” I said, before realizing quite how
this sounded.
Andy grimaced. “I would think I’d been switched at birth,”
he said. “If I didn’t look so much like M other.”
xiv.
FOR SOME REASON, DURING this strained interlude (possibly
because Platt’s mysterious trouble reminded me of my own) it
occurred to me that maybe I ought to tell Hobie about the painting,
or—at the very least—broach the subject in some oblique manner,
to see what his reaction would be. The difficulty was how to bring
it up. It was still in the apartment, exactly where I’d left it, in the
bag I’d brought out of the museum. When I’d seen it leaning against
the sofa in the front room, on the dreadful afternoon I’d gone back
in to get some school things I needed, I’d walked right past it,
skirting it as assiduously as I would have a grasping bum on the
sidewalk, and all the time feeling M rs. Barbour’s cool pale eye on
my back, on our apartment, on my mother’s things, as she stood in
the door with her arms folded.
It was complicated. Every time I thought of it my stomach
squirmed, so that my first instinct was to slam the lid down hard
and think of something else. Unfortunately, I’d waited so long to
say anything to anybody that it was starting to feel like it was too
late to say anything at all. And the more time I spent with Hobie—
with his crippled Hepplewhites and Chippendales, the old things
he took such diligent care of—the more I felt it was wrong to keep
silent. What if someone found the picture? What would happen to
me? For all I knew, the landlord might have gone into the
apartment—he had a key—but even if he did go in, I didn’t think
he would necessarily happen upon it. Yet I knew I was tempting
fate by leaving it there while I put off deciding what to do.
It wasn’t that I minded giving it back; if I could have returned
it magically, by wishing, I would have done it in a second. It was
just that I couldn’t think how to return it in a way that wouldn’t
endanger either me or the painting. Since the museum bombing,
there were notices all over the city saying that packages left
unattended for any reason would be destroyed, which did away
with most of my brilliant ideas for returning it anonymously. Any
suspicious suitcase or parcel would be blown up, no questions
asked.
Of all the adults I knew, there were only two I considered
taking into my confidence: Hobie, or M rs. Barbour. Of these,
Hobie seemed by far the more sympathetic and less terrifying
prospect. It would be much easier to explain to Hobie how I had
happened to take the painting out of the museum in the first place.
That it was a mistake, sort of. That I’d been following Welty’s
instruction; that I’d had a concussion. That I hadn’t fully
considered what I was doing. That I hadn’t meant to let it sit
around so long. Yet in my homeless limbo, it seemed insane to step
up and admit to what I knew a lot of people were going to view as
very serious wrongdoing. Then, by coincidence—just as I was
realizing I really couldn’t wait much longer before I did something
—I happened to see a tiny black and white photo of the painting in
the business section of the Times.
Due perhaps to the unease that had overtaken the household
in the wake of Platt’s disgrace, the newspaper now occasionally
found its way out of M r. Barbour’s study, where it dis-assembled
itself and re-appeared a page or two at a time. These pages,
awkwardly folded, were scattered near a napkin-wrapped glass of
club soda (M r. Barbour’s calling card) on the coffee table in the
living room. It was a long, boring article, toward the back of the
section, having to do with the insurance industry—about the
financial difficulties of mounting big art shows in a troubled
economy, and especially the difficulty in insuring travelling
artworks. But what had caught my eye was the caption under the
photo: The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius’s 1654 masterpiece,
destroyed.
Without thinking, I sat down in M r. Barbour’s chair and
began scanning the dense text for any further mention of my
painting (already I’d begun to think of it as mine; the thought slid
into my head as if I’d owned it all my life)
Questions of international law come into play in cultural terrorism
such as this, which has sent a chill through the financial community as
well as the artistic world. “ The loss of even one of these pieces is
impossible to quantify,” said Murray Twitchell, a London-based
insurance-risk analyst. “ Along with the twelve pieces lost and
presumed destroyed, another 27 works were badly damaged, although
restoration, for some, is possible.” In what may seem a futile gesture to
many, the Art Loss Database
The story was continued on the next page; but just then M rs.
Barbour came into the room and I had to put the newspaper down.
“Theo,” she said. “I have a proposal for you.”
“Yes?” I said, warily.
“Would you like to come up to M aine with us this year?”
For a moment I was so overjoyed that I went completely
blank. “Yes!” I said. “Wow. That’d be great!”
Even she couldn’t help but smile, a bit. “Well,” she said,
“Chance will certainly be happy to put you to work on the boat. It
seems that we’re going out somewhat earlier this year—well,
Chance and the children will be going early. I’ll be staying in the
city to take care of some things, but I’ll be up in a week or two.”
I was so happy I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“We’ll see how you like sailing. Perhaps you’ll like it better
than Andy does. Let us hope so, at any rate.”
“You think it’s going to be fun,” said Andy gloomily, when I
ran back to the bedroom (ran, not walked) to give him the good
news. “But it’s not. You’ll hate it.” All the same, I could tell
exactly how pleased he was. And that night—before bed—he sat
down with me on the edge of the bottom bunk to talk about what
books we would bring, what games, and what the symptoms of
seasickness were, so that I could get out of helping on deck, if I felt
like it.
xv.
T HIS TWO-FOLD NEWS—good on both fronts—left me limp and
dazed with relief. If my painting was destroyed—if that was the
official story—there was plenty of time to decide what to do. By
the same magic, M rs. Barbour’s invitation seemed to extend
beyond the summer and far into the horizon, as if the entire
Atlantic Ocean lay between me and Grandpa Decker; the lift was
dizzying, and all I could do was exult in my reprieve. I knew that I
should give the painting to either Hobie or M rs. Barbour, throw
myself on their mercy, tell them everything, beg them to help me—
in some bleak, lucid corner of my mind I knew I would be sorry if I
didn’t—but my mind was too full of M aine and sailing to think
about anything else; and it was starting to occur to me that it might
even be smart to keep the painting for a while, as a sort of
insurance for the next three years, against having to go live with
Grandpa Decker and Dorothy. It is a hallmark of my stunning
naïveté that I thought I might even be able to sell it, if I had to. So I
kept quiet, looked at maps and chart markers with M r. Barbour,
and let M rs. Barbour take me to Brooks Brothers to buy some
deck shoes and some light cotton sweaters to wear on the water
when it got cool at night. And said nothing.
xvi.
“T OO MUCH EDUCATION, WAS my problem,” said Hobie. “Or so my
father thought.” I was in the workshop with him and helping sort
through endless pieces of old cherry-wood, some redder, some
browner, all salvaged from old furniture, to get the exact shade he
needed to patch the apron of the tall-case clock he was working on.
“M y father had a trucking company” (this I already knew; the
name was so famous that even I was familiar with it), “and in the
summers and over Christmas vacation he had me loading trucks—
I’d have to work up to driving one, he said. The men on the loading
docks all went dead silent the moment I walked out there. Boss’s
son, you know. Not their fault, because my father was a holy
bastard to work for. Anyway he had me doing that from fourteen,
after school and on weekends—loading boxes in the rain.
Sometimes I worked in the office too—dismal, dingy place.
Freezing in winter and hot as blazes in summer. Shouting over the
exhaust fans. At first, it was only in the summers and over
Christmas vacation. But then, after my second year of college, he
announced he wasn’t paying my tuition any more.”
I had found a piece of wood that looked like a good match for
the broken piece, and I slid it over to him. “Did you have bad
grades?”
“No—I did all right,” he said, picking up the wood and
holding it to the light, then putting it in the stack with possible
matches. “The thing was, he hadn’t gone to college himself and
he’d done fine, hadn’t he? Did I think I was better than him? But
more than that—well, he was the kind of man who had to bully
everyone around him, you know the type, and I think it must have
dawned on him, what better way to keep me under his thumb and
working for free? At first—” he deliberated several moments over
another piece of veneer, then put it in the maybe pile—“at first he
told me I’d have to take a year off—four years, five, however long
it took—and earn the rest of my college money the hard way.
Never saw a penny I made. I lived at home, and he was putting it
all into a special account, you see, for my own good. Rough enough
but fair, I thought. But then—after I’d worked full-time for him for
about three years—the game changed. Suddenly—” he laughed
—“well, hadn’t I understood the deal? I was paying him back for
my first two years of college. He hadn’t set aside anything at all.”
“That’s awful!” I said, after a shocked pause. I didn’t see
how he could laugh about something so unfair.
“Well—” he rolled his eyes—“I was still a bit green, but I
realized at that rate I’d be perishing of old age before I ever got out
of there. But—no money, nowhere to live—what was I to do? I
was trying hard to figure something out when lo and behold, Welty
happened into the office one day while my father was going off at
me. He loved to berate me in front of his men, my dad—swaggering
around like a M afia boss, saying I owed him money for this and
that, taking it out of my quote unquote ‘salary.’ Withholding my
alleged paycheck for some imaginary infraction. That kind of thing.
“Welty—it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him. He’d been in
the office to arrange for shipping from estate sales—he always
claimed that with his back he had to work harder to make a good
impression, make people see past the deformity and all that, but I
liked him from the start. M ost people did—my father even, who
shall I say wasn’t a man who took kindly to people. At any rate,
Welty, having witnessed this outburst, telephoned my father the
next day and said he could use my help packing the furniture for a
house he’d bought the contents of. I was a big strong kid, hard
worker, just the ticket. Well—” Hobie stood and stretched his arms
over his head—“Welty was a good customer. And my father, for
whatever reason, said yes.
“The house I helped him pack was the old De Peyster
mansion. And as it happened I’d known old M rs. De Peyster quite
well. From the time I was a kid I’d liked to wander down and visit
her—funny old woman in a bright yellow wig, font of information,
papers everywhere, knew everything about local history,
incredibly entertaining storyteller—anyway, it was quite a house,
packed with Tiffany glass and some very good furniture from the
1800s, and I was able to help with the provenance of a lot of the
pieces, better than M rs. De Peyster’s daughter, who hadn’t the
slightest interest in the chair President M cKinley had sat in or any
of that.
“The day I finished helping him with the house—it was
about six o’clock in the afternoon, I was head-to-toe with dust—
Welty opened a bottle of wine and we sat around on the packing
cases and drank it, you know, bare floors and that empty house
echo. I was exhausted—he’d paid me directly, cash, leaving my
father out of it—and when I thanked him and asked if he knew of
any more work, he said: Look, I’ve just opened a shop in New
York, and if you want a job, you’ve got it. So we clinked glasses on
it, and I went home, packed a suitcase full of books mostly, said
goodbye to the housekeeper, and hitched a ride on the truck to
New York the next day. Never looked back.”
A lull ensued. We were still sorting through the veneer:
clicking fragments, paper-thin, like counters in some ancient game
from China maybe, an eerie lightness in the sound which made you
feel lost in some much larger silence.
“Hey,” I said, spotting a piece and snatching it up, passing it
to him triumphantly: exact color match, closer than any of the
pieces he’d set aside in his pile.
He took it from me, looked at it under the lamp. “It’s all
right.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, you see—” he put the veneer up to the clock’s apron
—“this kind of work, it’s the grain of the wood you really have to
match. That’s the trick of it. Variations in tone are easier to fudge.
Now this—” he held up a different piece, visibly several shades off
—“with a little beeswax and a bit of the right coloring—maybe.
Bichromate of potash, touch of Vandyke brown—sometimes, with
a grain really difficult to match, certain kinds of walnut especially,
I’ve used ammonia to darken a bit of new wood. But only when I
was desperate. It’s always best to use wood of the same vintage as
the piece you’re repairing, if you have it.”
“How’d you learn how to do all this?” I said, after a timid
pause.
He laughed. “The same way you’re learning it now! Standing
around and watching. M aking myself useful.”
“Welty taught you?”
“Oh, no. He understood it—knew how it was done. You have
to in this business. He had a very reliable eye and often I’d bob up
and fetch him when I wanted a second opinion. But before I joined
the enterprise usually he’d pass on a piece that needed restoration.
It’s time-consuming work—takes a certain mind-set—he didn’t
have the temperament nor the physical hardiness for it. He much
preferred the acquisitions end—you know, going to auction—or
being in the shop and chatting up the customers. Every afternoon
around five, I’d pop up for a cup of tea. ‘Scourged from your
dungeons.’ It really was pretty foul down here in the old days with
the mold and damp. When I came to work for Welty—” he laughed
—“he had this old fellow named Abner M ossbank. Bad legs,
arthritis in his fingers, could barely see. It would take him a year
sometimes to finish a piece. But I stood at his back and watched
him work. He was like a surgeon. Couldn’t ask questions. Utter
silence! But he knew absolutely everything—work that other
people didn’t know how to do or care to learn any more—it hangs
by a thread, this trade, generation to generation.”
“Your dad never gave you the money you earned?”
He laughed, warmly. “Not a penny! Never spoke to me again,
either. He was a bitter old sod—fell down dead of a heart attack in
the middle of firing one of his oldest employees. One of the most
poorly attended funerals you’d ever care to see. Three black
umbrellas in the sleet. Hard not to think of Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“You never went back to college?”
“No. Didn’t want to. I’d found what I liked to do. So—” he
put both hands in the small of his back, and stretched; his out-atelbows jacket, loose and a bit dirty, made him look like a goodnatured groom on his way to the stables—“moral of the story is,
who knows where it all will take you?”
“All what?”
He laughed. “Your sailing holiday,” he said, moving to the
shelf where the jars of pigment were arrayed like potions in an
apothecary; ocherous earths, poisonous greens, powders of
charcoal and burnt bone. “M ight be the decisive moment. It takes
some people that way, the sea.”
“Andy gets seasick. He has to carry a baggie on the boat to
throw up in.”
“Well—” reaching for a jar of lampblack—“must admit, it
never took me that way. When I was a kid—‘Rime of the Ancient
M ariner,’ those Doré illustrations—no, the ocean gives me the
shivers but then I’ve never been on an adventure like yours. You
never know. Because—” brow furrowed, tapping out a bit of soft
black powder on his palette—“I never dreamed that all that old
furniture of M rs. De Peyster’s would be the thing that decided my
future. M aybe you’ll get fascinated by hermit crabs and study
marine biology. Or decide you want to build boats, or be a marine
painter, or write the definitive book about the Lusitania.”
“M aybe,” I said, hands behind my back. But what I really
hoped I didn’t dare articulate. Even to think of it practically made
me tremble. Because, the thing was: Kitsey and Toddy had started
being much, much nicer to me, as if someone had drawn them aside;
and I’d seen glances, subtle cues, between M r. and M rs. Barbour
that made me hopeful—more than hopeful. In fact, it was Andy
who’d put the thought in my head. “They think being around you
is good for me,” he’d said on the way to school the other day.
“That you’re drawing me out of my shell and making me more
social. I’m thinking they might make a family announcement once
we get up to M aine.”
“Announcement?”
“Don’t be a dunce. They’ve grown quite fond of you—
M other, especially. But Daddy, too. I believe they may want to
keep you.”
xvii.
I RODE UP TOWN ON the bus, slightly drowsy, swaying comfortably
back and forth and watching the wet Saturday streets flash by.
When I stepped inside the apartment—chilled from walking home
in the rain—Kitsey ran into the foyer to stare at me, wild-eyed and
fascinated, as if I were an ostrich who had wandered into the
apartment. Then, after a few blank seconds, she darted off into the
living room, sandals clattering on the parquet floor, crying: “M um?
He’s here!”
M rs. Barbour appeared. “Hello, Theo,” she said. She was
perfectly composed but there was something constrained in her
manner, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “Come in here.
I’ve got a surprise for you.”
I followed her into M r. Barbour’s study, gloomy in the
overcast afternoon, where the framed nautical charts and the rain
streaming down the gray windowpanes were like a theatrical set of
a ship’s cabin on a storm-tossed sea. Across the room, a figure rose
from a leather club chair. “Hi, buddy,” he said. “Long time no see.”
I stood frozen in the doorway. The voice was unmistakable:
my father.
He stepped forward into the weak light from the window. It
was him, all right, though he’d changed since I’d seen him: he was
heavier, tanned, puffy in the face, with a new suit and a haircut
that made him look like a downtown bartender. In my dismay, I
glanced back to M rs. Barbour, and she gave me a bright but
helpless smile as if to say: I know, but what can I do?
While I still stood speechless with shock, another figure rose
and elbowed forward, in front of my father. “Hi, I’m Xandra,” said
a throaty voice.
I found myself confronted by a strange woman, tan and very
fit-looking: flat gray eyes, lined coppery skin, and teeth that went
in, with a split between them. Although she was older than my
mother, or at any rate older-looking, she was dressed like someone
younger: red platform sandals; low-slung jeans; wide belt; lots of
gold jewelry. Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight
and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of
Juicy Fruit was coming off her.
“It’s Xandra with an X,” she said in a gravelly undertone. Her
eyes were clear and colorless, with spikes of dark mascara around
them, and her gaze was powerful, confident, unwavering. “Not
Sandra. And, God knows, not Sandy. I get that one a lot, and it
drives me up the wall.”
As she spoke, my astonishment was growing by the moment.
I couldn’t quite take her in: her whiskey voice, her muscular arms;
the Chinese character tattooed on her big toe; her long square
fingernails with the white tips painted on; her earrings shaped like
starfish.
“Um, we just got into LaGuardia about two hours ago,” said
my dad, clearing his throat, as if this explained everything.
Was this who my dad had left us for? In stupefaction, I
looked back to M rs. Barbour again—only to see that she had
vanished.
“Theo, I’m out in Las Vegas now,” my father said, looking at
the wall somewhere over my head. He still had the controlled,
assertive voice of his actorly training but though he sounded as
authoritative as ever, I could see that he wasn’t any more
comfortable than I was. “I guess I should have called, but I thought
it would be easier if we just came on out to get you.”
“Get me?” I said, after a long pause.
“Tell him, Larry,” said Xandra, and then, to me: “You should
be proud of your Pops. He’s on the wagon. How many days’
sobriety now? Fifty-one? Did it all on his own too—didn’t even
check himself into the joint—detoxed on the sofa with a basket of
Easter candy and a bottle of Valium.”
Because I was too embarrassed to look at her, or my father, I
looked back at the doorway again—and saw Kitsey Barbour
standing in the hall listening to all this with big round eyes.
“Because, I mean, I just couldn’t put up with it,” said
Xandra, in a tone suggesting that my mother had condoned, and
encouraged, my dad’s alcoholism. “I mean—my M oms was the
kind of lush who would throw up in her glass of Canadian Club
and then drink it anyway. And one night I said to him: Larry, I’m
not going to say to you ‘never drink again,’ and frankly I think that
AA is way too much for the level of problem you have—”
M y father cleared his throat and turned to me with a genial
face he usually reserved for strangers. M aybe he had stopped
drinking; but still he had a bloated, shiny, slightly stunned look, as
if he’d been living for the past eight months off rum drinks and
Hawaiian party platters.
“Um, son,” he said, “we’re right off the plane, and we came
over because—we wanted to see you right away, of course…”
I waited.
“… we need the key to the apartment.”
This was all moving a little too fast for me. “The key?” I said.
“We can’t get in over there,” said Xandra bluntly. “We tried
already.”
“The thing is, Theo,” my dad said, his tone clear and cordial,
running a businesslike hand over his hair, “I need to get in over at
Sutton Place and see what’s what. I’m sure things are a mess over
there, and somebody needs to get in and start taking care of stuff.”
If you didn’t leave things such a goddamned mess… These
were words I’d heard my father scream at my mother when—
about two weeks before he vanished—they’d had the biggest fight
I ever heard them have, when the diamond-and-emerald earrings
that belonged to her mother vanished from the dish on her bedside
table. M y father (red in the face, mocking her in a sarcastic
falsetto) had said it was her fault, Cinzia had probably taken them
or who the hell knew, it wasn’t a good idea to leave jewelry lying
out like that, and maybe this would teach her to look after her
things better. But my mother—ash-white with anger—had pointed
out in a cold still voice that she’d taken the earrings off on Friday
night, and that Cinzia hadn’t been in to work since.
What the hell are you trying to say? bellowed my father.
Silence.
So I’m a thief now, is that it? You’re accusing your own
husband of stealing jewelry from you? What the hell kind of sick
irrational thing is that? You need help, you know that? You really
need professional help—
Only it wasn’t just the earrings that had vanished. After he
vanished himself, it turned out that some other things including
cash and some antique coins belonging to her father had vanished as
well; and my mother had changed the locks and warned Cinzia and
the doormen not to let him in if he showed up when she was at
work. And of course now everything was different, and there was
nothing to stop him from going in the apartment and going through
her belongings and doing with them what he liked; but as I stood
looking at him and trying to think what the hell to say, half a dozen
things were running through my mind and chief among them was
the painting. Every day, for weeks, I’d told myself that I would go
over and take care of it, figure it out somehow, but I’d kept putting
it off and putting it off and now here he was.
M y dad was still smiling at me fixedly. “Okay, buddy? Think
you might want to help us out?” M aybe he wasn’t drinking any
more, but all the old late afternoon wanting-a-drink edge was still
there, scratchy as sandpaper.
“I don’t have the key,” I said.
“That’s okay,” my dad returned swiftly. “We can call a
locksmith. Xandra, give me the phone.”
I thought fast. I didn’t want them to go in the apartment
without me. “Jose or Goldie might let us in,” I said. “If I go over
there with you.”
“Fine then,” said my dad, “let’s go.” From his tone, I
suspected he knew I was lying about the key (safely hidden, in
Andy’s room). I knew too he didn’t like the sound of involving the
doormen, as most of the guys who worked in the building didn’t
care that much for my father, having seen him the worse for drink a
few too many times. But I met his eye as blankly as I could until
he shrugged and turned away.
xviii.
“¡HOLA , JOSE !”
“¡Bomba!” cried Jose, doing a happy step backward when he
saw me on the sidewalk; he was the youngest and most buoyant of
the doormen, always trying to sneak away before his shift was
over to play soccer in the park. “Theo! ¿Qué lo que, manito?”
His uncomplicated smile threw me back hard to the past.
Everything was the same: green awning, sallow shade, same furry
brown puddle collecting in the sunken place in the sidewalk.
Standing before the art-deco doors—nickel-bright, rayed with
abstract sunbursts, doors that urgent news guys in fedoras might
push through in a 1930s movie—I remembered all the times I’d
stepped inside to find my mother sorting the mail, waiting for the
elevator. Fresh from work, heels and briefcase, with the flowers I’d
sent for her birthday. Well what do you know. My secret admirer
has struck again.
Jose, looking past me, had spotted my father, and Xandra,
hanging back slightly. “Hello, M r. Decker,” he said, in a more
formal tone, reaching around me to take my dad’s hand: politely,
but no love lost. “Is nice to see you.”
M y father, with his Personable Smile, started to answer but I
was too nervous and interrupted: “Jose—” I’d been racking my
brains for the Spanish on the way over, rehearsing the sentence in
my mind—“ mi papá quiere entrar en el apartamento, le
necesitamos abrir la puerta.” Then, quickly, I slipped in the
question I’d worked out earlier, on the way over: “¿Usted puede
subir con nosotros?”
Jose’s eyes went quickly to my father and Xandra. He was a
big, handsome guy from the Dominican Republic, something about
him reminiscent of the young M uhammad Ali—sweet-tempered,
always kidding around, but you didn’t want to mess with him.
Once, in a moment of confidence, he had pulled up his uniform
jacket and shown me a knife scar on his abdomen, which he said
he’d gotten in a street fight in M iami.
“Happy to do it,” he said in English, in an easy voice. He was
looking at them but I knew he was talking to me. “I’ll take you up.
Everything is okay?”
“Yep, we’re fine,” said my dad curtly. He was the very one
who’d insisted that I study Spanish as my foreign language instead
of German (“so at least one person in the family can communicate
with these fucking doormen”).
Xandra, who I was starting to think was a real dingbat,
laughed nervously and said in her stuttery quick voice: “Yeah,
we’re fine, but the flight really took it out of us. It’s a long way
from Vegas and we’re still a little—” and here she rolled her eyes
and waggled her fingers to indicate wooziness.
“Oh yeah?” said Jose. “Today? You flew into LaGuardia?”
Like all the doormen he was a genius at small talk, especially if it
was about traffic or weather, the best route to the airport at rush
hour. “I heard big delays out there today, some problem with the
baggage handlers, the union, right?”
All the way up in the elevator, Xandra kept up a steady but
agitated stream of chatter: about how dirty New York was
compared to Las Vegas (“Yeah, I admit it, everything’s cleaner out
west, I guess I’m spoiled”), about her bad turkey sandwich on the
airplane and the flight attendant who “forgot” (Xandra, with her
fingertips, inserting the quotations manually) to bring Xandra the
five dollars change from the wine she ordered.
“Oh, ma’am!” said Jose, stepping in the hallway, wagging his
head in the mock-serious way he had. “Airplane food, it’s the
worst. These days you’re lucky if they feed you at all. Tell you
one thing in New York, though. You going to find you some good
food. You got good Vietnamese, good Cuban, good Indian—”
“I don’t like all that spicy stuff.”
“Good whatever you want, then. We got it. Segundito,” he
said, holding up a finger as he felt around on the ring for the
passkey.
The lock tumbled with a solid clunk, instinctive, blood-deep
in its rightness. Though the place was stuffy from being shut up,
still I was leveled by the fierce smell of home: books and old rugs
and lemon floor cleaner, the dark myrrh-smelling candles she
bought at Barney’s.
The bag from the museum was propped on the floor by the
sofa—exactly where I’d left it, how many weeks before? Feeling
light-headed, I darted around and inside to grab it as Jose—slightly
blocking my irritated father’s path, without quite appearing to—
stood just outside the door listening to Xandra, arms folded. The
composed but slightly absent-minded look on his face reminded me
of the way he’d looked when he’d had to practically carry my dad
upstairs one freezing night, my dad so drunk he’d lost his overcoat.
—Happens in the best of families, he’d said with an abstract smile,
refusing the twenty-dollar bill that my father—incoherent, vomit
on his suit jacket, scratched-up and dirty like he’d been rolling on
the sidewalk—was trying hard to push into his face.
“Actually, I’m from the East Coast?” Xandra was saying.
“From Florida?” Again that nervous laugh—stuttery, sputtering.
“West Palm, to be specific.”
“Florida you say?” I heard Jose remark. “Is beautiful down
there.”
“Yeah, it’s great. At least in Vegas we’ve got the sunshine—I
don’t know if I could take the winters out here, I’d turn into a
Popsicle—”
The instant I picked the bag up, I realized it was too light—
almost empty. Where the hell was the painting? Though I was
nearly blind with panic, I didn’t stop but kept going, down the
hallway, on autopilot, back to my bedroom, mind whirring and
grinding as I walked—
Suddenly—through my disconnected memories of that night
—it came back to me. The bag had been wet. I hadn’t wanted to
leave the picture in a wet bag, to mildew or melt or who knew
what. Instead—how could I have forgotten?—I’d set it on my
mother’s bureau, the first thing she’d see when she came home.
Quickly, without stopping, I dropped the bag in the hallway
outside the closed door of my bedroom and turned into my
mother’s room, light-headed with fear, hoping that my father
wasn’t following but too afraid to look back and see.
From the living room, I heard Xandra say: “I bet you see a lot
of celebrities on the street here, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. LeBron, Dan Aykroyd, Tara Reid, Jay-Z,
M adonna…”
M y mother’s bedroom was dark and cool, and the faint, justdetectable smell of her perfume was almost more than I could bear.
There sat the painting, propped among silver-framed photographs
—her parents, her, me at many ages, horses and dogs galore: her
father’s mare Chalkboard, Bruno the Great Dane, her dachshund
Poppy who’d died when I was in kindergarten. Steeling myself
against her reading glasses on the bureau and her black tights stiff
where she’d draped them to dry and her handwriting on her desk
calendar and a million other heart-piercing sights, I picked it up and
tucked it under my arm and walked quickly into my own room
across the hall.
M y room—like the kitchen—faced the airshaft, and was dark
without the lights on. A dank bath towel lay crumpled where I’d
thrown it after my shower that last morning, atop a heap of dirty
clothes. I picked it up—wincing at the smell—with the idea of
throwing it over the painting while I found a better place to hide it,
maybe in the—
“What are you doing?”
M y father stood in the doorway, a darkish silhouette with
the light shining behind him.
“Nothing.”
He stooped and picked up the bag I’d dropped in the hall.
“What’s this out here?”
“M y book bag,” I said, after a pause—though the thing was
clearly a mom’s collapsible shopping tote, nothing I, or any kid,
would ever take to school.
He tossed it in the open door, crinkling his nose at the smell.
“Phew,” he said, waving his hand in front of his face, “it smells like
old hockey socks in here.” As he reached inside the door and
flipped the light switch, I managed with a complex but spasmodic
movement to throw the towel over the picture so (I hoped) he
couldn’t see it.
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
“A poster.”
“Well look, I hope you’re not planning to haul a lot of junk
out to Vegas. No need to pack your winter clothes—you won’t
need them, except maybe some ski stuff. You won’t believe the
skiing in Tahoe—not like these icy little mountains upstate.”
I felt that I needed to make a reply, especially since it was the
longest and friendliest-seeming thing he’d said since he’d shown
up, but somehow I couldn’t quite pull my thoughts together.
Abruptly, my father said: “Your mother wasn’t so easy to
live with either, you know.” He picked up something that looked
like an old math test from my desk, examined it, and then threw it
back down. “She played her cards way too close to the vest. You
know how she used to do. Clamming up. Freezing me out. Always
had to take the high road. It was a power thing, you know—really
controlling. Quite honestly, and I really hate to say this, it got to
the point where it was hard for me to even be in the same room
with her. I mean, I’m not saying she was a bad person. It’s just one
minute everything’s fine, and the next, bam, what did I do, the old
silent treatment…”
I said nothing—standing there awkwardly with the mildewy
towel draped over the painting and the light shining into my eyes,
wishing that I were anywhere else (Tibet, Lake Tahoe, the moon)
and not trusting myself to reply. What he’d said about my mother
was perfectly true: often she was uncommunicative, and when she
was upset it was difficult to tell what she was thinking, but I
wasn’t interested in a discussion of my mother’s faults and at any
rate they seemed like fairly minor faults compared to my father’s.
M y father was saying: “… because I’ve got nothing to prove,
see? Every game has two sides. It’s not an issue of who’s right and
who’s wrong. And sure, I’ll admit, I’m to blame for some of it too,
although I’ll say this, and I’m sure you know it too, she sure did
have a way of re-writing history in her own favor.” It was strange
to be in the room with him again, especially as he was so different:
he gave off a different smell almost, and there was a different
heaviness and weight to him, a sleekness, as though he were
padded all over with a smooth half-inch of fat. “I guess a lot of
marriages run into problems like ours—she’d just gotten so bitter,
you know? And withholding? Honestly, I just didn’t feel like I
could live with her any longer, though God knows she didn’t
deserve this.…”
She sure didn’t, I thought.
“Because you know what this was really about, don’t you?”
said my dad, leaning on the door frame with one elbow and looking
at me shrewdly. “M e leaving? I had to withdraw some money from
our bank account to pay taxes and she flipped her lid, like I’d
stolen it.” He was watching me very carefully, looking for my
response. “Our joint bank account. I mean basically, when the
chips were down, she didn’t trust me. Her own husband.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was the first I’d heard about the
taxes, although it was certainly no secret that my mother didn’t
trust my dad where money was concerned.
“God, but she could hold on to a grievance,” he said, with a
half-humorous wince, wiping his hand down the front of his face.
“Tit for tat. Always looking to even the score. Because, I mean it
—she never forgot anything. If she had to wait twenty years, she
was going to get you back. And sure, I’m the one who always
looks like the bad guy and maybe I am the bad guy…”
The painting, though small, was getting heavy, and my face
felt frozen with the effort of concealing my discomfort. In order to
block his voice out I started counting to myself in Spanish. Uno
dos tres, cuatro cinco seis…
By the time I reached twenty-nine, Xandra had appeared.
“Larry,” she said, “you and your wife had a really nice place
here.” The way she said it made me feel bad for her without liking
her any better.
M y dad put his arm around her waist and drew her to him
with a sort of kneading motion that made me sick. “Well,” he said
modestly, “it’s really more hers than mine.”
You can say that again, I thought.
“Come in here,” said my dad, catching her by the hand and
leading her away towards my mother’s bedroom, all thought of me
forgotten. “I want you to see something.” I turned and watched
them go, queasy at the prospect of Xandra and my father pawing
through my mother’s things but so glad to see them go I didn’t
care.
With one eye on the empty doorway, I walked around to the
far side of my bed and placed the painting out of sight. An old New
York Post lay on the floor—the same newspaper that she’d thrown
in to me, in a flap, on our last Saturday together. Here, kiddo,
she’d said, sticking her head in at the door, pick a movie. Though
there were several movies we both would have liked, I’d chosen a
matinee at the Boris Karloff film festival: The Body Snatcher. She
had accepted my choice without a word of complaint; we’d gone
down to Film Forum, watched the movie, and after it was over
walked to M oondance Diner for a hamburger—a perfectly pleasant
Saturday afternoon, apart from the fact that it was her last on
Earth, and now I felt rotten whenever I thought about it, since
(thanks to me) the last movie she’d ever seen was a corny old
horror flick about corpses and grave-robbing. (If I’d picked the
movie I knew she wanted to see—the well-reviewed one about
Parisian children during World War I—might she have lived,
somehow? M y thoughts often ran along such dark, superstitious
faultlines.)
Though the newspaper felt sacrosanct, an historical
document, I turned it to the middle and took it apart. Grimly, I
wrapped the painting, sheet by sheet, and taped it up with the
same tape I’d used a few months before to wrap my mother’s
Christmas present. Perfect! she’d said, in a storm of colored paper,
leaning in her bathrobe to kiss me: a watercolor set she would never
be carrying to the park, on Saturday mornings in summer she
would never see.
M y bed—a brass camp bed from the flea market, soldierly
and reassuring—had always seemed like the safest place in the
world to hide something. But now, looking around (beat-up desk,
Japanese Godzilla poster, the penguin mug from the zoo that I
used as a pencil cup), I felt the impermanence of it all strike me
hard; and it made me dizzy to think of all our things flying out of
the apartment, furniture and silver and all my mother’s clothes:
sample-sale dresses with the tags still on them, all those colored
ballet slippers and tailored shirts with her initials on the cuffs.
Chairs and Chinese lamps, old jazz records on vinyl that she’d
bought down in the Village, jars of marmalade and olives and sharp
German mustard in the refrigerator. In the bathroom, a
bewilderment of perfumed oils and moisturizers, colored bubble
bath, half-empty bottles of overpriced shampoo crowded on the
side of the tub (Kiehl’s, Klorane, Kérastase, my mother always
had five or six kinds going). How could the apartment have seemed
so permanent and solid-looking when it was only a stage set,
waiting to be struck and carried away by movers in uniform?
When I walked into the living room, I was confronted by a
sweater of my mother’s lying across the chair where she’d left it, a
sky-blue ghost of her. Shells we’d picked up on the beach at
Wellfleet. Hyacinths, which she’d bought at the Korean market a
few days before she died, with the stems draped dead-black and
rotten over the side of the pot. In the wastebasket: catalogues from
Dover Books, Belgian Shoes; a wrapper from a pack of Necco
Wafers, which had been her favorite candy. I picked it up and
sniffed it. The sweater—I knew—would smell of her too if I
picked it up and put it to my face, yet even the sight of it was
unendurable.
I went back in my bedroom and stood on my desk chair and
got down my suitcase—which was soft-sided and not too big—and
packed it full of clean underwear, clean school clothes, and folded
shirts from the laundry. Then I put in the painting, with another
layer of clothes on top.
I zipped the suitcase—no lock, but it was only canvas—and
stood very still. Then I went out into the hall. I could hear drawers
opening and shutting in my mother’s bedroom. A giggle.
“Dad,” I said in a loud voice, “I’m going downstairs and talk
to Jose.”
Their voices went dead silent.
“You bet,” said my father, through the closed door, in an
unnaturally cordial tone.
I went back and got the suitcase and walked out of the
apartment with it, leaving the front door cracked so I could get in
again. Then I rode the elevator down, staring into the mirror that
faced me, trying hard not to think about Xandra in my mother’s
bedroom pawing through her clothes. Had he been seeing her before
he left home? Didn’t he feel even a bit creepy about permitting her
to root around in my mother’s things?
I was walking to the front door where Jose was on duty when
a voice called: “Wait a sec!”
Turning, I saw Goldie, hurrying from the package room.
“Theo, my God, I’m sorry,” he said. We stood looking at
each other for an uncertain moment and then—in an impulsive,
what-the-hell movement, so awkward it was almost funny, he
reached around and hugged me.
“So sorry,” he repeated, shaking his head. “M y God, what a
thing.” Goldie, since his divorce, often worked nights and holidays,
standing at the doors with his gloves off and an unlit cigarette in his
hand, looking out at the street. M y mother had sometimes sent me
down with coffee and doughnuts for him when he was in the lobby
by himself, no company but the lighted tree and the electric
menorah, sorting out the newspapers by himself at 5:00 a.m. on
Christmas Day, and the expression on his face reminded me of
those dead holiday mornings, empty-looking stare, his face ashy
and uncertain, in the unguarded moment before he saw me and put
on his best hi kid smile.
“I been thinking about you and your mother so much,” he
said, wiping his brow. “Ay bendito. I can’t—I don’t even know
what you must be going through.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking away, “it’s been hard”—which was
for whatever reason the phrase I constantly fell back upon when
people told me how sorry they were. I’d had to say it so much
that it was starting to come out sounding glib and a bit phony.
“I’m glad you stopped by,” said Goldie. “That morning—I
was on duty, you remember? Right out front there?”
“Sure I do,” I said, wondering at his urgency, as if he thought
I might not remember.
“Oh, my God.” He passed his hand over his forehead, a little
wild-looking, as if he himself had suffered only a narrow escape. “I
think about it every single day. I still see her face, you know,
getting into that cab? Waving goodbye, so happy.”
Confidentially, he leaned forward. “When I heard she died?”
he said, as if telling me a big secret. “I called up my ex-wife, that’s
how upset I was.” He pulled back and looked at me with raised
eyebrows, as if he didn’t expect me to believe him. Goldie’s battles
with his ex-wife were epic.
“I mean, we hardly talk,” he said, “but who I’m gonna tell? I
gotta tell somebody, you know? So I called her up and told her:
‘Rosa, you can’t believe it. We lost such a beautiful lady from the
building.’ ”
Jose—spotting me—had strolled back from the front door to
join our conversation, in his distinctive springy walk. “M rs.
Decker,” he said—shaking his head fondly, as if there had never
been anyone like her. “Always say hello, always such a nice smile.
Considerate, you know.”
“Not like some of these people in the building,” said Goldie,
glancing over his shoulder. “You know—” he leaned closer, and
mouthed the word—“snobby. The kind of person stands there
empty-handed with no packages or nothing and waits for you to
open the door, is what I’m saying.”
“She wasn’t like that,” said Jose, still shaking his head—big
head movements, like a somber child saying no. “M rs. Decker was
Class A.”
“Say, will you wait here a second?” Goldie said, holding up
his hand. “I’ll be right back. Don’t leave. Don’t let him leave,” he
said to Jose.
“You want me to get you a cab, manito?” said Jose, eyeing
the suitcase.
“No,” I said, glancing back at the elevator. “Listen, Jose, will
you keep this for me until I come back and get it?”
“Sure,” he said, picking it up and hefting it. “Happy to.”
“I’ll come back for it myself, okay? Don’t let anybody else
have it.”
“Sure, I get it,” said Jose pleasantly. I followed him into the
package room, where he tagged the bag and hoisted it onto a top
shelf.
“You see?” he said. “Out of the way, baby. We don’t keep
nothing up high there except some packages people got to sign for
and our own personal stuff. Nobody’s going to release that bag to
you without your personal signature, you understand? Not to your
uncle, your cousin, nobody. And I’ll tell Carlos and Goldie and the
other guys, don’t give that bag to nobody but you. Okay?”
I was nodding, about to thank him, when Jose cleared his
throat. “Listen,” he said, in a lowered voice. “I don’t want to
worry you or nothing but there’ve been some guys coming around
lately asking after your dad.”
“Guys?” I said, after a disjointed silence. “Guys,” coming
from Jose, meant only one thing: men that my dad owed money to.
“Don’t worry. We told them nothing. I mean, your dad’s
been gone for what, like a year? Carlos told them none of you lived
here no more and they aint been back. But—” he glanced at the
elevator—“maybe your dad there, he don’t want to be spending a
lot of time in the building just now, you know what I’m saying?”
I was thanking him when Goldie returned with what looked
to me like a gigantic wad of cash. “This is for you,” he said, a bit
melodramatically.
For a minute I thought I’d heard him wrong. Jose coughed and
looked away. On the package room’s tiny black and white
television (its screen no bigger than a CD case) a glamorous woman
in long jangling earrings brandished her fists and shouted abusive
Spanish at a cowering priest.
“What’s going on?” I said to Goldie, who was still holding the
money out.
“Your mother, she didn’t tell you?”
I was mystified. “Tell me what?”
It seemed that—one day shortly before Christmas—Goldie
had ordered a computer and had it delivered to the building. The
computer was for Goldie’s son, who needed it for school, but
(Goldie was hazy about this part) Goldie hadn’t actually paid for
it, or had only paid for part of it, or his ex-wife had been supposed
to pay for it instead of him. At any rate, the delivery people were
hauling the computer out the door again and loading it back into
their van when my mother happened to come downstairs and see
what was going on.
“And she paid herself, that beautiful lady,” Goldie said. “She
saw what was happening, and she opened her bag and she took out
her checkbook. She said to me, ‘Goldie, I know your son needs this
computer for his schoolwork. Please let me do this thing for you,
my friend, and you pay me when you can.’ ”
“You see?” said Jose, unexpectedly fierce, glancing back from
the television, where the woman was standing in a graveyard now,
arguing with a tycoon-looking guy in sunglasses. “That’s your
mother that did that.” He nodded at the money, almost angrily. “Sí,
es verdad, she was Class A. She cared about people you know?
M ost women? They spend that money on gold earrings or perfume
or some things for themselves like that.”
I felt strange taking the money, for all sorts of reasons. Even
in my shock, something about the story felt dodgy (what kind of
store would deliver a computer that wasn’t paid for?). Later, I
wondered: did I look that destitute, that the doormen had taken up
a collection for me? I still don’t know where the money came from;
and I wish I had asked more questions, but I was so stunned by
everything that had happened that day (and more than anything by
the sudden appearance of my dad, and Xandra) that if Goldie had
confronted me and tried to give me a piece of old chewing gum he’d
scraped off the floor I would have held out my hand and taken it
just as obediently.
“None of my business, you know,” Jose said, looking over
my head as he said it, “but if I was you, I wouldn’t tell anybody
about that money. You know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, put it in your pocket,” said Goldie. “Don’t walk
around waving it out in your hand like that. Plenty of people on
the street would kill you for that much cash.”
“Plenty of people in this building!” said Jose, overcome with
sudden laughter.
“Ha!” said Goldie, cracking up himself, and then said
something in Spanish I didn’t understand.
“Cuidado,” said Jose—wagging his head in the way he did,
mock-serious, but unable to keep from smiling. “That’s why they
don’t let Goldie and me work on the same floor,” he said to me.
“They got to keep us separated. We have too good a time.”
xix.
ONCE DAD AND XANDRA showed up, things started moving fast.
At dinner that night (at a touristy restaurant I was surprised my
dad had chosen), he took a call at the table from somebody at my
mother’s insurance company—which, even all these years later, I
wish I’d been able to hear better. But the restaurant was loud and
Xandra (between gulps of white wine—maybe he’d quit drinking,
but she sure hadn’t) was alternately complaining because she
couldn’t smoke and telling me in a sort of unfocused way how
she’d learned to practice witchcraft out of a library book when she
was in high school, somewhere in Fort Lauderdale. (“Actually,
Wicca it’s called. It’s an earth religion.”) With anyone else, I would
have asked exactly what it involved, being a witch (spells and
sacrifices? deal with the devil?) but before I had a chance she’d
moved on, how she’d had the opportunity to go to college and was
sorry she hadn’t done it (“I’ll tell you what I was interested in.
English history and like that. Henry the Eighth, M ary Queen of
Scots”). But she’d ended up not going to college at all because
she’d been too obsessed with this guy. “Obsessed,” she hissed,
fixing me with her sharp, no-color eyes.
Why being obsessed with the guy kept Xandra from going to
college, I never found out, because my dad got off the phone. He
ordered (and it gave me a funny feeling) a bottle of champagne.
“I can’t drink this whole damn thing,” said Xandra, who was
into her second glass of wine. “It’ll give me a headache.”
“Well, if I can’t have champagne, you might as well have
some,” my father said, leaning back in his chair.
Xandra nodded at me. “Let him have some,” she said.
“Waiter, bring another glass.”
“Sorry,” said the waiter, a hard-edged Italian guy who looked
like he was used to dealing with out-of-control tourists. “No
alcohol if he’s under eighteen.”
Xandra started scrabbling in her purse. She was wearing a
brown halter dress, and she had blusher, or bronzer, or some
brownish powder brushed under her cheekbones in such a strong
line that I had an urge to smudge it in with my fingertip.
“Let’s go outside and have a smoke,” she said to my father.
There was a long moment where they exchanged a smirky look that
made me cringe. Then Xandra pushed her chair back and—
dropping her napkin in the chair—looked around for the waiter.
“Oh, good, he’s gone,” she said, reaching for my (mostly) empty
water glass and slopping some champagne into it.
The food had arrived and I’d poured myself another large but
surreptitious glass of champagne before they returned. “Yum!”
said Xandra, looking glazed and a bit shiny, tugging her short skirt
down, edging around and slithering back into her seat without
bothering to pull her chair out all the way. She flapped her napkin
into her lap and pulled her massive, bright-red plate of manicotti
towards her. “Looks awesome!”
“So does mine,” said my dad, who was picky about his
Italian food, and whom I’d often known to complain about overly
tomatoey, marinara-drenched pasta dishes exactly like the plate in
front of him.
As they tucked into their food (which was probably fairly
cold, judging by how long they’d been gone), they resumed their
conversation in mid-stream. “Well, anyway, didn’t work out,” he
said, leaning back in his chair and toying rakishly with a cigarette
he was unable to light. “That’s how it goes.”
“I bet you were great.”
He shrugged. “Even when you’re young,” he said, “it’s a
tough game. It’s not just talent. It has a lot to do with looks and
luck.”
“But still,” said Xandra, blotting the corner of her lip with a
napkin-wrapped fingertip. “An actor. I can so totally see it.” M y
dad’s thwarted acting career was one of his favorite subjects and—
though she seemed interested enough—something told me that this
wasn’t the very first time she had heard about it either.
“Well, do I wish I’d kept going with it?” M y dad
contemplated his non-alcoholic beer (or was it three percent? I
couldn’t see from where I was sitting). “I have to say yes. It’s one
of those lifelong regrets. I would have loved to do something with
my gift but I didn’t have the luxury. Life has a funny way of
intervening.”
They were deep in their own world; for all the attention they
were paying to me I might as well have been in Idaho but that was
fine with me; I knew this story. M y dad, who’d been a drama star
in college, had for a brief while earned his living as an actor: voiceovers in commercials, a few minor parts (a murdered playboy, the
spoiled son of a mob boss) in television and movies. Then—after
he’d married my mother—it had all fizzled out. He had a long list
of reasons why he hadn’t broken through, though as I’d often
heard him say: if my mother had been a little more successful as a
model or worked a little harder at it, there would have been enough
money for him to concentrate on acting without worrying about a
day job.
M y dad pushed his plate aside. I noticed that he hadn’t eaten
very much—often, with my dad, a sign that he was drinking, or
about to start.
“At some point, I just had to cut my losses and get out,” he
said, crumpling his napkin and throwing it on the table. I wondered
if he had told Xandra about M ickey Rourke, whom he viewed
apart from me and my mother as the prime villain in derailing his
career.
Xandra took a big drink of her wine. “Do you ever think
about going back to it?”
“I think about it, sure. But—” he shook his head as if refusing
some outrageous request—“no. Essentially the answer is no.”
The champagne tickled the roof of my mouth—distant, dusty
sparkle, bottled in a happier year when my mother was still alive.
“I mean, the second he saw me, I knew he didn’t like me,” my
dad was saying to her quietly. So he had told her about M ickey
Rourke.
She tossed her head, drained the rest of her wine. “Guys like
that can’t stand competition.”
“It was all M ickey this, M ickey that, M ickey wants to meet
you, but the minute I walked in there I knew it was over.”
“Obviously the guy’s a freak.”
“Not then, he wasn’t. Because, tell you the truth, there really
was a resemblance back in the day—not just physically, but we
had similar acting styles. Or, let’s say, I was classically trained, I
had a range, but I could do the same kind of stillness as M ickey,
you know, that whispery quiet thing—”
“Oooh, you just gave me chills. Whispery. Like the way you
said that.”
“Yeah, but M ickey was the star. There wasn’t room enough
for two.”
As I watched them sharing a piece of cheesecake like
lovebirds in a commercial, I sank into a ruddy, unfamiliar free-flow
of mind, the dining room lights too bright and my face flaming hot
from the champagne, thinking in a disordered but heated way about
my mother after her parents died and she had to go live with her
aunt Bess, in a house by the train tracks with brown wallpaper and
plastic covers on the furniture. Aunt Bess—who fried everything
in Crisco, and had cut up one of my mother’s dresses with scissors
because the psychedelic pattern disturbed her—was a chunky,
embittered, Irish-American spinster who had left the Catholic
Church for some tiny, insane sect that believed it was wrong to do
things like drink tea or take aspirin. Her eyes—in the one
photograph I’d seen—were the same startling silver-blue as my
mother’s, only pink-rimmed and crazed, in a potato-plain face. M y
mother had spoken of those eighteen months with Aunt Bess as
the saddest of her life—the horses sold, the dogs given away, long
weeping goodbyes by the side of the road, arms around the necks
of Clover and Chalkboard and Paintbox and Bruno. Back in the
house, Aunt Bess had told my mother she was spoiled, and that
people who didn’t fear the Lord always got what they deserved.
“And the producer, you see—I mean, they all knew how
M ickey was, everyone did, he was already starting to get a
reputation for being difficult—”
“She didn’t deserve it,” I said aloud, interrupting their
conversation.
Dad and Xandra stopped talking and looked at me as if I’d
turned into a Gila monster.
“I mean, why would anybody say that?” It wasn’t right that
I was speaking aloud, and yet the words were tumbling unbidden
out of my mouth as if someone had pushed a button. “She was so
great and why was everybody so horrible to her? She never
deserved any of the stuff that happened to her.”
M y dad and Xandra exchanged a glance. Then he signalled for
the check.
xx.
BY THE TIME WE left the restaurant, my face was on fire and there
was a bright roar in my ears, and when I got back to the Barbours’
apartment, it wasn’t even terribly late but somehow I tripped over
the umbrella stand and made a lot of noise coming in and when
M rs. Barbour and M r. Barbour saw me, I realized (from their
faces, more than the way I felt) that I was drunk.
M r. Barbour flicked off the television with the remote
control. “Where have you been?” he said, in a firm but goodnatured voice.
I reached for the back of the sofa. “Out with Dad and—” But
her name had slipped my mind, everything but the X.
M rs. Barbour raised her eyebrows at her husband as if to say:
what did I tell you?
“Well, take it on in to bed, pal,” said M r. Barbour cheerfully,
in a voice that managed, in spite of everything, to make me feel a
little bit better about life in general. “But try not to wake Andy
up.”
“You don’t feel sick, do you?” M rs. Barbour said.
“No,” I said, though I did; and for a large part of the night I
lay awake in the upper bunk, miserable and tossing as the room
spun around me, and a couple of times starting up in heartthudding surprise because it seemed that Xandra had walked in the
room and was talking to me: the words indistinct, but the rough,
stuttery cadence of her voice unmistakable.
xxi.
“SO ,” SAID M R. BARBOUR at breakfast the next morning, clapping a
hand on my shoulder as he pulled out the chair beside me, “festive
dinner with old Dad, eh?”
“Yes, sir.” I had a splitting headache, and the smell of their
French toast made my stomach twist. Etta had unobtrusively
brought me a cup of coffee from the kitchen with a couple of
aspirins on the saucer.
“Out in Las Vegas, do you say?”
“That’s right.”
“And how does he bring in the bacon?”
“Sorry?”
“How does he keep himself busy out there?”
“Chance,” said M rs. Barbour, in a neutral voice.
“Well, I mean… that is to say,” M r. Barbour said, realizing
that the question had perhaps been indelicately phrased, “what line
of work is he in?”
“Um—” I said—and then stopped. What was my dad doing?
I hadn’t a clue.
M rs. Barbour—who seemed troubled by the turn the
conversation had taken—appeared about to say something; but
Platt—next to me—spoke up angrily instead. “So who do I have to
blow to get a cup of coffee around this place?” he said to his
mother, pushing back in his chair with one hand on the table.
There was a dreadful silence.
“He has it,” said Platt, nodding at me. “He comes home
drunk, and he gets coffee?”
After another dreadful silence, M r. Barbour said—in a voice
icy enough to put even M rs. Barbour to shame—“That’s quite
enough, Pard.”
M rs. Barbour brought her pale eyebrows together. “Chance
—”
“No, you won’t take up for him this time. Go to your room,”
he said to Platt. “Now.”
We all sat staring into our plates, listening to the angry thump
of Platt’s footsteps, the deafening slam of his door, and then—a
few seconds later—the loud music starting up again. No one said
much for the rest of the meal.
xxii.
M Y DAD—WHO LIKED TO do everything in a hurry, always itching
to “get the show on the road” as he liked to say—announced that
he planned to get everything wrapped up in New York and the
three of us in Las Vegas within a week. And he was true to his
word. At eight o’clock that M onday morning, movers showed up
at Sutton Place and began to dismantle the apartment and pack it in
boxes. A used-book dealer came to look at my mother’s art books,
and somebody else came in to look at her furniture—and, almost
before I knew it, my home began to vanish before my eyes with
sickening speed. Watching the curtains disappear and the pictures
taken down and the carpets rolled up and carried away, I was
reminded of an animated film I’d once seen where a cartoon
character with an eraser rubbed out his desk and his lamp and his
chair and his window with a scenic view and the whole of his
comfortably appointed office until—at last—the eraser hung
suspended in a disturbing sea of white.
Tormented by what was happening, yet unable to stop it, I
hovered around and watched the apartment vanishing piece by
piece, like a bee watching its hive being destroyed. On the wall
over my mother’s desk (among numerous vacation snaps and old
school pictures) hung a black and white photo from her modelling
days taken in Central Park. It was a very sharp print, and the
tiniest details stood out with almost painful clarity: her freckles,
the rough texture of her coat, the chickenpox scar above her left
eyebrow. Cheerfully, she looked out into the disarray and
confusion of the living room, at my dad throwing out her papers
and art supplies and boxing up her books for Goodwill, a scene she
probably never dreamed of, or at least I hope she didn’t.
xxiii.
M Y LAST DAYS WITH the Barbours flew by so fast that I scarcely
remember them, apart from a last-minute flurry of laundry and dry
cleaning, and several hectic trips to the wine shop on Lex for
cardboard boxes. In black marker, I wrote the address of my exoticsounding new home:
Theodore Decker c/o Xandra Terrell
6219 Desert End Road
Las Vegas, NV
Glumly, Andy and I stood and contemplated the labeled
boxes in his bedroom. “It’s like you’re moving to a different
planet,” he said.
“M ore or less.”
“No I’m serious. That address. It’s like from some mining
colony on Jupiter. I wonder what your school will be like.”
“God knows.”
“I mean—it might be one of those places you read about.
With gangs. M etal detectors.” Andy had been so mistreated at our
(supposedly) enlightened and progressive school that public
school, in his view, was on a par with the prison system. “What
will you do?”
“Shave my head, I guess. Get a tattoo.” I liked that he didn’t
try to be upbeat or cheerful about the move, unlike M rs. Swanson
or Dave (who was clearly relieved that he wasn’t going to have to
negotiate any more with my grandparents). Nobody else at Park
Avenue said much about my departure, though I knew from the
strained expression M rs. Barbour got when the subject of my
father and his “friend” came up that I wasn’t totally imagining
things. And besides, it wasn’t that the future with Dad and Xandra
seemed bad or frightening so much as incomprehensible, a blot of
black ink on the horizon.
xxiv.
“WELL, A CHANGE OF scenery may be good for you,” said Hobie
when I went down to see him before I left. “Even if the scene isn’t
what you’d choose.” We were having dinner in the dining room for
a change, sitting together at the far end of the table, long enough to
seat twelve, silver ewers and ornaments stretching off into opulent
darkness. Yet somehow it still felt like the last night in our old
apartment on Seventh Avenue, my mother and father and I sitting
atop cardboard boxes to eat our Chinese take-out dinner.
I said nothing. I was miserable; and my determination to
suffer in secret had made me uncommunicative. All during the
anxiety of the previous week, as the apartment was being stripped
and my mother’s things were folded and boxed and carted off to be
sold, I’d yearned for the darkness and repose of Hobie’s house, its
crowded rooms and old-wood smell, tea leaves and tobacco smoke,
bowls of oranges on the sideboard and candlesticks scalloped with
puddled beeswax.
“I mean, your mother—” He paused delicately. “It’ll be a
fresh start.”
I studied my plate. He’d made lamb curry, with a lemoncolored sauce that tasted more French than Indian.
“You’re not afraid, are you?”
I glanced up. “Afraid of what?”
“Of going to live with him.”
I thought about it, gazing off into the shadows behind his
head. “No,” I said, “not really.” For whatever reason, since his
return my dad seemed looser, more relaxed. I couldn’t attribute it
to the fact that he’d stopped drinking, since normally when my
dad was on the wagon he grew silent and visibly swollen with
misery, so prone to snap that I took good care to stay an arm’s
reach away.
“Have you told anyone else what you told me?”
“About—?”
In embarrassment, I put my head down and took a bite of the
curry. It was actually pretty good once you got used to the fact it
wasn’t curry.
“I don’t think he’s drinking any more,” I said, in the silence
that followed. “If that’s what you mean? He seems better. So…”
Awkwardly, I trailed away. “Yeah.”
“How do you like his girlfriend?”
I had to think about that one too. “I don’t know,” I admitted.
Hobie was amiably silent, reaching for his wine glass without
taking his eyes off me.
“Like, I don’t really know her? She’s okay, I guess. I can’t
understand what he likes about her.”
“Why not?”
“Well—” I didn’t know where to begin. M y dad could be
charming to ‘the ladies’ as he called them, opening doors for them,
lightly touching their wrists to make a point; I’d seen women fall
apart over him, a spectacle I watched coldly, wondering how
anyone could be taken in by such a transparent act. It was like
watching small children being fooled by a cheesy magic show. “I
don’t know. I guess I thought she’d be better looking or
something.”
“Pretty doesn’t matter if she’s nice,” said Hobie.
“Yeah, but she’s not all that nice.”
“Oh.” Then: “Do they seem happy together?”
“I don’t know. Well—yes,” I admitted. “Like, he doesn’t
seem constantly so mad all the time?” Then, feeling the weight of
Hobie’s un-asked question pressing in on me: “Also, he came to
get me. I mean, he didn’t have to. They could have stayed gone if
they didn’t want me.”
Nothing more was said on the subject, and we finished the
dinner talking of other things. But as I was leaving, as we were
walking down the photograph-lined hallway—past Pippa’s room,
with a night light burning, and Cosmo sleeping on the foot of her
bed—he said, as he was opening the front door for me: “Theo.”
“Yes?”
“You have my address, and my telephone.”
“Sure.”
“Well then.” He seemed almost as uncomfortable as I was. “I
hope you have a good trip. Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” I said. We looked at each other.
“Well.”
“Well. Good night, then.”
He pushed open the door, and I walked out of the house—for
the last time, as I thought. But though I had no idea I’d ever be
seeing him again, about this I was wrong.
II.
When we are strongest—who draws back?
Most merry—who falls down laughing?
When we are very bad,—what can they do to us?
—ARTHUR RIMBAUD
Chapter 5.
Badr al-Dine
i.
T HOUGH I HAD DECIDED to leave the suitcase in the package room
of my old building, where I felt sure Jose and Goldie would look
after it, I grew more and more nervous as the date approached
until, at the last minute, I determined to go back for what now
seems a fairly dumb reason: in my haste to get the painting out of
the apartment, I’d thrown a lot of random things in the bag with it,
including most of my summer clothes. So the day before my dad
was supposed to pick me up at the Barbours’, I hurried back over
to Fifty-Seventh Street with the idea of unzipping the suitcase and
taking a couple of the better shirts off the top.
Jose wasn’t there, but a new, thick-shouldered guy (M arco V,
according to his nametag) stepped in front of me and cut me off
with a blocky, obstinate stance less like a doorman’s than a
security guard’s. “Sorry, can I help you?” he said.
I explained about the suitcase. But after perusing the log—
running a heavy forefinger down the column of dates—he didn’t
seem inclined to go in and get it off the shelf for me. “An’ you left
this here why?” he said doubtfully, scratching his nose.
“Jose said I could.”
“You got a receipt?”
“No,” I said, after a confused pause.
“Well, I can’t help you. We got no record. Besides, we don’t
store packages for non-tenants.”
I’d lived in the building long enough to know that this wasn’t
true, but I wasn’t about to argue the point. “Look,” I said, “I used
to live here. I know Goldie and Carlos and everybody. I mean—
come on,” I said, after a frigid, ill-defined pause, during which I felt
his attention drifting. “If you take me back there, I can show you
which one.”
“Sorry. Nobody but staff and tenants allowed in back.”
“It’s canvas with ribbon on the handle. M y name’s on it, see?
Decker?” I was pointing out the label still on our old mailbox for
proof when Goldie strolled in from his break.
“Hey! look who’s back! This one’s my kid,” he said to
M arco V. “I’ve known him since he was this high. What’s up,
Theo my friend?”
“Nothing. I mean—well, I’m leaving town.”
“Oh, yeah? Out to Vegas already?” said Goldie. At his voice,
his hand on my shoulder, everything had become easy and
comfortable. “Some crazy place to live out there, am I right?”
“I guess so,” I said doubtfully. People kept telling me how
crazy things were going to be for me in Vegas although I didn’t
understand why, as I was unlikely to be spending much time in
casinos or clubs.
“You guess?” Goldie rolled his eyes up and shook his head,
with a drollery that my mother in moments of mischief had been
apt to imitate. “Oh my God, I’m telling you. That city? The
unions they got… I mean, restaurant work, hotel work… very
good money, anywhere you look. And the weather? Sun—every
day of the year. You’re going to love it out there, my friend. When
did you say you’re leaving?”
“Um, today. I mean tomorrow. That’s why I wanted to—”
“Oh, you came for your bag? Hey, sure thing.” Goldie said
something sharp-sounding in Spanish to M arco V, who shrugged
blandly and headed back into the package room.
“He’s all right, M arco,” said Goldie to me in an undertone.
“But, he don’t know anything about your bag here because me and
Jose didn’t enter it down in the book, you know what I’m saying?”
I did know what he was saying. All packages had to be logged
in and out of the building. By not tagging the suitcase, or entering it
into the official record, they had been protecting me from the
possibility that somebody else might show up and try to claim it.
“Hey,” I said awkwardly, “thanks for looking out for me…”
“No problemo,” said Goldie. “Hey, thanks, man,” he said
loudly to M arco as he took the bag. “Like I said,” he continued in a
low voice; I had to walk close beside him in order to hear
—“M arco’s a good guy, but we had a lot of tenants complaining
because the building was understaffed during the, you know.” He
threw me a significant glance. “I mean, like Carlos couldn’t get in to
work for his shift that day, I guess it wasn’t his fault, but they
fired him.”
“Carlos?” Carlos was the oldest and most reserved of the
doormen, like an aging M exican matinee idol with his pencil
moustache and greying temples, his black shoes polished to a high
gloss and his white gloves whiter than everyone else’s. “They fired
Carlos?”
“I know—unbelievable. Thirty-four years and—” Goldie
jerked a thumb over his shoulder—“pfft. And now—
management’s all like security-conscious, new staff, new rules, sign
everybody in and out and like that—
“Anyway,” he said, as he backed into the front door, pushing
it open. “Let me get you a cab, my friend. You’re going straight to
the airport?”
“No—” I said, putting out a hand to stop him—I’d been so
preoccupied, I hadn’t really noticed what he was doing—but he
brushed me aside with a naah motion.
“No, no,” he said—hauling the bag to the curb—“it’s all right,
my friend, I got it,” and I realized, in consternation, that he thought
I was trying to stop him taking the bag outside because I didn’t
have money to tip.
“Hey, wait up,” I said—but at the same instant, Goldie
whistled and charged into the street with his hand up. “Here!
Taxi!” he shouted.
I stopped in the doorway, dismayed, as the cab swooped in
from the curb. “Bingo!” said Goldie, opening the back door.
“How’s that for timing?” Before I could quite think how to stop
him without looking like a jerk, I was being ushered into the back
seat as the suitcase was hoisted into the trunk, and Goldie was
slapping the roof, the friendly way he did.
“Have a good trip, amigo,” he said—looking at me, then up at
the sky. “Enjoy the sunshine out there for me. You know how I
am about the sunshine—I’m a tropical bird, you know? I can’t
wait to go home to Puerto Rico and talk to the bees. Hmmn…” he
sang, closing his eyes and putting his head to the side. “M y sister
has a hive of tame bees and I sing them to sleep. Do they got bees
in Vegas?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling quietly in my pockets to see if
I could tell how much money I had.
“Well if you see any bees, tell ’em Goldie says hi. Tell ’em
I’m coming.”
“¡Hey! ¡Espera!” It was Jose, hand up—still dressed in his
soccer-playing clothes, coming to work straight from his game in
the park—swaying towards me with his head-bobbing, athletic
walk.
“Hey, manito, you taking off?” he said, leaning down and
sticking his head in the window of the cab. “You gotta send us a
picture for downstairs!” Down in the basement, where the
doormen changed into their uniforms, there was a wall papered
with postcards and Polaroids from M iami and Cancun, Puerto Rico
and Portugal, which tenants and doormen had sent home to East
Fifty-Seventh Street over the years.
“That’s right!” said Goldie. “Send us a picture! Don’t
forget!”
“I—” I was going to miss them, but it seemed gay to come
out and say so. So all I said was: “Okay. Take it easy.”
“You too,” said Jose, backing away with his hand up. “Stay
away from them blackjack tables.”
“Hey, kid,” the cabdriver said, “you want me to take you
somewhere or what?”
“Hey, hey, hold your horses, it’s cool,” said Goldie to him.
To me he said: “You gonna be fine, Theo.” He gave the cab one last
slap. “Good luck, man. See you around. God bless.”
ii.
“DON’ T TELL ME ,” MY dad said, when he arrived at the Barbours’
the next morning to pick me up in the taxi, “that you’re carrying all
that shit on the plane.” For I had another suitcase beside the one
with the painting, the one I’d originally planned to take.
“I think you’re going to be over your baggage allowance,” said
Xandra a bit hysterically. In the poisonous heat of the sidewalk, I
could smell her hair spray even where I was standing. “They only
let you carry a certain amount.”
M rs. Barbour, who had come down to the curb with me, said
smoothly: “Oh, he’ll be fine with those two. I go over my limit all
the time.”
“Yes, but it costs money.”
“Actually, I think you’ll find it quite reasonable,” said M rs.
Barbour. Though it was early and she was without jewelry or
lipstick, somehow even in her sandals and simple cotton dress she
still managed to give the impression of being immaculately turned
out. “You might have to pay twenty dollars extra at the counter,
but that shouldn’t be a problem, should it?”
She and my dad stared each other down like two cats. Then
my father looked away. I was a little ashamed of his sports coat,
which made me think of guys pictured in the Daily News under
suspicion of racketeering.
“You should have told me you had two bags,” he said,
sullenly, in the silence (welcome to me) that followed her helpful
remark. “I don’t know if all this stuff is going to fit in the trunk.”
Standing at the curb, with the trunk of the cab open, I almost
considered leaving the suitcase with M rs. Barbour and phoning
later to tell her what it contained. But before I could make up my
mind to say anything, the broad-backed Russian cab driver had
taken Xandra’s bag from the trunk and hoisted my second suitcase
in, which—with some banging and mashing around—he made to
fit.
“See, not very heavy!” he said, slamming the trunk shut,
wiping his forehead. “Soft sides!”
“But my carry-on!” said Xandra, looking panicked.
“Not a problem, madame. It can ride in front seat with me. Or
in the back with you, if you prefer.”
“All sorted, then,” said M rs. Barbour—leaning to give me a
quick kiss, the first of my visit, a ladies-who-lunch air kiss that
smelled of mint and gardenias. “Toodle-oo, you all,” she said.
“Have a fantastic trip, won’t you?” Andy and I had said our
goodbyes the day before; though I knew he was sad to see me go,
still my feelings were hurt that he hadn’t stayed to see me off but
instead had gone with the rest of the family up to the supposedly
detested house in M aine. As for M rs. Barbour: she didn’t seem
particularly upset to see the last of me, though in truth I felt sick
to be leaving.
Her gray eyes, on mine, were clear and cool. “Thank you so
much, M rs. Barbour,” I said. “For everything. Tell Andy I said
goodbye.”
“Certainly I will,” she said. “You were an awfully good guest,
Theo.” Out in the steamy morning heat haze on Park Avenue, I
stood holding her hand for a moment longer—slightly hoping that
she would tell me to get in touch with her if I needed anything—
but she only said, “Good luck, then,” and gave me another cool
little kiss before she pulled away.
iii.
I COULDN’ T QUITE FATHOM that I was leaving New York. I’d never
been out of the city in my life longer than eight days. On the way
to the airport, staring out the window at billboards for strip clubs
and personal-injury lawyers that I wasn’t likely to see for a while,
a chilling thought settled over me. What about the security check? I
hadn’t flown much (only twice, once when I was in kindergarten)
and I wasn’t even sure what a security check involved: x-rays? A
luggage search?
“Do they open up everything in the airport?” I asked, in a
timid voice—and then asked again, because nobody seemed to hear
me. I was sitting in the front seat in order to ensure Dad and
Xandra’s romantic privacy.
“Oh, sure,” said the cab driver. He was a beefy, bigshouldered Soviet: coarse features, sweaty red-apple cheeks, like a
weightlifter gone to fat. “And if they don’t open, they x-ray.”
“Even if I check it?”
“Oh, yes,” he said reassuringly. “They are wiping for
explosives, everything. Very safe.”
“But—” I tried to think of some way to formulate what I
needed to ask, without betraying myself, and couldn’t.
“Not to worry,” said the driver. “Lots of police at airport.
And three-four days ago? Roadblocks.”
“Well, all I can say is, I can’t fucking wait to get out of here,”
Xandra said in her husky voice. For a perplexed moment, I thought
she was talking to me, but when I looked back, she was turned
toward my father.
M y dad put his hand on her knee and said something too low
for me to hear. He was wearing his tinted glasses, leaning with his
head lolled back on the rear seat, and there was something loose
and young-sounding in the flatness of his voice, the secret
something that passed between them as he squeezed Xandra’s
knee. I turned away from them and looked out at the no-man’sland rushing past: long low buildings, bodegas and body shops, car
lots simmering in the morning heat.
“See, I don’t mind sevens in the flight number,” Xandra was
saying quietly. “It’s eights freak me out.”
“Yeah, but eight’s a lucky number in China. Take a look at
the international board when we get to M cCarran. All the incoming
flights from Beijing? Eight eight eight.”
“You and your Wisdom of the Chinese.”
“Number pattern. It’s all energy. M eeting of heaven and
earth.”
“ ‘Heaven and earth.’ You make it sound like magic.”
“It is.”
“Oh yeah?”
They were whispering. In the rear view mirror, their faces
were goofy, and too close together; when I realized they were
about to kiss (something that still shocked me, no matter how
often I saw them do it), I turned to stare straight ahead. It occurred
to me that if I didn’t already know how my mother had died, no
power on earth could have convinced me they hadn’t murdered her.
iv.
WHILE WE WERE WAITING to get our boarding passes I was stiff
with fear, fully expecting Security to open my suitcase and
discover the painting right then, in the check-in line. But the
grumpy woman with the shag haircut whose face I still remember
(I’d been praying we wouldn’t have to go to her when it was our
turn) hoisted my suitcase on the belt with hardly a glance.
As I watched it wobble away, towards personnel and
procedures unknown, I felt closed-in and terrified in the bright
press of strangers—conspicuous too, as if everyone was staring at
me. I hadn’t been in such a dense mob or seen so many cops in one
place since the day my mother died. National Guardsmen with
rifles stood by the metal detectors, steady in fatigue gear, cold eyes
passing over the crowd.
Backpacks, briefcases, shopping bags and strollers, heads
bobbing down the terminal as far as I could see. Shuffling through
the security line, I heard a shout—of my name, as I thought. I
froze.
“Come on, come on,” said my dad, hopping behind me on one
foot, trying to get his loafer off, elbowing me in the back, “don’t
just stand there, you’re holding up the whole damn line—”
Going through the metal detector, I kept my eyes on the
carpet—rigid with fear, expecting any moment a hand to fall on my
shoulder. Babies cried. Old people puttered by in motorized carts.
What would they do to me? Could I make them understand it
wasn’t quite how it looked? I imagined some cinder-block room
like in the movies, slammed doors, angry cops in shirtsleeves,
forget about it, you’re not going anywhere, kid.
Once out of security, in the echoing corridor, I heard distinct,
purposeful steps following close behind me. Again I stopped.
“Don’t tell me,” said my dad—turning back with an
exasperated roll of his eyes. “You left something.”
“No,” I said, looking around. “I—” There was no one behind
me. Passengers coursed around me on every side.
“Jeez, he’s white as a fucking sheet,” said Xandra. To my
father, she said: “Is he all right?”
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” said my father as he started down the
corridor again. “Once he’s on the plane. It’s been a tough week for
everybody.”
“Hell, if I was him, I’d be freaked about getting on a plane
too,” said Xandra bluntly. “After what he’s been through.”
M y father—tugging his rolling carry-on behind him, a bag my
mother had bought him for his birthday several years before—
stopped again.
“Poor kid,” he said—surprising me by his look of sympathy.
“You’re not scared, are you?”
“No,” I said, far too fast. The last thing I wanted to do was
attract anybody’s attention or look like I was even one quarter as
wigged-out as I was.
He knit his brows at me, then turned away. “Xandra?” he
said to her, lifting his chin. “Why don’t you give him one of those,
you know.”
“Got it,” said Xandra smartly, stopping to fish in her purse,
producing two large white bullet-shaped pills. One she dropped in
my father’s outstretched palm, and the other she gave to me.
“Thanks,” said my dad, slipping it into the pocket of his
jacket. “Let’s go get something to wash these down with, shall we?
Put that away,” he said to me as I held the pill up between thumb
and forefinger to marvel at how big it was.
“He doesn’t need a whole,” Xandra said, grasping my dad’s
arm as she leaned sideways to adjust the strap of her platform
sandal.
“Right,” said my dad. He took the pill from me, snapped it
expertly in half, and dropped the other half in the pocket of his
sports coat as they strolled ahead of me, tugging their luggage
behind them.
v.
T HE P ILL WASN’ T STRONG enough to knock me out, but it kept me
high and happy and somersaulting in and out of air-conditioned
dreams. Passengers whispered in the seats around me as a
disembodied air hostess announced the results of the in-flight
promotional raffle: dinner and drinks for two at Treasure Island.
Her hushed promise sent me down into a dream where I swam
deep in greenish-black water, some torchlit competition with
Japanese children diving for a pillowcase of pink pearls.
Throughout it all the plane roared bright and white and constant
like the sea, though at some strange point—wrapped deep in my
royal-blue blanket, dreaming somewhere high over the desert—the
engines seemed to shut off and go silent and I found myself floating
chest upward in zero gravity while still buckled into my chair,
which had somehow drifted loose from the other seats to float
freely around the cabin.
I fell back into my body with a jolt as the plane hit the
runway and bounced, screaming to a stop.
“And… welcome to Lost Wages, Nevada,” the pilot was
saying over the intercom. “Our local time in Sin City is 11:47 a.m.”
Half-blind in the glare, plate glass and reflecting surfaces, I
trailed after Dad and Xandra through the terminal, stunned by the
chatter and flash of slot machines and by the music blaring loud
and incongruous so early in the day. The airport was like a mallsized version of Times Square: towering palms, movie screens with
fireworks and gondolas and showgirls and singers and acrobats.
It took a long time for my second bag to come off the
carousel. Chewing my fingernails, I stared fixedly at a billboard of a
grinning Komodo dragon, an ad for some casino attraction: “Over
2,000 reptiles await you.” The baggage-claim crowd was like a
group of colorful stragglers in front of some third-rate nightclub:
sunburns, disco shirts, tiny bejeweled Asian ladies with giant logo
sunglasses. The belt was circling around mostly empty and my dad
(itching for a cigarette, I could tell) was starting to stretch and pace
and rub his knuckles against his cheek like he did when he wanted a
drink when there it came, the last one, khaki canvas with the red
label and the multicolored ribbon my mother had tied around the
handle.
M y dad, in one long step, lunged forward and grabbed it
before I could get to it. “About time,” he said jauntily, tossing it
onto the baggage cart. “Come on, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Out we rolled through the automatic doors and into a wall of
breathtaking heat. M iles of parked cars stretched around us in all
directions, hooded and still. Rigidly I stared straight ahead—
chrome knives glinting, horizon shimmering like wavy glass—as if
looking back, or hesitating, might invite some uniformed party to
step in front of us. Yet no one collared me or shouted at us to stop.
No one even looked at us.
I was so disoriented in the glare that when my dad stopped in
front of a new silver Lexus and said: “Okay, this is us,” I tripped
and nearly fell on the curb.
“This is yours?” I said, looking between them.
“What?” said Xandra coquettishly, clumping around to the
passenger side in her high shoes as my dad beeped the lock open.
“You don’t like it?”
A Lexus? Every day, I was struck by all sorts of matters large
and small that I urgently needed to tell my mother and as I stood
dumbly watching my dad hoist the bags in the trunk my first
thought was: wow, wait until she hears about this. No wonder he
hadn’t sent money home.
M y dad threw aside his half-smoked Viceroy with a flourish.
“Okay,” he said, “hop in.” The desert air had magnetized him.
Back in New York, he had looked a bit worn-out and seedy but out
in the rippling heat his white sportcoat and his cult-leader
sunglasses made sense.
The car—which started with the push of a button—was so
quiet that at first I didn’t realize we were moving. Away we glided,
into depthlessness and space. Accustomed as I was to jolting
around in the backs of taxis, the smoothness and chill of the ride
was sealed off, eerie: brown sand, vicious glare, trance and silence,
blown trash whipping at the chain-link fence. I still felt numbed
and weightless from the pill, and the crazy façades and
superstructures of the Strip, the violent shimmer where the dunes
met sky, made me feel as if we had touched down on another
planet.
Xandra and my dad had been talking quietly in the front seat.
Now she turned to me—snapping gum, robust and sunny, her
jewelry blazing in the strong light. “So, whaddaya think?” she said,
exhaling a strong breath of Juicy Fruit.
“It’s wild,” I said—watching a pyramid sail past my
window, the Eiffel Tower, too overwhelmed to take it in.
“You think it’s wild now?” said my dad, tapping his
fingernail on the steering wheel in a manner I associated with
frayed nerves and late-night quarrels after he got home from the
office. “Just wait until you see it lit up at night.”
“See there—check it out,” said Xandra, reaching over to point
out the window on my dad’s side. “There’s the volcano. It really
works.”
“Actually, I think they’re renovating it. But in theory, yeah.
Hot lava. On the hour, every hour.”
“Exit to the left in point two miles,” said a woman’s
computerized voice.
Carnival colors, giant clown heads and XXX signs: the
strangeness exhilarated me, and also frightened me a little. In New
York, everything reminded me of my mother—every taxi, every
street corner, every cloud that passed over the sun—but out in this
hot mineral emptiness, it was as if she had never existed; I could
not even imagine her spirit looking down on me. All trace of her
seemed burned away in the thin desert air.
As we drove, the improbable skyline dwindled into a
wilderness of parking lots and outlet malls, loop after faceless loop
of shopping plazas, Circuit City, Toys “R” Us, supermarkets and
drugstores, Open Twenty-Four Hours, no saying where it ended or
began. The sky was wide and trackless, like the sky over the sea.
As I fought to stay awake—blinking against the glare—I was
ruminating in a dazed way over the expensive-smelling leather
interior of the car and thinking of a story I’d often heard my
mother tell: of how, when she and my dad were dating, he’d turned
up in a Porsche he’d borrowed from a friend to impress her. Only
after they were married had she learned that the car wasn’t really
his. She’d seemed to think this was funny—although given other,
less amusing facts that came to light after their marriage (such as
his arrest record, as a juvenile, on charges unknown), I wondered
that she was able to find anything very entertaining about the
story.
“Um, you’ve had this car how long?” I said, speaking up over
their conversation in front.
“Oh—gosh—little over a year now, isn’t that right, Xan?”
A year? I was still chewing this over—this figure meant my
dad had acquired the car (and Xandra) before he’d disappeared—
when I looked up and saw that the strip malls had given way to an
endless-seeming grid of small stucco homes. Despite the air of
boxed, bleached sameness—row on row, like stones in a cemetery
—some of the houses were painted in festive pastels (mint green,
rancho pink, milky desert blue) and there was something excitingly
foreign about the sharp shadows, the spiked desert plants. Having
grown up in the city, where there was never enough space, I was if
anything pleasantly surprised. It would be something new to live
in a house with a yard, even if the yard was only brown rocks and
cactus.
“Is this still Las Vegas?” As a game, I was trying to pick out
what made the houses different from each other: an arched
doorway here, a swimming pool or a palm tree there.
“You’re seeing a whole different part now,” my dad said—
exhaling sharply, stubbing out his third Viceroy. “This is what
tourists never see.”
Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks,
and it was impossible to say where we were going or in which
direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was
fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and
out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park
from the movies. But instead—to my surprise—the houses began
to grow larger: with second stories, with cactus gardens, with
fences and pools and multi-car garages.
“Okay, this is us,” said my dad, turning into a road that had
an imposing granite sign with copper letters: The Ranches at Canyon
Shadows.
“You live here?” I said, impressed. “Is there a canyon?”
“No, that’s just the name of it,” said Xandra.
“See, they have a bunch of different developments out here,”
said my dad, pinching the bridge of his nose. I could tell by his
tone—his scratchy old needing-a-drink voice—that he was tired
and not in a very good mood.
“Ranch communities is what they call them,” said Xandra.
“Right. Whatever. Oh, shut the fuck up,” snapped my dad,
reaching over to turn the volume down as the lady on the
navigation system piped up with instructions again.
“They all have different themes, sort of,” said Xandra, who
was dabbing on lip gloss with the pad of her little finger. “There’s
Pueblo Breeze, Ghost Ridge, Dancing Deer Villas. Spirit Flag is the
golf community? And Encantada is the fanciest, lots of investment
properties—Hey, turn here, sweet pea,” she said, clutching his
arm.
M y dad kept driving straight and did not answer.
“Shit!” Xandra turned in her seat to look at the road receding
behind us. “Why do you always have to go the long way?”
“Don’t start with the shortcuts. You’re as bad as the Lexus
lady.”
“Yeah, but it’s faster. By fifteen minutes. Now we’re going
to have to drive all the way around Dancing Deer.”
M y dad blew out an exasperated breath. “Look—”
“What’s so hard about cutting over to Gitana Trails and
making two lefts and a right? Because that’s all it is. If you get off
on Desatoya—”
“Look. You want to drive the car? Or you want to let me
drive the fucking car?”
I knew better than to challenge my dad when he took that
tone, and apparently Xandra did too. She flounced around in her
seat and—in a deliberate manner that seemed calculated to annoy
him—turned up the radio very loud and started punching through
static and commercials.
The stereo was so powerful I could feel it thumping through
the back of my white leather seat. Vacation, all I ever wanted…
Light climbed and burst through the wild desert clouds—neverending sky, acid blue, like a computer game or a test pilot’s
hallucination.
“Vegas 99, serving up the Eighties and Nineties,” said the
fast, excited voice on the radio. “And here’s Pat Benatar coming up
for you, in our Ladies of the Eighties Lapdance lunch.”
In Desatoya Ranch Estates, on 6219 Desert End Road, where
lumber was stacked in some of the yards and sand blew in the
streets, we turned into the driveway of a large Spanish-looking
house, or maybe it was M oorish, shuttered beige stucco with
arched gables and a clay-tiled roof pitched at various startling
angles. I was impressed by the aimlessness and sprawl of it, its
cornices and columns, the elaborate ironwork door with its sense of
a stage set, like a house from one of the Telemundo soap operas
the doormen always had going in the package room.
We got out of the car and were circling around to the garage
entrance with our suitcases when I heard an eerie, distressing noise:
screaming, or crying, from inside the house.
“Gosh, what’s that?” I said, dropping my bags, unnerved.
Xandra was leaning sideways, stumbling a bit in her high
shoes and grappling for her key. “Oh, shut up, shut up,
shutthefuckup,” she was muttering under her breath. Before she’d
opened the door all the way, a hysterical stringy mop shot out,
shrieking, and began to hop and dance and caper all around us.
“Get down!” Xandra was yelling. Through the half-opened
door, safari music (trumpeting elephants, chattering monkeys) was
playing so loud that I could hear it all the way out in the garage.
“Wow,” I said, peering inside. The air inside smelled hot and
stale: old cigarette smoke, new carpet, and—no question about it—
dog shit.
“For the zookeeper, big cats pose a unique series of
challenges,” the voice on the television boomed. “Why don’t we
follow Andrea and her staff on their morning rounds.”
“Hey,” I said, stopping in the door with my bag, “you left
the television on.”
“Yes,” said Xandra—brushing past me—“that’s Animal
Planet, I left it on for him. For Popper. I said get down!” she
snapped at the dog, who was scrabbling at her knees with his claws
as she hobbled in on her platforms and switched the television off.
“He stayed by himself?” I said, over the dog’s shrieks. He
was one of those long-haired girly dogs who would have been
white and fluffy if he was clean.
“Oh, he’s got a drinking fountain from Petco,” said Xandra,
wiping her forehead with the back of her hand as she stepped over
the dog. “And one of those big feeder things?”
“What kind is he?”
“M altese. Pure bred. I won him in a raffle. I mean, I know he
needs a bath, it’s a pain to keep them groomed. That’s right, just
look what you did to my pants,” she said to the dog. “White
jeans.”
We were standing in a large, open room with high ceilings and
a staircase that ran up to a sort of railed mezzanine on one side—a
room almost as big as the entire apartment I’d grown up in. But
when my eyes adjusted from the bright sun, I was taken aback by
how bare it was. Bone-white walls. Stone fireplace, with sort of a
fake hunting-lodge feel. Sofa like something from a hospital waiting
room. Across from the glass patio doors stretched a wall of built-in
shelves, mostly empty.
M y dad creaked in, and dropped the suitcases on the carpet.
“Jesus, Xan, it smells like shit in here.”
Xandra—leaning over to set down her purse—winced as the
dog began to jump and climb and claw all over her. “Well, Janet
was supposed to come and let him out,” she said over his highpitched screams. “She had the key and everything. God, Popper,”
she said, wrinkling her nose, turning her head away, “you stink.”
The emptiness of the place stunned me. Until that moment, I
had never questioned the necessity of selling my mother’s books
and rugs and antiques, or the need of sending almost everything
else to Goodwill or the garbage. I had grown up in a four-room
apartment where closets were packed to overflowing, where every
bed had boxes beneath it and pots and pans were hung from the
ceiling because there wasn’t room in the cupboards. But—how
easy it would have been to bring some of her things, like the silver
box that had been her mother’s, or the painting of a chestnut mare
that looked like a Stubbs, or even her childhood copy of Black
Beauty! It wasn’t as if he couldn’t have used a few good pictures or
some of the furniture she’d inherited from her parents. He had
gotten rid of her things because he hated her.
“Jesus Christ,” my father was saying, his voice raised angrily
over the shrill barks. “This dog has destroyed the place. Quite
honestly.”
“Well, I don’t know—I mean, I know it’s a mess but Janet
said—”
“I told you, you should have kennelled this dog. Or, I don’t
know, taken him to the pound. I don’t like having him in the house.
Outdoors is the place for him. Didn’t I tell you this was going to
be a problem? Janet is such a fucking flake—”
“So he went on the rug a few times? So what? And—what
the hell are you looking at?” said Xandra angrily, stepping over the
shrieking dog—and with a bit of a start, I realized it was me she
was glaring at.
vi.
M Y NEW ROOM FELT so bare and lonely that, after I unpacked my
bags, I left the sliding door of the closet open so I could see my
clothes hanging inside. From downstairs, I could still hear Dad
shouting about the carpet. Unfortunately, Xandra was shouting
too, getting him more wound up, which (I could have told her, if
she’d asked) was exactly the wrong way to handle him. At home,
my mother had known how to suffocate my dad’s anger by
growing silent, a low, unwavering flame of contempt that sucked all
the oxygen out of the room and made everything he said and did
seem ridiculous. Eventually he would whoosh out with a
thunderous slam of the front door and when he returned—hours
later, with a quiet click of the key in the lock—he would walk
around the apartment as if nothing had happened: going to the
refrigerator for a beer, asking in a perfectly normal voice where his
mail was.
Of the three empty rooms upstairs I’d chosen the largest,
which like a hotel room had its own tiny bathroom to the side.
Floor heavily carpeted in steel blue plush. Bare mattress, with a
plastic package of bedsheets at the foot. Legends Percale. Twenty
percent off. A gentle mechanical hum emanated from the walls, like
the hum of an aquarium filter. It seemed like the kind of room
where a call girl or a stewardess would be murdered on television.
With an ear out for Dad and Xandra, I sat on the mattress
with the wrapped painting on my knees. Even with the door
locked, I was hesitant to take the paper off in case they came
upstairs, and yet the desire to look at it was irresistible. Carefully,
carefully, I scratched the tape with my thumbnail and peeled it up
by the edges.
The painting slid out more easily than I’d expected, and I
found myself biting back a gasp of pleasure. It was the first time
I’d seen the painting in the light of day. In the arid room—all
sheetrock and whiteness—the muted colors bloomed with life; and
even though the surface of the painting was ghosted ever so
slightly with dust, the atmosphere it breathed was like the lightrinsed airiness of a wall opposite an open window. Was this why
people like M rs. Swanson went on about the desert light? She had
loved to warble on about what she called her “sojourn” in New
M exico—wide horizons, empty skies, spiritual clarity. Yet as if by
some trick of the light the painting seemed transfigured, as the dark
roofline view of water tanks from my mother’s bedroom window
sometimes stood gilded and electrified for a few strange moments
in the stormlight of late afternoon, right before a summer
cloudburst.
“Theo?” M y dad, knocking briskly at the door. “You
hungry?”
I stood up, hoping he wouldn’t try the door and find it
locked. M y new room was as bare as a jail cell; but the closet had
high shelves, well above my dad’s eye level, very deep.
“I’m going to pick up some Chinese. Want me to get you
something?”
Would my dad know what the painting was, if he saw it? I
hadn’t thought so—but looking at it in the light, the glow it threw
off, I realized that any fool would. “Um, be right there,” I called,
my voice false-sounding and hoarse, slipping the painting into an
extra pillowcase and hiding it under the bed before hurrying out of
the room.
vii.
IN THE WEEKS IN Las Vegas before school started, loitering around
downstairs with the earphones of my iPod in but the sound off, I
learned a number of interesting facts. For starters: my dad’s former
job had not involved nearly as much business travel to Chicago and
Phoenix as he had led us to believe. Unbeknownst to my mother
and me, he had actually been flying out to Vegas for some months,
and it was in Vegas—in an Asian-themed bar at the Bellagio—that
he and Xandra had met. They had been seeing each other for a
while before my dad vanished—a bit over a year, as I gathered; it
seemed that they had celebrated their “anniversary” not long before
my mother died, with dinner at Delmonico Steakhouse and the Jon
Bon Jovi concert at the M GM Grand. (Bon Jovi! Of all the many
things I was dying to tell my mother—and there were thousands of
them, if not millions—it seemed terrible that she would never
know this hilarious fact.)
Another thing I figured out, after a few days in the house on
Desert End Road: what Xandra and my dad really meant when
they said my dad had “stopped drinking” was that he’d switched
from Scotch (his beverage of choice) to Corona Lights and Vicodin.
I had been puzzled by how frequently the peace sign, or V for
Victory, was flashed between them, in all sorts of incongruous
contexts, and it might have gone on being a mystery for a lot longer
if my dad hadn’t just come out and asked Xandra for a Vicodin
when he thought I wasn’t listening.
I didn’t know anything about Vicodin except that it was
something that a wild movie actress I liked was always getting her
picture in the tabloids about: stumbling from her M ercedes as
police lights flashed in the background. Several days later, I came
across a plastic bag with what looked like about three hundred pills
in it—sitting on the kitchen counter, alongside a bottle of my dad’s
Propecia and a stack of unpaid bills—which Xandra snatched up
and threw in her purse.
“What are those?” I said.
“Um, vitamins.”
“Why are they in that baggie like that?”
“I get them from this bodybuilder guy at work.”
The weird thing was—and this was something else I wished I
could have discussed with my mother—the new, drugged-out Dad
was a much more pleasant and predictable companion than the Dad
of old. When my father drank, he was a twist of nerves—all
inappropriate jokes and aggressive bursts of energy, right up until
the moment he passed out—but when he stopped drinking, he was
worse. He blasted along ten paces ahead of my mother and me on
the sidewalk, talking to himself and patting his suit pockets as if
for a weapon. He brought home stuff we didn’t want and couldn’t
afford, like crocodile M anolos for my mother (who hated high
heels) and not even in the right size. He lugged piles of paper home
from the office and sat up past midnight drinking iced coffee and
punching in numbers on the calculator, sweat pouring off him like
he’d just done forty minutes on the StairM aster. Or else he would
make a big deal of going to some party way the hell over in
Brooklyn (“What do you mean, ‘maybe I shouldn’t go’? You think
I should live like a fucking hermit, is that it?”) and then—after
dragging my mother there—storm out ten minutes later after
insulting someone or mocking them to their face.
This was a different, more affable energy, with the pills: a
combination of sluggishness and brightness, a bemused, goofy,
floating quality. His walk was looser. He napped more, nodded
agreeably, lost the thread of his arguments, ambled about barefoot
with his bathrobe halfway open. From his genial cursing, his
infrequent shaving, the relaxed way he talked around the cigarette
in the corner of his mouth, it was almost as if he were playing a
character: some cool guy from a fifties noir or maybe Ocean’s
Eleven, a lazy, sated gangster with not much to lose. Yet even in
the midst of his new laid-backness he still had that crazed and
slightly heroic look of schoolboy insolence, all the more stirring
since it was drifting towards autumn, half-ruined and careless of
itself.
In the house on Desert End Road, which had the superexpensive cable television package my mother would never let us
get, he drew the blinds against the glare and sat smoking in front of
the television, glassy as an opium addict, watching ESPN with the
sound off, no sport in particular, anything and everything that
came on: cricket, jai alai, badminton, croquet. The air was overly
chilled, with a stale, refrigerated smell; sitting motionless for hours,
the filament of smoke from his Viceroy floating to the ceiling like a
thread of incense, he might as well have been contemplating the
Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha as the leaderboard at the PGA
or whatever.
What wasn’t clear was if my dad had a job—or, if he did,
what kind of job it was. The phone rang all hours of the day and
night. M y dad went in the hallway with the handset, his back to
me, bracing his arm against the wall and staring at the carpet as he
talked, something in his posture suggesting the attitude of a coach
at the end of a tough game. Usually he kept his voice well down
but even when he didn’t, it was tough to understand his end of the
conversation: vig, moneyline, odds-on favorite, straight up and
against the spread. He was gone much of the time, on unexplained
errands, and a lot of nights he and Xandra didn’t come home at all.
“We get comped a lot at the M GM Grand,” he explained, rubbing
his eyes, sinking back into the sofa cushions with an exhausted sigh
—and again I got a sense of the character he was playing, moody
playboy, relic of the eighties, easily bored. “I hope you don’t
mind. It’s just when she’s working the late shift, it’s easier for us
to crash on the Strip.”
viii.
“WHAT ARE ALL THESE papers everywhere?” I asked Xandra one
day while she was in the kitchen making her white diet drink. I was
confused by the pre-printed cards I kept finding all over the house:
grids pencilled in with row after monotonous row of figures.
Vaguely scientific-looking, they had a creepy feel of DNA
sequences, or maybe spy transmissions in binary code.
She switched the blender off, flicked the hair out of her eyes.
“Excuse me?”
“These work sheets or whatever.”
“Bacca-rat!” said Xandra—rolling the r, doing a tricky little
fillip with her fingers.
“Oh,” I said after a flat pause, though I’d never heard the
word before.
She stuck her finger in the drink, and licked it off. “We go to
the baccarat salon at the M GM Grand a lot?” she said. “Your dad
likes to keep track of his played games.”
“Can I go some time?”
“No. Well yeah—I guess you could,” she said, as if I’d
inquired about vacation prospects in some unstable Islamic nation.
“Except they’re not super-welcoming of kids in the casinos?
You’re not really allowed to come and watch us play.”
So what, I thought. Standing around and watching Dad and
Xandra gamble was scarcely my idea of fun. Aloud, I said: “But I
thought they had tigers and pirate boats and things like that.”
“Yeah, well. I guess.” She was reaching up for a glass on the
shelf, exposing a quadrangle of blue-inked Chinese characters
between her T-shirt and her low-slung jeans. “They tried to sell
this whole family-friendly package a few years ago, but it didn’t
wash.”
ix.
I MIGHT HAVE LIKED Xandra in other circumstances—which, I
guess, is sort of like saying I might have liked the kid who beat me
up if he hadn’t beat me up. She was my first inkling that women
over forty—women maybe not all that great-looking to start with
—could be sexy. Though she wasn’t pretty in the face (bullet eyes,
blunt little nose, tiny teeth) still she was in shape, she worked out,
and her arms and legs were so glossy and tan that they looked
almost sprayed, as if she anointed herself with lots of creams and
oils. Teetering in her high shoes, she walked fast, always tugging at
her too-short skirt, a forward-leaning walk, weirdly alluring. On
some level, I was repelled by her—by her stuttery voice, her thick,
shiny lip gloss that came in a tube that said Lip Glass; by the
multiple pierce holes in her ears and the gap in her front teeth that
she liked to worry with her tongue—but there was something
sultry and exciting and tough about her too: an animal strength, a
purring, prowling quality when she was out of her heels and
walking barefoot.
Vanilla Coke, vanilla Chapstick, vanilla diet drink, Stoli
Vanilla. Off from work, she dressed like sort of a rapped-up tennis
mom, short white skirts, lots of gold jewelry. Even her tennis
shoes were new and spanking white. Sunbathing by the pool, she
wore a white crocheted bikini; her back was wide but thin, lots of
ribs, like a man without his shirt on. “Uh-oh, wardrobe
malfunction,” she said when she sat up from the lounge chair
without remembering to fasten her top, and I saw that her breasts
were as tan as the rest of her.
She liked reality shows: Survivor, American Idol. She liked to
shop at Intermix and Juicy Couture. She liked to call her friend
Courtney and “vent,” and a lot of her venting, unfortunately, was
on the subject of me. “Can you believe it?” I heard her saying on
the telephone when my dad was out of the house one day. “I
didn’t sign on for this. A kid? Hello?
“Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass, all right,” she continued, inhaling
lazily on her M arlboro Light—pausing by the glass doors that led
to the pool, staring down at her freshly painted, honeydew-green
toenails. “No,” she said after a brief pause. “I don’t know how
long for. I mean, what does he expect me to think? I’m not a
freaking soccer mom.”
Her complaints seemed routine, not particularly heated or
personal. Still it was hard to know just how to make her like me.
Previously, I had operated on the assumption that mom-aged
women loved it when you stood around and tried to talk to them
but with Xandra I soon learned that it was better not to joke
around or inquire too much about her day when she came home in a
bad mood. Sometimes, when it was just the two of us, she
switched the channel from ESPN and we sat eating fruit cocktail
and watching movies on Lifetime peacefully enough. But when she
was annoyed with me, she had a cold way of saying “Apparently”
in answer to almost anything I said, making me feel stupid.
“Um, I can’t find the can opener.”
“Apparently.”
“There’s going to be a lunar eclipse tonight.”
“Apparently.”
“Look, sparks are coming out of the wall socket.”
“Apparently.”
Xandra worked nights. Usually she breezed off around three
thirty in the afternoon, dressed in her curvy work uniform: black
jacket, black pants made of some stretchy, tight-fitting material,
with her blouse unbuttoned to her freckled breastbone. The
nametag pinned to her blazer said XANDRA in big letters and
underneath: Florida. In New York, when we’d been out at dinner
that night, she’d told me that she was trying to break into real
estate but what she really did, I soon learned, was manage a bar
called “Nickels” in a casino on the Strip. Sometimes she came home
with plastic platters of bar snacks wrapped in cellophane, things
like meatballs and chicken teriyaki bites, which she and my dad
carried in front of the television and ate with the sound off.
Living with them was like living with roommates I didn’t
particularly get along with. When they were at home, I stayed in
my room with the door shut. And when they were gone—which
was most of the time—I prowled through the farther reaches of the
house, trying to get used to its openness. M any of the rooms were
bare of furniture, or almost bare, and the open space, the
uncurtained brightness—all exposed carpet and parallel planes—
made me feel slightly unmoored.
And yet it was a relief not to feel constantly exposed, or
onstage, the way I had at the Barbours’. The sky was a rich,
mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous
glory that wasn’t really there. No one cared that I never changed
my clothes and wasn’t in therapy. I was free to goof off, lie in bed
all morning, watch five Robert M itchum movies in a row if I felt
like it.
Dad and Xandra kept their bedroom door locked—which was
too bad, as that was the room where Xandra kept her laptop, offlimits to me unless she was home and she brought it down for me
to use in the living room. Poking around when they were out of the
house, I found real estate leaflets, new wineglasses still in the box,
a stack of old TV Guides, a cardboard box of beat-up trade
paperbacks: Your Moon Signs, The South Beach Diet, Caro’s Book
of Poker Tells, Lovers and Players by Jackie Collins.
The houses around us were empty—no neighbors. Five or six
houses down, on the opposite side of the street, there was an old
Pontiac parked out front. It belonged to a tired-looking woman
with big boobs and ratty hair whom I sometimes saw standing
barefoot out in front of her house in the late afternoon, clutching a
pack of cigarettes and talking on her cell phone. I thought of her as
“the Playa” as the first time I’d seen her, she’d been wearing a Tshirt that said DON’ T HATE THE P LAYA, HATE THE GAME . Apart from
her, the Playa, the only other living person I’d seen on our street
was a big-bellied man in a black sports shirt way the hell down at
the cul-de-sac, wheeling a garbage can out to the curb (although I
could have told him: no garbage pickup on our street. When it was
time to take the trash out, Xandra made me sneak out with the bag
and throw it in the dumpster of the abandoned-under-construction
house a few doors down). At night—apart from our house, and the
Playa’s—complete darkness reigned on the street. It was all as
isolated as a book we’d read in the third grade about pioneer
children on the Nebraska prairie, except with no siblings or friendly
farm animals or M a and Pa.
The hardest thing, by far, was being stuck in the middle of
nowhere—no movie theaters or libraries, not even a corner store.
“Isn’t there a bus or something?” I asked Xandra one evening when
she was in the kitchen unwrapping the night’s plastic tray of
Atomic Wings and blue cheese dip.
“Bus?” said Xandra, licking a smear of barbecue sauce off her
finger.
“Don’t you have public transportation out here?”
“Nope.”
“What do people do?”
Xandra cocked her head to the side. “They drive?” she said,
as if I was a retard who’d never heard of cars.
One thing: there was a pool. M y first day I’d burned myself
brick red within an hour and suffered a sleepless night on scratchy
new sheets. After that, I only went out after the sun started going
down. The twilights out there were florid and melodramatic, great
sweeps of orange and crimson and Lawrence-in-the-desert
vermilion, then night dropping dark and hard like a slammed door.
Xandra’s dog Popper—who lived, for the most part, in a brown
plastic igloo on the shady side of the fence—ran back and forth
along the side of the pool yapping as I floated on my back, trying
to pick out constellations I knew in the confusing white spatter of
stars: Lyra, Cassiopeia the queen, whiplash Scorpius with the twin
stings in his tail, all the friendly childhood patterns that had
twinkled me to sleep from the glow-in-the-dark planetarium stars
on my bedroom ceiling back in New York. Now, transfigured—
cold and glorious like deities with their disguises flung off—it was
as if they’d flown through the roof and into the sky to assume
their true, celestial homes.
x.
M Y SCHOOL STARTED THE second week of August. From a distance,
the fenced complex of long, low, sand-colored buildings, connected
by roofed walkways, made me think of a minimum security prison.
But once I stepped through the doors, the brightly colored posters
and the echoing hallway were like falling back into a familiar old
dream of school: crowded stairwells, humming lights, biology
classroom with an iguana in a piano-sized tank; locker-lined
hallways that were familiar like a set from some much-watched
television show—and though the resemblance to my old school
was only superficial, on some strange wavelength it was also
comforting and real.
The other section of Honors English was reading Great
Expectations. M ine was reading Walden; and I hid myself in the
coolness and silence of the book, a refuge from the sheet-metal
glare of the desert. During the morning break (where we were
rounded up and made to go outside, in a chain-fenced yard near the
vending machines), I stood in the shadiest corner I could find with
my mass-market paperback and, with a red pencil, went through
and underlined a lot of particularly bracing sentences: “The mass of
men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “A stereotyped but
unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the
games and amusements of mankind.” What would Thoreau have
made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams,
its projections and hollow façades?
At my school, the sense of transience was unsettling. There
were a lot of army brats, a lot of foreigners—many of them the
children of executives who had come to Las Vegas for big
managerial and construction jobs. Some of them had lived in nine or
ten different states in as many years, and many of them had lived
abroad: in Sydney, Caracas, Beijing, Dubai, Taipei. There were also
a good many shy, half-invisible boys and girls whose parents had
fled rural hardship for jobs as hotel busboys and chambermaids. In
this new ecosystem money, or even good looks, did not seem to
determine popularity; what mattered most, as I came to realize,
was who’d lived in Vegas the longest, which was why the knockdown M exican beauties and itinerant construction heirs sat alone at
lunch while the bland, middling children of local realtors and car
dealers were the cheerleaders and class presidents, the unchallenged
elite of the school.
The days were clear and beautiful; and, as September rolled
around, the hateful glare gave way to a certain luminosity, a dusty,
golden quality. Sometimes I ate lunch at the Spanish Table, to
practice my Spanish; sometimes I ate lunch at the German Table
even though I didn’t speak German because several of the German
II kids—children of Deutsche Bank and Lufthansa executives—had
grown up in New York. Of my classes, English was the only one I
looked forward to, yet I was disturbed by how many of my
classmates disliked Thoreau, railed against him even, as if he (who
claimed never to have learned anything of value from an old
person) was an enemy and not a friend. His scorn of commerce—
invigorating to me—nettled a lot of the more vocal kids in Honors
English. “Yeah, right,” shouted an obnoxious boy whose hair was
gelled and combed stiff like a Dragon Ball Z character—“some kind
of world it would be if everybody just dropped out and moped
around in the woods—”
“Me, me, me,” whined a voice in the back.
“It’s antisocial,” a loudmouth girl interjected eagerly over the
laughter that followed this—shifting in her seat, turning back to the
teacher (a limp, long-boned woman named M rs. Spear, who always
wore brown sandals and earthtone colors, and looked as if she was
suffering from major depression). “Thoreau is always just sitting
around on his can telling us how good he has it—”
“—Because,” said the Dragon Ball Z boy—his voice rising
gleefully, “if everybody dropped out, like he’s saying to do? What
kind of community would we have, if it was just people like him?
We wouldn’t have hospitals and stuff. We wouldn’t have roads.”
“Twat,” mumbled a welcome voice—just loud enough for
everybody around to hear.
I turned to see who had said this: the burnout-looking boy
across the aisle, slouched and drumming his desk with his fingers.
When he saw me looking at him, he raised a surprisingly lively
eyebrow, as if to say: can you believe these fucking idiots?
“Did someone have something to say back there?” said M rs.
Spear.
“Like Thoreau gave a toss about roads,” said the burnout
boy. His accent took me by surprise: foreign, I couldn’t place it.
“Thoreau was the first environmentalist,” said M rs. Spear.
“He was also the first vegetarian,” said a girl in back.
“Figures,” said someone else. “M r. Crunchy-chewy.”
“You’re all totally missing my point,” the Dragon Ball Z boy
said excitedly. “Somebody has to build roads and not just sit in the
woods looking at ants and mosquitoes all day. It’s called
civilization.”
M y neighbor let out a sharp, contemptuous bark of a laugh.
He was pale and thin, not very clean, with lank dark hair falling in
his eyes and the unwholesome wanness of a runaway, callused
hands and black-circled nails chewed to the nub—not like the
shiny-haired, ski-tanned skate rats from my school on the Upper
West Side, punks whose dads were CEOs and Park Avenue
surgeons, but a kid who might conceivably be sitting on a sidewalk
somewhere with a stray dog on a rope.
“Well, to address some of these questions? I’d like for
everybody to turn back to page fifteen,” M rs. Spear said. “Where
Thoreau is talking about his experiment in living.”
“Experiment how?” said Dragon Ball Z. “Why is living in the
woods like he does any different from a caveman?”
The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper in his seat. He
reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around
passing cigarettes back and forth on St. M ark’s Place, comparing
scars, begging for change—same torn-up clothes and scrawny
white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their
multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the
general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m
way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my
mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in
Vegas, and—as it turned out—one of the great friends of my life.
His name was Boris. Somehow we found ourselves standing
together in the crowd that was waiting for the bus after school that
day.
“Hah. Harry Potter,” he said, as he looked me over.
“Fuck you,” I said listlessly. It was not the first time, in
Vegas, I’d heard the Harry Potter comment. M y New York clothes
—khakis, white oxford shirts, the tortoiseshell glasses which I
unfortunately needed to see—made me look like a freak at a school
where most people dressed in tank tops and flip flops.
“Where’s your broomstick?”
“Left it at Hogwarts,” I said. “What about you? Where’s
your board?”
“Eh?” he said, leaning in to me and cupping his hand behind
his ear with an old-mannish, deaf-looking gesture. He was half a
head taller than me; along with jungle boots and bizarre old fatigues
with the knees busted out, he was wearing a ratted-up black Tshirt with a snowboarding logo, Never Summer in white gothic
letters.
“Your shirt,” I said, with a curt nod. “Not much boarding in
the desert.”
“Nyah,” said Boris, pushing the stringy dark hair out of his
eyes. “I don’t know how to snowboard. I just hate the sun.”
We ended up together on the bus, in the seat closest to the
door—clearly an unpopular place to sit, judging from the urgent
way other kids muscled and pushed to the rear, but I hadn’t grown
up riding a school bus and apparently neither had he, as he too
seemed to think it only natural to fling himself down in the first
empty seat up front. For a while we didn’t say much, but it was a
long ride and eventually we got talking. It turned out that he lived
in Canyon Shadows too—but farther out, the end that was getting
reclaimed by the desert, where a lot of the houses weren’t finished
and sand stood in the streets.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him. It was the
question all the kids asked each other at my new school, like we
were doing jail time.
“Dunno. Two months maybe?” Though he spoke English
fluently enough, with a strong Australian accent, there was also a
dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count
Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent. “Where are you from?”
“New York,” I said—and was gratified at his silent doubletake, his lowered eyebrows that said: very cool. “What about
you?”
He pulled a face. “Well, let’s see,” he said, slumping back in
his seat and counting off the countries on his fingers. “I’ve lived in
Russia, Scotland which was maybe cool but I don’t remember it,
Australia, Poland, New Zealand, Texas for two months, Alaska,
New Guinea, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Ukraine—”
“Jesus Christ.”
He shrugged. “M ostly Australia, Russia, and Ukraine,
though. Those three places.”
“Do you speak Russian?”
He made a gesture that I took to mean more or less.
“Ukrainian too, and Polish. Though I’ve forgotten a lot. The other
day, I tried to remember what was the word for ‘dragonfly’ and
couldn’t.”
“Say something.”
He obliged, something spitty and guttural.
“What does that mean?”
He chortled. “It means ‘Fuck you up the ass.’ ”
“Yeah? In Russian?”
He laughed, exposing grayish and very un-American teeth.
“Ukrainian.”
“I thought they spoke Russian in the Ukraine.”
“Well, yes. Depends what part of Ukraine. They’re not so
different languages, the two. Well—” click of the tongue, eye roll
—“not so very much. Numbers are different, days of the week,
some vocabulary. M y name is spelled different in Ukrainian but in
North America it’s easier to use Russian spelling and be Boris, not
B-o-r-y-s. In the West everybody knows Boris Yeltsin…” he
ticked his head to one side—“Boris Becker—”
“Boris Badenov—”
“Eh?” he said sharply, turning as if I’d insulted him.
“Bullwinkle? Boris and Natasha?”
“Oh, yes. Prince Boris! War and Peace. I’m named like him.
Although the surname of Prince Boris is Drubetskóy, not what
you said.”
“So what’s your first language? Ukrainian?”
He shrugged. “Polish maybe,” he said, falling back in his seat,
slinging his dark hair to one side with a flip of his head. His eyes
were hard and humorous, very black. “M y mother was Polish,
from Rzeszów near the Ukrainian border. Russian, Ukrainian—
Ukraine as you know was satellite of USSR, so I speak both.
M aybe not Russian quite so much—it’s best for swearing and
cursing. With Slavic languages—Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, even
Czech—if you know one, you sort of get drift in all. But for me,
English is easiest now. Used to be the other way around.”
“What do you think about America?”
“Everyone always smiles so big! Well—most people. M aybe
not so much you. I think it looks stupid.”
He was, like me, an only child. His father (born in Siberia, a
Ukrainian national from Novoagansk) was in mining and
exploration. “Big important job—he travels the world.” Boris’s
mother—his father’s second wife—was dead.
“M ine too,” I said.
He shrugged. “She’s been dead for donkey’s years,” he said.
“She was an alkie. She was drunk one night and she fell out a
window and died.”
“Wow,” I said, a bit stunned by how lightly he’d tossed this
off.
“Yah, it sucks,” he said carelessly, looking out the window.
“So what nationality are you?” I said, after a brief silence.
“Eh—?”
“Well, if your mother’s Polish, and your dad’s Ukrainian, and
you were born in Australia, that would make you—”
“Indonesian,” he said, with a sinister smile. He had dark,
devilish, very expressive eyebrows that moved around a lot when
he spoke.
“How’s that?”
“Well, my passport says Ukraine. And I have part
citizenship in Poland too. But Indonesia is the place I want to get
back to,” said Boris, tossing the hair out of his eyes. “Well—
PNG.”
“What?”
“Papua, New Guinea. It’s my favorite place I’ve lived.”
“New Guinea? I thought they had headhunters.”
“Not any more. Or not so many. This bracelet is from there,”
he said, pointing to one of the many black leather strands on his
wrist. “M y friend Bami made it for me. He was our cook.”
“What’s it like?”
“Not so bad,” he said, glancing at me sideways in his
brooding, self-amused way. “I had a parrot. And a pet goose. And,
was learning to surf. But then, six months ago, my dad hauled me
with him to this shaddy town in Alaska. Seward Peninsula, just
below Arctic Circle? And then, middle of M ay—we flew to
Fairbanks on a prop plane, and then we came here.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Dead boring up there,” said Boris. “Heaps of dead fish, and
bad Internet connection. I should have run away—I wish I had,” he
said bitterly.
“And done what?”
“Stayed in New Guinea. Lived on the beach. Thank God
anyway we weren’t there all winter. Few years ago, we were up
north in Canada, in Alberta, this one-street town off the Pouce
Coupe River? Dark the whole time, October to M arch, and fuck-all
to do except read and listen to CBC radio. Had to drive fifty klicks
to do our washing. Still—” he laughed—“loads better than Ukraine.
M iami Beach, compared.”
“What does your dad do again?”
“Drink, mainly,” said Boris sourly.
“He should meet my dad, then.”
Again the sudden, explosive laugh—almost like he was
spitting over you. “Yes. Brilliant. And whores?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” I said, after a small, startled pause.
Though not too much my dad did shocked me, I had never quite
envisioned him hanging out in the Live Girls and Gentlemen’s Club
joints we sometimes passed on the highway.
The bus was emptying out; we were only a few streets from
my house. “Hey, this is my stop up here,” I said.
“Want to come home with me and watch television?” said
Boris.
“Well—”
“Oh, come on. No one’s there. And I’ve got S.O.S. Iceberg
on DVD.”
xi.
T HE SCHOOL BUS DIDN’ T actually go all the way out to the edge of
Canyon Shadows, where Boris lived. It was a twenty minute walk
to his house from the last stop, in blazing heat, through streets
awash with sand. Though there were plenty of Foreclosure and
“For Sale” signs on my street (at night, the sound of a car radio
travelled for miles)—still, I was not aware quite how eerie Canyon
Shadows got at its farthest reaches: a toy town, dwindling out at
desert’s edge, under menacing skies. M ost of the houses looked as
if they had never been lived in. Others—unfinished—had rawedged windows without glass in them; they were covered with
scaffolding and grayed with blown sand, with piles of concrete and
yellowing construction material out front. The boarded-up
windows gave them a blind, battered, uneven look, as of faces
beaten and bandaged. As we walked, the air of abandonment grew
more and more disturbing, as if we were roaming some planet
depopulated by radiation or disease.
“They built this shit way too far out,” said Boris. “Now the
desert is taking it back. And the banks.” He laughed. “Fuck
Thoreau, eh?”
“This whole town is like a big Fuck You to Thoreau.”
“I’ll tell you who’s fucked. People who own these houses.
Can’t even get water out to a lot of them. They all get taken back
because people can’t pay—that’s why my dad rents our place so
bloody cheap.”
“Huh,” I said, after a slight, startled pause. It had not
occurred to me to wonder how my father had been able to afford
quite such a big house as ours.
“M y dad digs mines,” said Boris unexpectedly.
“Sorry?”
He raked the sweaty dark hair out of his face. “People hate
us, everywhere we go. Because they promise the mine won’t harm
the environment, and then the mine harms the environment. But
here—” he shrugged in a fatalistic, Russianate way—“my God,
this fucking sand pit, who cares?”
“Huh,” I said, struck by the way our voices carried down the
deserted street, “it’s really empty down here, isn’t it?”
“Yes. A graveyard. Only one other family living here—those
people, down there. Big truck out front, see? Illegal immigrants, I
think.”
“You and your dad are legal, right?” It was a problem at
school: some of the kids weren’t; there were posters about it in the
hallways.
He made a pfft, ridiculous sound. “Of course. The mine takes
care of it. Or somebody. But those people down there? M aybe
twenty, thirty of them, all men, all living in one house. Drug
dealers maybe.”
“You think?”
“Something very funny going on,” said Boris darkly. “That’s
all I know.”
Boris’s house—flanked by two vacant lots overflowing with
garbage—was much like Dad and Xandra’s: wall-to-wall carpet,
spanking-new appliances, same floor plan, not much furniture. But
indoors, it was much too warm for comfort; the pool was dry, with
a few inches of sand at the bottom, and there was no pretense of a
yard, not even cactuses. All the surfaces—the appliances, the
counters, the kitchen floor—were lightly filmed with grit.
“Something to drink?” said Boris, opening the refrigerator to a
gleaming rank of German beer bottles.
“Oh, wow, thanks.”
“In New Guinea,” said Boris, wiping his forehead with the
back of his hand, “when I lived there, yah? We had a bad flood.
Snakes… very dangerous and scary… unexploded mine shells from
Second World War floating up in the yard… many geese died.
Anyway—” he said, cracking open a beer—“all our water went
bad. Typhus. All we had was beer—Pepsi was all gone, Lucozade
was all gone, iodine tablets gone, three whole weeks, my dad and
me, even the M uslims, nothing to drink but beer! Lunch, breakfast,
everything.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
He made a face. “Had a headache the whole time. Local beer,
in New Guinea—very bad tasting. This is the good stuff! There’s
vodka in the freezer too.”
I started to say yes, to impress him, but then I thought of the
heat and the walk home and said, “No thanks.”
He clinked his bottle against mine. “I agree. M uch too hot to
drink it in the day. M y dad drinks it so much the nerves are gone
dead in his feet.”
“Seriously?”
“It’s called—” he screwed up his face, in an effort to get the
words out—“peripheral neuropathy” (pronounced, by him, as
“peripheral neuropathy”). “In Canada, in hospital, they had to
teach him to walk again. He stood up—he fell on the floor—his
nose is bleeding—hilarious.”
“Sounds entertaining,” I said, thinking of the time I’d seen my
own dad crawling on his hands and knees to get ice from the fridge.
“Very. What does yours drink? Your dad?”
“Scotch. When he drinks. Supposedly he’s quit now.”
“Hah,” said Boris, as if he’d heard this one before. “M y dad
should switch—good Scotch is very cheap here. Say, want to see
my room?”
I was expecting something on the order of my own room, and
I was surprised when he opened the door into a sort of ragtag
tented space, reeking of stale M arlboros, books piled everywhere,
old beer bottles and ashtrays and heaps of old towels and
unwashed clothes spilling over on the carpet. The walls billowed
with printed fabric—yellow, green, indigo, purple—and a red
hammer-and-sickle flag hung over the batik-draped mattress. It was
as if a Russian cosmonaut had crashed in the jungle and fashioned
himself a shelter of his nation’s flag and whatever native sarongs
and textiles he could find.
“You did this?” I said.
“I fold it up and put it in a suitcase,” said Boris, throwing
himself down on the wildly-colored mattress. “Takes only ten
minutes to put it up again. Do you want to watch S.O.S. Iceberg?”
“Sure.”
“Awesome movie. I’ve seen it six times. Like when she gets
in her plane to rescue them on the ice?”
But somehow we never got around to watching S.O.S.
Iceberg that afternoon, maybe because we couldn’t stop talking
long enough to go downstairs and turn on the television. Boris had
had a more interesting life than any person of my own age I had
ever met. It seemed that he had only infrequently attended school,
and those of the very poorest sort; out in the desolate places where
his dad worked, often there were no schools for him to go to.
“There are tapes?” he said, swigging his beer with one eye on me.
“And tests to take. Except you have to be in a place with Internet
and sometimes like far up in Canada or Ukraine we don’t have
that.”
“So what do you do?”
He shrugged. “Read a lot, I guess.” A teacher in Texas, he
said, had pulled a syllabus off the Internet for him.
“They must have had a school in Alice Springs.”
Boris laughed. “Sure they did,” he said, blowing a sweaty
strand of hair out of his face. “But after my mum died, we lived in
Northern Territory for a while—Arnhem Land—town called
Karmeywallag? Town, so called. M iles in the middle of nowhere—
trailers for the miners to live in and a petrol station with a bar in
back, beer and whiskey and sandwiches. Anyway, wife of M ick
that ran the bar, Judy her name was? All I did—” he took a messy
slug of his beer—“all I did, every day, was watch soaps with Judy
and stay behind the bar with her at night while my dad and his
crew from the mine got thrashed. Couldn’t even get television
during monsoon. Judy kept her tapes in the fridge so they
wouldn’t get ruined.”
“Ruined how?”
“M old growing in the wet. M old on your shoes, on your
books.” He shrugged. “Back then I didn’t talk so much as I do
now, because I didn’t speak English so well. Very shy, sat alone,
stayed always to myself. But Judy? She talked to me anyway, and
was kind, even though I didn’t understand a lick of what she said.
Every morning I would go to her, she would cook me my same nice
fry. Rain rain rain. Sweeping, washing dishes, helping to clean the
bar. Everywhere I followed like a baby goose. This is cup, this is
broom, this is bar stool, this pencil. That was my school.
Television—Duran Duran tapes and Boy George—everything in
English. McLeod’s Daughters was her favorite programme.
Always we watched together, and when I didn’t know something?
She explained to me. And we talked about the sisters, and we cried
when Claire died in the car wreck, and she said if she had a place
like Drover’s? she would take me to live there and be happy
together and we would have all women to work for us like the
M cLeods. She was very young and pretty. Curly blonde hair and
blue stuff on her eyes. Her husband called her slut and horse’s arse
but I thought she looked like Jodi on the show. All day long she
talked to me and sang—taught me the words of all the jukebox
songs. ‘Dark in the city, the night is alive…’ Soon I had developed
quite proficiency. Speak English, Boris! I had a little English from
school in Poland, hello excuse me thank you very much, but two
months with her I was chatter chatter chatter! Never stopped
talking since! She was very nice and kind to me always. Even
though she went in the kitchen and cried every day because she
hated Karmeywallag so much.”
It was getting late, but still hot and bright out. “Say, I’m
starving,” said Boris, standing up and stretching so that a band of
stomach showed between his fatigues and ragged shirt: concave,
dead white, like a starved saint’s.
“What’s to eat?”
“Bread and sugar.”
“You’re kidding.”
Boris yawned, wiped red eyes. “You never ate bread with
sugar poured on it?”
“Nothing else?”
He gave a weary-looking shrug. “I have a coupon for pizza.
Fat lot of good. They don’t deliver this far out.”
“I thought you had a cook where you used to live.”
“Yah, we did. In Indonesia. Saudi Arabia too.” He was
smoking a cigarette—I’d refused the one he offered me; he seemed
a little trashed, drifting and bopping around the room like there was
music on, although there wasn’t. “Very cool guy named Abdul
Fataah. That means ‘Servant of the Opener of the Gates of
Sustenance.’ ”
“Well, look. Let’s go to my house, then.”
He flung himself down on the bed with his hands between his
knees. “Don’t tell me the slag cooks.”
“No, but she works in a bar with a buffet. Sometimes she
brings home food and stuff.”
“Brilliant,” said Boris, reeling slightly as he stood. He’d had
three beers and was working on a fourth. At the door, he took an
umbrella and handed me one.
“Um, what’s this for?”
He opened it and stepped outside. “Cooler to walk under,” he
said, his face blue in the shade. “And no sunburn.”
xii.
BEFORE BORIS, I HAD borne my solitude stoically enough, without
realizing quite how alone I was. And I suppose if either of us had
lived in an even halfway normal household, with curfews and
chores and adult supervision, we wouldn’t have become quite so
inseparable, so fast, but almost from that day we were together all
the time, scrounging our meals and sharing what money we had.
In New York, I had grown up around a lot of worldly kids—
kids who’d lived abroad and spoke three or four languages, who did
summer programs at Heidelberg and spent their holidays in places
like Rio or Innsbruck or Cap d’Antibes. But Boris—like an old sea
captain—put them all to shame. He had ridden a camel; he had
eaten witchetty grubs, played cricket, caught malaria, lived on the
street in Ukraine (“but for two weeks only”), set off a stick of
dynamite by himself, swum in Australian rivers infested with
crocodiles. He had read Chekhov in Russian, and authors I’d never
heard of in Ukrainian and Polish. He had endured midwinter
darkness in Russia where the temperature dropped to forty below:
endless blizzards, snow and black ice, the only cheer the green
neon palm tree that burned twenty-four hours a day outside the
provincial bar where his father liked to drink. Though he was only
a year older than me—fifteen—he’d had actual sex with a girl, in
Alaska, someone he’d bummed a cigarette off in the parking lot of a
convenience store. She’d asked him if he wanted to sit in her car
with her, and that was that. (“But you know what?” he said,
blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth. “I don’t think she
liked it very much.”
“Did you?”
“God, yes. Although, I’m telling you, I know I wasn’t doing
it right. I think was too cramped in the car.”)
Every day, we rode home on the bus together. At the halffinished Community Center on the edge of Desatoya Estates,
where the doors were padlocked and the palm trees stood dead and
brown in the planters, there was an abandoned playground where
we bought sodas and melted candy bars from the dwindling stock
in the vending machines, sat around outside on the swings, smoking
and talking. His bad tempers and black moods, which were
frequent, alternated with unsound bursts of hilarity; he was wild
and gloomy, he could make me laugh sometimes until my sides
ached, and we always had so much to say that we often lost track
of time and stayed outside talking until well past dark. In Ukraine,
he had seen an elected official shot in the stomach walking to his
car—just happened to witness it, not the shooter, just the broadshouldered man in a too-small overcoat falling to his knees in
darkness and snow. He told me about his tiny tin-roof school near
the Chippewa reservation in Alberta, sang nursery songs in Polish
for me (“For homework, in Poland, we are usually learning a poem
or song by heart, a prayer maybe, something like that”) and taught
me to swear in Russian (“This is the true mat—from the gulags”).
He told me too how, in Indonesia, he had been converted to Islam
by his friend Bami the cook: giving up pork, fasting during
Ramadan, praying to M ecca five times a day. “But I’m not
M uslim any more,” he explained, dragging his toe in the dust. We
were lying on our backs on the merry-go-round, dizzy from
spinning. “I gave it up a while back.”
“Why?”
“Because I drink.” (This was the understatement of the year;
Boris drank beer the way other kids drank Pepsi, starting pretty
much the instant we came home from school.)
“But who cares?” I said. “Why does anybody have to
know?”
He made an impatient noise. “Because is wrong to profess
faith if I don’t observe properly. Disrespectful to Islam.”
“Still. ‘Boris of Arabia.’ It has a ring.”
“Fuck you.”
“No, seriously,” I said, laughing, raising up on my elbows.
“Did you really believe in all that?”
“All what?”
“You know. Allah and M uhammad. ‘There is no God but
God’—?”
“No,” he said, a bit angrily, “my Islam was a political thing.”
“What, you mean like the shoe bomber?”
He snorted with laughter. “Fuck, no. Besides, Islam doesn’t
teach violence.”
“Then what?”
He came up off the merry-go-round, alert gaze: “What do you
mean, what? What are you trying to say?”
“Back off! I’m asking a question.”
“Which is—?”
“If you converted to it and all, then what did you believe?”
He fell back and chortled as if I’d let him off the hook.
“Believe? Ha! I don’t believe in anything.”
“What? You mean now?”
“I mean never. Well—the Virgin M ary, a little. But Allah and
God…? not so much.”
“Then why the hell did you want to be M uslim?”
“Because—” he held out his hands, as he did sometimes when
he was at a loss—“such wonderful people, they were all so
friendly to me!”
“That’s a start.”
“Well, it was, really. They gave me an Arabic name—Badr alDine. Badr is moon, it means something like moon of faithfulness,
but they said, ‘Boris, you are badr because you light everywhere,
being M uslim now, lighting the world with your religion, you shine
wherever you go.’ I loved it, being Badr. Also, the mosque was
brilliant. Falling-down palace—stars shining through at night—
birds in the roof. An old Javanese man taught us the Koran. And
they fed me too, and were kind, and made sure I was clean and had
clean clothes. Sometimes I fell asleep on my prayer rug. And at
salah, near dawn, when the birds woke up, always the sound of
wings beating!”
Though his Australo-Ukrainian accent was certainly very
odd, he was almost as fluent in English as I was; and considering
what a short time he’d lived in America he was reasonably
conversant in amerikanskii ways. He was always poring through
his torn-up pocket dictionary (his name scrawled in Cyrillic on the
front, with the English carefully lettered beneath: BORYS
VOLODYMYROVYCH P AVLIKOVSKY ) and I was always finding old 7Eleven napkins and bits of scratch paper with lists of words and
terms he’d made:
bridle and domesticate
celerity
trattoria
wise guy = Kpymo
a aH
propinquity
Dereliction of duty.
When his dictionary failed him, he consulted me. “What is
Sophomore?” he asked me, scanning the bulletin board in the halls
at school. “Home Ec? Poly Sci?” (pronounced, by him, as
“politzei”). He had never heard of most of the food in the cafeteria
lunch: fajitas, falafel, turkey tetrazzini. Though he knew a lot about
movies and music, he was decades behind the times; he didn’t have
a clue about sports or games or television, and—apart from a few
big European brands like M ercedes and BM W—couldn’t tell one
car from another. American money confused him, and sometimes
too American geography: in what province was California located?
Could I tell him which city was the capital of New England?
But he was used to being on his own. Cheerfully he got
himself up for school, hitched his own rides, signed his own report
cards, shoplifted his own food and school supplies. Once every
week or so we walked miles out of our way in the suffocating heat,
shaded beneath umbrellas like Indonesian tribesmen, to catch the
poky local bus called the CAT, which as far as I could tell no one
rode out our way except drunks, people too poor to have a car, and
kids. It ran infrequently, and if we missed it we had to stand
around for a while waiting for the next bus, but among its stops
was a shopping plaza with a chilly, gleaming, understaffed
supermarket where Boris stole steaks for us, butter, boxes of tea,
cucumbers (a great delicacy for him), packages of bacon—even
cough syrup once, when I had a cold—slipping them in the
cutaway lining of his ugly gray raincoat (a man’s coat, much too
big for him, with drooping shoulders and a grim Eastern Bloc look
about it, a suggestion of food rationing and Soviet-era factories,
industrial complexes in Lviv or Odessa). As he wandered around I
stood lookout at the head of the aisle, so shaky with nerves I
sometimes worried I would black out—but soon I was filling my
own pockets with apples and chocolate (other favored food items
of Boris’s) before walking up brazenly to the counter to buy bread
and milk and other items too big to steal.
Back in New York, when I was eleven or so, my mother had
signed me up for a Kids in the Kitchen class at my day camp,
where I’d learned to cook a few simple meals: hamburgers, grilled
cheese (which I’d sometimes made for my mother on nights she
worked late), and what Boris called “egg and toasts.” Boris, who
sat on the countertop kicking the cabinets with his heels and
talking to me while I cooked, did the washing-up. In the Ukraine,
he told me, he’d sometimes picked pockets for money to eat. “Got
chased, once or twice,” he said. “Never caught, though.”
“M aybe we should go down to the Strip sometime,” I said.
We were standing at the kitchen counter at my house with knives
and forks, eating our steaks straight from the frying pan. “If we
were going to do it, that’d be the place. I never saw so many drunk
people and they’re all from out of town.”
He stopped chewing; he looked shocked. “And why should
we? When so easy to steal here, from so big stores!”
“Just saying.” M y money from the doormen—which Boris
and I spent a few dollars at a time, in vending machines and at the
7-Eleven near school that Boris called “the magazine”—would hold
out a while, but not forever.
“Ha! And what will I do if you are arrested, Potter?” he said,
dropping a fat piece of steak down to the dog, whom he had taught
to dance on his hind legs. “Who will cook the dinner? And who
will look after Snaps here?” Xandra’s dog Popper he’d taken to
calling ‘Amyl’ and ‘Nitrate’ and ‘Popchik’ and ‘Snaps’—anything
but his real name. I’d started bringing him in even though I wasn’t
supposed to because I was so tired of him always straining at the
end of his chain trying to look in at the glass door and yapping his
head off. But inside he was surprisingly quiet; starved for
attention, he stuck close to us wherever we went, trotting
anxiously at our heels, upstairs and down, curling up to sleep on
the rug while Boris and I read and quarrelled and listened to music
up in my room.
“Seriously, Boris,” I said, pushing the hair from my eyes (I
was badly in need of a haircut, but didn’t want to spend the
money), “I don’t see much difference in stealing wallets and
stealing steaks.”
“Big difference, Potter.” He held his hands apart to show me
just how big. “Stealing from working person? And stealing from big
rich company that robs the people?”
“Costco doesn’t rob the people. It’s a discount
supermarket.”
“Fine then. Steal essentials of life from private citizen. This is
your so-smart plan. Hush,” he said to the dog, who’d barked
sharply for more steak.
“I wouldn’t steal from some poor working person,” I said,
tossing Popper a piece of steak myself. “There are plenty of
sleazy people walking around Vegas with wads of cash.”
“Sleazy?”
“Dodgy. Dishonest.”
“Ah.” The pointed dark eyebrow went up. “Fair enough. But
if you steal money from sleazy person, like gangster, they are
likely to hurt you, nie?”
“You weren’t scared of getting hurt in Ukraine?”
He shrugged. “Beaten up, maybe. Not shot.”
“Shot?”
“Yes, shot. Don’t look surprised. This cowboy country, who
knows? Everyone has guns.”
“I’m not saying a cop. I’m saying drunk tourists. The place is
crawling with them Saturday night.”
“Ha!” He put the pan down on the floor for the dog to finish
off. “Likely you will end up in jail, Potter. Loose morals, slave to
the economy. Very bad citizen, you.”
xiii.
BY THIS TIME —OCTOBER or so—we were eating together almost
every night. Boris, who’d often had three or four beers before
dinner, switched over at mealtimes to hot tea. Then, after a postdinner shot of vodka, a habit I soon picked up from him (“It helps
you digest the food,” Boris explained), we lolled around reading,
doing homework, and sometimes arguing, and often drank ourselves
to sleep in front of the television.
“Don’t go!” said Boris, one night at his house when I stood
up toward the end of The Magnificent Seven—the final gunfight,
Yul Brynner rounding up his men. “You’ll miss the best part.”
“Yeah, but it’s almost eleven.”
Boris—lying on the floor—raised himself on an elbow. Longhaired, narrow-chested, weedy and thin, he was Yul Brynner’s
exact opposite in most respects and yet there was also an odd
familial resemblance: they had the same sly, watchful quality,
amused and a bit cruel, something M ongol or Tatar in the slant of
the eyes.
“Call Xandra to come collect you,” he said with a yawn.
“What time does she get off work?”
“Xandra? Forget it.”
Again Boris yawned, eyes heavy-lidded with vodka. “Sleep
here, then,” he said, rolling over and scrubbing his face with one
hand. “Will they miss you?”
Were they even coming home? Some nights they didn’t.
“Doubtful,” I said.
“Hush,” said Boris—reaching for his cigarettes, sitting up.
“Watch now. Here come the bad guys.”
“You saw this movie before?”
“Dubbed into Russian, if you can believe it. But very weak
Russian. Sissy. Is sissy the word I want? M ore like schoolteachers
than gunfighters, is what I’m trying to say.”
xiv.
T HOUGH I’D BEEN MISERABLE with grief at the Barbours’, I now
thought longingly of the apartment on Park Avenue as a lost Eden.
And though I had access to email on the computer at school, Andy
wasn’t much of a writer, and the messages I got in reply were
frustratingly impersonal. (Hi, Theo. Hope you enjoyed your
summer. Daddy got a new boat [the Absalom]. Mother will not set
foot upon it but unfortunately I was compelled. Japanese II is giving
me some headaches but everything else is fine.) M rs. Barbour
dutifully answered the paper letters I sent—a line or two on her
monogrammed correspondence cards from Dempsey and Carroll—
but there was never anything personal. She always asked how are
you? and closed with thinking about you, but there was never any
we miss you or we wish we could see you.
I wrote to Pippa, in Texas, though she was too ill to answer
—which was just as well, since most of the letters I never sent.
Dear Pippa,
How are you? How do you like Texas? I’ve thought
about you a lot. Have you been riding that horse you
like? Things are great here. I wonder if it’s hot there,
since it’s so hot here.
That was boring; I threw it away, and started again.
Dear Pippa,
How are you? I’ve been thinking about you and hoping
you are okay. I hope that things are going okay
wonderful for you in Texas. I have to say, I sort of hate
it here, but I’ve made some friends and am getting used
to it a bit, I guess.
I wonder if you get homesick? I do. I miss New York
a lot. I wish we lived closer together. How is your head
now? Better, I hope. I’m sorry that
“Is that your girlfriend?” said Boris—crunching an apple,
reading over my shoulder.
“Shove off.”
“What happened to her?” he said and then, when I didn’t
reply: “Did you hit her?”
“What?” I said, only half listening.
“Her head? That’s why you’re apologizing? You hit her or
something?”
“Yeah, right,” I said—and then, from his earnest, intent
expression, realized he was perfectly serious.
“You think I beat girls up?” I said.
He shrugged. “She might have deserved it.”
“Um, we don’t hit women in America.”
He scowled, and spit out an apple seed. “No. Americans just
persecute smaller countries that believe different from them.”
“Boris, shut up and leave me alone.”
But he had rattled me with his comment and rather than start
a new letter to Pippa, I began one to Hobie.
Dear M r. Hobart,
Hello, how are you? Well, I hope. I have never written
to thank you for your kindness during my last weeks in
New York. I hope that you and Cosmo are okay, though
I know you both miss Pippa. How is she? I hope she’s
been able to go back to her music. I hope too
But I didn’t send that one either. Hence I was delighted when
a letter arrived—a long letter, on real paper—from none other than
Hobie.
“What’ve you got there?” said my father suspiciously—
spotting the New York postmark, snatching the letter from my
hand.
“What?”
But my dad had already torn the envelope open. He scanned
it, quickly, and then lost interest. “Here,” he said, handing it back
to me. “Sorry, kiddo. M y mistake.”
The letter itself was beautiful, as a physical artifact: rich
paper, careful penmanship, a whisper of quiet rooms and money.
Dear Theo,
I’ve wanted to hear how you are and yet I’m glad I
haven’t, as I hope this means you are happy and busy.
Here, the leaves have turned, Washington Square is
sodden and yellow, and it’s getting cold. On Saturday
mornings, Cosmo and I mooch around the Village—I
pick him up and carry him into the cheese shop—not
sure that’s entirely legal but the girls behind the counter
save him bits and bobs of cheese. He misses Pippa as
much as I do but—like me—still enjoys his meals.
Sometimes we eat by the fireplace now that Jack Frost
is on us.
I hope that you’re settling in there a bit and have
made some friends. When I talk to Pippa on the
telephone she doesn’t seem very happy where she is,
though her health is certainly better. I am going to fly
down there for Thanksgiving. I don’t know how pleased
M argaret will be to have me, but Pippa wants me so I’ll
go. If they allow me to carry Cosmo on the plane I
might bring him, too.
I’m enclosing a photo that I thought you might enjoy
—of a Chippendale bureau that has just arrived, very
bad repair, I was told it was stored in an unheated shed
up around Watervliet, New York. Very scarred, very
nicked, and the top’s in two pieces—but—look at those
swept-back, weight-bearing talons on that ball-andclaw! the feet don’t come out well in the photo, but you
can really see the pressure of the claws digging in. It’s a
masterpiece, and I only wish it had been better looked
after. I don’t know if you can see the remarkable
graining on the top—extraordinary.
As for the shop: I open it a few times a week by
appointment, but mostly I keep myself busy below
stairs with things sent to me by private clients. M rs.
Skolnik and several people in the neighborhood have
asked about you—everything’s much the same here,
except M rs. Cho at the Korean market had a little stroke
(very little, she’s back at work now). Also that coffee
shop on Hudson that I liked so much has gone out of
business—very sad. I walked by this morning and it
looks as if they’re turning it into a—well, I don’t know
what you’d call it. Some sort of Japanese novelty store.
I see that as usual I’ve gone on too long and that I’m
running out of room, but I do hope that you are happy
and well, and it’s all a little less lonely out there than
you may have feared. If there’s anything I can do for
you back here, or if I can help you in any way, please
know that I will.
xv.
T HAT NIGHT, AT BORIS’ S—lying drunk on my half of the batikdraped mattress—I tried to remember what Pippa had looked like.
But the moon was so large and clear through the uncurtained
window that it made me think instead of a story my mother had
told me, about driving to horse shows with her mother and father
in the back seat of their old Buick when she was little. “It was a lot
of travelling—ten hours sometimes through hard country. Ferris
wheels, rodeo rings with sawdust, everything smelled like popcorn
and horse manure. One night we were in San Antonio, and I was
having a bit of a melt-down—wanting my own room, you know,
my dog, my own bed—and Daddy lifted me up on the fairgrounds
and told me to look at the moon. ‘When you feel homesick,’ he
said, ‘just look up. Because the moon is the same wherever you
go.’ So after he died, and I had to go to Aunt Bess—I mean, even
now, in the city, when I see a full moon, it’s like he’s telling me not
to look back or feel sad about things, that home is wherever I am.”
She kissed me on the nose. “Or where you are, puppy. The center
of my earth is you.”
A rustle, next to me. “Potter?” said Boris. “You awake?”
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “What does the moon
look like in Indonesia?”
“What are you on about?”
“Or, I don’t know, Russia? Is it just the same as here?”
He rapped me lightly on the side of the head with his
knuckles—a gesture of his that I had come to know, meaning idiot.
“Same everywhere,” he said, yawning, propping himself up on his
scrawny braceleted wrist. “And why?”
“Dunno,” I said, and then, after a tense pause: “Do you hear
that?”
A door had slammed. “What’s that?” I said, rolling to face
him. We looked at each other, listening. Voices downstairs—
laughter, people knocking around, a crash like something had been
knocked over.
“Is that your dad?” I said, sitting up—and then I heard a
woman’s voice, drunken and shrill.
Boris sat up too, bony and sickly-pale in the light through the
window. Downstairs, it sounded like they were throwing things
and pushing furniture around.
“What are they saying?” I whispered.
Boris listened. I could see all the bolts and hollows in his
neck. “Bullshit,” he said. “They’re drunk.”
The two of us sat there, listening—Boris more intently than
me.
“Who’s that with him then?” I said.
“Some whore.” He listened for a moment, brow furrowed, his
profile sharp in the moonlight, and then lay back down. “Two of
them.”
I rolled over, and checked my iPod. It was 3:17 in the
morning.
“Fuck,” groaned Boris, scratching his stomach. “Why don’t
they shut up?”
“I’m thirsty,” I said, after a timid pause.
He snorted. “Ha! You don’t want to go out there now, trust
me.”
“What are they doing?” I asked. One of the women had just
screamed—whether in laughter or fright, I couldn’t tell.
We lay there, stiff as boards, staring at the ceiling, listening to
the ominous crashing and bumping-around.
“Ukrainian?” I said, after a bit. Though I couldn’t understand
a word of what they were saying, I’d been around Boris enough
that I was beginning to differentiate the intonations of spoken
Ukrainian from Russian.
“Top marks, Potter.” Then: “Light me a cigarette.”
We passed it back and forth, in the dark, until another door
slammed somewhere and the voices died down. At last, Boris
exhaled, a final smoky sigh, and rolled over to stub it out in the
overflowing ashtray beside the bed. “Good night,” he whispered.
“Good night.”
He fell asleep almost immediately—I could tell from his
breathing—but I lay awake a lot longer, with a scratchy throat,
feeling light-headed and sick from the cigarette. How had I fetched
up into this strange new life, where drunk foreigners shouted
around me in the night, and all my clothes were dirty, and nobody
loved me? Boris—oblivious—snored beside me. At last, towards
dawn, when I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of my mother: sitting
across from me on the 6 train, swaying slightly, her face calm in the
flickering artificial lights.
What are you doing here? she said. Go home! Right now! I’ll
meet you at the apartment. Only the voice wasn’t quite right; and
when I looked more closely I saw it wasn’t her at all, only
someone pretending to be her. And with a gasp and a start, I woke
up.
xvi.
BORIS’ S FATHER WAS A mysterious figure. As Boris explained it: he
was often on site in the middle of nowhere, at his mine, where he
stayed with his crew for weeks at a time. “Doesn’t wash,” said
Boris austerely. “Stays filthy drunk.” The beaten-up short wave
radio in the kitchen belonged to him (“From Brezhnev era,” said
Boris; “he won’t throw it away”), and so were the Russianlanguage newspapers and USA Todays I sometimes found around.
One day I’d walked into one of the bathrooms at Boris’s house
(which were fairly grim—no shower curtain or toilet seat, upstairs
or down, and black stuff growing in the tub) and got a bad start
from one of his dad’s suits, soaking wet and smelly, dangling like a
dead thing from the shower rod: scratchy, misshapen, of lumpy
brown wool the color of dug roots, it dripped horribly on the floor
like some moist-breathing golem from the old country or maybe a
garment dredged up in a police net.
“What?” said Boris, when I emerged.
“Your dad washes his own suits?” I said. “In the sink in
there?”
Boris—leaning against the frame of the door, gnawing the side
of his thumb nail—shrugged evasively.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, and then, when he kept on
looking at me: “What? They don’t have dry cleaning in Russia?”
“He has plenty of jewelry and posh,” growled Boris around
the side of his thumb. “Rolex watch, Ferragamo shoes. He can
clean his suit however he wants.”
“Right,” I said, and changed the subject. Several weeks passed
with no thought of Boris’s dad at all. But then came the day when
Boris slid in late to Honors English with a wine colored bruise
under his eye.
“Ah, got it in the face with a football,” he said in a cheery
voice when M rs. Spear (‘Spirsetskaya,’ as he called her) asked
him, suspiciously, what had happened.
This, I knew, was a lie. Glancing over at him, across the aisle,
I wondered throughout our listless class discussion of Ralph Waldo
Emerson how he’d managed to black his eye after I’d left him the
previous night to go home and walk Popper—Xandra left him tied
up outside so much that I was starting to feel responsible for him.
“What’d you do?” I said when I caught up with him after
class.
“Eh?”
“How’d you get that?”
He winked. “Oh, come on,” he said, bumping his shoulder
against mine.
“What? Were you drunk?”
“M y dad came home,” he said, and then, when I didn’t
answer: “What else, Potter? What did you think?”
“Jesus, why?”
He shrugged. “Glad you’d gone,” he said, rubbing his good
eye. “Couldn’t believe when he showed up. Was sleeping on the
couch downstairs. At first I thought it was you.”
“What happened?”
“Ah,” said Boris, sighing extravagantly; he’d been smoking on
the way to school, I could smell it on his breath. “He saw the beer
bottles on the floor.”
“He hit you because you were drinking?”
“Because he was fucking plastered, is why. He was drunk as
a log—I don’t think he knew it was me he was hitting. This
morning—he saw my face, he cried and was sorry. Anyway, he
won’t be back for a while.”
“Why not?”
“He’s got a lot going on out there, he said. Won’t be back for
three weeks. The mine is close to one of those places where they
have the state-run brothels, you know?”
“They aren’t state-run,” I said—and then found myself
wondering if they were.
“Well, you know what I mean. One good thing though—he
left me moneys.”
“How much?”
“Four thousand.”
“You’re kidding.”
“No, no—” he slapped his forehead—“thinking in roubles,
sorry! About two hundred dollars, but still. Should have asked for
more but I didn’t have the nerve.”
We’d reached the juncture of the hallway where I had to turn
for algebra and Boris had to turn for American Government: the
bane of his existence. It was a required course—easy even by the
desultory standards of our school—but trying to get Boris to
understand about the Bill of Rights, and the enumerated versus
implied powers of the U.S. Congress, reminded me of the time I’d
tried to explain to M rs. Barbour what an Internet server was.
“Well, see you after class,” said Boris. “Explain again, before
I go, what’s the difference between Federal Bank and Federal
Reserve?”
“Did you tell anybody?”
“Tell what?”
“You know.”
“What, you want to report me?” said Boris, laughing.
“Not you. Him.”
“And why? Why is that a good idea? Tell me. So I can get
deported?”
“Right,” I said, after an uncomfortable pause.
“So—we should eat out tonight!” said Boris. “In a restaurant!
M aybe the M exican.” Boris, after initial suspicion and complaint,
had grown to like M exican food—unknown in Russia, he said, not
bad when you got used to it, though if it was too spicy he
wouldn’t touch it. “We can take the bus.”
“The Chinese is closer. And the food is better.”
“Yah, but—remember?”
“Oh, yeah, right,” I said. The last time we’d eaten there we’d
slipped out without paying. “Forget that.”
xvii.
BORIS LIKED XANDRA A lot better than I did: leaping forward to
open doors for her, saying he liked her new haircut, offering to
carry things. I’d teased him about her ever since I’d caught him
looking down her top when she leaned to reach her cell phone on
the kitchen counter.
“God, she’s hot,” said Boris, once we were up in my room.
“Think your dad would mind?”
“Probably wouldn’t notice.”
“No, serious, what do you think your dad would do to me?”
“If what?”
“If me and Xandra.”
“I dunno, probably call the police.”
He snorted, derisively. “What for?”
“Not you. Her. Statutory rape.”
“I wish.”
“Go on and fuck her if you want,” I said. “I don’t care if she
goes to jail.”
Boris rolled over on his stomach and looked at me slyly. “She
takes cocaine, do you know that?”
“What?”
“Cocaine.” He mimed sniffing.
“You’re kidding,” I said, and then, when he smirked at me:
“How can you tell?”
“I just know. From the way she talks. Also she’s grinding her
teeth. Watch her sometime.”
I didn’t know what to watch for. But then one afternoon we
came in when my dad wasn’t home and saw her straightening up
from the coffee table with a sniff, holding her hair behind her neck
with one hand. When she threw her head back, and her eyes landed
on us, there was a moment where nobody said anything and then
she turned away as if we weren’t there.
We kept walking, up the stairs to my room. Though I’d never
seen anybody snorting drugs before, it was clear even to me what
she was doing.
“God, sexy,” said Boris, after I shut the door. “Wonder
where she keeps it?”
“Dunno,” I said, flopping down on my bed. Xandra was just
leaving; I could hear her car in the driveway.
“Think she’ll give us some?”
“She might give you some.”
Boris sank down to sit on the floor by the bed, with his knee
up and his back against the wall. “Do you think she’s selling it?”
“No way,” I said, after a slight, disbelieving pause. “You
think?”
“Ha! Good for you, if she is.”
“How’s that?”
“Cash around the house!”
“Fat lot of good that does me.”
He swung his shrewd, appraising gaze over to me. “Who
pays the bills here, Potter?” he said.
“Huh.” It was the first time that this question, which I
immediately recognized as of great practical importance, had even
occurred to me. “I don’t know. M y dad, I think. Though Xandra
puts in some too.”
“And where does he get it? His moneys?”
“No clue,” I said. “He talks to people on the telephone and
then he leaves the house.”
“Any checkbooks lying around? Any cash?”
“No. Never. Chips, sometimes.”
“As good as cash,” Boris said swiftly, spitting a bitten-off
thumbnail on the floor.
“Right. Except you can’t cash them in the casino if you’re
under eighteen.”
Boris chortled. “Come on. We figure out something, if we
have to. We dress you up in that poncy school jacket with the coat
of arms, send you to the window, ‘Excuse me, miss—’ ”
I rolled over and punched him hard, in the arm. “Fuck you,” I
said, stung by his drawling, snobbish rendering of my voice.
“Can’t be talking like that, Potter,” said Boris gleefully,
rubbing his arm. “They won’t give you a fucking cent. All I’m
saying is, I know where my dad’s checkbook is, and if there’s an
emergency—” he held out his open palms—“right?”
“Right.”
“I mean, if I have to write bad check, I write bad check,” said
Boris philosophically. “Good to know I can. I’m not saying, break
in their room and go through their things, but still, good idea to
keep your eye open, yes?”
xviii.
BORIS AND HIS FATHER didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and Xandra
and my dad had reservations for a Romantic Holiday Extravaganza
at a French restaurant in the M GM Grand. “Do you want to
come?” said my father when he saw me looking at the brochure on
the kitchen counter: hearts and fireworks, tricolor bunting over a
plate of roast turkey. “Or do you have something of your own to
do?”
“No thanks.” He was being nice, but the thought of being
with Dad and Xandra on their Romantic Holiday Whatever made
me uneasy. “I’ve got plans.”
“What are you doing then?”
“I’m having Thanksgiving with somebody else.”
“Who with?” said my dad, in a rare burst of parental
solicitude. “A friend?”
“Let me guess,” said Xandra—barefoot, in the M iami
Dolphins jersey she slept in, staring into the fridge. “The same
person who keeps eating these oranges and apples I bring home.”
“Oh, come on,” said my dad sleepily, coming up behind her
and putting his arms around her, “you like the little Russki—
what’s his name—Boris.”
“Sure I like him. Which is good, I guess, since he’s here
pretty much all the time. Shit,” she said—twisting away from him,
slapping her bare thigh—“who let this mosquito inside? Theo, I
don’t know why you can’t remember to keep that door to the pool
shut. I’ve told you and told you.”
“Well, you know, I could always have Thanksgiving with
you guys, if you’d rather,” I said blandly, leaning back against the
kitchen counter. “Why don’t I.”
I had intended this to annoy Xandra, and with pleasure I saw
that it did. “But the reservation’s for two,” said Xandra, flicking
her hair back and looking at my dad.
“Well, I’m sure they can work something out.”
“We’ll need to call ahead.”
“Fine then, call,” said my dad, giving her a slightly stoned pat
on the back and ambling on in to the living room to check on his
football scores.
Xandra and I stood looking at each other for a moment, and
then she looked away, as if into some bleak and untenable vision of
the future. “I need coffee,” she said listlessly.
“It wasn’t me who left that door open.”
“I don’t know who keeps doing it. All I know is, those weird
Amway-selling people over there didn’t drain their fountain before
they moved and now there’s a jillion mosquitoes everywhere I look
—I mean, there goes another one, shit.”
“Look, don’t be mad. I don’t have to come with you guys.”
She put down the box of coffee filters. “So, what are you
saying?” she said. “Should I change the reservation or not?”
“What are you two going on about?” called my father faintly
from the next room, from his nest of beringed coasters, old cigarette
packs, and marked-up baccarat sheets.
“Nothing,” called Xandra. Then, a few minutes later, as the
coffee maker began to hiss and pop, she rubbed her eye and said in
a sleep-roughened voice: “I never said I didn’t want you to come.”
“I know. I never said you did.” Then: “Also, just so you
know, it’s not me that leaves the door open. It’s Dad, when he
goes out there to talk on the phone.”
Xandra—reaching in the cabinet for her Planet Hollywood
coffee mug—looked back at me over her shoulder. “You’re not
really having dinner at his house?” she said. “The little Russki or
whatever?”
“Nah. We’ll just be here watching television.”
“Do you want me to bring you something?”
“Boris likes those cocktail sausages you bring home. And I
like the wings. The hot ones.”
“Anything else? What about those mini taquito things? You
like those too, don’t you?”
“That would be great.”
“Fine. I’ll hook you guys up. Just stay out of my cigarettes,
that’s all I ask. I don’t care if you smoke,” she said, raising a hand
to hush me, “it’s not like I’m busting you, but somebody’s been
stealing packs out of the carton in here and it’s costing me like
twenty-five bucks a week.”
xix.
EVER SINCE BORIS HAD shown up with the bruised eye, I had built
Boris’s father up in my mind to be some thick-necked Soviet with
pig eyes and a buzz haircut. In fact—as I was surprised to see,
when I did finally meet him—he was as thin and pale as a starved
poet. Chlorotic, with a sunken chest, he smoked incessantly, wore
cheap shirts that had grayed in the wash, drank endless cups of
sugary tea. But when you looked him in the eye you realized that
his frailty was deceptive. He was wiry, intense, bad temper
shimmering off him—small-boned and sharp-faced, like Boris, but
with an evil red-rimmed gaze and tiny, brownish sawteeth. He
made me think of a rabid fox.
Though I’d glimpsed him in passing, and heard him (or a
person I presumed was him) bumping around Boris’s house at
night, I didn’t actually meet him face-to-face until a few days
before Thanksgiving. Then we walked into Boris’s house one day
after school, laughing and talking, to find him hunched at the
kitchen table with a bottle and a glass. Despite his shabby clothes,
he was wearing expensive shoes and lots of gold jewelry; and when
he looked up at us with reddened eyes we shut up talking
immediately. Though he was a small, slightly built man, there was
something in his face that made you not want to get too close to
him.
“Hi,” I said tentatively.
“Hello,” he said—stony-faced, in a much thicker accent than
Boris—and then turned to Boris and said something in Ukrainian.
A brief conversation followed, which I observed with interest. It
was interesting to see the change that came over Boris when he was
speaking another language—a sort of livening, or alertness, a sense
of a different and more efficient person occupying his body.
Then—unexpectedly—M r. Pavlikovsky held out both hands
to me. “Thank you,” he said thickly.
Though I was afraid to approach him—it felt like
approaching a wild animal—I stepped forward anyway and held
out both my hands, awkwardly. He took them in his own, which
were hard-skinned and cold.
“You are good person,” he said. His gaze was bloodshot and
way too intense. I wanted to look away, and was ashamed of
myself.
“God be with you and bless you always,” he said. “You are
like a son to me. For letting my son come into your family.”
M y family? In confusion, I glanced over at Boris.
M r. Pavlikovsky’s eyes went to him. “You told him what I
said?”
“He said you are part of our family here,” said Boris, in a
bored voice, “and if there is anything ever he can do for you…”
To my great surprise, M r. Pavlikovsky pulled me close and
caught me in a solid embrace, while I closed my eyes and tried hard
to ignore his smell: hair cream, body odor, alcohol, and some sort
of sharp, disagreeably pungent cologne.
“What was that about?” I said quietly when we were up in
Boris’s room with the door shut.
Boris rolled his eyes. “Believe me. You don’t want to know.”
“Is he that loaded all the time? How does he keep his job?”
Boris cackled. “High official in the company,” he said. “Or
something.”
We stayed up in Boris’s murky, batik-draped room until we
heard his dad’s truck start up in the driveway. “He won’t be back
for a while,” Boris said, as I let the curtain fall back over the
window. “He feels bad for leaving me so much alone. He knows is
a holiday coming up, and he asked if I could stay at your house.”
“Well, you do all the time anyway.”
“He knows that,” said Boris, scraping the hair out of his
eyes. “That’s why he thanked you. But—I hope you don’t mind
—I gave him your wrong address.”
“Why?”
“Because—” he moved his legs to make room for me to sit by
him, without my having to ask—“I think maybe you don’t want
him rolling up drunk at your house in the middle of the night.
Waking your father and Xandra up out of bed. Also—if he ever
asks—he thinks your last name is Potter.”
“Why?”
“Is better this way,” said Boris calmly. “Trust me.”
xx.
BORIS AND I LAY on the floor in front of the television at my
house, eating potato chips and drinking vodka, watching the
M acy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It was snowing in New York. A
number of balloons had just passed—Snoopy, Ronald M cDonald,
SpongeBob, M r. Peanut—and a troupe of Hawaiian dancers in
loincloths and grass skirts was performing a number in Herald
Square.
“Glad that’s not me,” said Boris. “Bet they’re freezing their
arses off.”
“Yeah,” I said, though I had no eyes for the balloons or the
dancers or any of it. To see Herald Square on television made me
feel as if I were stranded millions of light-years from Earth and
picking up signals from the early days of radio, announcer voices
and audience applause from a vanished civilization.
“Idiots. Can’t believe they dress like that. They’ll end up in
hospital, those girls.” As fiercely as Boris complained about the
heat in Las Vegas, he also had an unshakable belief that anything
“cold” made people ill: unheated swimming pools, the airconditioning at my house, and even ice in drinks.
He rolled over on his back and passed me the bottle. “You
and your mother, you went to this parade?”
“Nah.”
“Why not?” said Boris, feeding Popper a potato chip.
“Nekulturny,” I said, a word I’d picked up from him. “And
too many tourists.”
He lit a cigarette, and offered me one. “Are you sad?”
“A little,” I said, leaning in to light it from his match. I
couldn’t stop thinking about the Thanksgiving before; it kept
playing and re-playing like a movie I couldn’t stop: my mother
padding around barefoot in old jeans with the knees sprung out,
opening a bottle of wine, pouring me some ginger ale in a
champagne glass, setting out some olives, turning up the stereo,
putting on her holiday joke apron, and unwrapping the turkey
breast she’d bought us in Chinatown, only to wrinkle her nose and
start back at the smell—“Oh God, Theo, this thing’s gone off,
open the door for me”—eyewatering ammonia reek, holding it out
before her like an undetonated grenade as she ran with it down the
fire stairs and out to the garbage can on the street while I—leaning
out from the window—made gleeful retching noises from on high.
We’d eaten an austere meal of canned green beans, canned
cranberries, and brown rice with toasted almonds: “Our Vegetarian
Socialist Thanksgiving,” she’d called it. We’d planned carelessly
because she had a project due at work; next year, she promised
(both of us tired from laughing; the spoiled turkey had for some
reason put us in an hilarious mood), we were renting a car and
driving to her friend Jed’s in Vermont, or else making reservations
someplace great like Gramercy Tavern. Only that future had not
happened; and I was celebrating my alcoholic potato-chip
Thanksgiving with Boris in front of the television.
“What are we going to eat, Potter?” said Boris, scratching his
stomach.
“What? Are you hungry?”
He waggled his hand sideways: comme ci, comme ça. “You?”
“Not especially.” The roof of my mouth was scraped raw
from eating so many chips, and the cigarettes had begun to make
me feel ill.
Suddenly Boris howled with laughter; he sat up. “Listen,” he
said—kicking me, pointing to the television. “Did you hear that?”
“What?”
“The news man. He just wished happy holiday to his kids.
‘Bastard and Casey.’ ”
“Oh, come on.” Boris was always mis-hearing English words
like this, aural malaprops, sometimes amusing but often just
irritating.
“ ‘Bastard and Casey!’ That’s hard, eh? Casey, all right, but
call his own kid ‘Bastard’ on holiday television?”
“That’s not what he said.”
“Fine, then, you know everything, what did he say?”
“How should I know what the fuck?”
“Then why do you argue with me? Why do you think you
always know better? What is the problem with this country? How
did so stupid nation get to be so arrogant and rich? Americans…
movie stars… TV people… they name their kids like Apple and
Blanket and Blue and Bastard and all kind of crazy things.”
“And your point is—?”
“M y point is like, democracy is excuse for any fucking thing.
Violence… greed… stupidity… anything is ok if Americans do it.
Right? Am I right?”
“You really can’t shut up, can you?”
“I know what I heard, ha! Bastard! Tell you what. If I
thought my kid was a bastard I would sure the fuck name him
something else.”
In the fridge, there were wings and taquitos and cocktail
sausages that Xandra had brought home, as well as dumplings from
the strip-mall Chinese where my father liked to eat, but by the
time we actually got around to eating, the bottle of vodka (Boris’s
contribution to Thanksgiving) was already half gone and we were
well on our way to being sick. Boris—who sometimes had a
serious streak when he was drunk, a Russianate bent for heavy
topics and unanswerable questions—was sitting on the marble
countertop waving around a fork with a cocktail sausage speared
on it and talking a bit wildly about poverty and capitalism and
climate change and how fucked up the world was.
At some disoriented point, I said: “Boris, shut up. I don’t
want to hear this.” He’d gone back to my room for my school
copy of Walden and was reading aloud a lengthy passage that
bolstered some point he was trying to make.
The thrown book—luckily a paperback—clipped me in the
cheekbone. “Ischézni! Get out!”
“This is my house, you ignorant fuck.”
The cocktail sausage—still impaled on the fork—sailed past
my head, missing me narrowly. But we were laughing. By midafternoon we were completely wrecked: rolling around on the
carpet, tripping each other, laughing and swearing, crawling on
hands and knees. A football game was on, and though it was an
annoyance to both of us it was too much trouble to find the remote
and change the channel. Boris was so hammered he kept trying to
talk to me in Russian.
“Speak English or shut up,” I said, trying to catch myself on
the banister, and ducking his swing so clumsily I crashed and fell
into the coffee table.
“Ty menjá dostál!! Poshël ty!”
“Gobble gobble gobble,” I replied in a whiny girl voice, face
down in the carpet. The floor was rocking and bucking like the
deck of a ship. “Balalaika pattycake.”
“Fucking télik,” said Boris, collapsing on the floor beside me,
kicking out ridiculously at the television. “Don’t want to watch
this shite.”
“Well I mean, fuck”—rolling over, clutching my stomach—“I
don’t either.” M y eyes weren’t tracking right, objects had halos
that shimmered out beyond their normal boundaries.
“Let’s watch weathers,” said Boris, wading on his knees
across the living room. “Want to see the weathers in New Guinea.”
“You’ll have to find it, I don’t know what channel.”
“Dubai!” exclaimed Boris, collapsing forward on all fours—
and then, a mushy flow of Russian in which I caught a swear word
or two.
“Angliyski! Speak English.”
“Is snowing there?” Shaking my shoulder. “M an says is
snowing, crazy man, ty videsh?! Snowing in Dubai! A miracle,
Potter! Look!”
“That’s Dublin you ass. Not Dubai.”
“Valí otsyúda! Fuck off!”
Then I must have blacked out (an all-too-typical occurrence
when Boris brought a bottle over) because the next I knew, the
light was completely different and I was kneeling by the sliding
doors with a puddle of puke on the carpet beside me and my
forehead pressed to the glass. Boris was fast asleep, face down and
snoring happily, one arm dangling off the sofa. Popchik was
sleeping too, chin resting contentedly on the back of Boris’s head. I
felt rotten. Dead butterfly floating on the surface of the pool.
Audible machine hum. Drowned crickets and beetles swirling in the
plastic filter baskets. Above, the setting sun flared gaudy and
inhuman, blood-red shelves of cloud that suggested end-times
footage of catastrophe and ruin: detonations on Pacific atolls,
wildlife running before sheets of flame.
I might have cried, if Boris wasn’t there. Instead, I went in
the bathroom and vomited again and then after drinking some water
from the tap came back with paper towels and cleaned up the mess
I’d made even though my head hurt so much I could barely see.
The vomit was an awful orange color from the barbecue chicken
wings and hard to get up, it had left a stain, and while I scrubbed at
it with dish detergent I tried hard to fasten on comforting thoughts
of New York—the Barbours’ apartment with its Chinese
porcelains and its friendly doormen, and also the timeless
backwater of Hobie’s house, old books and loudly-ticking clocks,
old furniture, velvet curtains, everywhere the sediment of the past,
quiet rooms where things were calm and made sense. Often at
night, when I was overwhelmed with the strangeness of where I
was, I lulled myself to sleep by thinking of his workshop, rich
smells of beeswax and rosewood shavings, and then the narrow
stairs up to the parlor, where dusty sunbeams shone on oriental
carpets.
I’ll call, I thought. Why not? I was still just drunk enough to
think it was a good idea. But the telephone rang and rang. Finally—
after two or three tries, and then a bleak half hour or so in front of
the television—sick and sweating, my stomach killing me, staring
at the Weather Channel, icy road conditions, cold fronts sweeping
in over M ontana—I decided to call Andy, going into the kitchen so
I wouldn’t wake Boris. It was Kitsey who picked up the phone.
“We can’t talk,” she said in a rush when she realized it was
me. “We’re late. We’re on the way out to dinner.”
“Where?” I said, blinking. M y head still hurt so much I could
hardly stand up.
“With the Van Nesses over on Fifth. Friends of M um’s.”
In the background, I heard indistinct wails from Toddy, Platt
roaring: “Get off me!”
“Can I say hi to Andy?” I said, staring fixedly at the kitchen
floor.
“No, really, we’re—M um, I’m coming!” I heard her yell. To
me, she said, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“You too,” I said, “tell everybody I said hi,” but she’d
already hung up.
xxi.
M Y AP P REHENSIONS ABOUT BORIS’ S father had been eased
somewhat since he’d taken my hands and thanked me for looking
after Boris. Though M r. Pavlikovsky (“M ister!” cackled Boris)
was a scary-looking guy, all right, I’d come to think he wasn’t
quite as awful as he’d seemed. Twice the week after Thanksgiving,
we came in after school to find him in the kitchen—mumbled
pleasantries, nothing more, as he sat at the table throwing back
vodka and blotting his damp forehead with a paper napkin, his
fairish hair darkened with some sort of oily hair cream, listening to
loud Russian news on his beat-up radio. But then one night we
were downstairs with Popper (who I’d walked over from my
house) and watching an old Peter Lorre movie called The Beast with
Five Fingers when the front door slammed, hard.
Boris slapped his forehead. “Fuck.” Before I realized what he
was doing he’d shoved Popper in my arms, seized me by the collar
of the shirt, hauled me up, and pushed me in the back.
“What—?”
He flung out a hand—just go. “Dog,” he hissed. “M y dad will
kill him. Hurry.”
I ran through the kitchen, and—as quietly as I could—slipped
out the back door. It was very dark outside. For once in his life,
Popper didn’t make a sound. I put him down, knowing he would
stick close, and circled around to the living room windows, which
were uncurtained.
His dad was walking with a cane, something I hadn’t seen.
Leaning on it heavily, he limped into the bright room like a
character in a stage play. Boris stood, arms crossed over his
scrawny chest, hugging himself.
He and his father were arguing—or, rather, his father was
talking to him angrily. Boris stared at the floor. His hair hung in his
face, so all I could see of him was the tip of his nose.
Abruptly, tossing his head, Boris said something sharp and
turned to leave. Then—so viciously I almost didn’t have time to
register it—Boris’s dad snapped out like a snake with the cane and
whacked Boris across the back of the shoulders and knocked him
to the ground. Before he could get up—he was on his hands and
knees—M r. Pavlikovsky kicked him down, then caught him by the
back of the shirt and pulled him, stumbling, to his feet. Ranting and
screaming in Russian, he slapped him across the face with his red,
beringed hand, backwards and forwards. Then—throwing him
staggering out into the middle of the room—he brought up the
hooked end of the cane and cracked him square across the face.
Half in shock, I backed away from the window, so
disoriented that I tripped and fell over a sack of garbage. Popper—
alarmed at the noise—was running back and forth and crying in a
high, keening tone. Just as I was clambering up again—panicstricken, in a crash of cans and beer bottles—the door flew open
and a square of yellow light spilled on the concrete. As quickly as I
could I scrambled to my feet, snatched up Popper, and ran.
But it was only Boris. He caught up with me, grabbed me by
the arm and dragged me down the street.
“Jesus,” I said—lagging a little, trying to look back. “What
was that?”
Behind us, the front door of Boris’s house flew open. M r.
Pavlikovsky stood silhouetted in the light from the doorway and
bracing himself with one hand, shaking his fist and shouting in
Russian.
Boris pulled me along. “Come on.” Down the dark street we
ran, shoes slapping the asphalt, until at last his father’s voice died
away.
“Fuck,” I said, slowing to a walk as we rounded the corner.
M y heart was pounding and my head swam; Popper was whining
and struggling to get down, and I set him on the asphalt to dash in
circles around us. “What happened?”
“Ah, nothing,” said Boris, sounding unaccountably cheerful,
wiping his nose with a wet snuffling noise. “ ‘Storm in a glass of
water’ is how we say it in Polish. He was just pissed.”
I bent over, hands on knees, to catch my breath. “Pissed
angry or pissed drunk?”
“Both. Lucky he didn’t see Popchyk, though, or—don’t
know what. He thinks animals are for outside. Here,” he said,
holding up the vodka bottle, “look what I got! Nicked it on the
way out.”
I smelled the blood on him before I saw it. There was a
crescent moon—not much, but enough to see by—and when I
stood and looked at him head-on, I realized that his nose was
pouring and his shirt was dark with it.
“Gosh,” I said, still breathing hard, “are you all right?”
“Let’s go to the playground, catch our breath,” said Boris.
His face, I saw, was a mess: swollen eye, and an ugly hook-shaped
cut on his forehead that was also pouring blood.
“Boris! We should go home.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Home?”
“My house. Whatever. You look bad.”
He grinned—exposing bloody teeth—and elbowed me in the
ribs. “Nyah, I need a drink before I face Xandra. Come on, Potter.
Couldn’t you use a wind-me-down? After all that?”
xxii.
AT THE ABANDONED COMMUNITY center, the playground slides
gleamed silver in the moonlight. We sat on the side of the empty
fountain, our feet dangling in the dry basin, and passed the bottle
back and forth until we began to lose track of time.
“That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said, wiping
my mouth with the back of my hand. The stars were spinning a
bit.
Boris—leaning back on his hands, face turned to the sky—
was singing to himself in Polish.
Wszystkie dzieci, nawet źle,
pogrążone są we śnie,
a Ty jedna tylko nie.
A-a-a, a-a-a…
“He’s fucking scary,” I said. “Your dad.”
“Yah,” said Boris cheerfully, wiping his mouth on the
shoulder of his blood-stained shirt. “He’s killed people. He beat a
man to death down the mine once.”
“Bullshit.”
“No, it’s true. In New Guinea it happened. He tried to make
it look like loose rocks had fell and killed the man but still we had
to leave right after.”
I thought about this. “Your dad’s not, um, very sturdy,” I
said. “I mean, I can’t really see—”
“Nyah, not with his fists. With a, what do you call it”—he
mimed hitting a surface—“pipe wrench.”
I was silent. There was something in the gesture of Boris
bringing down the imaginary wrench that had the ring of truth
about it.
Boris—who’d been fumbling to get a cigarette lit—let out a
smoky sigh. “Want one?” He passed it to me and lit another for
himself, then brushed his jaw with his knuckles. “Ah,” he said,
working it back and forth.
“Does it hurt?”
Sleepily he laughed, and punched me in the shoulder. “What
do you think, idiot?”
Before long, we were staggering with laughter, blundering
around on the gravel on hands and knees. Drunk as I was, my mind
felt high and cold and strangely clear. Then at some point—dusty
from rolling and scuffling on the ground—we were reeling home in
almost total blackness, rows of abandoned houses and the desert
night gigantic all around us, bright crackle of stars high above and
Popchik trotting along behind us as we weaved side to side,
laughing so hard we were gagging and heaving and nearly sick by
the side of the road.
He was singing at the top of his lungs, the same tune as
before:
A-a-a, a-a-a,
byly sobie kotki dwa.
A-a-a, kotki dwa,
szarobure—
I kicked him. “English!”
“Here, I’ll teach you. A-a-a, a-a-a—”
“Tell me what it means.”
“All right, I will. ‘There once were two small kittens,’ ” sang
Boris:
they both were grayish brown.
A-a-a—
“Two small kittens?”
He tried to hit me, and almost fell. “Fuck off! I haven’t got to
the good part.” Wiping his mouth with his hand, he threw his head
back, and sang:
Oh, sleep, my darling,
And I’ll give you a star from the sky,
All the children are fast asleep
All others, even the bad ones,
All children are sleeping but you.
A-a-a, a-a-a—
There once were two small kittens—
When we got to my house—making way too much noise,
shushing each other—the garage was empty: no one home. “Thank
God,” said Boris fervently, falling to the concrete to prostrate
himself before the Lord.
I caught him by the collar of his shirt. “Get up!”
Inside—under the lights—he was a mess: blood everywhere,
eye swollen to a glossy slit. “Hang on,” I said, dropping him in the
center of the living room carpet, and wobbled to the bathroom to
get something for his cut. But there wasn’t anything except
shampoo and a bottle of green perfume that Xandra had won at
some giveaway at the Wynn. Drunkenly remembering something
my mother had said, that perfume was antiseptic in a pinch, I went
back to the living room where Boris was sprawled on the carpet
with Popper sniffing anxiously at his bloodstained shirt.
“Here,” I said, pushing the dog aside, dabbing the bloody
place on his forehead with a damp cloth. “Hold still.”
Boris twitched away, and growled. “The fuck are you doing?”
“Shut up,” I said, holding the hair back from his eyes.
He muttered something in Russian. I was trying to be careful
but I was as drunk as he was, and when I sprayed perfume on the
cut, he shrieked and socked me on the mouth.
“What the fuck?” I said, touching my lip, my fingers coming
away bloody. “Look what you did to me.”
“Blyad,” he said, coughing and batting the air, “it stinks.
What’d you put on me, you whore?”
I started laughing; I couldn’t help it.
“Bastard,” he roared, shoving me so hard I fell. But he was
laughing too. He held out a hand to help me up but I kicked it
away.
“Fuck off!” I was laughing so hard I could barely get the
words out. “You smell like Xandra.”
“Christ, I’m choking. I’ve got to get this off me.”
We stumbled outside—shedding our clothes, hopping onelegged out of our pants as we went—and jumped in the pool: bad
idea, I realized in the too-late, toppling-over moment before I hit
the water, blind drunk and too wrecked to walk. The cold water
slammed into me so hard it almost knocked my breath out.
I clawed to the surface: eyes stinging, chlorine burning my
nose. A spray of water hit me in the eyes and I spit it back at him.
He was a white blur in the dark, cheeks hollow and black hair
plastered on either side of his head. Laughing, we grappled and
ducked each other, even though my teeth were chattering and I felt
way too drunk and sick to be horsing around in eight feet of water.
Boris dove. A hand clamped my ankle and yanked me under,
and I found myself staring into a dark wall of bubbles.
I wrenched; I struggled. It was like in the museum again,
trapped in the dark space, no way up or out. I thrashed and
twisted, as glubs of panicked breath floated before my eyes:
underwater bells, darkness. At last—just as I was about to gulp in
a lungful of water—I twisted free and broke to the surface.
Choking for breath, I clung to the edge of the pool and
gasped. When my vision cleared, I saw Boris—coughing, cursing—
plunging towards the steps. Breathless with anger, I half-swam,
half hopped up behind him and hooked a foot around his ankle so
that he fell face-forward with a smack.
“Asshole,” I sputtered, when he floundered to the surface. He
was trying to talk but I struck a sheet of water in his face, and then
another, and wound my fingers in his hair and pushed him under.
“You miserable shit,” I screamed when he surfaced, heaving, water
streaming down his face. “Don’t ever do that to me again.” I had
both hands on his shoulders and was about to dive on top of him—
push him down, hold him for a good long time—when he reached
around and clasped my arm, and I saw that he was white and
trembling.
“Stop,” he said, gasping—and then I realized how unfocused
and strange his eyes were.
“Hey,” I said, “are you okay?” But he was coughing too hard
to answer. His nose was bleeding again, blood gushing dark
between his fingers. I helped him up, and together we collapsed on
the pool steps—half in, half out of the water, too exhausted even
to climb all the way out.
xxiii.
BRIGHT SUN WOKE ME . We were in my bed: wet hair, half-dressed
and shivering in the air-conditioned cold, with Popper snoring
between us. The sheets were damp and reeking of chlorine; I had a
shattering headache and an ugly metallic taste in my mouth like I’d
been sucking on a handful of pocket change.
I lay very still, feeling I might vomit if I moved my head even
a quarter of an inch, then—very carefully—sat up.
“Boris?” I said, rubbing my cheek with the flat of my hand.
Brown streaks of dried blood were smeared on the pillowcase.
“You awake?”
“Oh God,” groaned Boris, dead-pale and sticky with sweat,
rolling on his stomach to clutch at the mattress. He was naked
except for his Sid Vicious bracelets and what looked like a pair of
my underwear. “I’m gonna be sick.”
“Not here.” I kicked him. “Up.”
M uttering, he stumbled off. I could hear him puking in my
bathroom. The sound made me sick, but also a bit hysterical. I
rolled over and laughed into my pillow. When he stumbled back in,
clasping his head, I was shocked at his black eye, the blood caked
at his nostrils and the scabbed cut on his forehead.
“Christ,” I said, “that looks bad. You need stitches.”
“You know what?” said Boris, throwing himself stomachdown on the mattress.
“What?”
“We’re late for fucking school!”
We rolled on our backs and roared with laughter. As weak and
nauseated as I felt, I thought I would never be able to stop.
Boris flopped over, groping with one arm for something on
the floor. In an instant his head popped back up. “Ah! What’s
this?”
I sat up and reached eagerly for the glass of water, or what I
thought was water, and—when he shoved it under my nose—
gagged on the smell.
Boris howled. Quick as a flash he was on top of me: all sharp
bones and clammy flesh, reeking of sweat and sick and something
else, raw and dirty, like stagnant pond water. Sharply he pinched
my cheek, tipping the glass of vodka over my face. “Time for your
medicine! Now, now,” he said, as I knocked the glass flying and hit
him in the mouth, a glancing blow that didn’t quite connect.
Popper was barking with excitement. Boris got me in a chokehold,
grabbed my dirty shirt from the day before, and tried to stuff it in
my mouth, but I was too quick for him and flipped him off the bed
so that his head knocked against the wall. “Ow, fuck,” he said,
rubbing his face sleepily with his open palm and chuckling.
Uncertainly I stood, in a prickle of cold sweat, and made my
way into the bathroom, where in a violent rush or two—hand
braced against the wall—I emptied my stomach into the toilet
bowl. From the next room I could hear him laughing.
“Two fingers down the pipe,” he called in to me, and then
something I missed, in a fresh shudder of nausea.
When it was over, I spat once or twice, then wiped my
mouth with the back of my hand. The bathroom was a wreck:
shower dripping, door hanging open, sopping towels and bloodstained wash cloths wadded on the floor. Still shivering with sick, I
drank from my hands at the sink and splashed some water on my
face. M y bare-chested reflection was hunched and pale, and I had a
fat lip from where Boris had socked me the night before.
Boris was still on the floor, lying bonelessly with his head
propped against the wall. When I came back in, he cracked his good
eye open and chortled at the sight of me. “All better?”
“Fuck you! Don’t fucking talk to me.”
“Serves you right. Didn’t I tell you not to faff around with
that glass?”
“M e?”
“You don’t remember, do you?” He touched his tongue to his
upper lip to see if his mouth had started bleeding again. When his
shirt was off you could see all the spaces between his ribs, marks
from old beatings and the heat flush high on his chest. “That glass
on the floor, very bad idea. Unlucky! I told you not to leave it
there! Huge jinx on us!”
“You didn’t have to pour it on my head,” I said, fumbling for
my specs and reaching for the first pair of pants I saw from the
communal heap of dirty laundry on the floor.
Boris pinched the bridge of his nose, and laughed. “Was just
trying to help you. A little booze will make you feel better.”
“Yeah, thanks a lot.”
“It’s true. If you can keep it down. Will make your headache
go like magic. M y dad is not helpful person but this is one very
helpful thing he has told me. Nice cold beer is the best, if you have
it.”
“Say, c’mere,” I said. I was standing by the window, looking
down at the pool.
“Eh?”
“Come look. I want you to see this.”
“Just tell me,” muttered Boris, from the floor. “I don’t want
to get up.”
“You’d better.” Downstairs it looked like a murder scene. A
line of blood drips wound across the paving stones to the pool.
Shoes, jeans, bloodsoaked shirt, were riotously flung and tossed.
One of Boris’s busted-up boots lay at the bottom of the deep end.
Worse: a greasy scum of vomit floated in the shallow water by the
steps.
xxiv.
LATER, AFTER A FEW half-hearted passes with the pool vacuum, we
were sitting on the kitchen counter smoking my dad’s Viceroys and
talking. It was almost noon—too late to even think about going to
school. Boris—ragged and unhinged-looking, his shirt hanging off
the shoulder on one side, slamming the cabinets, complaining
bitterly because there was no tea—had made some hideous coffee
in the Russian way, by boiling grounds in a pan on the stove.
“No, no,” he said, when he saw I’d poured myself a normal
sized cup. “Very strong, very small amount.”
I tasted it, made a face.
He dipped a finger in it, and licked it off. “Biscuit would be
nice.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Bread and butter?” he said hopefully.
I eased down from the counter—as gently as I could, because
my head hurt—and searched around until I found a drawer with
sugar envelopes and packaged tortilla chips that Xandra had
brought home from the buffet at the bar.
“Crazy,” I said, looking at his face.
“What?”
“That your dad did that.”
“Is nothing,” mumbled Boris, turning his head sideways so he
could wedge the whole corn chip in. “He broke one of my ribs
once.”
After a long pause, and because I couldn’t think of anything
else to say, I said: “A broken rib’s not that serious.”
“No, but it hurt. This one,” he said, pulling up his shirt and
pointing it out to me.
“I thought he was going to kill you.”
He bumped his shoulder against mine. “Ah, I provoked him
on purpose. Answered back. So you could get Popchik out of
there. Look, is fine,” he said, condescendingly, when I kept on
looking at him. “Last night he was frothing at mouth but he’ll be
sorry when he sees me.”
“M aybe you ought to stay here for a while.”
Boris leaned back on his hands and gave me a dismissive
smile. “Is nothing to be fussed about. He gets depressed
sometimes, is all.”
“Hah.” In the old Johnnie Walker Black days—vomit on his
dress shirts, angry co-workers calling our house—my dad (in tears
sometimes) had blamed his rages on “depression.”
Boris laughed, with what seemed like genuine amusement.
“And what? You don’t get sad yourself sometimes?”
“He should be in jail for doing that.”
“Oh, please.” Boris had gotten bored with his bad coffee and
had ventured to the fridge for a beer. “M y father—bad temper,
sure, but he loves me. He could have left me with a neighbor when
he left Ukraine. That’s what happened to my friends M aks and
Seryozha—M aks ended up on the street. Besides, I should be in
jail myself, if you want to think that way.”
“Sorry?”
“I tried to kill him one time. Serious!” he said, when he saw
the way I was looking at him. “I did.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“No, is true,” he said resignedly. “I feel bad about it. Our last
winter in Ukraine, I tricked him to walk outside—he was so drunk,
he did it. Then I locked the door. Thought sure he would die in the
snow. Glad he didn’t, eh?” he said, with a shout of laughter. “Then
I’d be stuck in Ukraine, my God. Eating from garbage cans.
Sleeping in railway station.”
“What happened?”
“Dunno. It wasn’t late at night enough. Someone saw him and
picked him up in a car—some woman, I’d guess, who knows?
Anyway he went out drinking more, made it home a few days later
—lucky for me, didn’t remember what happened! Instead he
brought me a soccer ball and said he was drinking only beer from
then on. That lasted one month maybe.”
I rubbed my eye behind my glasses. “What are you going to
tell them at school?”
He cracked the beer open. “Eh?”
“Well, I mean.” The bruise on his face was the color of raw
meat. “People are going to ask.”
He grinned and elbowed me. “I’ll tell ’em you did it,” he said.
“No, seriously.”
“I am serious.”
“Boris, it’s not funny.”
“Oh, come on. Football, skateboard.” His black hair fell in his
face like a shadow and he tossed it back. “You don’t want them to
take me away, do you?”
“Right,” I said, after an uncomfortable pause.
“Because Poland.” He passed me the beer. “I think is what it
would be. For deportation. Although Poland—” he laughed, a
startling bark—“better than Ukraine, my God!”
“They can’t send you back there, can they?”
He frowned at his hands, which were dirty, nails rimmed with
dried blood. “No,” he said fiercely. “Because I’ll kill myself first.”
“Oh, boo hoo hoo.” Boris was always threatening to kill
himself for one reason and another.
“I mean it! I’ll die first! I’d rather be dead.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“Yes I would! The winter—you don’t know what it’s like.
Even the air is bad. All gray concrete, and the wind—”
“Well, it must be summer there sometime.”
“Ah, God.” He reached for my cigarette, took a sharp drag,
blew a stream of smoke up at the ceiling. “M osquitoes. Stinking
mud. Everything smells like mould. I was so starving-to-death and
lonely—I mean, sometimes I was so hungry, serious, I would walk
on the river bank and think of drowning myself.”
M y head hurt. Boris’s clothes (my clothes, actually) tumbled
in the dryer. Outside, the sun shone bright and mean.
“I don’t know about you,” I said, taking the cigarette back,
“but I could use some real food.”
“What shall we do then?”
“We should have gone to school.”
“Hmpf.” Boris made it plain that he only went to school
because I went, and because there was nothing else to do.
“No—I mean it. We should have gone. There’s pizza today.”
Boris winced, with genuine regret. “Fuck it.” That was the
other thing about school; at least they fed us. “Too late now.”
xxv.
SOMETIMES, IN THE NIGHT, I woke up wailing. The worst thing
about the explosion was how I carried it in my body—the heat, the
bone-jar and slam of it. In my dreams, there was always a light
way out and a dark way out. I had to go the dark way, because the
bright way was hot and flickering with fire. But the dark way was
where the bodies were.
Happily, Boris never seemed annoyed or even very startled
when I woke him, as if he came from a world where there was
nothing so unusual in a nocturnal howl of pain. Sometimes he’d
gather up Popchik—snoring at the foot of our bed—and deposit
him in a limp sleepy heap on my chest. And weighed down like
that—the warmth of both of them around me—I lay counting to
myself in Spanish or trying to remember all the words I knew in
Russian (swear words, mostly) until I went back to sleep.
When I’d first come to Vegas, I’d tried to make myself feel
better by imagining that my mother was still alive and going about
her routine back in New York—chatting with the doormen, picking
up coffee and a muffin at the diner, waiting on the platform by the
news stand for the 6 train. But that hadn’t worked for long. Now,
when I buried my face in a strange pillow that didn’t smell at all
like her, or home, I thought of the Barbours’ apartment on Park
Avenue, or, sometimes, Hobie’s townhouse in the Village.
I’m sorry your father sold your mother’s things. If you
had told me, I might have bought some of them and kept
them for you. When we are sad—at least I am like this
—it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the
things that don’t change.
Your descriptions of the desert—that oceanic, endless
glare—are terrible but also very beautiful. M aybe
there’s something to be said for the rawness and
emptiness of it all. The light of long ago is different from
the light of today and yet here, in this house, I’m
reminded of the past at every turn. But when I think of
you, it’s as if you’ve gone away to sea on a ship—out
in a foreign brightness where there are no paths, only
stars and sky.
This letter arrived tucked in an old hardcover edition of Wind,
Sand and Stars by Saint-Exupéry, which I read and re-read. I kept
the letter in the book, where it became creased and dirty from
repeated re-reading.
Boris was the only person I’d told, in Vegas, how my mother
had died—information that to his credit he’d accepted with
aplomb; his own life had been so erratic and violent that he didn’t
seem all that shocked by the story. He’d seen big explosions, out
in his father’s mines around Batu Hijau and other places I’d never
heard of, and—without knowing the particulars—was able to
venture a fairly accurate guess as to the type of explosives
employed. As talkative as he was, he also had a secretive streak
and I trusted him not to tell anyone without having to ask. M aybe
because he himself was motherless and had formed close bonds to
people like Bami, his father’s “lieutenant” Evgeny, and Judy the
barkeep’s wife in Karmeywallag—he didn’t seem to think my
attachment to Hobie was peculiar at all. “People promise to write,
and they don’t,” he said, when we were in the kitchen looking at
Hobie’s latest letter. “But this fellow writes you all the time.”
“Yeah, he’s nice.” I’d given up trying to explain Hobie to
Boris: the house, the workshop, his thoughtful way of listening so
different from my father’s, but more than anything a sort of
pleasing atmosphere of mind: foggy, autumnal, a mild and
welcoming micro-climate that made me feel safe and comfortable in
his company.
Boris stuck his finger in the open jar of peanut butter on the
table between us, and licked it off. He had grown to love peanut
butter, which (like marshmallow fluff, another favorite) was
unavailable in Russia. “Old poofter?” he asked.
I was taken aback. “No,” I said swiftly; and then: “I don’t
know.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Boris, offering me the jar. “I’ve
known some sweet old poofters.”
“I don’t think he is,” I said, uncertainly.
Boris shrugged. “Who cares? If he is good to you? None of us
ever find enough kindness in the world, do we?”
xxvi.
BORIS HAD GROWN TO like my father, and vice versa. He
understood, better than I did, how my father made his living; and
although he knew, without being told, to stay away from my dad
when he was losing, he also understood that my father was in need
of something I was unwilling to give: namely, an audience in the
flush of winning, when he was pacing around jacked up and
punchy in the kitchen and wanting someone to listen to his stories
and praise him about how well he’d done. When we heard him
down there jumped-up and high on the downdraft of a win—
bumping around jubilantly, making lots of noise—Boris would put
down his book and head downstairs, where patiently he stood
listening to my dad’s boring, card-by-card replay of his evening at
the baccarat table, which often segued into excruciating (to me)
stories of related triumphs, all the way back to my dad’s college
days and blighted acting career.
“You didn’t tell me that your dad had been in movies!” said
Boris, returning upstairs with a cup of now-cold tea.
“He wasn’t in many. Like, two.”
“But I mean. That one—that was a really big movie—that
police movie, you know, the one about policemen taking bribes.
What was the name of it?”
“He didn’t have a very big part. He was in it for like one
second. He played a lawyer who got shot on the street.”
Boris shrugged. “Who cares? Still is interesting. If he ever
went to Ukraine people would treat him like a star.”
“He can go then, and take Xandra with him.”
Boris’s enthusiasm for what he called “intellectual talks”
found an appreciative outlet in my father, as well. Uninterested in
politics myself, and even less interested in my father’s views on
them, I was unwilling to engage in the kind of pointless argument
on world events that I knew my father enjoyed. But Boris—drunk
or sober—was glad to oblige. Often, in these talks, my father
would wave his arms around and mimic Boris’s accent for entire
conversations, in a way that set my teeth on edge. But Boris
himself didn’t appear to notice or mind. Sometimes, when he went
down to put the kettle on, and didn’t return, I found them arguing
happily in the kitchen like a pair of actors in a stage production,
about the dissolution of the Soviet Union or whatever.
“Ah, Potter!” he said, coming upstairs. “Your dad. Such a
nice guy!”
I removed the earbuds of my iPod. “If you say so.”
“I mean it,” said Boris, flopping down on the floor. “He’s so
talkative and intelligent! And he loves you.”
“I don’t see where you get that.”
“Come on! He wants to make things right with you, but
doesn’t know how. He wishes it was you down there having
discussions with him and not me.”
“He said that to you?”
“No. Is true, though! I know it.”
“Could have fooled me.”
Boris looked at me shrewdly. “Why do you hate him so
much?”
“I don’t hate him.”
“He broke your mother’s heart,” said Boris decisively.
“When he left her. But you need to forgive him. All that’s in the
past now.”
I stared. Was this what my dad went around telling people?
“That’s bullshit,” I said, sitting up, throwing my comic book
aside. “M y mother—” how could I explain it?—“you don’t
understand, he was an asshole to us, we were glad when he left. I
mean, I know you think he’s such a great guy and everything—”
“And why is he so terrible? Because he saw other women?”
said Boris—holding out his hands, palms up. “It happens. He has
his life. What is that to do with you?”
I shook my head in disbelief. “M an,” I said, “he’s got you
snowed.” It never failed to amaze me how my dad could charm
strangers and reel them in. They lent him money, recommended
him for promotions, introduced him to important people, invited
him to use their vacation homes, fell completely under his spell—
and then it would all go to pieces somehow and he would move on
to someone else.
Boris looped his arms around his knees and leaned his head
back against the wall. “All right, Potter,” he said agreeably. “Your
enemy—my enemy. If you hate him, I hate him too. But—” he put
his head to the side—“here I am. Staying in his house. What should
I do? Should I talk, be friendly and nice? Or disrespect him?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying, don’t believe everything
he tells you.”
Boris chuckled. “I don’t believe everything that anybody tells
me,” he said, kicking my foot companionably. “Not even you.”
xxvii.
AS FOND AS MY dad was of Boris, I was constantly trying to divert
his attention from the fact that Boris had basically moved into the
house with us—which wasn’t that difficult, as between the
gambling and the drugs my dad was so distracted that he might not
have noticed if I’d brought a bobcat to live in the upstairs bedroom.
Xandra was a bit tougher to negotiate, more prone to complain
about the expense, despite the supply of stolen snack food Boris
contributed to the household. When she was at home he stayed
upstairs and out of the way, frowning over The Idiot in Russian
and listening to music on my portable speakers. I brought him
beers and food from downstairs and learned to make his tea the
way he liked it: boiling hot, with three sugars.
By then it was almost Christmas though you wouldn’t have
known it from the weather: cool at night, but bright and warm
during the day. When the wind blew, the umbrella by the pool
snapped with a gunshot sound. There were lightning flashes at
night, but no rain; and sometimes the sand picked up and flew in
little whirlwinds which spun this way and that in the street.
I was depressed about the holidays, although Boris took them
in stride. “It’s for little children, all that,” he said scornfully,
leaning back on his elbows on my bed. “Tree, toys. We’ll have our
own praznyky on Christmas Eve. What do you think?”
“Praznyky?”
“You know. A sort of holiday party. Not a proper Holy
Supper, just a nice dinner. Cook something special—maybe invite
your father and Xandra. You think they might want to eat
something with us?”
M uch to my surprise, my father—and even Xandra—seemed
delighted by the idea (my father, I think, mainly because he
enjoyed the word praznyky, and enjoyed making Boris say it
aloud). On the twenty-third, Boris and I went shopping, with
actual money my father had given us (which was fortunate, since
our usual supermarket was too crowded with holiday shoppers for
carefree shoplifting) and came home with potatoes; a chicken; a
series of unappetizing ingredients (sauerkraut, mushrooms, peas,
sour cream) for some Polish holiday dish that Boris claimed he
knew how to make; pumpernickel rolls (Boris insisted on black
bread; white was all wrong for the meal, he said); a pound of
butter; pickles; and some Christmas candy.
Boris had said that we would eat with the appearance of the
first star in the sky—the Bethlehem star. But we were not used to
cooking for anybody but ourselves and as a consequence were
running late. On Christmas Eve, at about eight p.m., the sauerkraut
dish was made and the chicken (which we’d figured how to cook
from the package instructions) had about ten minutes before it
came out of the oven when my dad—whistling “Deck the Halls”—
came up and rapped jauntily on a kitchen cabinet to get our
attention.
“Come on, boys!” he said. His face was flushed and shiny
and his voice very quick, with a strained, staccato quality I knew
all too well. He had on one of his sharp old Dolce and Gabbana
suits from New York but without a tie, the shirt loose and
unbuttoned at the neck. “Go comb your hair and spruce up a bit.
I’m taking us all out. Do you have anything better to wear, Theo?
Surely you must.”
“But—” I stared at him in frustration. This was just like my
dad, breezing in and changing the plan at the last moment.
“Oh, come on. The chicken can wait. Can’t it? Sure it can.”
He was talking a mile a minute. “You can put the other thing back
in the fridge too. We’ll have it tomorrow for Christmas lunch—will
it still be praznyky? Is praznyky only on Christmas Eve? Am I
confused about that? Well, okay, that’s when we’ll have ours—
Christmas Day. New tradition. Leftovers are better anyway.
Listen, this’ll be fantastic. Boris—” he was already shepherding
Boris out of the kitchen—“what size shirt do you wear, comrade?
You don’t know? Some of these old Brooks Brothers shirts of
mine, I really ought to give the whole lot to you, great shirts, don’t
get me wrong, they’ll probably come down to your knees but
they’re a little too tight in the collar for me and if you roll up the
sleeves they’ll look just fine.…”
xxviii.
T HOUGH I’D BEEN IN Las Vegas almost half a year it was only my
fourth or fifth time on the Strip—and Boris (who was content
enough in our little orbit between school, shopping plaza, and
home) had scarcely been into Vegas proper at all. We stared in
amazement at the waterfalls of neon, electricity blazing and pulsing
and cascading down in bubbles all around us, Boris’s upturned face
glowing red and then gold in the crazy drench of lights.
Inside the Venetian, gondoliers propelled themselves down a
real canal, with real, chemical-smelling water, as costumed opera
singers sang Stille Nacht and Ave Maria under artificial skies. Boris
and I trailed along uneasily, feeling shabby, scuffing our shoes, too
stunned to take it all in. M y dad had made reservations for us at a
fancy, oak-panelled Italian restaurant—the outpost of its more
famous sister restaurant in New York. “Order what you like,
everyone,” he said, pulling out Xandra’s chair for her. “M y treat.
Go wild.”
We took him at his word. We ate asparagus flan with shallot
vinaigrette; smoked salmon; smoked sable carpaccio; perciatelli
with cardoons and black truffles; crispy black bass with saffron
and fava beans; barbecued skirt steak; braised short ribs; and panna
cotta, pumpkin cake, and fig ice cream for dessert. It was by leaps
and fathoms the best meal I’d eaten in months, or maybe ever; and
Boris—who’d eaten two orders of the sable all by himself—was
ecstatic. “Ah, marvelous,” he said, for the fifteenth time,
practically purring, as the pretty young waitress brought out an
extra plate of candies and biscotti with the coffee. “Thank you!
Thank you M r. Potter, Xandra,” he said again. “Is delicious.”
M y dad—who hadn’t eaten all that much compared to us
(Xandra hadn’t either)—pushed his plate aside. The hair at his
temples was damp and his face was so bright and red he was
practically glowing. “Thank the little Chinese guy in the Cubs cap
who kept betting the bank in the salon this afternoon,” he said.
“M y God. It was like we couldn’t lose.” In the car, he’d already
shown us his windfall: the fat roll of hundreds, wrapped up with a
rubber band. “The cards just kept coming and kept coming.
M ercury in retrograde and the moon was high! I mean—it was
magic. You know, sometimes there’s a light at the table, like a
visible halo, and you’re it, you know? You’re the light? There’s
this fantastic dealer here, Diego, I love Diego—I mean, it’s crazy,
he looks just like Diego Rivera the painter only in a sharp-ass
fucking tuxedo. Did I tell you about Diego already? Been out here
forty years, ever since the old Flamingo days. Big, stout, grandlooking guy. M exican, you know. Fast slippery hands and big rings
—” he waggled his fingers—“ba-ca-RRRAT! God, I love these oldschool M exicans in the baccarat room, they’re so fucking stylish.
M usty old elegant fellows, carry their weight well, you know?
Anyway, we were at Diego’s table, me and the little Chinese guy,
he was a trip too, horn-rimmed glasses and not a word of English,
you know, just ‘San Bin! San Bin!’ drinking this crazy ginseng tea
they all drink, tastes like dust but I love the smell, like the smell of
luck, and it was incredible, we were on such a run, good God, all
these Chinese women lined up behind us, we were hitting every
hand—Do you think,” he said to Xandra, “it would be okay if I
took them back into the baccarat salon to meet Diego? I’m sure
they’d get a huge kick out of Diego. I wonder if he’s still on shift.
What do you think?”
“He won’t be there.” Xandra looked good—bright-eyed and
sparkly—in a velvet minidress and jewelled sandals, and redder
lipstick than she usually wore. “Not now.”
“Sometimes, holidays, he works a double shift.”
“Oh, they don’t want to go back there. It’s a hike. It’ll take
half an hour to get there through the casino floor and back.”
“Yeah, but I know he’d like to meet my kids.”
“Yeah, probably so,” Xandra said agreeably, running a finger
around the rim of her wine glass. The tiny gold dove on her
necklace glistened at the base of her throat. “He’s a nice guy. But
Larry, I mean it, I know you don’t take me seriously but if you
start getting too chummy with the dealers some day you’re going
to go down there and have security on your ass.”
M y father laughed. “God!” he said jubilantly, slapping the
table, so loudly that I flinched. “If I hadn’t known better, I would
have thought Diego really was helping at the table today. I mean,
maybe he was. Telepathic baccarat! Get your Soviet researchers
working on that,” he said to Boris. “That’ll straighten out your
economic system over there.”
Boris—mildly—cleared his throat and lifted his water glass.
“Sorry, may I say something?”
“Is it speechmaking time? Were we meant to prepare toasts?”
“I thank you all for your company. And I wish us all health,
and happiness, and that we all shall live until the next Christmas.”
In the surprised silence that followed, a champagne cork
popped in the kitchen, a burst of laughter. It was just past
midnight: two minutes into Christmas Day. Then my father leaned
back in his chair, and laughed. “M erry Christmas!” he roared,
producing from his pocket a jewelry box which he slid over to
Xandra, and two stacks of twenties (Five hundred dollars! Each!)
which he tossed across the table to Boris and me. And though in
the clockless, temperature-controlled casino night, words like day
and Christmas were fairly meaningless constructs, happiness,
amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn’t seem quite such a doomed
or fatal idea.
Chapter 6.
Wind, Sand and Stars
i.
OVER THE NEXT YEAR, I was so preoccupied in trying to block New
York and my old life out of my mind that I hardly noticed the time
pass. Days ran changelessly in the seasonless glare: hungover
mornings on the school bus and our backs raw and pink from
falling asleep by the pool, the gasoline reek of vodka and Popper’s
constant smell of wet dog and chlorine, Boris teaching me to count,
ask directions, offer a drink in Russian, just as patiently as he’d
taught me to swear. Yes, please, I’d like that. Thank you, you are
very kind. Govorite li vy po angliyskiy? Do you speak English? Ya
nemnogo govoryu po-russki. I do speak Russian, a little.
Winter or summer, the days were dazzling; the desert air
burned our nostrils and scraped our throats dry. Everything was
funny; everything made us laugh. Sometimes, just before sundown,
just as the blue of the sky began darkening to violet, we had these
wild, electric-lined, M axfield Parrish clouds rolling out gold and
white into the desert like Divine Revelation leading the M ormons
west. Govorite medlenno, I said, speak slowly, and Povtorite,
pozhaluysta. Repeat, please. But we were so attuned to each other
that we didn’t need to talk at all if we didn’t want to; we knew
how to tip each other over in hysterics with an arch of the
eyebrow or quirk of the mouth. Nights, we ate crosslegged on the
floor, leaving greasy fingerprints on our schoolbooks. Our diet had
made us malnourished, with soft brown bruises on our arms and
legs—vitamin deficiency, said the nurse at school, who gave us
each a painful shot in the ass and a colorful jar of children’s
chewables. (“M y bottom hurts,” said Boris, rubbing his rear end
and cursing the metal seats on the school bus.) I was freckled head
to toe from all the swimming we did; my hair (longer then than it’s
ever been again) got light streaks from the pool chemicals and
basically I felt good, though I still had a heaviness in my chest that
never went away and my teeth were rotting out in the back from all
the candy we ate. Apart from that, I was fine. And so the time
passed happily enough; but then—shortly after my fifteenth
birthday—Boris met a girl named Kotku; and everything changed.
The name Kotku (Ukrainian variant: Kotyku) makes her
sound more interesting than she was; but it wasn’t her real name,
only a pet name (“Kitty cat,” in Polish) that Boris had given her.
Her last name was Hutchins; her given name was actually
something like Kylie or Keiley or Kaylee; and she’d lived in Clark
County, Nevada her whole life. Though she went to our school and
was only a grade ahead of us, she was a lot older—older than me
by three whole years. Boris, apparently, had had his eye on her for
a while, but I hadn’t been aware of her until the afternoon he threw
himself on the foot of my bed and said: “I’m in love.”
“Oh yeah? With who?”
“This chick from Civics. That I bought some weed from. I
mean, she’s eighteen, too, can you believe it? God, she’s beautiful.”
“You have weed?”
Playfully, he lunged and caught me by the shoulder; he knew
just where I was weakest, the spot under the blade where he could
dig his fingers and make me yelp. But I was in no mood and hit
him, hard.
“Ow! Fuck!” said Boris, rolling away, rubbing his jaw with
his fingertips. “Why’d you do that?”
“Hope it hurts,” I said. “Where’s that weed?”
We didn’t talk any more about Boris’s love interest, at least
not that day, but then a few days later when I came out of math I
saw him looming over this girl by the lockers. While Boris wasn’t
especially tall for his age, the girl was tiny, despite how much older
than us she seemed: flat-chested, scrawny-hipped, with high
cheekbones and a shiny forehead and a sharp, shiny, triangleshaped face. Pierced nose. Black tank top. Chipped black fingernail
polish; streaked orange-and-black hair; flat, bright, chlorine-blue
eyes, outlined hard, in black pencil. Definitely she was cute—hot,
even; but the glance she slid over me was anxiety-provoking,
something about her of a bitchy fast-food clerk or maybe a mean
babysitter.
“So what do you think?” said Boris eagerly when he caught
up with me after school.
I shrugged. “She’s cute. I guess.”
“You guess?”
“Well Boris, I mean, she looks like she’s, like, twenty-five.”
“I know! It’s great!” he said, looking dazed. “Eighteen years!
Legal adult! She can buy booze no problem! Also she’s lived here
her whole life, so she knows what places don’t check age.”
ii.
HADLEY, THE TALKATIVE LETTER-JACKET girl who sat by me in
American history, wrinkled her nose when I asked about Boris’s
older woman. “Her?” she said. “Total slut.” Hadley’s big sister,
Jan, was in the same grade with Kyla or Kayleigh or whatever her
name was. “And her mother, I heard, is a straight-up hooker. Your
friend better be careful he doesn’t get some disease.”
“Well,” I said, surprised at her vehemence, though maybe I
shouldn’t have been. Hadley, an army brat, was on the swim team
and sang in the school choir; she had a normal family with three
siblings, a Weimaraner named Gretchen that she’d brought over
from Germany, and a dad who yelled if she was out past her
curfew.
“I’m not kidding,” said Hadley. “She’ll make out with other
girls’ boyfriends—she’ll make out with other girls—she’ll make
out with anybody. Also I think she does pot.”
“Oh,” I said. None of these factors, in my view, were
necessarily reasons to dislike Kylie or whatever, especially since
Boris and I had wholeheartedly taken to smoking pot ourselves in
the past months. But what did bother me—a lot—was how Kotku
(I’ll continue to call her by the name Boris gave her, since I can’t
now remember her real name) had stepped in overnight and
virtually assumed ownership of Boris.
First he was busy on Friday night. Then it was the whole
weekend—not just the night, but the day too. Pretty soon, it was
Kotku this and Kotku that, and the next thing I knew, Popper and
I were eating dinner and watching movies by ourselves.
“Isn’t she amazing?” Boris asked me again, after the first time
he brought her over to my house—a highly unsuccessful evening,
which had consisted of the three of us getting so stoned we could
barely move, and then the two of them rolling around on the sofa
downstairs while I sat on the floor with my back to them and tried
to concentrate on a rerun of The Outer Limits. “What do you
think?”
“Well, I mean—” What did he want me to say? “She likes
you. Sure.”
He shifted, restlessly. We were outside by the pool, though it
was too windy and cool to swim. “No, really! What do you think
about her? Tell the truth, Potter,” he said, when I hesitated.
“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully, and then—when he still sat
looking at me: “Honestly? I don’t know, Boris. She seems kind of
desperate.”
“Yes? Is that bad?”
His tone was genuinely curious—not angry, not sarcastic.
“Well,” I said, taken aback. “M aybe not.”
Boris—cheeks pink with vodka—put his hand on his heart.
“I love her, Potter. I mean it. This is the truest thing that has ever
happened to me in my life.”
I was so embarrassed I had to look away.
“Little skinny witch!” He sighed, happily. “In my arms,
she’s so bony and light! Like air.” Boris, mysteriously, seemed to
adore Kotku for many of the reasons I found her disturbing: her
slinky alley-cat body, her scrawny, needy adultness. “And so
brave and wise, such a big heart! All I want is to look out for her
and keep her safe from that M ike guy. You know?”
Quietly, I poured myself another vodka, though I really
didn’t need one. The Kotku business was all doubly perplexing
because—as Boris himself had informed me, with an unmistakable
note of pride—Kotku already had a boyfriend: a twenty-six-yearold guy named M ike M cNatt who owned a motorcycle and
worked for a pool cleaning service. “Excellent,” I said, when Boris
had broken this news earlier. “We ought to get him out here to help
with the vacuuming.” I was sick and tired of looking after the
swimming pool (a job that had fallen largely to me), especially
since Xandra never brought home enough chemicals or the right
kind.
Boris wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands. “It’s
serious, Potter. I think she’s scared of him. She wants to break up
with him but she’s afraid. She’s trying to talk him into going to a
military recruiter.”
“You’d better be careful that guy doesn’t come after you.”
“M e!” He snorted. “It’s her I’m worried about! She’s so
tiny! Eighty-one pounds!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Kotku claimed to be a “borderline anorexic”
and could always get Boris worked up by saying she hadn’t eaten
anything all day.
Boris cuffed me on the side of the head. “You sit too much
around here on your own,” he said, sitting down beside me and
putting his feet in the pool. “Come to Kotku’s tonight. Bring
someone.”
“Such as—?”
Boris shrugged. “What about hot little blondie with the boy’s
haircut, from your history class? The swimmer?”
“Hadley?” I shook my head. “No way.”
“Yes! You should! Because she is hot! And she would totally
go!”
“Believe me, not a good idea.”
“I’ll ask her for you! Come on. She’s friendly to you, and
always talks. Shall we call her?”
“No! It’s not that—stop,” I said, grabbing his sleeve as he
started to get up.
“No guts!”
“Boris.” He was heading indoors to the phone. “Don’t. I
mean it. She won’t come.”
“And why?”
The taunting edge in his voice annoyed me. “Honestly?
Because—” I started to say Because Kotku is a ho which was only
the obvious truth but instead I said: “Look, Hadley’s on Honor
Roll and stuff. She’s not going to want to go hang out at Kotku’s.”
“What?” said Boris—spinning back, outraged. “That whore.
What’d she say?”
“Nothing. It’s just—”
“Yes she did!” He was charging back to the pool now.
“You’d better tell me.”
“Come on. It’s nothing. Chill out, Boris,” I said, when I saw
how angry he was. “Kotku’s tons older. They’re not even in the
same grade.”
“That snub-nosed bitch. What did Kotku ever do to her?”
“Chill out.” M y eye landed on the vodka bottle, illumined by
a clean white sunbeam like a light saber. He’d had way too much to
drink, and the last thing I wanted was a fight. But I was too drunk
myself to think of any funny or easy way to get him off the
subject.
iii.
LOTS OF OTHER, BETTER girls our own age liked Boris—most
notably Saffi Caspersen, who was Danish, spoke English with a
high-toned British accent, had a minor role in a Cirque du Soleil
production, and was by leaps and bounds the most beautiful girl in
our year. Saffi was in Honors English with us (where she’d had
some interesting things to say about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter)
and though she had a reputation for being standoffish, she liked
Boris. Anyone could see it. She laughed when he made jokes, acted
goofy in his study group, and I’d seen her talking enthusiastically
to him in the hall—Boris talking back just as enthusiastically, in his
gesticulating Russian mode. Yet—mysteriously—he didn’t seem
attracted to her at all.
“But why not?” I asked him. “She’s the best-looking girl in
our class.” I’d always thought that Danes were large and blonde,
but Saffi was smallish and brunette, with a fairy-tale quality that
was accentuated by her glittery stage makeup in the professional
photo I’d seen.
“Good looking yes. But she is not very hot.”
“Boris, she is smoking hot. Are you crazy?”
“Ah, she works too hard,” said Boris, dropping down beside
me with a beer in one hand, reaching for my cigarette with the
other. “Too straight. All the time studying or rehearsing or
something. Kotku—” he blew out a cloud of smoke, handed the
cigarette back to me—“she’s like us.”
I was silent. How had I gone from AP everything to being
lumped in with a derelict like Kotku?
Boris nudged me. “I think you like her yourself. Saffi.”
“No, not really.”
“You do. Ask her out.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, although I knew I didn’t have the
nerve. At my old school, where foreigners and exchange students
tended to stand politely at the margins, someone like Saffi might
have been more accessible but in Vegas she was much too popular,
too surrounded by people—and there was also the biggish problem
of what to ask her to do. In New York it would have been easy
enough; I could have taken her ice skating, asked her to a movie or
the planetarium. But I could scarcely see Saffi Caspersen sniffing
glue or drinking beer from paper bags at the playground or doing
any of the things that Boris and I did together.
iv.
I STILL SAW HIM—just not as much. M ore and more he spent nights
with Kotku and her mother at the Double R Apartments—a
transient hotel really, a broken down motor court from the 1950s,
on the highway between the airport and the Strip, where guys who
looked like illegal immigrants stood around the courtyard by the
empty swimming pool and argued over motorcycle parts. (“Double
R?” said Hadley. “You know what that stands for, right? ‘Rats and
Roaches.’ ”) Kotku, mercifully, didn’t accompany Boris to my
house all that much, but even when she wasn’t around he talked
about her constantly. Kotku had cool taste in music and had made
him a mix CD with a bunch of smoking hot hip-hop that I really
had to listen to. Kotku liked her pizza with green peppers and
olives only. Kotku really really wanted an electronic keyboard—
also a Siamese kitten, or maybe a ferret, but wasn’t allowed to have
pets at the Double R. “Serious, you need to spend more time with
her, Potter,” he said, bumping my shoulder with his. “You’ll like
her.”
“Oh come on,” I said, thinking of the smirky way she
behaved around me—laughing at the wrong time, in a nasty way,
always commanding me to go to the fridge to fetch her beers.
“No! She likes you! She does! I mean, she thinks of you more
as a little brother. That’s what she said.”
“She never says a word to me.”
“That’s because you don’t talk to her.”
“Are you guys screwing?”
Boris made an impatient noise, the sound he made when
things didn’t go his way.
“Dirty mind,” he said, tossing the hair out of his eyes, and
then: “What? What do you think? Do you want me to make you a
map?”
“Draw you a map.”
“Eh?”
“That’s the phrase. ‘Do you want me to draw you a map.’ ”
Boris rolled his eyes. Waving his hands around, he started in
again about how intelligent Kotku was, how “crazy smart,” how
wise she was and how much life she had lived and how unfair I was
to judge her and look down on her without bothering to get to
know her; but while I sat half listening to him talk, and half
watching an old noir movie on television (Fallen Angel, Dana
Andrews), I couldn’t help thinking about how he’d met Kotku in
what was essentially Remedial Civics, the section for students who
weren’t smart enough (even in our extremely non-demanding
school) to pass without extra help. Boris—good at mathematics
without trying and better in languages than anyone I’d ever met—
had been forced into Civics for Dummies because he was a
foreigner: a school requirement which he greatly resented.
(“Because why? Am I likely to be someday voting for Congress?”)
But Kotku—eighteen! born and raised in Clark County! American
citizen, straight off of Cops!—had no such excuse.
Over and over, I caught myself in mean-spirited thoughts like
this, which I did my best to shake. What did I care? Yes, Kotku
was a bitch; yes, she was too dumb to pass regular Civics and wore
cheap hoop earrings from the drugstore that were always getting
caught in things, and yes, even though she was only eighty-one
pounds or whatever she still scared the hell out of me, like she
might kick me to death with her pointy-toed boots if she got mad
enough. (“She a little fighta nigga,” Boris himself had said
boastfully at one point as he hopped around throwing out gang
signs, or what he thought were gang signs, and regaling me with a
story of how Kotku had pulled out a bloody chunk of some girl’s
hair—this was another thing about Kotku, she was always getting
in scary girl fights, mostly with other white trash girls like herself
but occasionally with the real gangsta girls, who were Latina and
black.) But who cared what crappy girl Boris liked? Weren’t we
still friends? Best friends? Brothers practically?
Then again: there was not exactly a word for Boris and me.
Until Kotku came along, I had never thought too much about it. It
was just about drowsy air-conditioned afternoons, lazy and drunk,
blinds closed against the glare, empty sugar packets and dried-up
orange peels strewn on the carpet, “Dear Prudence” from the
White Album (which Boris adored) or else the same mournful old
Radiohead over and over:
For a minute
I lost myself, I lost myself…
The glue we sniffed came on with a dark, mechanical roar, like
the windy rush of propellers: engines on! We fell back on the bed
into darkness, like sky divers tumbling backwards out of a plane,
although—that high, that far gone—you had to be careful with the
bag over your face or else you were picking dried blobs of glue out
of your hair and off the end of your nose when you came to.
Exhausted sleep, spine to spine, in dirty sheets that smelled of
cigarette ash and dog, Popchik belly-up and snoring, subliminal
whispers in the air blowing from the wall vents if you listened hard
enough. Whole months passed where the wind never stopped,
blown sand rattling against the windows, the surface of the
swimming pool wrinkled and sinister-looking. Strong tea in the
mornings, stolen chocolate. Boris yanking my hair by the handful
and kicking me in the ribs. Wake up, Potter. Rise and shine.
I told myself I didn’t miss him, but I did. I got stoned alone,
watched Adult Access and the Playboy channel, read Grapes of
Wrath and The House of the Seven Gables which seemed as if they
had to be tied for the most boring book ever written, and for what
felt like thousands of hours—time enough to learn Danish or play
the guitar if I’d been trying—fooled around in the street with a
fucked-up skateboard Boris and I had found in one of the
foreclosed houses down the block. I went to swim-team parties
with Hadley—no-drinking parties, with parents present—and, on
the weekends, attended parents-away parties of kids I barely
knew, Xanax bars and Jägermeister shots, riding home on the
hissing CAT bus at two a.m. so fucked up that I had to hold the
seat in front of me to keep from falling out in the aisle. After
school, if I was bored, it was easy enough to go hang out with one
of the big lackadaisical stoner crowds who floated around between
Del Taco and the kiddie arcades on the Strip.
But still I was lonely. It was Boris I missed, the whole
impulsive mess of him: gloomy, reckless, hot-tempered,
appallingly thoughtless. Boris pale and pasty, with his shoplifted
apples and his Russian-language novels, gnawed-down fingernails
and shoelaces dragging in the dust. Boris—budding alcoholic, fluent
curser in four languages—who snatched food from my plate when
he felt like it and nodded off drunk on the floor, face red like he’d
been slapped. Even when he took things without asking, as he all
too frequently did—little things were always disappearing, DVDs
and school supplies from my locker, more than once I’d caught him
going through my pockets for money—his own possessions meant
so little to him that somehow it wasn’t stealing; whenever he came
into cash himself, he split it with me down the middle and anything
that belonged to him, he gave me gladly if I asked for it (and
sometimes when I didn’t, as when M r. Pavlikovsky’s gold lighter,
which I’d admired in passing, turned up in the outside pocket of
my backpack).
The funny thing: I’d worried, if anything, that Boris was the
one who was a little too affectionate, if affectionate is the right
word. The first time he’d turned in bed and draped an arm over my
waist, I lay there half-asleep for a moment, not knowing what to
do: staring at my old socks on the floor, empty beer bottles, my
paperbacked copy of The Red Badge of Courage. At last—
embarrassed—I faked a yawn and tried to roll away, but instead he
sighed and pulled me closer, with a sleepy, snuggling motion.
Ssh, Potter, he whispered, into the back of my neck. Is only
me.
It was weird. Was it weird? It was; and it wasn’t. I’d fallen
back to sleep shortly after, lulled by his bitter, beery unwashed
smell and his breath easy in my ear. I was aware I couldn’t explain
it without making it sound like more than it was. On nights when I
woke strangled with fear there he was, catching me when I started
up terrified from the bed, pulling me back down in the covers
beside him, muttering in nonsense Polish, his voice throaty and
strange with sleep. We’d drowse off in each other’s arms, listening
to music from my iPod (Thelonious M onk, the Velvet
Underground, music my mother had liked) and sometimes wake
clutching each other like castaways or much younger children.
And yet (this was the murky part, this was what bothered
me) there had also been other, way more confusing and fucked-up
nights, grappling around half-dressed, weak light sliding in from the
bathroom and everything haloed and unstable without my glasses:
hands on each other, rough and fast, kicked-over beers foaming on
the carpet—fun and not that big of a deal when it was actually
happening, more than worth it for the sharp gasp when my eyes
rolled back and I forgot about everything; but when we woke the
next morning stomach-down and groaning on opposite sides of the
bed it receded into an incoherence of backlit flickers, choppy and
poorly lit like some experimental film, the unfamiliar twist of
Boris’s features fading from memory already and none of it with
any more bearing on our actual lives than a dream. We never spoke
of it; it wasn’t quite real; getting ready for school we threw shoes,
splashed water at each other, chewed aspirin for our hangovers,
laughed and joked around all the way to the bus stop. I knew
people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn’t want
anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn’t either, but all the same
he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it
was just a laugh, nothing to take too seriously or get worked up
about. And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step
up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make
things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn’t have the wrong
idea. But the moment had never come. Now there was no point in
speaking up and being awkward about the whole thing, though I
scarcely took comfort in the fact.
I hated how much I missed him. There was a lot of drinking
going on at my house, on Xandra’s end anyway, a lot of slammed
doors (“Well, if it wasn’t me, it had to be you,” I heard her
yelling); and without Boris there (they were both more constrained
with Boris in the house) it was harder. Part of the problem was
that Xandra’s hours at the bar had changed—schedules at her work
had been moved; she was under a lot of stress, people she’d
worked with were gone, or on different shifts; on Wednesdays and
M ondays when I got up for school, I often found her just in from
work, sitting alone in front of her favorite morning show too wired
to sleep and swigging Pepto-Bismol straight from the bottle.
“Big old exhausted me,” she said, with an attempt at a smile,
when she saw me on the stairs.
“You should go for a swim. That’ll make you sleepy.”
“No thanks, I think I’ll just hang out here with my Pepto.
What a product. This is definitely some bubble-gum flavored
awesomeness.”
As for my dad: he was spending a lot more time at home—
hanging out with me, which I enjoyed, though his mood swings
wore me out. It was football season; he had a bounce in his step.
After checking his BlackBerry he high-fived me and danced around
the living room: “Am I a genius or what? What?” He consulted
spread breakdowns, matchup reports, and—occasionally—a
paperbacked book called Scorpio: Your Sports Year in Forecast.
“Always looking for an edge,” he said, when I found him running
down the tables and punching out numbers on the calculator like he
was figuring out his income tax. “You only have to hit fifty-three,
fifty-four percent to grind out a good living on this stuff—see,
baccarat is strictly for entertainment, there’s no skill to it, I set
myself limits and never go over, but you can really make money at
the sports book if you’re disciplined about it. You have to
approach it like an investor. Not like a fan, not even like a gambler
because the secret is, the better team usually wins the game and the
linemaker is good at setting the number. Your linemaker has got
limitations, though, as to public opinion. What he’s predicting is
not who’s going to win but who the general public thinks is going
to win. So that margin, between sentimental favorite and actual fact
—fuck, see that receiver in the end zone, another big one for
Pittsburgh right there, we need them to score now like we need a
hole in the head—anyway, like I was saying, if I really sit down
and do my homework as opposed to Joe Beefburger who picks his
team by looking five minutes at the sports page? Who’s got the
advantage? See, I’m not one of these saps that gets all starry-eyed
about the Giants rain or shine—shit, your mother could have told
you that. Scorpio is about control—that’s me. I’m competitive.
Want to win at any price. That’s where my acting came from, back
when I acted. Sun in Scorpio, Leo rising. All in my chart. Now
you’re a Cancer, hermit crab, all secretive and up in your shell,
completely different M O. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just how
it is. Anyway, whatever, I always take my lead from my
defensive-offensive lines, but all the same it never hurts to pay
attention to these transits and solar-arc progressions on game day
—”
“Did Xandra get you interested in all this?”
“Xandra? Half the sports book in Vegas has an astrologer on
speed dial. Anyway, like I was saying, all other things equal, do
the planets make a difference? Yes. I would definitely have to say
yes. It’s like, is a player having a good day, is he having a bad day,
is he out of sorts, whatever. Honestly it helps to have that edge
when you’re getting a little, how do I put it, ha ha, stretched,
although—” he showed me the fat wad of what looked like
hundreds, wrapped with a rubber band—“this has been a really
amazing year for me. Fifty-three percent, a thousand plays a year.
That’s the magic spot.”
Sundays were what he called major-ticket days. When I got
up, I found him downstairs in a crackle of strewn newspapers,
zinging around bright and restless like it was Christmas morning,
opening and shutting cabinets, talking to the sports ticker on his
BlackBerry and crunching on corn chips straight from the bag. If I
came down and watched with him for even a little while when the
big games were on sometimes he’d give me what he called “a piece
—” twenty bucks, fifty, if he won. “To get you interested,” he
explained, leaning forward on the sofa, rubbing his hands anxiously.
“See—what we need is for the Colts to get wiped off the map
during this first half of the game. Devastated. And with the
Cowboys and the Niners we need the score to go over thirty in the
second half—yes!” he shouted, jumping up exhilarated with raised
fist. “Fumble! Redskins got the ball. We’re in business!”
But it was confusing, because it was the Cowboys who had
fumbled. I’d thought the Cowboys were supposed to win by at
least fifteen. His mid-game switches in loyalty were too abrupt for
me to follow and I often embarrassed myself by cheering for the
wrong team; yet as we surged randomly between games, between
spreads, I enjoyed his delirium and the daylong binge of greasy
food, accepted the twenties and fifties he tossed at me as if they’d
fallen from the sky. Other times—cresting and then tanking on
some hoarse wave of enthusiasm—a vague unease took hold of him
which as far as I could tell had nothing very much to do with how
his games were going and he paced back and forth for no reason I
could discern, hands folded atop his head, staring at the set with
the air of a man unhinged by business failure: talking to the
coaches, the players, asking what the hell was wrong with them,
what the hell was happening. Sometimes he followed me into the
kitchen, with an oddly supplicant demeanor. “I’m getting killed in
there,” he said, humorously, leaning on the counter, his bearing
comical, something in his hunched posture suggesting a bank robber
doubled over from a gunshot wound.
Lines x. Lines y. Yards run, cover the spread. On game day,
until five o’clock or so, the white desert light held off the essential
Sunday gloom—autumn sinking into winter, loneliness of October
dusk with school the next day—but there was always a long still
moment toward the end of those football afternoons where the
mood of the crowd turned and everything grew desolate and
uncertain, onscreen and off, the sheet-metal glare off the patio glass
fading to gold and then gray, long shadows and night falling into
desert stillness, a sadness I couldn’t shake off, a sense of silent
people filing toward the stadium exits and cold rain falling in
college towns back east.
The panic that overtook me then was hard to explain. Those
game days broke up with a swiftness, a sense of losing blood
almost, that reminded me of watching the apartment in New York
being boxed up and carted away: groundlessness and flux, nothing
to hang on to. Upstairs, with the door of my room shut, I turned
all the lights on, smoked weed if I had it, listened to music on my
portable speakers—previously unlistened-to music like
Shostakovich, and Erik Satie, that I’d put on my iPod for my
mother and then never got around to taking off—and I looked at
library books: art books, mostly, because they reminded me of her.
The Masterworks of Dutch Painting. Delft: The Golden Age.
Drawings by Rembrandt, His Anonymous Pupils and Followers.
From looking on the computer at school, I’d seen that there was a
book about Carel Fabritius (a tiny book, only a hundred pages) but
they didn’t have it at the school library and our computer time at
school was so closely monitored that I was too paranoid to do any
research on line—especially after a thoughtlessly clicked link (Het
Puttertje, The Goldfinch, 1654) had taken me to a scarily officiallooking site called M issing Art Database that required me to sign in
with my name and address. I’d been so freaked out at the
unexpected sight of the words Interpol and Missing that I’d
panicked and shut down the computer entirely, something we
weren’t supposed to do. “What have you just done?” demanded
M r. Ostrow the librarian before I was able to get it back up again.
He reached over my shoulder and began typing in the password.
“I—” In spite of myself, I was relieved that I hadn’t been
looking at porn once he began surfing back through the history. I’d
meant to buy myself a cheap laptop with the five hundred bucks
my dad had given me for Christmas, but somehow that money had
gotten away from me—M issing Art, I told myself; no reason to
panic over that word missing, destroyed art was missing art,
wasn’t it? Even though I hadn’t put down a name, it worried me
that I’d tried to check out the database from my school’s IP
address. For all I knew, the investigators who’d been to see me had
kept track, and knew that I was in Vegas; the connection, though
small, was real.
The painting was hidden, quite cleverly as I thought, in a
clean cotton pillowcase duct-taped to the back of my headboard.
I’d learned, from Hobie, how carefully old things had to be handled
(sometimes he used white cotton gloves for particularly delicate
objects) and I never touched it with my bare hands, only by the
edges. I never took it out except when Dad and Xandra weren’t
there and I knew they wouldn’t be back for a while—though even
when I couldn’t see it I liked knowing it was there for the depth
and solidity it gave things, the reinforcement to infrastructure, an
invisible, bedrock rightness that reassured me just as it was
reassuring to know that far away, whales swam untroubled in
Baltic waters and monks in arcane time zones chanted ceaselessly
for the salvation of the world.
Taking it out, handling it, looking at it, was nothing to be
done lightly. Even in the act of reaching for it there was a sense of
expansion, a waft and a lifting; and at some strange point, when I’d
looked at it long enough, eyes dry from the refrigerated desert air,
all space appeared to vanish between me and it so that when I
looked up it was the painting and not me that was real.
1622–1654. Son of a schoolteacher. Fewer than a dozen
works accurately attributed to him. According to van Bleyswijck,
the city historian of Delft, Fabritius was in his studio painting the
sexton of Delft’s Oude Kerk when, at half past ten in the morning,
the explosion of the powder magazine took place. The body of the
painter Fabritius had been pulled from the wreckage of his studio
by neighboring burghers, “with great sorrow,” the books said, “and
no little effort.” What held me fast in these brief library-book
accounts was the element of chance: random disasters, mine and
his, converging on the same unseen point, the big bang as my
father called it, not with any kind of sarcasm or dismissiveness but
instead a respectful acknowledgment for the powers of fortune that
governed his own life. You could study the connections for years
and never work it out—it was all about things coming together,
things falling apart, time warp, my mother standing out in front of
the museum when time flickered and the light went funny,
uncertainties hovering on the edge of a vast brightness. The stray
chance that might, or might not, change everything.
Upstairs, the tap water from the bathroom sink was too
chlorinated to drink. Nights, a dry wind blew trash and beer cans
down the street. M oisture and humidity, Hobie had told me, were
the worst things in the world for antiques; on the tall-case clock
he’d been repairing when I left, he’d showed me how the wood had
been rotted out underneath from the damp (“someone sluicing
stone floors with a bucket, you see how soft this wood is, how
worn away?”)
Time warp: a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.
Just as my dad’s rituals, his betting systems, all his oracles and
magic were predicated on a field awareness of unseen patterns, so
too the explosion in Delft was part of a complex of events that
ricocheted into the present. The multiple outcomes could make
you dizzy. “The money’s not important,” said my dad. “All
money represents is the energy of the thing, you know? It’s how
you track it. The flow of chance.” Steadily the goldfinch gazed at
me, with shiny, changeless eyes. The wooden panel was tiny,
“only slightly larger than an A-4 sheet of paper” as one of my art
books had pointed out, although all that dates-and-dimensions
stuff, the dead textbook info, was as irrelevant in its way as the
sports-page stats when the Packers were up by two in the fourth
quarter and a thin icy snow had begun to fall on the field. The
painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy
moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the
cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or
lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept
moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence
on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now
and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s
ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature—
fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.
v.
T HE GOOD THING : I was pleased at how nice my dad was being.
He’d been taking me out to dinners—nice dinners, at whitetablecloth restaurants, just the two of us—at least once a week.
Sometimes he invited Boris to come, invitations Boris always
jumped to accept—the lure of a good meal was powerful enough to
override even the gravitational tug of Kotku—but strangely, I
found myself enjoying it more when it was just my dad and me.
“You know,” he said, at one of these dinners when we were
lingering late over dessert—talking about school, about all sorts of
things (this new, involved dad! where had he come from?)—“you
know, I really have enjoyed getting to know you since you’ve been
out here, Theo.”
“Well, uh, yeah, me too,” I said, embarrassed but also
meaning it.
“I mean—” my dad ran a hand through his hair—“thanks for
giving me a second chance, kiddo. Because I made a huge mistake. I
never should have let my relationship with your mother get in the
way of my relationship with you. No, no,” he said, raising his
hand, “I’m not blaming anything on your mom, I’m way past that.
It’s just that she loved you so much, I always felt like kind of an
interloper with you guys. Stranger-in-my-own-house kind of thing.
You two were so close—” he laughed, sadly—“there wasn’t much
room for three.”
“Well—” M y mother and I tiptoeing around the apartment,
whispering, trying to avoid him. Secrets, laughter. “I mean, I just
—”
“No, no, I’m not asking you to apologize. I’m the dad, I’m
the one who should have known better. It’s just that it got to be a
kind of vicious circle if you know what I mean. M e feeling
alienated, bummed-out, drinking a lot. And I never should have let
that happen. I missed, like, some really important years in your
life. I’m the one that has to live with that.”
“Um—” I felt so bad I didn’t know what to say.
“Not trying to put you on the spot, pal. Just saying I’m glad
that we’re friends now.”
“Well yeah,” I said, staring into my scraped-clean crème
brûlée plate, “me too.”
“And, I mean—I want to make it up to you. See, I’m doing
so well on the sports book this year—” my dad took a sip of his
coffee—“I want to open you a savings account. You know, just
put a little something aside. Because, you know, I really didn’t do
right by you as far as your mom, you know, and all those months
that I was gone.”
“Dad,” I said, disconcerted. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Oh, but I want to! You have a Social Security number, don’t
you?”
“Sure.”
“Well, I’ve already got ten thousand set aside. That’s a good
start. If you think about it when we get home, give me your Social
and next time I drop by the bank, I’ll open an account in your
name, okay?”
vi.
AP ART FROM SCHOOL , I’D hardly seen Boris, except for a Saturday
afternoon trip when my dad had taken us in to the Carnegie Deli at
the M irage for sable and bialys. But then, a few weeks before
Thanksgiving, he came thumping upstairs when I wasn’t expecting
him and said: “Your dad has been having a bad run, did you know
that?”
I put down Silas Marner, which we were reading for school.
“What?”
“Well, he’s been playing at two hundred dollar tables—two
hundred dollars a pop,” he said. “You can lose a thousand in five
minutes, easy.”
“A thousand dollars is nothing for him,” I said; and then,
when Boris did not reply: “How much did he say he lost?”
“Didn’t say,” said Boris. “But a lot.”
“Are you sure he wasn’t just bullshitting you?”
Boris laughed. “Could be,” he said, sitting on the bed and
leaning back on his elbows. “You don’t know anything about it?”
“Well—” As far as I knew, my father had cleaned up when
the Bills had won the week before. “I don’t see how he can be
doing too bad. He’s been taking me to Bouchon and places like
that.”
“Yes, but maybe is good reason for that,” said Boris sagely.
“Reason? What reason?”
Boris seemed about to say something, then changed his mind.
“Well, who knows,” he said, lighting a cigarette and taking a
sharp drag. “Your dad—he’s part Russian.”
“Right,” I said, reaching for the cigarette myself. I’d often
heard Boris and my father, in their arm-waving “intellectual talks,”
discussing the many celebrated gamblers in Russian history:
Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, other names I didn’t know.
“Well—very Russian, you know, to complain how bad things
are all the time! Even if life is great—keep it to yourself. You don’t
want to tempt the devil.” He was wearing a discarded dress shirt of
my father’s, washed nearly transparent and so big that it billowed
on him like some item of Arab or Hindu costume. “Only, your dad,
sometimes is hard to tell between joking and serious.” Then,
watching me carefully: “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing.”
“He knows we talk. That’s why he told me. He wouldn’t tell
me if he didn’t want you to know.”
“Yeah.” I was fairly sure this wasn’t the case. M y dad was
the kind of guy who in the right mood would happily discuss his
personal life with his boss’s wife or some other inappropriate
person.
“He’d tell you himself,” said Boris, “if he thought you
wanted to know.”
“Look. Like you said—” M y dad had a taste for masochism,
the overblown gesture; on our Sundays together, he loved to
exaggerate his misfortunes, groaning and staggering, complaining
loudly of being ‘wiped out’ or ‘destroyed’ after a lost game even as
he’d won half a dozen others and was totting up the profits on the
calculator. “Sometimes he lays it on a bit thick.”
“Well, yes, is true,” said Boris sensibly. He took the cigarette
back, inhaled, and then, companionably, passed it to me. “You can
have the rest.”
“No, thanks.”
There was a bit of a silence, during which we could hear the
television crowd roar of my dad’s football game. Then Boris leaned
back on his elbows again and said: “What is there to eat
downstairs?”
“Not a motherfucking thing.”
“There was leftover Chinese, I thought.”
“Not any more. Somebody ate it.”
“Shit. M aybe I’ll go to Kotku’s, her mom has frozen pizzas.
You want to come?”
“No, thanks.”
Boris laughed, and threw out some fake-looking gang sign.
“Suit yourself, yo,” he said, in his “gangsta” voice (discernible
from his regular voice only by the hand gesture and the “yo”) as he
got up and roll-walked out. “Nigga gotz to eat.”
vii.
T HE P ECULIAR THING ABOUT Boris and Kotku was how rapidly
their relationship had taken on a punchy, irritable quality. They
still made out constantly, and could hardly keep their hands off
each other, but the minute they opened their mouths it was like
listening to people who had been married fifteen years. They
bickered over small sums of money, like who had paid for their
food-court lunches last; and their conversations, when I could
overhear them, went something like this:
Boris: “What! I was trying to be nice!”
Kotku: “Well, it wasn’t very nice.”
Boris, running to catch up with her: “I mean it, Kotyku!
Honest! Was only trying to be nice!”
Kotku: [pouting]
Boris, trying unsuccessfully to kiss her: “What did I do?
What’s the matter? Why do you think I’m not nice any more?”
Kotku: [silence]
The problem of M ike the pool man—Boris’s romantic rival
—had been solved by M ike’s extremely convenient decision to join
the Coast Guard. Kotku, apparently, still spent hours on the
phone with him every week, which for whatever reason didn’t
trouble Boris (“She’s only trying to support him, see”). But it was
disturbing how jealous he was of her at school. He knew her
schedule by heart and the second our classes were over he raced to
find her, as if he suspected her of two-timing him during Spanish
for the Workplace or whatever. One day after school, when
Popper and I were by ourselves at home, he telephoned me to ask:
“Do you know some guy named Tyler Olowska?”
“No.”
“He’s in your American History class.”
“Sorry. It’s a big class.”
“Well, look. Can you find out about him? Where he lives
maybe?”
“Where he lives? Is this about Kotku?”
All of a sudden—surprising me greatly—the doorbell rang:
four stately chimes. In all my time in Las Vegas no one had ever
rung the doorbell of our house, not even once. Boris, on the other
end, had heard it too. “What is that?” he said. The dog was running
in circles and barking his head off.
“Someone at the door.”
“The door?” On our deserted street—no neighbors, no
garbage pickup, no streetlights even—this was a major event.
“Who do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. Let me call you back.”
I grabbed up Popchyk—who was practically hysterical—and
(as he wriggled and shrieked in my arms, struggling to get down)
managed to get the door open with one hand.
“Wouldja look at that,” a pleasant, Jersey-accented voice
said. “What a cute little fella.”
I found myself blinking up in the late afternoon glare at a very
tall, very very tanned, very thin man, of indeterminate age. He
looked partly like a rodeo guy and partly like a fucked-up lounge
entertainer. His gold-rimmed aviators were tinted purple at the top;
he was wearing a white sports jacket over a red cowboy shirt with
pearl snaps, and black jeans, but the main thing I noticed was his
hair: part toupee, part transplanted or sprayed-on, with a texture
like fiberglass insulation and a dark brown color like shoe polish in
the tin.
“Go on, put him down!” he said, nodding at Popper, who
was still struggling to get away. His voice was deep, and his
manner calm and friendly; except for the accent he was the perfect
Texan, boots and all. “Let him run around! I don’t mind. I love
dogs.”
When I let Popchyk loose, he stooped to pat his head, in a
posture reminiscent of a lanky cowboy by the campfire. As odd as
the stranger looked, with the hair and all, I couldn’t help but admire
how easy and comfortable he seemed in his skin.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Cute little fella. Yes you are!” His
tanned cheeks had a wrinkled, dried-apple quality, creased with
tiny lines. “Have three of my own at home. M ini pennys.”
“Excuse me?”
He stood; when he smiled at me, he displayed even,
dazzlingly white teeth.
“M iniature pinschers,” he said. “Neurotic little bastards,
chew the house to pieces when I’m gone, but I love them. What’s
your name, kid?”
“Theodore Decker,” I said, wondering who he was.
Again he smiled; his eyes behind the semi-dark aviators were
small and twinkly. “Hey! Another New Yorker! I can hear it in
your voice, am I right?”
“That’s right.”
“A M anhattan boy, that would be my guess. Correct?”
“Right,” I said, wondering exactly what it was in my voice
that he’d heard. No one had ever guessed I was from M anhattan
just from hearing me talk.
“Well, hey—I’m from Canarsie. Born and bred. Always nice
to meet another guy from back East. I’m Naaman Silver.” He held
out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, M r. Silver.”
“M ister!” He laughed fondly. “I love a polite kid. They don’t
make many like you any more. You Jewish, Theodore?”
“No, sir,” I said, and then wished I’d said yes.
“Well, tell you what. Anybody from New York, in my book
they’re an honorary Jew. That’s how I look at it. You ever been to
Canarsie?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, it used to be a fantastic community back in the day,
though now—” He shrugged. “M y family, they were there for four
generations. M y grandfather Saul ran one of the first kosher
restaurants in America, see. Big, famous place. Closed when I was
a kid, though. And then my mother moved us over to Jersey after
my father died so we could be closer to my uncle Harry and his
family.” He put his hand on his thin hip and looked at me. “Your
dad here, Theo?”
“No.”
“No?” He looked past me, into the house. “That’s a shame.
Know when he’ll be back?”
“No, sir,” I said.
“Sir. I like that. You’re a good kid. Tell you what, you
remind me of myself at your age. Fresh from yeshiva—” he held
up his hands, gold bracelets on the tanned, hairy wrists—“and
these hands? White, like milk. Like yours.”
“Um”—I was still standing awkwardly in the door—“would
you like to come in?” I wasn’t sure if I should invite a stranger in
the house, except I was lonely and bored. “You can wait if you
want. But I’m not sure when he’ll be home.”
Again, he smiled. “No thanks. I have a bunch of other stops
to make. But I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna be straight with you,
because you’re a nice kid. I got five points on your dad. You know
what that means?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, bless you. You don’t need to know, and I hope you
never do know. But let me just say it aint a good business policy.”
He put a friendly hand on my shoulder. “Believe it or not,
Theodore, I got people skills. I don’t like to come to a man’s home
and deal with his child, like I’m doing with you now. That’s not
right. Normally I would go to your dad’s place of work and we
would have our little sit-down there. Except he’s kind of a hard
man to run down, as maybe you already know.”
In the house I could hear the telephone ringing: Boris, I was
fairly sure. “M aybe you better go answer that,” said M r. Silver
pleasantly.
“No, that’s okay.”
“Go ahead. I think maybe you should. I’ll be waiting right
here.”
Feeling increasingly disturbed I went back in and answered
the telephone. As predicted, it was Boris. “Who was that?” he
said. “Not Kotku, was it?”
“No. Look—”
“I think she went home with that Tyler Olowska guy. I got
this funny feeling. Well, maybe she didn’t go home home with him.
But they left school together—she was talking to him in the
parking lot. See, she has her last class with him, woodwork skills
or whatever—”
“Boris, I’m sorry, I really can’t talk now, I’ll call you back,
okay?”
“I’m taking your word for it that wasn’t your dad in there on
the horn,” said M r. Silver when I returned to the door. I looked
past him, to the white Cadillac parked by the curb. There were two
men in the car—a driver, and another man in the front seat. “That
wasn’t your dad, right?”
“No sir.”
“You would tell me if it was, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes sir.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
I was silent, not knowing what to say.
“Doesn’t matter, Theodore.” Again, he stooped to scratch
Popper behind the ears. “I’ll run him down sooner or later. You’ll
be sure to remember what I told him? And that I stopped by?”
“Yes sir.”
He pointed a long finger at me. “What’s my name again?”
“M r. Silver.”
“M r. Silver. That’s right. Just checking.”
“What do you want me to tell him?”
“Tell him I said gambling’s for tourists,” he said. “Not
locals.” Lightly, lightly, with his thin brown hand, he touched me
on the top of the head. “God bless.”
viii.
WHEN BORIS SHOWED UP at the door around half an hour later, I
tried to tell him about the visit from M r. Silver, but though he
listened, a little, mainly he was furious at Kotku for flirting with
some other boy, this Tyler Olowska or whatever, a rich stoner kid
a year older than us who was on the golf team. “Fuck her,” he said
throatily while we were sitting on the floor downstairs at my
house smoking Kotku’s pot. “She’s not answering her phone. I
know she’s with him now, I know it.”
“Come on.” As worried as I was about M r. Silver, I was even
more sick of talking about Kotku. “He was probably just buying
some weed.”
“Yah, but is more to it, I know. She never wants me to stay
over with her any more, have you noticed that? Always has stuff to
do now. She’s not even wearing the necklace I bought her.”
M y glasses were lopsided and I pushed them back up on the
bridge of my nose. Boris hadn’t even bought the stupid necklace
but shoplifted it at the mall, snatching it and running out while I
(upstanding citizen, in school blazer) occupied the salesgirl’s
attention with dumb but polite questions about what Dad and I
ought to get M om for her birthday. “Huh,” I said, trying to sound
sympathetic.
Boris scowled, his brow like a thundercloud. “She’s a whore.
Other day? Was pretending to cry in class—trying to make this
Olowska bastard feel sorry for her. What a cunt.”
I shrugged—no argument from me on that point—and passed
him the reefer.
“She only likes him because he has money. His family has
two M ercedes. E class.”
“That’s an old lady car.”
“Nonsense. In Russia, is what mobsters drive. And—” he
took a deep hit, holding it in, waving his hands, eyes watering,
wait, wait, this is the best part, hold on, get this, would you?—“you
know what he calls her?”
“Kotku?” Boris was so insistent about calling her Kotku that
people at school—teachers, even—had begun calling her Kotku as
well.
“That’s right!” said Boris, outraged, smoke erupting from his
mouth. “My name! The kliytchka I gave her. And, other day in the
hallway? I saw him ruffle her on the head.”
There were a couple of half-melted peppermints from my
dad’s pocket on the coffee table, along with some receipts and
change, and I unwrapped one and put it in my mouth. I was as high
as a paratrooper and the sweetness tingled all through me, like fire.
“Ruffled her?” I said, the candy clicking loudly against my teeth.
“Come again?”
“Like this,” he said, making a tousling motion with his hand
as he took one last hit off the joint and stubbed it out. “Don’t
know the word.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said, rolling my head back
against the couch. “Say, you ought to try one of these
peppermints. They taste really great.”
Boris scrubbed a hand down his face, then shook his head like
a dog throwing off water. “Wow,” he said, running both hands
through his tangled-up hair.
“Yeah. M e too,” I said, after a vibrating pause. M y thoughts
were stretched-out and viscid, slow to wade to the surface.
“What?”
“I’m fucked up.”
“Oh yeah?” He laughed. “How fucked up?”
“Pretty far up there, pal.” The peppermint on my tongue felt
intense and huge, the size of a boulder, like I could hardly talk with
it in my mouth.
A peaceful silence followed. It was about five thirty in the
afternoon but the light was still pure and stark. Some white shirts
of mine were hanging outside by the pool and they were dazzling,
billowing and flapping like sails. I closed my eyes, red burning
through my eyelids, sinking back into the (suddenly very
comfortable) couch as if it were a rocking boat, and thought about
the Hart Crane we’d been reading in English. Brooklyn Bridge.
How had I never read that poem back in New York? And how had
I never paid attention to the bridge when I saw it practically every
day? Seagulls and dizzying drops. I think of cinemas, panoramic
sleights…
“I could strangle her,” Boris said abruptly.
“What?” I said, startled, having heard only the word strangle
and Boris’s unmistakably ugly tone.
“Scrawny fucking bint. She makes me so mad.” Boris nudged
me with his shoulder. “Come on, Potter. Wouldn’t you like to
wipe that smirk off her face?”
“Well…” I said, after a dazed pause; clearly this was a trick
question. “What’s a bint?”
“Same as a cunt, basically.”
“Oh.”
“I mean, who does she.”
“Right.”
There followed a long and weird enough silence that I thought
about getting up and putting some music on, although I couldn’t
decide what. Anything upbeat seemed wrong and the last thing I
wanted to do was put on something dark or angsty that would get
him stirred up.
“Um,” I said, after what I hoped was a decently long pause,
“The War of the Worlds comes on in fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll give her War of the Worlds,” said Boris darkly. He stood
up.
“Where are you going?” I said. “To the Double R?”
Boris scowled. “Go ahead, laugh,” he said bitterly, elbowing
on his gray sovietskoye raincoat. “It’s going to be the Three Rs for
your dad if he doesn’t pay the money he owes that guy.”
“Three Rs?”
“Revolver, roadside, or roof,” said Boris, with a black, Slavicsounding chuckle.
ix.
WAS THAT A MOVIE or something? I wondered. Three Rs? Where
had he come up with that? Though I’d done a fairly good job of
putting the afternoon’s events out of my mind, Boris had
thoroughly freaked me out with his parting comment and I sat
downstairs rigidly for an hour or so with War of the Worlds on but
the sound off, listening to the crash of the icemaker and the rattle
of wind in the patio umbrella. Popper, who had picked up on my
mood, was just as keyed-up as I was and kept barking sharply and
hopping off the sofa to check out noises around the house—so that
when, not long after dark, a car did actually turn into the driveway,
he dashed to the door and set up a racket that scared me half to
death.
But it was only my father. He looked rumpled and glazed,
and not in a very good mood.
“Dad?” I was still high enough that my voice came out
sounding way too blown and odd.
He stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked at me.
“There was a guy here. A M r. Silver.”
“Oh, yeah?” said my dad, casually enough. But he was
standing very still with his hand on the banister.
“He said he was trying to get in touch with you.”
“When was this?” he said, coming into the room.
“About four this afternoon, I guess.”
“Was Xandra here?”
“I haven’t seen her.”
He lay a hand on my shoulder, and seemed to think for a
minute. “Well,” he said, “I’d appreciate if you didn’t say anything
about it.”
The end of Boris’s joint was, I realized, still in the ashtray.
He saw me looking at it, and picked it up and sniffed it.
“Thought I smelled something,” he said, dropping it in his
jacket pocket. “You reek a bit, Theo. Where have you boys been
getting this?”
“Is everything okay?”
M y dad’s eyes looked a bit red and unfocused. “Sure it is,”
he said. “I’m just going to go upstairs and make a few calls.” He
gave off a strong odor of stale tobacco smoke and the ginseng tea he
always drank, a habit he’d picked up from the Chinese
businessmen in the baccarat salon: it gave his sweat a sharp, foreign
smell. As I watched him walk up the steps to the landing, I saw
him retrieve the joint-end from his jacket pocket and run it under
his nose again, ruminatively.
x.
ONCE I WAS UP STAIRS in my room, with the door locked, and
Popper still edgy and pacing stiffly around—my thoughts went to
the painting. I had been proud of myself for the pillowcase-behindthe-headboard idea, but now I realized how stupid it was to have
the painting in the house at all—not that I had any options unless I
wanted to hide it in the dumpster a few houses down (which had
never been emptied the whole time I’d lived in Vegas) or over in
one of the abandoned houses across the street. Boris’s house was
no safer than mine, and there was no one else I knew well enough
or trusted. The only other place was school, also a bad idea, but
though I knew there had to be a better choice I couldn’t think of it.
Every so often they had random locker inspections at school and
now—connected as I was, through Boris, to Kotku—I was
possibly the sort of dirtbag they might randomly inspect. Still,
even if someone found it in my locker—whether the principal, or
M r. Detmars the scary basketball coach, or even the Rent-a-Cops
from the security firm whom they brought in to scare the students
from time to time—still, it would be better than having it found by
Dad or M r. Silver.
The painting, inside the pillowcase, was wrapped in several
layers of taped drawing paper—good paper, archival paper, that
I’d taken from the art room at school—with an inner, double layer
of clean white cotton dishcloth to protect the surface from the
acids in the paper (not that there were any). But I’d taken the
painting out so often to look at it—opening the top flap of the
taped edge to slide it out—that the paper was torn and the tape
wasn’t even sticky any more. After lying in bed for a few minutes
staring at the ceiling, I got up and retrieved the extra-large roll of
heavy-duty packing tape left over from our move, and then
untaped the pillowcase from behind the headboard.
Too much—too tempting—to have my hands on it and not
look at it. Quickly I slid it out, and almost immediately its glow
enveloped me, something almost musical, an internal sweetness
that was inexplicable beyond a deep, blood-rocking harmony of
rightness, the way your heart beat slow and sure when you were
with a person you felt safe with and loved. A power, a shine, came
off it, a freshness like the morning light in my old bedroom in New
York which was serene yet exhilarating, a light that rendered
everything sharp-edged and yet more tender and lovely than it
actually was, and lovelier still because it was part of the past, and
irretrievable: wallpaper glowing, the old Rand M cNally globe in
half-shadow.
Little bird; yellow bird. Shaking free of my daze I slid it back
in the paper-wrapped dishtowel and wrapped it again with two or
three (four? five?) of my dad’s old sports pages, then—
impulsively, really getting into it in my own stoned, determined
way—wound it around and around with tape until not a shred of
newsprint was visible and the entire X-tra large roll of tape was
gone. Nobody was going to be opening that package on a whim.
Even if with a knife, a good one, not just scissors, it would take a
good long time to get into it. At last, when I was done—the bundle
looked like some weird science-fiction cocoon—I slipped the
mummified painting, pillowcase and all, in my book bag, and put it
under the covers by my feet. Irritably, with a groan, Popper
shifted over to make room. Tiny as he was, and ridiculous-looking,
still he was a fierce barker and territorial about his place next to me;
and I knew if anyone opened the bedroom door while I was
sleeping—even Xandra or my dad, neither of whom he liked much
—he would jump up and raise the alarm.
What had started as a reassuring thought was once again
morphing into thoughts of strangers and break-ins. The air
conditioner was so cold I was shaking; and when I closed my eyes
I felt myself lifting up out of my body—floating up fast like an
escaped balloon—only to startle with a sharp full-body jerk when
I opened my eyes. So I kept my eyes shut and tried to remember
what I could of the Hart Crane poem, which wasn’t much,
although even isolated words like seagull and traffic and tumult and
dawn carried something of its airborne distances, its sweeps from
high to low; and just as I was nodding off, I fell into sort of an
overpowering sense-memory of the narrow, windy, exhaustsmelling park near our old apartment, by the East River, roar of
traffic washing abstractly above as the river swirled with fast,
confusing currents and sometimes appeared to flow in two
different directions.
xi.
I DIDN’ T SLEEP MUCH that night and was so exhausted by the time I
got to school and stowed the painting in my locker that I didn’t
even notice that Kotku (hanging all over Boris, like nothing had
happened) was sporting a fat lip. Only when I heard this tough
senior guy Eddie Riso say, “M ack truck?” did I see that somebody
had smacked her pretty good in the face. She was going around
laughing a bit nervously and telling people that she got hit in the
mouth by a car door, but in a sort of embarrassed way that (to me,
at least) didn’t ring true.
“Did you do that?” I said to Boris, when next I saw him alone
(or relatively alone) in English class.
Boris shrugged. “I didn’t want to.”
“What do you mean, you ‘didn’t want to’?”
Boris looked shocked. “She made me!”
“She made you,” I repeated.
“Look, just because you’re jealous of her—”
“Fuck you,” I said. “I don’t give a shit about you and Kotku
—I have things of my own to worry about. You can beat her head
in for all I care.”
“Oh, God, Potter,” said Boris, suddenly sobered. “Did he
come back? That guy?”
“No,” I said, after a brief pause. “Not yet. Well, I mean, fuck
it,” I said, when Boris kept on staring at me. “It’s his problem, not
mine. He’ll just have to figure something out.”
“How much is he in for?”
“No clue.”
“Can’t you get the money for him?”
“Me?”
Boris looked away. I poked him in the arm. “No, what do
you mean, Boris? Can’t I get it for him? What are you talking
about?” I said, when he didn’t answer.
“Never mind,” he said quickly, settling back in his chair, and I
didn’t have a chance to pursue the conversation because then
Spirsetskaya walked into the room, all primed to talk about boring
Silas Marner, and that was it.
xii.
T HAT NIGHT, MY DAD came home early with bags of carry-out from
his favorite Chinese, including an extra order of the spicy
dumplings I liked—and he was in such a good mood that it was as
if I’d dreamed M r. Silver and the stuff from the night before.
“So—” I said, and stopped. Xandra, having finished her
spring rolls, was rinsing glasses at the sink but there was only so
much I felt comfortable saying in front of her.
He smiled his big Dad smile at me, the smile that sometimes
made stewardesses bump him up to first class.
“So what?” he said, pushing aside his carton of Szechuan
shrimp to reach for a fortune cookie.
“Uh—” Xandra had the water up loud—“Did you get
everything straightened out?”
“What,” he said lightly, “you mean with Bobo Silver?”
“Bobo?”
“Listen, I hope you weren’t worried about that. You weren’t,
were you?”
“Well—”
“Bobo—” he laughed—“they call him ‘The M ensch.’ He’s
actually a nice guy—well, you talked to him yourself—we just had
some crossed wires, is all.”
“What does five points mean?”
“Look, it was just a mix-up. I mean,” he said, “these people
are characters. They have their own language, their own ways of
doing things. But, hey—” he laughed—“this is great—when I met
with him over at Caesars, that’s what Bobo calls his ‘office,’ you
know, the pool at Caesars—anyway, when I met with him, you
know what he kept saying? ‘That’s a good kid you’ve got there,
Larry.’ ‘Real little gentleman.’ I mean, I don’t know what you said
to him, but I do actually owe you one.”
“Huh,” I said in a neutral voice, helping myself to more rice.
But inwardly I was almost drunk at the lift in his mood—the same
flood of elation I’d felt as a small child when the silences broke,
when his footsteps grew light again and you heard him laughing at
something, humming at the shaving mirror.
M y dad cracked open his fortune cookie, and laughed. “See
here,” he said, balling it up and tossing it over to me. “I wonder
who sits around in Chinatown and thinks up these things?”
Aloud, I read it: “ ‘You have an unusual equipment for fate,
exercise with care!’ ”
“Unusual equipment?” said Xandra, coming up behind to put
her arms around his neck. “That sounds kind of dirty.”
“Ah—” my dad turned to kiss her. “A dirty mind. The
fountain of youth.”
“Apparently.”
xiii.
“I GAVE you a fat lip that time,” said Boris, who clearly felt guilty
about the Kotku business since he’d brought it up out of nowhere
in our companionable morning silence on the school bus.
“Yeah, and I knocked your head against the fucking wall.”
“I didn’t mean to!”
“Didn’t mean what?”
“To hit you in the mouth!”
“You meant it with her?”
“In a way, yeah,” he said evasively.
“In a way.”
Boris made an exasperated sound. “I told her I was sorry!
Everything is fine with us now, no problem! And besides, what
business is it of yours?”
“You brought it up, not me.”
He looked at me for an odd, off-centered moment, then
laughed. “Can I tell you something?”
“What?”
He put his head close to mine. “Kotku and me tripped last
night,” he said quietly. “Dropped acid together. It was great.”
“Really? Where did you get it?” E was easy enough to find at
our school—Boris and I had taken it at least a dozen times, magical
speechless nights where we had walked into the desert halfdelirious at the stars—but nobody ever had acid.
Boris rubbed his nose. “Ah. Well. Her mom knows this scary
old guy named Jimmy that works at a gun shop. He hooked us up
with five hits—I don’t know why I bought five, I wish I’d bought
six. Anyway I still have some. God it was fantastic.”
“Oh, yeah?” Now that I looked at him more closely, I
realized that his pupils were dilated and strange. “Are you still on
it?”
“M aybe a little. I only slept like two hours. Anyway we
totally made up. It was like—even the flowers on her mom’s
bedspread were friendly. And we were made out of the same stuff
as the flowers, and we realized how much we loved each other, and
needed each other no matter what, and how everything hateful that
had happened between us was only out of love.”
“Wow,” I said, in a voice that I guess must have sounded
sadder than I’d intended, from the way that Boris brought his
eyebrows together and looked at me.
“Well?” I said, when he kept on staring at me. “What is it?”
He blinked and shook his head. “No, I can just see it. This
mist of sadness, sort of, around your head. It’s like you’re a soldier
or something, a person from history, walking on a battlefield maybe
with all these deep feelings…”
“Boris, you’re still completely fried.”
“Not really,” he said dreamily. “I sort of snap in and out of
it. But I still see colored sparks coming off things if I look from the
corner of my eye just right.”
xiv.
A WEEK OR SO passed, without incident, either with my dad or on
the Boris-Kotku front—enough time that I felt safe bringing the
pillowcase home. I had noticed, when taking it out of my locker,
how unusually bulky (and heavy) it seemed, and when I got it
upstairs and out of the pillowcase, I saw why. Clearly I’d been
blasted out of my mind when I wrapped and taped it: all those
layers of newspaper, wound with a whole extra-large roll of heavyduty, fiber-reinforced packing tape, had seemed like a prudent
caution when I was freaked out and high, but back in my room, in
the sober light of afternoon, it looked like it had been bound and
wrapped by an insane and/or homeless person—mummified,
practically: so much tape on it that it wasn’t even quite square any
more; even the corners were round. I got the sharpest kitchen knife
I could find and sawed at a corner—cautiously at first, worried that
the knife would slip in and damage the painting—and then more
energetically. But I’d gotten only partway through a three-inch
section and my hands were starting to get tired when I heard
Xandra coming in downstairs, and I put it back in the pillowcase
and taped it to the back of my headboard again until I knew they
were going to be gone for a while.
Boris had promised me that we would do two of the leftover
hits of acid as soon as his mind got back to usual, which was how
he put it; he still felt a bit spaced-out, he confided, saw moving
patterns in the fake wood-grain of his desk at school, and the first
few times he’d smoked weed he’d started out-and-out tripping
again.
“That sounds kind of intense,” I said.
“No, it’s cool. I can make it stop when I want to. I think we
should take it at the playground,” he added. “On Thanksgiving
holiday maybe.” The abandoned playground was where we’d gone
to take E every time but the first, when Xandra came beating on
my bedroom door asking us to help her fix the washing machine,
which of course we weren’t able to do, but forty-five minutes of
standing around with her in the laundry room during the best part
of the roll had been a tremendous bringdown.
“Is it going to be a lot stronger than E?”
“No—well, yes, but is wonderful, trust me. I kept wanting
Kotku and me to be outside in the air except was too much that
close to the highway, lights, cars—maybe this weekend?”
So that was something to look forward to. But just as I was
starting to feel good and even hopeful about things again—ESPN
hadn’t been on for a week, which was definitely some kind of
record—I found my father waiting for me when I got home from
school.
“I need to talk to you, Theo,” he said, the moment I walked
in. “Do you have a minute?”
I paused. “Well, okay, sure.” The living room looked almost
as if it had been burgled—papers scattered everywhere, even the
cushions on the sofa slightly out of place.
He stopped pacing—he was moving a bit stiffly, as if his
knee hurt him. “Come over here,” he said, in a friendly voice. “Sit
down.”
I sat. M y dad exhaled; he sat down across from me and ran a
hand through his hair.
“The lawyer,” he said, leaning forward with his clasped hands
between his knees and meeting my eye frankly.
I waited.
“Your mom’s lawyer. I mean—I know this is short notice,
but I really need you to get on the phone with him for me.”
It was windy; outside, blown sand rattled against the glass
doors and the patio awning flapped with a sound like a flag
snapping. “What?” I said, after a cautious pause. She’d spoken of
seeing a lawyer after he left—about a divorce, I figured—but what
had come of it, I didn’t know.
“Well—” M y dad took a deep breath; he looked at the ceiling.
“Here’s the thing. I guess you’ve noticed I haven’t been betting my
sports anymore, right? Well,” he said, “I want to quit. While I’m
ahead, so to speak. It’s not—” he paused, and seemed to think—“I
mean, quite honestly, I’ve gotten pretty good at this stuff by doing
my homework and being disciplined about it. I crunch my
numbers. I don’t bet impulsively. And, I mean, like I say, I’ve been
doing pretty good. I’ve socked away a lot of money these past
months. It’s just—”
“Right,” I said uncertainly, in the silence that followed,
wondering what he was getting at.
“I mean, why tempt fate? Because—” hand on heart—“I am
an alcoholic. I’m the first to admit that. I can’t drink at all. One
drink is too many and a thousand’s not enough. Giving up booze
was the best thing I ever did. And I mean, with gambling, even with
my addictive tendencies and all, it’s always been kind of different,
sure I’ve had some scrapes but I’ve never been like some of these
guys that, I don’t know, that get so far in that they embezzle
money and wreck the family business or whatever. But—” he
laughed—“if you don’t want a haircut sooner or later, better stop
hanging out at the barber shop right?”
“So?” I said cautiously, after waiting for him to continue.
“So—whew.” M y dad ran both hands through his hair; he
looked boyish, dazed, incredulous. “Here’s the thing. I’m really
wanting to make some big changes right now. Because I have the
opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this great business.
Buddy of mine has a restaurant. And, I mean, I think it’s going to
be a really great thing for all of us—once in a lifetime thing,
actually. You know? Xandra’s having such a hard time at work
right now with her boss being such a shit and, I don’t know, I just
think this is going to be a lot more sane.”
M y dad? A restaurant? “Wow—that’s great,” I said. “Wow.”
“Yeah.” M y dad nodded. “It’s really great. The thing is,
though, to open a place like this—”
“What kind of restaurant?”
M y dad yawned, wiped red eyes. “Oh, you know—just
simple American food. Steaks and hamburgers and stuff. Just really
simple and well prepared. The thing is, though, for my buddy to
get the place open and pay his restaurant taxes—”
“Restaurant taxes?”
“Oh God, yes, you wouldn’t believe the kind of fees they’ve
got out here. You’ve got to pay your restaurant taxes, your liquorlicense taxes, liability insurance—it’s a huge cash outlay to get a
place like this up and running.”
“Well.” I could see where he was going with this. “If you
need the money in my savings account—”
M y dad looked startled. “What?”
“You know. That account you started for me. If you need the
money, that’s fine.”
“Oh yeah.” M y dad was silent for a moment. “Thanks. I
really appreciate that, pal. But actually—” he had stood up, and
was walking around—“the thing is, I actually see a really smart
way we can do this. Just a short term solution, in order to get the
place up and running, you know. We’ll make it back in a few
weeks—I mean, a place like this, the location and all, it’s like
having a license to print money. It’s just the initial expense. This
town is crazy with the taxes and the fees and so forth. I mean—”
he laughed, half-apologetically, “you know I wouldn’t ask if it
wasn’t an emergency—”
“Sorry?” I said, after a confused pause.
“I mean, like I was saying, I really need you to make this call
for me. Here’s the number.” He had it all written out for me on a
sheet of paper—a 212 number, I noticed. “You need to telephone
this guy and speak to him yourself. His name is Bracegirdle.”
I looked at the paper, and then at my dad. “I don’t
understand.”
“You don’t have to understand. All you have to do is say
what I tell you.”
“What does it have to do with me?”
“Look, just do it. Tell him who you are, need to have a word,
business matter, blah blah blah—”
“But—” Who was this person? “What do you want me to
say?”
M y father took a long breath; he was taking care to control
his expression, something he was fairly good at.
“He’s a lawyer,” he said, on an out breath. “Your mother’s
lawyer. He needs to make arrangements to wire this amount of
money—” my eyes popped at the sum he was pointing to,
$65,000—“into this account” (dragging his finger to the string of
numbers beneath it). “Tell him I’ve decided to send you to a
private school. He’ll need your name and Social Security number.
That’s it.”
“Private school?” I said, after a disoriented pause.
“Well, you see, it’s for tax reasons.”
“I don’t want to go to private school.”
“Wait—wait—just hear me out. As long as these funds are
used for your benefit, in the official sense, we’ve got no problem.
And the restaurant is for all our benefit, see. M aybe, in the end,
yours most of all. And I mean, I could make the call myself, it’s
just that if we angle this the right way we’d be saving like thirty
thousand dollars that would go to the government otherwise. Hell,
I will send you to a private school if you want. Boarding school. I
could send you to Andover with all that extra money. I just don’t
want half of it to end up with the IRS, know what I’m saying?
Also—I mean, the way this thing is set up, by the time you end up
going to college, it’s going to end up costing you money, because
with that amount of money in there it means you won’t be eligible
for a scholarship. The college financial aid people are going to look
right at that account and put you in a different income bracket and
take 75 percent of it the first year, poof. This way, at least, you’ll
get the full use of it, you see? Right now. When it could actually do
some good.”
“But—”
“But—” falsetto voice, lolled tongue, goofy stare. “Oh, come
on, Theo,” he said, in his normal voice, when I kept on looking at
him. “Swear to God, I don’t have time for this. I need you to make
this call ASAP, before the offices close back East. If you need to
sign something, tell him to FedEx the papers. Or fax them. We just
need to get this done as soon as possible, okay?”
“But why do I need to do it?”
M y dad sighed; he rolled his eyes. “Look, don’t give me that,
Theo,” he said. “I know you know the score because I’ve seen you
checking the mail—yes,” he said over my objections, “yes you do,
every day you’re out at that mailbox like a fucking shot.”
I was so baffled by this that I didn’t even know how to
reply. “But—” I glanced down at the paper and the figure leaped
out again: $65,000.
Without warning, my dad snapped out and whacked me
across the face, so hard and fast that for a second I didn’t know
what had happened. Then almost before I could blink he hit me
again with his fist, cartoon wham, bright crack like a camera flash,
this time with his fist. As I wobbled—my knees had gone loose,
everything white—he caught me by the throat with a sharp
upward thrust and forced me up on tiptoe so I was gasping for
breath.
“Look here.” He was shouting in my face—his nose two
inches from mine—but Popper was jumping and barking like crazy
and the ringing in my ears had climbed to such a pitch it was like he
was screaming at me though radio fuzz. “You’re going to call this
guy—” rattling the paper in my face—“and say what I fucking tell
you. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be because I will
make you do this, Theo, no lie, I will break your arm, I will beat
the everloving shit out of you if you don’t get on the phone right
now. Okay? Okay?” he repeated in the dizzy, ear-buzzing silence.
His cigarette breath was sour in my face. He let go my throat; he
stepped back. “Do you hear me? Say something.”
I swiped an arm over my face. Tears were streaming down
my cheeks but they were automatic, like tap water, no emotion
attached to them.
M y dad squeezed his eyes shut, then re-opened them; he
shook his head. “Look,” he said, in a crisp voice, still breathing
hard. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry, I noted, in a clear hard
remove of my mind; he sounded like he still wanted to beat the shit
out of me. “But, I swear, Theo. Just trust me on this. You have to
do this for me.”
Everything was blurred, and I reached up with both hands to
straighten my glasses. M y breaths were so loud that they were the
noisiest things in the room.
M y dad, hand on hips, turned his eyes to the ceiling. “Oh,
come on,” he said. “Just stop it.”
I said nothing. We stood there for another long moment or
two. Popper had stopped barking and was looking between us
apprehensively like he was trying to figure out what was going on.
“It’s just… well you know?” Now he was all reasonable
again. “I’m sorry, Theo, I swear I am, but I’m really in a bind here,
we need this money right now, this minute, we really do.”
He was trying to meet my eyes: his gaze was frank, sensible.
“Who is this guy?” I said, looking not at him but at the wall behind
his head, my voice for whatever reason coming out scorchedsounding and strange.
“Your mother’s lawyer. How many times do I have to tell
you?” He was massaging his knuckles like he’d hurt his hand
hitting me. “See, the thing is, Theo—” another sigh—“I mean, I’m
sorry, but, I swear, I wouldn’t be so upset if this wasn’t so
important. Because I am really, really behind the eight ball here.
This is just a temporary thing, you understand—just until the
business gets off the ground. Because the whole thing could
collapse, just like that—” snapped fingers—“unless I start getting
some of these creditors paid off. And the rest of it—I will use to
send you to a better school. Private school maybe. You’d like that,
wouldn’t you?”
Already, carried away by his own rap, he was dialing the
number. He handed me the telephone and—before anyone
answered—dashed over and picked up the extension across the
room.
“Hello,” I said, to the woman who answered the phone, “um,
excuse me,” my voice scratchy and uneven, I still couldn’t quite
believe what was happening. “M ay I speak to M r., uh…”
M y dad stabbed his finger at the paper: Bracegirdle.
“M r., uh, Bracegirdle,” I said, aloud.
“And who may I say is calling?” Both my voice, and hers,
were way too loud due to the fact that my dad was listening on the
extension.
“Theodore Decker.”
“Oh, yes,” said the man’s voice when he came on the other
end. “Hello! Theodore! How are you?”
“Fine.”
“You sound like you have a cold. Tell me. Do you have a bit
of a cold?”
“Er, yes,” I said uncertainly. M y dad, across the room, was
mouthing the word Laryngitis.
“That’s a shame,” said the echoing voice—so loud that I had
to hold the phone slightly away from my ear. “I never think of
people catching colds in the sunshine, where you are. At any rate,
I’m glad you phoned me—I didn’t have a good way to get in touch
with you directly. I know things are probably still very hard. But I
hope things are better than they were the last time I saw you.”
I was silent. I’d met this person?
“It was a bad time,” said M r. Bracegirdle, correctly
interpreting my silence.
The velvety, fluent voice struck a chord. “Okay, wow,” I
said.
“Snowstorm, remember?”
“Right.” He’d appeared maybe a week after my mother died:
oldish man with a full head of white hair—snappily dressed,
striped shirt, bow tie. He and M rs. Barbour had seemed to know
each other, or at any rate he had seemed to know her. He’d sat
across from me in the armchair nearest the sofa and talked a lot,
confusing stuff, although all that really stuck in my mind was the
story he’d told of how he met my mother: massive snowstorm, no
taxis in sight—when—preceded by a fan of wet snow—an
occupied cab had plowed to the corner of Eighty-Fourth and Park.
Window rolled down—my mother (“a vision of loveliness!”) going
as far as East Fifty-Seventh, was he headed that way?
“She always talked about that storm,” I said. M y father—
phone to his ear—glanced at me sharply. “When the city was shut
down that time.”
He laughed. “What a lovely young lady! I’d come out of a
late meeting—elderly trustee up on Park and Ninety-Second,
shipping heiress, now dead alas. Anyway, down I came, from the
penthouse to the street—lugging my litigation bag, of course—and
a foot had fallen. Perfect silence. Kids were pulling sleds down
Park Avenue. Anyway, the trains weren’t running above Seventy-
Second and there I was, knee deep and trudging, when, whoops!
here came a yellow cab with your mother in it! Crunching to a
stop. As if she’d been sent by a search party. ‘Hop in, I’ll give
you a ride.’ M idtown absolutely deserted… snowflakes whirling
down and every light in the city on. And there we were, rolling
along at about two miles per hour—we might as well have been in a
sleigh—sailing right through the red lights, no point stopping. I
remember we talked about Fairfield Porter—there’d just been a
show in New York—and then on to Frank O’Hara and Lana
Turner and what year they’d finally closed the old Horn and
Hardart, the Automat. And then, we discovered that we worked
across the street from each other! It was the beginning of a
beautiful friendship, as they say.”
I glanced over at my dad. He had a funny look on his face,
lips pressed tight as if he was about to be sick on the carpet.
“We talked a bit about your mother’s estate, if you
remember,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “Not
much. It wasn’t the time. But I had hoped you would come to see
me when you were ready to talk. I would have telephoned before
you left town if I’d known you were going.”
I looked at my dad; I looked at the paper in my hand. “I want
to go to private school,” I blurted.
“Really?” said M r. Bracegirdle. “I think that may be an
excellent idea. Where were you thinking about going? Back east? Or
somewhere out there?”
We hadn’t thought this out. I looked at my dad.
“Uh,” I said, “uh,” while my father grimaced at me and waved
his hand frantically.
“There may be good boarding schools out west, though I
don’t know about them,” M r. Bracegirdle was saying. “I went to
M ilton, which was a wonderful experience for me. And my oldest
son went there too, for a year anyway, though it wasn’t at all the
right place for him—”
As he talked on—from M ilton, to Kent, to various boarding
schools attended by children of friends and acquaintances—my dad
scribbled a note; he threw it at me. Wire me the money, it said.
Down payment.
“Um,” I said, not knowing how else to introduce the subject,
“did my mother leave me some money?”
“Well, not exactly,” said M r. Bracegirdle, seeming to cool
slightly at the question, or maybe it was just the awkwardness of
the interruption. “She was having some financial troubles toward
the end, as I’m sure you’re well aware. But you do have a 529.
And she also set up a little UTM A for you right before she died.”
“What is that?” M y dad—his eyes on me—was listening
very closely.
“Uniform Transfer to M inors. It’s to be used for your
education. But it can’t be used for anything else—not while you’re
still a minor, anyway.”
“Why can’t it?” I said, after a brief pause, as he had seemed
to stress the final point so much.
“Because it’s the law,” he said curtly. “But certainly
something can be worked out if you want to go away to school. I
know of a client who used part of her eldest son’s 529 for a fancy
kindergarten for her youngest. Not that I think twenty thousand
dollars a year is a prudent expenditure at that level—the most
expensive crayons in M anhattan, surely—! But yes, so you
understand, that’s how it works.”
I looked at my dad. “So there’s no way you could, say, wire
me sixty-five thousand dollars,” I said. “If I needed it right this
minute.”
“No! Absolutely not! So just put that out of your mind.” His
manner had changed—clearly he’d revised his opinion of me, no
longer my mother’s son and A Good Kid but a grasping little
creep. “By the way, may I ask how you happened to arrive at that
particular figure?”
“Er—” I glanced at my dad, who had a hand over his eyes.
Shit, I thought, and then realized I’d said it out loud.
“Well, no matter,” said M r. Bracegirdle silkily. “It’s simply
not possible.”
“No way?”
“No way, no how.”
“Okay, fine—” I tried hard to think, but my mind was
running in two directions at once. “Could you send me part of it,
then? Like half?”
“No. It would all have to be arranged directly with the college
or school of your choice. In other words, I’m going to need to see
bills, and pay bills. There’s a lot of paperwork, as well. And in the
unlikely event you decide not to attend college…”
As he talked on, confusingly, about various ins and outs of
the funds my mother had set up for me (all of which were fairly
restrictive, as far as either my father or me getting our hands
immediately on actual, spendable cash) my dad, holding the phone
out from his ear, had something very like an expression of horror
on his face.
“Well, uh, that’s good to know, thank you sir,” I said, trying
hard to wrap up the conversation.
“There are tax advantages of course. Setting it up like this.
But what she really wanted was to make sure your father would
never be able to touch it.”
“Oh?” I said, uncertainly, in the overly long silence that
followed. Something in his tone had made me suspect that he knew
my father might be the Lord Vader-ish presence breathing audibly
(audibly to me—whether audibly to him I don’t know) on the
other line.
“There are other considerations, as well. I mean—” decorous
silence—“I don’t know if I ought to tell you this, but an
unauthorized party has twice tried to make a large withdrawal on
the account.”
“What?” I said, after a sick pause.
“You see,” said M r. Bracegirdle, his voice as distant as if it
were coming from the bottom of the sea, “I’m the custodian on the
account. And about two months after your mother died, someone
walked in the bank in M anhattan during business hours and tried to
forge my signature on the papers. Well, they know me at the main
branch, and they called me right away, but while they were still on
the phone with me the man slipped out the door, before the
security guard was able to approach and ask for ID. That was, my
goodness, nearly two years ago. But then—only last week—did
you get the letter I wrote you about this?”
“No,” I said, when at last I realized I needed to say
something.
“Well, without going into it too much, there was a peculiar
phone call. From someone purporting to be your attorney out
there, requesting a transfer of funds. And then—checking into it—
we found out that some party with access to your Social Security
number had applied for, and received, a rather large line of credit in
your name. Do you happen to know anything about that?
“Well, not to worry,” he continued, when I didn’t say
anything. “I have a copy of your birth certificate here, and I faxed
it to the issuing bank and had the line shut down immediately. And
I’ve alerted Equifax and all the credit agencies. Even though you’re
a minor, and legally unable to enter into such a contract, you could
be responsible for any such debts incurred in your name once you
come of age. At any rate, I urge you to be very careful with your
Social Security number in future. It’s possible to have a new Social
issued, in theory, although the red tape is such a headache that I
don’t suggest it…”
I was in a cold sweat when I hung up the telephone—and
completely unprepared for the howl that my father let out. I
thought he was angry—angry at me—but when he just stood there
with the phone still in his hand, I looked at him a little closer and
realized he was crying.
It was horrible. I had no idea what to do. He sounded like
he’d had boiling water poured over him—like he was turning into a
werewolf—like he was being tortured. I left him there and—
Popchik hurrying up the stairs ahead of me; clearly he didn’t want
any part of this howling, either—went in my room and locked the
door and sat on the side of my bed with my head in my hands,
wanting aspirin but not wanting to go down to the bathroom to get
it, wishing Xandra would hurry up and come home. The screams
from downstairs were ungodly, like he was being burned with a
blow torch. I got my iPod, tried to find some loud-ish music that
wasn’t upsetting (Shostakovich’s Fourth, which though classical
actually was a bit upsetting) and lay on my bed with the earbuds in
and stared at the ceiling, while Popper stood with his ears up and
stared at the closed door, the hairs on his neck erect and bristling.
xv.
“HE TOLD ME YOU had a fortune,” said Boris, later that night at the
playground, while we were sitting around waiting for the drugs to
work. I slightly wished we had picked another night to take them,
but Boris had insisted it would make me feel better.
“You believed I had a fortune, and wouldn’t tell you?” We’d
been sitting on the swings for what seemed like forever, waiting for
just what I didn’t know.
Boris shrugged. “I don’t know. There are a lot of things you
don’t tell me. I would have told you. It’s all right, though.”
“I don’t know what to do.” Though it was very subtle, I’d
begun to notice glittering gray kaleidoscope patterns turning
sluggishly in the gravel by my foot—dirty ice, diamonds, sparkles
of broken glass. “Things are getting scary.”
Boris nudged me. “There’s something I didn’t tell you either,
Potter.”
“What?”
“M y dad has to leave. For his job. He’s going back to
Australia in a few months. Then on, I think, to Russia.”
There was a silence that maybe lasted five seconds, but felt
like it lasted an hour. Boris? Gone? Everything seemed frozen, like
the planet had stopped.
“Well, I’m not going,” said Boris serenely. His face in the
moonlight had taken on an unnerving electrified flicker, like a blackand-white film from the silent era. “Fuck that. I’m running away.”
“Where?”
“Dunno. Do you want to come?”
“Yes,” I said, without thinking, and then: “Is Kotku going?”
He grimaced. “I don’t know.” The filmic quality had become
so stage-lit and stark that all semblance of real life had vanished;
we’d been neutralized, fictionalized, flattened; my field of vision
was bordered by a black rectangle; I could see the subtitles running
at the bottom of what he was saying. Then, at almost exactly the
same time, the bottom dropped out of my stomach. Oh, God, I
thought, running both hands through my hair and feeling way too
overwhelmed to explain what I was feeling.
Boris was still talking, and I realized if I didn’t want to be
lost forever in this grainy Nosferatu world, sharp shadows and
achromatism, it was important to listen to him and not get so hung
up on the artificial texture of things.
“… I mean, I guess I understand,” he was saying mournfully,
as speckles and raindrops of decay danced all around him. “With
her it’s not even running away, she’s of age, you know? But she
lived on the street once and didn’t like it.”
“Kotku lived on the street?” I felt an unexpected surge of
compassion for her—orchestrated somehow, with a cinematic
music swell almost, although the sadness itself was perfectly real.
“Well, I have too, in Ukraine. But I would be with my friends
M aks and Seryozha—never more than few days at a time.
Sometimes it was good fun. We’d kip in basement of abandoned
buildings—drink, take butorphanol, build campfires even. But I
always went home when my dad sobered up. With Kotku though,
it was different. This one boyfriend of her mother’s—he was doing
stuff to her. So she left. Slept in doorways. Begged for change—
blew guys for money. Was out of school for a while—she was
brave to come back, to try and finish, after what happened.
Because, I mean, people say stuff. You know.”
We were silent, contemplating the awfulness of this, me
feeling as if I had experienced in these few words the entire weight
and sweep of Kotku’s life, and Boris’s.
“I’m sorry I don’t like Kotku!” I said, really meaning it.
“Well, I’m sorry too,” said Boris reasonably. His voice
seemed to be going straight to my brain without passing my ears.
“But she doesn’t like you either. She thinks you’re spoiled. That
you haven’t been through nearly the kind of stuff that she and I
have.”
This seemed like a fair criticism. “That seems fair,” I said.
Some weighty and flickering interlude of time seemed to pass:
trembling shadows, static, hiss of unseen projector. When I held
out my hand and looked at it, it was dust-speckled and bright like a
decaying piece of film.
“Wow, I’m seeing it too now,” said Boris, turning to me—a
sort of slowed-down, hand-cranked movement, fourteen frames per
second. His face was chalk pale and his pupils were dark and huge.
“Seeing—?” I said carefully.
“You know.” He waved his floodlit, black-and-white hand in
the air. “How it’s all flat, like a movie.”
“But you—” It wasn’t just me? He saw it, too?
“Of course,” said Boris, looking less and less like a person
every moment, and more like some degraded piece of silver nitrate
stock from the 1920s, light shining behind him from some hidden
source. “I wish we’d got something color though. Like maybe
‘M ary Poppins.’ ”
When he said this, I began to laugh uncontrollably, so hard I
nearly fell off the swing, because I knew then for sure he saw the
same thing I did. M ore than that: we were creating it. Whatever the
drug was making us see, we were constructing it together. And,
with that realization, the virtual-reality simulator flipped into
color. It happened for both of us at the same time, pop! We looked
at each other and just laughed; everything was hysterically funny,
even the playground slide was smiling at us, and at some point,
deep in the night, when we were swinging on the jungle gym and
showers of sparks were flying out of our mouths, I had the
epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that
this was the secret of the universe. For hours, we watched the
clouds rearranging themselves into intelligent patterns; rolled in the
dirt, believing it was seaweed (!); lay on our backs and sang “Dear
Prudence” to the welcoming and appreciative stars. It was a
fantastic night—one of the great nights of my life, actually, despite
what happened later.
xvi.
BORIS STAYED OVER AT my house, since I lived closer to the
playground and he was (in his own favorite term for loadedness) v
gavno, which meant “shit-faced” or “in shit” or something of the
sort—at any rate, too wrecked to get home on his own in the dark.
And this was fortunate, as it meant I wasn’t alone in the house at
three thirty the next afternoon when M r. Silver stopped by.
Though we’d barely slept, and were a little shaky, everything
still felt the tiniest bit magical and full of light. We were drinking
orange juice and watching cartoons (good idea, as it seemed to
extend the hilarious Technicolor mood of the evening) and—bad
idea—had just shared our second joint of the afternoon when the
doorbell rang. Popchyk—who’d been extremely on edge; he sensed
that we were off-key somehow and had been barking at us like we
were possessed—went off immediately almost as if he’d expected
something of the sort.
In an instant, it all came crashing back. “Holy shit,” I said.
“I’ll go,” said Boris immediately, tucking Popchyk under his
arm. Off he bopped, barefoot and shirtless, with an air of complete
unconcern. But in what seemed like one second he was back again,
looking ashen.
He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to. I got up, put on
my sneakers and tied them tight (as I’d gotten in the habit of doing
before our shoplifting expeditions, in the event I had to flee), and
went to the door. There was M r. Silver again—white sports coat,
shoe-polish hair, and all—only this time standing beside him was a
large guy with blurred blue tattoos snaked all over his forearms,
holding an aluminum baseball bat.
“Well, Theodore!” said M r. Silver. He seemed genuinely
pleased to see me. “Hiya doing?”
“Fine,” I said, marvelling at how un-stoned I suddenly felt.
“And you?”
“Can’t complain. Quite a bruise you got going on there, pal.”
Reflexively, I reached up and touched my cheek. “Uh—”
“Better look after that. Your buddy tells me your Dad’s not
home.”
“Um, that’s right.”
“Everything okay with you two? You guys having any
problems out here this afternoon?”
“Um, no, not really,” I said. The guy wasn’t brandishing the
bat, or being threatening in any way, but still I couldn’t help being
fairly aware that he had it.
“Because if you ever do?” said M r. Silver. “Have problems of
any nature? I can take care of them for you like that.”
What was he talking about? I looked past him, out to the
street, to his car. Even though the windows were tinted, I could see
the other men waiting there.
M r. Silver sighed. “I’m glad to hear that you don’t have any
problems, Theodore. I only wish that I could say the same.”
“Excuse me?”
“Because here’s the thing,” he continued, as if I hadn’t
spoken. “I have a problem. A really big one. With your father.”
Not knowing what to say, I stared at his cowboy boots.
They were black crocodile, with a stacked heel, very pointed at the
toe and polished to such a high shine that they reminded me of the
girly-girl cowboy boots that Lucie Lobo, a way-out stylist in my
mother’s office, had always worn.
“You see, here’s the thing,” said M r. Silver. “I’m holding
fifty grand of your dad’s paper. And that is causing some very big
problems for me.”
“He’s getting the money together,” I said, awkwardly.
“M aybe, I don’t know, if you could just give him a little more
time…”
M r. Silver looked at me. He adjusted his glasses.
“Listen,” he said reasonably. “Your dad wants to risk his
shirt on how some morons handle a fucking ball—I mean, pardon
my language. But it’s hard for me to have sympathy for a guy like
him. Doesn’t honor his obligations, three weeks late on the vig,
doesn’t return my phone calls—” he was ticking off the offenses
on his fingers—“makes plans to meet me at noon today and then
doesn’t show. You know how long I sat and waited for that
deadbeat? An hour and a half. Like I don’t got other, better things
to do.” He put his head to the side. “It’s guys like your dad keep
guys like me and Yurko here in business. Do you think I like
coming to your house? Driving all the way out here?”
I had thought this was a rhetorical question—clearly no one
in their right mind would like driving all the way out where we
lived—but since an outrageous amount of time passed, and still he
was staring at me like he actually expected an answer, I finally
blinked in discomfort and said: “No.”
“No. That’s right, Theodore. I most certainly do not. We got
better things to do, me and Yurko, believe me, than spend all
afternoon chasing after a deadbeat like your dad. So do me a favor,
please, and tell your father we can settle this like gentlemen the
second he sits down and works things out with me.”
“Work things out?”
“He needs to bring me what he owes me.” He was smiling but
the gray tint at the top of his aviators gave his eyes a disturbingly
hooded look. “And I want you to tell him to do that for me,
Theodore. Because next time I have to come out here, believe me,
I’m not going to be so nice.”
xvii.
WHEN I CAME BACK into the living room Boris was sitting quietly
and staring at cartoons with the sound off, stroking Popper—who,
despite his earlier upset, was now fast asleep in his lap.
“Ridiculous,” he said shortly.
He pronounced the word in such a way that it took me a
moment to realize what he’d said. “Right,” I said, “I told you he
was a freak.”
Boris shook his head and leaned back against the couch. “I
don’t mean the old Leonard Cohen-looking guy with the wig.”
“You think that’s a wig?”
He made a face like who cares. “Him too, but I mean the big
Russian with the, metal, what do you call it?”
“Baseball bat.”
“That was just for show,” he said disdainfully. “He was just
trying to scare you, the prick.”
“How do you know he was Russian?”
He shrugged. “Because I know. No one has tattoos like that
in U.S. Russian national, no question. He knew I was Russian too,
minute I opened my mouth.”
Some period of time passed before I realized I was sitting
there staring into space. Boris lifted Popchyk and put him down
on the sofa, so gently he didn’t wake. “You want to get out of here
for a while?”
“God,” I said, shaking my head suddenly—the impact of the
visit had for whatever reason just hit me, a delayed reaction
—“fuck, I wish my dad had been home. You know? I wish that
guy would beat his ass. I really do. He deserves it.”
Boris kicked my ankle. His feet were black with dirt and he
also had black polish on his toenails, courtesy of Kotku.
“You know what I had to eat yesterday?” he said sociably.
“Two Nestlé bars and a Pepsi.” All candy bars, for Boris, were
‘Nestlé bars,’ just as all sodas were ‘Pepsi.’ “And you know what
I had to eat today?” He made a zero with thumb and forefinger.
“Nul.”
“M e neither. This stuff makes you not hungry.”
“Yah, but I need to eat something. M y stomach—” he made a
face.
“Do you want to go get pancakes?”
“Yes—something—I don’t care. Do you have money?”
“I’ll look around.”
“Good. I think I have five dollars maybe.”
While Boris was rummaging for shoes and a shirt, I splashed
some water on my face, checked out my pupils and the bruise on
my jaw, rebuttoned my shirt when I saw it was done up the wrong
way, and then went to let Popchik out, throwing his tennis ball to
him for a bit, since he hadn’t had a proper walk on the leash and I
knew he felt cooped-up. When we came back in, Boris—dressed
now—was downstairs; we’d done a quick search of the living room
and were laughing and joking around, pooling our quarters and
dimes and trying to figure out where we wanted to go and the
quickest way to get there when all of a sudden we noticed that
Xandra had come in the front door and was standing there with a
funny look on her face.
Both of us stopped talking immediately and went about our
change-sorting in silence. It wasn’t a time when Xandra normally
came home, but her schedule was erratic sometimes and she’d
surprised us before. But then, in an uncertain-sounding voice, she
said my name.
We stopped with the change. Generally Xandra called me
kiddo or hey you or anything but Theo. She was, I noticed, still
wearing her uniform from work.
“Your dad’s had a car accident,” she said. It was like she was
saying it to Boris instead of me.
“Where?” I said.
“It happened like two hours ago. The hospital called me at
work.”
Boris and I looked at each other. “Wow,” I said. “What
happened? Did he total the car?”
“His blood alcohol was .39.”
The figure was meaningless to me, though the fact he’d been
drinking wasn’t. “Wow,” I said, pocketing my change, and:
“When’s he coming home, then?”
She met my eye blankly. “Home?”
“From the hospital.”
Rapidly, she shook her head; looked around for a chair to sit
in; and then sat in it. “You don’t understand.” Her face was empty
and strange. “He died. He’s dead.”
xviii.
T HE NEXT SIX OR seven hours were a daze. Several of Xandra’s
friends showed up: her best friend Courtney; Janet from her work;
and a couple named Stewart and Lisa who were nicer and way
more normal than the usual people Xandra had over to the house.
Boris, generously, produced what was left of Kotku’s weed, which
was appreciated by all parties present; and someone, thankfully
(maybe it was Courtney), ordered out for pizza—how she got
Domino’s to deliver all the way out to us, I don’t know, since for
over a year Boris and I had wheedled and pleaded and tried every
cajolement and excuse we could think of.
While Janet sat with her arm around Xandra, and Lisa patted
her head, and Stewart made coffee in the kitchen, and Courtney
rolled a joint on the coffee table that was almost as expert as one of
Kotku’s, Boris and I hung in the background, stunned. It was hard
to believe that my dad could be dead when his cigarettes were still
on the kitchen counter and his old white tennis shoes were still by
the back door. Apparently—it all came out in the wrong order, I
had to piece it together in my mind—my dad had crashed the
Lexus on the highway, a little before two in the afternoon, veering
off on the wrong side of the road and plowing headlong into a
tractor-trailer which had immediately killed him (not the driver of
the truck, fortunately, or the passengers in the car that had rearended the truck, although the driver of the car had a broken leg).
The blood-alcohol news was both surprising, and not—I’d
suspected my father might be drinking again, though I hadn’t seen
him doing it—but what seemed to baffle Xandra most was not his
extreme drunkenness (he’d been virtually unconscious at the
wheel) but the location of the accident—outside Vegas, heading
west, into the desert. “He would have told me, he would have told
me,” she was saying sorrowfully in response to some question or
other of Courtney’s, only why, I thought bleakly, sitting on the
floor with my hands over my eyes, did she think it was in my
father’s nature to tell the truth about anything?
Boris had his arm over my shoulder. “She doesn’t know, does
she?”
I knew he was talking about M r. Silver. “Should I—”
“Where was he going?” Xandra was asking Courtney and
Janet, almost aggressively, as if she suspected them of withholding
information. “What was he doing all the way over there?” It was
strange to see her still in her work uniform, as she usually changed
out of it the second she walked in the door.
“He didn’t go meet that guy like he was supposed to,”
whispered Boris.
“I know.” Possibly he had intended to go to the sit-down
with M r. Silver. But—as my mother and I had so often, so fatally,
known him to do—he had probably stopped in a bar somewhere
for a quick belt or two, to steady his nerves as he always said. At
that point—who knew what might have been going through his
mind? nothing helpful to point out to Xandra under the
circumstances, but he’d certainly been known to skip town on his
obligations before.
I didn’t cry. Though cold waves of disbelief and panic kept
hitting me, it all seemed highly unreal and I kept glancing around
for him, struck again and again by the absence of his voice among
the others, that easy, well-reasoned, aspirin-commercial voice (four
out of five doctors…) that made itself known above all others in a
room. Xandra went in and out of being fairly matter-of-fact—
wiping her eyes, getting plates for pizza, pouring everybody
glasses of the red wine that had appeared from somewhere—and
then collapsing in tears again. Popchik alone was happy; it was
rare we had so much company in the house and he ran from person
to person, undiscouraged by repeated rebuffs. At some bleary
point, deep in the evening—Xandra weeping in Courtney’s arms
for the twentieth time, oh my God, he’s gone, I can’t believe it—
Boris pulled me aside and said: “Potter, I have to go.”
“No, don’t, please.”
“Kotku’s going to be freaked out. Am supposed to be at her
mom’s now! She hasn’t seen me for like forty-eight hours.”
“Look, tell her to come over if she wants—tell her what’s
happened. It’s going to completely suck if you have to leave right
now.”
Xandra had grown sufficiently distracted with guests and
grief that Boris was able to go upstairs to make the call in her
bedroom—a room usually kept locked, that Boris and I never saw.
In about ten minutes he came skimming rapidly down the steps.
“Kotku said to stay,” he said, ducking in to sit beside me.
“She told me to say she’s sorry.”
“Wow,” I said, coming close to tears, scrubbing my hand over
my face so he wouldn’t see how startled and touched I was.
“Well, I mean, she knows how it is. Her dad died too.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yes, a few years ago. In a motor accident, as well. They
weren’t that close—”
“Who died?” said Janet, swaying over us, a frizzy, silkbloused presence redolent of weed and beauty products.
“Somebody else died?”
“No,” I said curtly. I didn’t like Janet—she was the ditz
who’d volunteered to take care of Popper and then left him locked
up alone with his food dispenser.
“Not you, him,” she said, stepping backwards and focusing
her foggy attention on Boris. “Somebody died? That you were
close to?”
“Several people, yeah.”
She blinked. “Where are you from?”
“Why?”
“Your voice is so funny. Like British or something—well no.
Like a mix of British and Transylvania.”
Boris hooted. “Transylvania?” he said, showing her his fangs.
“Do you want me to bite you?”
“Oh, funny boys,” she said vaguely, before bopping Boris on
the top of the head with the bottom of her wine glass and
wandering off to say goodbye to Stewart and Lisa, who were just
leaving.
Xandra, it seemed, had taken a pill. (“M aybe more than one,”
said Boris, in my ear.) She appeared on the verge of passing out.
Boris—it was shitty of me, but I just wasn’t willing to do it—took
her cigarette away from her and stubbed it out, then helped
Courtney get her up the stairs and into her room, where she lay
face down on the bedspread with the door open.
I stood in the doorway while Boris and Courtney got her
shoes off—interested to see, for once, the room that she and my
dad always kept locked up. Dirty cups and ashtrays, stacks of
Glamour magazine, puffy green bedspread, laptop I never got to
use, exercise bike—who knew they had an exercise bike in there?
Xandra’s shoes were off but they’d decided to leave her
dressed. “Do you want me to spend the night?” Courtney was
asking Boris in a low voice.
Boris, shamelessly, stretched and yawned. His shirt was
riding up and his jeans hung so low you could see he wasn’t
wearing any underwear. “Nice of you,” he said. “But she is out
cold, I think.”
“I don’t mind.” M aybe I was high—I was high—but she was
leaning so close to him it looked like she was trying to make out
with him or something, which was hilarious.
I must have made some sort of semi-choking or laughter-like
noise—since Courtney turned just in time to see my comical
gesture to Boris, a thumb jerked at the door—get her out of here!
“Are you okay?” she said coldly, eyeing me up and down.
Boris was laughing too but he’d straightened up by the time she
turned back to him, his expression all soulful and concerned, which
only made me laugh harder.
xix.
XANDRA WAS OUT COLD by the time they all left—asleep so deeply
that Boris got a pocket mirror from her purse (which we had rifled,
for pills and cash) and held it under her nose to see if she was
breathing. There was two hundred and twenty-nine dollars in her
wallet, which I didn’t feel all that bad about taking since she still
had her credit cards and an uncashed check for two thousand and
twenty-five.
“I knew Xandra wasn’t her real name,” I said, tossing him her
driver’s license: orange-tinged face, different fluffed-up hair, name
Sandra Jaye Terrell, no restrictions. “Wonder what these keys go
to?”
Boris—like an old-fashioned movie doctor, fingers on her
pulse, sitting by her on the side of the bed—held the mirror up to
the light. “Da, da,” he muttered, then something else I didn’t
understand.
“Eh?”
“She’s out.” With one finger, he prodded her shoulder, and
then leaned over and peered into the nightstand drawer where I was
rapidly sorting through a bewilderment of junk: change, chips, lip
gloss, coasters, false eyelashes, nail polish remover, tattered
paperbacks (Your Erroneous Zones), perfume samples, old
cassette tapes, ten years’ expired insurance cards, and a bunch of
giveaway matchbooks from a Reno legal office that said
REP RESENTING DWI AND ALL DRUG OFFENSES.
“Hey, let me have those,” said Boris, reaching over and
pocketing a strip of condoms. “What’s this?” He picked up
something that at first glance looked like a Coke can—but, when he
shook it, it rattled. He put his ear to it. “Ha!” he said, tossing it to
me.
“Good job.” I screwed off the top—it was obviously fake—
and dumped the contents out on the top of the nightstand.
“Wow,” I said, after a few moments. Clearly this was where
Xandra kept her tip money—partly cash, partly chips. There was
a lot of other stuff, too—so much I had a hard time taking it all in
—but my eyes had gone straight to the diamond-and-emerald
earrings that my mother had found missing, right before my father
took off.
“Wow,” I said again, picking one of them up between thumb
and forefinger. M y mother had worn these earrings for almost
every cocktail party or dress-up occasion—the blue-green
transparency of the stones, their wicked three a.m. gleam, were as
much a part of her as the color of her eyes or the spicy dark smell
of her hair.
Boris was cackling. Amidst the cash he’d immediately
spotted, and snatched up, a film canister, which he opened with
trembling hands. He dipped the end of his little finger in, tasted it.
“Bingo,” he said, running the finger along his gums. “Kotku’s going
to be pissed she didn’t come over now.”
I held out the earrings to him on my open hands. “Yah, nice,”
he said, hardly looking at them. He was tapping out a pile of
powder on the nightstand. “You’ll get a couple of thousand dollars
for those.”
“These were my mother’s.” M y dad had sold most of her
jewelry back in New York, including her wedding ring. But now—I
saw—Xandra had skimmed some of it for herself, and it made me
weirdly sad to see what she’d chosen—not the pearls or the ruby
brooch, but inexpensive things from my mother’s teenage days,
including her junior-high charm bracelet, ajingle with horseshoes
and ballet slippers and four leaf clovers.
Boris straightened up, pinched his nostrils, handed me the
rolled-up bill. “You want some?”
“No.”
“Come on. It’ll make you feel better.”
“No, thanks.”
“There must be four or five eight balls here. M aybe more! We
can keep one and sell the others.”
“You did that stuff before?” I said doubtfully, eyeing
Xandra’s prone body. Even though she was clearly down for the
count, I didn’t like having these conversations over her back.
“Yah. Kotku likes it. Expensive, though.” He seemed to blank
out for a minute, then blinked his eyes rapidly. “Wow. Come on,”
he said, laughing. “Here. Don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I’m too fucked-up as it is,” I said, shuffling through the
money.
“Yah, but this will sober you up.”
“Boris, I can’t goof around,” I said, pocketing the earrings and
the charm bracelet. “If we’re going, we need to leave now. Before
people start showing up.”
“What people?” said Boris skeptically, running his finger
back and forth under his nose.
“Believe me, it happens fast. Child services coming in, and
like that.” I’d counted the cash—thirteen hundred and twenty-one
dollars, plus change; there was much more in chips, close to five
thousand dollars’ worth, but might as well leave her those. “Half
for you and half for me,” I said, as I began to count the cash into
two even piles. “There’s enough here for two tickets. Probably
we’re too late to catch the last flight but we should go ahead and
take a car to the airport.”
“Now? Tonight?”
I stopped counting and looked at him. “I don’t have anyone
out here. Nobody. Nada. They’ll stick me in a home so fast I
won’t know what hit me.”
Boris nodded at Xandra’s body—which was very unnerving,
as in her face-down mattress splay she looked way too much like a
dead person. “What about her?”
“What the fuck?” I said after a brief pause. “What should we
do? Wait around until she wakes up and finds out we ripped her
off?”
“Dunno,” said Boris, eyeing her doubtfully. “I just feel bad
for her.”
“Well, don’t. She doesn’t want me. She’ll call them herself as
soon as she realizes she’s stuck with me.”
“Them? I don’t understand who is this them.”
“Boris, I’m a minor.” I could feel my panic rising in an alltoo-familiar way—maybe the situation wasn’t literally life or death
but it sure felt like it, house filling with smoke, exits closing off. “I
don’t know how it works in your country but I don’t have any
family, no friends out here—”
“M e! You have me!”
“What are you going to do? Adopt me?” I stood up. “Look, if
you’re coming, we need to hurry. Do you have your passport?
You’ll need it for the plane.”
Boris put his hands up in his Russianate enough already
gesture. “Wait! This is happening way too fast.”
I stopped, halfway out the door. “What the fuck is your
problem, Boris?”
“My problem?”
“You wanted to run away! It was you who asked me to go
with you! Last night.”
“Where are you going? New York?”
“Where else?”
“I want to go someplace warm,” he said instantly.
“California.”
“That’s crazy. Who do we know—”
“California!” he crowed.
“Well—” Though I knew almost nothing about California, it
was safe to assume that (apart from the bar of “California Über
Alles” he was humming) Boris knew even less. “Where in
California? What town?”
“Who cares?”
“It’s a big state.”
“Fantastic! It’ll be fun. We’ll stay high all the time—read
books—build camp fires. Sleep on the beach.”
I looked at him for a long unbearable moment. His face was
on fire and his mouth was stained blackish from the red wine.
“All right,” I said—knowing full well I was stepping off the
edge and into the major mistake of my life, petty theft, the change
cup, sidewalk nods and homelessness, the fuck-up from which I
would never recover.
He was gleeful. “The beach, then? Yes?”
This was how you went wrong: this fast. “Wherever you
want,” I said, pushing the hair out of my eyes. I was dead
exhausted. “But we need to go now. Please.”
“What, this minute?”
“Yes. Do you need to go home and get anything?”
“Tonight?”
“I’m not kidding, Boris.” Arguing with him was making the
panic rise again. “I can’t just sit around and wait—” The painting
was a problem, I wasn’t sure how that was going to work, but once
I got Boris out of the house I could figure something out. “Please,
come on.”
“Is State Care that bad in America?” said Boris doubtfully.
“You make it seem like the cops.”
“Are you coming with me? Yes or no?”
“I need some time. I mean,” he said, following after me, “we
can’t leave now! Really—I swear. Wait a little while. Give me a
day! One day!”
“Why?”
He seemed nonplussed. “Well, I mean, because—”
“Because—?”
“Because—because I have to see Kotku! And—all kinds of
things! Honest, you can’t leave tonight,” he repeated, when I said
nothing. “Trust me. You’ll be sorry, I mean it. Come to my house!
Wait till the morning to go!”
“I can’t wait,” I said curtly, taking my half of the cash and
heading back to my room.
“Potter—” he followed after me.
“Yes?”
“There is something important I have to tell you.”
“Boris,” I said, turning, “what the mother fuck. What is it?” I
said, as we stood and stared at each other. “If you have something
to say, go on and say it.”
“Am afraid it will make you mad.”
“What is it? What have you done?”
Boris was silent, gnawing the side of his thumb.
“Well, what?”
He looked away. “You need to stay,” he said vaguely.
“You’re making a mistake.”
“Forget it,” I snapped, turning away again. “If you don’t
want to come with me, don’t come, okay? But I can’t stand around
here all night.”
Boris—I thought—might ask what was in the pillowcase,
particularly since it was so fat and weirdly shaped after my overenthusiastic wrapping job. But when I un-taped it from the back of
the headboard and put it in my overnight bag (along with my iPod,
notebook, charger, Wind, Sand and Stars, some pictures of my
mom, my toothbrush, and a change of clothes) he only scowled and
said nothing. When I retrieved, from the back of my closet, my
school blazer (too small for me, though it had been too big when
my mother bought it) he nodded and said: “Good idea, that.”
“What?”
“M akes you look less homeless.”
“It’s November,” I said. I’d only brought one warm sweater
from New York; I put it in the bag and zipped it up. “It’s going to
be cold.”
Boris leaned insolently against the wall. “What will you do,
then? Live on the street, railway station, where?”
“I’ll call my friend I stayed with before.”
“If they wanted you, those people, they’d have adopted you
already.”
“They couldn’t! How could they?”
Boris folded his arms. “They didn’t want you, that family.
You told me so yourself—lots of times. Also, you never hear from
them.”
“That’s not true,” I said, after a brief, confused pause. Only a
few months before, Andy had sent me a long-ish (for him) email
telling me about some stuff going on at school, a scandal with the
tennis coach feeling up girls in our class, though that life was so far
away that it was like reading about people I didn’t know.
“Too many children?” said Boris, a bit smugly as it seemed.
“Not enough room? Remember that bit? You said the mother and
father were glad to see you go.”
“Fuck off.” I was already getting a huge headache. What
would I do if Social Services showed up and put me in the back of
a car? Who—in Nevada—could I call? M rs. Spear? The Playa? The
fat model-store clerk who sold us model glue without the models?
Boris followed me downstairs, where we were stopped in the
middle of the living room by a tortured-looking Popper—who ran
directly into our path, then sat and stared at us like he knew
exactly what was going on.
“Oh, fuck,” I said, putting down my bag. There was a silence.
“Boris,” I said, “can’t you—”
“No.”
“Can’t Kotku—”
“No.”
“Well, fuck it,” I said, picking him up and tucking him under
my arm. “I’m not leaving him here for her to lock up and starve.”
“And where are you going?” said Boris, as I started for the
front door.
“Eh?”
“Walking? To the airport?”
“Wait,” I said, putting Popchik down. All at once I felt sick
and like I might vomit red wine all over the carpet. “Will they take
a dog on the plane?”
“No,” said Boris ruthlessly, spitting out a chewed thumbnail.
He was being an asshole; I wanted to punch him. “Okay
then,” I said. “M aybe somebody at the airport will want him. Or,
fuck it, I’ll take the train.”
He was about to say something sarcastic, lips pursed in a
way I knew well, but then—quite suddenly—his expression
faltered; and I turned to see Xandra, wild-eyed, mascara-smeared,
swaying on the landing at the top of the stairs.
We looked at her, frozen. After what seemed like a centurieslong pause, she opened her mouth, closed it again, caught the railing
to balance herself, and then said, in a rusty voice: “Did Larry leave
his keys in the bank vault?”
We gazed horrified for several more moments before we
realized she was waiting for a reply. Her hair was like a haystack;
she appeared completely disoriented and so unsteady it seemed
she might topple down the steps.
“Er, yes,” said Boris loudly. “I mean no.” And then, when
she still stood there: “It’s all right. Go back to bed.”
She mumbled something and—uncertain on her feet—
staggered off. The two of us stood motionless for some moments.
Then—quietly, the back of my neck prickling—I got my bag and
slipped out the front door (my last sight of that house, and her,
though I didn’t even take a last look round) and Boris and Popchik
came out after me. Together, all three of us walked rapidly away
from the house and down to the end of the street, Popchik’s
toenails clicking on the pavement.
“All right,” said Boris, in the humorous undertone he used
when we had a close call at the supermarket. “Okay. M aybe not
quite so much out-cold as I thought.”
I was in a cold sweat, and the night air—though chilly—felt
good. Off in the west, silent Frankenstein flashes of lightning
twisted in the darkness.
“Well, at least she’s not dead, eh?” He chuckled. “I was
worried about her. Christ.”
“Let me use your phone,” I said, elbowing on my jacket. “I
need to call a car.”
He fished in his pocket, and handed it to me. It was a
disposable phone, the one he’d bought to keep tabs on Kotku.
“No, keep it,” he said, holding his hands up when I tried to
give it back to him after I’d made my call: Lucky Cab, 777-7777,
the number plastered on every shifty-looking bus-stop bench in
Vegas. Then he dug out the wad of money—his half of the take
from Xandra—and tried to press it on me.
“Forget it,” I said, glancing back anxiously at the house. I was
afraid she might wake up again and come out in the street looking
for us. “It’s yours.”
“No! You might need it!”
“I don’t want it,” I said, sticking my hands in my pockets to
keep him from foisting it on me. “Anyway, you might need it
yourself.”
“Come on, Potter! I wish you wouldn’t go this moment.” He
gestured down the street, at the rows of empty houses. “If you
won’t come to my house—kip over there for a day or two! That
brick house has furniture in it, even. I’ll bring you food if you
want.”
“Or, hey, I can call Domino’s,” I said, sticking the phone in
my jacket pocket. “Since they deliver out here now and
everything.”
He winced. “Don’t be angry.”
“I’m not.” And, in truth, I wasn’t—only so disoriented I felt
I might wake up and find I’d been sleeping with a book over my
face.
Boris, I realized, was looking up at the sky and humming to
himself, a line from one of my mother’s Velvet Underground songs:
But if you close the door… the night could last forever…
“What about you?” I said, rubbing my eyes.
“Eh?” he said, looking at me with a smile.
“What’s up? Will I see you again?”
“M aybe,” he said, in the same cheerful tone I imagined him
using with Bami and Judy the barkeep’s wife in Karmeywallag and
everyone else in his life he’d ever said goodbye to. “Who knows?”
“Will you meet me in a day or two?”
“Well—”
“Join me later. Take a plane—you have the money. I’ll call
you and tell you where I am. Don’t say no.”
“Okay then,” said Boris, in the same cheerful voice. “I won’t
say no.” But clearly, from his tone, he was saying no.
I closed my eyes. “Oh God.” I was so tired I was reeling; I
had to fight the urge to lie down on the ground, a physical
undertow pulling me to the curb. When I opened my eyes, I saw
Boris looking at me with concern.
“Look at you,” he said. “Falling over, almost.” He reached in
his pocket.
“No, no, no,” I said, stepping back, when I saw what he had
in his hand. “No way. Forget it.”
“It’ll make you feel better!”
“That’s what you said about the other stuff.” I wasn’t up for
any more seaweed or singing stars. “Really, I don’t want any.”
“But this is different. Completely different. It will sober you
up. Clear your head—promise.”
“Right.” A drug that sobered you up and cleared your head
didn’t sound like Boris’s style at all, although he did seem a good
bit more with-it than me.
“Look at me,” he said reasonably. “Yes.” He knew he had me.
“Am I raving? Frothing at mouth? No—only being helpful! Here,”
he said, tapping some out on the back of his hand, “come on. Let
me feed it to you.”
I half expected it was a trick—that I would pass out on the
spot and wake up who knew where, maybe in one of the empty
houses across the street. But I was too tired to care, and maybe
that would have been okay anyway. I leaned forward and allowed
him to press one nostril closed with a fingertip. “There!” he said
encouragingly. “Like this. Now, sniff.”
Almost instantly, I did feel better. It was like a miracle.
“Wow,” I said, pinching my nose against the sharp, pleasant sting.
“Didn’t I tell you?” He was already tapping out some more.
“Here, other nose. Don’t breathe out. Okay, now.”
Everything seemed brighter and clearer, including Boris
himself.
“What did I tell you?” He was taking more for himself now.
“Aren’t you sorry you don’t listen?”
“You’re going to sell this stuff, god,” I said, looking up at the
sky. “Why?”
“It’s worth a lot, actually. Few thousand of dollars.”
“That little bit?”
“Not that little! This is a lot of grams—twenty, maybe more.
Could make a fortune if I divide up small and sell to girls like K. T.
Bearman.”
“You know K. T. Bearman?” Katie Bearman, who was a year
ahead of us, had her own car—a black convertible—and was so far
removed from our social scale she might as well have been a movie
star.
“Sure. Skye, KT, Jessica, all those girls. Anyway—” he
offered me the vial again—“I can buy Kotku that keyboard she
wants now. No more money worries.”
We went back and forth a few times until I began to feel much
more optimistic about the future and things in general. And as we
stood rubbing our noses and jabbering in the street, Popper looking
up at us curiously, the wonderfulness of New York seemed right
on the tip of my tongue, an evanescence possible to convey. “I
mean, it’s great,” I said. The words were spiraling and tumbling out
of me. “Really, you have to come. We can go to Brighton Beach—
that’s where all the Russians hang out. Well, I’ve never been there.
But the train goes there—it’s the last stop on the line. There’s a
big Russian community, restaurants with smoked fish and sturgeon
roe. M y mother and I always talked about going out there to eat
one day, this jeweler she worked with told her the good places to
go, but we never did. It’s supposed to be great. Also, I mean—I
have money for school—you can go to my school. No—you
totally can. I have a scholarship. Well, I did. But the guy said as
long as the money in my fund was used for education—it could be
anybody’s education. Not just mine. There’s more than enough for
both of us. Though, I mean, public school, the public schools are
good in New York, I know people there, public school’s fine with
me.”
I was still babbling when Boris said: “Potter.” Before I could
answer him he put both hands on my face and kissed me on the
mouth. And while I stood blinking—it was over almost before I
knew what had happened—he picked up Popper under the
forelegs and kissed him too, in midair, smack on the tip of his nose.
Then he handed him to me. “Your car’s over there,” he said,
giving him one last ruffle on the head. And—sure enough—when I
turned, a town car was creeping up the other side of the street,
surveying the addresses.
We stood looking at each other—me breathing hard,
completely stunned.
“Good luck,” said Boris. “I won’t forget you.” Then he
patted Popper on the head. “Bye, Popchyk. Look after him, will
you?” he said to me.
Later—in the cab, and afterward—I would replay that
moment, and marvel that I’d waved and walked away quite so
casually. Why hadn’t I grabbed his arm and begged him one last
time to get in the car, come on, fuck it Boris, just like skipping
school, we’ll be eating breakfast over cornfields when the sun
comes up? I knew him well enough to know that if you asked him
the right way, at the right moment, he would do almost anything;
and in the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after
me and hopped in the car laughing if I’d asked one last time.
But I didn’t. And, in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t
—I say that now, though it was something I regretted bitterly for a
while. M ore than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar
babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from
blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never
said, even though it was something we both knew well enough
without me saying it out loud to him in the street—which was, of
course, I love you.
xx.
I WAS SO TIRED that the drugs didn’t last long, at least not the feelgood part. The cab driver—a transplanted New Yorker from the
sound of him—immediately sussed out something was wrong and
tried to give me a card for the National Runaway switchboard,
which I refused to take. When I asked him to drive me to the train
station (not even knowing if there was a train in Vegas—surely
there had to be), he shook his head and said: “You know, don’t
you, Specs, they don’t take dogs on Amtrak?”
“They don’t?” I said, my heart sinking.
“The plane—maybe, I don’t know.” He was a young-ish guy,
a fast talker, baby-faced, slightly overweight, in a T-shirt that said
P ENN AND TELLER: LIVE AT THE RIO. “You’ll have to have a crate, or
something. M aybe the bus is your best bet. But they don’t let kids
under a certain age ride without parental permission.”
“I told you! M y dad died! His girlfriend is sending me to my
family back east.”
“Well, hey, you don’t have anything to worry about then, do
you?”
I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the ride. The fact of my
father’s death had not yet sunk in, and every now and then, the
lights zipping past on the highway brought it back in a sick rush.
An accident. At least in New York we hadn’t had to worry about
drunk driving—the great fear was that he would fall in front of a
car or be stabbed for his wallet, lurching out of some dive bar at
three a.m. What would happen to his body? I’d scattered my
mother’s ashes in Central Park, though apparently there was a
regulation against it; one evening while it was getting dark, I’d
walked with Andy to a deserted area on the west side of the Pond
and—while Andy kept a lookout—dumped the urn. What had
disturbed me far more than the actual scattering of the remains was
that the urn had been packed in shredded pieces of porno
classifieds: SOAP Y ASIAN BABES and WET HOT ORGASMS were two
random phrases that had caught my eye as the gray powder, the
color of moon rock, caught and spun in the M ay twilight.
Then there were lights, and the car stopped. “Okay, Specs,”
said my driver, turning with his arm along the back seat. We were
in the parking lot of the Greyhound station. “What did you say
your name was?”
“Theo,” I said, without thinking, and immediately was sorry.
“All right, Theo. J.P.” He reached across the back seat to
shake my hand. “You want to take my advice about something?”
“Sure,” I said, quailing a bit. Even with everything else that
was going on, and there was quite a lot, I felt incredibly
uncomfortable that this guy had probably seen Boris kissing me in
the street.
“None of my business, but you’re going to need something to
put Fluffy there in.”
“Sorry?”
He nodded at my bag. “Will he fit in that?”
“Umm—”
“You’re probably going to have to check that bag, anyway. It
might be too big for you to carry aboard—they’ll stow it
underneath. It’s not like the plane.”
“I—” This was too much to think about. “I don’t have
anything.”
“Hang on. Let me check in my office back here.” He got up,
went around to the trunk, and returned with a large canvas
shopping bag from a health food store that said The Greening of
America.
“If I were you,” he said, “I’d go in and buy the ticket without
Fluffy Boy. Leave him out here with me, just in case, okay?”
M y new pal had been right about not riding Greyhound
without an Unaccompanied Child form signed by a parent—and
there were other restrictions for kids as well. The clerk at the
window—a wan Chicana with scraped-back hair—began in a
monotone to go down the long baleful list of them. No Transfers.
No Journeys of Longer than Five Hours in Duration. Unless the
person named on the Unaccompanied Child Form showed up to
meet me, with positive identification, I would be released into the
custody of Child Protective Services or to local law enforcement
officials in the city of my destination.
“But—”
“All children under fifteen. No exceptions.”
“But I’m not under fifteen,” I said, floundering to produce
my official-looking state-issued New York ID. “I am fifteen.
Look.” Enrique—envisioning perhaps the likelihood of my having
to go into what he called The System—had taken me to be
photographed for it shortly after my mother died; and though I’d
resented it at the time, Big Brother’s far-reaching claw (“Wow,
your very own bar code,” Andy had said, looking at it curiously),
now I was thankful he’d had the foresight to carry me downtown
and register me like a second-hand motor vehicle. Numbly, like a
refugee, I waited under the sleazy fluorescents as the clerk looked
at the card at a number of different angles and in different lights, at
length finding it genuine.
“Fifteen,” she said suspiciously, handing it back to me.
“Right.” I knew I didn’t look my age. There was, I realized,
no question of being up-front about Popper since a big sign by the
desk said in red letters NO DOGS, CATS, BIRDS, RODENTS, REP TILES, OR
OTHER ANIMALS WILL BE TRANSP ORTED .
As for the bus itself, I was in luck: there was a 1:45 a.m. with
connections to New York departing the station in fifteen minutes.
As the machine spat out my ticket with a mechanical smack, I
stood in a daze wondering what the hell to do about Popper.
Walking outside, I was half-hoping my cab driver had driven off—
perhaps having whisked Popper away to some more loving and
secure home—but instead I found him drinking a can of Red Bull
and talking on his cell phone, Popper nowhere in sight. He got off
his call when he saw me standing there. “What do you think?”
“Where is he?” Groggily, I looked in the back seat. “What’d
you do with him?”
He laughed. “Now you don’t and… now you do!” With a
flourish, he removed the messily-folded copy of USA Today from
the canvas bag on the front seat beside him; and there, settled
contentedly in a cardboard box at the bottom of the bag, crunching
on some potato chips, was Popper.
“M isdirection,” he said. “The box fills out the bag so it
doesn’t look dog-shaped and gives him a little more room to move
around. And the newspaper—perfect prop. Covers him up, makes
the bag look full, doesn’t add any weight.”
“Do you think it’ll be all right?”
“Well, I mean, he’s such a little guy—what, five pounds, six?
Is he quiet?”
I looked at him doubtfully, curled at the bottom of the box.
“Not always.”
J.P. wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and gave me
the package of potato chips. “Give him a couple of these suckers if
he gets antsy. You’ll be stopping every few hours. Just sit as far in
the back of the bus as you can, and make sure you take him away
from the station a ways before you let him out to do his business.”
I put the bag over my shoulder and tucked my arm around it.
“Can you tell?” I asked him.
“No. Not if I didn’t know. But can I give you a tip?
M agician’s secret?”
“Sure.”
“Don’t keep looking down at the bag like that. Anywhere but
the bag. The scenery, your shoelace—okay, there we go—that’s
right. Confident and natural, that’s the kitty. Although klutzy and
looking for a dropped contact lens will work too, if you think
people are giving you the fish eye. Spill your chips—stub your toe
—cough on your drink—anything.”
Wow, I thought. Clearly they didn’t call it Lucky Cab for
nothing.
Again, he laughed, as if I’d spoken the thought aloud. “Hey,
it’s a stupid rule, no dogs on the bus,” he said, taking another big
slug of the Red Bull. “I mean, what are you supposed to do?
Dump him by the side of the road?”
“Are you a magician or something?”
He laughed. “How’d ya guess? I got a gig doing card tricks in
a bar over at the Orleans—if you were old enough to get in, I’d tell
you to come down and check out my act sometime. Anyways, the
secret is, always fix their attention away from where the slippery
stuff’s going on. That’s the first law of magic, Specs. M isdirection.
Never forget it.”
xxi.
UTAH . T HE SAN RAFAEL SWELL , as the sun came up, unrolled in
inhuman vistas like M ars: sandstone and shale, gorges and desolate
rust-red mesas. I’d had a hard time sleeping, partly because of the
drugs, partly for fear that Popper might fidget or whine, but he
was perfectly quiet as we drove the twisted mountain roads, sitting
silently inside his bag on the seat beside me, on the side closest to
the window. As it happened my suitcase had been small enough to
bring aboard, which I was happy about for any number of reasons:
my sweater, Wind, Sand and Stars, but most of all my painting,
which felt like an article of protection even wrapped up and out of
view, like a holy icon carried by a crusader into battle. There were
no other passengers in the back except a shy-looking Hispanic
couple with a bunch of plastic food containers on their laps, and an
old drunk talking to himself, and we made it fine on the winding
roads all the way through Utah and into Grand Junction, Colorado,
where we had a fifty-minute rest stop. After locking my suitcase in
a coin-op locker, I walked Popper out behind the bus station, well
out of the driver’s sight, bought us a couple of hamburgers from
Burger King and gave him water from the plastic top of an old
carry-out container I found in the trash. From Grand Junction, I
slept, until our layover in Denver, an hour and sixteen minutes, just
as the sun was going down—where Popper and I ran and ran, for
sheer relief of being off the bus, ran so far down shadowy
unknown streets that I was almost afraid of getting lost, although I
was pleased to find a hippie coffee shop where the clerks were
young and friendly (“Bring him in!” said the purple-haired girl at
the counter when she saw Popper tied out front, “we love dogs!”)
and where I bought not only two turkey sandwiches (one for me,
one for him) but a vegan brownie and a greasy paper bag of homemade vegetarian dog biscuits.
I read late, creamy paper yellowed in a circle of weak lights,
as the unknown darkness sped past, over the Continental Divide
and out of the Rockies, Popper content after his romp around
Denver and snoozing happily in his bag.
At some point, I slept, then woke and read some more. At
two a.m., just as Saint-Exupéry was telling the story of his plane
crash in the desert, we came into Salina, Kansas (“Crossroads of
America”)—twenty minute rest stop, under a moth-beaten sodium
lamp, where Popper and I ran around a deserted gas station parking
lot in the dark, my head still full of the book while also exulting in
the strangeness of being in my mother’s state for the first time in
my life—had she, on her rounds with her father, ever driven
through this town, cars rushing past on the Ninth Street Interstate
Exit, lighted grain silos like starships looming in the emptiness for
miles away? Back on the bus—sleepy, dirty, tired-out, cold—
Popchik and I slept from Salina to Topeka, and from Topeka to
Kansas City, M issouri, where we pulled in just at sunrise.
M y mother had often told me how flat it was where she’d
grown up—so flat you could see cyclones spinning across the
prairies for miles—but still I couldn’t quite believe the vastness of
it, the unrelieved sky, so huge that you felt crushed and oppressed
by the infinite. In St. Louis, around noon, we had an hour and a
half layover (plenty of time for Popper’s walk, and an awful roast
beef sandwich for lunch, although the neighborhood was too dicey
to venture far) and—back at the station—a transfer to an entirely
different bus. Then—only an hour or two along—I woke, with the
bus stopped, to find Popper sitting quietly with the tip of his nose
poking out of the bag and a middle aged black lady with bright pink
lipstick standing over me, thundering: “You can’t have that dog on
the bus.”
I stared at her, disoriented. Then, much to my horror, I
realized she was no random passenger but the driver herself, in cap
and uniform.
“Do you hear what I said?” she repeated, with an aggressive
side-to-side head tic. She was as wide as a prizefighter; the
nametag, atop her impressive bosom, read Denese. “You can’t
have that dog on this bus.” Then—impatiently—she made a
flapping hand gesture as if to say: get him the hell back in that bag!
I covered his head up—he didn’t seem to mind—and sat with
rapidly shrinking insides. We were stopped at a town called
Effingham, Illinois: Edward Hopper houses, stage-set courthouse, a
hand-lettered banner that said Crossroads of Opportunity!
The driver swept her finger around. “Do any of you people
back here have objections to this animal?”
The other passengers in back—(unkempt handlebarmoustache guy; grown woman with braces; anxious black mom
with elementary-school girl; W. C. Fields–looking oldster with
nose tubes and oxygen canister—all seemed too surprised to talk,
though the little girl, eyes round, shook her head almost
imperceptibly: no.
The driver waited. She looked around. Then she turned back
to me. “Okay. That’s good news for you and the pooch, honey.
But if any—” she wagged her finger at me—“if any these other
passengers back here complains about you having an animal on
board, at any point, I’m going to have to make you get off.
Understand?”
She wasn’t throwing me off? I blinked at her, afraid to move
or speak a word.
“You understand?” she repeated, more ominously.
“Thank you—”
A bit belligerently, she shook her head. “Oh, no. Don’t thank
me, honey. Because I am putting you off this bus if there is one
single complaint. One.”
I sat in a tremble as she strode down the aisle and started the
bus. As we swung out of the parking lot I was afraid to even glance
at the other passengers, though I could feel them all looking at me.
By my knee, Popper let out a tiny huff and resettled. As
much as I liked Popper, and felt sorry for him, I’d never thought
that as dogs went he was particularly interesting or intelligent.
Instead I’d spent a lot of time wishing he was a cooler dog, a
border collie or a Lab or a rescue maybe, some smart and haunted
pit mix from the shelter, a scrappy little mutt that chased balls and
bit people—in fact almost anything but what he actually was: a
girl’s dog, a toy, completely gay, a dog I felt embarrassed to walk
on the street. Not that Popper wasn’t cute; in fact, he was exactly
the kind of tiny, prancing fluffball that a lot of people liked—
maybe not me but surely some little girl like the one across the
aisle would find him by the road and take him home and tie ribbons
in his hair?
Rigidly I sat there, re-living the bolt of fear again and again:
the driver’s face, my shock. What really scared me was that I now
knew if she made me put Popper off the bus that I would have to
get off with him, too (and do what?) even in the middle of Illinois
nowhere. Rain, cornfields: standing by the side of the road. How
had I become attached to such a ridiculous animal? A lapdog that
Xandra had chosen?
Throughout Illinois and Indiana, I sat swaying and vigilant:
too afraid to go to sleep. The trees were bare, rotted-out Halloween
pumpkins on the porches. Across the aisle, the mother had her arm
around the little girl and was singing, very quietly: You are my
sunshine. I had nothing to eat but leftover crumbs of the potato
chips the cab driver had given me; and—ugly salt taste in my
mouth, industrial plains, little nowhere towns rolling past—I felt
chilled and forlorn, looking out at the bleak farmland and thinking
of songs my mother had sung to me, way back when. Toot toot
tootsie goodbye, toot toot tootsie, don’t cry. At last—in Ohio, when
it was dark, and the lights in the sad little far-apart houses were
coming on—I felt safe enough to drowse off, nodding back and
forth in my sleep, until Cleveland, cold white-lit city where I
changed buses at two in the morning. I was afraid to give Popper
the long walk I knew he needed, for fear that someone might see us
(because what would we do, if we were found out? Stay in
Cleveland forever?). But he seemed frightened too; and we stood
shivering on a street corner for ten minutes before I gave him some
water, put him in the bag, and walked back to the station to board.
It was the middle of the night and everyone seemed half
asleep, which made the transfer easier; and we transferred again at
noon the next day, in Buffalo, where the bus crunched out through
piled-up sleet in the station. The wind was biting, with a sharp wet
edge; after two years in the desert I’d forgotten what real winter—
aching and raw—was like. Boris had not returned any of my texts,
which was perhaps understandable since I was sending them to
Kotku’s phone, but I sent another one anyway: BFALO NY NY C 2NIT . HPE UR
OK HAV U HERD FRM X?
Buffalo is a long way from New York City; but apart from a
dreamlike, feverish stop in Syracuse, where I walked and watered
Popper and bought us a couple of cheese danishes because there
wasn’t anything else—I managed to sleep almost the whole way,
through Batavia and Rochester and Syracuse and Binghamton, with
my cheek against the window and cold air coming through at the
crack, the vibration taking me back to Wind, Sand and Stars and a
lonely cockpit high above the desert.
I think I must have been getting quietly sick ever since the
stop in Cleveland, but by the time I finally got off the bus, in Port
Authority, it was evening and I was burning up with fever. I was
chilled, wobbly on my legs and the city—which I’d longed for so
fiercely—seemed foreign and noisy and cold, exhaust fumes and
garbage and strangers rushing past in every direction.
The terminal was packed with cops. Everywhere I looked
there were signs for runaway shelters, runaway hotlines, and one
lady cop in particular gave me the fish-eye as I was hurrying
outside—after sixty-plus hours on the bus, I was dirty and tired
and knew I didn’t really pass muster—but nobody stopped me
and I didn’t look behind me until I was out the door, and well
away. Several men of varying age and nationality called out to me
on the street, soft voices coming from several directions (hey, little
brother! where you headed? need a ride?) but though one redhaired guy in particular seemed nice and normal and not much older
than me, almost like someone I might be friends with, I was enough
of a New Yorker to ignore his cheerful hello and keep walking like I
knew where I was going.
I’d thought Popper would be overjoyed to get out and walk,
but when I put him down on the sidewalk Eighth Avenue was too
much for him and he was too scared to go more than a block or so;
he’d never been on a city street before, everything terrified him
(cars, car horns, people’s legs, empty plastic bags blowing down
the sidewalk) and he kept jerking forward, darting toward the
crosswalk, jumping this way and that, dashing behind me in terror
and winding the leash around my legs so I tripped and nearly fell in
front of a van rushing to beat the light.
After I picked him up, paddling, and stuck him back in his
bag (where he scrabbled and huffed in exasperation before he got
quiet), I stood in the middle of the rush-hour crowd trying to get
my bearings. Everything seemed so much dirtier and unfriendlier
than I’d remembered—colder too, streets gray like old newspaper.
Que faire? as my mother had liked to say. I could almost hear her
saying it, in her light, careless voice.
I’d often wondered, when my father prowled around banging
the kitchen cabinets and complaining that he wanted a drink, what
“wanting a drink” felt like—what it felt like to want alcohol and
nothing but, not water or Pepsi or anything else. Now, I thought
bleakly, I know. I was dying for a beer but I knew better than to go
in a deli and try to buy one without ID. Longingly I thought of M r.
Pavlikovsky’s vodka, the daily blast of warmth I’d come to take
for granted.
M ore to the point: I was starving. I was a few doors down
from a fancy cupcake place, and I was so hungry I turned right in
and bought the first one that caught my eye (green tea flavored, as
it turned out, with some kind of vanilla filling, weird but still
delicious). Almost at once the sugar made me feel better; and while
I ate, licking the custard off my fingers, I stared in amazement at
the purposeful mob. Leaving Vegas I’d somehow felt a lot more
confident about how all this would play out. Would M rs. Barbour
phone Social Services to tell them I’d turned up? I’d thought not;
but now I wondered. There was also the not-so-insignificant
question of Popper, since (along with dairy and tree nuts and
adhesive tape and sandwich mustard and about twenty-five other
commonly-found household items) Andy was violently allergic to
dogs—not just dogs, but also cats and horses and circus animals
and the class guinea pig (“Pig Newton”) that we’d had way back in
second grade, which was why there were no pets at the Barbours’
house. Somehow this had not seemed such an insurmountable
problem back in Vegas, but—standing out on Eighth Avenue when
it was cold and getting dark—it did.
Not knowing what else to do, I started walking east toward
Park Avenue. The wind hit raw in my face and the smell of rain in
the air made me nervous. The skies in New York seemed a lot
lower and heavier than out west—dirty clouds, eraser-smudged,
like pencil on rough paper. It was as if the desert, its openness, had
retrained my distance vision. Everything seemed dank and closedin.
Walking helped me work out the roll in my legs. I walked east
to the library (the lions! I stood still for a moment, like a returning
soldier catching my first glimpse of home) and then I turned up
Fifth Avenue—streetlamps on, still fairly busy, though it was
emptying out for the night—up to Central Park South. As tired as
I was, and cold, still my heart stiffened to see the Park, and I ran
across Fifty-Seventh (Street of Joy!) to the leafy darkness. The
smells, the shadows, even the dappled pale trunks of the plane
trees lifted my spirits but yet it was as if I was seeing another Park
beneath the tangible one, a map to the past, a ghost Park dark with
memory, school outings and zoo visits of long ago. I was walking
along the sidewalk on the Fifth Avenue side, looking in, and the
paths were tree-shadowed, haloed with streetlamps, mysterious
and inviting like the woods from The Lion, the Witch, and the
Wardrobe. If I turned and walked down one of those lighted paths,
would I walk out again into a different year, maybe even a different
future, where my mother—just out of work—would be waiting for
me slightly wind-blown on the bench (our bench) by the Pond:
putting her cell phone away, standing to kiss me, Hi, Puppy, how
was school, what do you want to eat for dinner?
Then—suddenly—I stopped. A familiar presence in a
business suit had shouldered past and was striding down the
sidewalk ahead of me. The shock of white hair stood out in the
darkness, white hair that looked as if it ought to be worn long and
tied back with a ribbon; he was preoccupied, more rumpled than
usual, but still I recognized him immediately, the angle of his head
with its faint echo of Andy: M r. Barbour, briefcase and all, on his
way home from work.
I ran to catch up with him. “M r. Barbour?” I called. He was
talking to himself, though I couldn’t hear what he was saying. “M r.
Barbour, it’s Theo,” I said loudly, catching him by his sleeve.
With shocking violence, he turned and threw my hand off. It
was M r. Barbour all right; I would have known him anywhere. But
his eyes, on mine, were a stranger’s—bright and hard and
contemptuous.
“No more handouts!” he cried, in a high voice. “Get lost!”
I ought to have known mania when I saw it. It was an ampedup version of the look my dad had sometimes on Game Day—or,
for that matter, when he’d hauled off and hit me. I’d never been
around M r. Barbour when he was off his medicine (Andy,
typically, had been restrained in describing his father’s
“enthusiasms,” I didn’t then know about the episodes where he’d
tried to telephone the Secretary of State or wear his pyjamas to
work); and his rage was so out of character for the bemused and
inattentive M r. Barbour I knew that all I could do was fall back, in
shame. He glared at me for a long moment and then brushed his arm
off (as if I were dirty, as if I’d contaminated him by touching him)
and stalked away.
“Were you asking that man for money?” said another man
who had sidled up out of nowhere as I stood on the sidewalk,
astonished. “Were you?” he said, more insistently, when I turned
away. His build was pudgy, his suit blandly corporate and
married-with-kids-looking; and his sad-sack demeanor gave me the
creeps. As I tried to step around him, he stepped in my path and
dropped a heavy hand on my shoulder, and in a panic I dodged him
and ran off into the park.
I headed down to the Pond, down paths yellow and sodden
with fallen leaves, where I went by instinct straight to the
Rendezvous Point (as my mother and I called our bench) and sat
shivering. It had seemed the most incredible, unbelievable luck,
spotting M r. Barbour on the street; I’d thought, for maybe five
seconds, that after the first awkwardness and puzzlement he
would greet me happily, ask a few questions, oh, never mind,
never mind, there’s time for that later, and walk with me up to the
apartment. My goodness, what an adventure. Won’t Andy be
pleased to see you!
Jesus, I thought—running my hand through my hair, still
feeling shaken. In an ideal world, M r. Barbour would have been the
member of the family I would most have wanted to meet on the
street—more than Andy, certainly more than Andy’s siblings,
more than even M rs. Barbour, with her frozen pauses, her social
niceties and her codes of behavior unknown to me, her chilling and
unreadable gaze.
Out of habit, I checked my phone for texts for what seemed
like the ten thousandth time—and was cheered despite myself to
find at long last a message—number I didn’t recognize, but it had
to be Boris. HEY ! OPE U2 ROK. NOT 2 M AD. RING XNR OK SHE HZ BEN BUGEN M E
I tried calling him back—I’d texted him about fifty times from
the road—but no one picked up at that number and Kotku’s phone
took me straight to voice mail. Xandra could wait. Walking back to
Central Park South, with Popper, I bought three hot dogs from a
vendor who was just shutting up for the day (one for Popper, two
for me) and while we ate, on an out-of-the-way bench inside the
Scholars’ Gate, considered my options. In my desert fantasias of
New York I’d sometimes entertained perverse images of Boris and
me living on the street, around St. M ark’s Place or Tompkins
Square, quite possibly standing around rattling our change cups
with the very skate rats who’d once jeered at Andy and me in our
school uniforms. But the real prospect of sleeping on the street
was a whole lot less appealing alone and feverish in the November
cold.
The hell of it was: I was only about five blocks from Andy’s.
I thought about phoning him—maybe asking him to meet me—and
then decided against it. Certainly I could call him if I got desperate;
he would gladly sneak out, bring me a change of clothes and money
snitched from his mother’s purse and—who knows—maybe a
bunch of leftover crabmeat canapés or those cocktail peanuts that
the Barbours always ate. But the word handout still scalded. As
much as I liked Andy, it had been almost two years. And I
couldn’t forget the way that M r. Barbour had looked at me.
Clearly something had gone wrong, badly, only I wasn’t quite sure
what—apart from knowing that I was responsible somehow, in the
generalized miasma of shame and unworthiness and being-a-burden
that never quite left me.
Without meaning to—I’d been staring into space—I’d made
accidental eye contact with a man on a bench across from me.
Quickly I looked away but it was too late; he was standing up,
walking over.
“Cute mutt,” he said, stooping to pat Popper, and then, when
I didn’t answer: “What’s your name? M ind if I sit down?” He was
a wiry guy, small but strong-looking; and he smelled. I got up,
avoiding his eyes, but as I turned to leave he shot his arm out and
caught me by the wrist.
“What’s the matter,” he said, in an ugly voice, “don’t you
like me?”
I twisted free and ran—Popper running after me, out to the
street, too fast, he wasn’t used to city traffic, cars were coming—I
grabbed him up just in time, and ran across Fifth Avenue, over to
the Pierre. M y pursuer—trapped on the other side by the changed
light—was attracting some glances from pedestrians but when I
looked back again, safe in the circle of light pouring from the warm,
well-lighted entrance of the hotel—well-dressed couples; doormen
hailing cabs—I saw that he had faded back into the park.
The streets were much louder than I remembered—smellier,
too. Standing on the corner by A La Vieille Russie I found myself
overpowered with the familiar old M idtown stench: carriage
horses, bus exhaust, perfume, and urine. For so long I’d thought of
Vegas as something temporary—my real life was New York—but
was it? Not any more, I thought, dismally, surveying the thinnedout trickle of pedestrians hurrying past Bergdorf’s.
Though I was aching and chilled with fever again, I walked for
ten blocks or so, still trying to work the hum and lightness out of
my legs, the pervasive vibration of the bus. But at last the cold was
too much for me, and I hailed a cab; it would have been an easy bus
ride, half an hour maybe, straight shot down Fifth to the Village,
only after three solid days on the bus I couldn’t bear the thought of
jolting around on another bus for even a minute more.
I wasn’t that comfortable at the notion of turning up at
Hobie’s house cold—not comfortable about it at all, since we
hadn’t been in touch for a while, my fault, not his; at some point,
I’d just stopped writing back. On one level, it was the natural
course of things; on another Boris’s casual speculation (“old
poofter?”) had put me off him, subtly, and his last two or three
letters had gone unanswered.
I felt bad; I felt awful. Even though it was a short ride I must
have nodded off in the back seat because when the cabbie stopped
and said: “This all right?” I came to with a jolt, and for a moment
sat stunned, fighting to remember where I was.
The shop—I noticed, as the cabbie drove away—was closedup and dark, as if it had never been opened again in all my time
away from New York. The windows were furred with grime and—
looking inside—I saw that some of the furniture was draped with
sheets. Nothing else had changed at all, except that all the old
books and bric-a-brac—the marble cockatoos, the obelisks—were
covered with an additional layer of dust.
M y heart sank. I stood on the street for a long minute or two
before I worked up my nerve to ring the bell. It seemed that I stood
for ages listening to the faraway echo, though it was probably no
time at all; I’d almost talked myself into believing that no one was
at home (and what would I do? Hike back to Times Square, try to
find a cheap hotel somewhere or turn myself in to the runaway
cops?) when the door opened very suddenly and I found myself
looking not at Hobie, but a girl my own age.
It was her—Pippa. Still tiny (I’d grown much taller than her)
and thin, though much healthier-looking than the last time I’d seen
her, fuller in the face; lots of freckles; different hair too, it seemed
to have grown back in with a different color and texture, not redblonde but a darker, rust color and a bit straggly, like her aunt
M argaret’s. She was dressed like a boy, in sock feet and old
corduroys, a too-big sweater, only with a crazy pink-and-orange
striped scarf that a daffy grandmother would wear. Brow
furrowed, polite but reticent, she looked at me blankly with the
golden-brown eyes: a stranger. “Can I help you?” she said.
She’s forgotten me, I thought, dismayed. How could I have
expected her to remember? It had been a long time; I knew I looked
different too. It was like seeing somebody I’d thought was dead.
And then—thumping down the stairs, coming up behind her,
in paint-stained chinos and an out-at-elbows cardigan—was Hobie.
He’s cut his hair, was my first thought; it was close to his head
and much whiter than I remembered. His expression was slightly
irritated; for a heartsinking moment I thought he didn’t recognize
me either, and then: “Dear God,” he said, stepping back suddenly.
“It’s me,” I said quickly. I was afraid he was going to shut the
door in my face. “Theodore Decker. Remember?”
Quickly, Pippa looked up at him—clearly she recognized my
name, even if she didn’t recognize me—and the friendly surprise
on their faces was such an astonishment that I began to cry.
“Theo.” His hug was strong and parental, and so fierce that it
made me cry even harder. Then his hand was on my shoulder,
heavy anchoring hand that was security and authority itself; he
was leading me in, into the workshop, dim gilt and rich wood
smells I’d dreamed of, up the stairs into the long-lost parlor, with
its velvets and urns and bronzes. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he
was saying; and “you look knackered” and “When did you get
back?” and “Are you hungry?” and “M y goodness, you’ve
grown!” and “that hair! Like M owgli the Jungle Boy!” and
(worried now)—“does it seem close in here to you? should I open
a window?”—and, when Popper stuck his head out of the bag:
“And ha! who is this?”
Pippa—laughing—lifted him up and cuddled him in her arms.
I felt light-headed with fever—glowing red and radiant, like the bars
in an electric heater, and so unmoored that I didn’t even feel
embarrassed for crying. I was conscious of nothing but the relief of
being there, and my aching and over-full heart.
Back in the kitchen there was mushroom soup, which I
wasn’t hungry for, but it was warm, and I was freezing to death—
and as I ate (Pippa cross-legged on the floor, playing with Popchik,
dangling the pom-pom from her granny scarf in his face,
Popper/Pippa, how had I never noticed the kinship in their
names?) I told him, a little, in a garbled way, about my father’s
death and what had happened. Hobie, as he listened, arms folded,
had an extremely worried look on his face, his mulish brow
furrowing deeper as I talked.
“You need to call her,” he said. “Your father’s wife.”
“But she’s not his wife! She’s just his girlfriend! She doesn’t
care anything about me.”
Firmly, he shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. You have to ring
her up and tell her that you’re all right. Yes, yes you do,” he said,
speaking over me as I tried to object. “No buts. Right now. This
instant. Pips—” there was an old-fashioned wall phone in the
kitchen—“come along and let’s clear out of here for a minute.”
Though Xandra was just about the last person in the world I
wanted to talk to—especially after I’d ransacked her bedroom and
stolen her tip money—I was so relieved to be there that I would
have done anything he asked. Dialing the number, I tried to tell
myself she probably wouldn’t pick up (so many solicitors and bill
collectors phoned us, all the time, that she seldom took calls from
numbers she didn’t recognize). Hence I was surprised when she
answered on the first ring.
“You left the door open,” she said almost immediately, in an
accusing voice.
“What?”
“You let the dog out. He’s run off—I can’t find him
anywhere. He probably got hit by a car or something.”
“No.” I was gazing fixedly at the blackness of the brick
courtyard. It was raining, drops pounding hard on the
windowpanes, the first real rain I’d seen in almost two years.
“He’s with me.”
“Oh.” She sounded relieved. Then, more sharply: “Where are
you? With Boris somewhere?”
“No.”
“I spoke to him—wired out of his mind, it sounded like. He
wouldn’t tell me where you were. I know he knows.” Though it
was still early out there, her voice was gravelly like she’d been
drinking, or crying. “I ought to call the cops on you, Theo. I know
it was you two who stole that money and stuff.”
“Yeah, just like you stole my mom’s earrings.”
“What—”
“Those emerald ones. They belonged to my grandmother.”
“I didn’t steal them.” She was angry now. “How dare you.
Larry gave those to me, he gave them to me after—”
“Yeah. After he stole them from my mother.”
“Um, excuse me, but your mom’s dead.”
“Yes, but she wasn’t when he stole them. That was like a
year before she died. She contacted the insurance company,” I said,
raising my voice over hers. “And filed a police report.” I didn’t
know if the police part was true, but it might as well have been.
“Um, I guess you’ve never heard of a little something called
marital property.”
“Right. And I guess you never heard of something called a
family heirloom. You and my dad weren’t even married. He had no
right to give those to you.”
Silence. I could hear the click of her cigarette lighter on the
other end, a weary inhale. “Look, kid. Can I say something? Not
about the money, honest. Or the blow. Although, I can tell you for
damn sure, I wasn’t doing anything like that when I was your age.
You think you’re pretty smart and all, and I guess you are, but
you’re headed down a bad road, you and whats-his-name too.
Yeah, yeah,” she said, raising her voice over mine, “I like him too,
but he’s bad news, that kid.”
“You should know.”
She laughed, bleakly. “Well, kid, guess what? I’ve been
around the track a few times—I do know. He’s going to end up in
jail by the time he’s eighteen, that one, and dollars to doughnuts
you’ll be right there with him. I mean, I can’t blame you,” she said,
raising her voice again, “I loved your dad, but he sure wasn’t worth
much, and from what he told me, your mother wasn’t worth much
either.”
“Okay. That’s it. Fuck you.” I was so mad I was trembling.
“I’m hanging up now.”
“No—wait. Wait. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that about
your mother. That’s not why I wanted to talk to you. Please. Will
you wait a second?”
“I’m waiting.”
“First off—assuming you care—I’m having your dad
cremated. That all right with you?”
“Do what you want.”
“You never did have much use for him, did you?”
“Is that it?”
“One more thing. I don’t care where you are, quite frankly.
But I need an address where I can get in touch with you.”
“And why is that?”
“Don’t be a wise ass. At some point somebody’s going to
call from your school or something—”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
“—and I’m going to need, I don’t know, some kind of
explanation of where you are. Unless you want the cops to put
you on the side of a milk carton or something.”
“I think that’s fairly unlikely.”
“Fairly unlikely,” she repeated, in a cruel, drawling imitation
of my voice. “Well, may be. But give it to me, all the same, and
we’ll call it even. I mean,” she said, when I didn’t answer, “let me
make it plain, it makes no difference to me where you are. I just
don’t want to be left holding the bag out here in case there’s some
problem and I need to get in touch with you.”
“There’s a lawyer in New York. His name’s Bracegirdle.
George Bracegirdle.”
“Do you have a number?”
“Look it up,” I said. Pippa had come into the room to get the
dog a bowl of water, and, awkwardly, so I wouldn’t have to look at
her, I turned to face the wall.
“Brace Girdle?” Xandra was saying. “Is that the way it
sounds? What the hell kind of name is that?”
“Look, I’m sure you’ll be able to find him.”
There was a silence. Then Xandra said: “You know what?”
“What?”
“That was your father that died. Your own father. And you
act like it was, I don’t know, I’d say the dog, but not even the dog.
Because I know you’d care if it was the dog got hit by a car, at
least I think you would.”
“Let’s say I cared about him exactly as much as he did about
me.”
“Well, let me tell you something. You and your dad are a
whole lot more alike than you might think. You’re his kid, all right,
through and through.”
“Well, you’re full of shit,” I said, after a brief, contemptuous
pause—a retort that seemed, to me, to sum up the situation pretty
nicely. But—long after I’d hung up the phone, when I sat sneezing
and shivering in a hot bath, and in the bright fog after (swallowing
the aspirins Hobie gave me, following him down the hall to the
musty spare room, you look packed in, extra blankets in the trunk,
no, no more talking, I’ll leave you to it now) her parting shot rang
again and again in my mind, as I turned my face into the heavy,
foreign-smelling pillow. It wasn’t true—no more than what she’d
said about my mother was true. Even her raspy dry voice coming
through the line, the memory of it, made me feel dirty. Fuck her, I
thought sleepily. Forget about it. She was a million miles away.
But though I was dead tired—more than dead tired—and the
rickety brass bed was the softest bed I’d ever slept in, her words
were an ugly thread running all night long through my dreams.
III.
We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others,
that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.
—FRANÇOIS DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD
Chapter 7.
The Shop-Behind-the-Shop
i.
WHEN I WOKE TO the clatter of garbage trucks, it was as if I’d
parachuted into a different universe. M y throat hurt. Lying very
still under the eiderdown, I breathed the dark air of dried-out
potpourri and burnt fireplace wood and—very faint—the
evergreen tang of turpentine, resin, and varnish.
For some time I lay there. Popper—who’d been curled by
my feet—was nowhere in evidence. I’d slept in my clothes, which
were filthy. At last—propelled by a sneezing fit—I sat up, pulled
my sweater over my shirt and grappled under the bed to make sure
the pillowcase was still there, then trudged on cold floors to the
bathroom. M y hair had dried in knots too tangled to yank the
comb through, and even after I doused it in water and started over,
one chunk was so matted I finally gave up and sawed it out,
laboriously, with a pair of rusted nail scissors from the drawer.
Christ, I thought, turning from the mirror to sneeze. I hadn’t
been around a mirror in a while and I barely recognized myself:
bruised jaw, spattering of chin acne, face blotched and swollen
from my cold—eyes swollen too, lidded and sleepy, giving me a
sort of dumb, shifty, homeschooled look. I looked like some cultraised kid just rescued by local law enforcement, brought blinking
from some basement stocked with firearms and powdered milk.
It was late: nine. Stepping out of my room, I could hear the
morning classical program on WNYC, a dream familiarity in the
announcer’s voice, Köchel numbers, a drugged calm, the same
warm public-radio purr I’d woken up to so many mornings back at
Sutton Place. In the kitchen, I found Hobie at the table with a
book.
But he wasn’t reading; he was staring across the room. When
he saw me he started.
“Well, there you are,” he said as he rose to messily sweep
aside a pile of mail and bills so I could sit. He was dressed for the
workshop, knee-sprung corduroys and an old peat-brown sweater,
ragged and eaten with moth holes, and his receding hairline and new
short-cropped hair gave him the ponderous, bald-templed look of
the marble senator on the cover of Hadley’s Latin book. “How’s
the form?”
“Fine, thanks.” Voice gravelled and croaking.
Down came the brows again and he looked at me hard. “Good
heavens!” he said. “You sound like a raven this morning.”
What did that mean? Ablaze with shame, I slid into the chair
he scraped out for me and—too embarrassed to meet his eye—
stared at his book: cracked leather, Life and Letters of Lord
Somebody, an old volume that had probably come from one of his
estate sales, old M rs. So-and-So up in Poughkeepsie, broken hip,
no children, all very sad.
He was pouring me tea, pushing a plate my way. In an
attempt to hide my discomfort I put my head down and plowed
into the toast—and nearly choked, since my throat was too raw for
me to swallow. Too quickly I reached for the tea, so I sloshed it on
the tablecloth and had to scramble to blot it up.
“No—no, it doesn’t matter—here—”
M y napkin was sopping wet; I didn’t know what to do with
it; in my confusion I dropped it on top of my toast and reached
under my glasses to rub my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I blurted.
“Sorry?” He was looking at me as if I’d asked him for
directions to a place he wasn’t sure how to get to. “Oh, come now
—”
“Please don’t make me go.”
“What’s that? M ake you go? Go where?” He pulled his halfmoon glasses low and looked at me over the tops of them. “Don’t
be ridiculous,” he said, in a playful, half-irritated voice. “Tell you
where I ought to make you go is straight back to bed. You sound
like you’re down with the Black Death.”
But his manner failed to reassure me. Paralyzed with
embarrassment, determined not to start crying, I found myself
staring hard at the forlorn spot by the stove where once upon a
time Cosmo’s basket had stood.
“Ah,” said Hobie, when he saw me looking at the empty
corner. “Yes. There you go. Deaf as a haddock, having three and
four seizures a week but still we wanted him to live forever. I
blubbed like a baby. If you’d told me Welty was going to go before
Cosmo—he spent half his life carrying that dog back and forth to
the vet—Look here,” he said in an altered voice, leaning forward
and trying to catch my eye when still I sat speechless and
miserable. “Come on. I know you’ve been through a lot but there’s
no need in the world to fuss about it now. You look very shook—
now, now, yes you do,” he said crisply. “Very shook indeed and—
bless you!”—flinching a bit—“bad dose of something, for sure.
Don’t fret—everything’s all right. Go back to bed, why don’t you,
and we’ll hash it out later.”
“I know but—” I turned my head away to stifle a wet,
burbling sneeze. “I don’t have any place to go.”
He leaned back in his chair: courteous, careful, something a
little dusty about him. “Theo—” tapping at his lower lip—“how
old are you?”
“Fifteen. Fifteen and a half.”
“And—” he seemed to be working out how to ask it—“what
about your grandfather?”
“Oh,” I said, helplessly, after a pause.
“You’ve spoken to him? He knows that you’ve nowhere to
go?”
“Well, shit—” it had just slipped out; Hobie put up a hand to
reassure me—“you don’t understand. I mean—I don’t know if he
has Alzheimer’s or what, but when they called him he didn’t even
ask to speak to me.”
“So—” Hobie leaned his chin heavily in his hand and eyed me
like a skeptical schoolteacher—“you didn’t speak to him.”
“No—I mean not personally—this lady was there, helping
out—” Xandra’s friend Lisa (solicitous, following me around,
voicing gentle but increasingly urgent concerns that “the family” be
notified) had retreated to a corner at some point to dial the number
I gave her—and got off the phone with such a look that it had
elicited, from Xandra, the only laugh of the evening.
“This lady?” said Hobie, in the silence that had fallen, in a
voice you might employ with a mental patient.
“Right. I mean—” I scrubbed a hand over my face; the colors
in the kitchen were too intense; I felt lightheaded, out of control
—“I guess Dorothy answered the phone and Lisa said she was like
‘okay, wait,’—not even ‘Oh no!’ or ‘what happened?’ or ‘how
terrible!’—just ‘hang on, let me get him,’ and then my granddad
came on and Lisa told him about the wreck and he listened, and
then he said well, he was sorry to hear it, but in this sort of tone,
Lisa said. Not ‘what can I do’ or ‘when is the funeral’ or anything.
Just, like, thank you for calling, we appreciate it, bye. I mean—I
could have told her,” I added nervously when Hobie didn’t answer.
“Because, I mean, they really didn’t like my dad—really didn’t like
him—Dorothy is his stepmother and they hated each other from
Day One but he never got along with Grandpa Decker either—”
“All right, all right. Steady on—”
“—and, I mean, my dad was in some trouble when he was a
kid, that might have had something to do with it—he was arrested
but I don’t know what for—honestly I don’t know why, but they
never wanted anything to do with him for as long as I remember
and they never wanted anything to do with me either—”
“Calm down! I’m not trying to—”
“—because, I swear, I hardly ever met them, I really don’t
know them at all but there’s no reason for them to hate me—not
that my grandpa is such a great guy, he was pretty abusive to my
dad actually—”
“Ssh—no carrying on! I’m not trying to put the screws on
you, I just want to know—no now, listen,” he said as I tried to talk
over him, batting away my words as if he were shooing a fly from
the table.
“M y mother’s lawyer is here. In the city. Will you come
with me to see him? No,” I said in confusion as his eyebrows came
together, “not a lawyer lawyer, but that handles money? I talked to
him on the phone? Before I left?”
“Okay,” said Pippa—laughing, pink-cheeked from the cold
—“what’s wrong with this dog? Has he never seen a car?”
Bright red hair; green wool hat; the shock of seeing her in
broad daylight was a dash of cold water. She had a hitch in her
walk, probably from the accident but there was a grasshopper
lightness to it like the odd, graceful preliminary to a dance step;
and she was wrapped in so many layers against the cold that she
looked like a colorful little cocoon, with feet.
“He was yowling like a cat,” she said, unwinding one of her
many patterned scarves as Popchyk danced at her feet with the
end of his leash in his mouth. “Does he always make that weird
noise? I mean, a cab would go by and—whoo! in the air! I was
flying him like a kite! People were laughing their heads off. Yes—”
stooping to speak to the dog, rubbing the top of his head with her
knuckles—“you, you need a bath, don’t you? Is he a M altese?”
she said, glancing up.
Furiously I nodded, back of my hand to my mouth, trying to
choke back a sneeze.
“I love dogs.” I could hardly hear what she was saying, so
dazzled was I by her eyes on mine. “I have a dog book and I
memorized every breed there is. If I had a big dog I’d have a
Newfoundland like Nana in Peter Pan, and if I had a small dog—
well, I change my mind all the time. I like all the little terriers—
Jack Russells especially, they’re always so funny and friendly on
the street. But I know a wonderful Basenji too. And I met a really
great Pekingese the other day. Really really tiny and really
intelligent. Only royalty could have them in China. They’re a very
ancient breed.”
“M altese are ancient, too,” I croaked, glad to have an
interesting fact to contribute. “They date back to ancient Greece.”
“That’s why you picked a M altese? Because it was ancient?”
“Um—” Stifling a cough.
She was saying something else—to the dog, not me—but I’d
fallen into another fit of sneezing. Quickly, Hobie scrabbled for the
closest thing at hand—a table napkin—and passed it over to me.
“All right, enough,” he said. “Back to bed. No, no,” he said as
I tried to hand the napkin back to him, “you keep it. Now tell me
—” eyeing my wrecked plate, spilled tea and soggy toast—“what
can I bring you for breakfast?”
Caught between sneezes, I gave a bright, Russian-accented
shrug I’d picked up from Boris: anything.
“All right then, if you don’t mind it, I’ll make you some
oatmeal. Easy on the throat. Don’t you have any socks?”
“Um—” She was busy with the dog, mustard-yellow sweater
and hair like an autumn leaf, and her colors were mixed up and
confused with the bright colors of the kitchen: striped apples
glowing in a yellow bowl, the sharp ding of silver glinting from the
coffee can where Hobie kept his paintbrushes.
“Pyjamas?” Hobie was saying. “No? I’ll see what I can find
of Welty’s. And when you get out of those things I’ll throw them
in the wash. Now, off with you,” he said, clapping his hand on my
shoulder so suddenly I jumped.
“I—”
“You can stay. As long as however you like. And don’t
worry, I’ll go with you to see your solicitor, it’ll all be fine.”
ii.
GROGGY , SHIVERING, I MADE my way down the dark hall and eased
between the covers, which were heavy and ice-cold. The room
smelled damp, and though there were many interesting things to
look at—a pair of terra-cotta griffins, Victorian beadwork pictures,
even a crystal ball—the dark brown walls, their deep dry texture
like cocoa powder, soaked me through and through with a sense of
Hobie’s voice and also of Welty’s, a friendly brown that saturated
me to the core and spoke in warm old-fashioned tones, so that
drifting in a lurid stream of fever I felt wrapped and reassured by
their presence whereas Pippa had cast a shifting, colored nimbus of
her own, I was thinking in a mixed-up way about scarlet leaves and
bonfire sparks flying up in darkness and also my painting, how it
would look against such a rich, dark, light-absorbing ground.
Yellow feathers. Flash of crimson. Bright black eyes.
I woke with a jolt—terrified, flailing, back on the bus again
with someone lifting the painting from my knapsack—to find
Pippa lifting up the sleepy dog, her hair brighter than everything
else in the room.
“Sorry, but he needs to go out,” she said. “Don’t sneeze on
me.”
I scrambled up on my elbows. “Sorry, hi,” I said idiotically,
smearing an arm across my face; and then: “I’m feeling better.”
Her unsettling golden-brown eyes went around the room.
“Are you bored? Do you want me to bring you some colored
pencils?”
“Colored pencils?” I was baffled. “Why?”
“Uh, to draw with—?”
“Well—”
“Not a big deal,” she said. “All you had to say was no.”
Out she whisked, Popchik trotting after her, leaving behind
her a smell of cinnamon gum, and I turned my face into the pillow
feeling crushed by my stupidity. Though I would have died rather
than told anyone, I was worried that my exuberant drug use had
damaged my brain and my nervous system and maybe even my
soul in some irreparable and perhaps not readily apparent way.
While I was lying there worrying, my cell phone beeped: GES
W R I AM ? POOL @ M GM GRAND!!!!!
I blinked. BORIS? I texted in reply.
Y ES, IS M E!
What was he doing there? RUOK? I texted back.
Y ES BT V SLEEPY ! W E BIN DOIN T HOS 8BALS OM G : -)
And then, another ding:
* GREAT * FUN. PART Y PART Y . U? LIVING UNDER UNDRPASS?
NY C, I texted back. SICK IN BED. W HY RU AT M GM GR
HERE W KT AND AM BER & T HOSE GUY S!!! ;-)
then, coming in a second later: DO U NO OF DRINK CALLED W IT E RUSIAN? V NICE
T AST NG NOT V GOOD NAM E 4 DRNK T HO
A knock. “Are you all right?” said Hobie, sticking his head in
the door. “Can I bring you anything?”
I put the phone aside. “No, thank you.”
“Well, tell me when you’re hungry, please. There’s loads of
food, the fridge is so stuffed I can hardly get the door closed, we
had people in for Thanksgiving—what is that racket?” he said,
looking around.
“Just my phone.” Boris had texted: U CANT BELIEVE T HE LAST FEW DAZ E!!!
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. Let me know if you need
something.”
Once he was gone, I rolled to face the wall and texted back:
M GM GR? W / KT BEARM AN?!
The answer came almost immediately: Y ES! ALSO AM BER & M IM I & JESICA
& KT ’S SIST R JORDAN W HO IS IN *COLEGE* : -D
W T F???
U LEFT AT A BAD T IM E!!! : -D
then, almost immediately, before I could reply: G2GO, AM BR NEEDS
HER PHONE
CALL M E L8R,
I texted back. But there was no reply—and it would
be a long, long time before I heard anything from Boris again.
iii.
T HAT DAY, AND THE next day or two, flopping around in a
bewilderingly soft pair of Welty’s old pyjamas, were so topsyturvy and deranged with fever that repeatedly I found myself back
at Port Authority running away from people, dodging through
crowds and ducking into tunnels with oily water dripping on me or
else in Las Vegas again on the CAT bus, riding through
windwhipped industrial plazas with blown sand hitting the
windows and no money to pay my fare. Time slid from under me
in drifts like ice skids on the highway, punctuated by sudden sharp
flashes where my wheels caught and I was flung into ordinary time:
Hobie bringing me aspirins and ginger ale with ice, Popchik—
freshly bathed, fluffy and snow-white—hopping up on the foot of
the bed to march back and forth across my feet.
“Here,” said Pippa, coming over to the bed and poking me in
the side so she could sit down. “M ove over.”
I sat up, fumbling for my glasses. I’d been dreaming about the
painting—I’d had it out, looking at it, or had I?—and found myself
glancing around anxiously to make sure I’d put it away before I
went to sleep.
“What’s the matter?”
I forced myself to turn my gaze to her face. “Nothing.” I’d
crawled under the bed several times just to put my hands on the
pillowcase, and I couldn’t help wondering if I’d been careless and
left it poking from under the bed. Don’t look down there, I told
myself. Look at her.
“Here,” Pippa was saying. “M ade you something. Hold out
your hand.”
“Wow,” I said, staring at the spiked, kelly-green origami in
my palm. “Thanks.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“Uh—” Deer? Crow? Gazelle? Panicked, I glanced up at her.
“Give up? A frog! Can’t you tell? Here, put it on the
nightstand. It’s supposed to hop when you press on it like this,
see?”
As I fooled around with it, awkwardly, I was aware of her
eyes on me—eyes that had a light and wildness to them, a careless
power like the eyes of a kitten.
“Can I look at this?” She’d snatched up my iPod and was
busily scrolling through it. “Hmn,” she said. “Nice! M agnetic
Fields, M azzy Star, Nico, Nirvana, Oscar Peterson. No classical?”
“Well, there’s some,” I said, feeling embarrassed. Everything
she’d mentioned except the Nirvana had actually been my mom’s,
and even some of that was hers.
“I’d make you some CDs. Except I left my computer at
school. I guess I could mail you some—I’ve been listening to a lot
of Arvo Pärt lately, don’t ask me why, I have to listen on my
headphones because it drives my roommates nuts.”
Terrified she was going to catch me staring, unable to wrench
my eyes away, I watched her studying my iPod with bent head:
ears rosy-pink, raised line of scar tissue slightly puckered
underneath the scalding-red hair. In profile her downcast eyes were
long, heavy-lidded, with a tenderness that reminded me of the
angels and page boys in the Northern European M asterworks book
I’d checked and re-checked from the library.
“Hey—” Words drying up in my mouth.
“Yes?”
“Um—” Why wasn’t it like before? Why couldn’t I think of
anything to say?
“Oooh—” she’d glanced up at me, and then was laughing
again, laughing too hard to talk.
“What is it?”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like what?” I said, alarmed.
“Like—” I wasn’t sure how to interpret the pop-eyed face
she made at me. Choking person? M ongoloid? Fish?
“Dont be mad. You’re just so serious. It’s just—” she glanced
down at the iPod, and broke out laughing again. “Ooh,” she said,
“Shostakovich, intense.”
How much did she remember? I wondered, afire with
humiliation yet unable to tear my eyes from her. It wasn’t the kind
of thing you could ask but still I wanted to know. Did she have
nightmares too? Crowd fears? Sweats and panics? Did she ever
have the sense of observing herself from afar, as I often did, as if
the explosion had knocked my body and my soul into two separate
entities that remained about six feet apart from one another? Her
gust of laughter had a self-propelling recklessness I knew all too
well from wild nights with Boris, an edge of giddiness and hysteria
that I associated (in myself, anyway) with having narrowly missed
death. There had been nights in the desert where I was so sick with
laughter, convulsed and doubled over with aching stomach for
hours on end, I would happily have thrown myself in front of a car
to make it stop.
iv.
ON M ONDAY MORNING, THOUGH I was far from well, I roused
myself from my fog of aches and dozes and trudged dutifully into
the kitchen and telephoned M r. Bracegirdle’s office. But when I
asked for him, his secretary (after putting me on hold, and then
returning a bit too swiftly) informed me that M r. Bracegirdle was
out of the office and no, she didn’t have a number where he could
be reached and no, she was afraid she couldn’t say when he might
be in. Was there anything else?
“Well—” I left Hobie’s number with her and was regretting
that I’d been too slow on the draw to go ahead and schedule the
appointment when the phone rang.
“212, eh?” said the rich, clever voice.
“I left,” I said stupidly; the cold in my head made me sound
nasal and block-witted. “I’m in the city.”
“Yes, I gathered.” His tone was friendly but cool. “What can
I do for you?”
When I told him about my father, there was a deep breath.
“Well,” he said carefully. “I’m sorry to hear it. When did this
happen?”
“Last week.”
He listened without interrupting; in the five minutes or so it
took me to fill him in, I heard him turn away at least two other
calls. “Crikey,” he said, when I’d finished talking. “That’s quite a
story, Theodore.”
Crikey: in a different mood, I might have smiled. This was
definitely a person my mother had known and liked.
“It must have been dreadful for you out there,” he was
saying. “Of course, I’m terribly sorry for your loss. It’s all very
sad. Though quite frankly—and I feel more comfortable saying this
to you now—when he turned up, no one knew what to do. Your
mother had of course confided some things—even Samantha had
expressed concerns—well, as you know, it was a difficult
situation. But I don’t think anyone expected this. Thugs with
baseball bats.”
“Well—” thugs with baseball bats, I hadn’t really meant for
him to seize on that detail. “He was just standing there holding it.
It’s not like he hit me or anything.”
“Well—” he laughed, an easy laugh that broke the tension
—“sixty-five thousand dollars did seem like a very specific sum. I
have to say too—I went a bit beyond my authority as your
counsel when we spoke on the phone, though under the
circumstances I hope you’ll forgive me. It was just that I smelled a
bit of a rat.”
“Sorry?” I said, after a sick pause.
“Over the phone. The money. You can withdraw it, from the
529 anyway. Large tax penalty, but it’s possible.”
Possible? I could have taken it? An alternate future was
flashing through my mind: M r. Silver paid, Dad in his bathrobe
checking the sports scores on his BlackBerry, me in Spirsetskaya’s
class with Boris lazing across the aisle from me.
“Although I do need to tell you that the money in the fund is
actually a bit short of that,” M r. Bracegirdle was saying. “Socked
away and growing all the time, though! Not that we can’t arrange
for you to use some of it now, given your circumstances, but your
mother was absolutely determined not to dip into it even with her
financial troubles. The last thing she would have wanted was for
your dad to get his hands on it. And yes, just between the two of
us, I do think you were very smart to come back to the city on
your own recognizance. Sorry—” muffled conversation—“I’ve got
an eleven o’clock, I’ve got to run—you’re staying at Samantha’s
now, I gather?”
The question threw me for a loop. “No,” I said, “with some
friends in the Village.”
“Well, splendid. Just so long as you’re comfortable. At any
rate, I’m afraid I have to dash now. What do you say we continue
this discussion in my office? I’ll put you back through to Patsy so
she can schedule an appointment.”
“Great,” I said, “thank you,” but when I got off the phone, I
felt sick—like someone had just reached a hand in my chest and
wrenched loose a lot of ugly wet stuff around my heart.
“Everything okay?” said Hobie—crossing through the
kitchen, stopping suddenly to see the look on my face.
“Sure.” But it was a long walk down the hall to my room—
and once I closed the door and climbed back in bed I began to cry,
or half-cry, ugly dry wheezes with my face pressed in the pillow,
while Popchik pawed at my shirt and snuffled anxiously against
the back of my neck.
v.
BEFORE THIS, I’D BEEN feeling better, but somehow it was like this
news made me ill all over again. As the day wore on and my fever
climbed to its former dizzying wobble, I could think of nothing but
my dad: I have to call him, I thought, starting again and again from
bed just as I was drifting off; it was as if his death weren’t real but
only a rehearsal, a trial run; the real death (the permanent one) was
yet to happen and there was time to stop it if only I found him, if
only he was answering his cell phone, if Xandra could reach him
from work, I have to get hold of him, I have to let him know. Then,
later—the day was over, it was dark—I had fallen into a troubled
half dream where my dad was excoriating me for screwing up some
air travel reservations when I became aware of lights in the
hallway, a tiny backlit shadow—Pippa, coming suddenly into the
room with stumbling step almost like someone had pushed her,
looking doubtfully behind her, saying: “Should I wake him?”
“Wait,” I said—half to her and half to my dad, who was
falling back rapidly into the darkness, some violent stadium crowd
on the other side of a tall, arched gate. When I got my glasses on, I
saw she had her coat on like she was going out.
“Sorry?” I said, arm over my eyes, confused in the glare from
the lamp.
“No, I’m sorry. It’s just—I mean—” pushing a strand of hair
out of her face—“I’m leaving and I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?”
“Oh.” Her pale brows drew together; she looked in the
doorway to Hobie (who had vanished) and back to me. “Right.
Well.” Her voice seemed slightly panicked. “I’m going back.
Tonight. Anyway, it was nice to see you. I hope everything works
out for you okay.”
“Tonight?”
“Yeah, I’m flying out now. She has me in boarding school?”
she said when I continued to goggle at her. “I’m here for
Thanksgiving? Here to see the doctor? Remember?”
“Oh. Right.” I was staring at her very hard and hoping that I
was still asleep. Boarding school rang a vague bell but I thought it
was something I’d dreamed.
“Yeah—” she seemed uneasy too—“too bad you didn’t get
here earlier, it was fun. Hobie cooked—we had tons of people
over. Anyway I was lucky I got to come at all—I had to get
permission from Dr. Camenzind. We don’t have Thanksgiving off
at my school.”
“What do they do?”
“They don’t celebrate it. Well—I think maybe they make
turkey or something for the people who do.”
“What school is this?”
When she told me the name—with a half-humorous quirk of
her mouth—I was shocked. Institut M ont-Haefeli was a school in
Switzerland—barely accredited, according to Andy—where only
the very dumbest and most disturbed girls went.
“M ont-Haefeli? Really? I thought it was very”—the word
psychiatric was wrong—“wow.”
“Well. Aunt M argaret says I’ll get used to it.” She was
fooling around with the origami frog on the nightstand, trying to
make it jump, only it was bent and tipping to one side. “And the
view is like the mountain on the Caran d’Ache box. Snowcaps and
flower meadow and all that. Otherwise it’s like one of those dull
Euro horror movies where nothing much happens.”
“But—” I felt like I was missing something, or maybe still
asleep. The only person I’d ever known who went to M ontHaefeli was James Villiers’s sister, Dorit Villiers, and the story
was she’d been sent there because she stabbed her boyfriend in the
hand with a knife.
“Yeah, it’s a weird place,” she said, bored eyes flickering
around the room. “A school for loonies. Not many places I could
get in with my head injury though. They have a clinic attached,”
she said, shrugging. “Doctors on staff. Bigger deal than you’d
think. I mean, I have problems since I got hit on the head, but it’s
not like I’m nuts or a shoplifter.”
“Yeah, but—” I was still trying to get horror movie out of
my mind—“Switzerland? That’s pretty cool.”
“If you say so.”
“I knew this girl Lallie Foulkes who went to Le Rosey. She
said they had a chocolate break every morning.”
“Well, we don’t even get jam on our toast.” Her hand was
speckled and pale against the black of her coat. “Only the eatingdisorder girls get it. If you want sugar in your tea you have to steal
the packets from the nurses’ station.”
“Um—” Worse and worse. “Do you know a girl named Dorit
Villiers?”
“No. She was there but then they sent her someplace else. I
think she tried to scratch somebody in the face. They had her in
lock-up for a while.”
“What?”
“That’s not what they call it,” she said, rubbing her nose.
“It’s a farm-looking building they call La Grange—you know, all
milkmaid and fake rustic. Nicer than the residence houses. But the
doors are alarmed and they have guards and stuff.”
“Well, I mean—” I thought of Dorit Villiers—frizzy gold
hair; blank blue eyes like a loopy Christmas tree angel—and didn’t
know what to say.
“That’s only where they put the really crazy girls. La
Grange. I’m in Bessonet, with a bunch of French-speaking girls.
It’s supposed to be so I learn French better but all it means is
nobody talks to me.”
“You should tell her you don’t like it! Your aunt.”
She grimaced. “I do. But then she starts telling me how much
it costs. Or else says I’m hurting her feelings. Anyway,” she said,
uneasily, in an I’ve got to go voice, looking over her shoulder.
“Huh,” I said, at last, after a woozy pause. Day and night,
my delirium had been colored with an awareness of her in the
house, recurring energy-surges of happiness at the sound of her
voice in the hallway, her footsteps: we were going to make a
blanket tent, she would be waiting for me at the ice rink, bright
hum of excitement at all the things we were going to do when I got
better—in fact it seemed we had been doing things, such as
stringing necklaces of rainbow-colored candy while the radio
played Belle and Sebastian and then, later on, wandering through a
non-existent casino arcade in Washington Square.
Hobie, I noticed, was standing discreetly in the hall. “Sorry,”
he said, glancing at his wristwatch. “I really hate to rush you—”
“Sure,” she said. To me she said: “Goodbye then. Hope you
feel better.”
“Wait!”
“What?” she said, half turning.
“You’ll be back for Christmas, right?”
“Nope, Aunt M argaret’s.”
“When are you coming back, then?”
“Well—” one-shouldered shrug. “Dunno. Spring holidays
maybe.”
“Pips—” said Hobie, though he was really speaking to me
instead of her.
“Right,” she said, brushing her hair from her eyes.
I waited until I heard the front door shut. Then I got out of
bed and pulled aside the curtain. Through the dusty glass, I
watched them going together down the front steps, Pippa in her
pink scarf and hat hurrying slightly alongside Hobie’s large, welldressed form.
For a while after they turned the corner, I stood at the
window looking out at the empty street. Then, feeling light-headed
and forlorn, I trudged to her bedroom and—unable to resist—
cracked the door a sliver.
It was the same as two years before, except emptier. Wizard
of Oz and Save Tibet posters. No wheelchair. Window piled with
white pebbles of sleet on the sill. But it smelled like her, it was still
warm and alive with her presence, and as I stood breathing in her
atmosphere I felt a huge happy smile on my face just to be
standing there with her fairy tale books, her perfume bottles, her
sparkly tray of barrettes and her valentine collection: paper lace,
cupids and columbines, Edwardian suitors with rose bouquets
pressed to their hearts. Quietly, tiptoeing even though I was
barefoot, I walked over to the silver-framed photographs on the
dresser—Welty and Cosmo, Welty and Pippa, Pippa and her
mother (same hair, same eyes) with a younger and thinner Hobie—
Low buzzing noise, inside the room. Guiltily I turned—
someone coming? No: only Popchik, cotton white after his bath,
nestled amongst the pillows of her unmade bed and snoring with a
drooling, blissful, half-purring sound. And though there was
something pathetic about it—taking comfort in her left-behind
things like a puppy snuggled in an old coat—I crawled in under the
sheets and nestled down beside him, smiling foolishly at the smell
of her comforter and the silky feel of it on my cheek.
vi.
“WELL WELL ,” SAID M r. Bracegirdle as he shook Hobie’s hand and
then mine. “Theodore—I do have to say—you’re growing up to
look a great deal like your mother. I wish she could see you now.”
I tried to meet his eye and not seem embarrassed. The truth
was: though I had my mother’s straight hair, and something of her
light-and-dark coloring, I looked a whole lot more like my father, a
likeness so strong that no chatty bystander, no waitress in any
coffee shop had allowed it to pass unremarked—not that I’d ever
been happy about it, resembling the parent I couldn’t stand, but to
see a younger version of his sulky, drunk-driving face in the mirror
was particularly upsetting now that he was dead.
Hobie and M r. Bracegirdle were chatting in a subdued way—
M r. Bracegirdle was telling Hobie how he’d met my mother,
dawning remembrance from Hobie: “Yes! I remember—a foot in
less than an hour! M y God, I came out of my auction and nothing
was moving, I was uptown at the old Parke-Bernet—”
“On M adison across from the Carlyle?”
“Yes—quite a long hoof home.”
“You deal antiques? Down in the Village, Theo says?”
Politely, I sat and listened to their conversation: friends in
common, gallery owners and art collectors, the Rakers and the
Rehnbergs, the Fawcetts and the Vogels and the M ildebergers and
Depews, on to vanished New York landmarks, the closing of
Lutèce, La Caravelle, Café des Artistes, what would your mother
have thought, Theodore, she loved Café des Artistes. (How did he
know that? I wondered.) While I didn’t for an instant believe some
of the things my dad, in moments of meanness, had insinuated
about my mother, it did appear that M r. Bracegirdle had known
my mother a good deal better than I would have thought. Even the
non-legal books on his shelf seemed to suggest a correspondence,
an echo of interests between them. Art books: Agnes M artin,
Edwin Dickinson. Poetry too, first editions: Ted Berrigan. Frank
O’Hara, Meditations in an Emergency. I remembered the day she’d
turned up flushed and happy with the exact same edition of Frank
O’Hara—which I assumed she’d found at the Strand, since we
didn’t have the money for something like that. But when I thought
about it, I realized she hadn’t told me where she’d got it.
“Well, Theodore,” said M r. Bracegirdle, calling me back to
myself. Though elderly, he had the calm, well-tanned look of
someone who spent a lot of his spare time on the tennis court; the
dark pouches under his eyes gave him a genial panda-bear aspect.
“You’re old enough that a judge would consider your wishes above
all in this matter,” he was saying. “Especially since your
guardianship would be uncontested—of course,” he said to Hobie,
“we could seek a temporary guardianship for the upcoming
interlude, but I don’t think that will be necessary. Clearly this
arrangement is in the minor’s best interests, as long as it’s all right
with you?”
“That and more,” said Hobie. “I’m happy if he’s happy.”
“You’re fully prepared to act in an informal capacity as
Theodore’s adult custodian for the time being?”
“Informal, black tie, whatever’s called for.”
“There’s your schooling to look after as well. We’d spoken
of boarding school, as I recall. But that seems a lot to think of now,
doesn’t it?” he said, noting the stricken look on my face. “Shipping
out as you’ve just arrived, and with the holidays coming up? No
need to make any decisions at all at the moment, I shouldn’t
think,” he said, with a glance at Hobie. “I should think it would be
fine if you just sat out the rest of this term and we can sort it out
later. And you know that you can of course call upon me at any
time. Day or night.” He was writing a phone number on a business
card. “This is my home number, and this is my cell—my, my,
that’s a nasty cough you have there!” he said, glancing up—“quite
a cough, are you having that looked after, yes? and this is my
number out in Bridgehampton. I hope you won’t hesitate to call
me for any reason, if you need anything.”
Trying hard, doing my best, to swallow another cough.
“Thank you—”
“This is definitely what you want?” He was looking at me
keenly with an expression that made me feel like I was on the
witness stand. “To be at M r. Hobart’s for the next few weeks?”
I didn’t like the sound of the next few weeks. “Yes,” I said
into my fist, “but—”
“Because—boarding school.” He folded his hands and leaned
back in his chair and regarded me. “Almost certainly the best thing
for you in the long term but quite frankly, given the situation, I
believe I could telephone my friend Sam Ungerer at Buckfield and
we could get you up there right now. Something could be arranged.
It’s an excellent school. And I think it would be possible to arrange
for you to stay in the home of the headmaster or one of the
teachers rather than the dormitory, so you could be in more of a
family setting, if you thought that would be something you’d like.”
He and Hobie were both looking at me, encouragingly as I
thought. I stared at my shoes, not wanting to seem ungrateful but
wishing that this line of suggestion would go away.
“Well.” M r. Bracegirdle and Hobie exchanged a glance—was I
wrong to see a hint of resignation and/or disappointment in
Hobie’s expression? “As long as this is what you want, and M r.
Hobart’s amenable, I see nothing wrong with this arrangement for
the time being. But I do urge you to think about where you’d like
to be, Theodore, so we can go ahead and work out something for
the next school term or maybe even summer school, if you’d like.”
vii.
TEMPORARY GUARDIANSHIP . IN THE next weeks, I did my best to
buckle down and not think too much about what temporary might
mean. I’d applied to an early-college program in the city—my
reasoning being that it would keep me from being shipped out to
the sticks if for some reason things at Hobie’s didn’t work. All day
in my room, under a weak lamp, as Popchik snoozed on the carpet
by my feet, I spent hunched over test preparation booklets,
memorizing dates, proofs, theorems, Latin vocabulary words, so
many irregular verbs in Spanish that even in my dreams I looked
down the lines of long tables and despaired of keeping them
straight.
It was as if I was trying to punish myself—maybe even make
things up to my mother—by setting my sights so high. I’d fallen
out of the habit of doing schoolwork; it wasn’t exactly as if I’d
kept up my studies in Vegas and the sheer amount of material to
memorize gave me a feeling of torture, lights turned in the face, not
knowing the correct answer, catastrophe if I failed. Rubbing my
eyes, trying to keep myself awake with cold showers and iced
coffee, I goaded myself on by reminding myself what a good thing I
was doing, though my endless cramming felt a lot more like self
destruction than any glue-sniffing I’d ever done; and at some bleary
point, the work itself became a kind of drug that left me so drained
that I could hardly take in my surroundings.
And yet I was grateful for the work because it kept me too
mentally bludgeoned to think. The shame that tormented me was
all the more corrosive for having no very clear origin: I didn’t know
why I felt so tainted, and worthless, and wrong—only that I did,
and whenever I looked up from my books I was swamped by
slimy waters rushing in from all sides.
Part of it had to do with the painting. I knew nothing good
would come of keeping it, and yet I also knew I’d kept it too long
to speak up. Confiding in M r. Bracegirdle was foolhardy. M y
position was too precarious; he was already champing at the bit to
send me to boarding school. And when I thought, as I often did, of
confiding in Hobie, I found myself drifting into various theoretical
scenarios none of which seemed any more or less probable than the
others.
I would give the painting to Hobie and he would say, ‘oh, no
big deal’ and somehow (I had problems with this part, the logistics
of it) he would take care of it, or phone some people he knew, or
have a great idea about what to do, or something, and not care, or
be mad, and somehow it would all be fine?
Or: I would give the painting to Hobie and he would call the
police.
Or: I would give the painting to Hobie and he would take the
painting for himself and then say, ‘what, are you crazy? Painting? I
don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Or: I would give the painting to Hobie and he would nod and
look sympathetic and tell me I’d done the right thing but then as
soon as I was out of the room he would phone his own lawyer and
I would be dispatched to boarding school or a juvenile home
(which, painting or not, was where most of my scenarios ended up
anyway).
But by far the greater part of unease had to do with my
father. I knew that his death wasn’t my fault, and yet on a bonedeep, irrational, completely unshakable level I also knew that it
was. Given how coldly I’d walked away from him in his final
despair, the fact that he’d lied was beside the point. M aybe he’d
known that it was in my power to pay his debt—a fact which had
haunted me since M r. Bracegirdle had so lightly let it slip. In the
shadows beyond the desk lamp, Hobie’s terra-cotta griffins stared
at me with beady glass eyes. Did he think I’d stiffed him on
purpose? That I wanted him to die? At night, I dreamed of him
beaten and chased through casino parking lots, and more than once
awoke with a jolt to him sitting in the chair by my bed and
observing me quietly, the coal of his cigarette glowing in the dark.
But they told me you died, I said aloud, before realizing he wasn’t
there.
Without Pippa, the house was deathly quiet. The closed-off
formal rooms smelled faint and damp, like dead leaves. I mooned
about looking at her things, wondering where she was and what she
was doing and trying hard to feel connected to her by such tenuous
threads as a red hair in the bathtub drain or a balled-up sock under
the sofa. But as much as I missed the nervous tingle of her
presence, I was soothed by the house, its sense of safety and
enclosure: old portraits and poorly lit hallways, loudly ticking
clocks. It was as if I’d signed on as a cabin boy on the Marie
Céleste. As I moved about through the stagnant silences, the pools
of shadow and deep sun, the old floors creaked underfoot like the
deck of a ship, the wash of traffic out on Sixth Avenue breaking
just audibly against the ear. Upstairs, puzzling light-headed over
differential equations, Newton’s Law of Cooling, independent
variables, we have used the fact that tau is constant to eliminate its
derivative, Hobie’s presence below stairs was an anchor, a friendly
weight: I was comforted to hear the tap of his mallet floating up
from below and to know that he was down there pottering quietly
with his tools and his spirit gums and varicolored woods.
With the Barbours, my lack of pocket money had been a
continual worry; having always to hit M rs. Barbour up for lunch
money, lab fees at school, and other small expenses had occasioned
dread and anxiety quite out of proportion to the sums she
carelessly disbursed. But my living stipend from M r. Bracegirdle
made me feel a lot less awkward about throwing myself down in
Hobie’s household, unannounced. I was able to pay Popchik’s vet
bills, a small fortune, since he had bad teeth and a mild case of
heartworm—Xandra to my knowledge never having given him a
pill or taken him for shots my whole time in Vegas. I was also able
to pay my own dentist bills, which were considerable (six fillings,
ten hellish hours in the dentist’s chair) and buy myself a laptop
and an iPhone, as well as the shoes and winter clothes I needed.
And—though Hobie wouldn’t accept grocery money—still I went
out and got groceries for him all the same, groceries I paid for: milk
and sugar and washing powder from Grand Union, but more often
fresh produce from the farmers’ market at Union Square, wild
mushrooms and winesap apples, raisin bread, small luxuries which
seemed to please him, unlike the large containers of Tide which he
looked at sadly and took to the pantry without a word.
It was all very different from the crowded, complicated, and
overly formal atmosphere of the Barbours’, where everything was
rehearsed and scheduled like a Broadway production, an airless
perfection from which Andy had been in constant retreat, scuttling
to his bedroom like a frightened squid. By contrast Hobie lived and
wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere,
the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the
house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond
to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own
sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded
backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the
world. Though he enjoyed going out to the movies, there was no
television; he read old novels with marbled end papers; he didn’t
own a cell phone; his computer, a prehistoric IBM , was the size of
a suitcase and useless. In blameless quiet, he buried himself in his
work, steam-bending veneers or hand-threading table legs with a
chisel, and his happy absorption floated up from the workshop
and diffused through the house with the warmth of a wood-burning
stove in winter. He was absent-minded and kind; he was neglectful
and muddle-headed and self-deprecating and gentle; often he didn’t
hear the first time you spoke to him, or even the second time; he
lost his glasses, mislaid his wallet, his keys, his dry-cleaning
tickets, and was always calling me downstairs to get on my hands
and knees with him to help him search for some minuscule fitting
or piece of hardware he’d dropped on the floor. Occasionally he
opened the store by appointment, for an hour or two at a time, but
—as far as I could tell—this was little more than an excuse to bring
out the bottle of sherry and visit with friends and acquaintances;
and if he showed a piece of furniture, opening and shutting drawers
to oohs and aahs, it seemed to be mostly in the spirit in which
Andy and I, once upon a time, had dragged out our toys for show
and tell.
If he ever actually sold a piece, I never saw him do it. His
bailiwick (as he called it) was the workshop, or the ‘hospital’
rather, where the crippled chairs and tables stood stacked awaiting
his care. Like a gardener occupied with greenhouse specimens,
brushing aphids from individual plant leaves, he absorbed himself
in the texture and grain of individual pieces, the hidden drawers, the
scars and marvels. Though he owned a few items of modern
woodworking equipment—a router, a cordless drill and a circular
saw—he seldom used them. (“If it requires earplugs, I haven’t
much call for it.”) He went down there early and sometimes, if he
had a project, stayed down there after dark, but generally when the
light started to go he came upstairs and—before washing up for
dinner—poured himself the same inch of whiskey, neat, in a small
tumbler: tired, congenial, lamp-black on his hands, something rough
and soldierly in his fatigue. Has he takn u out to dinner, Pippa texted me.
Y es like 3 or 4x
He only likes 2go 2 3mpty rstrnts where nobody goes.
Thats right the place he took me last week was like king tuts tomb
Y es he only goes places where he feels sorry for the owners! because he is scared
they will go out of business and then he will feel guilty
I like it better when he cooks
A sk him to make gingerbread for u I wish i had some now
Dinner was the time of day I looked forward to most. In
Vegas—especially after Boris had taken up with Kotku—I’d never
gotten used to the sadness of having to scrabble around to feed
myself at night, sitting on the side of my bed with a bag of potato
chips or maybe a dried-up container of rice left over from my dad’s
carry out. By happy contrast, Hobie’s whole day revolved around
dinner. Where shall we eat? Who’s coming over? What shall I
cook? Do you like pot-au-feu? No? Never had it? Lemon rice or
saffron? Fig preserves or apricot? Do you want to walk over to
Jefferson M arket with me? Sometimes on Sundays there were
guests, who among New School and Columbia professors, operaorchestra and preservation-society ladies, and various old dears
from up and down the street also included a great many dealers and
collectors of all stripes, from batty old ladies in fingerless gloves
who sold Georgian jewelry at the flea market to rich people who
wouldn’t have been out of place at the Barbours (Welty, I learned,
had helped many of these people build their collections, by
advising them what pieces to buy). M ost of the conversation left
me wholly at sea (St-Simon? M unich Opera Festival?
Coomaraswamy? The villa at Pau?). But even when the rooms
were formal and the company was “smart” his lunches were the
sort where people didn’t seem to mind serving themselves or eating
from plates in their laps, as opposed to the rigidly catered parties
always tinkling frostily away at the Barbours’ house.
In fact, at these dinners, as agreeable and interesting as
Hobie’s guests were, I constantly worried that somebody who
knew me from the Barbours was going to turn up. I felt guilty for
not calling Andy; and yet, after what had happened with his dad
on the street, I felt even more ashamed for him to know that I’d
washed up in the city again with no place of my own to live.
And—though it was a small matter enough—I was still
bothered by how I’d turned up at Hobie’s in the first place.
Though he never told the story in front of me, how I’d showed up
on the doorstep, mainly because he could see how uncomfortable it
made me, still he’d told people—not that I blamed him; it was too
good a story not to tell. “It’s so fitting if you knew Welty,” said
Hobie’s great friend M rs. DeFrees, a dealer in nineteenth-century
watercolors who for all her stiff clothes and strong perfumes was a
hugger and a cuddler, with the old-ladyish habit of liking to hold
your arm or pat your hand as she talked. “Because, my dear,
Welty was an agoramaniac. Loved people, you know, loved the
marketplace. The to and the fro of it. Deals, goods, conversation,
exchange. It was that eeny bit of Cairo from his boyhood, I always
said he would have been perfectly happy padding around in
slippers and showing carpets in the souk. He had the antiquaire’s
gift, you know—he knew what belonged with whom. Someone
would come in the shop never intending to buy a thing, ducking in
out of the rain maybe, and he’d offer them a cup of tea and they’d
end up having a dining room table shipped to Des M oines. Or a
student would wander in to admire, and he’d bring out just the
little inexpensive print. Everyone was happy, do you know. He
knew everybody wasn’t in the position to come in and buy some
big important piece—it was all about matchmaking, finding the
right home.”
“Well, and people trusted him,” said Hobie, coming in with
M rs. DeFrees’s thimble of sherry and a glass of whiskey for
himself. “He always said his handicap was what made him a good
salesman and I think there’s something to that. ‘The sympathetic
cripple.’ No axe to grind. Always on the outside, looking in.”
“Ah, Welty was never on the outside of anything,” said M rs.
DeFrees, accepting her glass of sherry and patting Hobie
affectionately on the sleeve, her little paper-skinned hand glittering
with rose-cut diamonds. “He was always right in the thick of it,
bless him, laughing that laugh, never a word of complaint.
Anyway, my dear,” she said, turning back to me, “make no
mistake about it. Welty knew exactly what he was doing by giving
you that ring. Because by giving it to you, he brought you straight
here to Hobie, you see?”
“Right,” I said—and then I’d had to get up and walk in the
kitchen, so troubled was I by this detail. Because, of course, it
wasn’t just the ring he had given me.
viii.
AT NIGHT, IN WELTY’ S old room, which was now my room, his old
reading glasses and fountain pens still in the desk drawers, I lay
awake listening to the street noise and fretting. It had crossed my
mind in Vegas that if my dad or Xandra found the painting they
might not know what it was, at least not right away. But Hobie
would know. Over and over I found myself envisioning scenarios
where I came home to discover Hobie waiting for me with the
painting in his hands—“what’s this?”—for there was no flim-flam,
no excuse, no pre-emptive line with which to meet such a
catastrophe; and when I got on my knees and reached under the
bed to put my hands on the pillowcase (as I did, blindly and at
erratic interludes, to make sure it was still there) it was a quick
feint and drop like grabbing at a too-hot microwave dinner.
A house fire. An exterminator visit. Big red INTERP OL on the
M issing Art Database. If anyone cared to make the connection,
Welty’s ring was proof positive that I’d been in the gallery with
the painting. The door to my room was so old and uneven on its
hinges that it didn’t even catch properly; I had to prop it shut with
an iron doorstop. What if, driven by some unanticipated impulse,
he took it in his head to come upstairs and clean? Admittedly this
seemed out of character for the absent-minded and notparticularly-tidy Hobie I knew—No he dosn’t care if U R messy he never goes in
my room except to change sheets & dust Pippa had texted, prompting me to
strip my bed immediately and spend forty-five frantic minutes
dusting every surface in my room—the griffons, the crystal ball,
the headboard of the bed—with a clean T-shirt. Dusting soon
became an obsessive habit—enough that I went out and bought my
own dust cloths, even though Hobie had a house full of them; I
didn’t want him to see me dusting, my only hope was that the
word dust would never occur to him if he happened to poke his
head in my room.
For this reason, because I was really only comfortable leaving
the house in his company, I spent most of my days in my room, at
my desk, with scarcely a break for meals. And when he went out, I
tagged along with him to galleries, estate sales, showrooms,
auctions where I stood with him in the very back (“no, no,” he
said, when I pointed out the empty chairs in front, “we want to be
where we can see the paddles”)—exciting at first, just like the
movies, though after a couple of hours as tedious as anything in
Calculus: Concepts and Connections.
But though I tried (with some success) to act blasé, trailing
him indifferently around M anhattan as if I didn’t care one way or
another, in truth I stuck to him in much the same anxious spirit
that Popchik—desperately lonely—had followed along constantly
behind Boris and me in Vegas. I went with him to snooty lunches. I
went with him on appraisals. I went with him to his tailor. I went
with him to poorly attended lectures on obscure Philadelphia
cabinet-makers of the 1770s. I went with him to the Opera
Orchestra, even though the programs were so boring and dragged
on so long that I feared I might actually black out and topple into
the aisle. I went with him to dinner with the Amstisses (on Park
Avenue, uncomfortably close to the Barbours’) and the Vogels, and
the Krasnows, and the M ildebergers, where the conversation was
either a.) so eye-crossingly dull or b.) so far over my head that I
could never manage much more than hmn. (“Poor boy, we must be
hopelessly uninteresting to you,” said M rs. M ildeberger brightly,
not appearing to realize how truly she spoke.) Other friends, like
M r. Abernathy—my dad’s age, with some ill-articulated scandal or
disgrace in his past—were so mercurial and articulate, so utterly
dismissive of me (“And where did you say you obtained this child,
James?”) that I sat dumbfounded among the Chinese antiquities
and Greek vases, wanting to say something clever while at the
same time terrified of attracting attention in any way, feeling
tongue-tied and completely at sea. At least once or twice a week
we went to M rs. DeFrees in her antique-packed townhouse (the
uptown analogue of Hobie’s) on East Sixty-Third, where I sat on
the edge of a spindly chair and tried to ignore her frightening Bengal
cats digging their claws in my knees. (“He’s a socially alert little
creature, isn’t he?” I heard her remark not so sotto voce when they
were across the room fussing over some Edward Lear watercolors.)
Sometimes she accompanied us to the showings at Christie’s and
Sotheby’s, Hobie poring over every piece, opening and shutting
drawers, showing me various points of workmanship, marking up
his catalogue with a pencil—and then, after a stop or two at a
gallery along the way, she went back to Sixty-Third Street and we
went to Sant Ambrœus, where Hobie, in his smart suit, stood at
the counter and drank an espresso while I ate a chocolate croissant
and looked at the kids with book bags coming in and hoped I didn’t
see anyone I knew from my old school.
“Would your dad like another espresso?” the counterman
asked when Hobie excused himself to go to the gents’.
“No thanks, I think just the check.” It thrilled me, deplorably,
when people mistook Hobie for my parent. Though he was old
enough to be my grandfather, he projected a vigor more in keeping
with older European dads you saw on the East Side—polished,
portly, self-possessed dads on their second marriages who’d had
kids at fifty and sixty. In his gallery-going clothes, sipping his
espresso and looking out peacefully at the street, he might have
been a Swiss industrial magnate or a restaurateur with a M ichelin
star or two: substantial, late-married, prosperous. Why, I thought
sadly, as he returned with his topcoat over his arm, why hadn’t
my mother married someone like him—? Or M r. Bracegirdle?
somebody she actually had something in common with—older
maybe but personable, someone who enjoyed galleries and string
quartets and poking around used book stores, someone attentive,
cultivated, kind? Who would have appreciated her, and bought her
pretty clothes and taken her to Paris for her birthday, and given her
the life she deserved? It wouldn’t have been hard for her to find
someone like that, if she’d tried. M en had loved her: from the
doormen to my schoolteachers to the fathers of my friends right on
up to her boss Sergio at work (who had called her, for reasons
unknown to me, Dollybird), and even M r. Barbour had always
been quick to jump up and greet her when she came to pick me up
from sleepovers, quick with the smiles and quick to touch her
elbow as he steered her to the sofa, voice low and companionable,
won’t you sit down? would you like a drink, a cup of tea,
anything? I did not think it was my imagination—not quite—how
closely M r. Bracegirdle had looked at me: almost as if he were
looking at her, or looking for some trace of her ghost in me. Yet
even in death my dad was ineradicable, no matter how hard I tried
to wish him out of the picture—for there he always was, in my
hands and my voice and my walk, in my darting sideways glance as
I left the restaurant with Hobie, the very set of my head recalling
his old, preening habit of checking himself out in any mirror-like
surface.
ix.
IN JANUARY , I HAD my tests: the easy one and the hard one. The
easy one was in a high school classroom in the Bronx: pregnant
moms, assorted cabdrivers, and a raucous gaggle of Grand
Concourse homegirls with short fur jackets and sparkle fingernails.
But the test was not actually so easy as I thought it would be, with
a lot more questions about arcane matters of New York State
government than I’d anticipated (how many months of the year
was the legislature in Albany in session? How the hell was I
supposed to know?), and I came home on the subway preoccupied
and depressed. And the hard test (locked classroom, uptight
parents pacing the hallways, the strained atmosphere of a chess
tournament) seemed to have been designed with some twitching,
M IT-bred recluse in mind, with many of the multiple-choice
answers so similar that I came away with literally no idea how I’d
done.
So what, I told myself, walking up to Canal Street to catch
the train with my hands shoved deep in my pockets and my
armpits rank with anxious classroom perspiration. M aybe I
wouldn’t get into the early-college program—and what if I didn’t?
I had to do well, very well, in the top thirty per cent, if I stood any
chance at all.
Hubris: a vocabulary word that had featured prominently on
my pre-tests though it hadn’t shown up on the tests proper. I was
competing with five thousand applicants for something like three
hundred places—if I didn’t make the cut, I wasn’t sure what would
happen; I didn’t think I could bear it if I had to go to
M assachusetts and stay with these Ungerer people M r.
Bracegirdle kept talking about, this good-guy headmaster and his
“crew,” as M r. Bracegirdle called them, mom and three boys,
whom I imagined as a slab-like, stair-stepped, whitely smiling line
of the same prep-school hoods who with cheerful punctuality in
the bad old days had beaten up Andy and me and made us eat dust
balls off the floor. But if I failed the test (or, more accurately,
didn’t do quite well enough to make the early-college program),
how would I be able to work things so I could stay in New York?
Certainly I should have aimed for a more achievable goal, some
decent high school in the city where I would have at least had a
chance of getting in. Yet M r. Bracegirdle had been so adamant
about boarding school, about fresh air and autumn color and starry
skies and the many joys of country life (“Stuyvesant. Why would
you stay here and go to Stuyvesant when you could get out of
New York? Stretch your legs, breathe a bit easier? Be in a family
situation?”) that I’d stayed away from high schools altogether,
even the very best ones.
“I know what your mother would have wanted for you,
Theodore,” he’d said repeatedly. “She would have wanted a fresh
start for you. Out of the city.” He was right. But how could I
explain to him, in the chain of disorder and senselessness that had
followed her death, exactly how irrelevant those old wishes were?
Still lost in thought as I turned the corner to the station,
fishing in my pocket for my M etroCard, I passed a newsstand
where I saw a headline reading:
MUS EUM MAS TERWORKS RECOVERED IN
BRONX MILLIONS IN S TOLEN ART
I stopped on the sidewalk, commuters streaming past me on
either side. Then—stiffly, feeling observed, heart pounding—I
walked back and bought a copy (certainly buying a newspaper was
a less suspicious thing for a kid my age to do than it seemed to be
—?) and ran across the street to the benches on Sixth Avenue to
read it.
Police, acting on a tip, had recovered three paintings—a
George van der M ijn; a Wybrand Hendriks; and a Rembrandt, all
missing from the museum since the explosion—from a Bronx
home. The paintings had been found in an attic storage area,
wrapped in tinfoil and stacked amidst a bunch of spare filters for
the building’s central air-conditioning unit. The thief, his brother,
and the brother’s mother-in-law—owner of the premises—were in
custody pending bail; if convicted on all charges, they faced
combined sentences of up to twenty years.
It was a pages-long article, complete with timelines and
diagram. The thief—a paramedic—had lingered after the call to
evacuate, removed the paintings from the wall, draped them with a
sheet, concealed them beneath a folded-up portable stretcher, and
walked with them from the museum unobserved. “Chosen with no
eye to value,” said the FBI investigator interviewed for the article.
“Snatch and grab. The guy didn’t know a thing about art. Once he
got the paintings home he didn’t know what to do with them so he
consulted with his brother and together they hid the works at the
mother-in-law’s, without her knowledge according to her.” After a
little Internet research, the brothers had apparently realized that
the Rembrandt was too famous to sell, and it was their efforts to
sell one of the lesser-known works that led investigators to the
cache in the attic.
But the final paragraph of the article leaped out as if it had
been printed in red.
As for other art still missing, the hopes of investigators have been
revived, and authorities are now looking into several local leads. “ The
more you shake the trees, the more falls out of them,” said Richard
Nunnally, city police liaison with the FBI art crimes unit. “ Generally,
with art theft, the pattern is for pieces to be whisked out of the country
very quickly, but this find in the Bronx only goes to confirm that we
probably have quite a few amateurs at work, inexperienced parties who
stole on impulse and don’ t have the know-how to sell or conceal these
objects.” According to Nunnally, a number of people present at the
scene are being questioned, contacted, and reinvestigated:
“ Obviously, now, the thinking is that a lot of these missing pictures
may be here in the city right under our noses.”
I felt sick. I got up and dumped the paper in the nearest trash
can, and—instead of getting on the subway—wandered back down
Canal Street and roamed around Chinatown for an hour in the
freezing cold, cheap electronics and blood red carpets in the dim
sum parlors, staring in fogged windows at mahogany racks of
rotisseried Peking duck and thinking: shit, shit. Red-cheeked street
vendors, bundled like M ongolians, shouting above smoky braziers.
District Attorney. FBI. New information. We are determined to
prosecute these cases to the fullest extent of the law. We have full
confidence that other missing works will surface soon. Interpol,
UNESCO and other federal and international agencies are
cooperating with local authorities in the case.
It was everywhere. All the newspapers had it: even the
M andarin newspapers, the recovered Rembrandt portrait amid
streams of Chinese print, peeping out from bins of unidentifiable
vegetables and eels on ice.
“Really disturbing,” said Hobie later that night at dinner with
the Amstisses, brow knitted with anxiety. The recovered paintings
were all he’d been able to talk about. “Wounded people
everywhere, people bleeding to death, and here’s this fellow
snatching paintings off the walls. Carrying them around outside in
the rain.”
“Well, can’t say I’m surprised,” said M r. Amstiss, who was
on his fourth scotch on the rocks. “After that second heart attack
of M other’s? You can’t believe the mess these goons from Beth
Israel left. Black footprints all over the carpet. We were finding
plastic needle caps all over the floor for weeks, the dog almost
swallowed one. And they broke something too, M artha, something
in the china cabinet, what was it?”
“Listen, you won’t catch me complaining about paramedics,”
said Hobie. “I was really impressed with the ones we had when
Juliet was ill. I’m just glad they found the paintings before they
were too badly damaged, it could have been a real—Theo?” he said
to me, rather suddenly, causing me to glance up quickly from my
plate. “Everything all right?”
“Sorry. I’m just tired.”
“No wonder,” said M rs. Amstiss kindly. She taught
American history at Columbia; she, of the pair, was the one Hobie
liked and was friends with, M r. Amstiss being the unfortunate half
of the package. “You’ve had a tough day. Worried about your
test?”
“No, not really, “ I said without thinking, and then was
sorry.
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll get in,” said M r. Amstiss. “You’ll get in,”
he said to me, in a tone implying that any idiot could expect to do
so, and then, turning back to Hobie: “M ost of these early-college
programs don’t deserve the name, isn’t that right, M artha?
Glorified high school. Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once
you’ve made it. That’s the way it is these days with the kids—
participate, show up, and they expect a prize. Everybody wins.
Do you know what one of M artha’s students said to her the other
day? Tell them, M artha. This kid comes up after class, wants to
talk. Shouldn’t say kid—graduate student. And you know what he
says?”
“Harold,” said M rs. Amstiss.
“Says he’s worried about his test performance, wants her
advice. Because he has a hard time remembering things. Does that
take the cake, or what? Graduate student in American history?
Hard time remembering things?”
“Well, God knows, I have a hard time remembering things
too,” said Hobie affably, and rising with the dishes, steered the
conversation into other channels.
But late that night, after the Amstisses had left and Hobie
was asleep, I sat up in my room staring out the window at the
street, listening to the distant two a.m. grindings of trucks over on
Sixth Avenue and doing my best to talk myself down from my
panic.
Yet what could I do? I’d spent hours on my laptop, clicking
rapidly through what seemed like hundreds of articles—Le Monde,
Daily Telegraph, Times of India, La Repubblica, languages I
couldn’t read, every paper in the world was covering it. The fines,
in addition to the prison sentences, were ruinous: two hundred
thousand, half a million dollars. Worse: the woman who owned the
house was being charged because the paintings had been found on
her property. And what this meant, very likely, was that Hobie
would be in trouble too—much worse trouble than me. The
woman, a retired beautician, claimed she’d had no idea the
paintings were in her house. But Hobie? An antiques dealer? Never
mind that he’d taken me in innocently, out of the goodness of his
heart. Who would believe he hadn’t known about it?
Up, down and around my thoughts plunged, like a bad
carnival ride. Though these thieves acted impulsively and have no
prior criminal records, their inexperience will not deter us from
prosecuting this case to the letter of the law. One commentator, in
London, had mentioned my painting in the same breath with the
recovered Rembrandt:… has drawn attention to more valuable
works still missing, most particularly Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch
of 1654, unique in the annals of art and therefore priceless…
I reset the computer for the third or fourth time and shut it
down, and then, a bit stiffly, climbed in bed and turned out the
light. I still had the baggie of pills I’d stolen from Xandra—
hundreds of them, all different colors and sizes, all painkillers
according to Boris, but though sometimes they knocked my dad
out cold I’d also heard him complaining how sometimes they kept
him awake at night, so—after lying paralyzed with discomfort and
indecision for an hour or more, seasick and tossing, staring at the
spokes of car lights wheeling across the ceiling—I snapped on the
light again and scrabbled around in the nightstand drawer for the
bag and selected two different colored pills, a blue and a yellow,
my reasoning being that if one didn’t put me to sleep, the other
might.
Priceless. I rolled to face the wall. The recovered Rembrandt
had been valued at forty million. But forty million was still a price.
Out on the avenue, a fire engine screamed high and hard
before trailing into the distance. Cars, trucks, loudly-laughing
couples coming out of the bars. As I lay awake trying to think of
calming things like snow, and stars in the desert, hoping I hadn’t
swallowed the wrong mix and accidentally killed myself, I did my
best to hold tight to the one helpful or comforting fact I’d gleaned
from my online reading: stolen paintings were almost impossible to
trace unless people tried to sell them, or move them, which was
why only twenty per cent of art thieves were ever caught.
Chapter 8.
The Shop-Behind-the-Shop, continued
i.
SUCH WAS MY TERROR and anxiety about the painting that it
overshadowed, somewhat, the arrival of the letter: I’d been
accepted for the spring term of my early college program. The
news was so shocking that I put the envelope in a desk drawer,
where it sat alongside a stack of Welty’s monogrammed letter
paper for two days, until I worked up the nerve to go to the head
of the stairs (brisk scratch of handsaw floating up from the shop)
and say: “Hobie?”
The saw stopped.
“I got in.”
Hobie’s large, pale face appeared at the foot of the stairs.
“What’s that?” he said, still in his work trance, not quite there,
wiping his hands and leaving white handprints on his black apron
—and then his expression changed when he saw the envelope. “Is
that what I think it is?”
Without a word I handed it to him. He looked at it, then at me
—then laughed what I thought of as his Irish laugh, harsh and
surprised at itself.
“Well done you!” he said, untying his apron and slinging it
across the railing of the stairs. “I’m glad about it, I won’t lie to
you. I hated to think of packing you up there all on your own. And
when were you going to mention it? Your first day of school?”
It made me feel terrible, how pleased he was. At our
celebratory dinner—me, Hobie, and M rs. DeFrees at a struggling
little neighborhood Italian—I looked at the couple drinking wine at
the only other occupied table besides our own; and—instead of
being happy, as I’d hoped—felt only irritated and numb.
“Cheers!” said Hobie. “The tough part is over. You can
breathe a little easier now.”
“You must be so pleased,” said M rs. DeFrees, who all night
long had been linking her arm through mine and giving little
squeezes and chirrups of delight. (“You look bien élégante,” Hobie
had said to her when he kissed her on the cheek: gray hair piled
atop her head, and velvet ribbons threaded through the links of her
diamond bracelet.)
“M odel of dedication!” said Hobie to her. It made me feel
even worse about myself, hearing him tell his friends how hard I’d
worked and what an excellent student I was.
“Well, it’s wonderful. Aren’t you pleased? And on such short
notice, too! Do try to look a bit happier, my dear. When does he
start?” she said to Hobie.
ii.
T HE P LEASANT SURP RISE WAS that after the trauma of getting in, the
early-college program wasn’t nearly as rigorous as I’d feared. In
certain respects it was the least demanding school I’d ever
attended: no AP classes, no hectoring about SATs and Ivy League
admissions, no back-breaking math and language requirements—in
fact, no requirements at all. With increasing bewilderment, I looked
around at the geeky academic paradise I’d tumbled into and
realized why so many gifted and talented high school kids in five
boroughs had been knocking themselves senseless to get into this
place. There were no tests, no exams, no grades. There were classes
where you built solar panels and had seminars with Nobel-winning
economists, and classes where all you did was listen to Tupac
records or watch old episodes of Twin Peaks. Students were free to
concoct their own Robotics or History of Gaming tutorials if they
so chose. I was free to pick and choose among interesting electives
with only some take-home essay questions at midterm and a
project at the end. But though I knew just how lucky I was, still it
was impossible to feel happy or even grateful for my good fortune.
It was as if I’d suffered a chemical change of the spirit: as if the
acid balance of my psyche had shifted and leached the life out of
me in aspects impossible to repair, or reverse, like a frond of living
coral hardened to bone.
I could do what I had to. I’d done it before: gone blank,
pushed forward. Four mornings a week I rose at eight, showered in
the claw-foot tub in the bath off Pippa’s bedroom (dandelion
shower curtain, the smell of her strawberry shampoo wafting me
up into a mocking vapor where her presence smiled all around me).
Then—abrupt plunge to earth—I exited the cloud of steam and
dressed silently in my room and—after dragging Popchik around
the block, where he darted to and fro and screamed in terror—
ducked my head into the workshop, said goodbye to Hobie,
hoisted my backpack over my shoulder, and took the train two
stops downtown.
M ost kids were taking five or six courses but I went for the
minimum, four: Studio art, French, Intro to European Cinema,
Russian literature in translation. I’d wanted to take conversational
Russian but Russian 101—the introductory level—wasn’t
available until the fall. With knee-jerk coldness I showed up for
class, spoke when spoken to, completed my assignments, and
walked back home. Sometimes after class I ate in cheap M exican
and Italian places around NYU with pinball machines and plastic
plants, sports on the wide screen television and dollar beer at
Happy Hour (though no beer for me: it was weird readjusting to
my life as a minor, like going back to crayons and kindergarten).
Afterwards, all sugared-up from unlimited-refill Sprites, I walked
back to Hobie’s through Washington Square Park with my head
down and my iPod turned up loud. Because of anxiety (the
recovered Rembrandt was still all over the news) I was having big
problems sleeping and whenever the doorbell at Hobie’s rang
unexpectedly I jumped as if at a five-alarm fire.
“You’re missing out, Theo,” said Susanna my counselor (first
names only: all pals), “extracurricular activities are what anchor our
students in an urban campus. Our younger students especially. It
can be easy to get lost.”
“Well—” She was right: school was lonely. The eighteen and
nineteen year olds didn’t socialize with the younger kids, and
though there were plenty of students my age and younger (even
one spindly twelve year old rumored to have an IQ of 260) their
lives were so cloistered and their concerns so foolish and foreignseeming that it was as if they spoke some lost middle-school
tongue I’d forgotten. They lived at home with their parents; they
worried about things like grade curves and Italian Abroad and
summer internships at the UN; they freaked out if you lit a
cigarette in front of them; they were earnest, well-meaning,
undamaged, clueless. For all I had in common with any of them, I
might as well have tried to go down and hang out with the eight
year olds at PS 41.
“I see you’re taking French. The French Club meets once a
week, in a French restaurant on University Place. And on
Tuesdays they go up to the Alliance Française and watch French-
language movies. That seems like something you might enjoy.”
“M aybe.” The head of the French department, an elderly
Algerian, had already approached me (shockingly—at his large firm
hand on my shoulder, I’d jumped like I was being mugged) and told
me without preamble that he was teaching a seminar that I might
like to sit in on, the roots of modern terrorism starting with the
FLN and the Guerre d’Algérie—I hated how all the teachers in the
program seemed to know who I was, addressing me with apparent
foreknowledge of “the tragedy,” as my cinema teacher, M rs.
Lebowitz (“Call me Ruthie”) had termed it. She too—M rs.
Lebowitz—had been after me to join the Cinema club after reading
an essay I’d written about The Bicycle Thief; she’d suggested as
well that I might also enjoy the Philosophy Club, which entailed
weekly discussion of what she called The Big Questions. “Um,
maybe,” I said politely.
“Well, from your essay, it seems as if you are drawn to what
I’ll call for lack of a better term, the metaphysical territory. Such as
why do good people suffer,” she said, when I continued to look at
her blankly. “And is fate random. What your essay deals with is
really not so much the cinematic aspect of De Sica as the
fundamental chaos and uncertainty of the world we live in.”
“I don’t know,” I said, in the uneasy pause that fell. Was my
essay really about these things? I hadn’t even liked The Bicycle
Thief (or Kes, or La Mouette, or Lacombe Lucien, or any of the
other extremely depressing foreign films we had watched in M rs.
Lebowitz’s class).
M rs. Lebowitz looked at me so long I felt uncomfortable.
Then she adjusted her bright red eyeglasses and said: “Well, most
of what we do in European Cinema is pretty heavy. Which is why
I’m thinking maybe you’d like to sit in on one of my seminars for
film majors. ‘Screwball Comedies of the Thirties’ or maybe even
‘Silent Cinema.’ We do Dr. Caligari but also a lot of Buster
Keaton, a lot of Charlie Chaplin—chaos, you know, but in a nonthreatening framework. Life-affirming stuff.”
“M aybe,” I said. But I had no intention of burdening myself
with even one scrap of extra work, no matter how life-affirming in
nature. For—from almost the moment I’d gotten in the door—the
deceptive burst of energy by which I had clawed my way into the
Early College program had collapsed. Its lavish offerings left me
unmoved; I had no desire to exert myself one bit more than I
absolutely had to. All I wanted was to scrape by.
Consequently, the enthusiastic welcome of my teachers soon
began to wane into resignation and a sort of vague, impersonal
regret. I was not seeking out challenges, developing my skills,
expanding my horizons, utilizing the many resources available to
me. I was not, as Susanna had delicately put it, adjusting to the
program. In fact—increasingly as the term wore on, as my teachers
slowly distanced themselves and a more resentful note began to
surface (“the academic opportunities offered do not seem to spur
Theodore to greater efforts, on any front”) I grew more and more
suspicious that the only reason I’d been allowed into the program
at all was because of “the tragedy.” Someone had flagged my
application in the admissions office, passed it to an administrator,
my God, this poor kid, victim of terrorism, blah blah blah, school
has a responsibility, how many places do we have left, do you
think we can fit him in? Almost certainly I had ruined the life of
some deserving brainiac out in the Bronx—some poor clarinetplaying loser in the projects who was still getting beaten up for his
algebra homework, who was going to end up punching tickets in a
tollbooth instead of teaching fluid mechanics at Cal Tech because
I’d taken his or her rightful place.
Clearly a mistake had been made. “Theodore participates
very little in class and appears to have no desire to expend any
more attention on his studies than absolutely necessary,” wrote
my French professor, in a scathing midterm report that—in the
absence of any closely supervising adult—no one saw but me. “It
is to be hoped that his failures will drive him to prove himself so
that he may profit from his situation in the second half of the
term.”
But I had no desire to profit from my situation, even less to
prove myself. Like an amnesiac I roamed the streets and (instead of
doing my homework, or attending my language lab, or joining any
of the clubs to which I had been invited) rode the subway out to
purgatorial end-of-the-line neighborhoods where I wandered alone
among bodegas and hair-weave emporiums. But soon I lost interest
even in my newfound mobility—hundreds of miles of track, riding
just for the hell of it—and instead, like a stone sinking soundlessly
into deep water, lost myself in idlework down in Hobie’s
basement, a welcoming drowsiness beneath the sidewalk where I
was insulated from the city blare and all the airborne bristle of
office towers and skyscrapers, where I was happy to polish tabletops and listen to classical music on WNYC for hours on end.
After all: what did I care about passé composé or the works
of Turgenev? Was it wrong, wanting to sleep late with the covers
over my head and wander around a peaceful house with old
seashells in drawers and wicker baskets of folded upholstery fabric
stored under the parlor secretary, sunset falling in drastic coral
spokes through the fanlight over the front door? Before long,
between school and workshop, I had slipped into a sort of
forgetful doze, a skewed, dreamlike version of my former life
where I walked familiar streets yet lived in unfamiliar
circumstances, among different faces; and though often walking to
school I thought of my old, lost life with my mother—Canal Street
Station, lighted bins of flowers at the Korean market, anything
could trigger it—it was as if a black curtain had come down on my
life in Vegas.
Only sometimes, in unguarded moments, it struck through in
such mutinous bursts that I stopped mid-step on the sidewalk,
amazed. Somehow the present had shrunk into a smaller and much
less interesting place. M aybe it was just I’d sobered up a bit, no
longer the chronic waste and splendor of those blazing adolescent
drunks, our own little warrior tribe of two rampaging in the desert;
maybe this was just how it was when you got older, although it
was impossible to imagine Boris (in Warsaw, Karmeywallag, New
Guinea, wherever) living a sedate prelude-to-adulthood life such as
the one I’d fallen into. Andy and I—even Tom Cable and I—had
always talked obsessively about what we were going to be when
we grew up, but with Boris, the future had never appeared to enter
his head any further than his next meal. I could not envision him
preparing in any way to earn a living or to be a productive member
of society. And yet to be with Boris was to know that life was full
of great, ridiculous possibilities—far bigger than anything they
taught in school. I’d long ago given up trying to text him or call;
messages to Kotku’s phone went unanswered, his home number in
Vegas had been disconnected. I could not imagine—given his wide
sphere of movement—that I would ever see him again. And yet I
thought of him almost every day. The Russian novels I had to read
for school reminded me of him; Russian novels, and Seven Pillars
of Wisdom, and so too the Lower East Side—tattoo parlors and
pierogi shops, pot in the air, old Polish ladies swaying side to side
with grocery bags and kids smoking in the doorways of bars along
Second Avenue.
And—sometimes, unexpectedly, with a sharpness that was
almost pain—I remembered my father. Chinatown made me think
of him in its flash and seediness, its slippery unreadable moods:
mirrors and fishtanks, shop windows with plastic flowers and pots
of lucky bamboo. Sometimes when I walked down to Canal Street
for Hobie, to buy rottenstone and Venice turpentine at Pearl Paint,
I ended up drifting over to M ulberry Street to a restaurant my dad
had liked, not far from the E train, eight stairs down to a basement
with stained Formica tables where I bought crispy scallion
pancakes, spicy pork, dishes I had to point at because the menu
was in Chinese. The first time I’d shown up at Hobie’s laden with
greasy paper bags his blank expression had stopped me cold, and I
stood in the middle of the floor like a sleepwalker awakened middream wondering what exactly I’d been thinking—not of Hobie,
certainly; he wasn’t the person who craved Chinese food all hours
of the day and night.
“Oh, I do like it,” said Hobie hastily, “only I never think of
it.” And we ate downstairs in the shop straight from the cartons,
Hobie seated atop a stool in his black work apron and sleeves
rolled to the elbow, the chopsticks oddly small-looking in his large
fingers.
iii.
T HE INFORMAL NATURE OF my stay at Hobie’s worried me too.
Though Hobie himself, in his foggy beneficence, didn’t appear to
mind me at his house, M r. Bracegirdle clearly viewed it as a
temporary arrangement and both he and my counselor at school
had taken great pains to explain that though the dormitories at my
college were reserved for older students, something could be
worked out in my case. But whenever the topic of living
arrangements came up, I fell silent and stared at my shoes. The
residence halls were crowded, fly-specked, with a graffiti-scrawled
cage lift that clanked like a prison elevator: walls papered with
band flyers, floors sticky with spilled beer, zombified mob of
blanket-wrapped hulks drowsing on the sofas in the TV room and
wasted-looking guys with facial hair—grown men in my view, big
scary guys in their twenties—throwing empty forty-ounce cans at
each other in the hall. “Well, you’re still a bit young,” said M r.
Bracegirdle, when—cornered—I expressed my reservations,
although the true reason for my reservations was something I
couldn’t discuss: how—given my circumstances—could I possibly
live with a roommate? What about security? Sprinkler systems?
Theft? The school is not responsible for the personal property of
students, said the handbook I’d been given. We recommend that
students take out a dorm insurance policy on any valuable objects
that may be accompanying them to school.
In a trance of anxiety, I threw myself into the task of being
indispensable to Hobie: running errands, cleaning brushes, helping
him inventory his restorations and sort through fittings and old
pieces of cabinet wood. While he carved splats and turned new
chair legs to match old, I melted beeswax and resin on the hot plate
for furniture polish: 16 parts beeswax, 4 parts resin, 1 part Venice
turpentine, a fragrant butterscotch gloss that was thick like candy
and satisfying to stir in the pan. Soon he was teaching me how to
lay down the red on white ground for gilding: always a little of the
gold rubbed down at the point where the hand would naturally
touch, then a little dark wash with lampblack rubbed in interstices
and backing. (“Patination is always one of the biggest problems in
a piece. With new wood, if you’re going for an effect of age, a
gilded patina is always easiest to fudge.”) And if, post-lampblack,
the gilt was still too bright and raw-looking, he taught me to scar it
with a pinpoint—light, irregular scratches of different depth—and
then to ding it lightly with a ring of old keys before reversing the
vacuum cleaner over it to dull it down. “Heavily restored pieces—
where there are no worn bits or honorable scars, you have to hand
out a few ancients and honorables yourself. The trick of it,” he
explained, wiping his forehead with the back of his wrist, “is never
to be too nice about it.” By nice he meant ‘regular.’ Anything too
evenly worn was a dead giveaway; real age, as I came to see from
the genuine pieces that passed through my hands, was variable,
crooked, capricious, singing here and sullen there, warm
asymmetrical streaks on a rosewood cabinet from where a slant of
sun had struck it while the other side was as dark as the day it was
cut. “What ages wood? Anything you like. Heat and cold, fireplace
soot, too many cats—or that,” he said, stepping back as I ran my
finger along the rough, muddied top of a mahogany chest. “What
do you suppose wrecked that surface?”
“Gosh—” I squatted on my heels to where the finish—black
and sticky, like the burnt-on crust of some Easy-Bake Oven item
you didn’t want to eat—feathered out to a clear, rich shine.
Hobie laughed. “Hair spray. Decades of. Can you believe it?”
he said, scratching at an edge with his thumbnail so that a curl of
black peeled away. “The old beauty was using it as a dressing
table. Over the years it builds up like lacquer. I don’t know what
they put in it but it’s a nightmare to get off, especially the stuff
from the fifties and sixties. It’d be a really interesting piece if she
hadn’t wrecked the finish. All we can do is clean it up, on top, so
you can see the wood again, maybe give it a light wax. It’s a
beautiful old thing, though, isn’t it?” he said, with warmth, trailing
a finger down the side. “Look at the turn of the leg and this
graining, the figure of it—see that bloom, here and here, how
carefully it’s matched?”
“Are you going to take it apart?” Though Hobie viewed it as
an undesirable step I loved the surgical drama of dismembering a
piece and re-assembling it from scratch—working fast before the
glue set, like doctors rushing through a shipboard appendectomy.
“No—” knocking it with his knuckles, ear to the wood
—“seems pretty sound, but we’ve got some damage to the rail,” he
said, pulling a drawer which screeched and stuck. “That’s what
comes from keeping a drawer crammed too full with junk. We’ll
refit these—” tugging the drawer out, wincing at the shriek of wood
on wood—“plane down the spots where it binds. See, the
rounding? Best way to fix this is square out the groove—that’ll
make it wider, but I don’t think we’ll have to prize the old runners
out of the dovetails—you remember what we did on the oak piece,
right? But—” running a fingertip along the edge—“mahogany’s a
little different. So’s walnut. Surprising how often wood is taken
from spots that aren’t actually causing the trouble. With mahogany
in particular, it’s so tightly grained, mahogany of this age
especially, you really don’t want to plane except where you
absolutely have to. A little paraffin on the rails and she’ll be as
good as new.”
iv.
AND SO THE TIME slipped by. The days were so much alike I barely
noticed the months pass. Spring turned to summer, humidity and
garbage smells, the streets full of people and the ailanthus trees
leafing out dark and full; and then summer to autumn, forlorn and
chilled. Nights, I spent reading Eugene Onegin or else poring over
one of Welty’s many furniture books (my favorite: an ancient twovolume work called Chippendale Furniture: Genuine and Spurious)
or Janson’s fat and satisfying History of Art. Though sometimes I
worked down in the basement with Hobie for six or seven hours at
a time, barely a word spoken, I never felt lonely in the beam of his
attention: that an adult not my mother could be so sympathetic
and attuned, so fully there, astonished me. Our large age difference
made us shy with each other; there was a formality, a generational
reserve; and yet we’d also grown to have sort of a telepathy in the
shop so that I would hand him the correct plane or chisel before he
even asked for it. “Epoxy-glued” was his short-hand for shoddy
work, and cheap things generally; he’d shown me a number of
original pieces where the joints had held undisturbed for two
hundred years or more, whereas the problem with a lot of modern
work was that it held too tight, bonded too hard with the wood and
cracked it and didn’t let it breathe. “Always remember, the person
we’re really working for is the person who’s restoring the piece a
hundred years from now. He’s the one we want to impress.”
Whenever he was gluing up a piece of furniture it was my job to
set out all the right cramps, each at the right opening, while he lay
out the pieces in precise mortise-to-tenon order—painstaking
preparation for the actual gluing-and-cramping when we had to
work frantically in the few minutes open to us before the glue set,
Hobie’s hands sure as a surgeon’s, snatching up the right piece
when I fumbled, my job mostly to hold the pieces together when
he got the cramps on (not just the usual G-cramps and F-cramps
but also an eccentric array of items he kept to hand for the
purpose, such as mattress springs, clothes pins, old embroidery
hoops, bicycle inner tubes, and—for weights—colorful sandbags
stitched out of calico and various snatched-up objects such as old
leaden door stops and cast-iron piggy banks). When he didn’t
require an extra pair of hands, I swept sawdust and replaced tools
on the peg, and—when there was nothing else to do—was happy
enough to sit and watch him sharpening chisels or steam-bending
wood with a bowl of water on the hot plate. OMG it stinks down there
texted Pippa. The fumes are awful how can u stand it? But I loved the smell—
bracingly toxic—and the feel of old wood under my hands.
v.
DURING ALL THIS TIME, I had carefully followed the news about my
fellow art thieves in the Bronx. They had all pleaded guilty—the
mother-in-law too—and had received the most severe sentences
allowed by law: fines in the hundreds of thousands, and prison
sentences ranging from five to fifteen without parole. The general
view seemed to be that they would all still be living happily out in
M orris Heights and eating big Italian dinners at M om’s house had
they not made the dumb move of trying to sell the Wybrand
Hendriks to a dealer who phoned the cops.
But this did not assuage my anxiety. There had been the day
when I’d returned from school to find the upstairs thick with
smoke and firemen trooping around the hall outside my bedroom
—“mice,” said Hobie, looking wild-eyed and pale, roaming the
house in his workman’s smock and his safety goggles atop his head
like a mad scientist, “I can’t abide glue traps, they’re cruel, and
I’ve put off having an exterminator in but good Lord, this is
outrageous, I can’t have them chewing through the electrical wires,
if not for the alarm the place could have gone up like that, here”—
(to the fireman) “is it all right if I bring him over here?”
sidestepping equipment, “you have to see this.…” standing well
back to point out a tangle of charred mouse skeletons smouldering
in the baseboard. “Look at that! A whole nest of them!” Though
Hobie’s house was alarmed to the nines—not just for fire, but
burglary—and the fire had done no real damage apart from a
section of floorboard in the hall, still the incident had shaken me
badly (what if Hobie hadn’t been home? what if the fire had started
in my room?) and deducing that so many mice in a two-foot
section of baseboard only meant more mice (and more chewed
wires) elsewhere, I wondered if despite Hobie’s aversion to
mousetraps I should set out some myself. M y suggestion that he
get a cat—though welcomed enthusiastically by Hobie and catloving M rs. DeFrees—was discussed with approval but not acted
upon and soon sank from view. Then, only a few weeks later, just
as I was wondering if I should broach the cat issue again, I’d almost
fainted from the cardiac plunge of coming in my room to find him
kneeling on the rug near my bed—reaching under the bed, as I
thought, but in fact reaching for the putty knife on the floor; he
was replacing a cracked pane in the bottom of the bedroom
window.
“Oh, hi,” said Hobie, standing to brush off his trouser leg.
“Sorry! Didn’t mean to give you a jump! Been intending to get this
new pane in ever since you arrived. Of course, I like to use wavy
glass in these old windows, the Bendheim, but if you throw in a
few clear pieces it really doesn’t matter—say, careful there,” he
said, “are you all right?” as I dropped my school bag and sank in an
armchair like some shellshocked first lieutenant stumbling in from
the field.
It was crackers, as my mother would have said. I didn’t know
what to do. Though I was only too aware how strangely Hobie
looked at me at times, how crazy I must seem to him, still I existed
in a low-grade fog of internal clangor: starting up every time
someone came to the door; jumping as if scalded when the phone
rang; jolted by electric-shock “premonitions” that—mid class—
would compel me to rise from my desk and rush straight home to
make sure that the painting was still in the pillowcase, that no one
had disturbed the wrapping or tried to scratch up the tape. On my
computer, I scoured the Internet for laws dealing with art theft but
the fragments I turned up were all over the map, and did not
provide any kind of relevant or cohesive view. Then, after I’d been
at Hobie’s for an otherwise uneventful eight months, an
unexpected solution presented itself.
I was on good terms with all Hobie’s moving-and-storage
guys. M ost of them were New York City Irish, lumbering, goodnatured guys who hadn’t quite made it into the police force or the
fire department—M ike, Sean, Patrick, Little Frank (who was not
little at all, the size of a refrigerator)—but there were also a couple
of Israeli guys named Raviv and Avi, and—my favorite—a Russian
Jew named Grisha. (“ ‘Russian Jew’ contradiction in terms,” he
explained, in a lavish plume of menthol smoke. “To Russian mind
anyway. Since ‘Jew’ to antisemite mind is not the same as true
Russian—Russia is notorious of this fact.”) Grisha had been born
in Sevastopol, which he claimed to remember (“black water, salt”)
though his parents had emigrated when he was two. Fair-haired,
brick red in the face with startling robin’s-egg eyes, he was
paunchy from drinking and so careless about his clothes that
sometimes the lower buttons of his shirt gaped open, yet from the
easy, arrogant way he carried himself, he clearly believed himself to
be good-looking (as who knew, maybe he had been, once). Unlike
stone-faced M r. Pavlikovsky he was quite talkative, full of jokes or
anekdoty as he called them, which he told in a droll, rapid-fire
monotone. “You think you can curse, mazhor?” he’d said
goodnaturedly, from the chessboard set up in a corner of the
workshop where he and Hobie sometimes played in the afternoon.
“Go then. Burn my ears off.” And I had let rip such an
eyewatering torrent of filth that even Hobie—not understanding a
word—had leaned back laughing with his hands over his ears.
One gloomy afternoon, not long after my first fall term in
school had begun, I happened to be alone in the house when Grisha
stopped by to drop off some furniture. “Here, mazhor,” he said,
flicking the butt of his cigarette away between scarred thumb and
forefinger. Mazhor—one of his several derisive nicknames for me
—meant “M ajor” in Russian. “M ake yourself useful. Come help
with this garbage in the truck.” All furniture, for Grisha, was
“garbage.”
I looked past him, to the truck. “What have you got? Is it
heavy?”
“If it was heavy, poprygountchik, would I ask you?”
We brought in the furniture—gilt-edged mirror, wrapped in
padding; a candle stand; a set of dining room chairs—and as soon
as it was unwrapped, Grisha leaned against a sideboard Hobie was
working on (after first touching it with a fingertip, to make sure it
wasn’t sticky) and lit himself a Kool. “Want one?”
“No thanks.” In fact, I did, but I was afraid Hobie would
smell it on me.
Grisha fanned away the cigarette smoke with one dirty-nailed
hand. “So what are you doing?” he said. “Want to help me out this
afternoon?”
“Help you how?”
“Put down your naked-lady book” (Janson’s History of Art)
“and ride out to Brooklyn with me.”
“What for?”
“I have to take some of this garbage out to storage, could use
an extra hand. M ike was supposed to help but sick today. Ha!
Giants played last night, they lost, he had a lot of rocks on the
game. Bet he is home in bed up in Inwood with a hangover and a
black eye.”
vi.
ON THE WAY OUT to Brooklyn with a van full of furniture, Grisha
kept up a steady monologue about on the one hand Hobie’s fine
qualities and on the other how he was running Welty’s business
into the ground. “Honest man, in dishonest world? Living in
reclusion? It hurts me right here, in my heart, to see him throwing
his moneys out the window every day. No no,” he said, holding up
a grimy palm as I tried to speak, “takes time what he does, the
restorations, working by hand like the Old M asters—I understand.
He is artist—not businessman. But explain for me, please, why he
is paying for storage out at Brooklyn Navy Yard instead of moving
inventorys and getting bills paid? I mean—just look, the junk in
basement! Things Welty bought at auction—more coming in every
week. Upstairs, store is packed tight! He is sitting on a fortune—
would take hundred years to sell it all! People looking in the
window—cash in hand—wanting to buy—sorry, lady! Fuck off!
Store is closed! And there he is downstairs with his carpenter tools
spending ten hours to carve this-small” (thumb and forefinger) “—
piece of wood for some piece-of-shit old lady chair.”
“Yeah, but he has clients in too. He sold a whole bunch of
stuff just last week.”
“What?” said Grisha angrily, whipping his head from the road
to glare at me. “Sold? To who?”
“The Vogels. He opened the store for them—they bought a
bookcase, a games table—”
Grisha scowled. “Those people. His friends, so called. You
know why they buy from him? Because they know they can get
low price from him—‘open by appointment,’ ha! Better for him if
he keeps the place shut from those vultures. I mean—” fist on
breastbone—“you know my heart. Hobie is family to me. But—”
he rubbed three fingers together, an old gesture of Boris’s, money!
money!—“unwise in business dealing. He gives away his last
matchstick, scrap of food, whatever, to any phony and con man.
You watch and see—soon, in four-five years, he will be broke on
the street unless he finds someone to run the shop for him.”
“Such as who?”
“Well—” he shrugged—“some person like maybe my cousin
Lidiya. That woman can sell water to drowning man.”
“You should tell him. I know he wants to find somebody.”
Grisha laughed cynically. “Lidiya? Work in that dump?
Listen—Lidiya sells gold, Rolex, diamonds from Sierra Leone. Gets
picked up from home in Lincoln Town Car. White leather pants…
floor length sable.… nails out to here. No way is woman like that
going to sit in junk shop with a bunch of dust and old garbage all
day.”
He stopped the van and shut off the engine. We were in front
of a blocky, ash-gray building in a desolate waterfront area, empty
lots and auto-body shops, the sort of neighborhood where
gangsters in the movies always drive the guy they’re going to kill.
“Lidiya—Lidiya is sexy woman,” he said contemplatively.
“Long legs—bazooms—good looking. Big zest for life. But this
business—you don’t want big flash, like her.”
“Then what?”
“Someone like Welty. There was innocent about him, you
know? Like scholar. Or priest. He was grandfather to everyone.
But very smart businessman all the same. Fine to be nice, kind,
good friends with everyone, but once you have your customer
trusting and believing lowest price is from you, you’ve got to take
your profit, ha! That’s retail, mazhor. Way of the fucking world.”
Inside, after we were buzzed in, there was a desk with a lone
Italian guy reading a newspaper. As Grisha was signed in, I
examined a brochure on a rack beside the display of bubble wrap
and packing tape:
ARISTON FINE ARTS STORAG E
STATE-OF-THE-ART FACILITY
FIRE SUPPRESSION, CLIMATE CONTROL, 24 HOUR SECURITY
INTEG RITY—Q UALITY—SAFETY
FOR ALL YOUR FINE ARTS NEEDS
KEEPING YOUR VALUAB LES SAFE SINCE 1968
Apart from the desk clerk, the place was deserted. We loaded
the service elevator and—with the aid of a key card and a punchedin code—took the elevator up to the sixth floor. Down corridor
after long, faceless corridor we walked, ceiling-mounted cameras
and anonymous numbered doors, Aisle D, Aisle E, windowless
Death Star walls that seemed to stretch into infinity, a feel of
underground military archives or maybe columbarium walls in
some futuristic cemetery.
Hobie had one of the larger spaces—double doors, wide
enough to drive a truck through. “Here we go,” said Grisha, rattling
the key in the padlock and throwing the door open with a crash of
metal. “Just look at all this shit he has in here.” It was jammed so
full of furniture and other items (lamps, books, china, little
bronzes; old B. Altman bags full of papers and moldy shoes) that
at first confused glance I wanted to back off and shut the door, as if
we’d stumbled into the apartment of some old hoarder who had
just died.
“Two thousand a month he pays for this,” he said gloomily
as we took the padding off the chairs and stacked them,
precariously, atop a cherrywood desk. “Twenty-four thousand
dollars a year! He should rather be using those moneys to light his
cigarettes than pay rents for this shithole.”
“What about these smaller units?” Some of the doors were
quite tiny—suitcase-sized.
“People are crazy,” said Grisha resignedly. “For space the
size of car trunk? Hundreds of dollars a month?”
“I mean—” I didn’t know how to ask it—“what keeps
people from putting illegal stuff here?”
“Illegal?” Grisha blotted the sweat from his brow with a dirty
handkerchief and then reached around and mopped the inside of his
collar. “You mean like, what, guns?”
“Right. Or, you know, stolen stuff.”
“What keeps them? I will tell you. Nothing is what keeps
them. Bury something here and no one will find it, unless you get
bumped off or sent to the can and don’t pay the fee. Ninety per
cent of this stuff—old baby pictures, junk from Bubbe’s attic. But
—if walls could talk, you know? Probably millions of dollars
hidden away if you knew where to look. All kind of secrets. Guns,
jewels, murder victim bodies—crazy things. Here—” he’d slammed
the door with a crash, was fumbling with the slide bolt—“help me
with this fucker. I hate this place, my God. Is like death, you
know?” He gestured down the sterile, endless-looking corridor.
“Everything shut up, sealed away from life! Whenever I’m coming
here, I get a feeling like hard to breathe. Worse than a fucking
library.”
vii.
T HAT NIGHT, I GOT the Yellow Pages from Hobie’s kitchen and
carried it back to my room and looked under Storage: Fine Arts.
There were dozens of places in M anhattan and the outer boroughs,
many with stately print ads detailing their services: white gloves,
from our door to yours! A cartoon butler proffered a business card
on a silver tray: BLINGEN AND T ARKWELL, SINCE 1928. We provide
discreet and confidential State-of-the-Art storage solutions for a
wide range of businesses and private clients. ArtTech. Heritage
Works. Archival Solutions. Facilities monitored by
hygrothermograph recording equipment. We maintain custom
temperature control to AAM (American Association of Museums)
requirements of 70 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity.
But all this was much too elaborate. The last thing I wanted
was to draw attention to the fact that I was storing a piece of art.
What I needed was something safe and inconspicuous. One of the
biggest and most popular chains had twenty locations in
M anhattan—including one in the East Sixties by the river, my old
neighborhood, only a few streets away from where my mother and
I had lived. Our premises are secured by our custom 24-hour
manned security command center and feature the latest technology
in smoke and fire detection.
Hobie was asking me something from the hallway. “What?” I
said hoarsely, my voice loud and false, shutting the phone book on
my finger.
“M oira’s here. Want to run down to the local with us for a
hamburger?” The Local was what he called the White Horse.
“Sounds great, be there in a minute.” I went back to the ad in
the Yellow Pages. Make Space for Summer Funtime! Easy
solutions for your sports and hobby equipment! How simple they
made it sound: no credit card required, cash deposit and off you
went.
The next day, instead of going to class, I retrieved the
pillowcase from under my bed, taped it shut with duct tape, put it
in a brown bag from Bloomingdale’s, and took a cab to the sporting
goods store in Union Square, where after a bit of dithering I
purchased a cheap pup tent and then caught a cab back up to
Sixtieth Street.
At the space-age, glassed-in office of the storage facility, I
was the only customer; and though I’d prepared a cover story
(ardent camper; neatfreak mom) the men at the desk seemed
completely uninterested in my large, well-labeled sporting goods
bag with the tag of the pup tent dangling artfully outside. Nor did
anyone seem to find it at all noteworthy or unusual that I wanted
to pay for the locker a year in advance, in cash—or two years
maybe? Was that all right? “ATM right out there,” said the Puerto
Rican at the cash register, pointing without looking away from his
bacon and egg sandwich.
That easy? I thought, in the elevator on the way down.
“Write your locker number down,” the guy at the register said,
“and your combination too, and keep it in a safe place,” but I’d
already memorized both—I’d seen enough James Bond movies that
I knew the drill—and the minute I was outside tossed the paper in
the trash.
Walking out of the building, its vaultlike hush and the stale
breezelet humming evenly from the air vents, I felt giddy,
unblinkered, and the blue sky and trumpeting sunlight, familiar
morning exhaust haze and the call and cry of car horns all seemed
to stretch down the avenue into a larger, better scheme of things: a
sunny realm of crowds and luck. It was the first time I’d been
anywhere near Sutton Place since returning to New York and it
was like falling back in a friendly old dream, crossfade between
past and present, pocked texture of the sidewalks and even the
same old cracks I’d always jumped over when I was running home,
leaning in, imagining myself in an airplane, tilt of an airplane’s
wings, I’m coming in, that final stretch, strafing in fast towards
home—lots of the same places still in business, the deli, the Greek
diner, the wine shop, all the forgotten neighborhood faces muddling
through my mind, Sal the florist and M rs. Battaglina from the
Italian restaurant and Vinnie from the dry cleaner’s with his tape
measure around his neck, down on his knees pinning up my
mother’s skirt.
I was only a few blocks from our old building: and looking
down towards Fifty-Seventh Street, that bright familiar alley with
the sun striking it just right and bouncing gold off the windows I
thought: Goldie! Jose!
At the thought, my step quickened. It was morning; one or
both of them should be on duty. I’d never sent the postcard from
Vegas like I’d promised: they’d be thrilled to see me, clustering
round, hugging me and slapping me on the back, interested to hear
about everything that had happened, including the death of my
dad. They’d invite me back to the package room, maybe call up
Henderson the manager, fill me in on all the building gossip. But
when I turned the corner, amidst stalled traffic and car horns, I saw
from halfway down the block that the building was cicatriced with
scaffolding and the windows slapped shut with official notices.
I stopped, dismayed. Then—disbelieving—I walked closer
and stood, appalled. The art-deco doors were gone, and—in place
of the cool dim lobby, with its polished floors, its sunburst
panelling—gaped a cavern of gravel and concrete hunks and
workmen in hard hats were coming out with wheelbarrows of
rubble.
“What happened here?” I said to a dirt-ingrained guy with a
hard hat standing back a bit, hunched and slurping guiltily at his
coffee.
“Whaddaya mean, what happened?”
“I—” Standing back, looking up, I saw it wasn’t just the
lobby; they had gutted the entire building, so you could see straight
through to the courtyard in back; glazed mosaic on the façade still
intact but the windows dusty and blank, nothing behind them. “I
used to live here. What’s going on?”
“Owners sold.” He was shouting over jackhammers in the
lobby. “Got the last tenants out a few months ago.”
“But—” I looked up at the empty shell, then peered inside at
the dusty, floodlit rubblehouse—men shouting, wires dangling.
“What are they doing?”
“Upscale condos. Five mil plus—swimming pool on the roof
—can you believe it?”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah, you’d think it’d be protected wouldn’t you? Nice old
place—yesterday had to jackhammer up the marble stairs in the
lobby, remember those stairs? Real shame. Wish we coulda got ’em
out whole. You don’t see that quality marble so much like you
used to, the nice old marble like that. Still—” He shrugged. “That’s
the city for you.”
He was shouting to someone above—a man lowering a bucket
of sand on a rope—and I walked along, feeling sick, right under our
old living room window or the bombed-out shell of it rather, too
disturbed to look up. Out of the way, baby, Jose had said, hoisting
my suitcase up on the shelf of the package room. Some of the
tenants, like old M r. Leopold, had lived in the building for seventyplus years. What had happened to him? Or to Goldie, or Jose? Or
—for that matter: Cinzia—? Cinzia, who at any given time had a
dozen or more part-time cleaning jobs, worked only a few hours a
week in the building, not that I’d even been thinking about Cinzia
until the moment before, but it had all seemed so solid, so
immutable, the whole social system of the building, a nexus where I
could always stop in and see people, say hello, find out what was
going on. People who had known my mother. People who had
known my dad.
And the farther I walked away, the more upset I got, at the
loss of one of the few stable and unchanging docking-points in the
world that I’d taken for granted: familiar faces, glad greetings: hey
manito! For I had thought that this last touchstone of the past, at
least, would be where I’d left it. It was weird to think I’d never be
able to thank Jose and Goldie for the money they’d given me—or,
even weirder, that I’d never be able to tell them my father had died:
because who else did I know who had known him? Or would care?
Even the sidewalk felt like it might break under my feet and I might
drop through Fifty-Seventh Street into some pit where I never
stopped falling.
IV.
It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us
fathers and sons.
—SCHILLER
Chapter 9.
Everything of Possibility
i.
ONE AFTERNOON EIGHT YEARS later—after I’d left school and gone
to work for Hobie—I’d just come out of Bank of New York and
was walking up M adison upset and preoccupied when I heard my
name.
I turned. The voice was familiar but I didn’t recognize the
man: thirtyish, bigger than me, with morose gray eyes and colorless
blond hair to his shoulders. His clothes—shaggy tweeds; rough
shawl-collared sweater—were more suited for a muddy country
lane than a city street; and he had an indefinable look of privilege
gone wrong, like someone who’d slept on some friends’ couches,
done some drugs, wasted a good bit of his parents’ money.
“It’s Platt,” he said. “Platt Barbour.”
“Platt,” I said, after a stunned pause. “Long time. Good
Lord.” It was difficult to recognize the lacrosse thug of old in this
sobered and attentive-looking pedestrian. The insolence was gone,
the old aggressive glint; now he looked worn out and there was an
anxious, fatalistic quality in his eyes. He might have been an
unhappy husband up from the suburbs, worried about an
unfaithful wife, or maybe a disgraced teacher at some second-rate
school.
“Well. So. Platt. How are you?” I said after an uncomfortable
silence, stepping backwards. “Are you still in the city?”
“Yes,” he said, clasping the back of his neck with one hand,
seeming highly ill at ease. “Just started a new job, actually.” He
had not aged well; in the old days he’d been the blondest and bestlooking of the brothers, but he’d grown thick in the jaw and around
the middle and his face had coarsened away from its perverse old
Jungvolk beauty. “I’m working for an academic publisher. BlakeBarrows. They’re based in Cambridge but they’ve got an office
here?”
“Great,” I said, as if I’d heard of the publisher, though I
hadn’t—nodding, fiddling with the change in my pocket, already
planning my getaway. “Well, fantastic to see you. How’s Andy?”
His face seemed to grow very still. “You don’t know?”
“Well—” faltering—“I heard he was at M IT. I ran into Win
Temple on the street a year or two back—he said Andy had a
fellowship—astrophysics? I mean,” I said nervously, discomfited
by Platt’s stare, “I really don’t keep in touch with the crowd from
school very much.…”
Platt ran his hand down the back of his head. “I’m sorry. I’m
not sure we knew how to get in touch with you. Things are still
very confused. But I certainly thought you would have heard by
now.”
“Heard what?”
“He’s dead.”
“Andy?” I said, and then, when he didn’t react: “No.”
Fleeting grimace—gone almost the moment I saw it. “Yes. It
was pretty bad, I’m sorry to say. Andy and Daddy too.”
“What?”
“Five months ago. He and Daddy drowned.”
“No.” I looked at the sidewalk.
“The boat capsized. Off Northeast Harbor. We really weren’t
out so far, maybe we shouldn’t have been out there at all, but
Daddy—you know how he was—”
“Oh my God.” Standing there, in the uncertain spring
afternoon with children just out of school running all around me, I
felt pole-axed and confused as if at an un-funny practical joke.
Though I had thought of Andy often over the years, and just
missed seeing him once or twice, we’d never gotten back in touch
after I returned to New York. I’d felt sure I’d run into him at some
point—as I had Win, and James Villiers, and M artina Lichtblau,
and a few other people from my school. But though I’d often
considered picking up the phone to say hello, somehow I never
had.
“Are you okay?” said Platt—massaging the back of his neck,
looking as uneasy as I felt.
“Um—” I turned to the shop window to compose myself,
and my transparent ghost turned to meet me, crowds passing
behind me in the glass.
“Gosh,” I said. “I can’t believe it. I don’t know what to say.”
“Sorry to blurt it on the street like that,” said Platt, rubbing
his jaw. “You look a bit green around the gills.”
Green around the gills: a phrase of M r. Barbour’s. With a
pang, I remembered M r. Barbour searching through the drawers in
Platt’s room, offering to build me a fire. Hell of a thing that’s
happened, good Lord.
“Your dad, too?” I said, blinking as if someone had just
shaken me awake from a sound sleep. “Is that what you just said?”
He looked around, with a lift of the chin that brought back for
a moment the arrogant old Platt I remembered, then glanced at his
watch.
“Come on, have you got a minute?” he said.
“Well—”
“Let’s get a drink,” he said, pounding a hand on my shoulder
so heavily I flinched. “I know a quiet place on Third Avenue. What
do you say?”
ii.
WE SAT IN THE nearly empty bar—a once-famous oak-panelled
joint smelling of hamburger grease, Ivy League pennants on the
walls, while Platt talked in a rambling, uneasy monotone so quietly
I had to strain to follow.
“Daddy,” he said, looking down into his gin and lime: M rs.
Barbour’s drink. “We all shrank from talking about it—but.
Chemical imbalance is how our grandmother spoke of it. Bipolar
disorder. He had his first episode, or attack, or whatever you call
it, at Harvard Law—1L, never made it to the second year. All these
wild plans and enthusiasms… combative in class, talking out of
turn, had set out writing some epic book-length poem about the
whaling ship Essex which was just a bunch of nonsense and then
his roommate, who was apparently more of a stabilizing influence
than anyone knew, left for a semester abroad in Germany and—
well. M y grandfather had to take the train up to Boston to fetch
him. He’d been arrested for starting a fire out in front of the statue
of Samuel Eliot M orison on Commonwealth Avenue and he
resisted arrest when the policeman tried to take him in.”
“I knew he’d had problems. I never knew it was like that.”
“Well.” Platt stared into his drink, and then knocked it back.
“That was well before I came along. Things changed after he
married M ommy and he’d been on his medicine for a while,
although our grandmother never really trusted him after all that.”
“All what?”
“Oh, of course we got on with her quite well, the
grandchildren,” he said hastily. “But you can’t imagine the trouble
Daddy caused when he was younger… tore through worlds of
money, terrible rows and rages, some awful problems with
underage girls… he’d weep and apologize, and then it would
happen all over again.… Gaga always blamed him for our
grandfather’s heart attack, the two of them were quarreling at my
grandfather’s office and boom. Once on the medicine, though, he
was a lamb. Wonderful father—well—you know. Wonderful with
us children.”
“He was lovely. When I knew him.”
“Yes.” Platt shrugged. “He could be. After he married
M ommy, he was on an even keel for a while. Then—I don’t know
what happened. He made some terribly unsound investments—
that was the first sign. Embarrassing late-night phone calls to
acquaintances, that sort of thing. Became romantically obsessed
with a college girl interning in his office—girl whose family
M ommy knew. It was terribly hard.”
For some reason, I was incredibly touched by hearing him call
M rs. Barbour ‘M ommy.’ “I never knew any of this,” I said.
Platt frowned: a hopeless, resigned expression that brought
out sharply his resemblance to Andy. “We hardly knew it
ourselves—we children,” he said bitterly, drawing his thumb across
the tablecloth. “ ‘Daddy’s ill’—that’s all we were told. I was off at
school, see, when they sent him to the hospital, they never let me
talk to him on the phone, they said he was too sick and for weeks
and weeks I thought he was dead and they didn’t want to tell me.”
“I remember all that. It was awful.”
“All what?”
“The, uh, nervous trouble.”
“Yeah, well—” I was startled by the snap of anger in his eyes
—“and how was I supposed to know if it was ‘nervous trouble’ or
terminal cancer or what the fuck? ‘Andy’s so sensitive… Andy’s
better off in the city… we don’t think Andy would thrive with
boarding…’ well, all I can say is M ommy and Daddy packed me
off pretty much the second I could tie my shoes, stupid fucking
equestrian school called Prince George’s, completely third-rate but
oh, wow, such a character-building experience, such a great
preparation for Groton, and they took really young kids, seven
through thirteens. You should have seen the brochure, Virginia hunt
country and all that, except it wasn’t all green hills and riding
habits like the pictures. I got trampled in a stall and broke my
shoulder and there I was in the infirmary with this view of the
empty driveway and no car coming up it. Not one fucking person
came to visit me, not even Gaga. Plus the doctor was a drunk and
set the shoulder wrong, I still have problems with it. I hate horses
to this motherfucking day.
“Any how—” self-conscious change of tone—“they’d
yanked me out of that place and got me into Groton by the time
things really came to a head with Daddy and he was sent away.
Apparently there was an incident on the subway… conflicting
stories there, Daddy said one thing and the cops said another
but—” he lifted his eyebrows, with a sort of mannered, blackhumored whimsy—“off went Daddy to the ding farm! Eight
weeks. No belt, no shoelaces, no sharps. But they gave him shock
treatments in there, and they really seemed to work because when
he came out again he was an all-new person. Well—you remember.
Father of the Year, practically.”
“So—” I thought of my ugly run-in with M r. Barbour on the
street, decided not to bring it up—“what happened?”
“Well, who knows. He started having problems again a few
years ago and had to go back in.”
“What kind of problems?”
“Oh—” Platt exhaled noisily—“much the same, embarrassing
phone calls, public outbursts, et cetera. Nothing was wrong with
him, of course, he was perfectly fine, it all started when they were
doing some renovations on the building, which he was against,
constant hammers and saws and all these corporations destroying
the city, nothing that wasn’t true to start with, and then it just sort
of snowballed, to the point where he thought he was being
followed and photographed and spied on all the time. Wrote some
pretty crazy letters to people, including some clients at his firm…
made a terrible nuisance of himself at the Yacht Club… quite a few
of the members complained, even some very old friends of his, and
who can blame them?
“Anyway, when Daddy got back from the hospital that
second time—he was never quite the same. The swings were less
extreme, but he couldn’t concentrate and he was very irritable all
the time. About six months ago he switched doctors and took a
leave of absence from work and went up to M aine—our uncle
Harry has a place on a little island up there, no one was there
except the caretaker, and Daddy said the sea air did him good. All
of us took turns going up to be with him… Andy was in Boston
then, at M IT, the last thing he wanted was to be saddled with
Daddy but unfortunately since he was closer than us, he got stuck
with it a bit.”
“He didn’t go back to the, er—” I didn’t want to say ding
farm—“where he went before?”
“Well, how was anyone to make him? It’s not an easy matter
to send someone away against their will, especially when they
won’t admit anything is wrong with them which at that point he
wouldn’t, and besides we were led to believe it was all a matter of
medication, that he would be right as rain as soon as the new dose
kicked in. The caretaker checked in with us, made sure he ate well
and took his medicine, Daddy spoke on the phone to his shrink
every day—I mean, the doctor said it was all right,” he said
defensively. “Fine for Daddy to drive, to swim, to sail if he felt
like it. Probably it wasn’t a terrific idea to go out quite so late in
the day but the conditions weren’t so bad when we set out and of
course you know Daddy. Dauntless seaman and all that. Heroics
and derring-do.”
“Right.” I’d heard many, many stories of M r. Barbour sailing
off into “snappy waters” that turned out to be nor’easters, State of
Emergency declared in three states and power knocked out along
the Atlantic Coast, Andy seasick and vomiting as he bailed salt
water out of the boat. Nights tilted sideways, run aground upon
sandbars, in darkness and torrential rain. M r. Barbour himself—
laughing uproariously over his Virgin M ary and his Sunday
morning bacon and eggs—had more than once told the story how
he and the children were blown out to sea off Long Island Sound
during a hurricane, radio knocked out, how M rs. Barbour had
phoned a priest at St. Ignatius Loyola on Park and Eighty-Fourth
and sat up all night praying (M rs. Barbour!) until the ship-to-shore
call from the Coast Guard came in. (“First strong wind, and she
hightails it to Rome, didn’t you, my dear? Ha!”)
“Daddy—” Platt shook his head sadly. “M ommy used to
say that if M anhattan wasn’t an island, he could never have lived
here one minute. Inland he was miserable—always pining for the
water—had to see it, had to smell it—I remember driving from
Connecticut with him when I was a boy, instead of going straight
up 84 to Boston we had to go miles out of the way and up the
coast. Always looking to the Atlantic—really really sensitive to it,
how the clouds changed the closer you got to the ocean.” Platt
closed his cement-gray eyes for a moment, then re-opened them.
“You knew Daddy’s little sister drowned herself, didn’t you,” he
said, in so flat a voice that for a moment I thought I’d misheard.
I blinked, not knowing what to say. “No. I didn’t know that.”
“Well, she did,” said Platt tonelessly. “Kitsey’s named after
her. Jumped off a boat in the East River during a party—a lark
supposedly, that’s what they all said, ‘accident,’ but I mean
anyone knows not to do that, the currents were crazy, pulled her
right under. Another kid died too, jumping in trying to save her.
And then there was Daddy’s uncle Wendell back in the sixties,
half-crocked, tried to swim to the mainland one night on a dare—I
mean, Daddy, he used to yammer on how the water was the source
of life itself for him, fountain of youth and all that and—sure, it
was. But it wasn’t just life for him. It was death.”
I didn’t reply. M r. Barbour’s boating stories, never
particularly cogent, or focused, or informative about the actual
sport, had always vibrated with a majestic urgency all their own,
an appealing tingle of disaster.
“And—” Platt’s mouth was a tight line—“of course the hell
of it was, he thought he was immortal as far as the water was
concerned. Son of Poseidon! Unsinkable! And as far as he was
concerned, the rougher the water, the better. He used to get very
storm-giddy, you know? Lowered barometric pressure for him was
like laughing gas. Although that particular day… it was choppy
but warm, one of those bright sunny days in fall when all you want
is to get out on the water. Andy was annoyed at having to go, he
was coming down with a cold and in the middle of doing something
complicated on the computer, but neither of us thought there was
any actual danger. The plan was to take him out, get him calmed
down, and hopefully hop over to the restaurant on the pier and try
to get some food down him. See—” restlessly he crossed his legs
—“it was just the two of us there with him, Andy and me, and to
be quite frank Daddy was a bit off his rocker. He had been keyed
up since the day before, talking a little wildly, really on the boil—
Andy called M ommy because he had work to do and didn’t feel
able to cope, and M ommy called me. By the time I got up there
and took the ferry out, Daddy was in the wild blue yonder. Raving
about the flung spray and the blown fume and all that—the wild
green Atlantic—absolutely flying. Andy was never able to tolerate
Daddy in those moods, he was up in his room with the door
locked. I suppose he’d had a party-sized dose of Daddy before I
arrived.
“In hindsight, I know, it seems poorly considered, but—you
see, I could have sailed it single-handed. Daddy was going stircrazy in the house and what was I to do, wrestle him down and
lock him up? and then too, you know Andy, he never thought
about food, the cupboard was bare, nothing in the fridge but some
frozen pizzas… short hop, something to eat on the pier, it seemed
like a good plan, you know? ‘Feed him,’ M ommy always used to
say when Daddy started getting a little too exhilarated. ‘Get some
food down him.’ That was always the first line of defense. Sit him
down—make him eat a big steak. Often that’s all it took to get him
back on keel. And I mean—it was in the back of my mind that if
his spirits didn’t settle once we were on the mainland we could
forget about the steakhouse and take him in to the emergency room
if need be. I only made Andy come to be on the safe side. I thought
I could use an extra hand—quite frankly I’d been out late the night
before, I was feeling a little less than all a-taunto, as Daddy used to
say.” He paused, rubbing the palms of his hands on the thighs of
his tweed trousers. “Well. Andy never liked the water much. As
you know.”
“I remember.”
Platt winced. “I’ve seen cats that swam better than Andy. I
mean, quite frankly, Andy was just about the clumsiest kid I ever
saw that wasn’t out-and-out spastic or retarded… good God, you
ought to have seen him on the tennis court, we used to joke about
entering him in the Special Olympics, he would have swept every
event. Still he’d put in enough hours on the boat, God knows—it
seemed smart to have an extra man aboard, and Daddy less than his
best, you know? We could easily have handled the boat—I mean it
was fine, it would have been perfectly fine except I hadn’t been
keeping my eye on the sky like I should, the wind blew up, we
were trying to reef the mainsail and Daddy was waving his arms
around and shouting about the empty spaces between the stars,
really just all kinds of nutty stuff, and he lost his balance on a
swell and fell overboard. We were trying to haul him back aboard,
Andy and me—and then we got broadsided at just the wrong angle,
huge wave, just one of these steep cresting things that pops up and
slaps you out of nowhere, and boom, we capsized. Not even that it
was so cold out but fifty-three-degree water is enough to send you
into hypothermia if you’re out there long enough, which
unfortunately we were, and I mean to say Daddy, he was soaring,
off in the stratosphere—”
Our chummy college-girl waitress was approaching behind
Platt’s back, about to ask if we wanted another round—I caught
her eye, shook my head slightly, warning her away.
“It was the hypothermia that got Daddy. He’d gotten so thin,
no body fat on him at all, an hour and a half in the water was
enough to do it, floundering around at those temperatures. You lose
heat faster if you’re not perfectly still. Andy—” Platt, seeming to
sense that the waitress was there, turned and held up two fingers,
another round—“Andy’s jacket, well, they found it trailing behind
the boat still attached to the line.”
“Oh God.”
“It must have come up over his head when he went over.
There’s a strap that goes around the crotch—a bit uncomfortable,
nobody likes to wear it—anyway, there was Andy’s jacket, still
shackled to the life-line, but apparently he wasn’t buckled in all the
way, the little shit. Well, I mean,” he said, his voice rising, “the
most typical thing. You know? Couldn’t be bothered to fasten the
thing properly? He was always such a goddamned klutz—”
Nervously, I glanced at the waitress, conscious how loud
Platt had gotten.
“God.” Platt pushed himself back from the table very
suddenly. “I was always so hateful to Andy. An absolute bastard.”
“Platt.” I wanted to say No you weren’t only it wasn’t true.
He glanced up at me, shook his head. “I mean, my God.” His
eyes were blown-out and empty looking, like the Huey pilots in a
computer game (Air Cav II: Cambodian Invasion) that Andy and I
had liked to play. “When I think of some of the things I did to him.
I’ll never forgive myself, never.”
“Wow,” I said, after an uncomfortable pause, looking at
Platt’s big-knuckled hands resting palms down on the table—hands
that after all these years still had a blunt, brutal look, a residue of
old cruelty about them. Although we had both endured our share of
bullying at school, Platt’s persecution of Andy—inventive,
joyous, sadistic—had verged on outright torture: spitting in
Andy’s food, yes, tearing up his toys, but also leaving dead
guppies from the fish tank and autopsy photos from the Internet
on his pillow, throwing back the covers and peeing on him while he
was asleep (and then crying Android’s wet the bed!); pushing his
head under in the bathtub Abu Ghraib style; forcing his face down
in the playground sandbox as he cried and fought to breathe.
Holding his inhaler over his head as he wheezed and pleaded: want
it? want it? Some hideous story too about Platt and a belt, an attic
room in some country house, bound hands, a makeshift noose:
ugliness. He’d have killed me, I remembered Andy saying, in his
remote, emotionless voice, if the sitter hadn’t heard me kicking on
the floor.
A light spring rain was tapping at the windows of the bar.
Platt looked down at his empty glass, then up.
“Come see M other,” he said. “I know she really wants to see
you.”
“Now?” I said, when I realized he meant that instant.
“Oh, do please come. If not now, later. Don’t just promise
like we all do on the street. It would mean so much to her.”
“Well—” Now it was my turn to look at my watch. I’d had
some errands to do, in fact I had a lot on my mind and several very
pressing worries of my own but it was getting late, the vodka had
made me foggy, the afternoon had slipped away.
“Please,” he said. He signalled for the check. “She’ll never
forgive me if she knows I ran into you and let you get away. Won’t
you walk over for just a minute?”
iii.
STEP P ING INTO THE FOYER was like stepping into a portal back to
childhood: Chinese porcelains, lighted landscape paintings, silkshaded lamps burning low, everything exactly as when M r.
Barbour had opened the door to me the night my mother died.
“No, no,” said Platt, when by habit I walked toward the
bull’s-eye mirror and through to the living room. “Back here.” He
was heading to the rear of the apartment. “We’re very informal
now—M ommy usually sees people back here, if she sees anybody
at all.…”
Back in the day, I had never been anywhere near M rs.
Barbour’s inner sanctum, but as we approached the smell of her
perfume—unmistakable, white blossoms with a powdery
strangeness at the heart—was like a blown curtain over an open
window.
“She doesn’t go out the way she once did,” Platt was saying
quietly. “None of these big dinners and events—maybe once a
week she’ll have someone over for tea, or go for dinner with a
friend. But that’s it.”
Platt knocked; he listened. “M ommy?” he called, and—at the
indistinct reply—opened the door a crack. “I’ve got a guest for
you. You’ll never guess who I found on the street.…”
It was an enormous room, done up in an old-ladyish, 1980s
peach. Directly off the entrance was a seating area with a sofa and
slipper chairs—lots of knickknacks, needlepoint cushions, nine or
ten Old M aster drawings: the flight into Egypt, Jacob and the
Angel, circle of Rembrandt mostly though there was a tiny penand-brown-ink of Christ washing the feet of St. Peter that was so
deftly done (the weary slump and drape of Christ’s back; the
blank, complicated sadness on St. Peter’s face) it might have been
from Rembrandt’s own hand.
I leaned forward for a closer look; and on the far side of the
room, a lamp with a pagoda-shaped shade popped on. “Theo?” I
heard her say, and there she was, propped on piles of pillows in an
outlandishly large bed.
“You! I can’t believe it!” she said, holding out her arms to me.
“You’re all grown up! Where in the world have you been? Are you
in the city now?”
“Yes. I’ve been back for a while. You look wonderful,” I
added dutifully, though she didn’t.
“And you!” She put both hands over mine. “How handsome
you are! I’m quite overcome.” She looked both older and younger
than I remembered: very pale, no lipstick, lines at the corner of her
eyes but her skin still white and smooth. Her silver-blonde hair
(had it always been quite that silver, or had she gone gray?) fell
loose and uncombed about her shoulders; she was wearing halfmoon glasses and a satin bed jacket pinned with a huge diamond
brooch in the shape of a snowflake.
“And here you find me, in my bed, with my needlework, like
an old sailor’s widow,” she said, gesturing at the unfinished
needlepoint canvas across her knees. A pair of tiny dogs—
Yorkshire terriers—were asleep on a pale cashmere throw at her
feet, and the smaller of the two, spotting me, sprang up and began
to bark furiously.
Uneasily I smiled as she tried to quiet him—the other dog had
set up a racket as well—and looked around. The bed was modern
—king-sized, with a fabric covered headboard—but she had a lot of
interesting old things back there that I wouldn’t have known to
pay attention to when I was a kid. Clearly, it was the Sargasso Sea
of the apartment, where objects banished from the carefully
decorated public rooms washed up: mismatched end tables; Asian
bric-a-brac; a knockout collection of silver table bells. A mahogany
games table that from where I stood looked like it might be Duncan
Phyfe and atop it (amongst cheap cloisonné ashtrays and endless
coasters) a taxidermied cardinal: moth-eaten, fragile, feathers faded
to rust, its head cocked sharply and its eye a dusty black bead of
horror.
“Ting-a-Ling, ssh, please be quiet, I can’t bear it. This is
Ting-a-Ling,” said M rs. Barbour, catching the struggling dog up in
her arms, “he’s the naughty one, aren’t you darling, never a
moment’s peace, and the other, with the pink ribbon, is
Clementine. Platt,” she called, over the barking, “Platt, will you
take him in the kitchen? He’s really a bit of a nuisance with
guests,” she said to me, “I ought to have a trainer in…”
While M rs. Barbour rolled up her needlework and put it in an
oval basket with a piece of scrimshaw set in the lid, I sat down in
the armchair by her bed. The upholstery was worn, and the
subdued stripe was familiar to me—a former living-room chair
exiled to the bedroom, the same chair I’d found my mother sitting
in when she’d come to the Barbours’ many years ago to pick me
up after a sleepover. I drew a finger over the cloth. All at once I
saw my mother standing to greet me, in the bright green peacoat
she’d been wearing that day—fashionable enough that people were
always stopping her on the street to ask her where she got it, yet
all wrong for the Barbours’ house.
“Theo?” said M rs. Barbour. “Would you like something to
drink? A cup of tea? Or something stronger?”
“No, thank you.”
She patted the brocade coverlet of the bed. “Come sit next to
me. Please. I want to be able to see you.”
“I—” At her tone, at once intimate and formal, a terrible
sadness came over me, and when we looked at each other it seemed
that the whole past was redefined and brought into focus by this
moment, clear as glass, a complexity of stillness that was rainy
afternoons in spring, a dark chair in the hallway, the light-as-air
touch of her hand on the back of my head.
“I’m so glad you came.”
“M rs. Barbour,” I said, moving to the bed, sitting down
gingerly with one hip, “my God. I can’t believe it. I didn’t find out
till just now. I’m so sorry.”
She pressed her lips together like a child trying not to cry.
“Yes,” she said, “well,” and there issued between us an awful and
seemingly unbreakable silence.
“I’m so sorry,” I repeated, more urgently, aware just how
clumsy I sounded, as if by speaking more loudly I might convey
my acuity of sorrow.
Unhappily she blinked; and, not knowing what to do, I
reached out and put my hand on top of hers and we sat for an
uncomfortably long time.
In the end, it was she who spoke first. “At any rate.”
Resolutely she dashed a tear from her eye while I flailed about for
something to say. “He had mentioned you not three days before he
died. He was engaged to be married. To a Japanese girl.”
“No kidding. Really?” Sad as I was, I couldn’t help smiling, a
little: Andy had chosen Japanese as his second language precisely
because he had such a thing for fanservice miko and slutty manga
girls in sailor uniform. “Japanese from Japan?”
“Indeed. Tiny little thing with a squeaky voice and a
pocketbook shaped like a stuffed animal. Oh yes, I met her,” she
said with a raised eyebrow. “Andy translating over tea sandwiches
at the Pierre. She was at the funeral, of course—the girl—her name
was M iyako—well. Different cultures and all that, but it’s true
what they say about the Japanese being undemonstrative.”
The little dog, Clementine, had crawled up to curl around
M rs. Barbour’s shoulder like a fur collar. “I have to admit, I’m
thinking of getting a third,” she said, reaching over to stroke her.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” I said, disconcerted. It was extremely unlike
M rs. Barbour to solicit opinions from anyone at all on any subject,
certainly not from me.
“I must say, they’ve been an enormous comfort, the pair of
them. M y old friend M aria M ercedes de la Pereyra turned up with
them a week after the funeral, quite unexpected, two pups in a
basket with ribbons on, and I have to say I wasn’t sure at first, but
actually I don’t think I’ve ever received a more thoughtful gift. We
could never have dogs before because of Andy. He was so terribly
allergic. You remember.”
“I do.”
Platt—still in his tweed gamekeeper’s jacket, with big saggedout pockets for dead birds and shotgun shells—had come back in.
He pulled up a chair. “So, M ommy,” he said, biting his lower lip.
“So, Platypus.” A formal silence. “Good day at work?”
“Great.” He nodded, as if trying to reassure himself of the
fact. “Yeah. Really really busy.”
“I’m so glad to hear it.”
“New books. One on the Congress of Vienna.”
“Another one?” She turned to me. “And you, Theo?”
“Sorry?” I’d been looking at the scrimshaw (a whaling ship)
set in the lid of her sewing basket, and thinking of poor Andy:
black water, salt in his throat, nausea and flailing. The horror and
cruelty of dying in his most hated element. The problem essentially
is that I despise boats.
“Tell me. What are you doing with yourself these days?”
“Um, dealing antiques. American furniture, mostly.”
“No!” She was rapturous. “But how perfect!”
“Yes—down in the Village. I run the shop and manage the
sales end. M y partner—” it was still so new I wasn’t used to
saying it—“my partner in the business, James Hobart, he’s the
craftsman, takes care of restorations. You should come down and
visit sometime.”
“Oh, delicious. Antiques!” She sighed. “Well—you know
how I love old things. I wish my children had shown an interest.
I’d always hoped at least one of them would.”
“Well, there’s always Kitsey,” said Platt.
“It’s curious,” M rs. Barbour continued, as if she hadn’t heard
this. “Not one of my children had an artistic bone in their bodies.
Isn’t that extraordinary? Little philistines, all four of them.”
“Oh, please,” I said, in as playful a tone as I could manage. “I
remember Toddy and Kitsey with all those piano lessons. Andy
with his Suzuki violin.”
She made a dismissive gesture. “Oh, you know what I mean.
None of my children have any visual sense. No appreciation
whatever for painting or interiors or any of that. Now—” again she
took my hand—“when you were a child, I used to catch you in the
hallway studying my paintings. You’d always go straight to the
very best ones. The Frederic Church landscape, my Fitz Henry
Lane and my Raphaelle Peale, or the John Singleton Copley—you
know, the oval portrait, the tiny one, girl in the bonnet?”
“That was a Copley?”
“Indeed. And I saw you with the little Rembrandt just now.”
“So it is Rembrandt, then?”
“Yes. Only the one, the washing-of-the-feet. The rest are all
school-of. M y own children have lived with those drawings their
whole lives and never displayed the slightest particle of interest,
isn’t that right, Platt?”
“I like to think that some of us have excelled at other things.”
I cleared my throat. “You know, I really did just stop in to
say hello,” I said. “It’s wonderful to see you—to see you both—”
turning to include Platt in this. “I wish it were under happier
circumstances.”
“Will you stay and have dinner?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling cornered. “I can’t, not tonight. But
I did want to run up for a minute and see you.”
“Then will you come back for dinner? Or lunch? Or drinks?”
She laughed. “Or whatever you will.”
“Dinner, sure.”
She held up her cheek for a kiss, as she had never done when I
was a child, not even with her own children.
“How lovely to have you here again!” she said, catching my
hand and pressing it to her face. “Like old times.”
iv.
ON MY WAY OUT the door, Platt threw out some kind of weird
handshake—part gang member, part fraternity boy, part
International Sign Language—that I wasn’t sure how to return. In
confusion I withdrew my hand and—not knowing what else to do
—bumped fists with him, feeling stupid.
“So, hey. Glad we ran into each other,” I said, in the awkward
silence. “Give me a call.”
“About dinner? Oh, yes. We’ll probably eat in if that’s all
right, M ommy really doesn’t like to go out that much.” He dug his
hands into the pockets of his jacket. Then, shockingly: “I’ve seen a
good bit of your old friend Cable lately. Bit more than I care to,
actually. He’ll be interested to know I’ve seen you.”
“Tom Cable?” I laughed, incredulously, although it wasn’t
much of a laugh; the bad old memory of how we’d been suspended
from school together and how he’d blown me off when my mother
died still made me uneasy. “You’re in touch with him?” I said,
when Platt didn’t respond. “I haven’t thought of Tom in years.”
Platt smirked. “I have to admit, back in the day, I thought it
was weird that any friend of that kid’s would put up with a drip
like Andy,” he said quietly, slouching against the door frame. “Not
that I minded. God knows Andy needed somebody to take him out
and get him stoned or something.”
Andrip. Android. One-nut. Pimple Face. Sponge Bob Shit
Pants.
“No?” said Platt casually, misreading my blank stare. “I
thought you were into that. Cable was certainly quite the little
pothead in his day.”
“That must have been after I left.”
“Well, maybe.” Platt looked at me, in a way I wasn’t sure I
liked. “M ommy certainly thought butter wouldn’t melt in your
mouth, but I knew you were pals with Cable. And Cable was a
little thief.” Sharply—in a way that brought the old, unpleasant
Platt ringing back—he laughed. “I told Kitsey and Toddy to keep
their rooms locked when you were here so you wouldn’t steal
anything.”
“That’s what all that was about?” I had not thought of the
piggy-bank incident in years.
“Well, I mean, Cable”—he glanced at the ceiling. “See, I used
to date Tom’s sister Joey, holy Hell, she was a piece of work too.”
“Right.” I remembered all too well Joey Cable—sixteen, and
stacked—brushing by twelve-year-old me in the hallway of the
Hamptons house in tiny T-shirt and black thong panties.
“Sloppy Jo! What an ass she had on her. Remember how she
used to parade around naked by the hot tub out there? Anyway,
Cable. Out in the Hamptons at Daddy’s club he got caught rifling
lockers in the men’s changing rooms, couldn’t have been more than
twelve or thirteen. That was after you left, eh?”
“M ust have been.”
“That sort of thing happened at several clubs out there. Like
during big tournaments and stuff—he’d sneak into the locker room
and steal whatever he could get his hands on. Then, maybe college
by then—oh, darn, where was it, not M aidstone but—anyway,
Cable had a summer job in the clubhouse helping out at the bar,
ferrying home old folks too blotto to drive. Personable guy, good
talker—well, you know. He’d get the old fellows talking about
their war stories or whatever. Light their cigarettes, laugh at their
jokes. Except sometimes he’d help the old fellows up to the door
and the next day their wallets would be missing.”
“Well, I haven’t laid eyes on him in years,” I said curtly. I
didn’t like the tone Platt had taken. “What’s he doing now,
anyway?”
“Well, you know. Up to his old tricks. As a matter of fact, he
sees my sister from time to time, though I certainly wish I could
put a stop to that. At any rate,” he said, on a slightly altered note,
“here I am, keeping you. I can’t wait to tell Kitsey and Toddy I’ve
seen you—Todd especially. You made quite an impression on him
—he speaks of you all the time. He’ll be in town next weekend and
I know he’ll want to see you.”
v.
INSTEAD OF TAKING A cab I walked, to clear my head. It was a clean
damp spring day, storm clouds pierced with bars of light and office
workers milling in the crosswalks, but spring in New York was
always a poisoned time for me, a seasonal echo of my mother’s
death blowing in with the daffodils, budding trees and blood
splashes, a thin spray of hallucination and horror (Neat! Fun! as
Xandra might have said). With the news about Andy, it was like
someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into
photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the
dogwalkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was
all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the
buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in
a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a
few scraps of cloth and bone.
It was unthinkable. I’d thought of calling Andy a million
times and it was only embarrassment that had kept me from it; it
was true that I didn’t keep up with anyone from the old days but I
did bump into someone from our school every now and again and
our old schoolmate M artina Lichtblau (with whom, the year
before, I had had a brief and unsatisfying affair, a total of three
stealthy fucks on a fold-out sofa)—M artina Lichtblau had spoken
of him, Andy’s in M assachusetts now, are you still in touch with
Andy, oh yeah, just as humongous a geek as ever except he plays it
up so much now it’s almost, like, kind of retro and cool? Coke
bottle glasses? Orange corduroys and a haircut like Darth Vader’s
helmet?
Wow, Andy, I’d thought, shaking my head fondly, reaching
over M artina’s bare shoulder for one of her cigarettes. I had
thought then how good it would be to see him—too bad he wasn’t
in New York—maybe I’d call him some time over the holidays
when he was home.
Only I hadn’t. I wasn’t on Facebook for reasons of paranoia
and seldom looked at the news but still I couldn’t imagine how I
hadn’t heard—except that, in recent weeks, I’d been worried about
the shop to the point I thought of little else. Not that we had
worries financially—we’d been pulling in money almost literally
hand over fist, so much money that Hobie, crediting me with his
salvation (he’d been on the verge of bankruptcy) had insisted on
making me partner, which I hadn’t been all that keen on given the
circumstances. But my efforts to put him off had only made him
more determined that I should share in the profits; the more I tried
to brush off his offer, the more persistent he grew; with typical
generosity, he attributed my reticence to “modesty” although my
real fear was that a partnership would shed a certain official light
on unofficial goings-on in the shop—goings-on that would shock
poor Hobie to the soles of his John Lobb shoes, if he knew. Which
he didn’t. For I’d intentionally sold a fake to a client, and the client
had figured it out and was kicking up a fuss.
I didn’t mind giving the money back—in fact, the only thing
to do was buy the piece back at a loss. In the past, this had worked
for me well. I sold heavily altered or outright reconstructed pieces
as original; if—out of the dim light of Hobart and Blackwell—the
collector got the piece home and noticed something amiss (“always
carry a pocket light with you,” Hobie had counselled me, early in
the game; “there’s a reason so many antique shops are dark”) then
I—grieved at the mix-up, while stalwart in my conviction that the
piece was genuine—gallantly offered to buy it back at ten percent
more than the collector had paid, under the conditions and terms of
an ordinary sale. This made me look like a good guy, confident in
the integrity of my product and willing to go to absurd lengths to
ensure my client’s happiness, and more often than not the client
was mollified and decided to keep the piece. But on the three or
four occasions when distrustful collectors had taken me up on my
offer: what the collector didn’t realize was that the fake—passing
from his possession to mine, at a price indicative of its apparent
worth—had overnight acquired a provenance. Once it was back in
my hands, I had a paper trail to show it had been part of the
illustrious So-and-So collection. Despite the mark-up I’d paid in
repurchasing the fake from M r. So-and-So (ideally an actor or a
clothing designer who collected as a hobby, if not illustrious as a
collector per se) I could then turn around and sell it again for
sometimes twice what I’d bought it back for, to some Wall Street
cheese fry who didn’t know Chippendale from Ethan Allen but
was more than thrilled with “official documents” proving that his
Duncan Phyfe secretary or whatever came from the collection of
M r. So-and-So, noted philanthropist/interior decorator/leading light
of Broadway/fill-in-the-blank.
And so far it had worked. Only this time, M r. So-and-So—in
this case, a prize Upper East Side swish named Lucius Reeve—
was not biting. What troubled me was that he seemed to think that,
A: he’d been taken on purpose, which was true, and, B: that Hobie
was in on it, was in fact the mastermind of the whole scam which
could not have been farther from the truth. When I had tried to
salvage the situation by insisting that the mistake was wholly mine
—cough cough, honestly sir, misunderstanding with Hobie, I’m
really quite new at this and hope you won’t hold it against me, the
work he does is of such a high quality you can see how sometimes
these mix-ups happen, don’t you?—M r. Reeve (“Call me Lucius”)
a well-dressed figure of uncertain age and occupation, was
implacable. “You don’t deny that the work is from James Hobart’s
hand then?” he’d said at our nervewracking lunch at the Harvard
Club, leaning back slyly in his chair and running his finger around
the rim of his club soda glass.
“Listen—” It had been a tactical mistake, I realized, to meet
him on his own territory, where he knew the waiters, where he did
the ordering with pad and pencil, where I could not be
magnanimous and suggest that he try this or that.
“Or that he deliberately took this carved phoenix ornament
from a Thomas Affleck, from a—yes yes, I believe it is Affleck,
Philadelphia at any rate—and affixed it to the top of this genuinely
antique but otherwise undistinguished chest-on-chest of the same
period? Are we not speaking of the same piece?”
“Please, if you’d only let me—” We’d been seated at a table
by the window, the sun was in my eyes, I was sweating and
uncomfortable—
“How then can you maintain that the deception was not
deliberate? On his part and yours?”
“Look—” the waiter was hovering, I wanted him to leave
—“the mistake was mine. As I’ve said. And I’ve offered to buy
the piece back at a premium so I’m not sure what else you want
me to do.”
But despite my cool tone, I had been in a froth of anxiety,
anxiety that had not been relieved by the fact that it was twelve
days later and Lucius Reeve still had not deposited the money that
I’d given him—I’d been checking at the bank right before I ran into
Platt.
What Lucius Reeve wanted I didn’t know. Hobie had been
making these cannibalized and heavily altered pieces (“changelings”
as he called them) for virtually his whole working life; the storage
space at Brooklyn Navy Yard had been crammed full of pieces
with tags going back thirty years or more. The first time I’d gone
out by myself and really poked around, I’d been thunderstruck to
discover what looked like real Hepplewhite, real Sheraton, Ali
Baba’s cave spilling with treasure—“Oh Lord, no,” said Hobie, his
voice crackly on the cell phone—the facility was like a bunker, no
phone reception, I’d gone straight outside to call him, standing on
the windy loading dock with one finger in my ear—“believe me, if
it was real, I’d have been on the phone to the American Furniture
department at Christie’s a long time ago—”
I had admired Hobie’s changelings for years and had even
helped work on some of them, but it was the shock of being fooled
by these previously-unseen pieces that (to employ a favored
phrase of Hobie’s) filled me with a wild surmise. Every so often
there passed through the shop a piece of museum quality too
damaged or broken to save; for Hobie, who sorrowed over these
elegant old remnants as if they were unfed children or mistreated
cats, it was a point of duty to rescue what he could (a pair of
finials here, a set of finely turned legs there) and then with his gifts
as carpenter and joiner to recombine them into beautiful young
Frankensteins that were in some cases plainly fanciful but in others
such faithful models of the period that they were all but
indistinguishable from the real thing.
Acids, paint, gold size and lampblack, wax and dirt and dust.
Old nails rusted with salt water. Nitric acid on new walnut. Drawer
runners worn with sandpaper, a few weeks under the sun lamp to
age new wood a hundred years. From five destroyed Hepplewhite
dining chairs he was capable of fashioning a solid and completely
authentic-looking set of eight by taking the originals apart, copying
the pieces (using wood salvaged from other damaged furniture of
the period) and re-assembling them with half original and half new
parts. (“A chair leg—” running a finger down it—“typically,
they’re scuffed and dented at the bottom—even if you use old
wood, you need to take a chain to the bottom of the new-cut legs if
you want them all to match… very very light, I’m not saying
whale the hell out of it… very distinctive patterning too, front legs
usually a bit more dented than the back, see?”) I had seen him
reconfigure original wood from a practically-in-splinters
eighteenth-century sideboard into a table that might have been from
the hand of Duncan Phyfe himself. (“Will it do?” said Hobie,
stepping back anxiously, not appearing to understand the marvel
he had wrought.) Or—as with Lucius Reeve’s “Chippendale”
chest-on-chest—a plain piece could in his hands become by the
addition of ornament salvaged from a grand old ruin of the same
period something almost indistinguishable from a masterwork.
A more practical or less scrupulous man would have worked
this skill to calculated ends and made a fortune with it (or, in
Grisha’s cogent phrase, “fucked it harder than a five-grand
prostitute”). But as far as I knew, the thought of selling the
changelings for originals or indeed of selling them at all had never
crossed Hobie’s mind; and his complete lack of interest in goingson in the store gave me considerable freedom to set about the
business of raising cash and taking care of bills. With a single
“Sheraton” sofa and a set of riband-back chairs I’d sold at Israel
Sack prices to the trusting young California wife of an investment
banker, I’d managed to pay off hundreds of thousands in back
taxes on the townhouse. With another dining room set and a
“Sheraton” settee—sold to an out-of-town client who ought to
have known better, but who was blinkered by Hobie and Welty’s
unimpeachable reputations as dealers—I’d gotten the shop out of
debt.
“It’s very convenient,” said Lucius Reeve pleasantly, “that
he leaves all the business end of the shop to you? That he has a
workshop turning out these frauds but washes his hands of how
you dispose of them?”
“You have my offer. I’m not going to sit here and listen to
this.”
“Why then do you continue to sit?”
I did not for one instant doubt Hobie’s astonishment if he
learned I was selling his changelings for real. For one thing, a lot of
his more creative efforts were rife with small inaccuracies, in-jokes
almost, and he was not always so fastidious about his materials as
someone turning out deliberate forgeries would have been. But I
had found it very easy to fool even relatively experienced buyers if
I sold about twenty per cent cheaper than the real thing. People
loved to think they were getting a deal. Four times out of five they
would look right past what they didn’t want to see. I knew how to
draw people’s attention to the extraordinary points of a piece, the
hand-cut veneer, the fine patination, the honorable scars, drawing a
finger down an exquisite cyma curve (which Hogarth himself had
called “the line of beauty”) in order to lead the eye away from
reworked bits in back, where in a strong light they might find the
grain didn’t precisely match. I declined to suggest that clients
examine the underside of the piece, as Hobie himself—eager to
educate, at the price of fatally undermining his own interests—was
only too quick to do. But just in case someone did want to have a
look, I made sure that the floor around the piece was very, very
dirty, and that the pocket light I happened to have on hand was
very, very weak. There were a lot of people in New York with a
lot of money and plenty of time-pressed decorators who, if you
showed them a photo of a similar-looking item in an auction
catalogue, were happy to plump for what they saw as a discount,
particularly if they were spending someone else’s money. Another
trick—calculated to lure a different, more sophisticated customer—
was to bury a piece in the back of the store, reverse the vacuum
cleaner over it (instant antiquity!) and allow the nosy customer to
ferret it out on his or her own—look, under all this dusty junk, a
Sheraton settee! With this species of cheat—whom I took great
pleasure in rooking—the trick was to play dumb, look bored, stay
engrossed in my book, act as if I didn’t know what I had, and let
them think they were rooking me: even as their hands were
trembling with excitement, even as they tried to appear unhurried
while rushing out to the bank for a massive cash withdrawal. If the
customer was someone important, or too connected to Hobie, I
could always claim the piece wasn’t for sale. A curt “not for sale”
was quite often the correct starting position with strangers as well,
as it not only made the kind of buyer I was looking for more eager
to strike a quick bargain, in cash, but also set the stage for me to
abort mid-deal if something went wrong. Hobie wandering upstairs
at a bad moment was the main thing that might go wrong. M rs.
DeFrees popping in the shop at a bad moment was another thing
that could, and had, gone wrong—I’d had to break off just at the
point of closing the sale, much to the annoyance of the moviedirector’s wife who got tired of waiting and walked out, never to
return. Short of black light or lab analysis, much of Hobie’s fudging
wasn’t visible to the naked eye; and though he had a lot of serious
collectors coming in, he also had plenty of people who would
never know, for instance, that no such thing as a Queen Anne
cheval glass was ever made. But even if someone was clever enough
to detect an inaccuracy—say a style of carving or a type of wood
anachronistic for the maker or period—I had once or twice been
bold enough to talk past even this: by claiming the piece was made
to order for a special customer and hence, strictly speaking, more
valuable than the usual article.
In my shaky and agitated state, I’d turned almost
unconsciously into the park and down the path to the Pond, where
Andy and I had sat in our parkas on many winter afternoons in
elementary school waiting for my mother to pick us up from the
zoo or take us to the movies—rendezvous point, seventeen
hundred hours! But at that point, unfortunately, I found myself
sitting there more often than not waiting for Jerome, the bike
messenger I bought my drugs from. The pills I’d stolen from
Xandra all those years before had started me on a bad road: oxys,
roxys, morphine and Dilaudid when I could get it, I’d been buying
them off the street for years; for the past months, I’d been keeping
myself (for the most part) to a one-day-on, one-day-off schedule
(although what constituted an “off” day was a dose just small
enough to keep from getting sick) but even though it was officially
an “off” day I was feeling increasingly grim and the vodkas I’d had
with Platt were wearing off and though I knew very well that I
didn’t have anything on me still I kept patting myself down, my
hands stealing again and again to my overcoat and the pockets of
my suit jacket.
At college I had achieved nothing commendable or remarkable.
M y years in Vegas had rendered me unfit for any manner of hard
work; and when at last I graduated, at twenty-one (it had taken me
six years to finish, instead of the expected four), I did so without
distinctions of any type. “Quite honestly, I’m not seeing a lot here
that’s going to make a master’s program take a chance on you,” my
counselor had said. “Particularly since you would be relying so
heavily on financial aid.”
But that was all right; I knew what I wanted to do. M y career
as a dealer had started at about seventeen when I happened
upstairs on one of the rare afternoons Hobie had decided to open
the shop. By that time, I had begun to be aware of Hobie’s
financial problems; Grisha had spoken only too truly about the
dire consequences if Hobie continued to accumulate inventory
without selling it. (“Will still be downstairs, painting, carving, the
day they come and put evacuation notice on front door.”) But
despite the envelopes from the IRS that had begun to accumulate
among the Christie’s catalogues and old concert programs on the
hall table (Notice of Unpaid Balance, Reminder Notice Balance
Due, Second Notice Balance Due) Hobie couldn’t be bothered to
keep the store open more than half an hour at a time unless friends
happened to stop in; and when it was time for his friends to go, he
often shooed out the actual customers and locked up shop. Almost
invariably I came home from school to find the “Closed” sign on
the door and people peering in at the windows. Worst of all, when
he did manage to stay open for a few hours, was his habit of
wandering trustfully away to make a cup of tea while leaving the
door open and the register untended; though M ike his moving man
had had the foresight to lock the silver and jewelry cases, a number
of majolica and crystal items had walked away and I myself had
come upstairs unexpectedly on the day in question to find a gymtoned, casually dressed mom who looked like she’d just come from
a Pilates class slipping a paperweight in her bag.
“That’s eight hundred and fifty dollars,” I said, and at my
voice she froze and looked up in horror. Actually it was only two
fifty, but she handed me her credit card without a word and let me
ring up the sale—probably the first profitable transaction that had
taken place since Welty’s death; for Hobie’s friends (his main
customers) were only too aware that they could talk Hobie down
to criminal levels on his already too-low prices. M ike, who also
helped in the shop on occasion, hiked up the prices
indiscriminately and refused to negotiate and in consequence sold
very little at all.
“Well done!” Hobie had said, blinking delightedly in the glare
of his work lamp, when I went downstairs and informed him of my
big sale (a silver teapot, in my version; I didn’t want to make it
seem like I’d outright robbed the woman, and besides I knew he
was uninterested in what he called the smalls, which I’d come to
realize through my perusal of antiques books formed a huge part of
the inventory of the store). “Sharp-eyed little customer. Welty
would have taken to you like a baby on the doorstep, ha! Taking
an interest in his silver!”
From then on, I’d made it a habit to sit upstairs with my
schoolbooks in the afternoons while Hobie busied himself
downstairs. At first it was simply for fun—fun that was sorely
missing from my dreary student life, coffees in the lounge and
lectures on Walter Benjamin. In the years since Welty’s death,
Hobart and Blackwell had evidently acquired a reputation as an
easy mark for thieves; and the thrill of pouncing on these welldressed filchers and pilferers and extorting large sums from them
was almost like shoplifting in reverse.
But I also learned a lesson: a lesson which sifted down to me
only by degrees but which was in fact the truest thing at the heart
of the business. It was the secret no one told you, the thing you
had to learn for yourself: viz. that in the antiques trade there was
really no such thing as a “correct” price. Objective value—list
value—was meaningless. If a customer came in clueless with
money in hand (as most of them did) it didn’t matter what the
books said, what the experts said, what similar items at Christie’s
had recently gone for. An object—any object—was worth
whatever you could get somebody to pay for it.
In consequence, I’d started going through the store, removing
some tags (so the customer would have to come to me for the
price) and changing others—not all, but some. The trick, as I
discovered through trial and error, was to keep at least a quarter of
the prices low and jack up the rest, sometimes by as much as four
and five hundred percent. Years of abnormally low prices had built
up a base of devoted customers; leaving a quarter of the prices low
kept them devoted, and ensured that people hunting for a bargain
could still find one, if they looked. Leaving a quarter of the prices
low also meant that, by some perverse alchemy, the marked-up
prices seemed legitimate in comparison: for whatever reason, some
people were more apt to put out fifteen hundred bucks for a
M eissen teapot if it was placed next to a plainer but comparable
piece selling (correctly, but cheaply) for a few hundred.
That was how it had started; that was how Hobart and
Blackwell, after languishing for years, had begun under my beady
auspices to turn a profit. But it wasn’t just about money. I liked
the game of it. Unlike Hobie—who assumed, incorrectly, that
anyone who walked into his store was as fascinated by furniture as
he was, who was extremely matter-of-fact in pointing out the flaws
and virtues of a piece—I had discovered I possessed the opposite
knack: of obfuscation and mystery, the ability to talk about
inferior articles in ways that made people want them. When selling
a piece, talking it up (as opposed to sitting back and permitting the
unwary to wander into my trap) it was a game to size up a
customer and figure out the image they wanted to project—not so
much the people they were (know-it-all decorator? New Jersey
housewife? self-conscious gay man?) as the people they wanted to
be. Even on the highest levels it was smoke and mirrors; everyone
was furnishing a stage set. The trick was to address yourself to the
projection, the fantasy self—the connoisseur, the discerning bon
vivant—as opposed to the insecure person actually standing in
front of you. It was better if you hung back a bit and weren’t too
direct. I soon learned how to dress (on the edge between
conservative and flash) and how to deal with sophisticated and
unsophisticated customers, with differing calibrations of courtesy
and indolence: presuming knowledge in both, quick to flatter, quick
to lose interest or step away at exactly the right moment.
And yet, with this Lucius Reeve, I had screwed up badly.
What he wanted I didn’t know. In fact he was so relentless in
sidestepping my apologies and directing his anger full-bore on
Hobie that I was starting to think that I had stumbled into some
preexisting grudge or hatred. I didn’t want to tip my hand with
Hobie by bringing up Reeve’s name, though who could bear such a
fierce grudge against Hobie, most well-intentioned and unworldly
of persons? M y Internet research had turned up nothing on Lucius
Reeve apart from a few innocuous mentions in the society pages,
not even a Harvard or Harvard Club affiliation, nothing but a
respectable Fifth Avenue address. He had no family that I could
tell, no job or visible means of support. It had been stupid of me to
write him a check—greediness on my part; I’d been thinking about
establishing a lineage for the piece, though at this point even an
envelope of cash placed under a napkin and slid across the table
was no assurance he was going to let the matter drop.
I was standing with my fists in the pockets of my overcoat,
glasses fogged from the spring damp, staring unhappily into the
muddy waters of the Pond: a few sad brown ducks, plastic bags
washing in the reeds. M ost of the benches bore the names of
benefactors—in memory of M rs. Ruth Klein or whatever—but my
mother’s bench, the Rendezvous Point, alone of all the benches in
that part of the park had been given by its anonymous donor a
more mysterious and welcoming message: EVERYTHING OF
P OSSIBILITY . It had been Her Bench since before I was born; in her
early days in the city, she had sat there with her library book on
her afternoons off, going without lunch when she needed the price
of a museum pass at M oM A or a movie ticket at the Paris Theatre.
Further along, past the Pond, where the path turned empty and
dark, was the unkempt and desolate patch of ground where Andy
and I had scattered her ashes. It was Andy who had talked me into
sneaking over and scattering them in defiance of the city rule,
scattering them moreover in that particular spot: well, I mean, it’s
where she used to meet us.
Yeah, but rat poison, look, these signs.
Go on. You can do it now. No one’s coming.
She loved the sea lions, too. We always had to walk over and
look at them.
Yeah but you definitely don’t want to dump her over there, it
smells like fish. Besides it creeps me out having that jar or
whatever in my room.
vi.
“M Y GOD ,” SAID HOBIE when he got a good look at me under the
lights. “You’re white as a sheet. You’re not coming down with
something?”
“Um—” He was just going out, coat over his arm; behind him
stood M r. and M rs. Vogel, buttoned-up and smiling poisonously.
M y relations with the Vogels (or “the Vultures,” as Grisha called
them) had cooled, significantly, since I’d taken over the shop;
mindful of the many, many pieces they’d in my view as good as
stolen from Hobie, I now tacked on a premium to anything I even
vaguely suspected they were interested in; and though M rs. Vogel
—no fool—had taken to telephoning Hobie directly, I usually
managed to thwart her by (among other means) claiming to Hobie
that I’d already sold the piece in question and forgotten to tag it.
“Have you eaten?” Hobie, in his gentle woolly-mindedness
and unwisdom, remained completely unaware that the Vogels and I
no longer held each other in anything but the very highest regard.
“We’re just running down the street for dinner. Come with us,
why don’t you.”
“No thanks,” I said, conscious of M rs. Vogel’s gaze boring
into me, cold fraudulent smile, eyes like agate chips in her smooth,
aging-milkmaid face. As a rule I took pleasure in stepping up and
smiling back in her teeth—but in the stern hall lights I felt clammy
and used-up, demoted somehow. “I think, um, I’ll eat in tonight,
thanks.”
“Not feeling well?” said M r. Vogel blandly—balding
midwesterner in rimless glasses, prim in his reefer coat, tough luck
to you if he was the banker and you were late with the mortgage.
“What a shame.”
“Lovely to see you,” M rs. Vogel said, stepping forward and
putting her plump hand on my sleeve. “Did you enjoy Pippa’s
visit? I wish I’d got to see her but she was so busy with the
boyfriend. What did you think of him—what was his name—?”
turning back to Hobie. “Elliot?”
“Everett,” said Hobie neutrally. “Nice boy.”
“Yeah,” I said, turning to shoulder my coat off. The
appearance of Pippa fresh off the plane from London with this
“Everett” had been one of the uglier shocks of my life. Counting
the days, the hours, shaky from sleeplessness and excitement,
unable to stop myself looking at my watch every five minutes,
leaping at the doorbell and literally running to throw open the door
—and there she stood, hand-in-hand with this shoddy Englishman?
“And what does he do? A musician too?”
“M usic librarian actually,” said Hobie. “Don’t know what
that entails nowadays with computers and all.”
“Oh, I’m sure Theo knows all about it,” said M rs. Vogel.
“No, not really.”
“Cybrarian?” said M r. Vogel, with an uncharacteristically
loud and merry chuckle. Addressing me: “Is it true what they say,
that young people today can make it through school without once
setting foot in a library?”
“I wouldn’t know.” A music librarian! It had taken every
ounce of possession I had to keep my face empty (guts crumbling,
end of everything) to accept his moist English hand, Hullo, Everett,
you must be Theo, heard so much about you, blah blah blah, while I
stood frozen in the doorway like a bayoneted Yank staring at the
stranger who’d run me through to death. He was a slight, wideeyed bounce of a guy, innocent, bland, infuriatingly cheerful,
dressed in jeans and hoodie like a teenager; and his quick,
apologetic smile when we were alone in the living room had sent
me blank with rage.
Every moment of their visit had been torture. Somehow I’d
stumbled through it. Though I’d tried to stay away from them as
much as I could (as skilled a dissembler as I was, I could barely be
civil to him; everything about him, his pinkish skin, his nervous
laugh, the hair sprouting out the cuffs of his shirt sleeves, made me
want to jump on him and knock his horsey English teeth out; and
wouldn’t that be a surprise, I thought grimly, glaring at him across
the table, if old antique-dealing Specs hauled off and busted his
eggs for him?) still, as hard as I’d tried, I hadn’t been able to stay
away from Pippa, I’d hovered obtrusively and hated myself for it,
so painfully excited had I been by her nearness: her bare feet at
breakfast, bare legs, her voice. Unexpected glimpse of her white
armpits when she pulled her sweater over her head. The agony of
her hand on my sleeve. “Hi, lovey. Hi, darling.” Coming up behind
me, cupping my eyes with her hands: surprise! She wanted to
know everything about me, everything I was doing. Wedging in
beside me on the Queen Anne loveseat so that our legs touched: oh
God. What was I reading? Could she look at my iPod? Where did I
get that fantastic wristwatch? Whenever she smiled at me Heaven
blew in. And yet every time I devised some pretext to get her on
her own, here he came, thump thump thump, sheepish grin, arm
around her shoulder, wrecking everything. Conversation in the next
room, a burst of laughter: were the two of them talking about me?
Putting his hands on her waist! Calling her “Pips!” The only even
vaguely tolerable or amusing moment of his visit was when
Popchik—territorial in his old age—had jumped up unprovoked
and bitten him on the thumb—“oh, God!” Hobie rushing for the
alcohol, Pippa fretting, Everett trying to be cool but visibly put
out: sure, dogs are great! I love them! we just never had them
because my mom’s allergic. He was the “poor relation” (his
phrase) of an old schoolmate of hers; American mother, numerous
siblings, father who taught some incomprehensible
mathematical/philosophical something-or-other at Cambridge; like
her, he was a vegetarian “verging on vegan;” to my dismay, it had
emerged that the two of them were sharing a flat (!)—he had of
course slept in her room during the visit; and for five nights, the
whole time he was there, I’d lain awake bilious with fury and
sorrow, ears attuned to every rustle of bedclothes, every sigh and
whisper from next door.
And yet—waving goodbye to Hobie and the Vogels, have a
great time! then turning grimly away—what could I have expected?
It had enraged me, cut me to the bone, the careful, kindly tone she
had taken with me around this “Everett”—“no,” I said politely,
when she asked me whether I was seeing someone, “not really,”
although (I was proud of it in a lucid, gloomy way) I was in fact
sleeping with two different girls, neither of whom knew about the
other. One of them had a boyfriend in another town and the other
had a fiancé whom she was tired of, whose calls she screened when
we were in bed together. Both of them were pretty and the girl
with the cuckolded fiancé was downright beautiful—a baby Carole
Lombard—but neither of them was real for me; they were only
stand-ins for her.
I was irritated at how I felt. To sit around “heartbroken” (the
first word, unfortunately, that came to mind) was foolish, it was
maudlin and contemptible and weak—oh boo hoo, she’s in
London, she’s with someone else, go pick up some wine and fuck
Carole Lombard, get over it. But the thought of her gave me such
continual anguish that I could no more forget her than an aching
tooth. It was involuntary, hopeless, compulsive. For years she had
been the first thing I remembered when I woke up, the last thing
that drifted through my mind as I went to sleep, and during the day
she came to me obtrusively, obsessively, always with a painful
shock: what time was it in London? always adding and subtracting,
totting up the time difference, compulsively checking the London
weather on my phone, 53 degrees Fahrenheit, 10:12 p.m. and light
precipitation, standing on the corner of Greenwich and Seventh
Avenue by boarded-up St. Vincent’s heading downtown to meet
my dealer, and what about Pippa, where was she? in the back of a
taxicab, out at dinner, drinking with people I didn’t know, asleep in
a bed I’d never seen? I desperately wanted to see photos of her
flat, in order to add some much-needed detail to my fantasies, but
was too embarrassed to ask. With a pang I thought of her
bedsheets, what they must be like, a dark dorm-room color as I
imagined them, tumbled, unwashed, a student’s dark nest, her
freckled cheek pale against a maroon or purple pillowcase, English
rain tapping against her window. Her photographs, lining the hall
outside my bedroom—many different Pippas, at many different
ages—were a daily torment, always unexpected, always new; but
though I tried to keep my eyes away always it seemed I was
glancing up by mistake and there she was, laughing at somebody
else’s joke or smiling at someone who wasn’t me, always a fresh
pain, a blow straight to the heart.
And the strange thing was: I knew that most people didn’t
see her as I did—if anything, found her a bit odd-looking with her
off-kilter walk and her spooky redhead pallor. For whatever dumb
reason I had always flattered myself that I was the only person in
the world who really appreciated her—that she would be shocked
and touched and maybe even come to view herself in a whole new
light if she knew just how beautiful I found her. But this had never
happened. Angrily, I concentrated on her flaws, willfully studying
the photographs that caught her at awkward ages and less flattering
angles—long nose, thin cheeks, her eyes (despite their
heartbreaking color) naked-looking with their pale lashes—HuckFinn plain. Yet all these aspects were—to me—so tender and
particular they moved me to despair. With a beautiful girl I could
have consoled myself that she was out of my league; that I was so
haunted and stirred even by her plainness suggested—ominously—
a love more binding than physical affection, some tar-pit of the
soul where I might flop around and malinger for years.
For in the deepest, most unshakable part of myself reason
was useless. She was the missing kingdom, the unbruised part of
myself I’d lost with my mother. Everything about her was a
snowstorm of fascination, from the antique valentines and
embroidered Chinese coats she collected to her tiny scented bottles
from Neal’s Yard Remedies; there had always been something
bright and magical about her unknown faraway life: Vaud Suisse,
23 rue de Tombouctou, Blenheim Crescent W11 2EE, furnished
rooms in countries I had never seen. Clearly this Everett (“poor as
a churchmouse”—his phrase) was living off her money, Uncle
Welty’s money rather, old Europe preying off young America, to
use a phrase I’d employed in my Henry James paper in my last
semester of school.
Could I write him a check to make him leave her alone? Alone
in the shop, in the slow cool afternoons, the thought had crossed
my mind: fifty thousand if you walk out tonight, a hundred if you
never see her again. M oney was a concern with him, clearly;
during his visit he’d always been digging anxiously in his pockets,
constant stops at the cash machine, taking out twenty bucks at a
time, good God.
It was hopeless. There was simply no way in hell she could
matter half as much to M r. M usic Library as she did to me. We
belonged together; there was a dream rightness and magic to it,
inarguable; the thought of her flooded every corner of my mind
with light and poured brightness into miraculous lofts I hadn’t even
known were there, vistas that seemed to exist not at all except in
relationship to her. Over and over I played her favorite Arvo Pärt,
as a way of being with her; and she had only to mention a recently
read novel for me to grab it up hungrily, to be inside her thoughts, a
sort of telepathy. Certain objects that passed through the shop—a
Pleyel piano; a strange little scratched-up Russian cameo—seemed
to be tangible artifacts of the life that she and I, by rights, ought to
be living together. I wrote thirty-page emails to her that I erased
without sending, opting instead for the mathematical formula I’d
devised to keep from making too big a fool of myself: always three
lines shorter than the email she’d sent, always one day longer than
I’d waited for her reply. Sometimes in bed—adrift in my sighing,
opiated, erotic reveries—I carried on long candid conversations
with her: we are inseparable, I imagined us saying (cornily) to each
other, each with a hand on the other’s cheek, we can never be
apart. Like a stalker, I hoarded a snippet of autumn-leaf hair I’d
retrieved from the trash after she’d trimmed her bangs in the
bathroom—and, even more creepily, an unwashed shirt, still
intoxicating with her hay-smelling, vegetarian sweat.
It was hopeless. M ore than hopeless: humiliating. Always
leaving the door of my room partially open when she came to visit,
a not-so-subtle invitation. Even the adorable drag in her step (like
the little mermaid, too fragile to walk on land) drove me crazy. She
was the golden thread running through everything, a lens that
magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in
relation to her, and her alone. Twice I’d tried to kiss her: once
drunk in a taxicab; once at the airport, desperate at the thought that
I would not be seeing her again for months (or, who knew, years)
—“I’m sorry,” I said, a beat too late—
“It’s okay.”
“No, really, I—”
“Listen—” sweet unfocused smile—“it’s fine. But they’re
boarding my flight soon” (they weren’t, in fact). “I have to go.
Take care of yourself, okay?”
Take care. What on earth did she see in this “Everett”? I
could only think how boring she must find me if she preferred such
a lukewarm gloop of a guy to me. Someday, when we have kids…
though he’d said it half jokingly, my blood had gone cold. He was
just the kind of loser you could see hauling around a diaper bag and
loads of padded baby equipment.… I berated myself for not being
more forceful with her, though in truth there was no way I could
have pursued her any harder without at least a tiny bit of
encouragement on her end. Already it was embarrassing enough:
Hobie’s tact whenever her name came up, the careful flatness in his
voice. Yet my longing for her was like a bad cold that had hung on
for years despite my conviction that I was sure to get over it at
any moment. Even a cow like M rs. Vogel could see it. It wasn’t as
if Pippa had led me on—quite the contrary; if she cared anything
about me she would have come back to New York instead of
staying in Europe after school; and still for whatever dumb reason I
couldn’t let go of the way she’d looked at me the day when I first
came to visit, sitting on the side of her bed. The memory of that
childhood afternoon had sustained me for years; it was as if—sick
with loneliness for my mother—I’d imprinted on her like some
orphaned animal; when in fact, joke on me, she’d been doped up
and knocked lamb-daffy from a head injury, ready to throw her
arms around the first stranger who’d walked in.
M y “opes” as Jerome called them were in an old tobacco tin.
On the marble top of the dresser I crushed one of my hoarded oldstyle Oxycontins, cut it and drew it into lines with my Christie’s
card and—rolling the crispest bill in my wallet—leaned to the
table, eyes damp with anticipation: ground zero, bam, bitter taste
in the back of the throat and then the gust of relief, falling
backward on the bed as the sweet old punch hit me square in the
heart: pure pleasure, aching and bright, far from the tin-can clatter
of misery.
vii.
T HE NIGHT OF MY dinner at the Barbours was rainwhipped and
stormy, with blasting winds so strong I could scarcely get my
umbrella up. On Sixth Avenue there were no cabs to be had,
pedestrians head-down and shouldering into sideways rain; in the
humid, bunker-like damp of the subway platform, drips plinked
monotonously from the concrete ceiling.
When I emerged, Lexington Avenue was deserted, raindrops
dancing and prickling on the sidewalks, a smashing rain that seemed
to amplify all the noise on the streets. Taxis lashed by in loud
sprays of water. A few doors from the station I ducked into a
market to buy flowers—lilies, three bunches since one was too
puny; in the tiny, overheated shop their fragrance hit me exactly
the wrong way and only at the cash register did I realize why: their
scent was the same sick, unwholesome sweetness of my mother’s
memorial service. As I ducked out again and ran the flooded
sidewalk to Park Avenue—socks squelching, cold rain pelting in
my face—I regretted I’d bought them at all and came close to
tossing th