Pulitzar

Pulitzer Prize Winner Fiction Series : Part 1

The Pulitzar Prize

IRONWEED

 by William Kennedy

Pulitzer 1984

 

 

I

Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death: illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.

Francis’s mother twitched nervously in her grave as the truck carried him nearer to her; and Francis’s father lit his pipe, smiled at his wife’s discomfort, and looked out from his own bit of sod to catch a glimpse of how much his son had changed since the train accident.

Francis’s father smoked roots of grass that died in the periodic droughts afflicting the cemetery. He stored the root essence in his pockets until it was brittle to the touch, then pulverized it between his fingers and packed his pipe. Francis’s mother wove crosses from the dead dandelions and other deep-rooted weeds; careful to preserve their fullest length, she wove them while they were still in the green stage of death, then ate them with an insatiable revulsion.

“Look at that tomb,” Francis said to his companion. “Ain’t that somethin’? That’s Arthur T. Grogan. I saw him around Albany when I was a kid. He owned all the electricity in town.”

“He ain’t got much of it now,” Rudy said.

“Don’t bet on it,” Francis said. “Them kind of guys hang on to a good thing.”

The advancing dust of Arthur T. Grogan, restless in its simulated Parthenon, grew luminous from Francis’s memory of a vital day long gone. The truck rolled on up the hill.

FARRELL, said one roadside gravestone. KENNEDY, said another. DAUGHERTY, McILHENNY, BRUNELLE, McDONALD, MALONE, DWYER, and WALSH, said others. PHELAN, said two small ones.

Francis saw the pair of Phelan stones and turned his eyes elsewhere, fearful that his infant son, Gerald, might be under one of them. He had not confronted Gerald directly since the day he let the child slip out of its diaper. He would not confront him now. He avoided the Phelan headstones on the presumptive grounds that they belonged to another family entirely. And he was correct. These graves held two brawny young Phelan brothers, canalers both, and both skewered by the same whiskey bottle in 1884, dumped into the Erie Canal in front of The Black Rag Saloon in Watervliet, and then pushed under and drowned with a long stick. The brothers looked at Francis’s clothes, his ragged brown twill suit jacket, black baggy pants, and filthy fireman’s blue shirt, and felt a kinship with him that owed nothing to blood ties. His shoes were as worn as the brogans they both had been wearing on the last day of their lives. The brothers read also in Francis’s face the familiar scars of alcoholic desolation, which both had developed in their graves. For both had been deeply drunk and vulnerable when the cutthroat Muggins killed them in tandem and took all their money: forty-eight cents. We died for pennies, the brothers said in their silent, dead-drunken way to Francis, who bounced past them in the back of the truck, staring at the emboldening white clouds that clotted the sky so richly at midmorning. From the heat of the sun Francis felt a flow of juices in his body, which he interpreted as a gift of strength from the sky.

“A little chilly,” he said, “but it’s gonna be a nice day.”

“If it don’t puke,” said Rudy.

“You goddamn cuckoo bird, you don’t talk about the weather that way. You got a nice day, take it. Why you wanna talk about the sky pukin’ on us?”

“My mother was a full-blooded Cherokee,” Rudy said.

“You’re a liar. Your old lady was a Mex, that’s why you got them high cheekbones. Indian I don’t buy.”

“She come off the reservation in Skokie, Illinois, went down to Chicago, and got a job sellin’ peanuts at Wrigley Field.”

“They ain’t got any Indians in Illinois. I never seen one damn Indian all the time I was out there.”

“They keep to themselves,” Rudy said.

The truck passed the last inhabited section of the cemetery and moved toward a hill where raw earth was being loosened by five men with pickaxes and shovels. The driver parked and unhitched the tailgate, and Francis and Rudy leaped down. The two then joined the other five in loading the truck with the fresh dirt. Rudy mumbled aloud as he shoveled: “I’m workin’ it out.”

“What the hell you workin’ out now?” Francis asked.

“The worms,” Rudy said. “How many worms you get in a truckload of dirt.”

“You countin’ ‘em?”

“Hundred and eight so far,” said Rudy.

“Dizzy bedbug,” said Francis.

When the truck was fully loaded Francis and Rudy climbed atop the dirt and the driver rode them to a slope where a score of graves of the freshly dead sent up the smell of sweet putrescence, the incense of unearned mortality and interrupted dreams. The driver, who seemed inured to such odors, parked as close to the new graves as possible and Rudy and Francis then carried shovelfuls of dirt to the dead while the driver dozed in the truck. Some of the dead had been buried two or three months, and yet their coffins were still burrowing deeper into the rainsoftened earth. The gravid weight of the days they had lived was now seeking its equivalent level in firstborn death, creating a rectangular hollow on the surface of each grave. Some of the coffins seemed to be on their way to middle earth. None of the graves were yet marked with headstones, but a few were decorated with an American flag on a small stick, or bunches of faded cloth flowers in clay pots. Rudy and Francis filled in one hollow, then another. Dead gladiolas, still vaguely yellow in their brown stage of death, drooped in a basket at the head of the grave of Louis (Daddy Big) Dugan, the Albany pool hustler who had died only a week or so ago from inhaling his own vomit. Daddy Big, trying futilely to memorize anew the fading memories of how he used to apply topspin and reverse English to the cue ball, recognized Franny Phelan, even though he had not seen him in twenty years.

“I wonder who’s under this one,” Francis said.

“Probably some Catholic,” Rudy said.

“Of course it’s some Catholic, you birdbrain, it’s a Catholic cemetery.”

“They let Protestants in sometimes,” Rudy said.

“They do like hell.”

“Sometimes they let Jews in too. And Indians.”

Daddy Big remembered the shape of Franny’s mouth from the first day he saw him playing ball for Albany at Chadwick Park. Daddy Big sat down front in the bleachers behind the third-base line and watched Franny on the hot corner, watched him climb into the bleachers after a foul pop fly that would have hit Daddy Big right in the chest if Franny hadn’t stood on his own ear to make the catch. Daddy Big saw Franny smile after making it, and even though his teeth were almost gone now, Franny smiled that same familiar way as he scattered fresh dirt on Daddy Big’s grave.

Your son Billy saved my life, Daddy Big told Francis. Turned me upside down and kept me from chokin’ to death on the street when I got sick. I died anyway, later. But it was nice of him, and I wish I could take back some of the lousy things I said to him. And let me personally give you a piece of advice. Never inhale your own vomit.

Francis did not need Daddy Big’s advice. He did not get sick from alcohol the way Daddy Big had. Francis knew how to drink. He drank all the time and he did not vomit. He drank anything that contained alcohol, anything, and he could always walk, and he could talk as well as any man alive about what was on his mind. Alcohol did put Francis to sleep, finally, but on his own terms. When he’d had enough and everybody else was passed out, he’d just put his head down and curl up like an old dog, then put his hands between his legs to protect what was left of the jewels, and he’d cork off. After a little sleep he’d wake up and go out for more drink. That’s how he did it when he was drinking. Now he wasn’t drinking. He hadn’t had a drink for two days and he felt a little bit of all right. Strong, even. He’d stopped drinking because he’d run out of money, and that coincided with Helen not feeling all that terrific and Francis wanting to take care of her. Also he had wanted to be sober when he went to court for registering twenty-one times to vote. He went to court but not to trial. His attorney, Marcus Gorman, a wizard, found a mistake in the date on the papers that detailed the charges against Francis, and the case was thrown out. Marcus charged people five hundred dollars usually, but he only charged Francis fifty because Martin Daugherty, the newspaper columnist, one of Francis’s old neighbors, asked him to go easy. Francis didn’t even have the fifty when it came time to pay. He’d drunk it all up. Yet Marcus demanded it.

“But I ain’t got it,” Francis said.

“Then go to work and get it,” said Marcus. “I get paid for what I do.”

“Nobody’ll put me to work,” Francis said. “I’m a bum.”

“I’ll get you some day work up at the cemetery,” Marcus said.

And he did. Marcus played bridge with the bishop and knew all the Catholic hotshots. Some hotshot ran Saint Agnes Cemetery in Menands. Francis slept in the weeds on Dongan Avenue below the bridge and woke up about seven o’clock this morning, then went up to the mission on Madison Avenue to get coffee. Helen wasn’t there. She was truly gone. He didn’t know where she was and nobody had seen her. They said she’d been hanging around the mission last night, but then went away. Francis had fought with her earlier over money and she just walked off someplace, who the hell knows where?

Francis had coffee and bread with the bums who’d dried out, and other bums passin’ through, and the preacher there watchin’ everybody and playin’ grabass with their souls. Never mind my soul, was Francis’s line. Just pass the coffee. Then he stood out front killin’ time and pickin’ his teeth with a matchbook cover. And here came Rudy.

Rudy was sober too for a change and his gray hair was combed and trimmed. His mustache was clipped and he wore white suede shoes, even though it was October, what the hell, he’s just a bum, and a white shirt, and a crease in his pants. Francis, no lace in one of his shoes, hair matted and uncut, smelling his own body stink and ashamed of it for the first time in memory, felt deprived.

“You lookin’ good there, bum,” Francis said.

“I been in the hospital.”

“What for?”

“Cancer.”

“No shit. Cancer?”

“He says to me you’re gonna die in six months. I says I’m gonna wine myself to death. He says it don’t make any difference if you wined or dined, you’re goin’. Goin’ out of this world with a cancer. The stomach, it’s like pits, you know what I mean? I said I’d like to make it to fifty. The doc says you’ll never make it. I said all right, what’s the difference?”

“Too bad, grandma. You got a jug?”

“I got a dollar.”

“Jesus, we’re in business,” Francis said.

But then he remembered his debt to Marcus Gorman.

“Listen, bum,” he said, “you wanna go to work with me and make a few bucks? We can get a couple of jugs and a flop tonight. Gonna be cold. Look at that sky.”

“Work where?”

“The cemetery. Shovelin’ dirt.”

“The cemetery. Why not? I oughta get used to it. What’re they payin’?”

“Who the hell knows?”

“I mean they payin’ money, or they give you a free grave when you croak?”

“If it ain’t money, forget it,” Francis said. “I ain’t shovelin’ out my own grave.”

They walked from downtown Albany to the cemetery in Menands, six miles or more. Francis felt healthy and he liked it. It’s too bad he didn’t feel healthy when he drank. He felt good then but not healthy, especially not in the morning, or when he woke up in the middle of the night, say. Sometimes he felt dead. His head, his throat, his stomach: he needed to get them all straight with a drink, or maybe it’d take two, because if he didn’t, his brain would overheat trying to fix things and his eyes would blow out. Jeez it’s tough when you need that drink and your throat’s like an open sore and it’s four in the morning and the wine’s gone and no place open and you got no money or nobody to bum from, even if there was a place open. That’s tough, pal. Tough.

Rudy and Francis walked up Broadway and when they got to Colonie Street Francis felt a pull to turn up and take a look at the house where he was born, where his goddamned brothers and sisters still lived. He’d done that in. 1935 when it looked possible, when his mother finally died. And what did it get him? A kick in the ass is what it got him. Let the joint fall down and bury them all before I look at it again, was his thought. Let it rot. Let the bugs eat it.

In the cemetery, Kathryn Phelan, sensing the militance in her son’s mood, grew restless at the idea that death was about to change for her. With a furtive burst of energy she wove another cross from the shallow-rooted weeds above her and quickly swallowed it, but was disappointed by the taste. Weeds appealed to Kathryn Phelan in direct ratio to the length of their roots. The longer the weed, the more revulsive the cross.

Francis and Rudy kept walking north on Broadway, Francis’s right shoe flapping, its counter rubbing wickedly against his heel. He favored the foot until he found a length of twine on the sidewalk in front of Frankie Leikheim’s plumbing shop. Frankie Leikheim. A little kid when Francis was a big kid and now he’s got his own plumbing shop and what have you got, Francis? You got a piece of twine for a shoelace. You don’t need shoelaces for walking short distances, but on the bum without them you could ruin your feet for weeks. You figured you had all the calluses anybody’d ever need for the road, but then you come across a different pair of shoes and they start you out with a brand-new set of blisters. Then they make the blisters bleed and you have to stop walking almost till they scab over so’s you can get to work on another callus.

The twine didn’t fit into the eyelets of the shoe. Francis untwined it from itself and threaded half its thickness through enough of the eyelets to make it lace. He pulled up his sock, barely a sock anymore, holes in the heel, the toe, the sole, gotta get new ones. He cushioned his raw spot as best he could with the sock, then tightened the new lace, gently, so the shoe wouldn’t flop. And he walked on toward the cemetery.

“There’s seven deadly sins,” Rudy said.

“Deadly? What do you mean deadly?” Francis said.

“I mean daily,” Rudy said. “Every day.”

“There’s only one sin as far as I’m concerned,” Francis said.

“There’s prejudice.”

“Oh yeah. Prejudice. Yes.”

“There’s envy.”

“Envy. Yeah, yup. That’s one.”

“There’s lust.”

“Lust, right. Always liked that one.”

“Cowardice.”

“Who’s a coward?”

“Cowardice.”

“I don’t know what you mean. That word I don’t know.”

“Cowardice,” Rudy said.

“I don’t like the coward word. What’re you sayin’ about coward?”

“A coward. He’ll cower up. You know what a coward is? He’ll run.”

“No, that word I don’t know. Francis is no coward. He’ll fight anybody. Listen, you know what I like?”

“What do you like?”

“Honesty,” Francis said.

“That’s another one,” Rudy said.

At Shaker Road they walked up to North Pearl Street and headed north on Pearl. Where they live now. They’d painted Sacred Heart Church since he last saw it, and across the street School 20 had new tennis courts. Whole lot of houses here he never saw, new since ‘16. This is the block they live in. What Billy said. When Francis last walked this street it wasn’t much more than a cow pasture. Old man Rooney’s cows would break the fence and roam loose, dirtyin’ the streets and sidewalks. You got to put a stop to this, Judge Ronan told Rooney. What is it you want me to do, Rooney asked the judge, put diapers on ‘em?

They walked on to the end of North Pearl Street, where it entered Menands, and turned down to where it linked with Broadway. They walked past the place where the old Bull’s Head Tavern used to be. Francis was a kid when he saw Gus Ruhlan come out of the corner in bare knuckles. The bum he was fighting stuck out a hand to shake, Gus give him a shot and that was all she wrote. Katie bar the door. Too wet to plow. Honesty. They walked past Hawkins Stadium, hell of a big place now, about where Chadwick Park was when Francis played ball. He remembered when it was a pasture. Hit a ball right and it’d roll forever, right into the weeds. Bow-Wow Buckley’d be after it and he’d find it right away, a wizard. Bow-Wow kept half a dozen spare balls in the weeds for emergencies like that. Then he’d throw the runner out at third on a sure home run and he’d brag about his fielding. Honesty. BowWow is dead. Worked on an ice wagon and punched his own horse and it stomped him, was that it? Nah. That’s nuts. Who’d punch a horse?

“Hey,” Rudy said, “wasn’t you with a woman the other night I saw you?”

“What woman?”

“I don’t know. Helen. Yeah, you called her Helen.”

“Helen. You can’t keep track of where she is.”

“What’d she do, run off with a banker?”

“She didn’t run off.”

“Then where is she?”

“Who knows? She comes, she goes. I don’t keep tabs.”

“You got a million of ‘em.”

“More where she came from.”

“They’re all crazy to meet you.”

“My socks is what gets ‘em.”

Francis lifted his trousers to reveal his socks, one green, one blue.

“A reg’lar man about town,” Rudy said.

Francis dropped his pantlegs and walked on, and Rudy said, “Hey, what the hell was all that about the man from Mars last night? Everybody was talkin’ about it at the hospital. You hear about that stuff on the radio?”

“Oh yeah. They landed.”

“Who?”

“The Martians.”

“Where’d they land?”

“Someplace in Jersey.”

“What happened?”

“They didn’t like it no more’n I did.”

“No joke,” Rudy said. “I heard people saw them Martians comin’ and ran outa town, jumped outa windows, everything like that.”

“Good,” Francis said. “What they oughta do. Anybody sees a Martian oughta jump out two windows.”

“You don’t take things serious,” Rudy said. “You have a whatayacallit, a frivolous way about you.”

“A frivolous way? A frivolous way?”

“That’s what I said. A frivolous way.”

“What the hell’s that mean? You been readin’ again, you crazy kraut? I told you cuckoos like you shouldn’t go around readin’, callin’ people frivolous.”

“That ain’t no insult. Frivolous is a good word. A nice word.”

“Never mind words, there’s the cemetery.” And Francis pointed to the entrance-road gates. “I just thought of somethin’.”

“What?”

“That cemetery’s full of gravestones.”

“Right.”

“I never knew a bum yet had a gravestone.”

They walked up the long entrance road from Broadway to the cemetery proper. Francis sweet-talked the woman at the gatehouse and mentioned Marcus Gorman and introduced Rudy as a good worker like himself, ready to work. She said the truck’d be along and to just wait easy. Then he and Rudy rode up in the back of the truck and got busy with the dirt.

They rested when they’d filled in all the hollows of the graves, and by then the truck driver was nowhere to be found. So they sat there and looked down the hill toward Broadway and over toward the hills of Rensselaer and Troy on the other side of the Hudson, the coke plant spewing palpable smoke from its great chimney at the far end of the Menands bridge. Francis decided this would be a fine place to be buried. The hill had a nice flow to it that carried you down the grass and out onto the river, and then across the water and up through the trees on the far shore to the top of the hills, all in one swoop. Being dead here would situate a man in place and time. It would give a man neighbors, even some of them really old folks, like those antique dead ones at the foot of the lawn: Tobias Banion, Elisha Skinner, Elsie Whipple, all crumbling under their limestone headstones from which the snows, sands, and acids of reduction were slowly removing their names. But what did the perpetuation of names matter? Ah well, there were those for whom death, like life, would always be a burden of eminence. The progeny of those growing nameless at the foot of the hill were ensured a more durable memory. Their new, and heavier, marble stones higher up on the slope had been cut doubly deep so their names would remain visible for an eternity, at least.

And then there was Arthur T. Grogan.

The Grogan Parthenon reminded Francis of something, but he could not say what. He stared at it and wondered, apart from its size, what it signified. He knew nothing of the Acropolis, and little more about Grogan except that he was a rich and powerful Albany Irishman whose name everybody used to know. Francis could not suppose that such massive marbling of old bones was a sweet conflation of ancient culture, modern coin, and self-apotheosizing. To him, the Grogan sepulcher was large enough to hold the bodies of dozens. And as this thought grazed his memory he envisioned the grave of Strawberry Bill Benson in Brooklyn. And that was it. Yes. Strawberry Bill had played left field for Toronto in ought eight when Francis played third, and when Francis hit the road in ‘16 after Gerald died, they bumped into each other at a crossroads near Newburgh and caught a freight south together.

Bill coughed and died a week after they reached the city, cursing his too-short life and swearing Francis to the task of following his body to the cemetery. “I don’t want to go out there all by myself,” Strawberry Bill said. He had no money, and so his coffin was a box of slapsided boards and a few dozen tenpenny nails, which Francis rode with to the burial plot. When the city driver and his helper left Bill’s pile of wood sitting on top of some large planks and drove off, Francis stood by the box, letting Bill get used to the neighborhood. “Not a bad place, old buddy. Couple of trees over there.” The sun then bloomed behind Francis, sending sunshine into an opening between two of the planks and lighting up a cavity below. The vision stunned Francis: a great empty chasm with a dozen other coffins of crude design, similar to Bill’s, piled atop one another, some on their sides, one on its end. Enough earth had been dug away to accommodate thirty or forty more such crates of the dead. In a few weeks they’d all be stacked like cordwood, packaged cookies for the great maw. “You ain’t got no worries now, Bill,” Francis told his pal. “Plenty of company down there. You’ll be lucky you get any sleep at all with them goin’s on.”

Francis did not want to be buried like Strawberry Bill, in a tenement grave. But he didn’t want to rattle around in a marble temple the size of the public bath either.

“I wouldn’t mind bein’ buried right here,” Francis told Rudy.

“You from around here?”

“Used to be. Born here.”

“Your family here?”

“Some.”

“Who’s that?”

“You keep askin’ questions about me, I’m gonna give you a handful of answers.”

Francis recognized the hill where his family was buried, for it was just over from the sword-bearing guardian angel who stood on tiptoe atop three marble steps, guarding the grave of Toby, the dwarf who died heroically in the Delavan Hotel fire of ‘94. Old Ed Daugherty, the writer, bought that monument for Toby when it came out in the paper that Toby’s grave had no marker. Toby’s angel pointed down the hill toward Michael Phelan’s grave and Francis found it with his gaze. His mother would be alongside the old man, probably with her back to him. Fishwife.

The sun that bloomed for Strawberry Bill had bloomed also on the day Michael Phelan was buried. Francis wept out of control that day, for he had been there when the train knocked Michael fifty feet in a fatal arc; and the memory tortured him. Francis was bringing him his hot lunch in the lunch pail, and when Michael saw Francis coming, he moved toward him. He safely passed the switch engine that was moving slowly on the far track, and then he turned his back, looked the way he’d just come, and walked backward, right into the path of the northbound train whose approach noise was being blocked out by the switch engine’s clatter. He flew and then fell in a broken pile, and Francis ran to him, the first at his side. Francis looked for a way to straighten the angular body but feared any move, and so he pulled off his own sweater and pillowed his father’s head with it. So many people go crooked when they die.

A few of the track gang followed Michael home in the back of Johnny Cody’s wagon. He lingered two weeks and then won great obituaries as the most popular track foreman, boss gandy dancer, on the New York Central line. The railroad gave all track workers on the Albany division the morning off to go to the funeral, and hundreds came to say so long to old Mike when he rode up here to live. Queen Mama ruled the house alone then, until she joined him in the grave. What I should do, Francis thought, is shovel open the grave, crawl down in there, and strangle her bones. He remembered the tears he cried when he stood alongside the open grave of his father and he realized then that one of these days there would be nobody alive to remember that he cried that morning, just as there is no proof now that anyone over cried for Tobias or Elisha or Elsie at the foot of the hill. No trace of grief is left, abstractions taken first by the snows of reduction.

“It’s okay with me if I don’t have no headstone,” Francis said to Rudy, “just so’s I don’t die alone.”

“You die before me I’ll send out invites,” Rudy said.

Kathryn Phelan, suddenly aware her worthless son was accepting his own death, provided it arrived on a gregarious note, humphed and fumed her disapproval to her husband. But Michael Phelan was already following the line of his son’s walk toward the plot beneath the box elder tree where Gerald was buried. It always amazed Michael that the living could move instinctually toward dead kin without foreknowledge of their location. Francis had never seen Gerald’s grave, had not attended Gerald’s funeral. His absence that day was the scandal of the resident population of Saint Agnes’s. But here he was now, walking purposefully, and with a slight limp Michael had not seen before, closing the gap between father and son, between sudden death and enduring guilt. Michael signaled to his neighbors that an act of regeneration seemed to be in process, and the eyes of the dead, witnesses all to their own historical omissions, their own unbridgeable chasms in life gone, silently rooted for Francis as he walked up the slope toward the box elder. Rudy followed his pal at a respectful distance, aware that some event of moment was taking place. Hangdog, he observed.

In his grave, a cruciformed circle, Gerald watched the advent of his father and considered what action might be appropriate to their meeting. Should he absolve the man of all guilt, not for the dropping, for that was accidental, but for the abandonment of the family, for craven flight when the steadfast virtues were called for? Gerald’s grave trembled with superb possibility. Denied speech in life, having died with only monosyllabic goos and gaahs in his vocabulary, Gerald possessed the gift of tongues in death. His ability to communicate and to understand was at the genius level among the dead. He could speak with any resident adult in any language, but more notable was his ability to understand the chattery squirrels and chipmunks, the silent signals of the ants and beetles, and the slithy semaphores of the slugs and worms that moved above and through his earth. He could read the waning flow of energy in the leaves and berries as they fell from the box elder above him. And because his fate had been innocence and denial, Gerald had grown a protective web which deflected all moisture, all moles, rabbits, and other burrowing creatures. His web was woven of strands of vivid silver, an enveloping hammock of intricate, neartransparent weave. His body had not only been absolved of the need to decay, but in some respects—a full head of hair, for instance—it had grown to a completeness that was both natural and miraculous. Gerald rested in his infantile sublimity, exuding a high gloss induced by early death, his skin a radiant white-gold, his nails a silvery gray, his cluster of curls and large eyes perfectly matched in gleaming ebony. Swaddled in his grave, he was beyond capture by visual or verbal artistry. He was neither beautiful nor perfect to the beholder but rather an ineffably fabulous presence whose like was not to be found anywhere in the cemetery, and it abounded with dead innocents.

Francis found the grave without a search. He stood over it and reconstructed the moment when the child was slipping through his fingers into death. He prayed for a repeal of time so that he might hang himself in the coal bin before picking up the child to change his diaper. Denied that, he prayed for his son’s eternal peace in the grave. It was true the boy had not suffered at all in his short life, and he had died too quickly of a cracked neckbone to have felt pain: a sudden twist and it was over. Gerald Michael Phelan, his gravestone said, born April 13, 1916, died April 26, 1916. Born on the 13th, lived 13 days. An unlucky child who was much loved.

Tears oozed from Francis’s eyes, and when one of them fell onto his shoetop, he pitched forward onto the grave, clutching the grass, remembering the diaper in his grip. It had smelled of Gerald’s pungent water, and when he squeezed it with his horrified right hand, a drop of the sacred fluid fell onto his shoetop. Twenty-two years gone, and Francis could now, in panoramic memory, see, hear, and feel every detail of that day, from the time he left the carbarns after work, to his talk about baseball with Bunt Dunn in King Brady’s saloon, and even to the walk home with Cap Lawlor, who said Brady’s beer was getting a heavy taste to it and Brady ought to clean his pipes, and that the Taylor kid next door to the Lawlors was passing green pinworms. His memory had begun returning forgotten images when it equated Arthur T. Grogan and Strawberry Bill, but now memory was as vivid as eyesight.

“I remember everything,” Francis told Gerald in the grave. “It’s the first time I tried to think of those things since you died. I had four beers after work that day. It wasn’t because I was drunk that I dropped you. Four beers, and I didn’t finish the fourth. Left it next to the pigs’-feet jar on Brady’s bar so’s I could walk home with Cap Lawlor. Billy was nine then. He knew you were gone before Peggy knew. She hadn’t come home from choir practice yet. Your mother said two words, ‘Sweet Jesus,’ and then we both crouched down to snatch you up. But we both stopped in that crouch because of the looks of you. Billy come in then and saw you. ‘Why is Gerald crooked?’ he says. You know, I saw Billy a week or so ago and the kid looks good. He wanted to buy me new clothes. Bailed me outa jail and even give me a wad of cash. We talked about you. He says your mother never blamed me for dropping you. Never told a soul in twenty-two years it was me let you fall. Is that some woman or isn’t it? I remember the linoleum you fell on was yellow with red squares. You suppose now that I can remember this stuff out in the open, I can finally start to forget it?”

Gerald, through an act of silent will, imposed on his father the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation for abandoning the family. You will not know, the child silently said, what these acts are until you have performed them all. And after you have performed them you will not understand that they were expiatory any more than you have understood all the other expiation that has kept you in such prolonged humiliation. Then, when these final acts are complete, you will stop trying to die because of me.

Francis stopped crying and tried to suck a small piece of bread out from between the last two molars in his all but toothless mouth. He made a slurping sound with his tongue, and when he did, a squirrel scratching the earth for food to store up for the winter spiraled up the box elder in sudden fright. Francis took this as a signal to conclude his visit and he turned his gaze toward the sky. A vast stand of white fleece, brutally bright, moved south to north in the eastern vault of the heavens, a rush of splendid wool to warm the day. The breeze had grown temperate and the sun was rising to the noonday pitch. Francis was no longer chilly.

“Hey bum,” he called to Rudy. “Let’s find that truck driver.”

“Whatayou been up to?” Rudy asked. “You know somebody buried up there?”

“A little kid I used to know.”

“A kid? What’d he do, die young?”

“Pretty young.”

“What happened to him?”

“He fell.”

“He fell where?”

“He fell on the floor.”

“Hell, I fall on the floor about twice a day and I ain’t dead.”

“That’s what you think,” Francis said.

 

II

 

They rode the Albany-Troy-via-Watervliet bus downtown from the cemetery. Francis told Rudy: “Spend a dime, ya bum,” and they stepped up into the flat-faced, red-and-cream window box on wheels, streamline in design but without the spark of electric life, without the rockinghorse comfort, or the flair, or the verve, of the vanishing trolley. Francis remembered trolleys as intimately as he remembered the shape of his father’s face, for he had seen them at loving closeness through all his early years. Trolleys dominated his life the way trains had dominated his father’s. He had worked on them at the North Albany carbarns for years, could take them apart in the dark. He’d even killed a man over them in 1901 during the trolley strike. Terrific machines, but now they’re goin’.

“Where we headed?” Rudy asked.

“What do you care where we’re headed? You got an appointment? You got tickets for the opera?”

“No, I just like to know where I’m goin’.”

“You ain’t knowed where you was goin’ for twenty years.”

“You got somethin’ there,” Rudy said.

“We’re goin’ to the mission, see what’s happenin’, see if anybody knows where Helen is.”

“What’s Helen’s name?”

“Helen.”

“I mean her other name.”

“Whatayou want to know for?”

“I like to know people’s names.”

“She ain’t got only one name.”

“Okay, you don’t want to tell me, it’s all right.”

“You goddamn right it’s all right.”

“We gonna eat at the mission? I’m hungry.”

“We could eat, why not? We’re sober, so he’ll let us in, the bastard. I ate there the other night, had a bowl of soup because I was starvin’. But god it was sour. Them driedout bums that live there, they sit down and eat like fuckin’ pigs, and everything that’s left they throw in the pot and give it to you. Slop.”

“He puts out a good meal, though.”

“He does in a pig’s ass.”

“Wonderful.”

“Pig’s ass. And he won’t feed you till you listen to him preach. I watch the old bums sittin’ there and I wonder about them. What are you all doin’, sittin’ through his bullshit? But they’s all tired and old, they’s all drunks. They don’t believe in nothin’. They’s just hungry.”

“I believe in somethin’,” Rudy said. “I’m a Catholic.”

“Well so am I. What the hell has that got to do with it?”

The bus rolled south on Broadway following the old trolley tracks, down through Menands and into North Albany, past Simmons Machine, the Albany Felt Mill, the Bond Bakery, the Eastern Tablet Company, the Albany Paper Works. And then the bus stopped at North Third Street to pick up a passenger and Francis looked out the window at the old neighborhood he could not avoid seeing. He saw where North Street began and then sloped down toward the canal bed, the lumber district, the flats, the river. Brady’s saloon was still on the corner. Was Brady alive? Pretty good pitcher. Played ball for Boston in 1912, same year Francis was with Washington. And when the King quit the game he opened the saloon. Two bigleaguers from Albany and they both wind up on the same street. Nick’s delicatessen, new to Francis, was next to Brady’s, and in front of it children in false faces—a clown, a spook, a monster—were playing hopscotch. One child hopped in and out of chalked squares, and Francis remembered it was Halloween, when spooks made house calls and the dead walked abroad.

“I used to live down at the foot of that street,” Francis told Rudy, and then wondered why he’d bothered. He had no desire to tell Rudy anything intimate about his life. Yet working next to the simpleton all day, throwing dirt on dead people in erratic rhythm with him, had generated a bond that Francis found strange. Rudy, a friend for about two weeks, now seemed to Francis a fellow traveler on a journey to a nameless destination in another country. He was simple, hopeless and lost, as lost as Francis himself, though somewhat younger, dying of cancer, afloat in ignorance, weighted with stupidity, inane, sheeplike, and given to fits of weeping over his lostness; and yet there was something in him that buoyed Francis’s spirit. They were both questing for the behavior that was proper to their station and their unutterable dreams. They both knew intimately the etiquette, the taboos, the protocol of bums. By their talk to each other they understood that they shared a belief in the brotherhood of the desolate; yet in the scars of their eyes they confirmed that no such fraternity had ever existed, that the only brotherhood they belonged to was the one that asked that enduring question: How do I get through the next twenty minutes? They feared drys, cops, jailers, bosses, moralists, crazies, truth-tellers, and one another. They loved storytellers, liars, whores, fighters, singers, collie dogs that wagged their tails, and generous bandits. Rudy, thought Francis: he’s just a bum, but who ain’t?

“You live there a long time?” Rudy asked.

“Eighteen years,” Francis said. “The old lock was just down from my house.”

“What kind of lock?”

“On the Erie Canal, you goddamn dimwit. I could throw a stone from my stoop twenty feet over the other side of the canal.”

“I never saw the canal, but I seen the river.”

“The river was a little ways further over. Still is. The lumber district’s gone and all that’s left is the flats where they filled the canal in. Jungle town been built up on ‘em right down there. I stayed there one night last week with an old bo, a pal of mine. Tracks run right past it, same tracks I went west on out to Dayton to play ball. I hit .387 that year.”

“What year was that?”

“‘Oh-one.”

“I was five years old,” Rudy said.

“How old are you now, about eight?”

They passed the old carbarns at Erie Street, all full of buses. Buildings a different color, and more of ‘em, but it looks a lot like it looked in ‘16. The trolley full of scabs and soldiers left this barn that day in ‘01 and rocketed arrogantly down Broadway, the street supine and yielding all the way to downtown. But then at Columbia and Broadway the street changed its pose: it became volatile with the rage of strikers and their women, who trapped the car at that corner between two blazing bedsheets which Francis helped to light on the overhead electric wire. Soldiers on horses guarded the trolley; troops with rifles rode on it. But every scabby-souled one of them was trapped between pillars of fire when Francis pulled back, wound up his educated right arm, and let fly that smooth round stone the weight of a baseball, and brained the scab working as the trolley conductor. The troops saw more stones coming and fired back at the mob, hitting two men who fell in fatal slumps; but not Francis, who ran down to the railroad tracks and then north along them till his lungs blew out. He pitched forward into a ditch and waited about nine years to see if they were on his tail, and they weren’t, but his brother Chick and his buddies Patsy McCall and Martin Daugherty were; and when the three of them reached his ditch they all ran north, up past the lumberyards in the district, and found refuge with Iron Joe Farrell, Francis’s father-in-law, who bossed the filtration plant that made Hudson River water drinkable for Albany folk. And after a while, when he knew for sure he couldn’t stay around Albany because the scab was surely dead, Francis hopped a train going north, for he couldn’t get a westbound without going back down into that wild city. But it was all right. He went north and then he walked awhile and found his way to some westbound tracks, and went west on them, all the way west to Dayton, O-hi-o.

That scab was the first man Francis Phelan ever killed. His name was Harold Allen and he was a single man from Worcester, Massachusetts, a member of the IOOF, of Scotch-Irish stock, twenty-nine years old, two years of college, veteran of the Spanish-American War who had seen no combat, an itinerant house painter who found work in Albany as a strikebreaker and who was now sitting across the aisle of the bus from Francis, dressed in a long black coat and a motorman’s cap.

Why did you kill me? was the question Harold Allen’s eyes put to Francis.

“Didn’t mean to kill you,” Francis said.

Was that why you threw that stone the size of a potato and broke open my skull? My brains flowed out and I died.

“You deserved what you got. Scabs get what they ask for. I was right in what I did.”

Then you feel no remorse at all.

“You bastards takin’ our jobs, what kind of man is that, keeps a man from feedin’ his family?”

Odd logic coming from a man who abandoned his own family not only that summer but every spring and summer thereafter, when baseball season started. And didn’t you finally abandon them permanently in 1916? The way I understand it, you haven’t even been home for a visit in twenty-two years.

“There are reasons. That stone. The soldiers would’ve shot me. And I had to play ball—it’s what I did. Then I dropped my baby son and he died and I couldn’t face that.”

A coward, he’ll run.

“Francis is no coward. He had his reasons and they were goddamn good ones.”

You have no serious arguments to justify what you did.

“I got arguments,” Francis yelled, “I got arguments.”

“Whatayou got arguments about?” Rudy asked.

“Down there,” Francis said, pointing toward the tracks beyond the carbarns, “I was in this boxcar and didn’t know where I was goin’ except north, but it seemed I was safe. It wasn’t movin’ very fast or else I couldn’t of got into it. I’m lookin’ out, and up there ahead I see this young fella runnin’ like hell, runnin’ like I’d just run, and I see two guys chasm’ him, and one of them two doin’ the chasm’ looks like a cop and he’s shootin’. Stoppin’ and shootin’. But this fella keeps runnin’, and we’re gettin’ to him when I see another one right behind him. They’re both headin’ for the train, and I peek around the door, careful so’s I don’t got me shot, and I see the first one grab hold of a ladder on one of the cars, and he’s up, he’s up, and they’re still shootin,’ and then damn if we don’t cross that road just about the time the second fella gets to the car I’m ridin’ in, and he yells up to me: Help me, help me, and they’re shootin’ like sonsabitches at him and sure as hell I help him, they’re gonna shoot at me too.”

“What’d you do?” Rudy asked.

“I slid on my belly over to the edge of the car, givin’ them shooters a thin target, and I give that fella a hand, and he’s grabbin’ at it, almost grabbin’ it, and I’m almost gettin’ a full purchase on him, and then whango bango, they shoot him right in the back and that’s all she wrote. Katie bar the door. Too wet to plow. He’s all done, that fella, and I roll around back in the car and don’t find out till we get to Whitehall, when the other fella drops into my boxcar, that they both was prisoners and they was on their way to the county jail in Albany. But then there was this big trolley strike with shootin’ and stuff because some guy threw a stone and killed a scab. And that got this mob of people in the street all mixed up and crazy and they was runnin’ every which way and the deputies guardin’ these two boys got a little careless and so off went the boys. They run and hid awhile and then lit out and run some more, about three miles or so, same as me, and them deputies picked up on ‘em and kept right after them all the way. They never did get that first fella. He went to Dayton with me, ‘preciated what I tried to do for his buddy and even stole two chickens when we laid over in some switchyards somewheres and got us a fine meal. We cooked it up right in the boxcar. He was a murderer, that fella. Strangled some lady in Selkirk and couldn’t say why he done it. The one that got shot in the back, he was a horse thief.”

“I guess you been mixed up in a lot of violence,” Rudy said.

“If it draws blood or breaks heads,” said Francis, “I know how it tastes.”

The horse thief was named Aldo Campione, an immigrant from the town of Teramo in the Abruzzi. He’d come to America to seek his fortune and found work building the Barge Canal. But as a country soul he was distracted by an equine opportunity in the town of Coeymans, was promptly caught, jailed, transported to Albany for trial, and shot in the back escaping. His lesson to Francis was this: that life is full of caprice and missed connections, that thievery is wrong, especially if you get caught, that even Italians cannot outrun bullets, that a proffered hand in a moment of need is a beautiful thing. All this Francis knew well enough, and so the truest lesson of Aldo Campione resided not in intellected fact but in spectacle; for Francis can still remember Aldo’s face as it came toward him. It looked like his own, which is perhaps why Francis put himself in jeopardy: to save his own face with his own hand. On came Aldo toward the open boxcar door. Out went the hand of Francis Phelan. It touched the curved fingers of Aldo’s right hand. Francis’s fingers curved and pulled. And there was tension. Tension! On came Aldo yielding to that tension, on and on and lift! Leap! Pull, Francis, pull! And then up, yes up! The grip was solid. The man was in the air, flying toward safety on the great right hand of Francis Phelan. And then whango bango and he let go. Whango bango and he’s down, and he’s rolling, and he’s dead. Katie bar the door.

When the bus stopped at the corner of Broadway and Columbia Street, the corner where that infamous trolley was caught between flaming bedsheets, Aldo Campione boarded. He was clad in a white flannel suit, white shirt, and white necktie, and his hair was slicked down with brilliantine. Francis knew instantly that this was not the white of innocence but of humility. The man had been of low birth, low estate, and committed a low crime that had earned him the lowliest of deaths in the dust. Over there on the other side they must’ve give him a new suit. And here he came down the aisle and stopped at the seats where Rudy and Francis sat. He reached out his hand in a gesture to Francis that was ambiguous. It might have been a simple Abruzzian greeting. Or was it a threat, or a warning? It might have been an offer of belated gratitude, or even a show of compassion for a man like Francis who had lived long (for him), suffered much, and was inching toward death. It might have been a gesture of grace, urging, or even welcoming Francis into the next. And at this thought, Francis, who had raised his hand to meet Aldo’s, withdrew it.

“I ain’t shakin’ hands with no dead horse thief,” he said.

“I ain’t no horse thief,” Rudy said.

“Well you look like one,” Francis said.

By then the bus was at Madison Avenue and Broadway, and Rudy and Francis stepped out into the frosty darkness of six o’clock on, the final night of October 1938, the unruly night when grace is always in short supply, and the old and the new dead walk abroad in this land.

 

o          o          o

 

In the dust and sand of a grassless vacant lot beside the Mission of Holy Redemption, a human form lay prostrate under a lighted mission window. The sprawl of the figure arrested Francis’s movement when he and Rudy saw it. Bodies in alleys, bodies in gutters, bodies anywhere, were part of his eternal landscape: a physical litany of the dead. This one belonged to a woman who seemed to be doing the dead man’s float in the dust: face down, arms forward, legs spread.

“Hey,” Rudy said as they stopped. “That’s Sandra.”

“Sandra who?” said Francis.

“Sandra There-ain’t-no-more. She’s only got one name, like Helen. She’s an Eskimo.”

“You dizzy bastard. Everybody’s an Eskimo or a Cherokee.”

“No, that’s the straight poop. She used to work up in Alaska when they were buildin’ roads.”

“She dead?”

Rudy bent down, picked up Sandra’s hand and held it. Sandra pulled it away from him.

“No,” Rudy said, “she ain’t dead.”

“Then you better get up outa there, Sandra,” Francis said, “or the dogs’ll eat your ass off.”

Sandra didn’t move. Her hair streamed out of her inertness, long, yellow-white wisps floating in the dust, her faded and filthy cotton housedress twisted above the back of her knees, revealing stockings so full of holes and runs that they had lost their integrity as stockings. Over her dress she wore two sweaters, both stained and tattered. She lacked a left shoe. Rudy bent over and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Hey Sandra, it’s me, Rudy. You know me?”

“Hnnn,” said Sandra.

“You all right? You sick or anything, or just drunk?”

“Dnnn,” said Sandra.

“She’s just drunk,” Rudy said, standing up. “She can’t hold it no more. She falls over.”

“She’ll freeze there and the dogs’ll come along and eat her ass off,” Francis said.

“What dogs?” Rudy asked.

“The dogs, the dogs. Ain’t you seen them?”

“I don’t see too many dogs. I like cats. I see a lotta cats.”

“If she’s drunk she can’t go inside the mission,” Francis said.

“That’s right,” said Rudy. “She comes in drunk, he kicks her right out. He hates drunk women more’n he hates us.”

“Why the hell’s he preachin’ if he don’t preach to people that need it?”

“Drunks don’t need it,” Rudy said. “How’d you like to preach to a room full of bums like her?”

“She a bum or just on a heavy drunk?”

“She’s a bum.”

“She looks like a bum.”

“She’s been a bum all her life.”

“No,” said Francis. “Nobody’s a bum all their life. She hada been somethin’ once.”

“She was a whore before she was a bum.”

“And what about before she was a whore?”

“I don’t know,” Rudy said. “She just talks about whorin’ in Alaska. Before that I guess she was just a little kid.”

“Then that’s somethin’. A little kid’s somethin’ that ain’t a bum or a whore.”

Francis saw Sandra’s missing shoe in the shadows and retrieved it. He set it beside her left foot, then squatted and spoke into her left ear.

“You gonna freeze here tonight, you know that? Gonna be frost, freezin’ weather. Could even snow. You hear? You oughta get yourself inside someplace outa the cold. Look, I slept the last two nights in the weeds and it was awful cold, but tonight’s colder already than it was either of them nights. My hands is half froze and I only been walkin’ two blocks. Sandra? You hear what I’m sayin’? If I got you a cup of hot soup would you drink it? Could you? You don’t look like you could but maybe you could. Get a little hot soup in, you don’t freeze so fast. Or maybe you wanna freeze tonight, maybe that’s why you’re layin’ in the goddamn dust. You don’t even have any weeds to keep the wind outa your ears. I like them deep weeds when I sleep outside. You want some soup?”

Sandra turned her head and with one eye looked up at Francis.

“Who you?”

“I’m just a bum,” Francis said. “But I’m sober and I can get you some soup.”

“Get me a drink?”

“No, I ain’t got money for that.”

“Then soup.”

“You wanna stand up?”

“No. I’ll wait here.”

“You’re gettin’ all dusty.”

“That’s good.”

“Whatever you say,” Francis said, standing up. “But watch out for them dogs.”

She whimpered as Rudy and Francis left the lot. The night sky was black as a bat and the wind was bringing ice to the world. Francis admitted the futility of preaching to Sandra. Who could preach to Francis in the weeds? But that don’t make it right that she can’t go inside to get warm. Just because you’re drunk don’t mean you ain’t cold.

“Just because you’re drunk don’t mean you ain’t cold,” he said to Rudy.

“Right,” said Rudy. “Who said that?”

“I said that, you ape.”

“I ain’t no ape.”

“Well you look like one.”

From the mission came sounds made by an amateur organist of fervent aggression, and of several voices raised in praise of good old Jesus. Where’d we all be without him? The voices belonged to the Reverend Chester, and to half a dozen men in shirt sleeves who sat in the front rows of the chapel area’s folding chairs. Reverend Chester, a gargantuan man with a clubfoot, wild white hair, and a face flushed permanently years ago by a whiskey condition all his own, stood behind the lectern looking out at maybe forty men and one woman.

Helen.

Francis saw her as he entered, saw her gray beret pulled off to the left, recognized her old black coat. She held no hymnal as the others did, but sat with arms folded in defiant resistance to the possibility of redemption by any Methodist like Chester; for Helen was a Catholic. And any redemption that came her way had better be through her church, the true church, the only church.

“Jesus,” the preacher and his shirt-sleeved loyalists sang, “the name that charms our fears, That bids our sorrows cease, ‘Tis music in the sinners’ ears, ‘Tis life and health and peace…”

The remaining seven eighths of Reverend Chester’s congregation, men hiding inside their overcoats, hats in their laps if they had hats, their faces grimed and whiskered and woebegone, remained mute, or gave the lyrics a perfunctory mumble, or nodded already in sleep. The song continued: “… He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free; His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.”

Well not me, Francis said to his unavailed-for self, and he smelled his own uncanceled stink again, aware that it had intensified since morning. The sweat of a workday, the sourness of dried earth on his hands and clothes, the putrid perfume of the cemetery air with its pretension to windblown purity, all this lay in foul encrustation atop the private pestilence of his being. When he threw himself onto Gerald’s grave, the uprush of a polluted life all but asphyxiated him.

“Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, Your loosened tongues employ; Ye blind, behold your Savior come; and leap, ye lame, for joy.”

The lame and the halt put their hymnals down joylessly, and Reverend Chester leaned over his lectern to look at tonight’s collection. Among them, as always, were good men and straight, men honestly without work, victims of a society ravaged by avarice, sloth, stupidity, and a God made wrathful by Babylonian excesses. Such men were merely the transients in the mission, and to them a preacher could only wish luck, send prayer, and provide a meal for the long road ahead. The true targets of the preacher were the others: the dipsos, the deadbeats, the wetbrains, and the loonies, who needed more than luck. What they needed was a structured way, a mentor and guide through the hells and purgatories of their days. Bringing the word, the light, was a great struggle today, for the decline of belief was rampant and the anti-Christ was on the rise. It was prophesied in Matthew and in Revelation that there would be less and less reverence for the Bible, greater lawlessness, depravity, and selfindulgence. The world, the light, the song, they would all die soon, for without doubt we were witnessing the advent of end times.

“Lost,” said the preacher, and he waited for the word to resound in the sanctums of their damaged brains. “Oh lost, lost forever. Men and women lost, hopeless. Who will save you from your sloth? Who will give you a ride on the turnpike to salvation? Jesus will! Jesus delivers!”

The preacher screamed the word delivers and woke up half the congregation. Rudy, on the nod, flared into wakefulness with a wild swing of the left arm that knocked the hymnal out of Francis’s grip. The book fell to the floor with a splat that brought Reverend Chester eye-to-eye with Francis. Francis nodded and the preacher gave him a firm and flinty smile in return.

The preacher then took the beatitudes for his theme. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Oh yes, you men of skid row, brethren on the poor streets of the one eternal city we all dwell in, do not grieve that your spirit is low. Do not fear the world because you are of a meek and gentle nature. Do not feel that your mournful tears are in vain, for these things are the keys to the kingdom of God.”

The men went swiftly back to sleep and Francis resolved he would wash the stink of the dead off his face and hands and hit Chester up for a new pair of socks. Chester was happiest when he was passing out socks to dried-out drunks. Feed the hungry, clothe the sober.

“Are you ready for peace of mind and heart?” the preacher asked. “Is there a man here tonight who wants a different life? God says: Come unto me. Will you take him at his word? Will you stand up now? Come to the front, kneel, and we will talk. Do this now and be saved. Now. Now. Now!”

No one moved.

“Then amen, brothers,” said the preacher testily, and he left the lectern.

“Hot goddamn,” Francis said to Rudy. “Now we get at that soup.”

Then began the rush of men to table, the pouring of coffee, ladling of soup, cutting of bread by the mission’s zealous volunteers. Francis sought out Pee Wee, a good old soul who managed the mission for Chester, and he asked him for a cup of soup for Sandra.

“She oughta be let in,” Francis said. “She’s gonna freeze out there.”

“She was in before,” Pee Wee said. “He wouldn’t let her stay. She was really shot, and you know him on that. He won’t mind on the soup, but just for the hell of it, don’t say where it’s going.”

“Secret soup,” Francis said.

He took the soup out the back door, pulling Rudy along with him, and crossed the vacant lot to where Sandra lay as before. Rudy rolled her onto her back and sat her up, and Francis put the soup under her nose.

“Soup,” he said.

“Gazoop,” Sandra said.

“Have it.” Francis put the cup to her lips and tipped the soup at her mouth. It dribbled down her chin. She swallowed none.

“She don’t want it,” Rudy said.

“She wants it,” Francis said. “She’s just pissed it ain’t wine.”

He tried again and Sandra swallowed a little.

“When I was sleepin’ inside just now,” Rudy said, “I remembered Sandra wanted to be a nurse. Or used to be a nurse. That right, Sandra?”

“No,” Sandra said.

“No, what? Wanted to be a nurse or was a nurse?”

“Doctor,” Sandra said.

“She wanted to be a doctor,” Francis said, tipping in more soup.

“No,” Sandra said, pushing the soup away. Francis put the cup down and slipped her ratty shoe onto her left foot. He lifted her, a feather, carried her to the wall of the mission, and propped her into a sitting position, her back against the building, somewhat out of the wind. With his bare hand he wiped the masking dust from her face. He raised the soup and gave her another swallow.

“Doctor wanted me to be a nursie,” she said.

“But you didn’t want it,” Francis said.

“Did. But he died.”

“Ah,” said Francis. “Love?”

“Love,” said Sandra.

Inside the mission, Francis handed the cup back to Pee Wee, who emptied it into the sink.

“She all right?” Pee Wee asked.

“Terrific,” Francis said.

“The ambulance won’t even pick her up anymore,” Pee Wee said. “Not unless she’s bleedin’ to death.”

Francis nodded and went to the bathroom, where he washed Sandra’s dust and his own stink off his hands. Then he washed his face and his neck and his ears; and when he was finished he washed them all again. He sloshed water around in his mouth and brushed his teeth with his left index finger. He wet his hair and combed it with nine fingers and dried himself with a damp towel that was tied to the wall. Some men were already leaving by the time he picked up his soup and bread and sat down beside Helen.

“Where you been hidin’?” he asked her.

“A fat lot you care where anybody is or isn’t. I could be dead in the street three times over and you wouldn’t know a thing about it.”

“How the hell could I when you walk off like a crazy woman, yellin’ and stompin’.”

“Who wouldn’t be crazy around you, spending every penny we get. You go out of your mind, Francis.”

“I got some money.”

“How much?”

“Six bucks.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“I worked all the damn day in the cemetery, fillin’ up graves. Worked hard.”

“Francis, you did?”

“I mean all day.”

“That’s wonderful. And you’re sober. And you’re eating.”

“Ain’t drinkin’ no wine either. I ain’t even smokin’.”

“Oh that’s so lovely. I’m very proud of my good boy.”

Francis scarfed up the soup, and Helen smiled and sipped the last of her coffee. More than half the men were gone from table now, Rudy still eating with a partial mind across from Francis. Pee Wee and his plangently compassionate volunteers picked up dishes and carried them to the kitchen. The preacher finished his coffee and strode over to Francis.

“Glad to see you staying straight,” the preacher said.

“Okay,” said Francis.

“And how are you, little lady?” he asked Helen.

“I’m perfectly delightful,” Helen said.

“I believe I’ve got a job for you if you want it, Francis,” the preacher said.

“I worked today up at the cemetery.”

“Splendid.”

“Shovelin’ dirt ain’t my idea of that much of a job.”

“Maybe this one is better. Old Rosskam the ragman came here today looking for a helper. I’ve sent him men from time to time and I thought of you. If you’re serious about quitting the hooch you might put a decent penny together.”

“Ragman,” Francis said. “Doin’ what, exactly?”

“Going house to house on the wagon. Rosskam himself buys the rags and bottles, old metal, junk, papers, no garbage. Carts it himself too, but he’s getting on and needs another strong back.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Green Street, below the bridge.”

“I’ll go see him and I ‘preciate it. Tell you what else I’d ‘preciate’s a pair of socks, if you can spare ‘em. Ones I got are all rotted out.”

“What size?”

“Tens. But I’ll take nines, or twelves.”

“I’ll get you some tens. And keep up the good work, Franny. Nice to see you’re doing well too, little lady.”

“I’m doing very well,” Helen said. “Very exceptionally well.” When he walked away she said: “He says it’s nice I’m doing well. I’m doing just fine, and I don’t need him to tell me I’m doing well.”

“Don’t fight him,” Francis said. “He’s givin’ me some socks.”

“We gonna get them jugs?” Rudy asked Francis. “Go somewheres and get a flop?”

“Jugs?” said Helen.

“That’s what I said this mornin’,” Francis said. “No, no jugs.”

“With six dollars we could get a room and get our suitcase back,” Helen said.

“I can’t spend all six,” Francis said. “I gotta give some to the lawyer. I figure I’ll give him a deuce. After all, he got me the job and I owe him fifty.”

“Where do you plan to sleep?” Helen asked.

“Where’d you sleep last night?”

“I found a place.”

“Finny’s car?”

“No, not Finny’s car. I won’t stay there anymore, you know that. I will absolutely not stay in that car another night.”

“Then where’d you go?”

“Where did you sleep?”

“I slept in the weeds,” Francis said.

“Well I found a bed.”

“Where, goddamn it, where?”

“Up at Jack’s.”

“I thought you didn’t like Jack anymore, or Clara either.”

“They’re not my favorite people, but they gave me a bed when I needed one.”

“Somethin’ to be said for that,” Francis said.

Pee Wee came over with a second cup of coffee and sat across from Helen. Pee Wee was bald and fat and chewed cigars all day long without lighting them. He had cut hair in his younger days, but when his wife cleaned out their bank account, poisoned Pee Wee’s dog, and ran away with the barber whom Pee Wee, by dint of hard work and superior tonsorial talent, had put of of business, Pee Wee started drinking and wound up on the bum. Yet he carried his comb and scissors everywhere to prove his talent was not just a bum’s fantasy, and gave haircuts to other bums for fifteen cents, sometimes a nickel. He still gave haircuts, free now, at the mission.

When Francis came back to Albany in 1935, he met Pee Wee for the first time and they stayed drunk together for a month. When Francis turned up in Albany only weeks back to register for the Democrats at five dollars a shot, he met Pee Wee again. Francis registered to vote twenty-one times before the state troopers caught up with him and made him an Albany political celebrity. The pols had paid him fifty by then and still owed him fifty-five more that he’d probably never see. Pee Wee was off the juice when Francis met him the second time, and was full of energy, running the mission for Chester. Pee Wee was peaceful now, no longer the singing gin-drinker he used to be. Francis still felt good things about him, but now thought of him as an emotional cripple, dry, yeah, but at what cost?

“You see who’s playin’ over at The Gilded Cage?” Pee Wee asked Francis.

“I don’t read the papers.”

“Oscar Reo.”

“You mean our Oscar?”

“The same.”

“What’s he doin’?”

“Singin’ bartender. How’s that for a comedown?”

“Oscar Reo who used to be on the radio?” Helen asked.

“That’s the fella,” said Pee Wee. “He blew the big time on booze, but he dried out and tends bar now. At least he’s livin’, even if it ain’t what it was.”

“Pee Wee and me pitched a drunk with him in New York. Two, three days, wasn’t it, Pee?”

“Mighta been a week,” Pee Wee said. “None of us was up to keepin’ track. But he sang a million tunes and played piano everyplace they had one. Most musical drunk I ever see.”

“I used to sing his songs,” Helen said. “‘Hindustan Lover’ and ‘Georgie Is My Apple Pie’ and another one, a grand ballad, ‘Under the Peach Trees with You.’ He wrote wonderful, happy songs and I sang them all when I was singing.”

“I didn’t know you sang,” Pee Wee said.

“Well I most certainly sang, and played piano very well too. I was getting a classical education in music until my father died. I was at Vassar.”

“Albert Einstein went to Vassar,” Rudy said.

“You goofy bastard,” said Francis.

“Went there to make a speech. I read it in the papers.”

“He could have,” Helen said. “Everybody speaks at Vassar. It just happens to be one of the three best schools in the world.”

“We oughta go over and see old Oscar,” Francis said.

“Not me,” said Pee Wee.

“No,” said Helen.

“What no?” Francis said. “You afraid we’d all get drunked up if we stopped in to say hello?”

“I’m not afraid of that.”

“Then let’s go see him. He’s all right, Oscar.”

“Think he’ll remember you?” Pee Wee said.

“Maybe. I remember him.”

“So do I.”

“Then let’s go.”

“I wouldn’t drink anything,” Pee Wee said. “I ain’t been in a bar in two years.”

“They got ginger ale. You allowed to drink ginger ale?”

“I hope it’s not expensive,” Helen said.

“Just what you drink,” Pee Wee said. “About usual.”

“Is it snooty?”

“It’s a joint, old-timey, but it pulls in the slummers. That’s half the trade.”

Reverend Chester stepped lively across the room and thrust at Francis a pair of gray woolen socks, his mouth a crescent of pleasure and his great chest heaving with beneficence.

“Try these for size,” he said.

“I thank ya for ‘em,” said Francis.

“They’re good and warm.”

“Just what I need. Nothin’ left of mine.”

“It’s fine that you’re off the drink. You’ve got a strong look about you today.”

“Just a false face for Halloween.”

“Don’t run yourself down. Have faith.”

The door to the mission opened and a slim young man in bifocals and a blue topcoat two sizes small for him, his carroty hair a field of cowlicks, stood in its frame. He held the doorknob with one hand and stood directly under the inside ceiling light, casting no shadow.

“Shut the door,” Pee Wee yelled, and the young man stepped in and shut it. He stood looking at all in the mission, his face a cracked plate, his eyes panicked and rabbity.

“That’s it for him,” Pee Wee said.

The preacher strode to the door and stood inches from the young man, studying him, sniffing him.

“You’re drunk,” the preacher said.

“I only had a couple.”

“Oh no. You’re in the beyond.”

“Honest,” said the young man. “Two bottles of beer.”

“Where did you get the money for beer?”

“A fella paid me what he owed me.”

“You panhandled it.”

“No.”

“You’re a bum.”

“I just had a drink, Reverend.”

“Get your things together. I told you I wouldn’t put up with this a third time. Arthur, get his bags.”

Pee Wee stood up from the table and climbed the stairs to the rooms where the resident handful lived while they sorted out their lives. The preacher had invited Francis to stay if he could get the hooch out of his system. He would then have a clean bed, clean clothes, three squares, and a warm room with Jesus in it for as long as it took him to answer the question: What next? Pee Wee held the house record: eight months in the joint, and managing it after three, such was his zeal for abstention. No booze, no smoking upstairs (for drunks are fire hazards), carry your share of the work load, and then rise you must, rise you will, into the brilliant embrace of the just God. The kitchen volunteers stopped their work and came forward with solemnized pity to watch the eviction of one of their promising young men. Pee Wee came down with a suitcase and set it by the door.

“Give us a cigarette, Pee,” the young man said.

“Don’t have any.”

“Well roll one.”

“I said I don’t have any tobacco.”

“Oh.”

“You’ll have to leave now, Little Red,” the preacher said.

Helen stood up and came over to Little Red and put a cigarette in his hand. He took it and said nothing. Helen struck a match and lit it for him, then sat back down.

“I don’t have anyplace to go,” Little Red said, blowing smoke past the preacher.

“You should have thought of that before you started drinking. You are a contumacious young man.”

“I got noplace to put that bag. And I got a pencil and paper upstairs.”

“Leave it here. Come and get your pencil and paper when you get that poison out of your system and you can talk sense about yourself.”

“My pants are in there.”

“They’ll be all right. Nobody here will touch your pants.”

“Can I have a cup of coffee?”

“If you found money for beer, you can find money for coffee.”

“Where can I go?”

“I couldn’t begin to imagine. Come back sober and you may have some food. Now get a move on.”

Little Red grabbed the doorknob, opened the door, and took a step. Then he stepped back in and pointed at his suitcase.

“I got cigarettes there,” he said.

“Then get your cigarettes.”

Little Red undid the belt that held the suitcase together and rummaged for a pack of Camels. He rebuckled the belt and stood up.

“If I come back tomorrow…”

“We’ll see about tomorrow,” said the preacher, who grabbed the doorknob himself and pulled it to as he ushered Little Red out into the night.

“Don’t lose my pants,” Little Red called through the glass of the closing door.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis, wearing his new socks, was first out of the mission, first to cast an anxious glance around the corner of the building at Sandra, who sat propped where he had left her, her eyes sewn as tightly closed by the darkness as the eyes of a diurnal bird. Francis touched her firmly with a finger and she moved, but without opening her eyes. He looked up at the full moon, a silver cinder illuminating this night for bleeding women and frothing madmen, and which warmed him with the enormous shadow it thrust forward in his own path. When Sandra moved he leaned over and put the back of his hand against her cheek and felt the ice of her flesh.

“You got an old blanket or some old rags, any old bum’s coat to throw over her?” he asked Pee Wee, who stood in the shadows considering the encounter.

“I could get something,” Pee Wee said, and he loosened his keys and opened the door of the darkened mission: all lights off save the kitchen, which would remain bright until eleven, lockout time. Pee Wee opened the door and entered as Rudy, Helen, and Francis huddled around Sandra, watching her breathe. Francis had watched two dozen people suspire into death, all of them bums except for his father, and Gerald.

“Maybe if we cut her throat the ambulance’d take her,” Francis said.

“She doesn’t want an ambulance,” Helen said. “She wants to sleep it all away. I’ll bet she doesn’t even feel cold.”

“She’s a cake of ice.”

Sandra moved, turning her head toward the voices but without opening her eyes. “You got no wine?” she asked.

“No wine, honey,” Helen said.

Pee Wee came out with a stone-gray rag that might once have been a blanket and wrapped its rough doubleness around Sandra. He tucked it into the neck of her sweater, and with one end formed a cowl behind her head, giving her the look of a monastic beggar in sackcloth.

“I don’t want to look at her no more,” Francis said, and he walked east on Madison, the deepening chill aggravating his limp. Helen and Pee Wee fell in behind him, and Rudy after that.

“You ever know her, Pee Wee?” Francis asked. “I mean when she was in shape?”

“Sure. Everybody knew her. You took your turn. Then she got to givin’ love parties, is what she called ‘em. but she’d turn mean, first love you up and then bite you bad. Half-ruined enough guys so only strangers’d go with her. Then she stopped that and hung out with one bum name of Freddy and they specialized in one another about a year till he went somewheres and she didn’t.”

“Nobody suffers like a lover left behind,” Helen said.

“Well that’s a crock,” Francis said. “Lots suffer ain’t ever been in love even once.”

“They don’t suffer like those who have,” said Helen.

“Yeah. Where’s this joint, Pee Wee, Green Street?”

“Right. Couple of blocks. Where the old Gayety Theater used to be.”

“I used to go there. Watch them ladies’ ankles and cancanny crotches.”

“Be nice, Francis,” Helen said.

“I’m nice. I’m the nicest thing you’ll see all week.”

Goblins came at them on Green Street, hooded spooks, a Charlie Chaplin in whiteface, with derby, cane, and tash, and a girl wearing an enormous old bonnet with a fullsized bird on top of it.

“They gonna get us!” Francis said. “Look out!” He threw his arms in the air and shook himself in a fearful dance. The children laughed and spooked boo at him.

“Gee it’s a nice night,” Helen said. “Cold but nice and clear, isn’t it, Fran?”

“It’s nice,” Francis said. “It’s all nice.”

 

o          o          o

 

The Gilded Cage door opened into the old Gayety lobby, now the back end of a saloon that mimicked and mocked the Bowery pubs of forty years gone. Francis stood looking toward a pair of monumental, half-wrapped breasts that heaved beneath a hennaed wig and scarlet lips. The owner of these spectacular possessions was delivering outward from an elevated platform a song of anguish in the city: You would not insult me, sir, if Jack were only here, in a voice so devoid of musical quality that it mocked its own mockery.

“She’s terrible,” Helen said. “Awful.”

“She ain’t that good,” Francis said.

They stepped across a floor strewn with sawdust, lit by ancient chandeliers and sconces, all electric now, toward a long walnut bar with a shining brass bar rail and three gleaming spittoons. Behind the half-busy bar a man with high collar, string tie, and arm garters drew schooners of beer from a tap, and at tables of no significant location sat men and women Francis recognized: whores, bums, barflies. Among them, at other tables, sat men in business suits, and women with fox scarves and flyaway hats, whose presence was such that their tables this night were landmarks of social significance merely because they were sitting at them. Thus, The Gilded Cage was a museum of unnatural sociality, and the smile of the barman welcomed Francis, Helen, and Rudy, bums all, and Pee Wee, their clean-shirted friend, to the tableau.

“Table, folks?”

“Not while there’s a bar rail,” Francis said.

“Step up, brother. What’s your quaff?”

“Ginger ale,” said Pee Wee.

“I believe I’ll have the same,” said Helen.

“That beer looks tantalizin’,” Francis said.

“You said you wouldn’t drink,” Helen said.

“I said wine.”

The barman slid a schooner with a high collar across the bar to Francis and looked to Rudy, who ordered the same. The piano player struck up a medley of “She May Have Seen Better Days” and “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon” and urged those in the audience who knew the lyrics to join in song.

“You look like a friend of mine,” Francis told the barman, drilling him with a smile and a stare. The barman, with a full head of silver waves and an eloquent white mustache, stared back long enough to ignite a memory. He looked from Francis to Pee Wee, who was also smiling:

“I think I know you two turks,” the barman said.

“You thinkin’ right,” Francis said, “except the last time I seen you, you wasn’t sportin’ that pussy-tickler.”

The barman stroked his silvery lip. “You guys got me drunk in New York.”

“You got us drunk in every bar on Third Avenue,” Pee Wee said.

The barman stuck out his hand to Francis.

“Francis Phelan,” said Francis, “and this here is Rudy the Kraut. He’s all right but he’s nuts.”

“My kind of fella,” Oscar said.

“Pee Wee Packer,” Pee Wee said with his hand out.

“I remember,” said Oscar.

“And this is Helen,” said Francis. “She hangs out with me, but damned if I know why.”

“Oscar Reo’s what I still go by, folks, and I really do remember you boys. But I don’t drink anymore.”

“Hey, me neither,” said Pee Wee.

“I ain’t turned it off yet,” Francis said. “I’m waitin’ till I retire.”

“He retired forty years ago,” Pee Wee said.

“That ain’t true. I worked all day today. Gettin’ rich. How you like my new duds?”

“You’re a sport,” Oscar said. “Can’t tell you from those swells over there.”

“Swells and bums, there ain’t no difference,” Francis said.

“Except swells like to look like swells,” Oscar said, “and bums like to look like bums. Am I right?”

“You’re a smart fella,” Francis said.

“You still singin’, Oscar?” Pee Wee asked.

“For my supper.”

“Well goddamn it,” Francis said, “give us a tune.”

“Since you’re so polite about it,” Oscar said. And he turned to the piano man and said: “‘Sixteen’ “; and instantly there came from the piano the strains of “Sweet Sixteen.”

“Oh that’s a wonderful song,” Helen said. “I remember you singing that on the radio.”

“How durable of you, my dear.”

Oscar sang into the bar microphone and, with great resonance and no discernible loss of control from his years with the drink, he turned time back to the age of the village green. The voice was as commonplace to an American ear as Jolson’s, or Morton Downey’s; and even Francis, who rarely listened to the radio, or ever had a radio to listen to in either the early or the modern age, remembered its pitch and its tremolo from the New York binge, when this voice by itself was a chorale of continuous joy for all in earshot, or so it seemed to Francis at a distance of years. And further, the attention that the bums, the swells, the waiters, were giving the man, proved that this drunk was not dead, not dying, but living an epilogue to a notable life. And yet, and yet… here he was, disguised behind a mustache, another cripple, his ancient, weary eyes revealing to Francis the scars of a blood brother, a man for whom life had been a promise unkept in spite of great success, a promise now and forever unkeepable. The man was singing a song that had grown old not from time but from wear. The song is frayed. The song is worn out.

The insight raised in Francis a compulsion to confess his every transgression of natural, moral, or civil law; to relentlessly examine and expose every flaw of his own character, however minor. What was it, Oscar, that did you in? Would you like to tell us all about it? Do you know? It wasn’t Gerald who did me. It wasn’t drink and it wasn’t baseball and it wasn’t really Mama. What was it that went bust, Oscar, and how come nobody ever found out how to fix it for us?

When Oscar segued perfectly into a second song, his talent seemed awesome to Francis, and the irrelevance of talent to Oscar’s broken life even more of a mystery. How does somebody get this good and why doesn’t it mean anything? Francis considered his own talent on the ball field of a hazy, sunlit yesterday: how he could follow the line of the ball from every crack of the bat, zap after it like a chicken hawk after a chick, how he would stroke and pocket its speed no matter whether it was lined at him or sizzled erratically toward him through the grass. He would stroke it with the predatory curve of his glove and begin with his right hand even then, whether he was running or falling, to reach into that leather pocket, spear the chick with his educated talons, and whip it across to first or second base, or wherever it needed to go and you’re out, man, you’re out. No ball player anywhere moved his body any better than Franny Phelan, a damn fieldin’ machine, fastest ever was.

Francis remembered the color and shape of his glove, its odor of oil and sweat and leather, and he wondered if Annie had kept it. Apart from his memory and a couple of clippings, it would be all that remained of a spent career that had blossomed and then peaked in the big leagues far too long after the best years were gone, but which brought with the peaking the promise that some belated and overdue glory was possible, that somewhere there was a hosannah to be cried in the name of Francis Phelan, one of the best sonsabitches ever to kick a toe into third base.

Oscar’s voice quavered with beastly loss on a climactic line of the song: Blinding tears falling as he thinks of his lost pearl, broken heart calling, oh yes, calling, dear old girl. Francis turned to Helen and saw her crying splendid, cathartic tears: Helen, with the image of inexpungeable sorrow in her cortex, with a lifelong devotion to forlorn love, was weeping richly for all the pearls lost since love’s old sweet song first was sung.

“Oh that was so beautiful, so beautiful,” Helen said to Oscar when he rejoined them at the beer spigot. “That’s absolutely one of my all-time favorites. I used to sing it myself.”

“A singer?” said Oscar. “Where was that?”

“Oh everywhere. Concerts, the radio. I used to sing on the air every night, but that was an age ago.”

“You should do us a tune.”

“Oh never,” said Helen.

“Customers sing here all the time,” Oscar said.

“No, no,” said Helen, “the way I look.”

“You look as good as anybody here,” Francis said.

“I could never,” said Helen. But she was readying herself to do what she could never, pushing her hair behind her ear, straightening her collar, smoothing her much more than ample front.

“What’ll it be?” Oscar said. “Joe knows ‘em all.”

“Let me think awhile.”

Francis saw that Aldo Campione was sitting at a table at the far end of the room and had someone with him. That son of a bitch is following me, is what Francis thought. He fixed his glance on the table and saw Aldo move his hand in an ambiguous gesture. What are you telling me, dead man, and who’s that with you? Aldo wore a white flower in the lapel of his white flannel suitcoat, a new addition since the bus. Goddamn dead people travelin’ in packs, buyin’ flowers. Francis studied the other man without recognition and felt the urge to walk over and take a closer look. But what if nobody’s sittin’ there? What if nobody sees these bozos but me? The flower girl came along with a full tray of white gardenias.

“Buy a flower, sir?” she asked Francis.

“Why not? How much?”

“Just a quarter.”

“Give us one.”

He fished a quarter out of his pants and pinned the gardenia on Helen’s lapel with a pin the girl handed him. “It’s been a while since I bought you flowers,” he said. “You gonna sing up there for us, you gotta put on the dog a little.”

Helen leaned over and kissed Francis on the mouth, which always made him blush when she did it in public. She was always a first-rate heller between the sheets, when there was sheets, when there was somethin’ to do between them.

“Francis always bought me flowers,” she said. “He’d get money and first thing he’d do was buy me a dozen roses, or a white orchid even. He didn’t care what he did with the money as long as I got my flowers first. You did that for me, didn’t you, Fran?”

“Sure did,” said Francis, but he could not remember buying an orchid, didn’t know what orchids looked like.

“We were lovebirds,” Helen said to Oscar, who was smiling at the spectacle of bum love at his bar. “We had a beautiful apartment up on Hamilton Street. We had all the dishes anybody’d ever need. We had a sofa and a big bed and sheets and pillowcases. There wasn’t anything we didn’t have, isn’t that right, Fran?”

“That’s right,” Francis said, trying to remember the place.

“We had flowerpots full of geraniums that we kept alive all winter long. Francis loved geraniums. And we had an icebox crammed full of food. We ate so well, both of us had to go on a diet. That was such a wonderful time.”

“When was that?” Pee Wee asked. “I didn’t know you ever stayed anyplace that long.”

“What long?”

“I don’t know. Months musta been if you had an apartment.”

“I was here awhile, six weeks maybe, once.”

“Oh we had it much longer than that,” Helen said.

“Helen knows,” Francis said. “She remembers. I can’t call one day different from another.”

“It was the drink,” Helen said. “Francis wouldn’t stop drinking and then we couldn’t pay the rent and we had to give up our pillowcases and our dishes. It was Haviland china, the very best you could buy. When you buy, buy the best, my father taught me. We had solid mahogany chairs and my beautiful upright piano my brother had been keeping. He didn’t want to give it up, it was so nice, but it was mine. Paderewski played on it once when he was in Albany in nineteen-oh-nine. I sang all my songs on it.”

“She played pretty fancy piano,” Francis said. “That’s no joke. Why don’t you sing us a song, Helen?”

“Oh I guess I will.”

“What’s your pleasure?” Oscar asked.

“I don’t know. ‘In the Good Old Summertime,’ maybe.”

“Right time to sing it,” Francis said, “now that we’re freezin’ our ass out there.”

“On second thought,” said Helen, “I want to sing one for Francis for buying me that flower. Does your friend know ‘He’s Me Pal,’ or ‘My Man’?”

“You hear that, Joe?”

“I hear,” said Joe the piano man, and he played a few bars of the chorus of “He’s Me Pal” as Helen smiled and stood and walked to the stage with an aplomb and grace befitting her reentry into the world of music, the world she should never have left, oh why ever did you leave it, Helen? She climbed the three steps to the platform, drawn upward by familiar chords that now seemed to her to have always evoked joy, chords not from this one song but from an era of songs, thirty, forty years of songs that celebrated the splendors of love, and loyalty, and friendship, and family, and country, and the natural world. Frivolous Sal was a wild sort of devil, but wasn’t she dead on the level too? Mary was a great pal, heaven-sent on Christmas morning, and love lingers on for her. The new-mown hay, the silvery moon, the home fires burning, these were sanctuaries of Helen’s spirit, songs whose like she had sung from her earliest days, songs that endured for her as long as the classics she had committed to memory so indelibly in her youth, for they spoke to her, not abstractly of the aesthetic peaks of the art she had once hoped to master, but directly, simply, about the everyday currency of the heart and soul. The pale moon will shine on the twining of our hearts. My heart is stolen, lover dear, so please don’t let us part. Oh love, sweet love, oh burning love—the songs told her—you are mine, I am yours, forever and a day. You spoiled the girl I used to be, my hope has gone away. Send me away with a smile, but remember: you’re turning off the sunshine of my life.

Love.

A flood tide of pity rose in Helen’s breast. Francis, oh sad man, was her last great love, but he wasn’t her only one. Helen has had a lifetime of sadnesses with her lovers. Her first true love kept her in his fierce embrace for years, but then he loosened that embrace and let her slide down and down until the hope within her died. Hopeless Helen, that’s who she was when she met Francis. And as she stepped up to the microphone on the stage of The Gilded Cage, hearing the piano behind her, Helen was a living explosion of unbearable memory and indomitable joy.

And she wasn’t a bit nervous either, thank you, for she was a professional who had never let the public intimidate her when she sang in a church, or at musicales, or at weddings, or at Woolworth’s when she sold song sheets, or even on the radio with that audience all over the city every night. Oscar Reo, you’re not the only one who sang for Americans over the airwaves. Helen had her day and she isn’t a bit nervous.

But she is… all right, yes, she is… a girl enveloped by private confusion, for she feels the rising of joy and sorrow simultaneously and she cannot say whether one or the other will take her over during the next few moments.

“What’s Helen’s last name?” Oscar asked.

“Archer,” Francis said. “Helen Archer.”

“Hey,” said Rudy, “how come you told me she didn’t have a last name?”

“Because it don’t matter what anybody tells you,” Francis said. “Now shut up and listen.”

“A real old-time trouper now,” said Oscar into the bar mike, “will give us a song or two for your pleasure, lovely Miss Helen Archer.”

And then Helen, still wearing that black rag of a coat rather than expose the even more tattered blouse and skirt that she wore beneath it, standing on her spindle legs with her tumorous belly butting the metal stand of the microphone and giving her the look of a woman five months pregnant, casting boldly before the audience this image of womanly disaster and fully aware of the dimensions of this image, Helen then tugged stylishly at her beret, adjusting it forward over one eye. She gripped the microphone with a sureness that postponed her disaster, at least until the end of this tune, and sang then “He’s Me Pal,” a ditty really, short and snappy, sang it with exuberance and wit, with a tilt of the head, a roll of the eyes, a twist of the wrist that suggested the proud virtues. Sure, he’s dead tough, she sang, but his love ain’t no bluff. Wouldn’t he share his last dollar with her? Hey, no millionaire will ever grab Helen. She’d rather have her pal with his fifteen a week. Oh Francis, if you only made just fifteen a week.

If you only.

The applause was full and long and gave Helen strength to begin “My Man,” Fanny Brice’s wonderful torch, and Helen Morgan’s too. Two Helens. Oh Helen, you were on the radio, but where did it take you? What fate was it that kept you from the great heights that were yours by right of talent and education? You were born to be a star, so many said it. But it was others who went on to the heights and you were left behind to grow bitter. How you learned to envy those who rose when you did not, those who never deserved it, had no talent, no training. There was Carla, from high school, who could not even carry a tune but who made a movie with Eddie Cantor, and there was Edna, ever so briefly from Woolworth’s, who sang in a Broadway show by Cole Porter because she learned how to wiggle her fanny. But ah, sweetness was Helen’s, for Carla went off a cliff in an automobile, and Edna sliced her wrists and bled her life away in her lover’s bathtub, and Helen laughed last. Helen is singing on a stage this very minute and just listen to the voice she’s left with after all her troubles. Look at those well-dressed people out there hanging on her every note.

Helen closed her eyes and felt tears forcing their way out and could not say whether she was blissfully happy or fatally sad. At some point it all came together and didn’t make much difference anyway, for sad or happy, happy or sad, life didn’t change for Helen. Oh, her man, how much she loves you. You can’t imagine. Poor girl, all despair now. If she went away she’d come back on her knees. Some day. She’s yours. Forevermore.

Oh thunder! Thunderous applause! And the elegant people are standing for Helen, when last did that happen? More, more, more, they yell, and she is crying so desperately now for happiness, or is it for loss, that it makes Francis and Pee Wee cry too. And even though people are calling for more, more, more, Helen steps delicately back down the three platform steps and walks proudly over to Francis with her head in the air and her face impossibly wet, and she kisses him on the cheek so all will know that this is the man she was talking about, in case you didn’t notice when we came in together. This is the man.

By god that was great, Francis says. You’re better’n anybody.

Helen, says Oscar, that was first-rate. You want a singing job here, you come round tomorrow and I’ll see the boss puts you on the payroll. That’s a grand voice you’ve got there, lady. A grand voice.

Oh thank you all, says Helen, thank you all so very kindly. It is so pleasant to be appreciated for your Godgiven talent and for your excellent training and for your natural presence. Oh I do thank you, and I shall come again to sing for you, you may be sure.

Helen closed her eyes and felt tears beginning to force their way out and could not say whether she was blissfully happy or devastatingly sad. Some odd-looking people were applauding politely, but others were staring at her with sullen faces. If they’re sullen, then obviously they didn’t think much of your renditions, Helen. Helen steps delicately back down the three steps, comes over to Francis, and keeps her head erect as he leans over and pecks her cheek.

“Mighty nice, old gal,” he says.

“Not bad at all,” Oscar says. “You’ll have to do it again sometime.”

Helen closed her eyes and felt tears forcing their way out and knew life didn’t change. If she went away she’d come back on her knees. It is so pleasant to be appreciated.

Helen, you are like a blackbird, when the sun comes out for a little while. Helen, you are like a blackbird made sassy by the sun. But what will happen to you when the sun goes down again?

I do thank you.

And I shall come again to sing for you.

Oh sassy blackbird! Oh!

 

III

 

Rudy left them to flop someplace, half-drunk on six beers, and Francis, Helen, and Pee Wee walked back along Green Street to Madison and then west toward the mission. Walk Pee Wee home and go get a room at Palombo’s Hotel, get warm, stretch out, rest them bones. Because Francis and Helen had money: five dollars and seventy-five cents. Two of it Helen had left from what Francis gave her last night; plus three-seventy-five out of his cemetery wages, for he spent little in The Gilded Cage, Oscar buying twice as many drinks as he took money for.

The city had grown quiet at midnight and the moon was as white as early snow. A few cars moved slowly on Pearl Street but otherwise the streets were silent. Francis turned up his suitcoat collar and shoved his hands into his pants pockets. Alongside the mission the moon illuminated Sandra, who sat where they had left her. They stopped to look at her condition. Francis squatted and shook her.

“You sobered up yet, lady?”

Sandra answered him with an enveloping silence. Francis pushed the cowl off her face and in the vivid moonlight saw the toothmarks on her nose and cheek and chin. He shook his head to clear the vision, then saw that one of her fingers and the flesh between forefinger and thumb on her left hand had been chewed.

“The dogs got her.”

He looked across the street and saw a red-eyed mongrel waiting in the half-lit corner of an alley and he charged after it, picking up a stone as he went. The cur fled down the alley as Francis turned his ankle on a raised sidewalk brick and sprawled on the pavement. He picked himself up, he now bloodied too by the cur, and sucked the dirt out of the cuts.

As he crossed the street, goblins came up from Broadway, ragged and masked, and danced around Helen. Pee Wee, bending over Sandra, straightened up as the goblin dance gained in ferocity.

“Jam and jelly, big fat belly,” the goblins yelled at Helen. And when she drew herself inward they only intensified the chant.

“Hey you kids,” Francis yelled. “Let her alone.”

But they danced on and a skull goblin poked Helen in the stomach with a stick. As she swung at the skull with her hand, another goblin grabbed her purse and then all scattered.

“Little bastards, devils,” Helen cried, running after them. And Francis and Pee Wee too joined the chase, pounding through the night, no longer sure which one wore the skull mask. The goblins ran down alleys, around corners, and fled beyond capture.

Francis turned back to Helen, who was far behind him. She was weeping, gasping, doubled over in a spasm of loss.

“Sonsabitches,” Francis said.

“Oh the money,” Helen said, “the money.”

“They hurt you with that stick?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That money ain’t nothin’. Get more tomorrow.”

“It was.”

“Was what?”

“There was fifteen dollars in there besides the other.”

“Fifteen? Where’d you get fifteen dollars?”

“Your son Billy gave it to me. The night he found us at Spanish George’s. You were passed out and he gave us forty-five dollars, all the cash he had. I gave you thirty and kept the fifteen.”

“I went through that pocketbook. I didn’t see it.”

“I pinned it inside the lining so you wouldn’t drink it up. I wanted our suitcase back. I wanted our room for a week so I could rest.”

“Goddamn it, woman, now we ain’t got a penny. You and your sneaky goddamn ways.”

Pee Wee came back from the chase empty-handed.

“Some tough kids around here,” he said. “You okay, Helen?”

“Fine, just fine.”

“You’re not hurt?”

“Not anyplace you could see.”

“Sandra,” Pee Wee said. “She’s dead.”

“She’s more than that,” Francis said. “She’s partly chewed away.”

“We’ll take her inside so they don’t eat no more of her,” Pee Wee said. “I’ll call the police.”

“You think it’s all right to bring her inside?” Francis asked. “She’s still got all that poison in her system.”

Pee Wee said nothing and opened the mission door. Francis picked Sandra up from the dust and carried her inside. He put her down on an old church bench against the wall and covered her face with the scratchy blanket that had become her final gift from the world.

“If I had my rosary I’d say it for her,” Helen said, sitting on a chair beside the bench and looking at Sandra’s corpse. “But it was in my purse. I’ve carried that rosary for twenty years.”

“I’ll check the vacant lots and the garbage cans in the mornin’,” Francis said. “It’ll turn up.”

“I’ll bet Sandra prayed to die,” Helen said.

“Hey,” said Francis.

“I would if I was her. Her life wasn’t human anymore.”

Helen looked at the clock: twelve-ten. Pee Wee was calling the police.

“Today’s a holy day of obligation,” she said. “It’s All Saints’ Day.”

“Yup,” said Francis.

“I want to go to church in the morning.”

“All right, go to church.”

“I will. I want to hear mass.”

“Hear it. That’s tomorrow. What are we gonna do tonight? Where the hell am I gonna put you?”

“You could stay here,” Pee Wee said. “All the beds are full but you can sleep down here on a bench.”

“No,” Helen said. “I’d rather not do that. We can go up to Jack’s. He told me I could come back if I wanted.”

“Jack said that?” Francis asked.

“Those were his words.”

“Then let’s shag ass. Jack’s all right. Clara’s a crazy bitch but I like Jack. Always did. You sure he said that?”

“‘Come back anytime,’ he said as I was going out the door.”

“All right. Then we’ll move along, old buddy,” Francis said to Pee Wee. “You’ll figure it out with Sandra?”

“I’ll do the rest,” Pee Wee said.

“You know her last name?”

“No. Never heard it.”

“Don’t make much difference now.”

“Never did,” Pee Wee said.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis and Helen walked up Pearl Street toward State, the absolute center of the city’s life for two centuries. One trolley car climbed State Street’s violent incline and another came toward them, rocking south on Pearl. A man stepped out of the Waldorf Restaurant and covered his throat with his coat collar, shivered once, and walked on. The cold had numbed Francis’s fingertips, frost was blooming on the roofs of parked cars, and the nightwalkers exhaled dancing plumes of vapor. From a manhole in the middle of State Street steam rose and vanished. Francis imagined the subterranean element at the source of this: a huge human head with pipes screwed into its ears, steam rising from a festering skull wound.

Aldo Campione, walking on the opposite side of North Pearl from Francis and Helen, raised his right hand in the same ambiguous gesture Francis had witnessed at the bar. As Francis speculated on the meaning, the man who had been sitting with Aldo stepped out of the shadows into a streetlight’s glow, and Aldo’s gesture then became clear: it introduced Francis to Dick Doolan, the bum who tried to cut off Francis’s feet with a meat cleaver.

“I went to the kid’s grave today,” Francis said.

“What kid?”

“Gerald.”

“Oh, you did?” she said. “Then that was the first time, wasn’t it? It must’ve been.”

“Right.”

“You’re thinking about him these days. You mentioned him last week.”

“I never stop thinkin’ about him.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

Francis saw the street that lay before him: Pearl Street, the central vessel of this city, city once his, city lost. The commerce along with its walls jarred him: so much new, stores gone out of business he never even heard of. Some things remained: Whitney’s, Myers’, the old First Church, which rose over Clinton Square, the Pruyn Library. As he walked, the cobblestones turned to granite, houses became stores, life aged, died, renewed itself, and a vision of what had been and what might have been intersected in an eye that could not really remember one or interpret the other. What would you give never to have left, Francis?

“I said, what’s got into you?”

“Nothin’s got into me. I’m just thinkin’ about a bunch of stuff. This old street. I used to own this street, once upon a time.”

“You should’ve sold it when you had the chance.”

“Money. I ain’t talkin’ about money.”

“I didn’t think you were. That was a funny.”

“Wasn’t much funny. I said I saw Gerald’s grave. I talked to him.”

“Talked? How did you talk?”

“Stood and talked to the damn grass. Maybe I’m gettin’ nutsy as Rudy. He can’t hold his pants up, they fall over his shoes.”

“You’re not nutsy, Francis. It’s because you’re here. We shouldn’t be here. We should go someplace else.”

“Right. That’s where we oughta go. Else.”

“Don’t drink any more tonight.”

“Listen here. Don’t you nag my ass.”

“I want you straight, please. I want you straight.”

“I’m the straightest thing you’ll see all week. I am so straight. I’m the straightest thing you’ll sweek. The thing that happened on the other side of the street. The thing that happened was Billy told me stuff about Annie. I never told you that. Billy told me stuff about Annie, how she never told I dropped him.”

“Never told who, the police?”

“Never nobody. Never a damn soul. Not Billy, not Peg, not her brother, not her sisters. Ain’t that the somethin’est thing you ever heard? I can’t see a woman goin’ through that stuff and not tellin’ nobody about it.”

“You’ve got a lot to say about those people.”

“Not much to say.”

“Maybe you ought to go see them.”

“No, that wouldn’t do no good.”

“You’d get it out of your system.”

“What out of my system?”

“Whatever it is that’s in there.”

“Never mind about my system. How come you wouldn’t stay at the mission when you got an invite?”

“I don’t want their charity.”

“You ate their soup.”

“I did not. All I had was coffee. Anyway, I don’t like Chester. He doesn’t like Catholics.”

“Catholics don’t like Methodists. What the hell, that’s even. And I don’t see any Catholic missions down here. I ain’t had any Catholic soup lately.”

“I won’t do it and that’s that.”

“So freeze your ass someplace. Your flower’s froze already.”

“Let it freeze.”

“You sang a song at least.”

“Yes I did. I sang while Sandra was dying.”

“She’da died no matter. Her time was up.”

“No, I don’t believe that. That’s fatalism. I believe we die when we can’t stand it anymore. I believe we stand as much as we can and then we die when we can, and Sandra decided she could die.”

“I don’t fight that. Die when you can. That’s as good a sayin’ as there is.”

“I’m glad we agree on something,” Helen said.

“We get along all right. You ain’t a bad sort.”

“You’re all right too.”

“We’re both all right,” Francis said, “and we ain’t got a damn penny and noplace to flop. We on the bum. Let’s get the hell up to Jack’s before he puts the lights out on us.”

Helen slipped her arm inside Francis’s. Across the street Aldo Campione and Dick Doolan, who in the latter years of his life was known as Rowdy Dick, kept silent pace.

 

o          o          o

 

Helen pulled her arm away from Francis and tightened her collar around her neck, then hugged herself and buried her hands in her armpits.

“I’m chilled to my bones,” she said.

“It’s chilly, all right.”

“I mean a real chill, a deep chill.”

Francis put his arm around her and walked her up the steps of Jack’s house. It stood on the east side of Ten Broeck Street, a three-block street in Arbor Hill named for a Revolutionary War hero and noted in the 1870s and 1880s as the place where a dozen of the city’s arriviste lumber barons lived, all in a row, in competitive luxury. For their homes the barons built handsome brownstones, most of them now cut into apartments like Jack’s, or into furnished rooms.

The downstairs door to Jack’s opened without a key. Helen and Francis climbed the broad walnut staircase, still vaguely elegant despite the threadbare carpet, and Francis knocked. Jack opened the door and looked out with the expression of an ominous crustacean. With one hand he held the door ajar, with the other he gripped the jamb.

“Hey Jack,” Francis said, “we come to see ya. How’s chances for a bum gettin’ a drink?”

Jack opened the door wider to look beyond Francis and when he saw Helen he let his arm fall and backed into the apartment. Kate Smith came at them, piped out of a small phonograph through the speaker of the radio. The Carolina moon was shining on somebody waiting for Kate. Beside the phonograph sat Clara, balancing herself on a chamber pot, propped on all sides with purple throw pillows, giving her the look of being astride a great animal. A red bedspread covered her legs, but it had fallen away at one side, revealing the outside of her naked left thigh, visible to the buttocks. A bottle of white fluid sat on the table by the phonograph, and on a smaller table on her other side a swinging rack cradled a gallon of muscatel, tiltable for pouring. Helen walked over to Clara and stood by her.

“Golly it’s cold for this time of year, and they’re calling for snow. Just feel my hands.”

“This happens to be my home,” Clara said hoarsely, “and I ain’t about to feel your hands, or your head either. I don’t see any snow.”

“Have a drink,” Jack said to Francis.

“Sure,” Francis said. “I had a bowl of soup about six o’clock but it went right through me. I’m gonna have to eat somethin’ soon.”

“I don’t care whether you eat or not,” Jack said.

Jack went to the kitchen and Francis asked Clara: “You feelin’ better?”

“No.”

“She’s got the runs,” Helen said.

“I’ll tell people what I got,” Clara said.

“She lost her husband this week,” Jack said, returning with two empty tumblers. He tilted the jug and half-filled both.

“How’d you find out?” Helen said.

“I saw it in the paper today,” Clara said.

“I took her to the funeral this morning,” Jack said. “We got a cab and went to the funeral home. They didn’t even call her.”

“He didn’t look any different than when I married him.”

“No kiddin’,” Francis said.

“Outside of his hair was snow-white, that’s all.”

“Her kids were there,” Jack said.

“The snots,” Clara said.

“Sometimes I wonder what if I run off or dropped dead,” Francis said. “Helen’d probably go crazy.”

“Why if you dropped dead she’d bury you before you started stinkin’, “ Jack said. “That’s all’d happen.”

“What a heart you have,” Francis said.

“You gotta bury your dead,” Jack said.

“That’s a rule of the Catholic church,” said Helen.

“I’m not talkin’ about the Catholic church,” Francis said.

“Anyway, now she’s a single girl,” Jack said, “I’m gonna find out what Clara’s gonna do.”

“I’m gonna go right on livin’ normal,” Clara said.

“Normal is somethin’,” Francis said. “What the hell is normal anyway, is what I’d like to know. Normal is cold. Goddamn it’s cold tonight. My fingers. I rubbed myself to see if I was livin’. You know, I wanna ask you one question.”

“No,” Clara said.

“You said no. Whataya mean no?”

“What’s he gonna ask?” Jack said. “Find out what he’s gonna ask.”

Clara waited.

“How’s everythin’ been goin’?” Francis asked.

 

o          o          o

 

Clara lifted the bottle of white fluid from the phonograph table, where the Kate Smith record was scratching in its final groove, and drank. She shook her head as it went down, and the greasy, uncombed stringlets of her hair leaped like whips. Her eyes hung low in their sockets, a pair of collapsing moons. She recapped the bottle and then swigged her muscatel to drive out the taste. She dragged on her cigarette, then coughed and spat venomously into a wadded handkerchief she held in her fist.

“Things ain’t been goin’ too good for Clara,” Jack said, turning off the phonograph.

“I’m still trottin’,” Clara said.

“Well you look pretty good for a sick lady,” Francis said. “Look as good as usual to me.”

Clara smiled over the rim of her wineglass at Francis.

“Nobody,” said Helen, “asked how things are going for me, but I’ll tell you. They’re going just wonderful. Just wonderful.”

“She’s drunker than hell,” Francis said.

“Oh I’m loaded to the gills,” Helen said, giggling. “I can hardly walk.”

“You ain’t drunk even a nickel’s worth,” Jack said. “Franny’s the drunk one. You’re hopeless, right. Franny?”

“Helen’ll never amount to nothin’ if she stays with me,” Francis said.

“I always thought you were an intelligent man,” Jack said, and he swallowed half his wine, “but you can’t be, you can’t be.”

“You could be mistaken,” Helen said.

“Keep out of it,” Francis told her, and he hooked a thumb at her, facing Jack. “There’s enough right there to put you in the loony bin, just worryin’ about where she’s gonna live, where she’s gonna stay.”

“I think you could be a charmin’ man,” Jack said, “if you’d only get straight. You could have twenty dollars in your pocket at all times, make fifty, seventy-five a week, have a beautiful apartment with everything you want in it, all you want to drink, once you get straight.”

“I worked today up at the cemetery,” Francis said.

“Steady work?” asked Jack.

“Just today. Tomorrow I gotta see a fella needs some liftin’ done. The old back’s still tough enough.”

“You keep workin’ you’ll have fifty in your pocket.”

“I had fifty, I’d spend it on her,” Francis said. “Or buy a pair of shoes. Other pair wore out and Harry over at the old clothes joint give ‘em to me for a quarter. He seen me half barefoot and says, Francis you can’t go around like that, and he give me these. But they don’t fit right and I only got one of ‘em laced. Twine there in the other one. I got a shoestring in my pocket but ain’t put it in yet.”

“You mean you got the shoelace and you didn’t put it in the shoe?” Clara asked.

“I got it in my pocket,” Francis said.

“Then put it in the shoe.”

“I think it’s in this pocket here. You know where it is, Helen?”

“Don’t ask me.”

“Look and see,” Clara said.

“She wants me to put a shoestring in my shoe,” Francis said.

“Right,” said Clara.

Francis stopped fumbling in his pocket and let his hands fall away.

“I’m renegin’,” he said.

“You’re what?” Clara asked.

“I’m renegin’ and I don’t like to do that.”

 

o          o          o

 

Francis put down his wine, walked to the bathroom, and sat on the toilet, cover down, trying to understand why he’d lied about a shoestring. He smelled the odor that came up from his fetid crotch and stood up then and dropped his trousers. He stepped out of them, then pulled off his shorts and threw them in the sink. He lifted the toilet cover and sat on the seat, and with Jack’s soap and handfuls of water from the bowl, he washed his genitals and buttocks, and all their encrusted orifices, crevices, and secret folds. He rinsed himself, relathered, and rinsed again. He dried himself with one of Jack’s towels, picked his shorts out of the sink, and mopped the floor with them where he had splashed water. Then he filled the sink with hot water and soaked the shorts. He soaped them and they separated into two pieces in his hands. He let the water out of the sink, wrung the shorts, and put them in his coat pocket. He opened the door a crack and called out: “Hey, Jack,” and when Jack came, Francis hid his nakedness with a towel.

“Jack, old buddy, you got an old pair of shorts? Any old pair. Mine just ripped all to hell.”

“I’ll go look.”

“Could I borry the use of your razor?”

“Help yourself.”

Jack came back with the shorts and Francis put them on. Then, as Francis soaped his beard, Aldo Campione and Rowdy Dick Doolan entered the bathroom. Rowdy Dick, dapper in a three-piece blue-serge suit and a pearlgray cap, sat on the toilet, cover down. Aldo made himself comfortable on the rim of the tub, his gardenia unintimidated by the chill of the evening. Jack’s razor wouldn’t cut Francis’s three-day beard, and so he rinsed off the lather, soaked his face again in hot water, and relathered. While Francis rubbed the soap deeply into his beard, Rowdy Dick studied him but could remember nothing of Francis’s face. This was to be expected, for when last seen, it was night in Chicago, under a bridge not far from the railyards, and five men were sharing the wealth in 1930, a lean year. On the wall of the abutment above the five, as one of them had pointed out, a former resident of the space had inscribed a poem:

 

Poor little lamb,

He wakes up in the morning,

His fleece all cold.

He knows what’s coming.

Say, little lamb,

We’ll go on the bummer this summer.

We’ll sit in the shade

And drink lemonade,

The world’ll be on the hummer.

 

Rowdy Dick remembered this poem as well as he remembered the laughter of his sister, Mary, who was striped dead, sleigh riding, under the rails of a horsedrawn sleigh; as clearly as he remembered the plaintive, dying frown of his brother, Ted, who perished from a congenital hole in the heart. They had been three until then, living with an uncle because their parents had died, one by one, and left them alone. And then there was Dick, truly alone, who grew up tough, worked the docks, and then found an easier home in the Tenderloin, breaking the faces of nasty drunks, oily pickpockets, and fat tittypinchers. But that didn’t last either. Nothing lasted for Rowdy Dick, and he went on the bum and wound up under the bridge with Francis Phelan and three other now-faceless men. What he did remember of Francis was his hand, which now held a razor that stroked the soapy cheek.

What Francis remembered was talking about baseball that famous night. He’d begun by reliving indelible memories of his childhood as a way of explaining, at leisurely pace since none of them had anyplace to go, the generation of his drive to become a third baseman. He had been, he was saying, a boy playing among men, witnessing their talents, their peculiarities, their capacity to dive for a grounder, smash a line drive, catch a fly—all with the very ease of breath itself. They had played in the Van Woert Street polo grounds (Mulvaney’s goat pasture) and there were a heroic dozen and a half of them who came two or three evenings a week, some weeks, after work to practice; men in their late twenties and early thirties, reconstituting the game that had enraptured them in their teens. There was Andy Heffern, tall, thin, saturnine, the lunger who would die at Saranac, who could pitch but never run, and who played with a long-fingered glove that had no padding whatever in the pocket, only a wisp of leather that stood between the speed of the ball and Andy’s most durable palm. There was Windy Evans, who played outfield in his cap, spikes, and jock, and who caught the ball behind his back, long flies he would outrun by twenty minutes, and then plop would go that dilatory fly ball into the peach basket of his glove; and Windy would leap and beam and tell the world: There’s only a few of us left! And Red Cooley, the shortstop who was the pepper of Erancis’s ancient imagination, and who never stopped the chatter, who leaped at every ground ball as if it were the brass ring to heaven, and who, with his short-fingered glove, wanted for nothing to be judged the world’s greatest living ball player, if only it hadn’t been for the homegrown deference that kept him a prisoner of Arbor Hill for the rest of his limited life.

These reminiscences by Francis evoked from Rowdy Dick an envy that surpassed reason. Why should any man be so gifted not only with so much pleasurable history but also with a gift of gab that could mesmerize a quintet of bums around a fire under a bridge? Why were there no words that would unlock what lay festering in the heart of Rowdy Dick Doolan, who needed so desperately to express what he could never even know needed expression?

Well, the grand question went unanswered, and the magic words went undiscovered. For Rowdy Dick took vengeful focus on the shoes of the voluble Francis, which were both the most desirable and, except for the burning sticks and boards in the fire, the most visible objects under that Chicago bridge. And Rowdy Dick reached inside his shirt, where he kept the small meat cleaver he had carried ever since Colorado, and slid it out of its carrying case, which he had fashioned from cardboard, oilcloth, and string; and he told Francis then: I’m gonna cut your goddamn feet off; explaining this at first and instant lunge, but explaining, even then, rather too soon for achievement, for the reflexes of Francis were not so rubbery then as they might be now in Jack’s bathroom. They were full of fiber and acid and cannonade; and before Rowdy Dick, who had drunk too much of the homemade hooch he had bought, unquestionably too cheaply for sanity, earlier in the day, could make restitution for his impetuosity, Francis deflected the cleaver, which was aimed no longer at his feet but at his head, losing in the process two thirds of a right index finger and an estimated one eighth of an inch of flesh from the approximate center of his nose. He bled then in a wild careen, and with diminished hand knocking the cleaver from Rowdy Dick’s grip, he took hold of that same Rowdy Dick by pantleg and armpit and swung him, oh wrathful lambs, against the abutment where the poem was inscribed, swung him as a battering ram might be swung, and cracked Rowdy Dick’s skull from left parietal to the squamous area of the occipital, rendering him bloody, insensible, leaking, and instantly dead.

What Francis recalled of this unmanageable situation was the compulsion to flight, the most familiar notion, after the desire not to aspire, that he had ever entertained. And after searching, as swiftly as he knew how, for his lost digital joints, and after concluding that they had flown too deeply into the dust and the weeds ever to be retrieved again by any hand of any man, and after pausing also, ever so briefly, for a reconnoitering, not of what might be recoverable of the nose but of what might be visually memorable because of its separation into parts, Francis began to run, and in so doing, reconstituted a condition that was as pleasurable to his being as it was natural: the running of bases after the crack of the bat, the running from accusation, the running from the calumny of men and women, the running from family, from bondage, from destitution of spirit through ritualistic straightenings, the running, finally, in a quest for pure flight as a fulfilling mannerism of the spirit.

He found his way to a freight yard, found there an empty boxcar with open door, and so entered into yet another departure from completion: the true and total story of his life thus far. It was South Bend before he got to a hospital, where the intern asked him: Where’s the finger? And Francis said: In the weeds. And how about the nose? Where’s that piece of the nose? If you’d only brought me that piece of the nose, we might be able to put it back together and you wouldn’t even know it was gone.

All things had ceased to bleed by then, and so Francis was free once again from those deadly forces that so frequently sought to sever the line of his life.

He had stanched the flow of his wound.

He had stood staunchly irresolute in the face of capricious and adverse fate.

He had, oh wondrous man, stanched death its very self.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis dried his face with the towel, buttoned up his shirt, and put on his coat and trousers. He nodded an apology to Rowdy Dick for having taken his life and included in the nod the hope that Dick would understand it hadn’t been intentional. Rowdy Dick smiled and doffed his cap, creating an eruption of brilliance around his dome. Francis could see the line of Dick’s cranial fracture running through his hair like a gleaming river, and Francis understood that Rowdy Dick was in heaven, or so close to it that he was taking on the properties of an angel of the Lord. Dick put his cap on again and even the cap exuded a glow, like the sun striving to break through a pale, gray cloud. “Yes,” said Francis, “I’m sorry I broke your head so bad, but I hope you remember I had my reasons,” and he held up to Rowdy Dick his truncated finger. “You know, you can’t be a priest when you got a finger missin’. Can’t say mass with a hand like this. Can’t throw a baseball either.” He rubbed the bump in his nose with the stump of a finger. “Kind of a bump there, but what the hell. Doe put a big bandage on it, and it got itchy, so I ripped it off. Went back when it got infected, and the doe says, You shouldn’ta took off that bandage, because now I got to scrape it out and you’ll have an even bigger bump there. I’da had a bump anyway. What the hell, little bump like that don’t look too bad, does it? I ain’t complainin’. I don’t hold no grudges more’n five years.”

“You all right in there, Francis?” Helen called. “Who are you talking to?”

Francis waved to Rowdy Dick, understanding that some debts of violence had been settled, but he remained full of the awareness of rampant martyrdom surrounding him: martyrs to wrath, to booze, to failure, to loss, to hostile weather. Aldo Campione gestured at Francis, suggesting that while there may be some inconsistency about it, prayers were occasionally answerable, a revelation that did very little to improve Francis’s state of mind, for there had never been a time since childhood when he knew what to pray for.

“Hey bum,” he said to Jack when he stepped out of the bathroom, “how about a bum gettin’ a drink?”

“He ain’t no bum,” Clara said.

“Goddamn it, I know he ain’t,” Francis said. “He’s a hell of a man. A workin’ man.”

“How come you shaved?” Helen asked.

“Gettin’ itchy. Four days and them whiskers grow back inside again.”

“It sure improves how you look,” Clara said.

“That’s the truth,” said Jack.

“I knew Francis was handsome,” Clara said, “but this is the first time I ever saw you clean shaved.”

“I was thinkin’ about how many old bums I know died in the weeds. Wake up covered with snow and some of ‘em layin’ there dead as hell, froze stiff. Some get up and walk away from it. I did myself. But them others are gone for good. You ever know a guy named Rowdy Dick Doolan in your travels?”

“Never did,” Jack said.

“There was another guy, Pocono Pete, he died in Denver, froze like a brick. And Poocher Felton, he bought it in Detroit, pissed his pants and froze tight to the sidewalk. And a crazy bird they called Ward Six, no other name. They found him with a red icicle growin’ out of his nose. All them old guys, never had nothin’, never knew nothin’, stupid, thievin’, crazy. Foxy Phil Tooker, a skinny little runt, he froze all scrunched up, knees under his chin. ‘Stead of straightenin’ him out, they buried him in half a coffin. Lorda mercy, them geezers. I bet they all of ‘em, dyin’ like that, I bet they all wind up in heaven, if they ever got such a place.”

“I believe when you’re dead you go in the ground and that’s the end of it,” Jack said. “Heaven never made no sensicality to me whatsoever.”

“You wouldn’t get in anyhow,” Helen said. “They’ve got your reservations someplace else.”

“Then I’m with him,” Clara said. “Who’d want to be in heaven with all them nuns? God what a bore.”

Francis knew Clara less than three weeks, but he could see the curve of her life: sexy kid likes the rewards, goes pro, gets restless, marries and makes kids, chucks that, pro again, sickens, but really sick, gettin’ old, gettin’ ugly, locks onto Jack, turns monster. But she’s got most of her teeth, not bad; and that hair: you get her to a beauty shop and give her a marcel, it’d be all right; put her in new duds, high heels and silk stockin’s; and hey, look at them titties, and that leg: the skin’s clear on it.

Clara saw Francis studying her and gave him a wink. “I knew a fella once, looked a lot like you. I had the hots for him.”

“I’ll bet you did,” Helen said.

“He loved what I gave him.”

“Clara never lacked for boyfriends,” Jack said. “I’m a lucky man. But she’s pretty sick. That’s why you can’t stay. She eats a lot of toast.”

“Oh I could make some toast,” Helen said, standing up from her chair. “Would you like that?”

“If I feel like eatin’ I’ll make my own toast,” Clara said. “And I’m gettin’ ready to go to bed. Make sure you lock the door when you go out.”

Jack grabbed Francis by the arm and pulled him toward the kitchen, but not before Francis readjusted his vision of Clara sitting in the middle of her shit machine, sending up a silent reek from her ruined guts and their sewerage.

 

o          o          o

 

When Jack and Francis came back into the living room Francis was smoking one of Jack’s cigarettes. He dropped it as he reached for the wine, and Helen groaned.

“Everything fallin’ on the floor,” Francis said. “I don’t blame you for throwin’ these bums out if they can’t behave respectable.”

“It’s gettin’ late for me,” Jack said. “I used to get by on two, three hours’ sleep, but no more.”

“I ain’t stayed here in how long now?” Francis asked. “Two weeks, ain’t it?”

“Oh come on, Francis,” Clara said. “You were here not four days ago. And Helen last night. And last Sunday you were here.”

“Sunday we left,” Helen said.

“I flopped here two nights, wasn’t it?” Francis said.

“Six,” Jack said. “Like a week.”

“I beg to differ with you,” Helen said.

“It was over a week,” Jack said.

“I know different,” said Helen.

“From Monday to Sunday.”

“Oh no.”

“It’s a little mixed up,” Francis said.

“He’s got a lot of things mixed up,” Helen said. “I hope you don’t get your food mixed up like that down at the diner.”

“No,” Jack said.

“You know, you’re very insultin’,” Francis said to Helen.

“It was a week,” Jack said.

“You’re a liar,” Helen said.

“Don’t call me a liar because I know so.”

“Haven’t you got any brains at all?” Francis said. “You supposed to be a college woman, you supposed to be this and that.”

“I am a college woman.”

“You know what I thought,” Jack said, “was for you to stay here, Franny, till you get work, till you pick up a little bankroll. You don’t have to give me nothin’.”

“Shake hands on it,” Helen said.

“I don’t know about the proposition now,” Jack said.

“Because I’m a bum,” Francis said.

“No, I wouldn’t put it that way.” Jack poured more wine for Francis.

“I knew he didn’t mean it,” Helen said.

“I’m gonna tell you,” Francis said. “I always thought a lot of Clara.”

“You’re drunk, Francis,” Helen screamed, standing up again. “Stay drunk for the rest of your life. I’m leaving you, Francis. You’re crazy. All you want is to guzzle wine. You’re insane!”

“What’d I say?” Francis asked. “I said I liked Clara.”

“Nothin’ wrong about that,” Jack said.

“I don’t mind about that,” Helen said, sitting down.

“I don’t know what to do with that woman,” Francis said.

“Do you even know if you’re staying here tonight?” Helen asked.

“No, he’s not,” Jack said. “Take him with you when you go.”

“We’re going,” Helen said.

“Clara’s too sick, Francis,” said Jack.

Francis sipped his wine, put it on the table, and struck a tap dancer’s pose.

“How you like these new duds of mine, Clara? You didn’t tell me how swell I look, all dressed up.”

“You look sharp,” Clara said.

“You can’t keep up with Francis.”

“Don’t waste your time, Francis,” Helen said.

“You’re getting very hostile, you know that? Listen, you want to sleep with me in the weeds tonight?”

“I never slept in the weeds,” Helen said.

“Never?” asked Clara.

“No, never,” said Helen.

“Oh yes,” Francis said. “She slept in the coaches with me, and the fields.”

“Never. You made that up, Francis.”

“We been through the valley together,” Francis said.

“Maybe you have,” said Helen. “I’ve never gone that far down and I don’t intend to go that far down.”

“It ain’t far to go. She slept in Finny’s car night before last.”

“That’s the last time. If it came to that, I’d get in touch with my people.”

“You really ought to get in touch with them, dearie,” said Clara.

“My people are very high class. My brother is a very well-to-do lawyer but I don’t like to ask him for anything.”

“Sometimes you have to,” Jack said. “You oughta move in with him.”

“Then Francis’d be out. No, I’ve got Francis. We’d get married tomorrow if only he could get a divorce, wouldn’t we, Fran.”

“That’s right, honey.”

“We battle sometimes, but only when he drinks. Then he goes haywire.”

“You oughta get straight, Franny.” Jack said. “You could have twenty bucks in your pocket at all times. They need men like you. You could have everything you want. A new Victrola like that one right there. That’s a honey.”

“I had all that shit,” Francis said.

“It’s late,” Clara said.

“Yeah, people,” said Jack. “Gotta hit the hay.”

“Fix me a sandwich, will ya?” Francis asked. “To take out.”

“No,” Clara said.

Helen rose, screaming, and started for Clara. “You forget when you were hungry.”

“Sit down and shut up,” Francis said.

“I won’t shut up. I remember when she came to my place years ago, begging for food. I know her a long time. I’m honest in what I know.”

“I never begged,” said Clara.

“He only asked for a sandwich,” said Helen.

“I’m gonna give him a sandwich,” Jack said.

“Jack don’t want you to come back again,” Francis said to Helen.

“I don’t want to ever come back again,” Helen said.

“He asked for a sandwich,” Jack said, “I’ll give him a sandwich.”

“I knew you would,” Francis told him.

“Damn right I’ll give you a sandwich.”

“Damn right,” Francis said, “and I knew it.”

“I don’t want to be bothered,” Clara said.

“Sharp cheese. You like sharp cheese?”

“My favorite,” Francis said.

Jack went to the kitchen and came back into a silent room with a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper. Francis took it and put it in his coat. Helen stood in the doorway.

“Good night, pal,” Francis said to Jack.

“Best of luck,” Jack said.

“See you around,” Francis said to Clara.

“Toodle-oo,” said Clara.

 

o          o          o

 

On the street, Francis felt the urge to run. Ten Broeck Street, in the direction they were walking, inclined downward toward Clinton Avenue, and he felt the gravitational fall driving him into a trot that would leave her behind to solve her own needs. The night seemed colder than before, and clearer too, the moon higher in its sterile solitude. North Pearl Street was deserted, no cars, no people at this hour, one-forty-five by the great clock on the First Church. They had walked three blocks without speaking and now they were heading back toward where they had begun, toward the South End, the mission, the weeds.

“Where the hell you gonna sleep now?” Francis asked.

“I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t stay there if they gave me silk sheets and mink pillows. I remember her when she was whoring and always broke. Now she’s so high and mighty. I had to speak my piece.”

“You didn’t accomplish anything.”

“Did Jack really say that they don’t want me anymore?”

“Right. But they asked me to stay. Clara thinks you’re a temptation to Jack. The way I figure, if I give her some attention she won’t worry about you, but you’re so goddamn boisterous. Here. Have a piece of sandwich.”

“It’d choke me.”

“It won’t choke you. You’ll be glad for it.”

“I’m not a phony.”

“I’m not a phony either.”

“You’re not, eh?”

“You know what I’ll do?” He grabbed her collar and her throat and screamed into her eyes. “I’ll knock you right across that goddamn street! You don’t bullshit me one time. Be a goddamn woman! That’s the reason you can’t flop with nobody. I can go up there right now and sleep. Jack said I could stay.”

“He did not.”

“He certainly did. But they don’t want you. I asked for a sandwich. Did I get it?”

“You’re really stupendous and colossal.”

“Listen”—-and he still held her by the collar—”you squint your eyes at me and I’ll knock you over that goddamn automobile. You been a pain in the ass to me for nine years. They don’t want you because you’re a pain in the ass.”

Headlights moved north on Pearl Street, coming toward them, and Francis let go of her; she did not move, but stared at him.

“You got some goddamn eyes, you know?” He was screaming. “I’ll black ‘em for you. You’re a horse’s ass! You know what I’ll do? I’ll rip that fuckin’ coat off and put you in rags.”

She did not move her body or her eyes.

“I’m gonna eat this sandwich. Whole hunk of cheese.”

“I don’t want it.”

“By god I do. I’ll be hungry tomorrow. It won’t choke me. I’m thankful for everything.”

“You’re a perfect saint.”

“Listen. Straighten up or I’m gonna kill you.”

“I won’t eat it. It’s rat food.”

“I’m gonna kill you!” Francis screamed. “Goddamn it, you hear what I said? Don’t drive me insane. Be a goddamn woman and go the fuck to bed somewhere.”

They walked, not quite together, toward Madison Avenue, south again on South Pearl, retracing their steps. Francis brushed Helen’s arm and she moved away from him.

“You gonna stay at the mission with Pee Wee?”

“No.”

“Then you gonna stay with me?”

“I’m going to call my brother.”

“Good. Call him. Call him a couple of times.”

“I’ll have him meet me someplace.”

“Where you gonna get the nickel to make the call?”

“That’s my business. God, Francis, you were all right till you started on the wine. Wine, wine, wine.”

“I’ll get some cardboard. We’ll go to that old building.”

“The police keep raiding that place. I don’t want to go to jail. I don’t know why you didn’t stay with Jack and Clara since you were so welcome.”

“You’re a woman for abuse.”

They walked east on Madison, past the mission. Helen did not look in. When they reached Green Street she stopped.

“I’m going down below.” she said.

“Who you kiddin’?” Francis said. “You got no place to go. You’ll be knocked on the head.”

“That wouldn’t he the worst ever happened to me.”

“We got to find something. Can’t leave a dog out like this.”

“Shows you what kind of people they are up there.”

“Stay with me.’’

“No, Francis. You’re crazy.”

He grabbed the hair at the back of her head, then held her whole head in both hands.

“You’re gonna hit me,” she said.

“I wont hit ya, babe. I love ya some. Are ya awful cold?”

“I don’t think I’ve been warm once in two days.’’

Francis let go of her and took off his suitcoat and put it around her shoulders.

“No, it’s too cold for you to do that,” she said. “I’ve got this coat. You can’t be in just a shirt.’’

“What the hell’s the difference. Coat ain’t no protection.”

She handed him back the coat. “I’m going.” she said.

“Don’t walk away from me.” Francis said. “You’ll be lost in the world.”

But she walked away. And Francis leaned against the light pole on the corner, lit the cigarette Jack had given him, fingered the dollar bill Jack had slipped him in the kitchen, ate what was left of the cheese sandwich, and then threw his old undershorts down the sewer.

 

o          o          o

 

Helen walked down Green Street to a vacant lot, where she saw a fire in an oil drum. From across the street she could see five coloreds around the fire, men and women. On an old sofa in the weeds just beyond the drum, she saw a white woman lying underneath a colored man. She walked back to where Francis waited.

“I couldn’t stay outside tonight,” she said. “I’d die.”

Francis nodded and they walked to Finny’s car, a 1930 black Oldsmobile, dead and wheelless in an alley off John Street. Two men were asleep in it, Finny in the front passenger seat.

“I don’t know that man in back,” Helen said.

“Yeah you do,” said Francis. “That’s Little Red from the mission. He won’t bother you. If he does I’ll pull out his tongue.”

“I don’t want to get in there, Francis.”

“It’s warm, anyhow. Cold in them weeds, honey, awful cold. You walk the streets alone, they’ll pinch you quicker’n hell.”

“You get in the back.”

“No. No room in there for the likes of me. Legs’re too long.”

“Where will you go?”

“I’ll find me some of them tall weeds, get outa the wind.”

“Are you coming back?”

“Sure, I’ll be back. You get a good sleep and I’ll see you here or up at the mission in the ayem.”

“I don’t want to stay here.”

“You got to, babe. It’s what there is.”

Francis opened the passenger door and shook Finny.

“Hey bum. Move over. You got a visitor.”

Finny opened his eyes, heavy with wine. Little Red was snoring.

“Who the hell are you?” Finny said.

“It’s Francis. Move over and let Helen in.”

“Francis.” Finny raised his head.

“I’ll get you a jug tomorrow for this, old buddy,” Francis said. “She’s gotta get in outa this weather.”

“Yeah,” said Finny.

“Never mind yeah, just move your ass over and let her sit. She can’t sleep behind that wheel, condition her stomach’s in.”

“Unnngghh,” said Finny, and he slid behind the wheel.

Helen sat on the front seat, dangling her legs out of the car. Francis stroked her cheek with three fingertips and then let his hand fall. She lifted her legs inside.

“You don’t have to be scared,” Francis said.

“I’m not scared,” Helen said. “Not that.”

“Finny won’t let nothin’ happen to you. I’ll kill the son of a bitch if he does.”

“She knows,” Finny said. “She’s been here before.”

“Sure,” said Francis. “Nothing can happen to you.”

“No.”

“See you in the mornin’.”

“Sure.”

“Keep the faith,” Francis said.

And he closed the car door.

 

o          o          o

 

He walked with an empty soul toward the north star, magnetized by an impulse to redirect his destiny. He had slept in the weeds of a South End vacant lot too many times. He would do it no more. Because he needed to confront the ragman in the morning, he would not chance arrest by crawling into a corner of one of the old houses on lower Broadway where the cops swept through periodically with their mindless net. What difference did it make whether four or six or eight lost men slept under a roof and out of the wind in a house with broken stairs and holes in the floors you could fall through to death, a house that for five or maybe ten years had been inhabited only by pigeons? What difference?

He walked north on Broadway, past Steamboat Square, where as a child he’d boarded the riverboats for outings to Troy, or Kingston, or picnics on Lagoon Island. He passed the D & H building and Billy Barnes’s Albany Evening Journal, a building his simpleminded brother Tommy had helped build in 1913. He walked up to Maiden Lane and Broadway, where Keeler’s Hotel used to be, and where his brother Peter sometimes spent the night when he was on the outs with Mama. But Keeler’s burned the year after Francis ran away and now it was a bunch of stores. Francis had rowed down Broadway to the hotel, Billy in the rowboat with him, in 1913 when the river rose away the hell and gone up and flooded half of downtown. The kid loved it. Said he liked it better’n sleigh ridin’. Gone. What the hell ain’t gone? Well, me. Yeah, me. Ain’t a whole hell of a lot of me left, but I ain’t gone entirely. Be goddiddley-damned if I’m gonna roll over and die.

Francis walked half an hour due north from downtown, right into North Albany. At Main Street he turned east toward the river, down Main Street’s little incline past the McGraw house, then past the Greenes’, the only coloreds in all North Albany in the old days, past the Daugherty house, where Martin still lived, no lights on, and past the old Wheelbarrow, Iron Joe Farrell’s old saloon, all boarded up now, where Francis learned how to drink, where he watched cockfights in the back room, and where he first spoke to Annie Farrell.

He walked toward the flats, where the canal used to be, long gone and the ditch filled in. The lock was gone and the lockhouse too, and the towpath all grown over. Yet incredibly, as he neared North Street, he saw a structure he recognized. Son of a bitch. Welt the Tin’s barn, still standing. Who’d believe it? Could Welt the Tin be livin’? Not likely. Too dumb to live so long. Was it in use? Still a barn? Looks like a barn. But who keeps horses now?

The barn was a shell, with a vast hole in the far end of the roof where moonlight poured cold fire onto the ancient splintered floor. Bats flew in balletic arcs around the streetlamp outside, the last lamp on North Street; and the ghosts of mules and horses snorted and stomped for Francis. He scuffed at the floorboards himself and found them solid. He touched them and found them dry. One barn door canted on one hinge, and Francis calculated that if he could move the door a few feet to sleep in its lee, he would be protected from the wind on three sides. No moonlight leaked through the roof above this corner, the same corner where Welt the Tin had hung his rakes and pitchforks, all in a row between spaced nails.

Francis would reclaim this corner, restore all rakes and pitchforks, return for the night the face of Welt the Tin as it had been, reinvest himself with serendipitous memories of a lost age. On a far shelf in the moonlight he saw a pile of papers and a cardboard box. He spread the papers in his chosen corner, ripped the box at its seams, and lay down on the flattened pile.

He had lived not seventy-five feet from where he now lay.

Seventy-five feet from this spot, Gerald Phelan died on the 26th of April, 1916.

In Finny’s car Helen would probably be pulling off Finny, or taking him in her mouth. Finny would be unequal to intercourse, and Helen would be too fat for a toss in the front seat. Helen would be equal to any such task. He knew, though she had never told him, that she once had to fuck two strangers to be able to sleep in peace. Francis accepted this cuckoldry as readily as he accepted the onus of pulling the blanket off Clara and penetrating whatever dimensions of reek necessary to gain access to a bed. Fornication was standard survival currency everywhere, was it not?

Maybe I won’t survive tonight after all, Francis thought as he folded his hands between his thighs. He drew his knees up toward his chest, not quite so high as Foxy Phil Tooker’s, and considered the death he had caused in this life, and was perhaps causing still. Helen is dying and Francis is perhaps the principal agent of hastening her death, even as his whole being tonight has been directed to keeping her from freezing in the dust like Sandra. I don’t want to die before you do, Helen, is what Francis thought. You’ll be like a little kid in the world without me.

He thought of his father flying through the air and knew the old man was in heaven. The good leave us behind to think about the deeds they did. His mother would be in purgatory, probably for goddamn ever. She wasn’t evil enough for hell, shrew of shrews that she was, denier of life. But he couldn’t see her ever getting a foot into heaven either, if they ever got such a place.

The new and frigid air of November lay on Francis like a blanket of glass. Its weight rendered him motionless and brought peace to his body, and the stillness brought a cessation of anguish to his brain. In a dream he was only just beginning to enter, horns and mountains rose up out of the earth, the horns—ethereal, trumpets—sounding with a virtuosity equal to the perilousness of the crags and cornices of the mountainous pathways. Francis recognized the song the trumpets played and he floated with its melody. Then, yielding not without trepidation to its coded urgency, he ascended bodily into the exalted reaches of the world where the song had been composed so long ago. And he slept.

 

IV

 

Francis stood in the junkyard driveway, looking for old Rosskam. Gray clouds that looked like two flying piles of dirty socks blew swiftly past the early-morning sun, the world shimmered in a sudden blast of incandescence, and Francis blinked. His eyes roved over a cemetery of dead things: rusted-out gas stoves, broken wood stoves, dead iceboxes, and bicycles with twisted wheels. A mountain of worn-out rubber tires cast its shadow on a vast plain of rusty pipes, children’s wagons, toasters, automobile fenders. A three-sided shed half a block long sheltered a mountain range of cardboard, paper, and rags.

Francis stepped into this castoff world and walked toward a wooden shack, small and tilted, with a swayback horse hitched to a four-wheeled wooden wagon in front of it. Beyond the wagon a small mountain of wagon wheels rose alongside a sprawling scatter of pans, cans, irons, pots, and kettles, and a sea of metal fragments that no longer had names.

Francis saw probably Rosskam, framed in the shack’s only window, watching him approach. Francis pushed open the door and confronted the man, who was short, filthy, and sixtyish, a figure of visible sinew, moon-faced, bald, and broad-chested, with fingers like the roots of an oak tree.

“Howdy,” Francis said.

“Yeah,” said Rosskam.

“Preacher said you was lookin’ for a strong back.”

“It could be. You got one, maybe?”

“Stronger than some.”

“You can pick up an anvil?”

“You collectin’ anvils, are you?”

“Collect everything.”

“Show me the anvil.”

“Ain’t got one.”

“Then I’d play hell pickin’ it up.”

“How about the barrel. You can pick that up?”

He pointed to an oil drum, half full of wood scraps and junk metal. Francis wrapped his arms around it and lifted it, with difficulty.

“Where’d you like it put?”

“Right where you got it off.”

“You pick up stuff like this yourself?” Francis asked.

Rosskam stood and lifted the drum without noticeable strain, then held it aloft.

“You got to be in mighty fair shape, heftin’ that,” said Francis. “That’s one heavy item.”

“You call this heavy?” Rosskam said, and he heaved the drum upward and set its bottom edge on his right shoulder. Then he let it slide to chest level, hugged it, and set it down.

“I do a lifetime of lifting,” he said.

“I see that clear. You own this whole shebang here?”

“All. You still want to work?”

“What are you payin’?”

“Seven dollar. And work till dark.”

“Seven. That ain’t much for back work.”

“Some might even bite at it.”

“It’s worth eight or nine.”

“You got better, take it. People feed families all week on seven dollar.”

“Seven-fifty.”

“Seven.”

“All right, what the hell’s the difference?”

“Get up the wagon.”

Two minutes in the moving wagon told Francis his tailbone would be grieving by day’s end, if it lasted that long. The wagon bounced over the granite blocks and the trolley tracks, and the men rode side by side in silence through the bright streets of morning. Francis was glad for the sunshine, and felt rich seeing the people of his old city rising for work, opening stores and markets, moving out into a day of substance and profit. Clearheadedness always brought optimism to Francis; a long ride on a freight when there was nothing to drink made way for new visions of survival, and sometimes he even went out and looked for work. But even as he felt rich, he felt dead. He had not found Helen and he had to find her. Helen was lost again. The woman makes a goddamn career out of being lost. Probably went to mass someplace. But why didn’t she come back to the mission for coffee, and for Francis? Why the hell should Helen always make Francis feel dead?

Then he remembered the story about Billy in the paper and he brightened. Pee Wee read it first and gave it to him. It was a story about Francis’s son Billy, written by Martin Daugherty, the newspaperman, who long ago lived next door to the Phelans on Colonie Street. It was the story of Billy getting mixed up in the kidnapping of the nephew of Patsy McCall, the boss of Albany’s political machine. They got the nephew back safely, but Billy was in the middle because he wouldn’t inform on a suspected kidnapper. And there was Martin’s column defending Billy, calling Patsy McCall a very smelly bag of very small potatoes for being rotten to Billy.

“So how do you like it?” Rosskam said.

“Like what?” said Francis.

“Sex business,” Rosskam said. “Women stuff.”

“I don’t think much about it anymore.”

“You bums, you do a lot of dirty stuff up the heinie, am I right?”

“Some like it that way. Not me.”

“How do you like it?”

“I don’t even like it anymore, I’ll tell you the truth. I’m over the hill.”

“A man like you? How old? Fifty-five? Sixty-two?”

“Fifty-eight,” said Francis.

“Seventy-one here,” said Rosskam. “I go over no hills. Four, five times a night I get it in with the old woman. And in the daylight, you never know.”

“What’s the daylight?”

“Women. They ask for it. You go house to house, you get offers. This is not a new thing in the world.”

“I never went house to house,” Francis said.

“Half my life I go house to house,” said Rosskam, “and I know how it is. You get offers.”

“You probably get a lot of clap, too.”

“Twice all my life. You use the medicine, it goes away. Those ladies, they don’t do it so often to get disease. Hungry is what they got, not clap.”

“They bring you up to bed in your old clothes?”

“In the cellar. They love it down the cellar. On the woodpile. In the coal. On top the newspapers. They follow me down the stairs and bend over the papers to show me their bubbies, or they up their skirts on the stairs ahead of me, showing other things. Best I ever got lately was on top of four ash cans. Very noisy, but some woman. The things she said you wouldn’t repeat. Hot, hotsy, oh my. This morning we pay her a visit, up on Arbor Hill. You wait in the wagon. It don’t take long, if you don’t mind.”

“Why should I mind? It’s your wagon, you’re the boss.”

“That’s right. I am the boss.”

They rode up to Northern Boulevard and started down Third Street, all downhill so as not to kill the horse. House by house they went, carting out old clocks and smashed radios, papers always, two boxes of broken-backed books on gardening, a banjo with a broken neck, cans, old hats, rags.

“Here,” old Rosskam said when they reached the hot lady’s house. “If you like, watch by the cellar window. She likes lookers and I don’t mind it.”

Francis shook his head and sat alone on the wagon, staring down Third Street. He could have reconstructed this street from memory. Childhood, young manhood were passed on the streets of Arbor Hill, girls discovering they had urges, boys capitalizing on this discovery. In the alleyways the gang watched women undress, and one night they watched the naked foreplay of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan until they put out the light. Joey Kilmartin whacked off during that show. The old memory aroused Francis sexually. Did he want a woman? No. Helen? No, no. He wanted to watch the Ryans again, getting ready to go at it. He climbed down from the wagon and walked into the alley of the house where Rosskam’s hot lady lived. He walked softly, listening, and he heard groaning, inaudible words, and the sound of metal fatigue. He crouched down and peered in the cellar window at the back of the house, and there they were on the ash cans, Rosskam’s pants hanging from his shoes, on top of a lady with her dress up to her neck. When Francis brought the scene into focus, he could hear their words.

“Oh boyoboy,” Rosskam was saying, “oh boyoboy.”

“Hey I love it,” said the hot lady. “Do I love it? Do I love it?”

“You love it,” said Rosskam. “Oh boyoboy.”

“Gimme that stick,” said the hot lady. “Gimme it, gimme it, gimme, gimme, gimme that stick.”

“Oh take it,” said Rosskam. “Oh take it.”

“Oh gimme it,” said the hot lady. “I’m a hot slut. Gimme it.”

“Oh boyoboy,” said Rosskam.

The hot lady saw Francis at the window and waved to him. Francis stood up and went back to the wagon, conjuring memories against his will. Bums screwing in boxcars, women gang-banged in the weeds, a girl of eight raped, and then the rapist kicked half to death by other bums and rolled out of the moving train. He saw the army of women he had known: women upside down, women naked, women with their skirts up, their legs open, their mouths open, women in heat, women sweating and grunting under and over him, women professing love, desire, joy, pain, need. Helen.

He met Helen at a New York bar, and when they found out they were both from Albany, love took a turn toward the sun. He kissed her and she tongued him. He stroked her body, which was old even then, but vital and full and without the tumor, and they confessed a fiery yearning for each other. Francis hesitated to carry it through, for he had been off women eight months, having finally and with much discomfort rid himself of the crabs and a relentless, pusy drip. Yet the presence of Helen’s flaming body kept driving away his dread of disease, and finally, when he saw they were going to be together for much more than a one-fighter, he told her: I wouldn’t touch ya, babe. Not till I got me a checkup. She told him to wear a sheath but he said he hated them goddamn things. Get us a blood test, that’s what we’ll do, he told her, and they pooled their money and went to the hospital and both got a clean bill and then took a room and made love till they wore out. Love, you are my member rubbed raw. Love, you are an unstoppable fire. You burn me, love. I am singed, blackened. Love, I am ashes.

 

o          o          o

 

The wagon rolled on and Francis realized it was heading for Colonie Street, where he was born and raised, where his brothers and sisters still lived. The wagon wheels squeaked as they moved and the junk in the back rattled and bounced, announcing the prodigal’s return. Francis saw the house where he grew up, still the same colors, brown and tan, the vacant lot next to it grown tall with weeds where the Daugherty house and the Brothers’ School had stood until they burned.

He saw his mother and father alight from their honeymoon carriage in front of the house and, with arms entwined, climb the front stoop. Michael Phelan wore his trainman’s overalls and looked as he had the moment before the speeding train struck him. Kathryn Phelan, in her wedding dress, looked as she had when she hit Francis with an open hand and sent him sprawling backward into the china closet.

“Stop here a minute, will you?” Francis said to Rosskam, who had uttered no words since ascending from his cellar of passion.

“Stop?” Rosskam said, and he reined the horse.

The newlyweds stepped across the threshold and into the house. They climbed the front stairs to the bedroom they would share for all the years of their marriage, the room that now was also their shared grave, a spatial duality as reasonable to Francis as the concurrence of this moment both in the immediate present of his fifty-eighth year of life and in the year before he was born: that year of sacramental consummation, 1879. The room had about it the familiarity of his young lifetime. The oak bed and the two oak dressers were as rooted to their positions in the room as the trees that shaded the edge of the Phelan burial plot. The room was redolent of the blend of maternal and paternal odors, which separated themselves when Francis buried his face deeply in either of the personal pillows, or opened a drawer full of private garments, or inhaled the odor of burned tobacco in a cold pipe, say, or the fragrance of a cake of Pears’ soap, kept in a drawer as a sachet.

In their room Michael Phelan embraced his new wife of fifty-nine years and ran a finger down the crevice of her breasts; and Francis saw his mother-to-be shudder with what he assumed was the first abhorrent touch of love. Because he was the firstborn, Francis’s room was next to theirs, and so he had heard their nocturnal rumblings for years; and he well knew how she perennially resisted her husband. When Michael would finally overcome her, either by force of will or by threatening to take their case to the priest, Francis would hear her gurgles of resentment, her moans of anguish, her eternal arguments about the sinfulness of all but generative couplings. For she hated the fact that people even knew that she had committed intercourse in order to have children, a chagrin that was endlessly satisfying to Francis all his life.

Now, as her husband lifted her chemise over her head, the virginal mother of six recoiled with what Francis recognized for the first time to be spiritually induced terror, as visible in her eyes in 1879 as it was in the grave. Her skin was as fresh and pink as the taffeta lining of her coffin, but she was, in her youthfully rosy bloom, as lifeless as the spun silk of her magenta burial dress. She has been dead all her life, Francis thought, and for the first time in years he felt pity for this woman, who had been spayed by self-neutered nuns and self-gelded priests. As she yielded her fresh body to her new husband out of obligation, Francis felt the iron maiden of induced chastity piercing her everywhere, tightening with the years until all sensuality was strangulated and her body was as bloodless and cold as a granite angel.

She closed her eyes and fell back on the wedding bed like a corpse, ready to receive the thrust, and the old man’s impeccable blood shot into her aged vessel with a passionate burst that set her writhing with the life of newly conceived death. Francis watched this primal pool of his own soulish body squirm into burgeoning matter, saw it change and grow with the speed of light until it was the size of an infant, saw it then yanked roughly out of the maternal cavern by his father, who straightened him, slapped him into being, and swiftly molded him into a bestial weed. The body sprouted to wildly matured growth and stood fully clad at last in the very clothes Francis was now wearing. He recognized the toothless mouth, the absent finger joints, the bump on the nose, the mortal slouch of this newborn shade, and he knew then that he would be this decayed self he had been so long in becoming, through all the endless years of his death.

 

o          o          o

 

“Giddap,” said Rosskam to his horse, and the old nag clomped on down the hill of Colonie Street.

“Raaaa-aaaaaags,” screamed Rosskam. “Raaaa-aaaaaags.” The scream was a two-noted song, C and B-flat, or maybe F and E-flat. And from a window across the street from the Phelan house, a woman’s head appeared.

“Goooo-ooooooo.” she called in two-noted answer. “Raaaag-maaan.”

Rosskam pulled to a halt in front of’ the alley alongside her house.

“On the back porch.” she said. “Papers and a washtub and some old clothes.”

Rosskam braked his wagon and climbed down.

“Well?” he said to Francis.

“I don’t want to go in,” Francis said. “I know her.”

“So what’s that?”

“I don’t want her to see me. Mrs. Dillon Her husband’s a railroad man. I know them all my life. My family lives in that house over there. I was born up the street. I don’t want people on this block to see me looking like a bum.”

“But you’re a bum.”

“Me and you know that, but they don’t. I’ll cart anything. I’ll cart it all the next time you stop. But not on this street. You understand?”

“Sensitive bum. I got a sensitive bum working for me.”

While Rosskam went for the junk alone, Francis stared across the street and saw his mother in housedress and apron surreptitiously throwing salt on the roots of the young maple tree that grew in the Daugherty yard but had the temerity to drop twigs, leaves, and pods onto the Phelan tomato plants and flowers. Kathryn Phelan told her near-namesake, Katrina Daugherty, that the tree’s droppings and shade were unwelcome at the Phelans’. Katrina trimmed what she could of the tree’s low branches and asked Francis, a neighborhood handy man at seventeen to help her trim the higher ones; and he did: climbed aloft and sawed living arms off the vigorous young tree. But for every branch cut, new life sprouted elsewhere, and the tree thickened. to a lushness unlike that of any other tree on Arbor Hill, infuriating Kathryn Phelan, who increased her dosage of salt on the roots, which waxed and grew under and beyond the wooden fence and surfaced ever more brazenly on Phelan property.

Why do you want to kill the tree. Mama? Francis asked.

And his mother said it was because the tree had no right insinuating itself into other people’s yards. If we want a tree in the sard we’ll plant our own, she said. and threw more salt Some leases withered on the tree and one branch died entirely. But the salting failed, for Francis saw the tree now, twice its old sue, a giant thing in the world, rising high out of the weeds and toward the sun from what used to be the Daugherty yard.

On this high noon in 1938, under the sun’s full brilliance, the tree restored itself to its half size of forty-one years past, a July morning in 1897 when Francis was sitting on a middle branch, sawing the end off a branch above him. He heard the back door of the Daughertys’ new house open and close, and he looked down from his perch to see Katrina Daugherty, carrying her small shopping bag, weanng a gray sun hat, gray satin evening slippers, and nothing else. She descended the five steps of the back piazza and strode toward the new barn, where the Daugherty landau and horse were kept.

“Mrs. Daugherty?” Francis called out, and he leaped down from the tree. “Are you all right?”

“I’m going downtown, Francis.” she said.

“Shouldn’t you put something on? Some clothes?”

“Clothes?” she said. She looked down at her naked self and then cocked her head and widened her eyes into quizzical rigidity.

“Mrs. Daugherty.” Francis said, but she gave no response, nor did she move. From the piazza railing that he was building, Francis lifted a piece of forest-green canvas he would eventually install as an awning on a side window, and wrapped the naked woman in it, picking her up in his arms then, and carrying her into her house. He sat her on the sofa in the back parlor and, as the canvas slid slowly away from her shoulders, he searched the house for a garment and found a housecoat hanging behind the pantry door. He stood her up and shoved her arms into the housecoat, tied its belt at her waist, covering her body fully, and undid the chin ribbon that held her hat. Then he sat her down again on the sofa.

He found a bottle of Scotch whiskey in a cabinet and poured her an inch in a goblet from the china closet, held it to her lips, and cajoled her into tasting it. Whiskey is magic and will cure all your troubles. Katrina sipped it and smiled and said, “Thank you, Francis. You are very thoughtful,” her eyes no longer wide, the glaze gone from them, her rigidity banished, and the softness of her face and body restored.

“Are you feeling better?” he asked her.

“I’m fine, fine indeed. And how are you, Francis?”

“Do you want me to go and get your husband?”

“My husband? My husband is in New York City, and rather difficult to reach, I’m afraid. What did you want with my husband?”

“Someone in your family you’d like me to get, maybe? You seem to be having some kind of spell.”

“Spell? What do you mean, spell?”

“Outside. In the back.”

“The back?”

“You came out without any clothes on, and then you went stiff.”

“Now really, Francis, do you think you should be so familiar?”

“I put that housecoat on you. I carried you indoors.”

“You carried me?”

“Wrapped in canvas. That there.” And he pointed to the canvas on the floor in front of the sofa. Katrina stared at the canvas, put her hand inside the fold of her housecoat, and felt her naked breast. In her face, when she again looked up at him, Francis saw lunar majesty, a chilling fusion of beauty and desolation. At the far end of the front parlor, observing all from behind a chair, Francis saw also the forehead and eyes of Katrina Daugherty’s nine-year old son, Martin.

 

o          o          o

 

A month passed, and on a day when Francis was doing finishing work on the doors of the Daugherty carriage barn, Katrina called out to him from the back porch and beckoned him into the house, then to the back parlor, where she sat again on the same sofa, wearing a long yellow afternoon frock with a soft collar. She looked like a sunbeam to Francis as she motioned him into a chair across from the sofa.

“May I make you some tea, Francis?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you care for one of my husband’s cigars?”

“No, ma’am. I don’t use ‘em.”

“Have you none of the minor vices? Do you perhaps drink whiskey?”

“I’ve had a bit but the most I drink of is ale.”

“Do you think I’m mad, Francis?”

“Mad? How do you mean that?”

“Mad. Mad as the Red Queen. Peculiar. Crazy, if you like. Do you think Katrina is crazy?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Not even after my spell?”

“I just took it as a spell. A spell don’t have to be crazy.”

“Of course you’re correct, Francis. I am not crazy. With whom have you talked about that day’s happenings?”

“No one, ma’am.”

“No one? Not even your family?”

“No, ma’am, no one.”

“I sensed you hadn’t. May I ask why?”

Francis dropped his eyes, spoke to his lap. “Could be, people wouldn’t understand. Might figure it the wrong way.”

“How wrong?”

“Might figure they was some goin’s on. People with no clothes isn’t what you’d call reg’lar business.”

“You mean people would make something up? Conjure an imaginary relationship between us?”

“Might be they would. Most times they don’t need that much to start their yappin’.”

“So you’ve been protecting us from scandal with your silence.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Would you please not call me ma’am. It makes you sound like a servant. Call me Katrina.”

“I couldn’t do that.”

“Why couldn’t you?”

“It’s more familiar than I oughta get.”

“But it’s my name. Hundreds of people call me Katrina.”

Francis nodded and let the word sit on his tongue. He tried it out silently, then shook his head. “I can’t get it out,” he said, and he smiled.

“Say it. Say Katrina.”

“Katrina.”

“So there, you’ve gotten it out. Say it again.”

“Katrina.”

“Fine. Now say: May I help you, Katrina?”

“May I help you, Katrina?”

“Splendid. Now I want never to be called anything else again. I insist. And I shall call you Francis. That is how we were designated at birth and our baptisms reaffirmed it. Friends should dispense with formality, and you, who have saved me from scandal, you, Francis, are most certainly my friend.”

 

o          o          o

 

From the perspective of his perch on the junk wagon Francis could see that Katrina was not only the rarest bird in his life, but very likely the rarest bird ever to nest on Colonie Street. She brought to this street of working-class Irish a posture of elegance that had instantly earned her glares of envy and hostility from the neighbors. But within a year of residence in her new house (a scaled-down copy of the Elk Street mansion in which she had been born and nurtured like a tropical orchid, and where she had lived until she married Edward Daugherty, the writer, whose work and words, whose speech and race, were anathema to Katrina’s father, and who, as a compromise for his bride, built the replica that would maintain her in her cocoon, but built it in a neighborhood where he would never be an outlander, and built it lavishly until he ran out of capital and was forced to hire neighborhood help, such as Francis, to finish it), her charm and generosity, her absence of pretension, and her abundance of the human virtues transformed most of her neighbors’ hostility into fond attention and admiration.

Her appearance, when she first set foot in the house next door to his, stunned Francis; her blond hair swept upward into a soft wreath, her eyes a dark and shining brown, the stately curves and fullness of her body carried so regally, her large, irregular teeth only making her beauty more singular. This goddess, who had walked naked across his life, and whom he had carried in his arms, now sat on the sofa and with eyes wide upon him she leaned forward and posed the question: “Are you in love with anyone?”

“No, m— no. I’m too young.”

Katrina laughed and Francis blushed.

“You are such a handsome boy. You must have many girls in love with you.”

“No,” said Francis. “I never been good with girls.”

“Why ever not?”

“I don’t tell ‘em what they want to hear. I ain’t big with talk.”

“Not all girls want you to talk to them.”

“Ones I know do. Do you like me? How much? Do you like me better’n Joan? Stuff like that. I got no time for stuff like that.”

“Do you dream of women?”

“Sometimes.”

“Have you ever dreamt of me?”

“Once.”

“Was it pleasant?”

“Not all that much.”

“Oh my. What was it?”

“You couldn’t close your eyes. You just kept lookin’ and never blinked. it got scary.”

“I understand the dream perfectly. You know, a great poet once said that love enters through the eyes. One must be careful not to see too much. One must curb one’s appetites. The world is much too beautiful for most of us. It can destroy us with its beauty. Have you ever seen anyone faint?”

“Faint? No.”

“No, what?”

“No, Katrina.”

“Then I shall faint for you, dear Francis.”

She stood up, walked to the center of the room, looked directly at Francis, closed her eyes, and collapsed on the rug, her right hip hitting the floor first and she then falling backward, right arm outstretched over her head, her face toward the parlor’s east wall. Francis stood up and looked down at her.

“You did that pretty good,” he said.

She did not move.

“You can get up now,” he said.

But still she did not move. He reached down and took her left hand in his and tugged gently. She did not move. He took both her hands and tugged. She did not move voluntarily, nor did she open her eyes. He pulled her to a sitting position but she remained limp, with closed eyes. He lifted her off the floor in his arms and put her on the sofa. When he sat her down she opened her eyes and sat fully erect. Francis still had one arm on her back.

“My mother taught me that,” Katrina said. “She said it was useful in strained social situations. I performed it once in a pageant and won great applause.”

“You did it good,” Francis said.

“I can do a cataleptic fit quite well also.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s when you stop yourself in a certain position and do not move. Like this.”

And suddenly she was rigid and wide-eyed, unblinking.

 

o          o          o

 

A week after that, Katrina passed by Mulvaney’s pasture on Van Woert Street, where Francis was playing baseball, a pickup game. She stood on the turf, just in from the street, across the diamond from where Francis danced and chattered as the third-base pepper pot. When he saw her he stopped chattering. That inning he had no fielding chances. The next inning he did not come to bat. She watched through three innings until she saw him catch a line drive and then tag a runner for a double play; saw him also hit a long fly to the outfield that went for two bases. When he reached second base on the run, she walked home to Colonie Street.

 

o          o          o

 

She called him to lunch the day he installed the new awnings. After the first day she always chose a time to talk with him when her husband was elsewhere and her son in school. She served lobster gratine, asparagus with hollandaise, and Blanc de Blancs. Only the asparagus, without sauce, had Francis ever tasted before. She served it at the dining-room table, without a word, then sat across from him and ate in silence, he following her lead.

“I like this,” he finally said.

“Do you? Do you like the wine?”

“Not very much.”

“You will learn to like it. It is exquisite.”

“If you say so.”

“Have you had any more dreams of me?”

“One. I can’t tell it.”

“But you must.”

“It’s crazy.”

“Dreams must be. Katrina is not crazy. Say: May I help you, Katrina?”

“May I help you, Katrina?”

“You may help me by telling me your dream.”

“What it is, is you’re a little bird, but you’re just like you always are too, and a crow comes along and eats you up.”

“Who is the crow?”

“Just a crow. Crows always eat little birds.”

“You are protective of me, Francis.”

“I don’t know.”

“What does your mother know of me? Does she know you and I have talked as friends?”

“I wouldn’t tell her. I wouldn’t tell her anything.”

“Good. Never tell your mother anything about me. She is your mother and I am Katrina. I will always be Katrina in your life. Do you know that? You will never know another like me. There can be no other like me.”

“I sure believe you’re right.”

“Do you ever want to kiss me?”

“Always.”

“What else do you want to do with me?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“You may say.”

“Not me. I’d goddamn die.”

When they had eaten, Katrina filled her own and Francis’s wineglasses and set them on the octagonal marbletopped table in front of the sofa where she always sat; and he sat in what had now become his chair. He drank all of the wine and she refilled his glass as they talked of asparagus and lobster and she taught him the meaning of gratine, and why a French word was used to describe a dish made in Albany from a lobster caught in Maine.

“Wondrous things come from France,” she said to him, and by this time he was at ease in the suffusion of wine and pleasure and possibility, and he gave her his fullest attention. “Do you know Saint Anthony of Egypt, Francis? He is of your faith, a faith I cherish without embracing. I speak of him because of the way he was tempted with the flesh and I speak too of my poet, who frightens me because he sees what men should not see in women. He is dead these thirty years, my poet, but he sees through me still with his image of a caged woman ripping apart the body of a living rabbit with her teeth. Enough, says her keeper, you should not spend all you receive in one day, and he pulls the rabbit from her, letting some of its intestines dangle from her teeth. She remains hungry, with only a taste of what might nourish her. Oh, little Francis, my rabbit, you must not fear me. I shall not rip you to pieces and let your sweet intestines dangle from my teeth. Beautiful Francis of sweet excellence in many things, beautiful young man whom I covet, please do not speak ill of me. Do not say Katrina was made for the fire of luxuria, for you must understand that I am Anthony and am tempted by the devil with the sweetness of yourself in my house, in my kitchen, in my yard, in my tree of trees, sweet Francis who carried me naked in his arms.”

“I couldn’t let you go out in the street with no clothes on,” Francis said. “You’d get arrested.”

“I know you couldn’t,” Katrina said. “That’s precisely why I did it. But what I do not know is what will be the consequence of it. I do not know what strengths I have to confront the temptations I bring into my life so willfully. I only know that I love in ten thousand directions and that I must not; for that is the lot of the harlot. My poet says that caged woman with the rabbit in her teeth is the true and awful image of this life, and not the woman moaning aloud her dirge of unattainable hopes… dead, so dead, how sad. Of course you must know I am not dead. I am merely a woman in self-imposed bondage to a splendid man, to a mannerism of life which he calls a sacrament and I call a magnificent prison. Anthony lived as a hermit, and I too have thought of this as a means of thwarting the enemy. But my husband worships me, and I him, and we equally worship our son of sons. You see, there has never been a magnificence of contact greater than that which exists within this house. We are a family of reverence, of achievement, of wounds sweetly healed. We yearn for the touch, the presence of each other. We cannot live without these things. And yet you are here and I dream of you and long for the pleasures you cannot speak of to me, of joys beyond the imaginings of your young mind. I long for the pleasures of Mademoiselle Lancet, who pursued doctors as I pursue my young man of tender breath, my beautiful Adonis of Arbor Hill. The Mademoiselle cherished all her doctors did and were. The blood on their aprons was a badge of their achievement in the operating room, and she embraced it as I embrace your swan’s throat with its necklace of dirt, the haunting pain of young ignorance in your eyes. Do you believe there is a God, Francis? Of course you do and so do I, and I believe he loves me and will cherish me in heaven, as I will cherish him. We shall be lovers. God made me in his image, and so why should I not believe that God too is an innocent monster, loving the likes of me, this seductress of children, this caged animal with blood and intestines in her teeth, embracing her own bloody aprons and then kneeling at the altar of all that is holy in the penitential pose of all hypocrites. Did you ever dream, Francis, when I called you out of our tree, that you would enter such a world as I inhabit? Would you kiss me if I closed my eyes? If I fainted would you undo the buttons of my dress to let me breathe easier?”

 

o          o          o

 

Katrina died in 1912 in the fire that began in the Brothers’ School and then made the leap to the Daugherty house. Francis was absent from the city when she died, but he learned the news from a newspaper account and returned for her funeral. He did not see her in her coffin, which was closed to mourners. Smoke, not fire, killed her, just as the ashes and not the flames of her sensuality had finally smothered her desire; so Francis believed.

In the immediate years after her death, Katrina’s grave in the Albany Rural Cemetery, where Protestants entered the underworld, grew wild with dandelions and became a curiosity to the manicurists of the cemetery’s floral tapestry. In precisely the way Katrina and Francis had trimmed the maple tree, only to see it grow ever more luxuriant, so was it that the weeding of her burial plot led to an intensity of weed growth: as if the severing of a single root were cause for the birth of a hundred rootlings. Such was its growth that the grave, in the decade after her death, became an attraction for cemetery tourists, who marveled at the midspring yellowing of her final residence on earth. The vogue passed, though the flowers remain even today; and it is now an historical marvel that only the very old remember, or that the solitary wanderer discovers when rambling among the gravestones, and generally attributes to a freakish natural effusion.

 

o          o          o

 

“So,” said Rosskam, “did you have a nice rest?”

“It ain’t rest what I’m doin’,” said Francis. “You got all the stuff from back there?”

“All,” said Rosskam, throwing an armful of old clothes into the wagon. Francis looked them over, and a clean, soft-collared, white-on-white shirt, one sleeve half gone, caught his eye.

“That shirt,” he said. “I’d like to buy it.” He reached into the wagon and lifted it from the pile. “You take a quarter for it?”

Rosskam studied Francis as he might a striped blue toad.

“Take it out of my pay,” Francis said. “Is it a deal?”

“For what is it a bum needs a clean shirt?”

“The one I got on stinks like a dead cat.”

“Tidy bum. Sensitive, tidy bum on my wagon.”

 

o          o          o

 

Katrina unwrapped the parcel on the dining-room table, took Francis by the hand, and pulled him up from his chair. She unbuttoned the buttons of his blue workshirt.

“Take that old thing off,” she said, and held the gift aloft, a white-on-white silk shirt whose like was as rare to Francis as the fruits de mer and Château Pontet-Canet he had just consumed.

When his torso was naked, Katrina stunned him with a kiss, and with an exploration of the whole of his back with her fingertips. He held her as he would a crystal vase, fearful not only of her fragility but of his own. When he could again see her lips, her eyes, the sanctified valley of her mouth, when she stood inches from him, her hands gripping his naked back, he cautiously brought his own fingers around to her face and neck. Emulating her, he explored the exposed regions of her shoulders and her throat, letting the natural curve of her collar guide him to the top button of her blouse. And then slowly, as if the dance of their fingers had been choreographed, hers crawled across her own chest, brushing past his, which were carefully at work at their gentlest of chores, and she pushed the encumbering chemise strap down over the fall of her left shoulder. His own fingers then repeated the act on her right shoulder and he trembled with pleasure, and sin, and with, even now, the still unthinkable possibilities that lay below and beneath the boundary line her fallen clothing demarcated.

“Do you like my scar?” she asked, and she lightly touched the oval white scar with a ragged pink periphery, just above the early slope of her left breast.

“I don’t know,” Francis said. “I don’t know about likin’ scars.”

“You are the only man besides my husband and Dr. Fitzroy who has ever seen it. I can never again wear a lownecked dress. It is such an ugly thing that I do believe my poet would adore it. Does it offend you?”

“It’s there. Part of you. That’s okay by me. Anything you do, or got, it’s okay by me.”

“My adorable Francis.”

“How’d you ever get a thing like that?”

“A burning stick flew through the air and pierced me cruelly during a fire. The Delavan Hotel fire.”

“Yeah. I heard you were in that. You’re lucky you didn’t get it in the neck.”

“Oh I’m a very lucky woman indeed,” Katrina said, and she leaned into him and held him again. And again they kissed.

He commanded his hands to move toward her breasts but they would not. They would only hold tight to their grip on her bare arms. Only when she moved her own fingers forward from the blades of his back toward the hollows of his arms did his own fingers dare move toward the hollows of hers. And only when she again inched back from him, letting her fingers tweeze and caress the precocious hair on his chest, did he permit his own fingers to savor the curving flow, the fleshy whiteness, the blooded fullness of her beautiful breasts, culminating his touch at their roseate tips, which were now being so cleverly cataleptic for him.

When Francis put the new shirt on and threw the old one into the back of Rosskam’s wagon, he saw Katrina standing on her front steps, across the street, beckoning to him. She led him into a bedroom he had never seen and where a wall of flame engulfed her without destroying even the hem of her dress, the same dress she wore when she came to watch him play baseball on that summer day in 1897. He stood across the marriage bed from her, across a bridge of years of love and epochs of dream.

Never a woman like Katrina: who had forced him to model that shirt for her, then take it home so that someday she would see him walking along the street wearing it and relive this day; forced him first to find a hiding place for it outside his house while he schemed an excuse as to why a seventeen-year-old boy of the working classes should come to own a shirt that only sublime poets, or stage actors, or unthinkably wealthy lumber barons could afford. He invented the ruse of a bet: that he had played poker at a downtown sporting club with a man who ran out of dollars and put up his new shirt as collateral; and Francis had inspected the shirt, liked it, accepted the bet, and then won the hand with a full house.

His mother did not seem to believe the story. But neither did she connect the gift to Katrina. Yet she found ways to slander Katrina in Francis’s presence, knowing that he had formed an allegiance, if not an affection, for not only a woman, but the woman who owned the inimical tree.

She is impudent, arrogant. (Wrong, said Francis.)

Slovenly, a poor housekeeper. (Go over and look, said Francis.)

Shows off by sitting in the window with a book. (Francis, knowing no way to defend a book, fumed silently and left the room.)

In the leaping windows of flame that engulfed Katrina and her bed, Francis saw naked bodies coupled in love, writhing in lascivious embrace, kissing in sweet agony. He saw himself and Katrina in a ravenous lunge that never was, and then in a blissful stroking that might have been, and then in a sublime fusion of desire that would always be.

Did they love? No, they never loved. They always loved. They knew a love that Katrina’s poet would abuse and befoul. And they befouled their imaginations with a mutation of love that Katrina’s poet would celebrate and consecrate. Love is always insufficient, always a lie. Love, you are the clean shirt of my soul. Stupid love, silly love.

Francis embraced Katrina and shot into her the impeccable blood of his first love, and she yielded up not a being but a word: clemency. And the word swelled like the mercy of his swollen member as it rose to offer her the enduring, erubescent gift of retributive sin. And then this woman interposed herself in his life, hiding herself in the deepest center of the flames, smiling at him with all the lewd beauty of her dreams: and she awakened in him the urge for a love of his own, a love that belonged to no other man, a love he would never have to share with any man, or boy, like himself.

“Giddap,” Rosskam called out.

And the wagon rolled down the hill as the sun moved toward its apex, and the horse turned north off Colonie Street.

 

V

 

Tell me, pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you? There are a few, kind sir, and dum-de-dum and dum-dum too.

So genteel, so quaint.

Helen hummed, staring at the wall in the light of the afternoon sun. In her kimono (only ten-cent-store silk, alas, but it did have a certain elegance, SO much like the real thing no one would ever know; no one but Francis had ever seen her in it, or ever would; no one had seen her take it ever so cleverly off the rack in Woolworth’s): in her kimono, and naked beneath it, she sank deeper into the old chair that was oozing away its stuffing; and she stared at the dusty swan in the painting with the cracked glass, swan with the lovely white neck, lovely white back: swan was, was.

Dah dah-dah,

Dah dah-de-dah-dah,

Dah dah-de-dah-dah,

Dah dah dah,

She sang. And the world changed.

Oh the lovely power of music to rejuvenate Helen. The melody returned her to that porcelain age when she aspired so loftily to a classical career. Her plan, her father’s plan before it was hers, was for her to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, carry the family pride to lofty pinnacles: Vassar first, then the Paris Conservatory if she was truly as good as she seemed, then the concert world, then the entire world. If you love something well enough, Grandmother Archer told Helen when the weakness was upon her, you will die for it; for when we love with all our might, our silly little selves are already dead and we have no more fear of dying. Would you die for your music? Helen asked. And her grandmother said: I believe I already have. And in a month she was very unkindly cut down forever.

Swan was, was.

Helen’s first death.

Her second came to her in a mathematics class at Vassar when she was a freshman of two months. Mrs. Carmichael, who was pretty and young and wore high shoes and walked with a limp, came for Helen and brought her to the office. A visitor, said Mrs. Carmichael, your uncle Andrew: who told Helen her father was ill,

And on the train up from Poughkeepsie changed that to dead,

And in the carriage going up State Street hill from the Albany depot added that the man had,

Incredibly,

Thrown himself off the Hawk Street viaduct.

Helen, confusing fear with grief, blocked all tears until two days after the funeral, when her mother told her that there will be no more Vassar for you, child; that Brian Archer killed himself because he had squandered his fortune; that what money remained would not be wasted in educating a foolish girl like Helen but would instead finance her brother Patrick’s final year in Albany Law School; for a lawyer can save the family. And whatever could a classical pianist do for it?

Helen had been in the chair hours, it seemed, though she had no timepiece for such measurement. But it did seem an hour at least since crippled old Donovan came to the door and said: Helen, are you all right? You been in there all day. Don’t you wanna eat something? I’m makin’ some coffee, you want some? And Helen said: Oh thank you, old cripple, for remembering I still have a body now that I’ve all but forgotten it. And no, no thank you, no coffee, kind sir. Are there any more at home like you?

 

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium!

 

The day had all but begun with music. She left Finny’s car humming the “Te Deum”; why, she could not say. But at six o’clock, when it was still dark and Finny and the other man were both snoring, it became the theme of her morning pathway. As she walked she considered the immediate future for herself and her twelve dollars, the final twelve dollars of her life capital, money she never intended to tell Francis about, money tucked safely in her brassiere.

Don’t touch my breasts, Finny, they’re too sore, she had said again and again, afraid he would feel the money. Finny acceded and explored her only between the thighs, trying mightily to ejaculate, and she, Lord have mercy on her, tried to help him. But Finny could not ejaculate, and he fell back in exhaustion and dry indifference and then slept, as Helen did not, could not; for sleep seemed to be a thing of the past.

What for weeks she had achieved in her time of rest was only an illustrated wakefulness that hovered at the edge of dream: angels rejoicing, multitudes kneeling before the Lamb, worms all, creating a great butterfly of angelic hair, Helen’s joyous vision.

Why was Helen joyous in her sleeplessness? Because she was able to recede from evil love and bloodthirsty spiders. Because she had mastered the trick of escaping into music and the pleasures of memory. She pulled on her bloomers, slid sideways out of the car, and walked out into the burgeoning day, the morning star still visible in her night’s vanishing sky. Venus, you are my lucky star.

Helen walked to the church with head bowed. She was picking her steps when the angel appeared (and she still in her kimono) and called out to her: Drunk with fire, o heav’n-born Goddess, we invade thy haildom!

How nice.

The church was Saint Anthony’s, Saint Anthony of Padua, the wonder-working saint, hammer of heretics, ark of the testament, finder of lost articles, patron of the poor and of pregnant and barren women. It was the church where the Italians went to preserve their souls in a city where Italians were the niggers and micks of a new day. Helen usually went to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception a few blocks up the hill, but her tumor felt so heavy, a great rock in her belly, that she chose Saint Anthony’s, not such a climb, even if she did fear Italians. They looked so dark and dangerous. And she did not care much for their food, especially their garlic. And they seemed never to die. They eat olive oil all day long. Helen’s mother had instructed her, and that’s what does it; did you ever in all your life see a sick Italian?

The sound of the organ resonated out from the church before the mass began, and on the sidewalk Helen knew the day boded well for her, with such sanctified music greeting her at the dawning. There were three dozen people in the church, not many for a holy day of obligation. Not everybody feels obligations the way Helen feels them, but then again, it is only ten minutes to seven in the morning.

Helen walked all the way to the front and sat in the third pew of center-aisle left, in back of a man who looked like Walter Damrosch. The candle rack caught her eye and she rose and went to it and dropped in the two pennies she carried in her coat pocket, all the change she had. The organist was roaming free through Gregorian hymns as Helen lit a candle for Francis, offering up a Hail Mary so he would be given divine guidance with his problem. The poor man was so guilty.

Helen was giving help of her own to Francis now by staying away from him. She had made this decision while holding Finny’s stubby, bloodless, and uncircumcised little penis in her hand. She would not go to the mission, would not meet Francis in the morning as planned. She would stay out of his life, for she understood that by depositing her once again with Finny, and knowing precisely what that would mean for her, Francis was willfully cuckolding himself, willfully debasing her, and, withal, separating them both from what still survived of their mutual love and esteem.

Why did Helen let Francis do this to them?

Well, she is subservient to Francis, and always has been. It was she who, by this very subservience, had perpetuated his relationship to her for most of their nine years together. How many times had she walked away from him? Scores upon scores. How many times, always knowing where he’d be, had she returned? The same scores, but minus one now.

The Walter Damrosch man studied her movements at the candle rack, just as she remembered Damrosch himself studying the score of the Ninth Symphony at Harmanus Bleecker Hall when she was sixteen. Listen to it carefully, her father had told her. It’s what Debussy said: the magical blossoming of a tree whose leaves burst forth all at once. It was the first time, her father said, that the human voice ever entered into a symphonic creation. Perhaps, my Helen, you too will create a great musical work of art one day. One never knows the potential within any human breast.

A bell jingled as the priest and two altar boys emerged from the sacristy and the mass began. Helen, without her rosary to say, searched for something to read and found a Follow the Mass pamphlet on the pew in front of her. She read the ordinary of the mass until she came to the Lesson, in which John sees God’s angel ascending from the rising of the sun, and God’s angel sees four more angels, to whom it is given to hurt the earth and the sea; and God’s angel tells those four bad ones: Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees.

Helen closed the pamphlet.

Why would angels be sent to hurt the earth and the sea? She had never read that passage before that she could remember, but it was so dreadful. Angel of the earthquake, who splits the earth. Sargasso angel, who chokes the sea with weeds.

Helen could not bear to think such things, and so cast her eyes to others hearing the mass and saw a boy, perhaps nine, who might have been hers and Francis’s if she’d had a child instead of a miscarriage, the only fertilization her womb had ever accepted. In front of the boy a kneeling woman with the palsy and twisted bones held on to the front of the pew with both her crooked hands. Calm her trembling, oh Lord, straighten her bones, Helen prayed. And then the priest read the gospel. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.

Rejoice. Yes.

 

Oh embrace now, all you millions,

With one kiss for all the world.

 

Helen could not stand through the entire gospel. A weakness came over her and she sat down. When mass ended she would try to put something in her stomach. A cup of coffee, a bite of toast.

Helen turned her head and counted the house, the church now more than a third full, a hundred and fifty maybe. They could not all be Italians, since one woman looked rather like Helen’s mother, the imposing Mrs. Mary Josephine Nurney Archer in her elegant black hat. Helen had that in common with Francis: both had mothers who despised them.

It was twenty-one years before Helen discovered, folded in a locked diary, the single sheet of paper that was her father’s final will, never known to exist and written when he knew he was going to kill himself, leaving half the modest residue of his fortune to Helen, the other half to be divided equally between her mother and brother.

Helen read the will aloud to her mother, a paralytic then, nursed toward the grave for ten years by Helen alone, and received in return a maternal smile of triumph at having stolen Helen’s future, stolen it so that mother and son might live like peahen and peacock, son grown now into a political lawyer noted for his ability to separate widows from their inheritances, and who always hangs up when Helen calls.

Helen never got even with you for what you, without understanding, did to her, Patrick. Not even you, who profited most from it, understood Mother’s duplicitous thievery. But Helen did manage to get even with Mother; left her that very day and moved to New York City, leaving brother dear to do the final nursing, which he accomplished by putting the old cripple into what Helen likes to think of now as the poorhouse, actually the public nursing home, and having her last days paid for by Albany County.

Alone and unloved in the poorhouse.

Where did your plumage go, Mother?

But Helen. Dare you be so vindictive? Did you not have tailfeathers of your own once, however briefly, however long ago? Just look at yourself sitting there staring at the bed with its dirty sheets beckoning to you. Your delicacy resists those sheets, does it not? Not only because of their dirt but because you also resist lying on your back with nothing of beauty to respond to, only the cracked plaster and peeling ceiling paint; whereas by sitting in the chair you can at least look at Grandmother Swan, or even at the blue cardboard clock on the back of the door, which might help you to estimate the time of your life: WAKE ME AT: as if any client of this establishment ever had, or ever would, use such a sign, as if crippled Donovan would ever see it if they did use it, or seeing it, heed it. The clock said ten minutes to eleven. Pretentious.

When you sit at the edge of the bed in a room like this, and hold on to the unpolished brass of the bed, and look at those dirty sheets and the soft cocoons of dust in the corner, you have the powerful impulse to go to the bathroom, where you were just sick for more than half an hour, and wash yourself. No. You have the impulse to go to the genuine bath farther down the hall, with the bathtub where you so often swatted and drowned the cockroaches before you scrubbed that tub, scrub, scrub, scrub. You would walk down the hall to the bath in your Japanese kimono with your almond soap inside your pink bathtowel and the carpets would be thick and soft under the soft soles of your slippers, which you kept under the bed when you were a child; the slippers with the brown wool tassel on the top and the soft yellow lining like a kid glove, that came in the Whitney’s box under the Christmas tree. Santa Claus shops at Whitney’s.

When you really don’t care anymore about Whitney’s, or Santa Claus, or shoes, or feet, or even Francis, when that which you thought would last as long as breath itself has worn out and you are a woman like Helen, you hold tightly to the brass, as surely as you would walk down the hall in bare feet, or in shoes with one broken strap, walk on filthy, threadbare carpet and wash under your arms and between your old breasts with the washcloth to keep down the body odor, if you had anyone to keep down the odor for.

Of course Helen is putting on airs with this thought, being just like her mother, washing out the washcloth with the cold water, all there is, and only after washing the cloth twice would she dare to use it on her face. And then she would (yes, she would, can you imagine? can you remember?) dab herself all over with the Madame Pompadour body powder, and touch her ears with the Violet de Paris perfume, and give her hair sixty strokes that way, sixty strokes this way, and say to her image in the mirror that pretty is as pretty does. Arthur loved her pretty.

Helen saw a man who looked a little bit like Arthur, going bald the way he always was, when she was leaving Saint Anthony’s Church after mass. It wasn’t Arthur, because Arthur was dead, and good enough for him. When she was nineteen, in 1906, Helen went to work in Arthur’s piano store, selling only sheet music at first, and then later demonstrating how elegant the tone of Arthur’s pianos could be when properly played.

Look at her sitting there at the Chickering upright, playing “Won’t You Come Over to My House?” for that fashionable couple with no musical taste. Look at her there at the Steinway grand, playing a Bach suite for the handsome woman who knows her music. Look how both parties are buying pianos, thanks to magical Helen.

But then, one day when she is twenty-seven and her life is over, when she knows at last that she will never marry, and probably never go further with her music than the boundaries of the piano store, Helen thinks of Schubert, who never rose to be anything more than a children’s music teacher, poor and sick, getting only fifteen or twenty cents for his songs, and dead at thirty-one; and on this awful day Helen sits down at Arthur’s grand piano and plays “Who Is Silvia?” and then plays all she can remember of the flight of the raven from Die Win terreise.

The Schubert blossom,

Born to bloom unseen,

Like Helen.

Did Arthur do that?

Well, he kept her a prisoner of his love on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he closed early, and on Friday nights too, when he told his wife he was rehearsing with the Mendelssohn Club. There is Helen now, in that small room on High Street, behind the drawn curtains, sitting naked in bed while Arthur stands up and puts on his dressing gown, expostulating no longer on sex but now on the Missa Solemnis, or was it Schubert’s lieder, or maybe the glorious Ninth, which Berlioz said was like the first rays of the rising sun in May?

It was really all three, and much, much more, and Helen listened adoringly to the wondrous Arthur as his semen flowed out of her, and she aspired exquisitely to embrace all the music ever played, or sung, or imagined.

In her nakedness on that continuing Tuesday and Thursday and unchanging Friday, Helen now sees the spoiled seed of a woman’s barren dream: a seed that germinates and grows into a shapeless, windblown weed blossom of no value to anything, even its own species, for it produces no seed of its own; a mutation that grows only into the lovely day like all other wild things, and then withers, and perishes, and falls, and vanishes.

The Helen blossom.

One never knows the potential within the human breast.

One would never expect Arthur to abandon Helen for a younger woman, a tone-deaf secretary, a musical illiterate with a big bottom.

Stay on as long as you like, my love, Arthur told Helen; for there has never been a saleswoman as good as you.

Alas, poor Helen, loved for the wrong talent by angelic Arthur, to whom it was given to hurt Helen: who educated her body and soul and then sent them off to hell.

Helen walked from Saint Anthony’s Church to South Pearl Street and headed north in search of a restaurant. She envisioned herself sitting at one of the small tables in the Primrose Tea Room on State Street, where they served petite watercress sandwiches, with crusts cut off, tea in Nippon cups and saucers, and tiny sugar cubes in a silver bowl with ever-so-delicate silver tongs.

But she settled for the Waldorf Cafeteria, where coffee was a nickel and buttered toast a dime. Discreetly, she took one of the dollar bills out of her brassiere and held it in her left fist inside her coat pocket. She let go of it only long enough to carry the coffee and toast to a table, and then she clutched it anew, a dollar with a fifteen-cent hole in it now. Eleven-eighty-five all she had left. She sweetened and creamed her coffee and sipped at it. She ate half a piece of toast and a bite of another and left the rest. She drank all the coffee, but food did not want to go down.

She paid her check and walked back out onto North Pearl, clutching her change, wondering about Francis and what she should do now. The air had a bite to it, in spite of the warming sun, driving her mind indoors. And so she walked toward the Pruyn Library, a haven. She sat at a table, shivering and hugging herself, warming slowly but deeply chilled. She dozed willfully, in flight to the sun coast where the white birds fly, and a white-haired librarian shook her awake and said: “Madam, the rules do not allow sleeping in here,” and she placed a back issue of Life magazine in front of Helen, and from the next table picked up the morning Times-Union on a stick and gave it to her, adding: “But you may stay as long as you like, my dear, if you choose to read.” The woman smiled at Helen through her pince-nez and Helen returned the smile. There are nice people in the world and sometimes you meet them. Sometimes.

Helen looked at Life and found a picture of a two block-long line of men and women in dark overcoats and hats, their hands in their pockets against the cold of a St. Louis day, waiting to pick up their relief checks. She saw a photo of Millie Smalls, a smiling Negro laundress who earned fifteen dollars a week and had just won $150,000 on her Irish Sweepstakes ticket.

Helen closed the magazine and looked at the newspaper. Fair and warmer, the weatherman said. He’s a liar. Maybe up to fifty today, but yesterday it was thirty-two. Freezing. Helen shivered and thought of getting a room. Dewey leads Lehman in Crosley poll. Dr. Benjamin Ross of Albany’s Dudley Observatory says Martians can’t attack earth, and adds: “It is difficult to imagine a rocketship or space ship reaching earth. Earth is a very small target and in all probability a Martian space ship would miss it altogether.” Albany’s Mayor Thacher denies false registration of 5,000 voters in 1936. Woman takes poison after son is killed trying to hop freight train.

Helen turned the page and found Martin Daugherty’s story about Billy Phelan and the kidnapping. She read it and began to cry, not absorbing any of it, but knowing the family was taking Francis away from her. If Francis and Helen still had a house together, he would never leave her. Never. But they hadn’t had a house since early 1930. Francis was working as a fixit man in the South End then, wearing a full beard so nobody’d know it was him, and calling himself Bill Benson. Then the fixit shop went out of business and Francis started drinking again. After a few months of no job, no chance of one, he left Helen alone. “I ain’t no good to you or anybody else,” he said to her during his crying jag just before he went away. “Never amounted to nothin’ and never will.”

How insightful, Francis. How absolutely prophetic of you to see that you would come to nothing, even in Helen’s eyes. Francis is somewhere now, alone, and even Helen doesn’t love him anymore. Doesn’t. For everything about love is dead now, wasted by weariness. Helen doesn’t love Francis romantically, for that faded years ago, a rose that bloomed just once and then died forever. And she doesn’t love Francis as a companion, for he is always screaming at her and leaving her alone to be fingered by other men. And she certainly doesn’t love him as a love thing, because he can’t love that way anymore. He tried so hard for so long, harder and longer than you could ever imagine, Finny, but all it did was hurt Helen to see it. It didn’t hurt Helen physically because that part of her is so big now, and so old, that nothing can ever hurt her there anymore.

Even when Francis was strong he could never reach all the way up, because she was deeper. She used to need something exceptionally big, bigger than Francis. She had that thought the first time, when she began playing with men after Arthur, who was so big, but she never got what she needed. Well, perhaps once. Who was that? Helen can’t remember the face that went with the once. She can’t remember anything now but how that night, that once, something in her was touched: a deep center no one had touched before, or has touched since. That was when she thought: This is why some girls become professionals, because it is so good, and there would always be somebody else, somebody new, to help you along.

But a girl like Helen could never really do a thing like that, couldn’t just open herself to any man who came by with the price of another day. Does anyone think Helen was ever that kind of a girl?

Ode to Joy, please.

 

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium!

 

Helen’s stomach rumbled and she left the library to breathe deeply of the therapeutic morning air. As she walked down Clinton Avenue and then headed south on Broadway, a vague nausea rose in her and she stopped between two parked cars to hold on to a phone pole, ready to vomit. But the nausea passed and she walked on, past the railroad station, until the musical instruments in the window of the Modern Music Shop caught her attention. She let her eyes play over the banjos and ukuleles, the snare drum and the trombone, the trumpet and violin. Phonograph records stood on shelves, above the instruments: Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Bing Crosby, John McCormack singing Schubert, Beethoven’s “Appassionata.”

She went into the store and looked at, and touched, the instruments. She looked at the rack of new song sheets: “The Flat Foot Floogie.”

“My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

“You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” She walked to the counter and asked the young man with the slick brown hair: “Do you have Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” She paused. “And might I see that Schubert album in your window?”

“We do, and you may,” said the man, and he found them and handed them to her and pointed her to the booth where she could listen to the music in private.

She played the Schubert first, John McCormack inquiring: Who is Silvia? What is she? That all our swains commend her?… Is she as kind as she is fair? And then, though she absolutely loved McCormack, adored Schubert, she put them both aside for the fourth movement of the Choral Symphony.

 

Joy, thou spark from flame immortal,

Daughter of Elysium!

 

The words tumbled at Helen in the German and she converted them to her own joyful tongue.

 

He that’s won a noble woman,

Let him join our jubilee!

 

Oh the rapture she felt. She grew dizzy at the sounds: the oboes, the bassoons, the voices, the grand march of the fugal theme. Scherzo. Molto vivace.

Helen swooned.

A young woman customer saw her fall and was at her side almost instantly. Helen came to with her head in the young woman’s lap, the young clerk fanning her with a green record jacket. Beethoven, once green, green as a glade. The needle scratched in the record’s end groove. The music had stopped, but not in Helen’s brain, It rang out still, the first rays of the rising sun in May.

“How you feeling, ma’am,” the clerk asked.

Helen smiled, hearing flutes and violas.

“I think I’m all right. Will you help me up?”

“Rest a minute,” the girl said. “Get your bearings first. Would you like a doctor?”

“No, no thank you. I know what it is. I’ll be all right in a minute or two.”

But she knew now that she would have to get the room and get it immediately. She did not want to collapse crossing the street. She needed a place of her own, warm and dry, and with her belongings near her. The clerk and the young woman customer helped her to her feet and stood by as she settled herself again on the bench of the listening booth. When the young people were reassured that Helen was fully alert and probably not going to collapse again, they left her. And that’s when she slipped the record of the fourth movement inside her coat, under her blouse, and let it rest on the slope of her tumor her doctor said was benign. But how could anything so big be benign? She pulled her coat around her as tightly as she could without cracking the record, said her thank yous to both her benefactors, and walked slowly out of the store.

Her bag was at Palombo’s Hotel and she headed for there: all the way past Madison Avenue. Would she make it to the hotel without a collapse? Well, she did. She was exhausted but she found crippled old Donovan in his rickety rocker, and his spittoon at his feet, on the landing between the first and second floors, all there was of a lobby in this establishment. She said she wanted to redeem her bag and rent a room, the same room she and Francis always took whenever it was empty. And it was empty.

Six dollars to redeem the bag, old Donovan told her, and a dollar and a half for one night, or two-fifty for two nights running. Just one, Helen said, but then she thought: What if I don’t die tonight? I will need it tomorrow too. And so she took the bargain rate, which left her with three dollars and thirty-five cents.

Old Donovan gave her the key to the second-floor room and went to the cellar for her suitcase.

“Ain’t seen ya much.” Donovan said when he brought the bag to her room.

“We’ve been busy.” Helen said. “Francis got a job.”

“A job? Ya don’t say.”

“We’re all quite organized now, you might describe it. It’s just possible that we’ll rent an apartment up on Hamilton Street.”

“You’re back in the chips. Mighty good. Francis comin’ in tonight?”

“He might be, and he might not be,” said Helen. “It all depends on his work, and how busy he might or might not be.”

“I get it,” said Donovan.

She opened the suitcase and found the kimono and put it on. She went then to wash herself, but before she could wash she vomited; sat on the floor in front of the toilet bowl and vomited until there was nothing left to come up: and then she retched dryly for five minutes. finally taking sips of water so there would be something to bring up. And Francis thought she was just being contrary, refusing Jack’s cheese sandwich.

Finally it passed, and she rinsed her mouth and her stinging eyes and did, oh yes, did wash herself, and then padded back along the threadbare carpet to her room, where she sat in the chair at the foot of the bed, staring at the swan and remembering nights in this room with Francis.

Clara, that cheap whore, rolled that nice young man in the brown suit and then came in here to hide. If you’re gonna sleep with a man, sleep with him, Francis said. Be a goddamn woman. If you’re gonna roll a man, roll him. But don’t sleep with him and then roll him. Francis had such nice morals. Oh Clara, why in heaven’s name do you come in here with your trouble? Haven’t we got trouble enough of our own without you? All Clara got was fourteen dollars. But that is a lot.

Helen propped her Beethoven record against the pillow in the center of the bed and studied its perfection. Then she rummaged in the suitcase to see and touch all that was in it: another pair of bloomers, her rhinestone butterfly, her blue skirt with the rip in it, Francis’s safety razor and his penknife, his old baseball clippings, his red shirt, and his left brown shoe, the right one lost; but one shoe’s better than none, ain’t it? was Francis’s reasoning. Sandra lost a shoe but Francis found it for her. Francis was very thoughtful. Very everything. Very Catholic, though he pretended not to be. That was why Francis and Helen could never marry.

Wasn’t it nice the way Helen and Francis put their religion in the way of marriage?

Wasn’t that an excellent idea?

For really, Helen wanted to fly free in the same way Francis did. After Arthur she knew she would always want to be free, even if she had to suffer for it.

Arthur, Arthur, Helen no longer blames you for anything. She knows you were a man of frail allegiance in a way that Francis never was; knows too that she allowed you to hurt her.

Helen remembers Arthur’s face and how relieved it was, how it smiled and wished her luck the day she said she was leaving to take a job playing piano for silent films and vaudeville acts. Moving along in the world willfully, that’s what Helen was doing then (and now). A will to grace, if you would like to call it that, however elusive that grace has proven to be..

Was this willfulness a little deceit Helen was playing on herself?

Was she moving, instead, in response to impulses out of that deep center?

Why was it, really, that things never seemed to work out?

Why was Helen’s life always turning into some back alley, like a wandering old cat?

What is Helen?

Who is Silvia, please?

Please?

Helen stands up and holds the brass. Helen’s feet are like fine brass. She is not unpolished like the brass of this bed. Helen is the very polished person who is standing at the end of the end bed in the end room of the end hotel of the end city of the end.

And when a person like Helen comes to an ending of something, she grows nostalgic and sentimental. She has always appreciated the fine things in life: music, kind words, gentility, flowers, sunshine, and good men. People would feel sad if they knew what Helen’s life might have been like had it gone in another direction than the one that brought her to this room.

People would perhaps even weep, possibly out of some hope that women like Helen could go on living until they found themselves, righted themselves, discovered ever unfolding joy instead of coming to lonely ends. People would perhaps feel that some particular thing went wrong somewhere and that if it had only gone right it wouldn’t have brought a woman like Helen so low.

But that is the error; for there are no women like Helen.

Helen is no symbol of lost anything, wrong-road-taken kind of person, if-they-only-knew-then kind of person.

Helen is no pure instinct deranged, no monomaniacal yearning out of a deep center that wants everything, even the power to destroy itself.

Helen is no wandering cat in its ninth termination.

For since Helen was born, and so elegantly raised by her father, and so exquisitely self-developed, she has been making her own decisions based on rational thinking, reasonably current knowledge, intuition about limitations, and the usual instruction by friends, lovers, enemies, and others. Her head was never injured, and her brain, contrary to what some people might think, is not pickled. She did not miss reading the newspapers, although she has tapered off somewhat in recent years, for now all the news seems bad. She always listened to the radio and kept up on the latest in music. And in the winter in the library she read novels about women and love: Helen knows all about Lily Bart and Daisy Miller. Helen also cared for her appearance and kept her body clean. She washed her underthings regularly and wore earrings and dressed modestly and carried her rosary until they stole it. She did not sleep when sleep was not called for. She went through her life feeling: I really do believe I am doing the more-or-less right thing. I believe in God. I salute the flag. I wash my armpits and between my legs, and what if I did drink too much? Whose business is that? Who knows how much I didn’t drink?

They never think of that sort of thing when they call a woman like Helen a drunken old douchebag. Why would anyone (like that nasty Little Red in the back of Finny’s car) ever want to revile Helen that way? When she hears people say such things about her, Helen then plays the pretend game. She dissembles. Helen remembers that word even though Francis thinks she has forgotten her education. But she has not. She is not a drunk and not a whore. Her attitude is: I flew through my years and I never let a man use me for money. I went Dutch lots of times. I would let them buy the drinks but that’s because it’s the man’s place to buy drink.

And when you’re a woman like Helen who hasn’t turned out to be a whore, who hasn’t led anybody into sin… (Well, there were some young boys in her life occasionally, lonely in the bars like Helen so often was, but they seemed to know about sin already. Once.)

Once.

Was once a boy?

Yes, with a face like a priest.

Oh Helen, how blasphemous of you to have such a thought. Thank God you never loved up a priest. How would you ever explain that?

Because priests are good.

And so when Helen holds the brass, and looks at the clock that still says ten minutes to eleven, and thinks of slippers and music and the great butterfly and the white pebble with the hidden name, she has this passing thought for priests. For when you were raised like Helen was, you think of priests as holding the keys to the door of redemption. No matter how many sins you have committed (sands of the desert, salt of the sea), you are bound to come to the notion of absolution at the time of brass holding and clock watching, and to the remembering of how you even used to put Violet de Paris on your brassiere so that when he opened your dress to kiss you there, he wouldn’t smell any sweat.

But priests, Helen, have nothing whatsoever to do with brassieres and kissing, and you should be ashamed to have put them all in the same thought. Helen does truly regret such a thought, but after all, it has been a most troubled time for her and her religion. And even though she prayed at mass this morning, and has prayed intermittently throughout the day ever since, even though she prayed in Finny’s car last night, saying her Now I Lay Me Down to Sleeps when there was no sleep or chance of it, then the point is that, despite all prayer, Helen has no compulsion to confess her sins to gain absolution.

Helen has even come to the question of whether or not she is really a Catholic, and to what a Catholic really is these days. She thinks that, truly, she may not be one anymore. But if she isn’t, she certainly isn’t anything else either. She certainly isn’t a Methodist, Mr. Chester.

What brought her to this uncertainty is the accumulation of her sins, and if you must call them sins, then there is certainly quite an accumulation. But Helen prefers to call them decisions, which is why she has no compulsion to confess them. On the other hand, Helen wonders whether anyone is aware of how really good a life she lived. She never betrayed anybody, and that, in the end, is what counts most with her. She admits she is leaving Francis, but no one could call that a betrayal. One might, perhaps, call it an abdication, the way the King of England abdicated for the woman he loved. Helen is abdicating for the man she used to love so he can be as free as Helen wants him to be, as free as she always was in her own way, as free as the two of them were even when they were most perfectly locked together. Didn’t Francis beg on the street for Helen when she was sick in ‘33? Why, he never begged even for himself before that. If Francis could become a beggar out of love, why can’t Helen abdicate for the same reason?

Of course the relationships Helen had with Arthur and Francis were sinful in the eyes of some. And she admits that certain other liberties she has taken with the commandments of God and the Church might also loom large against her when the time of judgment comes (brass and clock, brass and clock). But even so, there will be no priests coming to see her, and she is surely not going out to see them. She is not going to declare to anyone for any reason that loving Francis was sinful when it was very probably—no, very certainly—the greatest thing in her life, greater, finally, than loving Arthur, for Arthur failed of honor.

And so when crippled Donovan knocks again at eleven o’clock and asks if Helen needs anything, she says no, no thank you, old cripple, I don’t need anything or anybody anymore. And old Donovan says: The night man’s just comin’ on, and so I’m headin’ home. I’ll be here in the mornin’. And Helen says: Thank you, Donovan, thank you ever so much for your concern, and for saying good night to me. And after he goes away from the door she lets go of the brass and thinks of Beethoven, Ode to Joy,

And hears the joyous multitudes advancing,

Dah dah-dah,

Dah dah-de-dah-dah,

And feels her legs turning to feathers and sees that her head is floating down to meet them as her body bends under the weight of so much joy,

Sees it floating ever so slowly

As the white bird glides over the water until it comes to rest on the Japanese kimono

That has fallen so quietly,

So softly,

Onto the grass where the moonlight grows.

 

VI

 

First came the fire in a lower Broadway warehouse, near the old Fitzgibbon downtown ironworks. It rose in its own sphere, in an uprush into fire’s own perfection, and great flames violated the sky. Then, as Francis and Rosskam halted behind trucks and cars, Rosskam’s horse snorty and balky with elemental fear, the fire touched some store of thunder and the side of the warehouse blew out in a great rising cannon blossom of black smoke, which the wind carried toward them. Motorists rolled up their windows, but the vulnerable lights of Francis, Rosskam, and the horse smarted with evil fumes.

Ahead of them a policeman routed traffic into a U-turn and sent it back north. Rosskam cursed in a foreign language Francis didn’t recognize. But that Rosskam was cursing was unmistakable. As they turned toward Madison Avenue, both men’s faces were astream with stinging tears.

They were now pulling an empty wagon, fresh from dumping the day’s first load of junk back at Rosskam’s yard. Francis had lunched at the yard on an apple Rosskam gave him, and had changed into his new white-on-white shirt, throwing his old blue relic onto Rosskam’s rag mountain. They had then set out on the day’s second run, heading for the deep South End of the city, until the fire turned them around at three o’clock.

Rosskam turned up Pearl Street and the wagon rolled along into North Albany, the smoke still rising into the heavens below and behind them. Rosskam called out his double-noted ragman’s dirge and caught the attention of a few cluttered housewives. From the backyard of an old house near Emmett Street, Francis hauled out a wheelless wheelbarrow with a rust hole through its bottom. As he heaved it upward into the wagon, the odor of fire still in his nostrils, he confronted Fiddler Quain, sitting on an upended metal chamber pot that had been shot full of holes by some backyard marksman.

The Fiddler, erstwhile motorman, now wearing a tan tweed suit, brown polka-dot bow tie, and sailor straw hat, smiled coherently at Francis for the first time since that day on Broadway in 1901 when they both ignited the kerosene-soaked sheets that trapped the strike-breaking trolley car.

When a soldier split the Fiddler’s skull with a rifle butt, the sympathetic mob spirited him away to safety before he could be arrested. But the blow left the man mindless for a dozen years, cared for by his spinster sister, Martha. Martyred herself by his wound, Martha paraded the Fiddler through the streets of North Albany, a heroic vegetable, so the neighbors could see the true consequences of the smartypants trolley strike.

Francis offered to be a bearer at the Fiddler’s funeral in 1913, but Martha rejected him; for she believed it was Francis’s firebrand style that had seduced the Fiddler into violence that fated morning. Your hands have done enough damage, she told Francis. You’ll not touch my brother’s coffin.

Pay her no mind, the Fiddler told Francis from his perch on the riddled pot. I don’t blame you for anything. Wasn’t I ten years your elder? Couldn’t I make up my own mind?

But then the Fiddler gave Francis a look that loosened a tide of bafflement, as he said solemnly: It’s those traitorous hands of yours you’ll have to forgive.

Francis brushed rust off his fingers and went behind the house for more dead metal. When he returned with an armload, the scab Harold Allen, wearing a black coat and a motorman’s cap, was sitting with the Fiddler, who had his boater in his lap now. When Francis looked at the pair of them, Harold Allen doffed his cap. Both men’s heads were laid open and bloody, but not bleeding, their unchanging wounds obviously healed over and as much a part of their aerial bodies as their eyes, which burned with an entropic passion common among murdered men.

Francis threw the old junk into the wagon and turned away. When he turned back to verify the images, two more men were sitting in the wheelless wheelbarrow. Francis could call neither of them by name, but he knew from the astonishment in the hollows of their eyes that they were the shopper and haberdasher, bystanders both, who had been killed by the soldiers’ random retaliatory fire after Francis opened Harold Allen’s skull with the smooth stone.

“I’m ready,” said Francis to Rosskam. “You ready?”

“What’s the big hurry-up?” Rosskam asked.

“Nothin’ else to haul. Shouldn’t we be movin’?”

“He’s impatient too, this bum,” Rosskam said, and he climbed aboard the wagon.

Francis, feeling the eyes of the four shades on him, gave them all the back of his neck as the wagon rolled north on Pearl Street, Annie’s street. Getting closer. He pulled up the collar of his coat against a new bite in the wind, the western sky graying with ominous clouds. It was almost three-thirty by the Nehi clock in the window of Elmer Rivenburgh’s grocery. First day of early winter. If it rains tonight and we’re outside, we freeze our ass once and for all.

He rubbed his hands together. Were they the enemies? How could a man’s hands betray him? They were full of scars, calluses, split fingernails, ill-healed bones broken on other men’s jaws, veins so bloated and blue they seemed on the verge of explosion. The hands were long-fingered, except where there was no finger, and now, with accreting age, the fingers had thickened, like the low-growing branches of a tree.

Traitors? How possible?

“You like your hands?” Francis asked Rosskam.

“Like, you say? Do I like my hands?”

“Yeah. You like ‘em?”

Rosskam looked at his hands, looked at Francis, looked away.

“I mean it,” Francis said. “I got the idea that my hands do things on their own, you know what I mean?”

“Not yet,” said Rosskam.

“They don’t need me. They do what they goddamn please.”

“Ah ha,” said Rosskam. He looked again at his own gnarled hands and then again at Francis. “Nutsy,” he said, and slapped the horse’s rump with the reins. “Giddap,” he added, changing the subject.

Francis remembered Skippy Maguire’s left hand, that first summer away at Dayton. Skippy was Francis’s roommate, a pitcher: tall and lefty, a man who strutted when he walked; and on the mound he shaped up like a king of the hill. Why, when he wanted to, Skippy could strut standin’ still. But then his left hand split open, the fingers first and then the palm. He pampered the hand: greased it, sunned it, soaked it in Epsom salts and beer, but it wouldn’t heal. And when the team manager got impatient, Skippy ignored the splits and pitched ten minutes in a practice session, which turned the ball red and tore the fingers and the palm into a handful of bloody pulp. The manager told Skippy he was stupid and took him and his useless hand off the payroll.

That night Skippy cursed the manager, got drunker than usual, started a fire in the coal stove even though it was August, and when it was roaring, reached in and picked up a handful of flaming coal. And he showed that goddamn Judas of a hand a thing or two. The doc had to cut off three fingers to save it.

Well, Francis may be a little nutsy to people like Rosskam, but he wouldn’t do anything like Skippy did. Would he? He looked at his hands, connecting scars to memories. Rowdy Dick got the finger. The jagged scar behind the pinky… a violent thirst gave him that one, the night he punched out a liquor store window in Chinatown to get at a bottle of wine. In a fight on Eighth Avenue with a bum who wanted to screw Helen, Francis broke the first joint on his middle finger and it healed crookedly. And a wild man in Philadelphia out to steal Francis’s hat bit off the tip of the left thumb.

But Francis got ‘em. He avenged all scars, and he lived to remember every last one of them dickie birds too, most of ‘em probably dead now, by their own hand maybe. Or the hand of Francis?

Rowdy Dick.

Harold Allen.

The latter name suddenly acted as a magical key to history for Francis. He sensed for the first time in his life the workings of something other than conscious will within himself: insight into a pattern, an overview of all the violence in his history, of how many had died or been maimed by his hand, or had died, like that nameless pair of astonished shades, as an indirect result of his violent ways. He limped now, would always limp with the metal plate in his left leg, because a man stole a bottle of orange soda from him. He found the man, a runt, and retrieved the soda. But the runt hit him with an ax handle and splintered the bone. And what did Francis do? Well the runt was too little to hit, so Francis shoved his face into the dirt and bit a piece out of the back of his neck.

There are things I never wanted to learn how to do, is one thought that came to Francis.

And there are things I did without needin’ to learn.

And I never wanted to know about them either.

Francis’s hands, as he looked at them now, seemed to be messengers from some outlaw corner of his psyche, artificers of some involuntary doom element in his life. He seemed now to have always been the family killer; for no one else he knew of in the family had ever lived as violently as he. And yet he had never sought that kind of life.

But you set out to kill me, Harold Allen said silently from the back of the wagon.

“No,” answered Francis without turning. “Not kill anybody. Just do some damage, get even. Maybe bust a trolley window, cause a ruckus, stuff like that.”

But you knew, even that early in your career, how accurate your throw could be. You were proud of that talent. It was what you brought to the strike that day, and it was why you spent the morning hunting for stones the same weight as a baseball. You aimed at me to make yourself a hero.

“But not to kill you.”

Just to knock out an eye, was it?

Francis now remembered the upright body of Harold Allen on the trolley, indisputably a target. He remembered the coordination of vision with arm movement, of distance with snap of wrist. For a lifetime he had remembered precisely the way Harold Allen crumpled when the stone struck his forehead at the hairline. Francis had not heard, but had forever after imagined, the sound the stone (moving at maybe seventy miles an hour?) made when it hit Harold Allen’s skull. It made the skull sound as hollow, as tough, and as explodable, he decided, as a watermelon hit with a baseball bat.

Francis considered the evil autonomy of his hands and wondered what Skippy Maguire, in his later years, had made of his own left hand’s suicidal impulse. Why was it that suicide kept rising up in Francis’s mind? Wake up in the weeds outside Pittsburgh, half frozen over, too cold to move, flaked out ‘n’ stiffer than a chunk of old iron, and you say to yourself: Francis, you don’t ever want to put in another night, another mornin’, like this one was. Time to go take a header off the bridge.

But after a while you stand up, wipe the frost out of your ear, go someplace to get warm, bum a nickel for coffee, and then start walkin’ toward somewheres else that ain’t near no bridge.

Francis did not understand this flirtation with suicide, this flight from it. He did not know why he hadn’t made the big leap the way Helen’s old man had when he knew he was done in. Too busy, maybe, figurin’ out the next half hour. No way for Francis ever to get a real good look past the sunset, for he’s the kind of fella just kept runnin’ when things went bust; never had the time to stop anyplace easy just to die.

But he never wanted to run off all that much either. Who’d have figured his mother would announce to the family at Thanksgiving dinner, just after Francis married Annie, that neither he nor his common little woman would ever be welcome in this house again? The old bat relented after two years and Francis was allowed visiting privileges. But he only went once, and not even inside the door then, for he found out that privileges didn’t extend to most uncommon Annie at his side.

And so family contact on Colonie Street ended for Francis in a major way. He vacated the flat he’d rented nine doors up the block, moved to the North End to be near Annie’s family, and never set foot again in the goddamned house until the old battle-ax (sad, twisted, wrongheaded, pitiable woman) died.

Departure.

Flight of a kind, the first.

Flight again, when he killed the scab.

Flight again, every summer until it was no longer possible, in order to assert the one talent that gave him full and powerful ease, that let him dance on the earth to the din of brass bands, raucous cheers, and the voluptuous approval of the crowd. Flight kept Francis sane during all those years, and don’t ask him why. He loved living with Annie and the kids, loved his sister, Mary, and half-loved his brothers Peter and Chick and his moron brother, Tommy, too, who all came to visit him at his house when he was no longer welcome at theirs.

He loved and half-loved lots of things about Albany.

But then one day it’s February again,

And it won’t be long now till the snow gets gone again,

And the grass comes green again,

And then the dance music rises in Francis’s brain,

And he longs to flee again,

And he flees.

 

o          o          o

 

A man stepped out of a small apartment house behind Sacred Heart Church and motioned to Rosskam, who reined the horse and climbed down to negotiate for new junk. Francis, on the wagon, watched a group of children coming out of School 20 and crossing the street. A woman whom Francis took to be their teacher stood a few steps into the intersection with raised hand to augment the stopping power of the red light, even though there were no automobiles in sight, only Rosskam’s wagon, which was already standing still. The children, their secular school day ended, crossed like a column of ants into the custody of two nuns on the opposite corner, gliding black figures who would imbue the pliant young minds with God’s holy truth: Blessed are the meek. Francis remembered Billy and Peg as children, similarly handed over from the old school to this same church for instruction in the ways of God, as if anybody could ever figure that one out.

At the thought of Billy and Peg, Francis trembled. He was only a block away from where they lived. And he knew the address now, from the newspaper. I’ll come by of a Sunday and bring a turkey, Francis had told Billy when Billy first asked him to come home. And Billy’s line was: Who the fuck wants a turkey? Yeah, who does? Francis answered then. But his answer now was: I sorta do.

Rosskam climbed back on the wagon, having made no deal with the man from the apartment house, who wanted garbage removed.

“Some people,” said Rosskam to the rear end of his horse, “they don’t know junk. It ain’t garbage. And garbage, it ain’t junk.”

The horse moved forward, every clip clop of its hooves tightening the bands around Francis’s chest. How would he do it? What would he say? Nothing to say. Forget it. No, just knock at the door. Well, I’m home. Or maybe just: How’s chances for a cupacoffee; see what that brings. Don’t ask no favors or make no promises. Don’t apologize. Don’t cry. Make out it’s just a visit. Get the news, pay respects, get gone.

But what about the turkey?

“I think I’m gonna get off the wagon up ahead a bit,” Francis told Rosskam, who looked at him with a squinty eye. “Gettin’ near the end of the day anyway, ‘bout an hour or so left before it starts gettin’ dark, ain’t that right?” He looked up at the sky, gray but bright, with a vague hint of sun in the west.

“Quit before dark?” Rosskam said. “You don’t quit before dark.”

“Gotta see some people up ahead. Ain’t seen ‘em in a while.”

“So go.”

“‘Course I want my pay for what I done till now.”

“You didn’t work the whole day. Come by tomorrow, I’ll figure how much.”

“Worked most of the day. Seven hours, must be, no lunch.”

“Half a day you worked. Three hours yet before dark.”

“I worked more’n half a day. I worked more’n seven hours. I figure you can knock off a dollar. That’d be fair. I’ll take six ‘stead of seven, and a quarter out for the shirt. Five-seventy-five.”

“Half a day you work, you get half pay. Three-fifty.”

“No sir.”

“No? I am the boss.”

“That’s right. You are the boss. And you’re one strong fella too. But I ain’t no dummy, and I know when I’m bein’ skinned. And I want to tell you right now, Mr. Rosskam, I’m mean as hell when I get riled up.” He held out his right hand for inspection. “If you think I won’t fight for what’s mine, take a look. That hand’s seen it all. I mean the worst. Dead men took their last ride on that hand. You get me?”

Rosskam reined the horse, braked the wagon, and looped the reins around a hook on the footboard. The wagon stood in the middle of the block, immediately across Pearl Street from the main entrance to the school. More children were exiting and moving in ragged columns toward the church. Blessed are the many meek. Rosskam studied Francis’s hand, still outstretched, with digits gone, scars blazing, veins pounding, fingers curled in the vague beginnings of a fist.

“Threats,” he said. “You make threats. I don’t like threats. Five-twenty-five I pay, no more.”

“Five-seventy-five. I say five-seventy-five is what’s fair. You gotta be fair in this life.”

From inside his shirt Rosskam pulled out a change purse which hung around his neck on a leather thong. He opened it and stripped off five singles, from a wad, counted them twice, and put them in Francis’s outstretched hand, which turned its palm skyward to receive them. Then he added the seventy-five cents.

“A bum is a bum,” Rosskam said. “I hire no more bums.”

“I thank ye,” Francis said, pocketing the cash.

“You I don’t like,” Rosskam said.

“Well I sorta liked you,” Francis said. “And I ain’t really a bad sort once you get to know me.” He leaped off the wagon and saluted Rosskam, who pulled away without a word or a look, the wagon half full of junk, empty of shades.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis walked toward the house with a more pronounced limp than he’d experienced for weeks. The leg pained him, but not excessively. And yet he was unable to lift it from the sidewalk in a normal gait. He walked exceedingly slowly and to a passerby he would have seemed to be lifting the leg up from a sidewalk paved with glue. He could not see the house half a block away, only a gray porch he judged to be part of it. He paused, seeing a chubby middle-aged woman emerging from another house. When she was about to pass him he spoke.

“Excuse me, lady, but d’ya know where I could get me a nice little turkey?”

The woman looked at him with surprise, then terror, and retreated swiftly up her walkway and back into the house. Francis watched her with awe. Why, when he was sober, and wearing a new shirt, should he frighten a woman with a simple question? The door reopened and a shoeless bald man in an undershirt and trousers stood in the doorway.

“What did you ask my wife?” he said.

“I asked if she knew where I could get a turkey.”

“What for?”

“Well,” said Francis, and he paused, and scuffed one foot, “my duck died.”

“Just keep movin’, bud.”

“Gotcha,” Francis said, and he limped on.

He hailed a group of schoolboys crossing the street toward him and asked: “Hey fellas, you know a meat market around here?”

“Yeah, Jerry’s,” one said, “up at Broadway and Lawn.”

Francis saluted the boy as the others stared. When Francis started to walk they all turned and ran ahead of him. He walked past the house without looking at it, his gait improving a bit. He would have to walk two blocks to the market, then two blocks back. Maybe they’d have a turkey for sale. Settle for a chicken? No.

By the time he reached Lawn Avenue he was walking well, and by Broadway his gait, for him, was normal. The floor of Jerry’s meat market was bare wood, sprinkled with sawdust and extraordinarily clean. Shining white display cases with slanted and glimmering glass offered rows of splendid livers, kidneys, and bacon, provocative steaks and chops, and handsomely ground sausage and hamburg to Francis, the lone customer.

“Help you?” a white-aproned butcher asked. His hair was so black that his facial skin seemed bleached.

“Turkey,” Francis said. “I’d like me a nice dead turkey.”

“It’s the only kind we carry,” the butcher said. “Nice and dead. How big?”

“How big they come?”

“So big you wouldn’t believe it.”

“Gimme a try.”

“Twenty-five, twenty-eight pounds?”

“How much those big fellas sell for?”

“Depends on how much they weigh.”

“Right. How much a pound, then?”

“Forty-four cents.”

“Forty-four. Say forty.” He paused. “You got maybe a twelve-pounder?”

The butcher entered the white meat locker and came out with a turkey in each hand. He weighed one, then another.

“Ten pounds here, and this is twelve and a half.”

“Give us that big guy,” Francis said, and he put the five singles and change on the white counter as the butcher wrapped the turkey in waxy white paper. The butcher left him twenty-five cents change on the counter.

“How’s business, pal?” Francis asked.

“Slow. No money in the world.”

“They’s money. You just gotta go get it. Lookit that five bucks I just give ye. I got me that this afternoon.”

“If I go out to get money, who’ll mind the store?”

“Yeah,” said Francis, “I’s’pose some guys just gotta sit and wait. But it’s a nice clean place you got to wait in.”

“Dirty butchers go out of business.”

“Keep the meat nice and clean, is what it is.”

“Right. Good advice for everybody. Enjoy your dead turkey.”

 

o          o          o

 

He walked down Broadway to King Brady’s saloon and then stared down toward the foot of North Street, toward Welt the Tin’s barn and the old lock, long gone, a daylight look at last. A few more houses stood on the street now, but it hadn’t changed so awful much. He’d looked briefly at it from the bus, and again last night in the barn, but despite the changes time had made, his eyes now saw only the vision of what had been so long ago; and he gazed down on reconstituted time: two men walking up toward Broadway, one of them looking not unlike himself at twenty-one. He understood the cast of the street’s incline as the young man stepped upward, and upward, and upward toward where Francis stood.

The turkey’s coldness penetrated his coat, chilling his arm and his side. He switched the package to his other arm and walked up North Third Street toward their house. They’ll figure I want ‘em to cook the turkey, he thought. Just tell ‘em: Here’s a turkey, cook it up of a Sunday.

Kids came toward him on bikes. Leaves covered the sidewalks of Walter Street. His leg began to ache, his feet again in the glue. Goddamn legs got a life of their own too. He turned the corner, saw the front stoop, walked past it. He turned at the driveway and stopped at the side door just before the garage. He stared at the dotted white curtain behind the door’s four small windowpanes, looked at the knob, at the aluminum milkbox. He’d stole a whole gang of milk outa boxes just like it. Bum. Killer. Thief. He touched the bell, heard the steps, watched the curtain being pulled aside, saw the eye, watched the door open an inch.

“Howdy,” he said.

“Yes?”

Her.

“Brought a turkey for ye.”

“A turkey?”

“Yep. Twelve-and-a-half-pounder.” He held it aloft with one hand.

“I don’t understand.”

“I told Bill I’d come by of a Sunday and bring a turkey. It ain’t Sunday but I come anyway.”

“Is that you, Fran?”

“It ain’t one of them fellas from Mars.”

“Well my God. My God, my God.” She opened the door wide.

“How ya been, Annie? You’re lookin’ good.”

“Oh come in, come in.” She went up the five stairs ahead of him. Stairs to the left went into the cellar, where he thought he might first enter, carry out some of their throwaways to Rosskam’s wagon before he made himself known. Now he was going into the house itself, closing the side door behind him. Up five stairs with Annie watching and into the kitchen, she backing away in front of him. She’s staring. But she’s smiling. All right.

“Billy told us he’d seen you,” she said. She stopped in the center of the kitchen and Francis stopped too. “But he didn’t think you’d ever come. My oh my, what a surprise. We saw the story about you in the paper.”

“Hope it didn’t shame you none.”

“We all thought it was funny. Everybody in town thought it was funny, registering twenty times to vote.”

“Twenty-one.”

“Oh my, Fran. Oh my, what a surprise this is.”

“Here. Do somethin’ with this critter. It’s freezin’ me up.”

“You didn’t have to bring anything. And a turkey. What it must’ve cost you.”

“Iron Joe always used to tell me: Francis, don’t come by empty-handed. Hit the bell with your elbow.”

She had store teeth in her mouth. Those beauties gone. Her hair was steel-gray, only a trace of the brown left, and her chin was caved in a little from the new teeth. But that smile was the same, that honest-to-god smile. She’d put on weight: bigger breasts, bigger hips; and her shoes turned over at the counters. Varicose veins through the stocking too, hands all red, stains on her apron. That’s what housework does to a pretty kid like she was.

Like she was when she came into The Wheelbarrow.

The canalers’ and lumbermen’s saloon that Iron Joe ran at the foot of Main Street.

Prettiest kid in the North End. Folks always said that about pretty girls.

But she was.

Came in lookin’ for Iron Joe,

And Francis, working up to it for two months,

Finally spoke to her.

Howdy, he’d said.

Two hours later they were sitting between two piles of boards in Kibbee’s lumberyard with nobody to see them, holding hands and Francis saying goopy things he swore to himself he’d never say to anybody.

And then they kissed.

Not just then, but some hours or maybe even days later, Francis compared that kiss to Katrina’s first, and found them as different as cats and dogs. Remembering them both now as he stood looking at Annie’s mouth with its store teeth, he perceived that a kiss is as expressive of a way of life as is a smile, or a scarred hand. Kisses come up from below, or down from above. They come from the brain sometimes, sometimes from the heart, and sometimes just from the crotch. Kisses that taper off after a while come only from the heart and leave the taste of sweetness. Kisses that come from the brain tend to try to work things out inside other folks’ mouths and don’t hardly register. And kisses from the crotch and the brain put together, with maybe a little bit of heart, like Katrina’s, well they are the kisses that can send you right around the bend for your whole life.

But then you get one like that first whizzer on Kibbee’s lumber pile, one that come out of the brain and the heart and the crotch, and out of the hands on your hair, and out of those breasts that weren’t all the way blown up yet, and out of the clutch them arms give you, and out of time itself, which keeps track of how long it can go on without you gettin’ even slightly bored the way you got bored years later with kissin’ almost anybody but Helen, and out of fingers (Katrina had fingers like that) that run themselves around and over your face and down your neck, and out of the grip you take on her shoulders, especially on them bones that come out of the middle of her back like angel wings, and out of them eyes that keep openin’ and closin’ to make sure that this is still goin’ and still real and not just stuff you dream about and when you know it’s real it’s okay to close ‘em again, and outa that tongue, holy shit, that tongue, you gotta ask where she learned that because nobody ever did that that good except Katrina who was married and with a kid and had a right to know, but Annie, goddamn, Annie, where’d you pick that up, or maybe you been gidzeyin’ heavy on this lumber pile regular (No, no, no, I know you never, I always knew you never), and so it is natural with a woman like Annie that the kiss come out of every part of her body and more, outa that mouth with them new teeth Francis is now looking at, with the same lips he remembers and doesn’t want to kiss anymore except in memory (though that could be subject to change), and he sees well beyond the mouth into a primal location in this woman’s being, a location that evokes in him not only the memory of years but decades and even more, the memory of epochs, aeons, so that he is sure that no matter where he might have sat with a woman and felt this way, whether it was in some ancient cave or some bogside shanty, or on a North Albany lumber pile, he and she would both know that there was something in each of them that had to stop being one and become two, that had to swear that forever after there would never be another (and there never has been, quite), and that there would be allegiance and sovereignty and fidelity and other such tomfool horseshit that people destroy their heads with when what they are saying has nothing to do with time’s forevers but everything to do with the simultaneous recognition of an eternal twain, well sir, then both of them, Francis and Annie, or the Francises and Annies of any age, would both know in that same instant that there was something between them that had to stop being two and become one.

Such was the significance of that kiss.

Francis and Annie married a month and a half later.

Katrina, I will love you forever.

However, something has come up.

 

o          o          o

 

“The turkey,” Annie said. “You’ll stay while I cook it.”

“No, that’d take one long time. You just have it when you want to. Sunday, whenever.”

“It wouldn’t take too long to cook. A few hours is all. Are you going to run off so soon after being away so long?”

“I ain’t runnin’ off.”

“Good. Then let me get it into the oven right now. When Peg comes home we can peel potatoes and onions and Danny can go get some cranberries. A turkey. Imagine that. Rushing the season.”

“Who’s Danny?”

“You don’t know Danny. Naturally, you don’t. He’s Peg’s boy. She married George Quinn. You know George, of course, and they have the boy. He’s ten.”

“Ten.”

“In fourth grade and smart as a cracker.”

“Gerald, he’d be twenty-two now.”

“Yes, he would.”

“I saw his grave.”

“You did? When?”

“Yesterday. Got a day job up there and tracked him down and talked there awhile.”

“Talked?”

“Talked to Gerald. Told him how it was. Told him a bunch of stuff.”

“I’ll bet he was glad to hear from you.”

“May be. Where’s Bill?”

“Bill? Oh, you mean Billy. We call him Billy. He’s taking a nap. He got himself in trouble with the politicians and he’s feeling pretty low. The kidnapping. Patsy McCall’s nephew was kidnapped. Bindy McCall’s son. You must’ve read about it.”

“Yeah, I did, and Martin Daugherty run it down for me too, awhile back.”

“Martin wrote about Billy in the paper this morning.”

“I seen that too. Nice write-up. Martin says his father’s still alive.”

“Edward. He is indeed, living down on Main Street. He lost his memory, poor man, but he’s healthy. We see him walking with Martin from time to time. I’ll go wake Billy and tell him you’re here.”

“No, not yet. Talk a bit.”

“Talk. Yes, all right. Let’s go in the living room.”

“Not me, not in these clothes. I just come off workin’ on a junk wagon. I’d dirty up the joint somethin’ fierce.”

“That doesn’t matter at all. Not at all.”

“Right here’s fine. Look out the window at the yard there. Nice yard. And a collie dog you got.”

“It is nice. Danny cuts the grass and the dog buries his bones all over it. There’s a cat next door he chases up and down the fence.”

“The family changed a whole lot. I knew it would. How’s your brother and sisters?”

“They’re fine, I guess. Johnny never changes. He’s a committeeman now for the Democrats. Josie got very fat and lost a lot of her hair. She wears a switch. And Minnie was married two years and her husband died. She’s very lonely and lives in a rented room. But we all see one another.”

“Billy’s doin’ good.”

“He’s a gambler and not a very good one. He’s always broke.”

“He was good to me when I first seen him. He had money then. Bailed me outa jail, wanted to buy me a new suit of clothes. Then he give me a hefty wad of cash and acourse I blew it all. He’s tough too, Billy. I liked him a whole lot. He told me you never said nothin’ to him and Peg about me losin’ hold of Gerald.”

“No, not until the other day.”

“You’re some original kind of woman, Annie. Some original kind of woman.”

“Nothing to be gained talking about it. It was over and done with. Wasn’t your fault any more than it was my fault. Wasn’t anybody’s fault.”

“No way I can thank you for that. That’s something thanks don’t even touch. That’s something I don’t even know—”

She waved him silent.

“Never mind that,” she said. “It’s over. Come, sit, tell me what finally made you come see us.”

He sat down on the backless bench in the breakfast nook and looked out the window, out past the geranium plant with two blossoms, out at the collie dog and the apple tree that grew in this yard but offered shade and blossoms and fruit to two other yards adjoining, out at the flower beds and the trim grass and the white wire fence that enclosed it all. So nice. He felt a great compulsion to confess all his transgressions in order to be equal to this niceness he had missed out on; and yet he felt a great torpor in his tongue, akin to what he had felt in his legs when he walked on the glue of the sidewalks. His brain, his body seemed to be in a drugged sleep that allowed perception without action. There was no way he could reveal all that had brought him here. It would have meant the recapitulation not only of all his sins but of all his fugitive and fallen dreams, all his random movement across the country and back, all his returns to this city only to leave again without ever coming to see her, them, without ever knowing why he didn’t. It would have meant the anatomizing of his compulsive violence and his fear of justice, of his time with Helen, his present defection from Helen, his screwing so many women he really wanted nothing to do with, his drunken ways, his morning-after sicknesses, his sleeping in the weeds, his bumming money from strangers not because there was a depression but first to help Helen and then because it was easy: easier than working. Everything was easier than coming home, even reducing yourself to the level of social maggot, streetside slug.

But then he came home.

He is home now, isn’t he?

And if he is, the question on the table is: Why is he?

“You might say it was Billy,” Francis said. “But that don’t really get it. Might as well ask the summer birds why they go all the way south and then come back north to the same old place.”

“Something must’ve caught you.”

“I say it was Billy gettin’ me outa jail, goin’ my bail, then invitin’ me home when I thought I’d never get invited after what I did, and then findin’ what you did, or didn’t do is more like it, and not ever seem’ Peg growin’ up, and wantin’ some of that. I says to Billy I want to come home when I can do something’ for the folks, but he says just come home and see them and never mind the turkey, you can do that for them. And here I am. And the turkey too.”

“But something changed in you,” Annie said. “It was the woman, wasn’t it? Billy meeting her?”

“The woman.”

“Billy told me you had another wife. Helen, he said.”

“Not a wife. Never a wife. I only had one wife.”

Annie, her arms folded on the breakfast table across from him, almost smiled, which he took to be a sardonic response. But then she said: “And I only had one husband. I only had one man.”

Which froze Francis’s gizzard.

“That’s what the religion does,” he said, when he could talk.

“It wasn’t the religion.”

“Men must’ve come outa the trees after you, you were such a handsome woman.”

“They tried. But no man ever came near me. I wouldn’t have it. I never even went to the pictures with anybody except neighbors, or the family.”

“I couldn’ta married again,” Francis said. “There’s some things you just can’t do. But I did stay with Helen. That’s the truth, all right. Nine years on and off. She’s a good sort, but helpless as a baby. Can’t find her way across the street if you don’t take her by the hand. She nursed me when I was all the way down and sick as a pup. We got on all right. Damn good woman, I say that. Came from good folks. But she can’t find her way across the damn street.”

Annie stared at him with a grim mouth and sorrowful eyes.

“Where is she now?”

“Somewheres, goddamned if I know. Downtown somewheres, I suppose. You can’t keep track of her. She’ll drop dead in the street one of these days, wanderin’ around like she does.”

“She needs you.”

“Maybe so.”

“What do you need, Fran?”

“Me? Huh. Need a shoelace. All I got is a piece of twine in that shoe for two days.”

“Is that all you need?”

“I’m still standin’. Still able to do a day’s work. Don’t do it much, I admit that. Still got my memory, my memories. I remember you, Annie. That’s an enrichin’ thing. I remember Kibbee’s lumber pile the first day I talked to you. You remember that?”

“Like it was this morning.”

“Old times.”

“Very old.”

“Jesus Christ, Annie, I missed everybody and everything, but I ain’t worth a goddamn in the world and never was. Wait a minute. Let me finish. I can’t finish. I can’t even start. But there’s somethin’. Somethin’ to say about this. I got to get at it, get it out. I’m so goddamned sorry, and I know that don’t cut nothin’. I know it’s just a bunch of shitass words, excuse the expression. It’s nothin’ to what I did to you and the kids. I can’t make it up. I knew five, six months after I left that it’d get worse and worse and no way ever to fix it, no way ever to go back. I’m just hangin’ out now for a visit, that’s all. Just visitin’ to see you and say I hope things are okay. But I got other things goin’ for me, and I don’t know the way out of anything. All there is is this visit. I don’t want nothin’, Annie, and that’s the honest-to-god truth, I don’t want nothin’ but the look of everybody. Just the look’ll do me. Just the way things look out in that yard. It’s a nice yard. It’s a nice doggie. Damn, it’s nice. There’s plenty to say, plenty of stuff to say, explain, and such bullshit, excuse the expression again, but I ain’t ready to say that stuff, I ain’t ready to look at you while you listen to it, and I bet you ain’t ready to hear it if you knew what I’d tell you. Lousy stuff, Annie, lousy stuff. Just gimme a little time, gimme a sandwich too, I’m hungry as a damn bear. But listen, Annie, I never stopped lovin’ you and the kids, and especially you, and that don’t entitle me to nothin’, and I don’t want nothin’ for sayin’ it, but I went my whole life rememberin’ things here that were like nothin’ I ever saw anywhere in Georgia or Louisiana or Michigan, and I been all over, Annie, all over, and there ain’t nothin’ in the world like your elbows sittin’ there on the table across from me, and that apron all full of stains. Goddamn, Annie. Goddamn. Kibbee’s was just this mornin’. You’re right about that. But it’s old times too, and I ain’t askin’ for nothin’ but a sandwich and a cupa tea. You still use the Irish breakfast tea?”

 

o          o          o

 

The talk that passed after what Francis said, and after the silence that followed it, was not important except as it moved the man and the woman closer together and physically apart, allowed her to make him a Swiss cheese sandwich and a pot of tea and begin dressing the turkey: salting, peppering, stuffing it with not quite stale enough bread but it’ll have to do, rubbing it with butter and sprinkling it with summer savory, mixing onions in with the dressing, and turkey seasoning too from a small tin box with a red and yellow turkey on it, fitting the bird into a dish for which it seemed to have been groomed and killed to order, so perfect was the fit.

And too, the vagrant chitchat allowed Francis to stare out at the yard and watch the dog and become aware that the yard was beginning to function as the site of a visitation, although nothing in it except his expectation when he looked out at the grass lent credence to that possibility.

He stared and he knew that he was in the throes of flight, not outward this time but upward. He felt feathers growing from his back, knew soon he would soar to regions unimaginable, knew too that what had brought him home was not explicable without a year of talking, but a scenario nevertheless took shape in his mind: a pair of kings on a pair of trolley cars moving toward a single track, and the trolleys, when they meet at the junction, do not wreck each other but fuse into a single car inside which the kings rise up against each other in imperial intrigue, neither in control, each driving the car, a careening thing, wild, anarchic, dangerous to all else, and then Billy leaps aboard and grabs the power handle and the kings instantly yield control to the wizard.

He give me a Camel cigarette when I was coughin’ my lungs up, Francis thought.

He knows what, a man needs, Billy does.

 

o          o          o

 

Annie was setting the dining-room table with a white linen tablecloth, with the silver Iron Joe gave them for their wedding, and with china Francis did not recognize, when Daniel Quinn arrived home. The boy tossed his schoolbag in a corner of the dining room, then stopped in midmotion when he saw Francis standing in the doorway to the kitchen.

“Hulooo,” Francis said to him.

“Danny, this is your grandfather,” Annie said. “He just came to see us and he’s staying for dinner.” Daniel stared at Francis’s face and slowly extended his right hand. Francis shook it.

“Pleased to meet you,” Daniel said.

“The feeling’s mutual, boy. You’re a big lad for ten.”

“I’ll be eleven in January.”

“You comin’ from school, are ye?”

“From instructions, religion.”

“Oh, religion. I guess I just seen you crossin’ the street and didn’t even know it. Learn anything, did you?”

“Learned about today. All Saints’ Day.”

“What about it?”

“It’s a holy day. You have to go to church. It’s the day we remember the martyrs who died for the faith and nobody knows their names.”

“Oh yeah,” Francis said. “I remember them fellas.”

“What happened to your teeth?”

“Daniel.”

“My teeth,” Francis said. “Me and them parted company, most of ‘em. I got a few left.”

“Are you Grampa Phelan or Grampa Quinn?”

“Phelan,” Annie said. “His name is Francis Aloysius Phelan.”

“Francis Aloysius, right,” said Francis with a chuckle. “Long time since I heard that.”

“You’re the ball player,” Danny said. “The big-leaguer. You played with the Washington Senators.”

“Used to. Don’t play anymore.”

“Billy says you taught him how to throw an inshoot.”

“He remembers that, does he?”

“Will you teach me?”

“You a pitcher, are ye?”

“Sometimes. I can throw a knuckle ball.”

“Change of pace. Hard to hit. You get a baseball, I’ll show you how to hold it for an inshoot.” And Daniel ran into the kitchen, then the pantry, and emerged with a ball and glove, which he handed to Francis. The glove was much too small for Francis’s hand but he put a few fingers inside it and held the ball in his right hand, studied its seams. Then he gripped it with his thumb and one and a half fingers.

“What happened to your finger?” Daniel asked.

“Me and it parted company too. Sort of an accident.”

“Does that make any difference throwing an inshoot?”

“Sure does, but not to me. I don’t throw no more at all. Never was a pitcher, you know, but talked with plenty of ‘em. Walter Johnson was my buddy. You know him? The Big Train?”

The boy shook his head.

“Don’t matter. But he taught me how it was done and I ain’t forgot. Put your first two fingers right on the seams, like this, and then you snap your wrist out, like this, and if you’re a righty—are you a righty?”—and the boy nodded— “then the ball’s gonna dance a little turnaround jig and head right inside at the batter’s belly button, assumin’, acourse, that he’s a righty too. You followin’ me?” And the boy nodded again. “Now the trick is, you got to throw the opposite of the outcurve, which is like this.” And he snapped his wrist clockwise. “You got to do it like this.” And he snapped his wrist counterclockwise again. Then he had the boy try it both ways and patted him on the back.

“That’s how it’s done,” he said. “You get so’s you can do it, the batter’s gonna think you got a little animal inside that ball, flyin’ it like an airplane.”

“Let’s go outside and try it,” Daniel said. “I’ll get another glove.”

“Glove,” said Francis, and he turned to Annie. “By some fluke you still got my old glove stuck away somewheres in the house? That possible, Annie?”

“There’s a whole trunk of your things in the attic,” she said. “It might be there.”

“It is,” Daniel said. “I know it is. I saw it. I’ll get it.”

“You will not,” Annie said. “That trunk is none of your affair.”

“But I’ve already seen it. There’s a pair of spikes too, and clothes and newspapers and old pictures.”

“All that,” Francis said to Annie. “You saved it.”

“You had no business in that trunk,” Annie said.

“Billy and I looked at the pictures and the clippings one day,” Daniel said. “Billy looked just as much as I did. He’s in lots of ‘em.” And he pointed at his grandfather.

“Maybe you’d want to have a look at what’s there,” Annie said to Francis.

“Could be. Might find me a new shoelace.”

Annie led him up the stairs, Daniel already far ahead of them. They heard the boy saying: “Get up, Billy, Grandpa’s here”; and when they reached the second floor Billy was standing in the doorway of his room, in his robe and white socks, disheveled and only half awake.

“Hey, Billy. How you gettin’ on?” Francis said.

“Hey,” said Billy. “You made it.”

“Yep.”

“I woulda bet against it happenin’.”

“You’da lost. Brought a turkey too, like I said.”

“A turkey, yeah?”

“We’re having it for dinner,” Annie said.

“I’m supposed to be downtown tonight,” Billy said. “I just told Martin I’d meet him.”

“Call him back,” Annie said. “He’ll understand.”

“Red Tom Fitzsimmons and Martin both called to tell me things are all right again on Broadway. You know, I told you I had trouble with the McCalls,” Billy said to his father.

“I ‘member.”

“I wouldn’t do all they wanted and they marked me lousy. Couldn’t gamble, couldn’t even get a drink on Broadway.”

“I read that story Martin wrote,” Francis said. “He called you a magician.”

“Martin’s full of malarkey. I didn’t do diddley. I just mentioned Newark to them and it turns out that’s where they trapped some of the kidnap gang.”

“You did somethin’, then,” Francis said. “Mentionin’ Newark was somethin’. Who’d you mention it to?”

“Bindy. But I didn’t know those guys were in Newark or I wouldn’t of said anything. I could never rat on anybody.”

“Then why’d you mention it?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s how come you’re a magician.”

“That’s Martin’s baloney. But he turned somebody’s head around with it, ‘cause I’m back in good odor with the pols, is how he put it on the phone. In other words, I don’t stink to them no more.”

Francis smelled himself and knew he had to wash as soon as possible. The junk wagon’s stink and the bummy odor of his old suitcoat was unbearable now that he was among these people. Dirty butchers go out of business.

“You can’t go out now, Billy,” Annie said. “Not with your father home and staying for dinner. We’re going up in the attic to look at his things.”

“You like turkey?” Francis asked Billy.

“Who the hell don’t like turkey, not to give you a short answer,” Billy said. He looked at his father. “Listen, use my razor in the bathroom if you want to shave.”

“Don’t be telling people what to do,” Annie said. “Get dressed and come downstairs.”

And then Francis and Annie ascended the stairway to the attic.

 

o          o          o

 

When Francis opened the trunk lid the odor of lost time filled the attic air, a cloying reek of imprisoned flowers that unsettled the dust and fluttered the window shades. Francis felt drugged by the scent of the reconstituted past, and then stunned by his first look inside the trunk, for there, staring out from a photo, was his own face at age nineteen. The picture lay among rolled socks and a small American flag, a Washington Senators cap, a pile of newspaper clippings and other photos, all in a scatter on the trunk’s tray. Francis stared up at himself from the bleachers in Chadwick Park on a day in 1899, his face unlined, his teeth all there, his collar open, his hair unruly in the afternoon’s breeze. He lifted the picture for a closer look and saw himself among a group of men, tossing a baseball from bare right hand to gloved left hand. The flight of the ball had always made this photo mysterious to Francis, for the camera had caught the ball clutched in one hand and also in flight, arcing in a blur toward the glove. What the camera had caught was two instants in one: time separated and unified, the ball in two places at once, an eventuation as inexplicable as the Trinity itself. Francis now took the picture to be a Trinitarian talisman (a hand, a glove, a ball) for achieving the impossible: for he had always believed it impossible for him, ravaged man, failed human, to reenter history under this roof. Yet here he was in this acne of reconstitutable time, touching untouchable artifacts of a self that did not yet know it was ruined, just as the ball, in its inanimate ignorance, did not know yet that it was going nowhere, was caught.

But the ball is really not yet caught, except by the camera, which has frozen only its situation in space.

And Francis is not yet ruined, except as an apparency in process.

The ball still flies.

Francis still lives to play another day.

Doesn’t he?

The boy noticed the teeth. A man can get new teeth, store teeth. Annie got ‘em.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis lifted the tray out of the trunk, revealing the spikes and the glove, which Daniel immediately grabbed, plus two suits of clothes, a pair of black oxfords and brown high-button shoes, maybe a dozen shirts and two dozen white collars, a stack of undershirts and shorts, a set of keys to long-forgotten locks, a razor strop and a hone, a shaving mug with an inch of soap in it, a shaving brush with bristles intact, seven straight razors in a case, each marked for a day of the week, socks, bow ties, suspenders, and a baseball, which Francis picked up and held out to Daniel.

“See that? See that name?”

The boy looked, shook his head. “I can’t read it.”

“Get it in the light, you’ll read it. That’s Ty Cobb. He signed that ball in 1911, the year he hit .420. A fella give it to me once and I always kept it. Mean guy, Cobb was, come in at me spikes up many a time. But you had to hand it to a man who played ball as good as he did. He was the best.”

“Better than Babe Ruth?”

“Better and tougher and meaner and faster. Couldn’t hit home runs like the Babe, but he did everything else better. You like to have that ball with his name on it?”

“Sure I would, sure! Yeah! Who wouldn’t?”

“Then it’s yours. But you better look him up, and Walter Johnson too. Find out for yourself how good they were. Still kickin’, too, what I hear about Cobb. He ain’t dead yet either.”

“I remember that suit,” Annie said, lifting the sleeve of a gray herringbone coat. “You wore it for dress-up.”

“Wonder if it’d still fit me,” Francis said, and stood up and held the pants to his waist and found out his legs had not grown any longer in the past twenty-two years.

“Take the suit downstairs,” Annie said. “I’ll sponge and press it.”

“Press it?” Francis said, and he chuckled. “S’pose I could use a new outfit. Get rid of these rags.”

He then singled out a full wardrobe, down to the handkerchief, and piled it all on the floor in front of the trunk.

“I’d like to look at these again,” Annie said, lifting out the clippings and photos.

“Bring ‘em down,” Francis said, closing the lid.

“I’ll carry the glove,” Daniel said.

“And I’d like to borry the use of your bathroom,” Francis said. “Take Billy up on that shave offer and try on some of these duds. I got me a shave last night but Billy thinks I oughta do it again.”

“Don’t pay any attention to Billy,” Annie said. “You look fine.”

She led him down the stairs and along a hallway where two rooms faced each other. She gestured at a bedroom where a single bed, a dresser, and a child’s rolltop desk stood in quiet harmony.

“That’s Danny’s room,” she said. “It’s a nice big room and it gets the morning light.” She took a towel down from a linen closet shelf and handed it to Francis. “Have a bath if you like.”

Francis locked the bathroom door and tried on the trousers, which fit if he didn’t button the top button. Wear the suspenders with ‘em. The coat was twenty years out of style and offended Francis’s residual sense of aptness. But he decided to wear it anyway, for its odor of time was infinitely superior to the stink of bumdom that infested the coat on his back. He stripped and let the bathwater run. He inspected the shirt he took from the trunk, but rejected it in favor of the white-on-white from the junk wagon. He tried the laceless black oxfords, all broken in, and found that even with calluses his feet had not grown in twenty-two years either.

He stepped into the bath and slid slowly beneath its vapors. He trembled with the heat, with astonishment that he was indeed here, as snug in this steaming tub as was the turkey in its roasting pan. He felt blessed. He stared at the bathroom sink, which now had an aura of sanctity about it, its faucets sacred, its drainpipe holy, and he wondered whether everything was blessed at some point in its existence, and he concluded yes. Sweat rolled down his forehead and dripped off his nose into the bath, a confluence of ancient and modern waters. And as it did, a great sunburst entered the darkening skies, a radiance so sudden that it seemed like a bolt of lightning; yet its brilliance remained, as if some angel of beatific lucidity were hovering outside the bathroom window. So enduring was the light, so intense beyond even sundown’s final gloryburst, that Francis raised himself up out of the tub and went to the window.

Below, in the yard, Aldo Campione, Fiddler Quain, Harold Allen, and Rowdy Dick Doolan were erecting a wooden structure that Francis was already able to recognize as bleachers.

He stepped back into the tub, soaped the long-handled brush, raised his left foot out of the water, scrubbed it clean, raised the right foot, scrubbed that.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis, that 1916 dude, came down the stairs in bow tie, white-on-white shirt, black laceless oxfords with a spit shine on them, the gray herringbone with lapels twenty-two years too narrow, with black silk socks and white silk boxer shorts, with his skin free of dirt everywhere, his hair washed twice, his fingernails cleaned, his leftover teeth brushed and the toothbrush washed with soap and dried and rehung, with no whiskers anymore, none, and his hair combed and rubbed with a dab of Vaseline so it’d stay in place, with a spring in his gait and a smile on his face; this Francis dude came down those stairs, yes, and stunned his family with his resurrectible good looks and stylish potential, and took their stares as applause.

And dance music rose in his brain.

“Holy Christ,” said Billy.

“My oh my,” said Annie.

“You look different,” Daniel said.

“I kinda needed a sprucin’,” Francis said. “Funny duds but I guess they’ll do.”

They all pulled back then, even Daniel, aware they should not dwell on the transformation, for it made Francis’s previous condition so lowly, so awful.

“Gotta dump these rags,” he said, and he lifted his bundle, tied with the arms of his old coat.

“Danny’ll take them,” Annie said. “Put them in the cellar,” she told the boy.

Francis sat down on a bench in the breakfast nook, across the table from Billy. Annie had spread the clips and photos on the table and he and Billy looked them over. Among the clips Francis found a yellowed envelope postmarked June 2, 1910, and addressed to Mr. Francis Phelan, do Toronto Baseball Club, The Palmer House, Toronto, Ont. He opened it and read the letter inside, then pocketed it. Dinner advanced as Daniel and Annie peeled the potatoes at the sink. Billy, his hair combed slick, half a dude himself with open-collared starched white shirt, creased trousers, and pointy black shoes, was drinking from a quart bottle of Dobler beer and reading a clipping.

“I read these once,” Billy said. “I never really knew how good you were. I heard stories and then one night downtown I heard a guy talking about you and he was ravin’ that you were top-notch and I never knew just how good. I knew this stuff was there. I seen it when we first moved here, so I went up and looked. You were really a hell of a ball player.”

“Not bad,” Francis said. “Coulda been worse.”

“These sportswriters liked you.”

“I did crazy things. I was good copy for them. And I had energy. Everybody likes energy.”

Billy offered Francis a glass of beer but Francis declined and took, instead, from Billy’s pack, a Camel cigarette; and then he perused the clips that told of him stealing the show with his fielding, or going four-for-four and driving in the winning run, or getting himself in trouble: such as the day he held the runner on third by the belt, an old John McGraw trick, and when a fly ball was hit, the runner got ready to tag and head home after the catch but found he could not move and turned and screamed at Francis in protest, at which point Francis let go of the belt and the runner ran, but the throw arrived first and he was out at home.

Nifty.

But Francis was thrown out of the game.

“Would you like to go out and look at the yard?” Annie said, suddenly beside Francis.

“Sure. See the dog.”

“It’s too bad the flowers are gone. We had so many flowers this year. Dahlias and snapdragons and pansies and asters. The asters lasted the longest.”

“You still got them geraniums right here.”

Annie nodded and put on her sweater and the two of them went out onto the back porch. The air was chilly and the light fading. She closed the door behind them and patted the dog, which barked twice at Francis and then accepted his presence. Annie went down the five steps to the yard, Francis and the dog following.

“Do you have a place to stay tonight, Fran?”

“Sure. Always got a place to stay.”

“Do you want to come home permanent?” she asked, not looking at him, walking a few steps ahead toward the fence. “Is that why you’ve come to see us?”

“Nah, not much chance of that. I’d never fit in.”

“I thought you might’ve had that in mind.”

“I thought of it, I admit that. But I see it couldn’t work, not after all these years.”

“It’d take some doing, I know that.”

“Take more than that.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

“Yeah? Name one.”

“You going to the cemetery and talking to Gerald. I think maybe that’s the strangest thing I ever heard in all my days.”

“Wasn’t strange. I just went and stood there and told him a bunch of stuff. It’s nice where he is. It’s pretty.”

“That’s the family plot.”

“I know.”

“There’s a grave there for you, right at the stone, and one for me, and two for the children next to that if they need them. Peg’ll have her own plot with George and the boy, I imagine.”

“When did you do all that?” Francis asked.

“Oh years ago. I don’t remember.”

“You bought me a grave after I run off.”

“I bought it for the family. You’re part of the family.”

“There was long times I didn’t think so.”

“Peg is very bitter about you staying away. I was too, for years and years, but that’s all done with. I don’t know why I’m not bitter anymore. I really don’t. I called Peg and told her to get the cranberries and that you were here.”

“Me and the cranberries. Easin’ the shock some.”

“I suppose.”

“I’ll move along, then. I don’t want no fights, rile up the family.”

“Nonsense. Stop it. You just talk to her. You’ve got to talk to her.”

“I can’t say nothin’ that means anything. I couldn’t say a straight word to you.”

“I know what you said and what you didn’t say. I know it’s hard what you’re doing.”

“It’s a bunch of nothin’. I don’t know why I do anything in this goddamn life.”

“You did something good coming home. It’s something Danny’ll always know about. And Billy. He was so glad to be able to help you, even though he’d never say it.”

“He got a bum out of jail.”

“You’re so mean to yourself, Francis.”

“Hell, I’m mean to everybody and everything.”

The bleachers were all up, and men were filing silently into them and sitting down, right here in Annie’s backyard, in front of God and the dog and all: Bill Corbin, who ran for sheriff in the nineties and got beat and turned Republican, and Perry Marsolais, who inherited a fortune from his mother and drank it up and ended up raking leaves for the city, and Iron Joe himself with his big mustache and big belly and big ruby stickpin, and Spiff Dwyer in his nifty pinched fedora, and young George Quinn and young Martin Daugherty, the batboys, and Martin’s grandfather Emmett Daugherty, the wild Fenian who talked so fierce and splendid and put the radical light in Francis’s eye with his stories of how moneymen used workers to get rich and treated the Irish like pigdog paddyniggers, and Patsy McCall, who grew up to run the city and was carrying his ball glove in his left hand, and some men Francis did not know even in 1899, for they were only hangers-on at the saloon, men who followed the doings of Iron Joe’s Wheelbarrow Boys, and who came to the beer picnic this day to celebrate the Boys’ winning the Albany-Troy League pennant.

They kept coming: forty-three men, four boys, and two mutts, ushered in by the Fiddler and his pals.

And there, between crazy Specky McManus in his derby and Jack Corbett in his vest and no collar, sat the runt, is it?

Is it now?

The runt with the piece out of his neck.

There’s one in every crowd.

Francis closed his eyes to retch the vision out of his head, but when he opened them the bleachers still stood, the men seated as before. Only the light had changed, brighter now, and with it grew Francis’s hatred of all fantasy, all insubstantiality. I am sick of you all, was his thought. I am sick of imagining what you became, what I might have become if I’d lived among you. I am sick of your melancholy histories, your sentimental pieties, your goddamned unchanging faces. I’d rather be dyin’ in the weeds than standin’ here lookin’ at you pinin’ away, like the dyin’ Jesus pinin’ for an end to it when he knew every stinkin’ thing that was gonna happen not only to himself but to everybody around him, and to all those that wasn’t even born yet. You ain’t nothin’ more than a photograph, you goddamn spooks. You ain’t real and I ain’t gonna be at your beck and call no more.

You’re all dead, and if you ain’t, you oughta be.

I’m the one is livin’. I’m the one puts you on the map.

You never knew no more about how things was than I did.

You’d never even be here in the damn yard if I didn’t open that old trunk.

So get your ass gone!

“Hey Ma,” Billy yelled out the window. “Peg’s home.”

“We’ll be right in,” Annie said. And when Billy closed the window she turned to Francis: “You want to tell me anything, ask me anything, before we get in front of the others?”

“Annie, I got five million things to ask you, and ten million things to tell. I’d like to eat all the dirt in this yard for you, eat the weeds, eat the dog bones too, if you asked me.”

“I think you probably ate all that already,” she said.

And then they went up the back stoop together.

 

o          o          o

 

When Francis first saw his daughter bent over the stove, already in her flowered apron and basting the turkey, he thought: She is too dressed up to be doing that. She wore a wristwatch on one arm, a bracelet on the other, and two rings on her wedding ring finger. She wore high heels, silk stockings with the seams inside out, and a lavender dress that was never intended as a kitchen costume. Her darkbrown hair, cut short, was waved in a soft marcel, and she wore lipstick and a bit of rouge, and her nails were long and painted dark red. She was a few, maybe even more than a few, pounds overweight, and she was beautiful, and Francis was immeasurably happy at having sired her.

“How ya doin’, Margaret?” Francis asked when she straightened up and looked at him.

“I’m doing fine,” she said, “no thanks to you.”

“Yep,” said Francis, and he turned away from her and sat across from Billy in the nook.

“Give him a break,” Billy said. “He just got here, for chrissake.”

“What break did he ever give me? Or you? Or any of us?”

“Aaahhh, blow it out your ear,” Billy said.

“I’m saying what is,” Peg said.

“Are you?” Annie asked. “Are you so sure of what is?”

“I surely am. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and welcome him back with open arms after what he did. You don’t just pop up one day with a turkey and all is forgiven.”

“I ain’t expectin’ to be forgiven,” Francis said. “I’m way past that.”

“Oh? And just where are you now?”

“Nowhere.”

“Well that’s no doubt very true. And if you’re nowhere, why are you here? Why’ve you come back like a ghost we buried years ago to force a scrawny turkey on us? Is that your idea of restitution for letting us fend for ourselves for twenty-two years?”

“That’s a twelve-and-a-half-pound turkey,” Annie said.

“Why leave your nowhere and come here, is what I want to know. This is somewhere. This is a home you didn’t build.”

“I built you. Built Billy. Helped to.”

“I wish you never did.”

“Shut up, Peg,” Billy yelled. “Rotten tongue of yours, shut it the hell UP!”

“He came to visit, that’s all he did,” Annie said softly. “I already asked him if he wanted to stay over and he said no. If he wanted to he surely could.”

“Oh?” said Peg. “Then it’s all decided?”

“Nothin’ to decide,” Francis said. “Like your mother says, I ain’t stayin’. I’m movin’ along.” He touched the salt and pepper shaker on the table in front of him, pushed the sugar bowl against the wall.

“You’re moving on,” Peg said.

“Positively.”

“Fine.”

“That’s it, that’s enough!” Billy yelled, standing up from the bench. “You got the feelin’s of a goddamn rattlesnake.”

“Pardon me for having any feelings at all,” Peg said, and she left the kitchen, slamming the swinging door, which had been standing open, slamming it so hard that it swung, and swung, and swung, until it stopped.

“Tough lady,” Francis said.

“She’s a creampuff,” Billy said. “But she knows how to get her back up.”

“She’ll calm down,” Annie said.

“I’m used to people screamin’ at me,” Francis said. “I got a hide like a hippo.”

“You need it in this joint,” Billy said.

“Where’s the boy?” Francis asked. “He hear all that?”

“He’s out playin’ with the ball and glove you gave him,” Billy said.

“I didn’t give him the glove,” Francis said. “I give him the ball with the Ty Cobb signature. That glove is yours. You wanna give it to him, it’s okay by me. Ain’t much of a glove compared to what they got these days. Danny’s glove’s twice the quality my glove ever was. But I always thought to myself: I’m givin’ that old glove to Billy so’s he’ll have a touch of the big leagues somewhere in the house. That glove caught some mighty people. Line drive from Tris Speaker, taggin’ out Cobb, runnin’ Eddie Collins outa the baseline. Lotta that.”

Billy nodded and turned away from Francis. “Okay,” he said, and then he jumped up from the bench and left the kitchen so the old man could not see (though he saw) that he was choked up.

“Grew up nice, Billy did,” Francis said. “Couple of tough bozos you raised, Annie.”

“I wish they were tougher,” Annie said.

The yard, now ablaze with new light against a black sky, caught Francis’s attention. Men and boys, and even dogs, were holding lighted candles, the dogs holding them in their mouths sideways. Specky McManus, as usual hem’ different, wore his candle on top of his derby. It was a garden of acolytes setting fire to the very air, and then, while Francis watched, the acolytes erupted in song, but a song without sense, a chant to which Francis listened carefully but could make out not a word. It was an antisyllabic lyric they sang, like the sibilance of the wren’s softest whistle, or the tree frog’s tonsillar wheeze. It was clear to Francis as he watched this performance (watched it with awe, for it was transcending what he expected from dream, from reverie, even from Sneaky Pete hallucinations) that it was happening in an arena of his existence over which he had less control than he first imagined when Aldo Campione boarded the bus. The signals from this time lock were ominous, the spooks utterly without humor. And then, when he saw the runt (who knew he was being watched, who knew he didn’t belong in this picture) putting the lighted end of the candle into the hole in the back of his neck, and when Francis recognized the chant of the acolytes at last as the “Dies Irae,” he grew fearful. He closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands and he tried to remember the name of his first dog.

It was a collie.

 

o          o          o

 

Billy came back, clear-eyed, sat across from Francis, and offered him another smoke, which he took. Billy topped his own beer and drank and then said, “George.”

“Oh my God,” Annie said. “We forgot all about George.” And she went to the living room and called upstairs to Peg: “You should call George and tell him he can come home.”

“Let her alone, I’ll do it,” Billy called to his mother.

“What about George?” Francis asked.

“The cops were here one night lookin’ for him,” Billy said. “It was Patsy McCall puttin’ pressure on the family because of me. George writes numbers and they were probably gonna book him for gamblin’ even though he had the okay. So he laid low up in Troy, and the poor bastard’s been alone for days. But if I’m clear, then so is he.”

“Some power the McCaIls put together in this town.”

“They got it all. They ever pay you the money they owed you for registerin’ all those times?”

“Paid me the fifty I told you about, owe me another fifty-five. I’ll never see it.”

“You got it comin’.”

“Once it got in the papers they wouldn’t touch it. Mixin’ themselves up with bums. You heard Martin tell me that. They’d also be suspicious that I’d set them up. I wouldn’t set nobody up. Nobody.”

“Then you got no cash.”

“I got a little.”

“How much?”

“I got some change. Cigarette money.”

“You blew what you had on the turkey.”

“That took a bit of it.”

Billy handed him a ten, folded in half. “Put it in your pocket. You can’t walk around broke.”

Francis took it and snorted. “I been broke twenty-two years. But I thank ye, Billy. I’ll make it up.”

“You already made it up.” And he went to the phone in the dining room to call George in Troy.

Annie came back to the kitchen and saw Francis looking at the Chadwick Park photo and looked over his shoulder. “That’s a handsome picture of you,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Francis. “I was a good-lookin’ devil.”

“Some thought so, some didn’t,” Annie said. “I forgot about this picture.”

“Oughta get it framed,” Francis said. “Lot of North Enders in there. George and Martin as kids, and Patsy McCall too. And Iron Joe. Real good shot of Joe.”

“It surely is,” Annie said. “How fat and healthy he looks.”

Billy came back and Annie put the photo on the table so that all three of them could look at it. They sat on the same bench with Francis in the middle and studied it, each singling out the men and boys they knew. Annie even knew one of the dogs.

“Oh that’s a prize picture,” she said, and stood up. “A prize picture.”

“Well, it’s yours, so get it framed.”

“Mine? No, it’s yours. It’s baseball.”

“Nah, nah, George’d like it too.”

“Well I will frame it,” Annie said. “I’ll take it downtown and get it done up right.”

“Sure,” said Francis. “Here. Here’s ten dollars toward the frame.”

“Hey,” Billy said.

“No,” Francis said. “You let me do it, Billy.”

Billy chuckled.

“I will not take any money,” Annie said. “You put that back in your pocket.”

Billy laughed and hit the table with the palm of his hand. “Now I know why you been broke twenty-two years. I know why we’re all broke. It runs in the family.”

“We’re not all broke,” Annie said. “We pay our way. Don’t be telling people we’re broke. You’re broke because you made some crazy horse bet. But we’re not broke. We’ve had bad times but we can still pay the rent. And we’ve never gone hungry.”

“Peg’s workin’,” Francis said.

“A private secretary,” Annie said. “To the owner of a tool company. She’s very well liked.”

“She’s beautiful,” Francis said. “Kinda nasty when she puts her mind to it, but beautiful.”

“She shoulda been a model,” Billy said.

“She should not,” Annie said.

“Well she shoulda, goddamn it, she shoulda,” said Billy. “They wanted her to model for Pepsodent toothpaste, but Mama wouldn’t hear of it. Somebody over at church told her models were, you know, loose ladies. Get your picture taken, it turns you into a floozy.”

“That had nothing to do with it,” Annie said.

“Her teeth,” Billy said. “She’s got the most gorgeous teeth in North America. Better-lookin’ teeth than Joan Crawford. What a smile! You ain’t seen her smile yet, but that’s a fantastic smile. Like Times Square is what it is. She coulda been on billboards coast to coast. We’d be hipdeep in toothpaste, and cash too. But no.” And he jerked a thumb at his mother.

“She had a job,” Annie said. “She didn’t need that. I never liked that fellow that wanted to sign her up.”

“He was all right,” Billy said. “I checked him out. He was legitimate.”

“How could you know what he was?”

“How could I know anything? I’m a goddamn genius.”

“Clean up your mouth, genius. She would’ve had to go to New York for pictures.”

“And she’d of never come back, right?”

“Maybe she would, maybe she wouldn’t.”

“Now you got it,” Billy said to his father. “Mama likes to keep all the birds in the nest.”

“Can’t say as I blame her,” Francis said.

“No,” Billy said.

“I never liked that fellow,” Annie said. “That’s what it really was. I didn’t trust him.”

Nobody spoke.

“And she brought a paycheck home every week,” Annie said. “Even when the tool company closed awhile, the owner put her to work as a cashier in a trading port he owned. Trading port and indoor golf. An enormous place. They almost brought Rudy Vallee there once. Peg got wonderful experience.”

Nobody spoke.

“Cigarette?” Billy asked Francis.

“Sure,” Francis said.

Annie stood up and went to the refrigerator in the pantry. She came back with the butter dish and put it on the dining-room table. Peg came through the swinging door, into the silence. She poked the potatoes with a fork, looked at the turkey, which was turning deep brown, and closed the oven door without basting it. She rummaged in the utensil drawer and found a can opener and punched it through a can of peas and put them in a pan to boil.

“Turkey smells real good,” Francis said to her.

“Uh-huh, I bought a plum pudding,” she said to all, showing them the can. She looked at her father. “Mama said you used to like it for dessert on holidays.”

“I surely did. With that white sugar sauce. Mighty sweet.”

“The sauce recipe’s on the label,” Annie said. “Give it here and I’ll make it.”

“I’ll make it,” Peg said.

“It’s nice you remembered that,” Francis said.

“It’s no trouble,” Peg said. “The pudding’s already cooked. All you do is heat it up in the can.”

Francis studied her and saw the venom was gone from her eyes. This lady goes up and down like a thermometer. When she saw him studying her she smiled slightly, not a billboard smile, not a smile to make anybody rich in toothpaste, but there it was. What the hell, she’s got a right. Up and down, up and down. She come by it naturally.

“I got a letter maybe you’d all like to hear while that stuffis cookin’ up,” he said, and he took the yellowed envelope with a canceled two-cent stamp on it out of his inside coat pocket. On the back, written in his own hand, was: First letter from Margaret.

“I got this a few years back, quite a few,” he said, and from the envelope he took out three small trifolded sheets of yellowed lined paper. “Come to me up in Canada in nineteen-ten, when I was with Toronto.” He unfolded the sheets and moved them into the best possible light at longest possible arm’s length, and then he read:,

“‘Dear Poppy, I suppose you never think that you have a daughter that is waiting for a letter since you went away. I was so mad because you did not think of me that I was going to join the circus that was here last Friday. I am doing my lesson and there is an arithmetic example here that I cannot get. See if you can get it. I hope your leg is better and that you have good luck with the team. Do not run too much with your legs or you will have to be carried home. Mama and Billy are good. Mama has fourteen new little chickens out and she has two more hens sitting. There is a wild west circus coming the eighth. Won’t you come home and see it? I am going to it. Billy is just going to bed and Mama is sitting on the bed watching me. Do not forget to answer this. I suppose you are having a lovely time. Do not let me find you with another girl or I will pull her hair. Yours truly, Peggy.’“

“Isn’t that funny,” Peg said, the fork still in her hand. “I don’t remember writing that.”

“Probably lots you don’t remember about them days.” Francis said. “You was only about eleven.”

“Where did you ever find it?”

“Up in the trunk. Been saved all these years up there. Only letter I ever saved.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It’s a provable fact. All the papers I got in the world was in that trunk, except one other place I got a few more clips. But no letters noplace. It’s a good old letter, I’d say.”

“I’d say so too,” Annie said. She and Billy were both staring at Peg.

“I remember Toronto in nineteen-ten,” Francis said. “The game was full of crooks them days. Crooked umpire named Bates, one night it was deep dark but he wouldn’t call the game. Folks was throwin’ tomatoes and mudballs at him but he wouldn’t call it ‘cause we was winnin’ and he was in with the other team. Pudge Howard was catchin’ that night and he walks out and has a three-way confab on the mound with me and old Highpockets Wilson, who was pitchin’. Pudge comes back and squats behind the plate and Highpockets lets go a blazer and the ump calls it a ball, though nobody could see nothin’ it was so dark. And Pudge turns to him and says: ‘You call that pitch a ball?’ ‘I did,’ says the ump. ‘If that was a ball I’ll eat it,’ says Pudge. ‘Then you better get eatin’,’ says the ump. And Pudge, he holds the ball up and takes a big bite out of it, ‘cause it ain’t no ball at all, it’s a yellow apple I give Highpockets to throw. And of course that won us the game and the ump went down in history as Blindy Bates, who couldn’t tell a baseball from a damn apple. Bates turned into a bookie after that. He was crooked at that too.”

“That’s a great story,” Billy said. “Funny stuff in them old days.”

“Funny stuff happenin’ all the time,” Francis said.

Peg was suddenly tearful. She put the fork on the sink and went to her father, whose hands were folded on the table. She sat beside him and put her right hand on top of his.

After a while George Quinn came home from Troy, Annie served the turkey, and then the entire Phelan family sat down to dinner.

 

VII

 

“I look like a bum, don’t I?” Rudy said.

“You are a bum,” Francis said. “But you’re a pretty good bum if you wanna be.”

“You know why people call you a bum?”

“I can’t understand why.”

“They feel better when they say it.”

“The truth ain’t gonna hurt you,” Francis said. “If you’re a bum, you’re a bum.”

“It hurt a lotta bums. Ain’t many of the old ones left.”

“There’s new ones comin’ along,” Francis said.

“A lot of good men died. Good mechanics, machinists, lumberjacks.”

“Some of ‘em ain’t dead,” Francis said. “You and me, we ain’t dead.”

“They say there’s no God,” Rudy said. “But there must be a God. He protects bums. They get up out of the snow and they go up and get a drink. Look at you, brand-new clothes. But look at me. I’m only a bum. A no-good bum.”

“You ain’t that bad,” Francis said. “You’re a bum, but you ain’t that bad.”

They were walking down South Pearl Street toward Palombo’s Hotel. It was ten-thirty, a clear night. full of stars but very cold: winter’s harbinger. Francis had left the family just before ten o’clock and taken a bus downtown. He went straight to the mission before they locked it for the night, and found Pee Wee alone in the kitchen, drinking leftover coffee. Pee Wee said he hadn’t seen, or heard from, Helen all day.

“But Rudy was in lookin’ for you,” Pee Wee told Francis. “He’s either up at the railroad station gettin’ warm or holed up in some old house down on Broadway. He says you’d know which one. But look, Francis, from what I hear, the cops been raidin’ them old pots just about every night. Lotta guys usually eat here ain’t been around and I figure they’re all in jail. They must be repaintin’ the place out there and need extra help.”

“I don’t know why the hell they gotta do that,” Francis said. “Bums don’t hurt nobody.”

“Maybe it’s just cops don’t like bums no more.”

Francis checked out the old house first, for it was close to the mission. He stepped through its doorless entrance into a damp, deep-black stairwell. He waited until his eyes adjusted to the darkness and then he carefully climbed the stairs, stepping over bunches of crumpled newspaper and fallen plaster and a Negro who was curled up on the first landing. He stepped through broken glass, empty wine and soda bottles, cardboard boxes. human droppings. Streetlights illuminated stalagmites of pigeon leavings on a windowsill. Francis saw a second sleeping man curled up near the hole he heard a fellow named Michigan Mac fell through last week. Francis sidestepped the man and the hole and then found Rudy in a room by himself, lying on a slab of board away from the broken window, with a newspaper on his shoulder for a blanket.

“Hey bum,” Francis said, “you lookin’ for me?”

Rudy blinked and looked up from his slab.

“Who the hell you talkin’ to?” Rudy said. “What are you, some kinda G-man?”

“Get your ass up off the floor, you dizzy kraut.”

“Hey, is that you, Francis?”

“No, it’s Buffalo Bill. I come up here lookin’ for Indians.”

Rudy sat up and threw the newspaper off himself

“Pee Wee says you was lookin’ for me,” Francis said.

“I didn’t have noplace to flop, no money, no jug, nobody around. I had a jug but it ran out.” Rudy fell back on the slab and wept instant tears over his condition. “I’ll kill myself, I got the tendency,” he said. “I’m last.”

“Hey,” Francis said. “Get up. You ain’t bright enough to kill yourself You gotta fight. you gotta be tough. I can’t even find Helen. You seen Helen anyplace? Think about that woman on the bum somewheres on a night like this. Jesus I feel sorry for her.”

“Where the wind don’t blow,” Rudy said.

“Yeah. No wind. Let’s go.”

“Go where?”

“Outa here. You stay here, you wind up in jail tonight. Pee Wee says they’re cleanin’ out all these joints.”

“Go to jail, at least it’s warm. Get six months and be out in time for the flowers.”

“No jail for Francis. Francis is free and he’s gonna stay free.”

They walked down the stairs and back to Madison because Francis decided Helen must have found money somewhere or else she’d have come looking for him. Maybe she called her brother and got a chunk. Or maybe she was holding out even more than she said. Canny old dame. And sooner or later, with dough, she’d hit Palombo’s because of the suitcase.

“Where we goin’?”

“What the hell’s the difference? Little walk’ll keep your blood flowin’.”

“Where’d you get them clothes?”

“Found ‘em.”

“Found ‘em? Where’d you find ‘em?”

“Up a tree.”

“A tree?”

“Yeah. A tree. Grew everything. Suits, shoes, bow ties.”

“You never tell me nothin’ that’s true.”

“Hell, it’s all true,” Francis said. “Every stinkin’ damn thing you can think of is true.”

 

o          o          o

 

At Palombo’s they met old man Donovan just getting ready to go off duty, making way for the night clerk. It was a little before eleven and he was putting the desk in order. Yes, he told Francis, Helen was here. Checked in late this morning. Yeah, sure she’s all right. Looked right perky. Walked up them stairs lookin’ the same as always. Took the room you always take.

“All right,” said Francis, and he took out the ten-dollar bill Billy gave him. “You got change of this?” Donovan made change and then Francis handed him two dollars.

“You give her this in the mornin’,” he said, “and make sure she gets somethin’ to eat. If I hear she didn’t get it, I’ll come back here and pull out all your teeth.”

“She’ll get it,” Donovan said. “I like Helen.”

“Check her out now,” Francis said. “Don’t tell her I’m here. Just see is she okay and does she need anything. Don’t say I sent you or nothin’ like that. Just check her out.”

So Donovan knocked on Helen’s door at eleven o’clock and found out she needed nothing at all, and he came back and told Francis.

“You tell her in the mornin’ I’ll be around sometime during the day,” Francis said. “And if she don’t see me and she wants me, you tell her to leave me a message where she’ll be. Leave it with Pee Wee down at the mission. You know Pee Wee?”

“I know the mission,” Donovan said.

“She claim the suitcase?” Francis asked.

“Claimed it and paid for two nights in the room.”

“She got money from home, all right,” Francis said. “But you give her that deuce anyway.”

Francis and Rudy walked north on Pearl Street then, Francis keeping the pace brisk. In a shopwindow Francis saw three mannequins in formal dresses beckoning to him. He waved at them.

“Now where we goin’?” Rudy asked.

“The all-night bootlegger’s,” Francis said. “Get us a couple of jugs and then go get a flop and get some shuteye.”

“Hey,” Rudy said. “Now you’re sayin’ somethin’ I wanna hear. Where’d you find all this money?”

“Up in a tree.”

“Same tree that grows bow ties?”

“Yep,” said Francis. “Same tree.”

Francis bought two quarts of muscatel at the upstairs bootlegger’s on Beaver Street and two pints of Green River whiskey.

“Rotgut,” he said when the bootlegger handed him the whiskey, “but it does what it’s supposed to do.”

Francis paid the bootlegger and pocketed the change: two dollars and thirty cents left. He gave a quart of the musky and a pint of the whiskey to Rudy and when they stepped outside the bootlegger’s they both tipped up their wine.

And so Francis began to drink for the first time in a week.

 

o          o          o

 

The flop was run by a bottom-heavy old woman with piano legs, the widow of somebody named Fennessey, who had died so long ago nobody remembered his first name.

“Hey Ma,” Rudy said when she opened the door for them.

“My name’s Mrs. Fennessey,” she said. “That’s what I go by.”

“I knew that,” Rudy said.

“Then call me that. Only the niggers call me Ma.”

“All right, sweetheart,” Francis said. “Anybody call you sweetheart? We want a couple of flops.”

She let them in and took their money, a dollar for two flops, and then led them upstairs to a large room that used to be two or three rooms but now, with the interior walls gone, was a dormitory with a dozen filthy cots, only one occupied by a sleeping form. The room was lit by what Francis judged to be a three-watt bulb.

“Hey,” he said, “too much light in here. It’ll blind us all.”

“Your friend don’t like it here, he can go somewhere else,” Mrs. Fennessey told Rudy.

“Who wouldn’t like this joint?” Francis said, and he bounced on the cot next to the sleeping man.

“Hey bum,” he said, reaching over and shaking the sleeper. “You want a drink?”

A man with enormous week-old scabs on his nose and forehead turned to face Francis.

“Hey,” said Francis. “It’s the Moose.”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Moose said.

“Moose who?” asked Rudy.

“Moose what’s the difference,” Francis said.

“Moose Backer,” Moose said.

“That there’s Rudy,” Francis said. “He’s crazier than a cross-eyed bedbug, but he’s all right.”

“You sharped up some since I seen you last,” Moose said to Francis. “Even wearin’ a tie. You bump into prosperity?”

“He found a tree that grows ten-dollar bills,” Rudy said.

Francis walked around the cot and handed Moose his wine. Moose took a swallow and nodded his thanks.

“Why’d you wake me up?” Moose asked.

“Woke you up to give you a drink.”

“It was dark when I went to sleep. Dark and cold.”

“Jesus Christ, I know. Fingers cold, toes cold. Cold in here right now. Here, have another drink and warm up. You want some whiskey? I got some of that too.”

“I’m all right. I got an edge. You got enough for yourself?”

“Have a drink, goddamn it. Don’t be afraid to live.” And Moose took one glug of the Green River.

“I thought you was gonna trade pants with me,” Moose said.

“I was. Pair I had was practically new, but too small.”

“Where are they? You said they were thirty-eight, thirtyone, and that’s just right.”

“You want these?”

“Sure,” said Moose.

“If I give ‘em to you, then I ain’t got no pants,” Francis said.

“I’ll give you mine,” Moose said.

“Why you tradin’ your new pants?” Rudy asked.

“That’s right,” said Francis, standing up and looking at his own legs. “Why am I? No, you ain’t gonna get these. Fuck you, I need these pants. Don’t tell me what I need. Go get your own pants.”

“I’ll buy ‘em,” Moose said. “How much you want? I got another week’s work sandin’ floors.”

“Well shine ‘em,” Francis said. “They ain’t for sale.”

“Sandin’, not shinin’. I sand ‘em. I don’t shine ‘em.”

“Don’t holler at me,” Francis said. “I’ll crack your goddamn head and step on your brains. You’re a tough man, is that it?”

“No,” said Moose. “I ain’t tough.”

“Well I’m tough,” Francis said. “Screw around with me, you’ll die younger’n I will.”

“Oh I’ll die all right. I’m just as busted as that ceiling. I got TB.”

“Oh God bless you,” Francis said, sitting down. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s in the knee.”

“I didn’t know you had it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry anybody’s got TB.”

“It’s in the knee.”

“Well cut your leg off.”

“That’s what they wanted to do.”

“So cut it off.”

“No, I wouldn’t let them do that.”

“I got a stomach cancer,” Rudy said.

“Yeah,” said Moose. “Everybody’s got one of them.”

“Anybody gonna come to my funeral?” Rudy asked.

“Probably ain’t nothin’ wrong with you work won’t cure,” Moose said.

“That’s right,” Francis said to Rudy. “Why don’t you go get a job?” He pointed out the window at the street. “Look at ‘em out there. Everybody out there’s workin’.”

“You’re crazier than he is,” Moose said. “Ain’t no jobs anyplace. Where you been?”

“There’s taxis. There goes a taxi.”

“Yeah, there’s taxis,” Moose said. “So what?”

“Can you drive?” Francis asked Rudy.

“I drove my ex-wife crazy,” Rudy said.

“Good. What you’re supposed to do. Drive ‘em nuts is right.”

In the corner of the room Francis saw three long-skirted women who became four who became three and then four again. Their faces were familiar but he could call none of them by name. Their ages changed when their number changed: now twenty, now sixty, now thirty, now fifty, never childish, never aged. At the house Annie would now be trying to sleep, but probably no more prepared for it than Francis was, no more capable of closing the day than Francis was. Helen would be out of it, whipped all to hell by fatigue and worry. Damn worrywart is what she is. But not Annie. Annie, she don’t worry. Annie knows how to live. Peg, she’ll be awake too, why not? Why should she sleep when nobody else can? They’ll all be up, you bet. Francis give ‘em a show they ain’t gonna forget in a hurry.

He showed ‘em what a man can do.

A man ain’t afraid of goin’ back.

Goddamn spooks, they follow you everywheres but they don’t matter. You stand up to ‘em is all. And you do what you gotta do.

Sandra joined the women of three, the women of four, in the far corner. Francis gave me soup, she told them. He carried me out of the wind and put my shoe on me. They became the women of five.

“Where the wind don’t blow,” Rudy sang. “I wanna go where the wind don’t blow, where there ain’t no snow.”

Francis saw Katrina’s face among the five that became four that became three.

 

o          o          o

 

Finny and Little Red came into the flop, and just behind them a third figure Francis did not recognize immediately. Then he saw it was Old Shoes.

“Hey, we got company, Moose,” Francis said.

“Is that Finny?” Moose asked. “Looks like him.”

“That’s the man,” Francis said. Finny stood by the foot of Francis’s cot, very drunk and wobbling, trying to see who was talking about him.

“You son of a bitch,” Moose said, leaning on one elbow.

“Which son of a bitch you talkin’ to?” Francis asked.

“Finny. He used to work for Spanish George. Liked to use the blackjack on drunks when they got noisy.”

“Is that true, Finny?” Francis asked. “You liked to sap the boys?”

“Arrrggghhh,” said Finny, and he lurched off toward a cot down the row from Francis.

“He was one mean bastard,” Moose said. “He hit me once.”

“Hurt you?”

“Hurt like hell. I had a headache three weeks.”

“Somebody burned up Finny’s car,” Little Red announced. “He went out for somethin’ to eat, and he came back, it was on fire. He thinks the cops did it.”

“Why are the cops burnin’ up cars?” Rudy asked.

“Cops’re goin’ crazy,” Little Red said. “They’re pickin’ up everybody. American Legion’s behind it, that’s what I heard.”

“Them lard-ass bastards,” Francis said. “They been after my ass all my life.”

“Legionnaires and cops,” said Little Red. “That’s why we come in here.”

“You think you’re safe here?” Francis asked.

“Safer than on the street.”

“Cops’d never come up here if they wanted to get you, right?” Francis said.

“They wouldn’t know I was here,” Little Red said.

“Whataya think this is, the Waldorf-Astoria? You think that old bitch downstairs don’t tell the cops who’s here and who ain’t when they want to know?”

“Maybe it wasn’t the cops burned up the car,” Moose said. “Finny’s got plenty of enemies. If I knew he owned one, I’da burned it up myself The son of a bitch beat up on us all, but now he’s on the street. Now we got him in the alley.”

“You hear that, Finny?” Francis called out. “They gonna get your ass good. They got you in the alley with all the other bums.”

“Nggggghhhh,” said Finny.

“Finny’s all right,” Little Red said. “Leave him alone.”

“You givin’ orders here at the Waldorf-Astoria, is that it?” Francis asked.

“Who the hell are you?” Little Red asked.

“I’m a fella ready to stomp all over your head and squish it like a grape, you try to tell me what to do.”

“Yeah,” said Little Red, and he moved toward the cot beside Finny.

“I knew it was you soon as I come in,” Old Shoes said, coming over to the foot of Francis’s cot. “I could tell that foghorn voice of yours anyplace.”

“Old Shoes,” Francis said. “Old Shoes Gilligan.”

“That’s right. You got a pretty good memory. The wine ain’t got you yet.”

“Old Shoes Gilligan, a grand old soul, got a cast-iron belly and a brass asshole.”

“Not cast-iron anymore,” Old Shoes said. “I got an ulcer. I quit drinkin’ two years ago.”

“Then what the hell you doin’ here?”

“Just came by to see the boys, see what was happenin’.”

“You hangin’ out with Finny and that redheaded wiseass?”

“Who you callin’ a wiseass?” Little Red said.

“I’m callin’ you wiseass, wiseass,” Francis said.

“You got a big mouth,” Little Red said.

“I got a foot’s even bigger and I’m gonna shove it right up your nose, you keep bein’ nasty to me when I’m tryna be polite.”

“Cool off, Francis,” Old Shoes said. “What’s your story? You’re lookin’ pretty good.”

“I’m gettin’ rich,” Francis said. “Got me a gang of new clothes, couple of jugs, money in the pocket.”

“You’re gettin’ up in the world,” Old Shoes said.

“Yeah, but what the hell you doin’ here if you ain’t drinkin’ is what I don’t figure.”

“I just told you. I’m passin’ through and got curious about the old joints.”

“You workin’?”

“Got a steady job down in Jersey. Even got an apartment and a car. A car, Francis. You believe that? Me with a car? Not a new car, but a good car. A Hudson two-door. You want a ride?”

“A ride? Me?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Now?”

“Don’t matter to me. I’m just sightseein’. I’m not sleepin’ up here. Wouldn’t sleep here anyway. Bedbugs’d follow me all the way back to Jersey.”

“This bum here,” Francis explained to Rudy, “I saved from dyin’ in the street. Used to fall down drunk three, four times a night, like he was top-heavy.”

“That’s right,” Old Shoes said. “Broke my face five or six times, just like his.” And he gestured at Moose. “But I don’t do that no more. I hit three nuthouses and then I quit. I been off the bum three years and dry for two. You wanna go for that ride, Francis? Only thing is, no bottle. The wife’d smell it and I’d catch hell.”

“You got a wife too?” Francis said.

“You got a car and a wife and a house and a job?” Rudy asked. He sat up on his cot and studied this interloper.

“That’s Rudy,” Francis said. “Rudy Tooty. He’s thinkin’ about killin’ himself.”

“I know the feelin’,” Old Shoes said. “Me and Francis we needed a drink somethin’ awful one mornin’. We walked all over town but we couldn’t score, snow comin’ through our shoes, and it’s four below zero. Finally we sold our blood and drank the money. I passed out and woke up still needin’ a drink awful bad, and not a penny and no chance for one, couldn’t even sell any more blood, and I wanted to die and I mean die. Die.”

“Where there ain’t no snow,” Rudy sang. “Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night.”

“You wanna go for a ride?” Old Shoes asked Rudy.

“Oh the buzzin’ of the bees in the cigarette trees, by the soda water fountains,” Rudy sang. Then he smiled at Old Shoes, took a swallow of wine, and fell back on his cot.

“Man wants to go for a ride and can’t get no takers,” Francis said. “Might as well call it a day, Shoes, stretch out and rest them bones.”

“Naaah, I guess I’ll be movin’ on.”

“One evenin’ as the sun went down, and the jungle fires were burnin’,” Rudy sang, “Down the track came a hobo hikin’, and said, Boys, I am not turnin’.”

“Shut up that singin’,” Little Red said. “I’m tryna sleep.”

“I’m gonna mess up his face,” Francis said and stood up.

“No fights,” Moose said. “She’ll kick us the hell out or call the cops on us.”

“That’ll be the day I get kicked out of a joint like this,” Francis said. “This is pigswill. I lived in better pigswill than this goddamn pigswill.”

“Where I come from—” Old Shoes began.

“I don’t give a goddamn where you come from.” Francis said.

“Goddamn you, I come from Texas.”

“Name a city, then.”

“Galveston.”

“Behave yourself,” Francis said, “or I’ll knock you down. I’m a tough son of a bitch. Tougher than that bum Finny. Licked twelve men at once.”

“You’re drunk,” Old Shoes said.

“Yeah,” said Francis. “My mind’s goin’.”

“It went there. Rattlesnake got you.”

“Rattlesnake, my ass. Rattlesnake is nothin’.”

“Cottonmouth?”

“Oh, cottonmouth rattler. Yeah. That’s somethin’. Jesus, this is a nice subject. Who wants to talk about snakes? Talk about bums is more like it. A bum is a bum. Helen’s got me on the bum. Son of a bitch, she won’t go home, won’t straighten up.”

“Helen did the hula down in Hon-oh-loo-loo,” Rudy sang.

“Shut your stupid mouth,” Francis said to Rudy.

“People don’t like me,” Rudy said.

“Singin’ there, wavin’ your arms, talkin’ about Helen.”

“I can’t escape myself.”

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” Francis said.

“I tried it before.”

“I know, but you can’t do it, so you might as well live with it.”

“I like to be condemned,” Rudy said.

“No, don’t be condemned,” Francis told him.

“I like to be condemned.”

“Never be condemned.”

“I like to be condemned because I know I done wrong in my life.”

“You never done wrong,” Francis said.

“All you screwballs down there, shut up,” yelled Little Red, sitting up on his cot. Francis instantly stood up and ran down the aisle. He was running when he lunged and grazed Little Red’s lips with his knuckles.

“I’m gonna mess you up,” Francis said.

Little Red rolled with the blow and fell off the cot. Francis ran around the cot and kicked him in the stomach. Little Red groaned and rolled and Francis kicked him in the side. Little Red rolled under Finny’s cot, away from Francis’s feet. Francis followed him and was ready to drive a black laceless oxford deep into his face, but then he stopped. Rudy, Moose, and Old Shoes were all standing up, watching.

“When I knew Francis he was strong as a bull,” Old Shoes said.

“Knocked a house down by myself,” Francis said, walking back to his cot. “Didn’t need no wreckin’ ball.” He picked up the quart of wine and gestured with it. Moose lay back down on his cot and Rudy on his. Old Shoes sat on the cot next to Francis. Little Red licked his bleeding lip and lay quietly on the floor under the cot where Finny was supine and snoring. The faces of all the women Francis had ever known changed with kaleidoscopic swiftness from one to the other to the other on the three female figures in the far corner. The trio sat on straight-backed chairs, witnesses all to the whole fabric of Francis’s life. His mother was crocheting a Home Sweet Home sampler while Katrina measured off a bolt of new cloth and Helen snipped the ragged threads. Then they all became Annie.

“When they throw dirt in my face, nobody can walk up and sell me short, that’s what I worry about,” Francis said. “I’ll suffer in hell, if they ever got such a place, but I still got muscles and blood and I’m gonna live it out. I never saw a bum yet said anything against Francis. They better not, goddamn ‘em. All them sufferin’ bastards, all them poor souls waitin’ for heaven, walkin’ around with the snow flyin’, stayin’ in empty houses, pants fallin’ off ‘em. When I leave this earth I wanna leave it with a blessing to everybody. Francis never hurt nobody.”

“The mockin’birds’ll sing when you die,” Old Shoes said.

“Let ‘em. Let ‘em sing. People tell me: Get off the bum. And I had a chance. I had a good mind but now it’s all flaked out, like a heavin’ line on a canal boat, back and forth, back and forth. You get whipped around so much, everything comes to a standstill, even a nail. You drive it so far and it comes to a stop. Keep hittin’ it and the head’ll break off.”

“That’s a true thing,” Moose said.

“On the Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Rudy sang, “the cops got wooden legs.” He stood up and waved his wine in a gesture imitative of Francis; then he rocked back and forth as he sang, strongly and on key: “The bulldogs all got rubber teeth, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs. The boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day. I wanna go where there ain’t no snow, where the sleet don’t fall and the wind don’t blow, on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

Old Shoes stood up and made ready to leave. “Nobody wants a ride?” he said.

“All right, goddamn it,” Francis said. “Whataya say, Rudy? Let’s get outa this pigswill. Get outa this stink and go where I can breathe. The weeds is better than this pigswill.”

“So long, friend,” Moose said. “Thanks for the wine.”

“You bet, pal, and God bless your knee. Tough as nails, that’s what Francis is.”

“I believe that,” Moose said.

“Where we goin’?” Rudy asked.

“Go up to the jungle and see a friend of mine. You wanna give us a lift to the jungle?” Francis asked Old Shoes. “Up in the North End. You know where that is?”

“No, but you do.”

“Gonna be cold,” Rudy said.

“They got a fire,” Francis said. “Cold’s better than this bughouse.”

“By the lemonade springs, where the bluebird sings,” Rudy sang.

“That’s the place,” Francis said.

 

o          o          o

 

As Old Shoes’ car moved north on Erie Boulevard, where the Erie Canal used to flow, Francis remembered Emmett Daugherty’s face: rugged and flushed beneath wavy gray hair, a strong, pointed nose truly giving him the look of the Divine Warrior, which is how Francis would always remember him, an Irishman who never drank more than enough, a serious and witty man of control and high purpose, and with an unkillable faith in God and the laboring man. Francis had sat with him on the slate step in front of Iron Joe’s Wheelbarrow and listened to his endless talk of the days when he and the country were young, when the riverboats brought the greenhorns up the Hudson from the Irish ships. When the cholera was in the air, the greenhorns would be taken off the steamboats at Albany and sent west on canal boats, for the city’s elders had charged the government with keeping the pestilential foreigners out of the city.

Emmett rode up from New York after he got off the death ship from Cork, and at the Albany basin he saw his brother Owen waving frantically to him. Owen followed the boat to the North Albany lock, ran along the towpath yelling advice to Emmett, giving him family news, telling him to get off the boat as soon as they’d let him, then to write saying where he was so Owen could send him money to come back to Albany by stagecoach. But it was days before Emmett got off that particular packet boat, got off in a place whose name he never learned, and the authorities there too kept the newcomers westering, under duress.

By the time Emmett reached Buffalo he had decided not to return to such an inhospitable city as Albany, and he moved on to Ohio, where he found work building streets, and then with the railroads, and in time went all the way west on the rails and became a labor organizer, and eventually a leader of the Clann na Gael, and lived to see the Irish in control of Albany, and to tell his stories and inspire Francis Phelan to throw the stone that changed the course of life, even for people not yet born.

That vision of the packet moving up the canal and Owen running alongside it telling Emmett about his children was as real to Francis, though it happened four decades before he was born, as was Old Shoes’ car, in which he was now bouncing ever northward toward the precise place where the separation took place. He all but cried at the way the Daugherty brothers were being separated by the goddamned government, just as he was now being separated from Billy and the others. And by what? What and who were again separating Francis from those people after he’d found them? It was a force whose name did not matter, if it had a name, but whose effect was devastating. Emmett Daugherty had placed blame on no man, not on the cholera inspectors or even the city’s elders. He knew a larger fate had moved him westward and shaped in him all that he was to become; and that moving and shaping was what Francis now understood, for he perceived the fugitive thrust that had come to be so much a part of his own spirit. And so he found it entirely reasonable that he and Emmett should be fused in a single person: the character of the hero of the play written by Emmett’s son, Edward Daugherty the playwright: Edward (husband of Katrina, father of Martin), who wrote The Car Barns, the tale of how Emmett radicalized Francis by telling his own story of separation and growth, by inspiring Francis to identify the enemy and target him with a stone. And just as Emmett truly did return home from the west as a labor hero, so also did the playright conjure an image of Francis returning home as underground hero for what that stone of his had done.

For a time Francis believed everything Edward Daugherty had written about him: liberator of the strikers from the capitalist beggars who owned the trolleys, just as Emmett had helped Paddy-with-a-shovel straighten his back and climb up out of his ditch in another age. The playright saw them both as Divine Warriors, sparked by the socialistic gods who understood the historical Irish need for aid from on high, for without it (so spoke Emmett, the goldentongued organizer of the play), “how else would we rid ourselves of those Tory swine, the true and unconquerable devils of all history?”

The stone had (had it not?) precipitated the firing by the soldiers and the killing of the pair of bystanders. And without that, without the death of Harold Allen, the strike might have continued, for the scabs were being imported in great numbers from Brooklyn, greenhorn Irish the likes of Emmett on the packet boat, some of them defecting instantly from the strike when they saw what it was, others bewildered and lost, lied to by men who hired them for railroad work in Philadelphia, then duped them into scabbery, terror, even death. There were even strikers from other cities working as scabs, soulless men who rode the strike trains here and took these Albany men’s jobs, as other scabs were taking theirs. And all of that might have continued had not Francis thrown the first stone. He was the principal hero in a strike that created heroes by the dozen. And because he was, he lived all his life with guilt over the deaths of the three men, unable to see any other force at work in the world that day beyond his own right hand. He could not accept, though he knew it to be true, that other significant stones had flown that day, that the soldiers’ fusillade at the bystanders had less to do with Harold Allen’s death than it did with the possibility of the soldiers’ own, for their firing had followed not upon the release of the stone by Francis but only after the mob’s full barrage had flown at the trolley. And then Francis, having seen nothing but his own act and what appeared to be its instant consequences, had fled into heroism and been suffused further, through the written word of Edward Daugherty, with the hero’s most splendid guilt.

But now, with those events so deeply dead and buried, with his own guilt having so little really to do with it, he saw the strike as simply the insanity of the Irish, poor against poor, a race, a class divided against itself. He saw Harold Allen trying to survive the day and the night at a moment when the frenzied mob had turned against him, just as Francis himself had often had to survive hostility in his flight through strange cities, just as he had always had to survive his own worst instincts. For Francis knew now that he was at war with himself, his private factions mutually bellicose, and if he was ever to survive, it would be with the help not of any socialistic god but with a clear head and a steady eye for the truth; for the guilt he felt was not worth the dying. It served nothing except nature’s insatiable craving for blood. The trick was to live, to beat the bastards, survive the mob and that fateful chaos, and show them all what a man can do to set things right, once he sets his mind to it.

Poor Harold Allen.

“I forgive the son of a bitch,” Francis said.

“Who’s that?” Old Shoes asked. Rudy lay all but blotto across the backseat, holding the whiskey and wine bottles upright on his chest with both tops open in violation of Old Shoes’ dictum that they stay closed, and not spilling a drop of either.

“Guy I killed. Guy named Allen.”

“You killed a guy?”

“More’n one.”

“Accidental, was it?”

“No. I tried to get that one guy, Allen. He was takin’ my job.”

“That’s a good reason.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he was just doin’ what he had to do.”

“Baloney,” Old Shoes said. “That’s what everybody does, good, bad, and lousy. Burglars, murderers.”

And Francis fell quiet, sinking into yet another truth requiring handling.

 

o          o          o

 

The jungle was maybe seven years old, three years old, a month old, days old. It was an ashpit, a graveyard, and a fugitive city. It stood among wild sumac bushes and river foliage, all fallen dead now from the early frost. It was a haphazard upthrust of tarpaper shacks, lean-tos, and impromptu constructions describable by no known nomenclature. It was a city of essential transiency and would-be permanency, a resort of those for whom motion was either anathema or pointless or impossible. Cripples lived here, and natives of this town who had lost their homes, and people who had come here at journey’s end to accept whatever disaster was going to happen next. The jungle, a visual manifestation of the malaise of the age and the nation, covered the equivalent of two or more square city blocks between the tracks and the river, just east of the old carbarns and the empty building that once housed Iron Joe’s saloon.

Francis’s friend in the jungle was a man in his sixties named Andy, who had admitted to Francis in the boxcar in which they both traveled to Albany that people used to call him Andy Which One, a name that derived from his inability, until he was nearly twenty, to tell his left hand from his right, a challenge he still faced in certain stressful moments. Francis found Andy Which One instantly sympathetic, shared the wealth of cigarettes and food he was carrying, and thought instantly of him again when Annie handed him two turkey sandwiches and Peg slipped him a hefty slice of plum pudding, all three items wrapped in waxed paper and intact now in the pockets of his 1916 suitcoat.

But Francis had not seriously thought of sharing the food with Andy until Rudy had begun singing of the jungle. On top of that, Francis almost suffocated seeing his own early venom and self-destructive arrogance reembodied in Little Red, and the conjunction of events impelled him to quit the flop and seek out something he could value; for above all now, Francis needed to believe in simple solutions. And Andy Which One, a man confused by the names of his own hands, but who survived to dwell in the city of useless penitence and be grateful for it, seemed to Francis a creature worthy of scrutiny. Francis found him easily when Old Shoes parked the car on the dirt road that bordered the jungle. He roused Andy from shallow sleep in front of a fading fire, and handed him the whiskey bottle.

“Have a drink, pal. Lubricate your soul.”

“Hey, old Francis. How you makin’ out there, buddy?”

“Puttin’ one foot in front of the other and hopin’ they go somewheres,” Francis said. “The hotel open here? I brought a couple of bums along with me. Old Shoes here, he says he ain’t a bum no more, but that’s just what he says. And Rudy the Cootie, a good ol’ fella.”

“Hey,” said Andy, “just settle in. Musta known you was comin’. Fire’s still goin’, and the stars are out. Little chilly in this joint. Lemme turn up the heat.”

They all sat down around the fire while Andy stoked it with twigs and scraps of lumber, and soon the flames were trying to climb to those reaches of the sky that are the domain of all fire. The flames gave vivid life to the cold night, and the men warmed their hands by them.

A figure hovered behind Andy and when he felt its presence he turned and welcomed Michigan Mac to the primal scene.

“Glad to meet ya,” Francis said to Mac. “I heard you fell through a hole the other night.”

“Coulda broke my neck,” Mac said.

“Did you break it?” Francis asked.

“If I’da broke my neck I’d be dead.”

“Oh, so you’re livin’, is that it? You ain’t dead?”

“Who’s this guy?” Mac asked Andy.

“He’s an all-right guy I met on the train,” Andy said.

“We’re all all right,” Francis said. “I never met a bum I didn’t like.”

“Will Rogers said that,” Rudy said.

“He did like hell,” Francis said. “I said it.”

“All I know. That’s what he said. All I know is what I read in the newspapers,” Rudy said.

“I didn’t know you could read,” said Francis.

“James Watt invented the steam engine,” Rudy said. “And he was only twenty-nine years old.”

“He was a wizard,” Francis said.

“Right. Charles Darwin was a very great man, master of botany. Died in nineteen-thirty-six.”

“What’s he talkin’ about?” Mac asked.

“He ain’t talkin’ about nothin’,” Francis said. “He’s just talkin’.”

“Sir Isaac Newton. You know what he did with the apple?”

“I know that one,” Old Shoes said. “He discovered gravity.”

“Right. You know when that was? Nineteen-thirty-six. He was born of two midwives.”

“You got a pretty good background on these wizards,” Francis said.

“God loves a thief,” Rudy said. “I’m a thief.”

“We’re all thieves,” Francis said. “What’d you steal?”

“I stole my wife’s heart,” Rudy said.

“What’d you do with it?”

“I gave it back. Wasn’t worth keepin’. You know where the Milky Way is?”

“Up there somewheres,” Francis said, looking up at the sky, which was as full of stars as he’d ever seen it.

“Damn, I’m hungry,” Michigan Mac said.

“Here,” said Andy. “Have a bite.” And from a coat pocket he took a large raw onion.

“That’s an onion,” Mac said.

“Another wizard,” Francis said.

Mac took the onion and looked at it, then handed it back to Andy, who took a bite out of it and put it back in his pocket.

“Got it at a grocery,” Andy said. “Mister, I told the guy, I’m starvin’, I gotta have somethin’. And he gave me two onions.”

“You had money,” Mac said. “I told ya, get a loaf of bread, but you got a pint of wine.”

“Can’t have wine and bread too,” Andy said. “What are you, a Frenchman?”

“You wanna buy food and drink,” said Francis, “you oughta get a job.”

“I caddied all last week,” Mac said, “but that don’t pay, that shit. You slide down them hills. Them golf guys got spikes on their shoes. Then they tell ya: Go to work, ya bum. I like to, but I can’t. Get five, six bucks and get on the next train. I’m no bum, I’m a hobo.”

“You movin’ around too much,” Francis said. “That’s why you fell through that hole.”

“Yeah,” said Mac, “but I ain’t goin’ back to that joint. I hear the cops are pickin’ the boys outa there every night. That pot is hot. Travel on, Avalon.”

“Cops were here tonight earlier, shinin’ their lights,” Andy said. “But they didn’t pick up anybody.”

Rudy raised up his head and looked over all the faces in front of the fire. Then he looked skyward and talked to the stars. “On the outskirts,” he said, “I’m a restless person, a traveler.”

 

o          o          o

 

They passed the wine among them and Andy restoked the fire with wood he had stored in his lean-to. Francis thought of Billy getting dressed up in his suit, topcoat, and hat, and standing before Francis for inspection. You like the hat? he asked. I like it, Francis said. It’s got style. Lost the other one, Billy said. First time I ever wore this one. It look all right? It looks mighty stylish, Francis said. All right, gotta get downtown, Billy said. Sure, said Francis. We’ll see you again, Billy said. No doubt about it, Francis said. You hangin’ around Albany or movin’ on? Billy asked. Couldn’t say for sure, said Francis. Lotta things that need figurin’ out. Always is, said Billy, and then they shook hands and said no more words to each other.

When he himself left an hour and a little bit later, Francis shook hands also with George Quinn, a quirky little guy as dapper as always, who told bad jokes (Let’s all eat tomatoes and catch up) that made everybody laugh, and Peg threw her arms around her father and kissed him on the cheek, which was a million-dollar kiss, all right, all right, and then Annie said when she took his hand in both of hers: You must come again. Sure, said Francis. No, said Annie, I mean that you must come so that we can talk about the things you ought to know, things about the children and about the family. There’s a cot we could set up in Danny’s room if you wanted to stay over next time. And then she kissed him ever so lightly on the lips.

“Hey Mac,” Francis said, “you really hungry or you just mouthin’ off for somethin’ to say?”

“I’m hungry,” Mac said. “I ain’t et since noon. Goin’ on thirteen, fourteen hours, whatever it is.”

“Here,” Francis said, unwrapping one of his turkey sandwiches and handing Mac a half, “take a bite, take a couple of bites, but don’t eat it all.”

“Hey all right,” Mac said.

“I told you he was a good fella,” Andy said.

“You want a bite of sandwich?” Francis asked Andy.

“I got enough with the onion,” Andy said. “But the guy in the piano box over there, he was askin’ around for something awhile back. He’s got a baby there.”

“A baby?”

“Baby and a wife.”

Francis snatched the remnants of the sandwich away from Michigan Mac and groped his way in the firelight night to the piano box. A small fire was burning in front of it and a man was sitting cross-legged, warming himself.

“I hear you got a kid here,” Francis said to the man, who looked up at Francis suspiciously, then nodded and gestured at the box. Francis could see the shadow of a woman curled around what looked to be the shadow of a swaddled infant.

“Got some stuff here I can’t use,” Francis said, and he handed the man the full sandwich and the remnant of the second one. “Sweet stuff too,” he said and gave the man the plum pudding. The man accepted the gifts with an upturned face that revealed the incredulity of a man struck by lightning in the rainless desert; and his benefactor was gone before he could even acknowledge the gift. Francis rejoined the circle at Andy’s fire, entering into silence. He saw that all but Rudy, whose head was on his chest, were staring at him.

“Give him some food, did ya?” Andy asked.

“Yeah. Nice fella. I ate me a bellyful tonight. How old’s the kid?”

“Twelve weeks, the guy said.”

Francis nodded. “I had a kid. Name of Gerald. He was only thirteen days old when he fell and broke his neck and died.”

“Jeez, that’s tough,” Andy said.

“You never talked about that,” Old Shoes said.

“No, because it was me that dropped him. Picked him up with the diaper and he slid out of it.”

“Goddamn,” said Old Shoes.

“I couldn’t handle it. That’s why I run off and left the family. Then I bumped into one of my other kids last week and he tells me the wife never told nobody I did that. Guy drops a kid and it dies and the mother don’t tell a damn soul what happened. I can’t figure that out. Woman keeps a secret like that for twenty-two years, protectin’ a bum like me.”

“You can’t figure women,” Michigan Mac said. “My old lady used to peddle her tail all day long and then come home and tell me I was the only man ever touched her. I come in the house one day and found her bangin’ two guys at once, first I knew what was happenin’.”

“I ain’t talkin’ about that,” Francis said. “I’m talkin’ about a woman who’s a real woman. I ain’t talkin’ about no trashbarrel whore.”

“My wife was very good-lookin’, though,” Mac said. “And she had a terrific personality.”

“Yeah,” said Francis. “And it was all in her ass.”

Rudy raised up his head and looked at the wine bottle in his hand. He held it up to the light.

“What makes a man a drunk?” he asked.

“Wine,” Old Shoes said. “What you got in your hand.”

“You ever hear about the bears and the mulberry juice?” Rudy asked. “Mulberries fermented inside their stomachs.”

“That so?” said Old Shoes. “I thought they fermented before they got inside.”

“Nope. Not with bears,” Rudy said.

“What happened to the bears and the juice?” Mac asked.

“They all got stiff and wound up with hangovers,” Rudy said, and he laughed and laughed. Then he turned the wine bottle upside down and licked the drops that flowed onto his tongue. He tossed the bottle alongside the other two empties, his own whiskey bottle and Francis’s wine that had been passed around.

“Jeez,” Rudy said. “We got nothin’ to drink. We on the bum.”

In the distance the men could hear the faint hum of automobile engines, and then the closing of car doors.

 

o          o          o

 

Francis’s confession seemed wasted. Mentioning Gerald to strangers for the first time was a mistake because nobody took it seriously. And it did not diminish his own guilt but merely cheapened the utterance, made it as commonplace as Rudy’s brainless chatter about bears and wizards. Francis concluded he had made yet another wrong decision, another in a long line. He concluded that he was not capable of making a right decision, that he was as wrongheaded a man as ever lived. He felt certain now that he would never attain the balance that allowed so many other men to live peaceful. nonviolent, nonfugitive lives, lives that spawned at least a modicum of happiness in old age.

He had no insights into how he differed in this from other men. He knew he was somehow stronger, more given to violence, more in love with the fugitive dance, but this was all so for reasons that had nothing to do with intent. All right, he had wanted to hurt Harold Allen, but that was so very long ago. Could anyone in possession of Francis’s perspective on himself believe that he was responsible for Rowdy Dick, or the hole in the runt’s neck, or the bruises on Little Red, or the scars on other men long forgotten or long buried?

Francis was now certain only that he could never arrive at any conclusions about himself that had their origin in reason. But neither did he believe himself incapable of thought. He believed he was a creature of unknown and unknowable qualities, a man in whom there would never be an equanimity of both impulsive and premeditated action. Yet after every admission that he was a lost and distorted soul, Francis asserted his own private wisdom and purpose: he had fled the folks because he was too profane a being to live among them; he had humbled himself willfully through the years to counter a fearful pride in his own ability to manufacture the glory from which grace would flow. What he was was, yes, a warrior, protecting a belief that no man could ever articulate, especially himself; but somehow it involved protecting saints from sinners, protecting the living from the dead. And a warrior, he was certain, was not a victim. Never a victim.

In the deepest part of himself that could draw an unutterable conclusion, he told himself: My guilt is all that I have left. If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing, been nothing.

And he raised his head to see the phalanx of men in Legionnaires’ caps advancing into the firelight with baseball bats in their hands.

 

o          o          o

 

The men in caps entered the jungle with a fervid purpose, knocking down everything that stood, without a word. They caved in empty shacks and toppled lean-tos that the weight of weather and time had already all but collapsed. One man who saw them coming left his lean-to and ran, calling out one word: “Raiders!” and rousing some jungle people, who picked up their belongings and fled behind the leader of the pack. The first collapsed shacks were already burning when the men around Andy’s fire became aware that raiders were approaching.

“What the hell’s doin’?” Rudy asked. “Why’s everybody gettin’ up? Where you goin’, Francis?”

“Get on your feet, stupid,” Francis said, and Rudy got up.

“What the hell did I get myself into?” Old Shoes said, and he backed away from the fire, keeping the advancing raiders in sight. They were half a football field away but Michigan Mac was already in heavy retreat, bent double like a scythe as he ran for the river.

The raiders moved forward with their devastation clubs and one of them flattened a lean-to with two blows. A man following them poured gasoline on the ruins and then threw a match on top of it all. The raiders were twenty yards from Andy’s lean-to by then, with Andy, Rudy, and Francis still immobilized, watching the spectacle with disbelieving eyes.

“We better move it,” Andy said.

“You got anything in that lean-to worth savin’?” Francis asked.

“Only thing I own that’s worth anything’s my skin, and I got that with me.”

The three men moved slowly back from the raiders, who were clearly intent on destroying everything that stood. Francis looked at the piano box as he moved past it and saw it was empty.

“Who are they?” Rudy asked Francis. “Why they doin’ this?”

But no one answered.

Half a dozen lean-tos and shacks were ablaze, and one had ignited a tall, leafless tree, whose flames were reaching high into the heavens, far above the level of the burning shacks. In the wild firelight Francis saw one raider smashing a shack, from which a groggy man emerged on hands and knees. The raider hit the crawling man across the buttocks with a half swing of the bat until the man stood up. The raider poked him yet again and the man broke into a limping run. The fire that rose from the running man’s shack illuminated the raider’s smile.

Francis, Rudy, and Andy turned to run then too, convinced at last that demons were abroad in the night. But as they turned they confronted a pair of raiders moving toward them from their left flank.

“Filthy bums,” one raider said, and swung his bat at Andy, who stepped deftly out of range, ran off, and was swallowed up by the night. The raider reversed his swing and caught the wobbling Rudy just above neck level, and Rudy yelped and went down. Francis leaped on the man and tore the bat from him, then scrambled away and turned to face both raiders, who were advancing toward him with a hatred on their faces as anonymous and deadly as the exposed fangs of rabid dogs. The raider with the bat raised it above his own head and struck a vertical blow at Francis, which Francis sidestepped as easily as he once went to his left for a fast grounder. Simultaneously he stepped forward, as into a wide pitch, and swung his own bat at the man who had struck Rudy. Francis connected with a stroke that would have sent any pitch over any center-field fence in any ball park anywhere, and he clearly heard and truly felt bones crack in the man’s back. He watched with all but orgasmic pleasure as the breathless man twisted grotesquely and fell without a sound.

The second attacker charged Francis and knocked him down, not with his bat but with the weight and force of his moving body. The two rolled over and over, Francis finally separating himself from the man by a glancing blow to the throat. But the man was tough and very agile, fully on his feet when Francis was still on his knees, and he was raising his arms for a horizontal swing when Francis brought his own bat full circle and smashed the man’s left leg at knee level. The knee collapsed inward, a hinge reversed, and the raider toppled crookedly with a long howl of pain.

Francis lifted Rudy, who was mumbling incoherent sounds, and threw him over his shoulder. He ran, as best he could, toward the dark woods along the river, and then moved south along the shore toward the city. He stopped in tall weeds, all brown and dead, and lay prone, with Rudy beside him, to catch his breath. No one was following. He looked back at the jungle through the barren trees and saw it aflame in widening measure. The moon and the stars shone on the river, a placid sea of glass beside the sprawling, angry fire.

Francis found he was bleeding from the cheek and he went to the river and soaked his handkerchief and rinsed off the blood. He drank deeply of the river, which was icy and shocking and sweet. He blotted the wound, found it still bleeding, and pressed it with the handkerchief to stanch it.

“Who were they?” Rudy asked when he returned.

“They’re the guys on the other team,” Francis said. “They don’t like us filthy bums.”

“You ain’t filthy,” Rudy said hoarsely. “You got a new suit.”

“Never mirnd my suit, how’s your head?”

“I don’t know. Like nothin’ I ever felt before.” Francis touched the back of Rudy’s skull. It wasn’t bleeding but there was one hell of a lump there.

“Can you walk?”

“I don’t know. Where’s Old Shoes and his car?”

“Gone, I guess. I think that car is hot. I think he stole it. He used to do that for a livin’. That and peddle his ass.”

Francis helped Rudy to his feet, but Rudy could not stand alone, nor could he put one foot in front of the other. Francis lifted him back on his shoulder and headed south. He had Memorial Hospital in mind, the old Homeopathic Hospital on North Pearl Street, downtown. It was a long way, but there wasn’t no other place in the middle of the damn night. And walking was the only way. You wait for a damn bus or a trolley at this hour, Rudy’d be dead in the gutter.

Francis carried him first on one shoulder, then on the other, and finally piggyback when he found Rudy had some use of both arms and could hold on. He carried him along the river road to stay away from cruising police cars, and then down along the tracks and up to Broadway and then Pearl. He carried him up the hospital steps and into the emergency room, which was small and bright and clean and empty of patients. A nurse wheeled a stretcher away from one wall when she saw him coming, and helped Rudy to slide off Francis’s back and stretch out.

“He got hit in the head,” Francis said. “He can’t walk.”

“What happened?” the nurse asked, inspecting Rudy’s eyes.

“Some guy down on Madison Avenue went nuts and hit him with a brick. You got a doctor can help him?”

“We’ll get a doctor. He’s been drinking.”

“That ain’t his problem. He’s got a stomach cancer too, but what ails him right now is his head. He got rocked all to hell, I’m tellin’ you, and it wasn’t none of his fault.”

The nurse went to the phone and dialed and talked softly.

“How you makin’ it, pal?” Francis asked.

Rudy smiled and gave Francis a glazed look and said nothing. Francis patted him on the shoulder and sat down on a chair beside him to rest. He saw his own image in the mirror door of a cabinet against the wall. His bow tie was all cockeyed and his shirt and coat were spattered with blood where he had dripped before he knew he was cut. His face was smudged and his clothes were covered with dirt. He straightened the tie and brushed off a bit of the dirt.

After a second phone call and a conversation that Francis was about to interrupt to tell her to get goddamn busy with Rudy, the nurse came back. She took Rudy’s pulse, went for a stethoscope, and listened to his heart. Then she told Francis Rudy was dead. Francis stood up and looked at his friend’s face and saw the smile still there. Where the wind don’t blow.

“What was his name?” the nurse asked. She picked up a pencil and a hospital form on a clipboard.

Francis could only stare into Rudy’s glassy-eyed smile. Isaac Newton of the apple was born of two midwives.

“Sir, what was his name?” the nurse said.

“Name was Rudy.”

“Rudy what?”

“Rudy Newton,” Francis said. “He knew where the Milky Way was.”

 

o          o          o

 

It would be three-fifteen by the clock on the First Church when Francis headed south toward Palombo’s Hotel to get out of the cold, to stretch out with Helen and try to think about what had happened and what he should do about it. He would walk past Palombo’s night man on the landing, salute him, and climb the stairs to the room he and Helen always shared in this dump. Looking at the hallway dirt and the ratty carpet as he walked down the hall, he would remind himself that this was luxury for him and Helen. He would see the light coming out from under the door, but he would knock anyway to make sure he had Helen’s room. When he got no answer he would open the door and discover Helen on the floor in her kimono.

He would enter the room and close the door and stand looking at her for a long time. Her hair would be loose, and fanned out, and pretty.

He would, after a while, think of lifting her onto the bed, but decide there was no point in that, for she looked right and comfortable just as she was. She looked as if she were sleeping.

He would sit in the chair looking at her for an amount of time he later would not be able to calculate, and he would decide that he had made a right decision in not moving her.

For she was not crooked.

He would look in the open suitcase and would find his old clippings and put them in his inside coat pocket. He would find his razor and his penknife and Helen’s rhinestone butterfly, and he would put these in his coat pockets also. In her coat hanging in the closet he would find her three dollars and thirty-five cents and he would put that in his pants pocket, still wondering where she got it. He would remember the two dollars he left for her and that she would never get now, nor would he, and he would think of it as a tip for old Donovan. Helen says thank you.

He would then sit on the bed and look at Helen from a different angle. He would be able to see her eyes were closed and he would remember how vividly green they were in life, those gorgeous emeralds. He would hear the women talking together behind him as he tried to peer beyond Helen’s sheltered eyes.

Too late now, the women would say. Too late now to see any deeper into Helen’s soul. But he would continue to stare, mindful of the phonograph record propped against the pillow; and he would know the song she’d bought, or stole. It would be “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which she loved so much, and he would hear the women singing it softly as he stared at the fiercely glistening scars on Helen’s soul, fresh and livid scars whitening among the old, the soul already purging itself of all wounds of the world, flaming with the green fires of hope, but keeping their integrity too as welts of insight into the deepest secrets of Satan.

Francis, this twofold creature, now an old man in a mortal slouch, now again a fledgling bird of uncertain wing, would sing along softly with the women: Here I go, singin’ low, the song revealing to him that he was not looking into Helen’s soul at all but only into his own repetitive and fallible memory. He knew that right now both Rudy and Helen had far more insight into his being than he himself ever had, or would have, into either of theirs.

The dead, they got all the eyes.

He would follow the thread of his life backward to a point well in advance of the dying of Helen and would come to a vision of her in this same Japanese kimono, lying beside him after they had made sweet love, and she saying to him: All I want in the world is to have my name put back among the family.

And Francis would then stand up and vow that he would one day hunt up Helen’s grave, no matter where they put her, and would place a stone on top of it with her name carved deeply in its face. The stone would say: Helen Marie Archer, a great soul.

Francis would remember then that when great souls were being extinguished, the forces of darkness walked abroad in the world, filling it with lightning and strife and fire. And he would realize that he should pray for the safety of Helen’s soul, since that was the only way he could now help her. But because his vision of the next world was not of the court of heaven where the legion of souls in grace venerate the Holy Worm, but rather of a foul mist above a hole in the ground where the earth itself purges away the stench of life’s rot, Francis saw a question burning brightly in the air: How should this man pray?

He would think about this for another incalculably long moment and decide finally there was no way for him to pray: not for Helen, not even for himself.

He would then reach down and touch Helen on the top of the head and stroke her skull the way a father strokes the soft fontanel of his newborn child, stroke her gently so as not to disturb the flowing fall of her hair.

Because it was so pretty.

Then he would walk out of Helen’s room, leaving the light burning. He would walk down the hall to the landing, salute the night clerk, who would be dozing in his chair, and then he would reenter the cold and living darkness of the night.

 

o          o          o

 

By dawn he would be on a Delaware & Hudson freight heading south toward the lemonade springs. He would be squatting in the middle of the empty car with the door partway open, sitting a little out of the wind. He would be watching the stars, whose fire seemed so unquenchable only a few hours before, now vanishing from an awakening sky that was between a rose and a violet in its early hue.

It would be impossible for him to close his eyes, and so he would think of all the things he might now do. He would then decide that he could not choose among all the possibilities that were his. By now he was sure only that he lived in a world where events decided themselves, and that all a man could do was to stay one jump into their mystery.

He had a vision of Gerald swaddled in the silvery web of his grave, and then the vision faded like the stars and he could not even remember the color of the child’s hair. He saw all the women who became three, and then their impossible coherence also faded and he saw only the glorious mouth of Katrina speaking words that were little more than silent shapes; and he knew then that he was leaving behind more than a city and a lifetime of corpses. He was also leaving behind even his vivid memory of the scars on Helen’s soul.

Strawberry Bill climbed into the car when the train slowed to take on water, and he looked pretty good for a bum that died coughin’. He was all duded up in a blue seersucker suit, straw hat, and shoes the color of a new baseball.

“You never looked that good while you was livin’,” Francis said to him. “You done well for yourself over there.”

Everybody gets an Italian tailor when he checks in, Bill said. But say, pal, what’re you runnin’ from this time?

“Same old crowd,” Francis said. “The cops.”

Ain’t no such things as cops, said Bill.

“Maybe they ain’t none of ‘em got to heaven yet, but they been pesterin’ hell outa me down here.”

No cops chasm’ you, pal.

“You got the poop?”

Would I kid a fella like you?

Francis smiled and began to hum Rudy’s song about the place where the bluebird sings. He took the final swallow of Green River whiskey, which tasted sweet and cold to him now. And he thought of Annie’s attic.

That’s the place, Bill told him. They got a cot over in the corner, near your old trunk.

“I saw it,” said Francis.

Francis walked to the doorway of the freight car and threw the empty whiskey bottle at the moon, an outshoot fading away into the rising sun. The bottle and the moon made music like a soulful banjo when they moved through the heavens, divine harmonies that impelled Francis to leap off the train and seek sanctuary under the holy PheIan eaves.

“You hear that music?” Francis said.

Music? said Bill. Can’t say as I do.

“Banjo music. Mighty sweet banjo. That empty whiskey bottle’s what’s makin’ it. The whiskey bottle and the moon.”

If you say so, said Bill.

Francis listened again to the moon and his bottle and heard it clearer than ever. When you heard that music you didn’t have to lay there no more. You could get right up off’n that old cot and walk over to the back window of the attic and watch Jake Becker lettin’ his pigeons loose. They flew up and around the whole damn neighborhood, round and round, flew in a big circle and got themselves all worked up, and then old Jake, he’d give ‘em the whistle and they’d come back to the cages. Damnedest thing.

“What can I make you for lunch?” Annie asked him.

“I ain’t fussy. Turkey sandwich’d do me fine.”

“You want tea again?”

“I always want that tea,” said Francis.

He was careful not to sit by the window, where he could be seen when he watched the pigeons or when, at the other end of the attic, he looked out at the children playing football in the school athletic field.

“You’ll be all right if they don’t see you,” Annie said to him. She changed the sheets on the cot twice a week and made tan curtains for the windows and bought a pair of black drapes so he could close them at night and read the paper.

It was no longer necessary for him to read. His mind was devoid of ideas. If an idea entered, it would rest in the mind like the morning dew on an open field of stone. The morning sun would obliterate the dew and only its effect on the stone would remain. The stone needs no such effect.

The point was, would they ever know it was Francis who had broken that fellow’s back with the bat? For the blow, indeed, had killed the murdering bastard. Were they looking for him? Were they pretending not to look for him? In his trunk he found his old warm-up sweater and he wore that with the collar turned up to shield his face. He also found George Quinn’s overseas cap, which gave him a military air. He would have earned stripes, medals in the military. Regimentation always held great fascination for him. No one would ever think of looking for him wearing George’s overseas cap. It was unlikely.

“Do you like Jell-O, Fran?” Annie asked him. “I can’t remember ever making Jell-O for you. I don’t remember if they had Jell-O back then.”

If they were on to him, well that’s all she wrote. Katie bar the door. Too wet to plow. He’d head where it was warm, where he would never again have to run from men or weather.

The empyrean, which is not spatial at all, does not move and has no poles. It girds, with light and love, the primum mobile, the utmost and swiftest of the material heavens. Angels are manifested in the primum mobile.

But if they weren’t on to him, then he’d mention it to Annie someday (she already had the thought, he could tell that) about setting up the cot down in Danny’s room. when things got to be absolutely right, and straight.

That room of Danny’s had some space to it.

And it got the morning light too.

It was a mighty nice little room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TINKERS

by Paul Hardings

Pulitzer 2010

 

1

FORGE WASHINGTON CROSBY BEGAN TO hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster. The panes in the windows, once snugly pointed and glazed, stood loose in their sashes. The next stiff breeze would topple them all and they would flop onto the heads of his family, who sat on the couch and the love seat and the kitchen chairs his wife had brought in to accommodate everyone. The torrent of panes would drive everyone from the room, his grandchildren in from Kansas and Atlanta and Seattle, his sister in from Florida, and he would be marooned on his bed in a moat of shattered glass. Pollen and sparrows, rain and the intrepid squirrels he had spent half of his life keeping out of the bird feeders would breach the house.

He had built the house himself-poured the foundation, raised the frame, joined the pipes, run the wires, plastered the walls, and painted the rooms. Lightning struck once when he was in the open foundation, soldering the last joint of the hot-water tank. It threw him to the opposite wall. He got up and finished the joint. Cracks in his plaster did not stay cracks; clogged pipes got routed; peeling clapboard got scraped and slathered with a new coat of paint.

Get some plaster, he said, propped up in the bed, which looked odd and institutional among the Persian rugs and Colonial furniture and dozens of antique clocks. Get some plaster. Jesus, some plaster and some wires and a couple of hooks. You’d be all set for about five bucks.

Yes, Gramp, they said.

Yes, Dad. A breeze blew through the open window behind him and cleared exhausted heads. Bocce balls clicked out on the lawn.

Noon found him momentarily alone, while the family prepared lunch in the kitchen. The cracks in the ceiling widened into gaps. The locked wheels of his bed sank into new fault lines opening in the oak floor beneath the rug. At any moment, the floor was going to give. His useless stomach would jump in his chest as if he were on a ride at the Topsfield Fair and with a spine-snapping jolt he and the bed would land in the basement, on top of the crushed ruins of his workshop. George imagined what he would see, as if the collapse had, in fact, already happened: the living room ceiling, now two stories high, a ragged funnel of splintered floorboards, bent copper pipes, and electrical wires that looked like severed veins bordering the walls and pointing towards him in the center of all of that sudden ruin. Voices murmured out in the kitchen.

George turned his head, hoping someone might be sitting just out of view, with a paper plate of potato salad and rolled slices of roast beef on her lap and a plastic cup of ginger ale in her hand. But the ruin persisted. He thought he called out, but the women’s voices in the kitchen and the men’s voices in the yard hummed uninterrupted. He lay on his heap of wreckage, looking up.

The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing (the capped pipes never joined to the sink and toilet he had once intended to install) and racks of old coats and boxes of forgotten board games and puzzles and broken toys and bags of family pictures-some so old they were exposed on tin plates-all of it came crashing down into the cellar, he unable to even raise a hand to protect his face.

But he was nearly a ghost, almost made of nothing, and so the wood and metal and sheaves of brightly printed cardboard and paper (MOVE FORWARD SIX SPACES TO EASY STREET! Great-Grammy Noddin, shawled and stiff and frowning at the camera, absurd with her hat that looked like a sailor’s funeral mound, heaped with flowers and netting), which otherwise would have crushed his bones, dropped on him and fell away like movie props, he or they facsimiles of former, actual things.

There he lay among the graduation photos and old wool jackets and rusted tools and newspaper clippings about his promotion to head of the mechanical-drawing department at the local high school, and then about his appointment as director of guidance, and then about his retirement and subsequent life as a trader and repairer of antique clocks. The mangled brass works of the clocks he had been repairing were strewn among the mess. He looked up three stories to the exposed support beams of the roof and the plump silver-backed batts of insulation that ran between them. One grandson or another (which?) had stapled the insulation into place years ago and now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues.

The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.

The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.

Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, drove a wagon for his living. It was a wooden wagon. It was a chest of drawers mounted on two axles and wooden spoked wheels. There were dozens of drawers, each fitted with a recessed brass ring, pulled open with a hooked forefinger, that contained brushes and wood oil, tooth powder and nylon stockings, shaving soap and straight-edge razors. There were drawers with shoe shine and boot strings, broom handles and mop heads. There was a secret drawer where he kept four bottles of gin. Mostly, back roads were his route, dirt tracks that ran into the deep woods to hidden clearings where a log cabin sat among sawdust and tree stumps and a woman in a plain dress and hair pulled back so tight that she looked as if she were smiling (which she was not) stood in a crooked doorway with a cocked squirrel gun. Oh, it’s you, Howard. Well, I guess I need one of your tin buckets. In the summer, he sniffed heather and sang someone’s rocking my dreamboat and watched the monarch butterflies (butter fires, flutter flames; he imagined himself somewhat of a poet) up from Mexico. Spring and fall were his most prosperous times, fall because the backwoods people stocked up for the winter (he piled goods from the cart onto blazing maple leaves), spring because they had been out of sup plies often for weeks before the roads were passable for his first rounds. Then they came to the wagon like sleepwalkers: bright-eyed and ravenous. Sometimes he came out of the woods with orders for coffins-a child, a wife wrapped up in burlap and stiff in the woodshed.

He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.

George could dig and pour the concrete basement for a house. He could saw the lumber and nail the frame. He could wire the rooms and fit the plumbing. He could hang the drywall. He could lay the floors and shingle the roof. He could build the brick steps. He could point the windows and paint the sashes. But he could not throw a ball or walk a mile; he hated exercise, and once he took early retirement at sixty he never had his heart rate up again if he could help it, and even then only if it were to whack through some heavy brush to get to a good trout pool. Lack of exercise might have been the reason that, when he had his first radiation treatment for the cancer in his groin, his legs swelled up like two dead seals on a beach and then turned as hard as lumber. Before he was bedridden, he walked as if he were an amputee from a war that predated modern prosthetics; he tottered as if two hardwood legs hinged with iron pins were buckled to his waist. When his wife touched his legs at night in bed, through his pajamas, she thought of oak or maple and had to make herself think of something else in order not to imagine going down to his workshop in the basement and getting sandpaper and stain and sanding his legs and staining them with a brush, as if they belonged to a piece of furniture. Once, she snorted out loud, trying to stifle a laugh, when she thought, My husband, the table. She felt so bad afterward that she wept.

The stubbornness of some of the country women with whom Howard came into contact on his daily rounds cultivated in him, he believed, or would have believed, had he ever consciously thought about the matter, an unshakable, reasoning patience. When the soap company discontinued its old detergent for a new formula and changed the design on the box the soap came in, Howard had to endure debates he would have quickly conceded, were his adversaries not paying customers.

Where’s the soap?

This is the soap.

The box is different.

Yes, they changed it.

What was wrong with the old box?

Nothing.

Why’d they change it?

Because the soap is better.

The soap is different?

Better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap.

Of course not, but this is better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap. How can it be better?

Well, it cleans better.

Cleaned fine before.

This cleans better-and faster.

Well, I’ll just take a box of the normal soap.

This is the normal soap now.

I can’t get my normal soap?

This is the normal soap; I guarantee it.

Well, I don’t like to try a new soap.

It’s not new.

Just as you say, Mr. Crosby. Just as you say.

Well, ma’am, I need another penny.

Another penny? For what?

The soap is a penny more, now that it’s better.

I have to pay a penny more for different soap in a blue box? I’ll just take a box of my normal soap.

George bought a broken clock at a tag sale. The owner gave him a reprint of an eighteenth-century repair manual for free. He began to poke around the guts of old clocks. As a machinist, he knew gear ratios, pistons and pinions, physics, the strength of materials. As a Yankee in North Shore horse country, he knew where the old money lay, dozing, dreaming of wool mills and slate quarries, ticker tape and foxhunts. He found that bankers paid well to keep their balky heirlooms telling time. He could replace the worn tooth on a strike wheel by hand. Lay the clock facedown. Unscrew the screws; maybe just pull them from the cedar or walnut case, the threads long since turned to wood dust dusted from mantels. Lift off the back of the clock like the lid of a treasure chest. Bring the long-armed jeweler’s lamp closer, to just over your shoulder. Examine the dark brass. See the pinions gummed up with dirt and oil. Look at the blue and green and purple ripples of metal hammered, bent, torched. Poke your finger into the clock; fiddle the escape wheel (every part perfectly named-escape: the end of the machine, the place where the energy leaks out, breaks free, beats time). Stick your nose closer; the metal smells tannic. Read the names etched onto the works: Ezra Bloxham-1794; Geo. E. Tiggs-1832; Thos. Flatchbart-1912. Lift the darkened works from the case. Lower them into ammonia. Lift them out, nose burning, eyes watering, and see them shine and star through your tears. File the teeth. Punch the bushings. Load the springs. Fix the clock. Add your name.

Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby’s ears, a ring that began at a dis tance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure. Howard had epilepsy. His wife, Kathleen, formerly Kathleen Black, of the Quebec Blacks but from a reduced and stern branch of the family, cleared aside chairs and tables and led him to the middle of the kitchen floor. She wrapped a stick of pine in a napkin for him to bite so he would not swallow or chew off his tongue. If the fit came fast, she crammed the bare stick between his teeth and he would wake to a mouthful of splintered wood and the taste of sap, his head feeling like a glass jar full of old keys and rusty screws.

To reassemble the dismantled clock, the back plate of the works is laid upon a bed of soft cloth, preferably thick chamois folded many times. Each wheel and its arbor is inserted into its proper hole, beginning with the great wheel and its loose-fitting fusee, that grooved cone of wonder given to mankind by Mr. Da Vinci, and proceeding to the smallest, the teeth of one meshing with the gear collar of the next, and so on until the flywheel of the strike train and the escape wheel of the going train are fitted into their rightful places. Now, the horologist looks upon an openfaced, fairy-book contraption; gears lean to and fro like a lazy machine in a dream. The universe’s time cannot be marked thusly. Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts. The front plate of the works is taken in hand and fitted first onto the upfacing arbors of the main and strike springs, these being the largest and most easily fitted of the sundry parts. This accomplished, the horologist then lifts the rickety sandwich of loose guts to eye level, holding the works approximately together by squeezing the two plates, taking care to apply neither too much pressure (thus damaging the finer of the unaligned arbor ends) nor too little (thus causing the half-re-formed machine to disassemble itself back into its various constituent parts, which often flee to dusty and obscure nooks throughout the horologist’s workshop, causing much profaning and blasphemy). If, when the patient horologist has finished his attempt and the clock, when thumbed at the great wheel, does squeak and gibber rather than hum and whir with brass logic, this process must be reversed and tried again with calm reason until the imps of disorder are banished. Of clocks with only a going train, reanimating the machine is simple. More sophisticated contraptions, such as those fashioned with extra abilities, like a pantomime of the moon or a model fool juggling fruit, require an almost infinite skill and doggedness. (The author has heard of a clock supposedly seen in eastern Bohemia that had the likeness of a great oak tree wrought in iron and brass around its dial. As the seasons of its homeland changed, the branches of the tree turned a thousand tiny copper leaves, each threaded on a hair-thin spindle, from enameled green to metallic red. Then, by astounding mechanisms within the case (fashioned to look like one of the mythical pillars once believed to hold up the earth) the branches released the leaves to spiral down their threads and strew themselves about the lower part of the clock-face. If this machine in fact existed, Mr. Newton himself could not have sat beneath a more amazing tree.)

-from The Reasonable Horologist,

by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

One hundred and sixty-eight hours before he died, he snaked into the basement window of the West Cove Methodist Church and rang the bell on Halloween night. He waited in the basement for his father to whip him for doing it. His father laughed so hard and slapped his own thigh, because George had stuffed the seat of his pants with old Saturday Evening Posts. He sat at dinner silent, afraid to look at his mother because it was eleven o’clock at night and his father wasn’t home and still his mother made them sit in front of cold food. He married. He moved. He was a Methodist, a Congregationalist, and finally a Unitarian. He drew machines and taught mechanical drawing and had heart attacks and survived, sped down the new highway before it opened with his friends from engineering school, taught math, got a master’s degree in education, counseled guidance in high school, went back north every summer to fly-fish with his poker buddies-doctors, cops, music teachers-bought a broken clock at a tag sale and a reprint of an eighteenthcentury manual on how to fix it, retired, went on group tours to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, fixed clocks for thirty years, spoiled his grandkids, got Parkinson’s, got diabetes, got cancer, and was laid out in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners.

George never permitted himself to imagine his father. Occasionally, though, when he was fixing a clock, when a new spring he was coaxing into its barrel came loose from its arbor and exploded, cutting his hands, sometimes damaging the rest of the works, he had a vision of his father on the floor, his feet kicking chairs, bunching up rugs, lamps falling off of their tables, his head banging on floorboards, his teeth clamped onto a stick or George’s own fingers.

His mother had lived with him and his family until she died. Upon occasion, at meals mostly, maybe because that was the site of her being preempted, outsmarted by her former husband, left at the dinner table with her plans to have him taken away, she would recall what a frivolous man his father had been. At breakfast, she scooped oatmeal into her mouth and pulled the spoon from the clutches of her dentures with a stupendous clanking and sucking and would say something like, A poet, ha! He was a birdbrain, a magpie, a loony bird, flapping around with those fits and all.

But George forgave his mother her contrary heart. Whenever he thought about what her bitter laments sought to stanch, he was overtaken by tears and paused, looking up from the headlines of the morning paper, to lean over and kiss her camphored brow. To which gesture she would say, Don’t you try to make me feel better! That man cast a shadow forever over my peace of mind. The damned fool! And even that would make George feel good; her incessant litanies soothed her and reminded her that that life was over.

As he lay on his deathbed, George wanted to see his father again. He wanted to imagine his father. Each time he tried to concentrate and go back, tried to burrow deep and far away from the present, a pain, a noise, someone rolling him from side to side to change his sheets, the toxins leaking from his cancer-clogged kidneys into his thickening and darkening blood, reeled him back to his worn-out body and scrambled mind.

One afternoon, in the spring before his death, George, his illnesses consolidating, decided to dictate memories and anecdotes from his life into a tape recorder. His wife was out shopping and so he took the recorder down to his work desk in the basement. He opened the door between his workshop and tool shop. There was a woodstove in the tool shop, between the drill press and metal lathe. He crumpled up some old newspaper and put it in the stove, along with three logs from the half cord of wood he kept stacked in a remote corner of the shop, near the door to the bulkhead. He lit a fire and adjusted the flue, hoping to warm the concretey chill of the basement. He returned to his desk in the workshop. There was a cheap microphone plugged into the tape machine that would not stay upright on the clip collared around it. The clip was so light that the twist in the wire running from the microphone to the recorder kept flicking it over. George tried to straighten the wire, but the microphone would not stand, so he merely placed it on top of the tape recorder. The levers on the recorder were heavy and required some effort to push down before they clicked into place. Each was labeled with a cryptic abbreviation and George had to experiment with them before he felt confident he had found the right combination for recording his voice. The tape in the recorder had a faded pink label upon which had been typed, Early Blues Compilation, Copyright Hal Broughton, Jaw Creek, Pennsylvania. George recalled that he and his wife had bought the tape at one or another of the Elderhostel college courses they had taken during one or another summer years ago. When George first pressed the PLAY lever, a man’s voice, thin and remote, warbled about a hellhound on his trail. Rather than rewind the tape, George felt that such a complaint might be a good introduction to his talk, so he just began recording. He leaned forward into the microphone with his arms crossed and resting on the edge of the desk, as if he were answering questions at a hearing. He began formally: My name is George Washington Crosby. I was born in West Cove, Maine, in the year 1915. I moved to Enon, Massachusetts, in 1936. And so on. After these statistics, he found that he could think only of doggerel and slightly obscene anecdotes to tell, mostly having to do with foolish stunts undertaken after drinking too much whiskey during a fishing trip and often enough centered around running into a warden with a creel full of trout and no fishing license, or a pistol that a doctor had brought into the woods: If that pistol is nine millimeters, I’ll kiss your bare, frozen ass right out here on the ice; the lyrics to a song called Come Around, Mother, It’s Better When You’re Awake. And so forth. But after a handful of such stories, he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later (after he had flipped it over once, almost without being conscious of doing so), and the RECORD button sprang up with a buzz, he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope. So deeply moved, he pulled the cassette from the machine, flipped it back over to the beginning, fitted it back into its snug carriage of capstans and guiding pins, and pressed PLAY, thinking that he might preserve such a mood of pure, clean sorrow by listening back to his narrative. He imagined that his memoirs might now sound like those of an admirable stranger, a person he did not know but whom he immediately recognized and loved dearly. Instead, the voice he heard sounded nasally and pinched and, worse, not very well educated, as if he were a bumpkin who had been called, perhaps even in mockery, to testify about holy things, as if not the testimony but the fumbling through it were the reason for his presence in front of some dire, heavenly senate. He listened to six seconds of the tape before he ejected it and threw it into the fire burning in the woodstove.

Saw grass and wildflowers grew high along the spines of the dirt roads and brushed the belly of Howard’s wagon. Bears pawed fruit in the bushes along the ruts.

Howard had a pine display case, fastened by fake leather straps and stained to look like walnut. Inside, on fake velvet, were cheap gold-plated earrings and pendants of semiprecious stones. He opened this case for haggard country wives when their husbands were off chopping trees or reaping the back acres. He showed them the same half-dozen pieces every year the last time he came around, when he thought, This is the seasonpreserving done, woodpile high, north wind up and getting cold, night showing up earlier every day, dark and ice pressing down from the north, down on the raw wood of their cabins, on the rough-cut rafters that sag and sometimes snap from the weight of the dark and the ice, burying families in their sleep, the dark and the ice and sometimes the red in the sky through trees: the heartbreak of a cold sun. He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.

No woman ever bought a piece of jewelry. One might lift a pendant from its bed and rub it between her fingers. She would say, It sure is, when he said, Well, now, that’s a beautiful piece. Sometimes he saw a woman’s face seize for the slightest part of a second, the jewelry stirring some half-forgotten personal hope, some dream from the distant cusp of marriage. Or her breath would hitch, as if something long hung on a nail or staked to a chain seemed to uncatch, but only for a second. The woman would hand back the trinket he offered. No, no, I guess not, Howard. Case slipped back into its drawer, he would turn his cart around in the yard and start back out of the woods, winter already sealing the country people in behind him.

The local agent for Howard’s supplies was a man named Cullen. Cullen was a hustler. One day a month, he sat at a table in the back room at Sander’s store and rooked his agent of his due. He spread Howard’s receipts for the month out across the table and leaned forward and looked at them through the smoke of the cigarette that always dangled from his lip. When he did this, Howard always thought that the agent looked like he was dealing cards for a hand of poker or a magic trick. Cullen squinted at the receipts: Only five boxes of lye; need six to make discount. Ten cotton mop heads. Good, but my cost went up. Need to sell a dozen now. You get a nickel less than before. What about that new soap? I don’t care it’s tough to convert these backwoods biddies; you’re a salesman. What the hell are you doing out there? Sniffing daisies? Godammit, Crosby, what are you doing with those iceboxes and washing machines? How many brochures have you handed out? I don’t give a good goddamn if they don’t understand installment plansinstallment is the future; it is the grail of selling! Cullen scooped up the receipts and crammed them into his case. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of money. He peeled a ten and seven ones out of the roll. He dug in his other pocket and pitched a fistful of change onto the table (like dice, Howard thought) and flicked fifty-seven cents’ worth of coins out of the pile with a forefinger and put the rest back in his pocket so quickly, it was as if that, too, were one of his tricks. Sign here. Crosby, how are you going to be one of my twelve? This was the part of every meeting with the agent that Howard dreaded-when Cullen quoted Bruce Barton. Who was the greatest businessman ever, Crosby? The greatest salesman? Advertiser? Who? Howard looked at the knot in Cullen’s cheap tie and smiled, trying not to look put out but trying not to answer the question, either. Come on, Crosby. Haven’t you read the book? I practically gave it to you for cost! Howard sighed and said, It was Jesus. That’s right, the agent said, half getting out of his chair, pounding a fist on the table, pointing a finger out toward heaven, past the new snowshoes hanging high on the walls. Jesus! Jesus was the founder of modern business, he quoted. He was the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem. He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world! How are you going to be one of my twelve, Crosby, if you can’t sell, if you are not on fire to sell?

One hundred and thirty-two hours before he died, George awoke from the racket of the collapsing universe to the darkness of night and a silence, which, once the clamor of his nightmares faded, he could not understand. The room was lit only by a small pewter lamp set on one of the end tables near the couch. The couch ran along the length of the hospital bed. At the far end of the couch, leaning toward the light on the table, sat one of his grandsons, reading a book.

George said, Charlie.

Charlie said, Gramp, and put the paperback book on his lap.

George said, Why so damn quiet?

Charlie said, It’s late.

George said, Is that right? Still seems awful damn quiet. George turned his head to the left and then right. To the left was the Queen Anne armchair and the fireplace in which he had not built a fire for thirty years, not since he quit smoking pipes. He remembered the pipe tree he had kept in the basement, at his work desk. At first he had imagined his enthusiasm for pipes to be like that which he had for clocks; he had bought the pipe tree at a flea market in Newburyport. How do I remember this? he thought in the bed, concerned with parsing the quality of the silence he experienced almost as a noise, of finding its source, and, instead, here was the flea market in Newburyport and the table of junk with the pipe tree and what the old crook who ran the table looked like (some sort of retired sailor or merchant seaman, with an Irish sweater and Greek fishing cap) and sounded like (salt-cured Yankee via Bangor via Cape Breton) and almost every item on the table (rusted trowels, eyeless dolls, empty tobacco tins, flaking sheaves of sheet music, a candy thermometer, a statue of Christopher Columbus) and how he had bartered with the man for the tree (How close to ten cents would you take for that pipe tree? Five bucks! How’d a thief like you get in here? Two bucks? Well, you’d better hold on to it a while longer. A dollar and a quarter? Sold.). He bought a dozen pipes from various collectors. He put them in the tree, with the intention of cultivating a taste for a range of expensive tobaccos and using each pipe for one type of tobacco only. Within a week, he smoked the cheapest house blend from the local tobacconist in a pipe he had bartered as part of a deal for a box full of clock parts, and which, when an occasional puff tasted sour, he suspected of being made not from wood, but plastic. He smoked bowl after bowl of cheap shag while he fixed clocks. At the end of the day, after dinner, he sat in the Queen Anne chair (which he had bought cheaply at an estate sale because two of its legs were broken) by the fire and smoked the last bowl of the day. When he developed a precancerous blister on his lower lip, he threw out his pipes and the tree and the tins of tobacco and contented himself with smoking half of an occasional cigar when he had to sweep dead leaves out of the garage. Although he had not sat in the Queen Anne chair since he quit smoking his pipes, there remained a sort of shadow of his outline on the fabric of the chair’s backrest; it was not so much a stain as a silhouette of just slightly darker fabric, which could be seen in just the right light from just the right angle, and which still would have fit his shape perfectly, had he been able to rise from his sickbed and sit in the chair.

His head was propped up with pillows. In front of him, at the foot of the bed, he could see a narrow part of the Persian rug that covered the floor. Beyond the rug, at the far wall, was the dining table, with its leaves taken out and its wings lowered. It ran nearly the width of the wall. At either end of the table was a ladder-back chair with a cane seat. Hanging above the table (on which there was always a bowl of wooden fruit or a crystal vase of silk flowers) was a still life done in oil. It was a dim, murky scene, lit perhaps by a single candle not visible within the frame, of a table on which lay a silver fish and a dark loaf of bread on a cutting board, a round of ruddy cheese, a bisected orange with both halves arranged with their cross sections facing the viewer, a drinking goblet made of green glass, with a wide spiral stem and what looked like glass buttons fixed around the base of the broad cup. A large part of the cup had been broken and dimly glinting slivers of glass lay around the base. There was a pewter-handled knife on the cutting board, in front of the fish and the loaf. There was also a black rod of some sort, with a white tip, running parallel to the knife. No one had ever been able to figure out what the rod actually was. A grandchild once remarked that it looked like a magician’s wand, and, in fact, the object did resemble the type of wand that amateurs use to conjure rabbits or make pitchers of water disappear into their top hats at children’s birthday parties. But the rest of the picture, no matter how recently or distantly it had been painted, was by influence or origin Dutch or Flemish, and the rod certainly not a pun or clever joke. And so it remained a small household mystery, which the family was content to puzzle over now and then for a moment when they were waiting for someone to get his coat on, or were daydreaming on the couch during a winter afternoon, and which no one cared to research.

To his right, past the right end of the dining table and the chair next to it, was the small entryway, which consisted of the doorway into the living room, the front door on the right, the door to the coat closet on the far side, and the door to the unfinished attic (which, when he had built the house fifty years before, George had fitted for plumbing and electricity, with the intention of eventually making the space into a single large family room) on the left. To the right of that was a rolltop desk, in which George kept bills and receipts and unused ledger books. There was another oil painting hanging above the desk, this one of a packet schooner sailing out of Gloucester in stormy weather. It was a scene of roiling dark greens and blues and grays swarming around the lines of the ship, which was seen from the rear. The insides of the very tips of the waves were illuminated from within by a sourceless light. If you watched the straight lines of the schooner’s masts and rigging (storm up, the ship was not under sail) long enough in the dim light of an early evening or on a rainy day, the sea would begin to move at the corners of your vision. They would stop the moment you looked directly at them, only to slither and snake again when you returned your gaze to the ship.

Directly to George’s right was the blue couch and its end tables, where his grandson sat, now looking at him, book in lap. Behind the couch, there was a large bay window, which looked out onto the front lawn and the street behind the couch, but heavy curtains, which his wife had kept closed day and night since he had come home to die, obscured it. The curtains were as thick and heavy as those of a theater. They were creamcolored, with broad vertical pillars of a maroon so dark it was almost black. The pillars were festooned with leafy tendrils that spiraled up and down their lengths. In between the diagonals of the bunting were alternating images of songbirds with scraps of ribbon or grass in their beaks and of marble urns. Looking at the curtains, it seemed to George that his grandson sat in front of a small, obscured stage and that he might at any moment stand up, step aside, and, with arm outstretched in introduction, present some sort of puppet show.

Instead, the grandson said again, You okay, Gramp?

Awful damn quiet.

When he could not turn his head any farther, he had to imagine the rest of the room behind him. There was the console television, the red velvet love seat, the hand-colored photograph of his wife taken when she was seventeen, set in an oval rosewood frame, and there was the grandfather’s clock.

That was it, he realized; the clock had run down. All of the clocks in the room had wound down-the tambours and carriage clocks on the mantel, the banjo and mirror and Viennese regulator on the walls, the Chelsea ship’s bells on the rolltop desk, the ogee on the end table, and the seven-foot walnut-cased Stevenson grandfather’s clock, made in Nottingham in 1801, with its moon-phase window on the dial and pair of robins threading flowery buntings around the Roman numerals. When he imagined inside the case of that clock, dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down.

When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.

When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay.

Clocks are all stopped, he croaked to his grandson.

Nana said it would drive you mad.

(In truth, his wife had said that the ticking, never mind the chimes, drove her mad and that she could not bear the vigil with all of that clatter. In actual truth, his wife was soothed by the sound of ticking clocks and their chimes, and for many years after her husband’s death, in the condominium she bought at a retirement complex with the cash he had hidden away for her in the basement and in half a dozen safety-deposit boxes located around the North Shore, she kept a dozen of the finest pieces from his collection running and arranged around her living room in such a way that they seemed, in their precise alignment, with which she fussed and fine-tuned for months, to strike a chord that nearly conjured her dead husband, almost invoked him in the room; he always seemed just out of sight among the ticks and tocks and, at midnight, when she lay alone in her canopy bed and all of the clocks struck twelve at the same time, she knew without a doubt that her fastidious ghost of a husband was drifting around in the living room, inspecting each machine through his bifocals, making sure that they were all even of beat, adjusted and precise.)

Drive me mad nothing, he said. Get up and wind them. And so the young person, whose name he could not recall, moved from clock to clock and wound each one.

But not the striking trains, the young person said. It’d be too loud; we’d raise hell if all of these things struck; Nana would kill us.

George said, Okay, okay, and the blood in his veins and the breath in his chest seemed to go easier as he heard the ratchet and click of the springs being wound and the rising chorus of clocks, which did not seem to him to tick but to breathe and to give one another comfort by merely being in one another’s presence, like a gathering of people at a church dinner or at a slide show held in the local library.

Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn extra money, mostly not: shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.

The drowned child was the daughter of a widow named La Rose. She had been playing at the edge of the creek and slipped on a wet stone and split her head and passed out facedown in the water. The current had tugged her farther into the water, carried her for several hundred feet, and then deposited her on a sandbar in the middle of the creek. Howard took his shoes off and rolled up his trouser legs and waded out to the child. When he first bent to lift her, he did so as if to hoist an errant lamb onto his hip, but when he put his arms under the little body and felt its cold and saw its hair trailing in the current and thought of the child’s mother standing behind him on the bank, he turned her face up and raised her and carried her as if she were asleep and he taking her from the back of a wagon to her pallet bed near the woodstove after returning from a trip visiting relatives.

The man whose hair he cut was named Melish. He was nineteen years old and due to be married in an hour and a half. His mother was dead; his sisters and brothers, all much older than he, were married off already and gone to Canada or New Hampshire or south to Woonsocket. His father was plowing their fifteen acres of potatoes and would have just as soon scalped the boy as cut his hair, because him getting married meant the last helping hands were abandoning the farm. Howard took a pair of shears and a medium-size tin pot from his wagon. He fitted the pot over the boy’s head and cut in a circle around its circumference. When he was done, he took a hand mirror from its wrapping paper and gave it to the boy. The boy turned his head left and then right and handed the mirror back to Howard. He said, I guess that looks pretty smart, Mr. Crosby.

The man whose tooth he pulled was named Gilbert. Gilbert was a hermit who lived deep in the woods along the Penobscot River. He seemed not to live in any shelter other than the woods themselves, although some men who hunted in the woods for deer and bear and moose speculated that he might live in some forgotten trapper’s cabin. Others thought he might live in a tree house of some sort, or at least a lean-to. In all the years he was known to live in the forest, never had a winter hunting party seen so much as the ashes from a fire or a single footprint. No one could imagine how a man could survive one winter alone and exposed in the woods, never mind decades of them. Howard, instead of trying to explain the hermit’s existence in terms of hearth fires and trappers’ shacks, preferred the blank space the old man actually seemed to inhabit; he liked to think of some fold in the woods, some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into, where the ice and snow, where the frozen forest itself, would accept him and he would no longer need fire or wool blankets, but instead flourish wreathed in snow, spun in frost, with limbs like cold wood and blood like frigid sap.

Gilbert was a graduate of Bowdoin College. According to the stories, he had liked to boast that he had been a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. Although he would have to be nearly 120 years old for the rumor to be true, no one cared to refute the claim, because they found too delightful an image to dispel the notion that the local hermit, dressed in animal skins, muttering litanies (as often as not in Latin), and, in warmer seasons, attended by a small but avid swarm of flies, which constantly buzzed around his head, crawled over his nose, and sipped the tears from the corners of his eyes, had once been a clean-faced, well-ironed acquaintance of the author of The Scarlet Letter. Gilbert was apparently not his real name and no one really knew when he had been born so the people left it at that.

People liked to speculate and tell stories about Gilbert the Hermit, especially when they sat around their woodstoves on winter nights with a blizzard howling outside; the thought of him out there in the maelstrom gave them a comforting thrill.

Howard supplied Gilbert. Gilbert’s needs from the world of men were few, but he did require needles and thread, twine, and tobacco. Once a year, on the first day that the ice went out of the ponds, sometime in May, Howard rode his wagon to the Camp Comfort Club hunting cabin, itself remote, and from there toted on his back the supplies he knew Gilbert required down an old Indian trail that followed the river. Somewhere along the way, Howard would meet Gilbert. The men would greet one another with nods of their heads. They struggled through the bushes down to the river’s edge, Howard with his bundle, Gilbert with his court of flies and a buckskin bag. There they would each find a rock or a dry tuft of grass to sit on. Howard took a tin of tobacco from the bundle of supplies he had brought for Gilbert and handed it to the hermit. Gilbert held the open tin to his nose and inhaled slowly, savoring the rich, sweet near dampness of the new tobacco; by the time he met Howard each year, he was down to the last flakes of his supply. Howard imagined that the fragrance of new tobacco was a sort of confirmation to Gilbert that he had indeed lived another year, endured another winter in the woods. After smelling the tobacco and looking out at the river for a moment, Gilbert held out his hand to Howard. Howard took a pipe from one of his jacket pockets and gave it to the hermit. Howard did not otherwise smoke and kept the pipe for this one bowlful a year. Gilbert packed Howard’s pipe and then his own (which was beautiful-carved from a burl of dark red wood and which Howard imagined belonging once, long ago, in a brass stand on a dean’s desk) and the two men smoked together in silence and watched the waters rush. While he smoked, Gilbert’s flock of flies temporarily dispersed, but seemingly without rancor or resentment. When the pipes were spent, each man tapped the ashes out against his rock and put his pipe away. The flies settled back in their orbit around the hermit’s head (Circum capit, he muttered) and he opened his buckskin bag and produced two crude wooden carvings, one which seemed to be a moose, the other a beaver, or perhaps a woodchuck, or even a groundhog. The work was so poor that Howard could only say for sure that the little raw wooden lumps that the hermit placed in the winter-dead grass between them were supposed to be animals of some kind. Next to the carvings, Gilbert then lay a beautifully skinned fox fur, head included, that smelled like rotting meat. There was a moment of panic for the flies as they decided which was more rancid, the hermit or the skin. In the end, they were loyal to their more pungent, living host. Howard placed the bundle of supplies on the grass and each man collected his goods. The men had exchanged few words during the first few years of this spring ritual and these only to refine the order of Gilbert’s supplies. One year he said, More needles. Another year he said, No more tea-coffee now. Once the list had been refined and finally established, the men no longer spoke at all. For the past seven years, neither man had uttered a single word to the other.

The last year Howard met Gilbert in the woods, though, the men spoke. When he came upon the hermit, he saw that the man’s left cheek was as swollen and as shiny as a ripe apple. Gilbert shuffled his feet and stared at the ground and held his hand against the cheek. Even the flies were solicitous of their sponsor’s pain and seemed to buzz more gingerly about him. Howard cocked his head in a silent question.

Gilbert whispered, Tooth.

Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. Nevertheless, it was true. Stepping closer, Gilbert opened his mouth and Howard, squinting to get a good look, saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.

Tooth, the hermit said again, and pointed into his mouth.

Oh, yes, awful thing, Howard said, and smiled in sympathy.

The hermit said, No! Tooth! and continued pointing. Howard realized that the poor afflicted man wanted him to take the tooth out.

Oh, no, no! he said. I have no idea-

Gilbert cut him off. No! Tooth! he squeaked, an octave higher than before.

But I haven’t any- Again the hermit cut him off, shooing him back toward where his wagon stood, three miles away at the Comfort Camp Club cabin.

Howard returned two and a half hours later with a small flask of corn whiskey from Potts’s mountainside still and a pair of long-handled pliers he used when he had to solder small pieces of tin to leaky pots. At first, Gilbert refused any liquor, but when Howard grabbed the tooth with the pliers, the old man passed out. Howard dashed a handful of cold river water on Gilbert’s face. The hermit came to and motioned for the whiskey, which he drank in a single draft, then passed out again from the alcohol on the bedeviled tooth. Another splash of water revived Gilbert, and the two men sat for a time watching a pair of sparrows chase a crow above the fir trees on the other side of the river.

The river was high after an early, fast melt, and loud. Voices seemed to mingle in the water, as if there were a race of men who dwelled among the rapids. When Gilbert began to list and recite Virgil, Uere nouo, gelidus canis cum montibus humor liquitur Howard reached into the hermit’s mouth with the pliers, grabbed the fetid tooth, and pulled with all of his strength. The tooth did not budge. Howard let go. Gilbert looked baffled for a moment and then passed out again, flat on his back, the flies neatly following him from upright to laid out. Howard was convinced at first that his customer was dead, but a damp whistle from the hermit’s fly-rimmed nose indicated that he could still be counted among the relatively quick.

The old man’s mouth hung wide open. Howard straddled his shoulders and grabbed the tooth with the pliers. When he finally succeeded in excavating the tooth, Gilbert’s face and beard were covered in blood. Another splash of river water revived the patient. When he saw Howard standing before him with the gory pliers in one hand and a tooth extraordinarily long of root in the other, Gilbert fainted.

Two weeks later, Buddy the Dog’s barking wakened Howard. He rose from bed and went to the kitchen door to see if there was a bear or stray cow in the yard. Placed on the doorstep was a package wrapped in greasy, foul-smelling leather and tied with twine which Howard recognized as the type he sold. Standing in the moonlight, he untied the twine and unfolded the leather. Beneath the leather was a layer of red velvet. Howard opened the velvet and there, looking as new as the day it was printed, the pages uncut, was a copy of The Scarlet Letter. Howard opened the book. Inscribed on the title page were the words To “Hick” Gilbert: Here is to the shared memories of young men in the prime of their journeys. Yours always in faith and brotherly friendship, Nath’l Hawthorne, 1852.

When the ice went out the next year, Howard took his pipe from its drawer in the wagon and rubbed it across the thigh of his pants and blew into the bowl and put it in his jacket pocket. He made up a bundle of Gilbert’s supplies and hiked along the Indian trail. There was no sign of the hermit. Howard made the hike every day for a week, but Gilbert never appeared. On the seventh day, Howard turned off the trail and sat by the river and smoked a pipeful of the tobacco that he had packed for the hermit. As he smoked, he listened to the voices in the rapids. They murmured about a place somewhere deep in the woods where a set of bones lay on a bed of moss, above which a troop of mournful flies had kept vigil the previous autumn until the frosts came and they, too, had succumbed.

This is a book. It is a book I found in a box. I found the box in the attic. The box was in the attic, under the eaves. The attic was hot and still. The air was stale with dust. The dust was from old pictures and books. The dust in the air was made up of the book I found. I breathed the book before I saw it; tasted the book before I read it. The book has a red marbled cover. It has large pages. The pages are made of heavy paper the color of blanched almonds. The book is filled with writing. The writing is in blue ink. The ink is heavy and built up in places the way paint builds up on canvas. The paper did not absorb the ink. The ink had to dry before the book was closed or a page turned. The blue of the ink is so dark that it looks black. It is only in flourishes tailing off of serifs or in lines where the hand lessened its pressure on the pen that you can see the blue. The handwriting looks like yours. It looks like you wrote the book. It is a dictionary or an encyclopedia of some sort. The book is full of reports from the backs of events, full of weak, cold light from the north, small constructions from short summers. Let me read you an example. Are you comfortable? Do you want the bed down a little bit more? Would you like some water? No; every one else is asleep. Shall I read you an example? You don’t remember writing this? The handwriting looks very much like yours. Very much like mine, too, with the f’s that look like elongated s’s with dashes through their middles. And the mix of script and printing. Why don’t I start at the beginning, with the first entry? No, I’m Charlie. Sam is at our mother’s getting some sleep. No, I don’t think he smokes anymore, no. Not since he got pneumonia last winter. Yes, we sure have; we’ve always had family no matter what. This first one is

Cosmos Borealis: Light skin of sky and cloud and mountain on the still pond. Water body beneath teeming with reeds and silt and trout (sealed in day skin and night skin and ice lids), which we draw out with silk threads, fitted with snags of fur or bright feathers. Skin like glass like liquid like skin; our words scrieved the slick surface (reflecting risen moon, spinning stars, flitting bats), so that we had only to whisper across the wide plate. Green drakes blossomed powder dry among the stars, glowing white, out of pods, which rose from the muck at the bottom of the pond and broke open on the skin of the water. We whispered across the galaxies, Who needs Mars?

What is it like to be full of lightning? What is it like to be split open from the inside by lightning? Howard used to imagine that it was like the rupture of a fit. Although he never remembered them, he had the sense that, although there was cold before and chills after, during his seizures his blood boiled and his brain nearly fried in its skull pan. It was as if there were a secret door that opened on its own to an electric storm spinning somewhere out on the fringes of the solar system. He imagined the door. Closed, it was invisible, cloaked in the colors of the world (it was outside; it moved). Open, it was made of thick plain oak and swung outward. It had a wooden knob because the electricity on the other side would erupt from a metal handle. Howard often wondered if there was a knob on the outside of the door. In his mind, he could not see if there was because the door was either closed and hidden or flung open, so that the front, the side painted in light and shadow, grass and water, faced the opposite direction. The opened doorway framed an unbounded darkness. There was the black of the universe surrounding a pinwheel of light. Needles of electricity forked out of the whirlpool of sparks. Most of this lightning flashed and was gone in an instant. But when one of the charges found its way through the door and into Howard, it stuck fast; it latched onto something inside of him and held and held. In the cold, blasted, numb hours following a seizure, confusion prevailed; Howard’s blistered brain crackled and sparked blue behind his eyes and he sat slumped, slack-jawed, blanket-wrapped, baffled by his diet of lightning. It was as if some well-intending being desired to give him a special gift and spoon-fed him the voltage from behind the door. No, not being, even. There was the door, or maybe the doors, or maybe not even doors, just the curtains and murals of this world and the star-gushing universe was usually obscured by them-the curtains and the murals-and Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos. Other, larger, inhuman souls might very well thrive on such a feast. Howard thought angels, but the image he had of the seraphim, with their long blond curls and flowing white robes and golden halos, did not fit with the more frightening, dark, powerful species he conjured, which would gorge on and delight in what, when ingested by him, instead of sating, instantly burst the seams of his thin body. The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning-it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinguished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.

Perhaps, Howard thought, the curtains and murals and pastel angels are a mercy, a dim reflection of things fit for the fragility of human beings. Whenever he looked at the angels in the family Bible, though, he saw their radiant golden halos and resplendent white robes and he shook with fear.

Ninety-six hours before he died, George said he wanted a shave. He was a fastidiously neat dresser. His jackets and shirts were always well tailored, if not made from the best cloth or in the latest fashion. Whiskers grew on his face in mangy patches; he could not have grown a beard or mustache had he ever wanted to. This made shaving all the more important to him. If he went a day without shaving, his babyish face, dotted with sparse stubble, lent him the look of an invalid or a large child incapable of taking care of his own needs.

Jesus, when was the last time I had a shave? How about a shave? He looked around the room at his family. There were his wife, his two daughters, Claire and Betsy, a smattering of grown-up grandchildren, and his one remaining sister, Marjorie, huffing for air, fitted with a thick neck collar for her latest case of whiplash. The collar was zipped into a sock of tan linen, which matched her pantsuit. Despite lifelong asthma, she smoked long ladies’ cigarettes on the back porch, flicking the ash off with her thumb, her arms crossed, her breath coming in sibilant little puffs of blue smoke. She kept her package of cigarettes in a cloth case with a gold-colored clasp. The case was embroidered with tan beads set in fountaining water patterns. She heard her brother as she pitched her cigarette into the rhododendron bushes and came back into the room. The screen door slammed behind her, the bang impious in the dim funereal hush. (The morning George had gone to the hospital, feeling worse than usual, his plan for the day had been a trip to the hardware store to buy a new hydraulic arm for the door; the old arm no longer offered any resistance.)

Why hasn’t anybody shaved Georgie? Who is going to shave Georgie? It’s terrible. Georgie looks awful. My God, he looks terrible.

One of his grandsons, Samuel, said, Oh, Aunt Margie, you are right; we need to get this old goat looking presentable. I’ll shave him. Say your prayers, Gramp, and keep still. He wanted to choke his great-aunt until she died and then smoke all of her cigarettes.

George said, I’m done for.

Sam said, Your turn in the barrel.

George said, I was in the barrel last night.

Sam came back into the room with a bowl of scalding water and a hot towel, shaving cream, and a cheap disposable plastic razor blade his grandmother had found for him in a basket beneath the bathroom sink that was filled with various disused, soap-crusted toiletry. He could not find his grandfather’s electric razor and George could not remember where he had put it. No one had the presence of mind to run to the drugstore and buy a new razor. Sam pressed the hot towel to his grandfather’s face and wished for a smoke and that he did not have to shave his grandfather in front of such a wrung-out, hysterical audience. George’s head shook slightly from Parkinson’s disease. The shaking stopped when Sam held George’s face. Sam removed the towel and shook the can of shaving cream and pushed the dispenser button. The can was old, excavated along with the razor from the guts of the cabinet under the bathroom sink. Since George usually used an electric razor, he had no need for shaving cream. The can was rusty on the bottom and was a brand no longer even manufactured. The dispenser sputtered and sneezed a gob of white drool into Sam’s hand.

Sam said, Never mind the wood, Mother.

George said, Father’s coming home with a load.

Sam shook the can again and this time a dollop of something closer to actual shaving cream came out. Sam lathered George’s face and neck. He began with George’s cheeks, only shaving with the lay of the hair. The cheeks went smoothly. The upper lip was tougher, the lower tougher still.

Marjorie said, Don’t cut him.

George’s daughters grimaced. Betsy, Sam’s mother, said, Be careful, and bared her teeth at Sam to express peril and worry and support.

George’s wife, Sam’s grandmother said, Get his chin; he always misses his chin.

Sam said, A smoke.

George said, What?

Sam said, Nothing. Keep still, Mr. Kresge.

Mr. Kresge, I got complaint, ’bout how you sell me this cheap red paint!

Then came George’s wattle, the loose bag of skin between the underside of his chin and his neck, with short, light strokes. Sam pulled it tight this way and that and gingerly scraped the razor over George’s soft skin. The effort drained Sam, and his craving for nicotine led him to shave in a haphazard manner. When he thought he was done and had wiped away the remains of the shaving cream from George’s face, he saw that there was a patch of stubble left in a fold of neck skin. Instead of applying more hot water and cream, Sam said, Wait, missed a spot, and pulled the fold taut with his thumb and flicked at the patch with the razor. The razor caught skin and opened a cut.

Shit, said Sam.

George said, What?

Blood! said Marjorie.

The cut was not deep, but it bled impressively, sending a column of red down George’s neck, which ran off into several tributaries as it reached various wrinkles and rolls, and stained the top of his white cotton johnny, making necessary the elaborate effort of getting George out of his stained bedclothes and into clean ones, a process more difficult than its simple mechanics because it involved daughters and grandchildren rolling George’s blanched, helpless naked body from side to side. Marjorie had to be escorted from the room when this happened.

She saw his bared shoulders and chest and said, This is awful! Somebody do something! Tears welled in her eyes and she groaned.

George had not felt anything. Once the bleeding was stanched and a plastic bandage stuck over the cut, and George was in a new johnny, propped up in bed, Marjorie, along with the other more abashed of the family, returned to the room. Sam handed George a mirror. George looked surprised at his reflection, as if after a lifetime of seeing himself in mirrors and windows and metal and water, now, at the end, suddenly a rude, impatient stranger had shown up in place of himself, someone anxious to get into the picture, although his proper cue was George’s exit.

This sent a fresh sense of alarm through the room, and Sam quickly said, Well, what do you think? George looked up, confused. Sam said, About the shave. George looked at his grandson, lost. Sam leaned his face very slightly forward toward his grandfather, holding his stare, and said again, in a quieter voice, What do you think about the shave?

George said, Oh! The shave, you say! Very, very good. I’m so pretty again.

Sam said, Like Little Leroy, the cabin boy. George said, Ah, he was a cautious little nipper!

The rutted road ran between two mild slopes. The trees that grew on the slopes leaned in toward the road, so that their lowest branches brushed the grass. The sun lowered and there was brightness in the treetops and brightness in the long grass, and in between a band of shadows gathered and held in the skirts of the lowest branches. Howard rode along the track and had the sense that once he passed, the shadows leaked out from beneath the edge of the forest, down the incline and out onto the dirt. Behind him also, along with the shadows, animals came to browse in the grass at the verge, and a black-booted red fox darted across the bright road, from darkness to darkness. To Howard, this was the best part of the afternoon, when folds of night mingled with bands of day. He resisted the desire to stop the wagon and give Prince Edward an apple and crawl into the shadows and sit quietly and become a part of the slow freshet of night, or to stop the wagon and simply remain on the bench and watch the shadows approach and pool around the wagon wheels and Prince Edward’s hooves and eventually reach the soles of his shoes and then his ankles, until mule, cart, and man were submerged in the flood tide of night, because the secrets gathered in the shadows at the tree line that rustled and waited until he passed, and which made the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end and his scalp tighten when he felt them flooding, invisible, the road around him, were dispelled each time he turned his direct attention to them, scattered to just beyond his sight. The true essence, the secret recipe of the forest and the light and the dark was far too fine and subtle to be observed with my blunt eye-water sac and nerves, miracle itself, fine itself light catcher. But the thing itself is not forest and light and dark, but something else scattered by my coarse gaze, by my dumb intention. The quilt of leaves and light and shadow and ruffling breezes might part and I’d be given a glimpse of what is on the other side; a stitch might work itself loose or be worked loose. The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from-light, gravity, dark from stars-had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger width’s hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquillity or reassurance.

Such were the qualities of Howard’s daydreams when Prince Edward pulled the cart with animal certainty along the canopied dirt tracks and he fell into a sort of waking stupor in which his mind was as it is when a person sleeps but his dreams are composed by his open eyes.

Crepuscule Borealis: 1. The bark of birches glows silver and white at dusk. The bark of birches peels like parchment. 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass and form halos around hedges. 3. The spaces between the trees look like glowing coals. 4. Foxes keep to the shadows. Owls look down from branches. Mice make brisk collections.

Another incredible clock of which the author has had the delight to hear is the clepsydra given by the king of Persia to Charlemagne in 807.

Early man sought always methods of capturing time more precisely than casting the shadows of Apollo’s chariot upon a graded iron disk (for when the sun sank beneath the hills in the west, what then?), or burning oil in a glass lamp marked at intervals so that crude hours might be gleaned from the disappearing fuel. The reasonable, sensitive soul who perhaps one day while taking his rest along the banks of a bubbling brook came to hear, in that half-dream, half-wakeful state during which so many men seem most receptive to perceiving the pulleys and winches that hoist the clouds, the heavenly bellows that push the winds, the cogs and wheels that turn the globe, came to hear a regularity in the silvery song of water over pebbles, that soul is unknown to us. Let us remark, then, that it is good enough to induce him out of the profusions of the past, perhaps fit him with thick sandals and a steady hand, a heart open to nature and a head devoted to the advancement of men, and watch in admiration as he pokes and fiddles and persists at various machines until he arrives at a device which marks time by a steady flow of water through its guts. Let us name him, even: Ctesibius of Alexandria, and allow him the credit of constructing an engine which was the ancestor of that given by the Arab to Charles the Great to drip away the moments of his last seven years. First, a constant flow of water trickled from a reservoir into a receiving vessel. In the receiving vessel was a float fixed with a vertical rod. Perched on the top of the rod was a figure (we may imagine him with a turban and robe and a thick black beard and fierce black eyes). This figure held a pointer (again, we may imagine this pointer in the form of a lance or spear, which the warrior thrust at a ghostly adversary). The figure was raised as the water filled the vessel in which he was set. His pointer rose along the side of a column calibrated with twentyfour lines for the hours of the day. When the figure rose to the twenty-fourth line, the water in the vessel in which he floated reached a siphon. The siphon emptied the vessel and the figure sank back to the level of the first hour; that is, the mid of night.

The clock offered to Charlemagne had no such single figure, but rather a dial containing twelve doors. At the appropriate hour, the appropriate door would open and out would drop the appropriate number of small golden balls, which fell one at a time onto a brass drum fitted with a taut square of goat’s hide. When the midnight hour had arrived and its twelve balls struck their twelve beats, twelve miniature horsemen rode forth and closed the twelve doors.

-from The Reasonable Horologist,

by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783

George was dehydrated ninety-six hours before he died. The younger of his two daughters, Betsy, sat by the side of his bed, trying to give him water. The hospital had provided dozens of small, individually wrapped pink sponges on paper sticks. The sponges were meant to be dipped into water and then sucked on by patients too ill to drink from a cup. Betsy thought her father looked absurd, as if he were a baby sucking on a lollipop. She tried to get him to drink directly from the cup.

You must be so thirsty. Wouldn’t you like a full sip instead of sucking on that awful sponge? She could not erase from her mind the image of her father sucking on a dirty kitchen sponge fetched from the bottom of a sink.

George said, Oh, that would be wonderful. Christ, I’m thirsty. When she held the cup to his lips and tilted it slightly, he looked at her and all of the water ran down his chin. When she soaked one of the sponges and stuck it in his mouth, he nearly swallowed it, stick and all. He choked and gagged. She pulled the sponge out and it was covered in thick white mucus.

That was good, he said. I’m so thirsty.

He was dying from renal failure. His actual death was going to be from poisoning by uric acid. Whatever food or water he managed to consume never came back out of his body.

Betsy said to her sister, her mother, and to her sons, He looks so thirsty. He needs water.

Her son Sam said, Thirsty is the least of his problems. Anyway, it’s not like that anymore; he’s going to die.

(The spring after he died and was buried in the local cemetery, Betsy planted red geraniums in front of his polished black headstone, which had the wrong date of his wife’s birth carved on it. Which, his wife said, you can get fixed after I kick the bucket and they have to add that date. Betsy tended the geraniums until autumn. Every day after work, she put on her sneakers and walked the two miles from her house to the cemetery to talk to her father and water the flowers. There was a spigot and a plastic half-gallon milk container provided by the caretaker. She filled the container and poured it out at the base of the plants five times, until they stood in three inches of muddy water. Silvery streams ran from the grave through the green grass. Had the plot not been on the side of a hill, where the water quickly drained away, the flowers would have drowned within a week.)

Tempest Borealis: 1. The sky turned silver. The pond turned silver from the silver sky. It looked like a pool of mercury. The wind blew and the trees showed the silver-green undersides of their leaves. The sky turned from silver to green. We went to the dock where our wooden rowboats were tied by their noses to aluminum cleats. The wood of the dock was bleached silvery white. We knelt at the edge of the dock and leaned close to the water, so that the silver sky skin disappeared and we saw twigs and weeds and minnows and blood-plumped leeches squiggling along. We could not see them, but we knew that small silver-bellied brook trout hovered out of our view, several feet away, just under where the sky skin started again, beyond the ends of the boats. The trout were invisible in the water, green-backed like weeds and the green-black water grass, until they rolled over and broke the water skin to eat insects and showed their silver-green undersides. 2. Wind combed through the fir trees around the rim of the pond like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain. The storm came up from behind the mountain, shrouding the peak. Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues, stunning bolt-eyed frogs and small trout and silver minnows. Thunder cracked like falling timber and shook the cabin as it clapped the water skin.

A late-spring storm capped the last daffodils and the first tulips with dollops of snow, which melted when the sun came back out. The snow seemed to have a bracing effect on the flowers; their roots drank the cold melt, their stalks straightened from the chilly drink; their petals, supple and hale, were spared the brittle coating of a true freeze. The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all. Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green. He crouched to look at a daffodil. Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun. A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style. Howard leaned as closely as he dared (he imagined sniffing the poor bee into his nose, the subsequent sting, the unfortunate wound, the plucked and dead creature on its back in the flattened, cold grass) and inhaled again. There was a faint sweetness mingled with the sharp mineral cold, which faded from detection when he inhaled more deeply in order to smell it better.

The field was an abandoned lot. The remnants of an old house, long since fallen into ruin, stood at the back of the field. The flowers must have been the latest generation of perennials, whose ancestors were first planted by a woman who lived in the ruins when the ruins were a raw, unpainted house inhabited by herself and a smoky, serious husband and perhaps a pair of silent, serious daughters, and the flowers were an act of resistance against the raw, bare lot with its raw house sticking up from the raw earth like an act of sheer, inevitable, necessary madness because human beings have to live somewhere and in something and here is just as outrageous as there because in either place (in any place) it seems like an interruption, an intrusion on something that, no matter how many times she read in her Bible, Let them have dominion, seemed marred, dispelled, vanquished once people arrived with their catastrophic voices and saws and plows and began to sing and hammer and carve and erect. So the flowers were maybe a balm or, if not a balm, some sort of gesture signifying the balm she would apply were it in her power to offer redress. The flowers Howard now walked among were the few last heirs to that brief local span of disaster and regeneration and he felt close to the sort of secrets he often caught himself wondering about, the revelations of which he only ever realized he had been in the proximity of after he became conscious of that proximity, and that phenomenon, of becoming conscious, was the very thing that whisked him away, so that any bit of insight or gleaning was available only in retrospect, as a sort of afterglow that remained but that was not accessible through words. He thought, But what about through grass and flowers and light and shadow?

Howard opened a drawer in his wagon and took a box of pins, which he wrote off in his inventory book and paid for out of his own pocket with two dull pennies. He lashed four sticks together with blades of grass. Then he selected more blades of grass, according to their breadth. These he lay across the square frame and fixed to the twigs with the pins. He stretched the first blades too tautly and the grass tore on the pins. Eventually, he found the right pressure, the amount of tug the grass could withstand before it tore along its grain against the column of the pin. He impaled the blades in an alternating order, one laid stalk to tip, left to right, the next laid tip to stalk, so that the grass made a seamless panel of green over the square. When he finished tacking the last blade to the frame, Howard opened another drawer in the wagon and took out a pair of sewing scissors. The scissors came in a brown card board box with a drawing of them cutting cloth from a bolt. They were wrapped in a square of stiff, cloudy white paper. Howard carefully unrolled them from the paper and trimmed the grass so that it conformed to the boundaries of the square. He cut with just the tips of the scissors’ blades, and when he finished, he rubbed the blades clean with the cuff of his shirt (leaving arrowhead-shaped stains of grass green) and wrapped the scissors back in their paper and put them back in their box and put the box back in its proper drawer. He held the object to the wind, hoping for a note. He held the object to the sun and the green lit up in a bright panel.

Wildflowers dotted the field along with the perennials. Howard collected buttercups (habitat: old fiel(b, meadows, disturbed areas) and small white blossoms that trembled in the breeze, and which he could not name. These he wove by their stalks into his warp of grass, alternating the yellow flowers with the white. He threaded one hundred blossoms. Deer came to graze in the long shadows. When he looked up, the day had nearly passed. He had neglected his rounds. The only money he had in his box was the two pennies he had taken from his own pocket for the pins. Cullen, his agent, owned all of one of them and nearly all of the other. Howard considered shaving off the sliver of penny, as slight as a fingernail clipping, the convex angle dull and dirty, the concave bright and clean, and returning home to Kathleen and dropping the sliver into her open hand. He considered her sur prise and her usual anger and then that anger turning back to surprise and then into delight as he took his tapestry of grass and flowers from behind his back and put it in her hands. She would look at it this way and that, holding it between herself and an oil lamp, the same way that he had with the sun, to see the light illuminate the living green. She would bring the panel to her face and smell the flowers and the bruised stalks. She would hold the panel beneath her upturned chin and ask if he could see the reflections from the buttercups and laugh. She would say, These white ones are called windflowers.

Howard shivered, suddenly cold. Summer would anneal the chilled earth, but for now the water was so mineral and hard that it seemed to ring. Howard heard the water reverberating through the soil and around the roots. Water lay ankle-deep amid the grass. Puddles wobbled and the light cast on them through the clouds shimmered and they looked like tin cymbals. They looked as if they would ring if tapped with a stick. The puddles rang. The water rang. Howard dropped his tapestry of grass and flowers. The buzzing bees joined into one ringing chord that pulsed. The field rang and spun.

Eighty-four hours before he died, George thought, Because they are like tiles loose in a frame, with just enough space so they can all keep moving around, even if it’s only a few at a time and in one place, so that it doesn’t seem like they are moving, but the empty space between them, and that empty space is the space that is missing, the last several pieces of colored glass, and when those pieces are in place, that will be the final picture the final arrangement. But those pieces, smooth and glossy and lacquered, are the dark tablets of my death, in gray and black, and bleached, drained, and until they are in place, everything else will keep on shifting. And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is that space, is that what is yet to be, which is for others to see filled wherever it may finally be in the frame when the last pieces are fitted and the others stop, and there will be the stopped pattern, the final array, but not even that, because that final finitude will itself be a bit of scrolling, a pearlescent clump of tiles, which will generally stay together but move about within another whole and be mingled with in endless ways of other people’s memories, so that I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me until back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world, even though the fleeting tenants of those bits of colored glass have vacated them before they have had even the remotest understanding of what it is to inhabit them, and if they-if we are fortunate (yes, I am lucky, lucky), and if we are fortunate, have fleeting instants when we are satisfied that the mystery is ours to ponder, if never to solve, or even just rife personal mysteries, never mind those outside-are there even mysteries outside? a puzzle itself-but anyway, personal mysteries, like where is my father, why can’t I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simply even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn’t stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a pause at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.

Howard stood in the darkened doorway, cold, wet, and muddy. It was nine o’clock-four hours after dinnertime and one hour after the bedtime of his daughters, Darla and Marjorie, and his younger son, Joe. The bedtime of his elder son, George, was right around now because of his job after school and his nighttime chores (which included getting his brother ready for bed because his brother was ten but had the mind of a three-year-old) and his homework. The family was sitting around the dining room table, the two girls on one side, the two boys on the other, his wife, Kathleen, at the far end, and his own chair empty, with a plateful of cold food in front of it. There were platefuls of cold food in front of all of the children and his wife. Confused and exhausted, his first thought when he saw them was, The children must be nearly hysterical. He did not know what time it was except that it was late, and for the second time that day he had the sensation of being in the middle of some sort of overlap, as if he, wrecked and half-frozen and bloodied, had brought night into the dining room and mixed up his family’s eating at the proper hour with his own afflicted time. He could not quite sort out the vision, as if he had stumbled into some other world where it was perfectly normal to have the family dinner at nine o’clock. Kathleen looked at him. She said nothing. Howard was not sure if she expected him to come into the room, trailing a wake of mud, and sit at the table and bow his head and say grace as he always did-Let us rejoice that there is nothing better-and then pick up knife and fork and begin to eat the cold, coagulated servings of food as if they were hot and he was not soiled and cut and soaked and it was not nine o’clock at night and the world was as it should be instead of as it was.

Joe took his thumb from his mouth and said, Daddy’s muddy!

Darla stared at her father and said, Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!

Marjorie wheezed and said, Father. You. Are. Filthy!

Joe said, Daddy’s muddy! Daddy’s muddy!

Darla stared at the darkened doorway where Howard stood, saying, Mummy, Mummy, Mummy, each time a little louder, each time a bit more shrilly, even after Kathleen looked at the children and, without saying a word, told them to sit right where they were and then stood and took him to the laundry room to get him dry clothes and to scrub the mud from his face and hands with a facecloth.

George stood and went to Joe and said, That’s right, Joe, Daddy’s muddy, but Mummy’s cleaning him up and then we can finally eat. George gave Joe his blanket, which the boy had dropped to the floor in his excitement.

Joe put a corner of the blanket up his nose and his thumb back in his mouth, but continued to say, ‘ally’s mully, while he held his thumb between his teeth.

George went to Darla and dipped her napkin in her drinking water and dabbed it on her forehead and said, It’s okay, Darla, it’s okay, until she calmed somewhat.

Mummy has to do something, Mummy has to do something, she whispered. Marjorie’s asthma made her whistle when she breathed and her voice came out a squeak. Well, she said, gasping, I am-she collected a breath, another, another, to save enough air for the word-eating. She reached for the long-since-cold mashed potatoes. When she lifted the bowl, she was too weak and plunked it back down and dropped back into her chair. George turned her chair out from the table and helped her get to her feet.

He said, You need to get in bed. I’ll get your vapor cloths and your asthma powder. Don’t worry what Mummy says. I’ll bring you up some chicken and potatoes.

Kathleen cleaned Howard in the laundry room. Howard sat, silent, testing his badly bitten tongue on the roof of his mouth. Kathleen scrubbed his face until his cheeks went raw and shone nearly as red as the blood she had just washed off. Howard said, I remember my mother doing this for me the first time it happened. Kathleen buttoned the clean shirt she’d put on him and said, Now you can go eat your dinner with your family.

By the time they had eaten and cleared the table and changed for bed, it was quarter after ten. Kathleen never acted as if anything were wrong. She ignored the four-hour gap during which she had made her litter sit before their plates and wait for Howard. When he came into the driveway slumped in the cart, Prince Edward pulling, slow but certain, and staggered through the door, she took up with the evening again as if it were five in the afternoon, as if she had just slid the five o’clock hour to the nine o’clock one, or took the four hours between them and banished them or tyrannized herself and her children into a type of abatement, leaving each of them and herself with a burden of four extra hours that each would have to juggle and mind for the rest of their lives, first as a single, strange, indigestible puzzlement and then later as a prelude to the night nearly a year later when she and the children again sat in front of full plates of cold food, waiting for Howard, waiting for the sounds of the cart and the mule and the jangling tack, and that time he never came back at all.

Once the girls and Joe were in bed and the kitchen was cleaned and Kathleen was in the bedroom changing into her nightdress, Howard, still numbed, still crackling with the voltage of his seizure, stopped George as the boy was putting his and his sisters’ books away and said, George, I…. And George said, It’s all right, although it wasn’t, and because his mother and father managed to hide from the children the spectacle of an actual fit and to act as if the epilepsy did not even exist, the rumors of the illness, the odd euphemisms and elliptical silences were more terrifying than the condition they meant to obscure. And then George went off to bed. Howard shuffled through the dark house to the Franklin stove in the parlor, which, because he was still so cold, he overstoked with birch logs before he finally went to bed.

Howard and Kathleen and the children all woke at the same time, just before dawn, drenched in sweat. They all shuffled into the parlor at the same time, like sleepwalkers, to find the iron stove glowing white with heat and pulsing like a hot coal.

 

 

 

2

THE MORNINGS BEGAN IN THE DARK. THEY began with setting the home in order for the day, so that it might already be industrious when the sun climbed first the invisible horizon and then the branches of the dark trees.

Fill the stove box with wood. Fill the milk pail with milk. (How that pail clanking against George’s leg as he crosses the yard splits the seamless night, wakes the other children, who sniffle and yawn and root deeper into their warm beds, dreading the cold air and morning chores. Mother will find Marjorie sitting up in bed and wheezing. Darla will open her eyes and say, The sun’s late. The sun’s late! I’m sure it was up earlier yesterday! Mummy! Something’s wrong! Joe will be found with a foot in the wrong leg of his overalls, grinning and asking for pancakes and maple syrup, his favorite meal.) Fetch the water. Make a fire.

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

Howard resented the ache in his heart. He resented that it was there every morning when he woke up, that it remained at least until he had dressed and had some hot coffee, if not until he had taken stock of the goods in his brush cart, and fed and hitched Prince Edward, if not until his rounds were done, if not until he fell asleep that night, and if his dreams were not tormented by it. He resented equally the ache and the resentment itself. He resented his resentment because it was a sign of his own limitations of spirit and humility, no matter that he understood that such was each man’s burden. He resented the ache because it was uninvited, seemed imposed, a sentence, and, despite the encouragement he gave himself each morning, it baffled him because it was there whether the day was good or bad, whether he witnessed major kindness or minor transgression, suffered sourceless grief or spontaneous joy.

This morning-the Monday morning after the Friday morning when there was predawn snow and Howard had stopped to look at a field that had once been a homestead and had, in a fugue state, made a contraption out of twigs and grass and flowers, which he had already forgotten making, and then had had a seizure and awoke freezing in the field and had finally realized who he was and where he was and had made his way home-this morning brought fear that there hid somewhere on one of the back roads that he intended to canvass another seizure, a bolt of lightning coiled behind a rock or stump or within the hollow of a tree or some strange nest and which his passing would trigger to spring, to explode, and to impale him.

Such vanity! What gall to elect for yourself such attention, good or bad. Project yourself above yourself. Look at the top of your dusty hat: cheap felt, wilted and patched with scraps from the last wilted and patched felt hat. What a crown! What a king you are to deserve such displeasure, how important that God stop whatever it is He is tending and pitch bolts at your head. Rise higher, above the trees. Your crown is already hard to see amid the dust of the road and dirt of the ditch. But you are still remarkable. Rise higher, perhaps to the height where the blackbirds flap. Where have you gone? Oh, there you are, I think. That is you, isn’t it, that wisp inching along? Well, rise higher, then, to the belly of the clouds. Where have you gone? Now higher, to where, if you are not careful, you might stub your toe on the mountains of the moon. Where are you? Never mind you; where is your home, your county, your state, your nation? Ah, there it is! And higher now, so that your hair and the lashes of your eyes catch fire from the sparks of solar flares. On which of those bright bodies do you rule your kingdom of dirt, your cart of soap? Very well, that one. I hope you are right-there is little need for a tinker on Mars. Now higher again, past the eighth planet, named for the king of the sea. And higher again, past the shadowy ninth, which for now only exists in the dreams of men back on- Well! Where have you gone? Which among those millions of glittering facets is where you belong? Where is it you toil and drum and fall to the ground and thrash in the weeds?

The weather turned warm and on Sundays after church the family sat on the porch. The porch ran the length of the front of the house and was surrounded by a thick collar of wildflowers. In early July, there was Queen Anne’s lace and columbines, hawkweed and forget-me- nots, black-eyed Susans and bluebells. There was a bank of loosestrife in the crabgrass and clover across the lawn, between the porch and the verge of the road. The floor of the porch was uneven and ran at a slight incline from one end (where the front door was) to the other (just past the window, through which the dining room table was visible). Looked at from the road, the house appeared to lean toward the left and the porch to the right, so that it appeared the only thing keeping either standing was their mutual pull on each other. From the side of the house, though, it seemed that the opposite was true, that they slumped against one another and remained upright by virtue of their mutual weight. Viewed from whatever angle, the homestead had the look of claptrap. The walls all seemed as if they were about to fall over, one upon the next, and the sagging roof to drop on top of the pile, so that the flattened house would make a neat stacked deck.

The porch was unpainted and its wood bleached to a silvery white. When the sky filled with clouds, it often turned the same silver color as the wood, so that it only seemed missing a grain to be wood and the wood only missing a breath of wind to stir it and turn it into sky. There was a spot on the floor, just to the right of the front door, which, when walked on, made the whole porch bob as if it rested on a branch. There were two decrepit chairs, one an old rocking chair, which had once been painted red, and in which Kathleen sat and shelled peas or snapped beans and barked, Get where I can see you, at Joe, who was rolling around in the side lot. Howard sat in the other chair. It was old, with a ladder back, which made a parallelogram with the floor and listed to one side or the other, according to how Howard sat on it, and the back of which came apart at the splats, so that he had to stand every couple of minutes and clap the piece of furniture back together. The children sat on upended buckets or on packing crates. Buddy the Dog and Russell the Cat lay on patches of sun. Darla and Marjorie helped Kathleen: Marjorie when she was not upstairs in bed, suffering from an asthma attack brought on by pollen and ragweed, and Darla when she did not see a wasp or spider which, sooner or later, she always did, and which sent her shrieking back into the house, as often as not over the springy part of the floor, so that the rest of the family was left to steady themselves on the swaying porch as she fled to the hollow depths of the house. Howard and George played cribbage.

Seven.

Fifteen for two.

Twenty-four for three.

Thirty for four.

Go.

Thirty-one for two.

They played without a board and kept score by adding their points in the margins of the comics pages from the newspaper. Father said, George, I can’t find the cribbage board, and I said, That’s funny, Daddy; it should be on the porch, where we left it. 1 pretended to help him look for it for an hour until he gave up and 1 pretended to and we used a piece of old newspaper to keep score. I took the board. I stole it and took it to Ray’s shed, where we smoked and played cribbage for marbles or an arrowhead.

You missed a fifteen, and the right jack is three more.

So it is. You got me again, George.

I smell a skunk, a double skunk.

Kathleen said, George, go get your brother. Go get him.

No looking.

I won’t. George got off the crate.

Walk. So he walked. He turned the corner of the house and called for his brother and when he saw him, stuck in a tree and gnawing on a handful of flowers, he picked up a pebble and threw it at him. The stone struck Joe on the ear and he began to cry. George said, loudly enough for his mother and father to hear around the corner, 0, Joe, don’t cry. I’ll get you out of there. Joe, don’t cry. I’ll get you some water to wash out the bitter taste of starflowers and daisies.

What of miniature boats constructed of birch bark and fallen leaves, launched onto cold water clear as air? How many fleets were pushed out toward the middles of ponds or sent down autumn brooks, holding treasures of acorns, or black feathers, or a puzzled mantis? Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.

And what of barges made to burn? One evening at sunset, as he was walking through the woods near the house after dinner, Howard caught sight of George kneeling on a path, examining something on the ground. George did not hear him, so Howard stood quietly in the trees and watched his son. George rose and hurried back up the path toward the house. He ran out of Howard’s view and a moment later the door to the front porch slapped shut. Howard went to where his son had knelt and found a dead mouse, curled as if sleeping, on the leaves. It had not been dead for long. Its head went back and its limbs opened up when Howard toed it with his boot, after which it curled back up again. The porch door swung shut again and Howard stepped back into the shadows in the trees.

George returned to the mouse and wrapped it in newspaper and bound the shroud tightly with kitchen string. He stuffed the wrapped mouse into an empty box of kitchen matches. Howard smelled kerosene and understood that his son had soaked the newspaper with it.

There was a small pond through the woods behind the yard. It was a stopping place for two pairs of ducks and a small flock of Canada geese every year. Its depth was no more than five feet at its deepest. Sometimes, George fished there and caught small brook trout, which he cooked over a fire he made at the edge of the water. If it was a Saturday, he fished at sundown, when, during the early summer, there were mayfly and drake hatches that brought the trout up to the surface to feed. At some point, bats would flit from the darkness out over the water to feed on the insects. George would stop fishing then, because the bats struck at his fishing fly and he had terrible notions of a frantic squeaking bat impaled on the barbed hook, trying to free itself and only breaking its own fragile wings in the process. Grabbing the bat and yanking the hook out would be unthinkable, so the only choice seemed as if it would be to run away, leaving the struggling animal on the end of the line, and to return the next morning to collect the rod and hope that a fox had happened along and eaten the bat (and not swallowed the hook along with the bat, so that it, too, now struggled somewhere in the woods, dragging the fishing pole by the taut line that now ran from its gut up through its throat and tore at the side of its mouth). So, when the bats came out, George cooked what fish he had, if he had any, and watched darkness settle and then went home.

George walked to the water and Howard followed silently behind at a distance. At the edge of the water, George cut a panel of bark from a birch tree with his jackknife. He sewed the bark together at each end with a heavy sewing needle and dark thread, making a canoe shaped boat. He placed the tiny coffin in the middle of the craft and laid a piece of coal, which he took from a pocket in his overalls, next to it. He lit the coal with a kitchen match, which he struck on his zipper fly, and launched the boat. It floated out onto the pond. The burning coal illuminated the birch bark and made it look like some sort of glowing animal hide. The air was still and the surface of the pond was sleek and reflective, like oil, and seemed thick, like oil, too, because the ripples trailing off the back of the little boat spread so slowly, as if the skin of the water offered more resistance against the influence of bodies passing through it that night. White moths came up from the grass at the pond’s edge and fluttered out to the boat to flirt with the fire. The fire reached the matchbox and rubbed at it until it began to smoke. When the fire reached inside the box and touched the kerosene-soaked shroud, there was a bright, quiet thump and the bier was gulped in flame. The birch crackled and spat sparks. Then there was a gout of whitish smoke, which Howard imagined was the mouse burning. George’s silhouette lit up against the flames on the water. The pyre sank with a hiss and a final spurt of smoke and the pond went dark and was quiet again.

Cremation came to Howard’s mind, a vision of Viking kings lying on their funeral beds on the decks of their dragon-prow ships, swords in hand, set alight, and sent blazing into the dark surf, flames snapping from the ships’ sterns like pennants in a gale.

Howard felt the movement of his son passing him in the dark more than he saw him, and he waited, listening, for the boy to make his way through the trees, up the path, back to the yard, and into the house before he himself went on, not to the house but past it, up to the road, and then turned back around, so that if anyone in the house saw, it would look as if he was returning from the after-dinner walk he had said he was taking. He came to the front of the house and could see George and Darla and Marjorie through the front window at the dining room table doing their homework.

I will pay my debts with honey!

What if the wagon, instead of a house on wheels, contained a kingdom of bees? There would be a panel on one side, fixed at the top with brass hinges, which would open and be propped up with poles at the corners. There would be windows looking into the hives. People could stand and watch the bees work while I gave lectures on the insects’ habits, their industry and their loyalty. I could charge two cents a person. Young children could see the hives for free. Schools could send entire classes, or, even better, I could go to the schools and set up right in the yards. I could plant a bed of flowers on top of the wagon for the pollen and put the entrances to the hives on the side opposite the windows, so that the spectators would not bother the bees. And I could have a cabinet built into the back of the wagon that I would fill with jars of honey and beeswax and honeycombs tied with bright ribbons, which I would sell to the audience after the lecture. I could have a sign painted across the side panel: “The Magnificent Cros-bees!”

Instead, winter came and he put the wagon away in the barn, where mice and stray cats nested in a halffrozen truce in the drawers.

George experienced all but one of his father’s seizures as rumors. He would find his mother leaning over his rumpled, shaken father in a chair. There was spit in his father’s hair and blood on his chin. His father sat, snorting rapid breaths through his nose and looking first at the palms of his hands and then at their backs as he clenched and unclenched them the way a soldier might after a bomb had detonated in his trench and he was shocked to find himself still alive and possibly unharmed. George came to understand that this was because his father could tell when the fits were coming and always managed, with the help of George’s mother, to get to a part of the house or yard where the children were absent, so that they would not have to see him in the throes of a seizure. If one of the children happened along, Kathleen would say in a flat, quite voice, You just go right back where you came from; Father and I are busy. The one time he and his brother and his sisters had watched their father have a grand mal seizure was at Christmas dinner, 1926.

The children were astonished by the ham that Kathleen had cooked for the Christmas meal. It was the largest they had ever seen. It was covered in a crust of brown sugar and molasses. Buddy the Dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners. Kathleen shooed him with a kick in the ribs, but he just let out a yelp and stayed put. Russell the Cat came into the room, too, and sat facing the wall, away from the table, cleaning his paws, as if an affectation of utter disinterest might be the trick to getting a scrap.

Howard had specially sharpened the carving knife for the occasion. He stood and leaned over the ham and, grinning at the children and at his wife, who scowled and told George to get his brother set in his chair and the girls that they’d get the spoon across the backs of their legs if they didn’t sit their backsides down. Howard sliced into the ham, releasing even more of its sweet fragrance into the room, which nearly mesmerized everyone, Kathleen included. Her frown disappeared and even she had to stare at the ham for a moment in admiration. After Howard had carved two slices, however, she regained her usual composure and began directing the children to offer their plates to their father for their portions.

George, get Jack his ham and cut it for him. No, smaller pieces; he’ll try to swallow those whole and choke himself. Darla, stop that silliness. Take some beans and pass them on. Howard, cut the slices thinner; this has to last us the week, since you saw fit to take a ham instead of the money you are owed to provide properly for your family.

Howard lifted a daub of potato with his fork. Then he speared two string beans and then a piece of ham. He raised the food to his mouth but stopped before he took the bite. The muscles at the hinges of his jaws flexed. He gasped. His eyelids fluttered. His eyes rolled in their sockets. The fork and food dropped from his hand and clattered onto his plate.

Mummy, what’s-,

Howard scrambled his legs, trying to get up, but he only twisted around in his chair, which corkscrewed out from under him. He dropped to the floor, striking his head on the seat of the chair next to him as he fell.

Kathleen barked at Margie, Get your brother out of here, and seemed to shove her three youngest children, who had already huddled together in a trembling knot near the door, out of the room with a single shove. She rounded the corner of the table and stuck her hand out at George, who still sat at his seat, dumbly holding a fork straight up in the air, his mouth wide open.

George, give me the spoon. George looked at his mother. George, the spoon, she said, not angry or loud or bitter, as usual, but almost gently. He dropped his fork and yanked the spoon out of the potatoes.

He said, There’s still-

Kathleen said, Give me the spoon, George. She snatched the spoon from George’s hand and pounced on her husband, straddling his chest. Howard grunted and Kathleen jammed the spoon crosswise into his mouth, like a bit, so that he would not bite his own tongue off. Howard bit down onto the spoon and George watched as his father’s lips curled back from his teeth, thinking, Like a skull’s, not a man’s, not Daddy’s.

George, get here and hold the spoon. Like this. George was terrified of sitting on his father’s chest.

Use two hands. Lean on it. Don’t let his head bang. George felt his father’s body quaking beneath him and was sure that it was going to rend itself apart, that his father was going to split open.

Mum.

I’m getting a stick. Kathleen ran out of the room and George heard her crash into the kitchen table, sending pots and pans clattering across the floor. She groaned and came back with a fresh piece of the kindling George had split that morning. Just as she reached George and Howard, the spoon handle split in Howard’s mouth and George fell forward onto his father’s face. George tried to catch himself, but his hands slid on a pool of greasy, dark blood collecting on the floor under his father’s head. He pushed himself back up with the heels of his hands and saw that his father had opened his mouth and that he was about to swallow half of the spoon handle. George stuck his fingers into Howard’s mouth to get the spoon and Howard bit down onto them. George gasped. He saw his fingers clenched in his father’s bloody teeth.

Kathleen spoke in a low monotone. It’s okay, Georgie. It’s okay. Can you hold the stick? Hold the stick. She began to try to pry Howard’s mouth open. Let me get his chin, Georgie. She grabbed her husband’s mouth as if it were a sprung bear trap.

What if she breaks Daddy’s mouth? George thought.

Get the stick in, Georgie-the end. Get it in. Work it in. Howard’s head banged the floor and banged the floor and banged the floor again. George managed to wedge the end of the stick in between his father’s teeth at the side of his mouth. Kathleen instantly took the stick and ferociously worked it deeper. Without looking, she grabbed a seat cushion from the floor and slid it under her husband’s head in between bangs on the floor. Howard’s feet kicked at the legs of the table. Darla stood in the doorway and shrieked. Margie gasped for breath. Joe squealed.

Daddy’s broken!

That’s it, Georgie; that’s almost it, little lamb.

There was so much noise from my father’s boots kicking the floor and kicking the legs of the table, so that everything on it jumped and crashed back down or leapt off the table and clattered or shattered on the floor Glass and food and forks and knives were all over the floor and Buddy the Dog whined and barked and Joe and Darla screamed but my father was in the middle of it, strangely quiet, as if concentrating or distracted, as wires and springs and ribs and guts popped and exploded and unraveled and unhinged. He was smiling when he nearly bit my fingers off, or it felt like he did and that was quiet, too. My mother got hold of his chin and I forced the cedar stick into those bloody teeth, and I didn’t feel like I might be hurting a person anymore, which made me sicker And there was blood everywhere from my fingers, which seemed detached from my hand and just to dangle from it, although I could feel blood thumping in them. And there was blood all over my father’s face and in his mouth, which was my blood, and in his hair and on the floor, which was his blood from the cut he got on his head when it hit the chair as he fell. And for some reason, I noticed Russell the Cat bobbing his head, with his ears pricked up and his eyes wide and his pupils contracted and his little triangle nose twitching as he sniffed and stared at the blood. Instead of terror, though, I thought, So, this is what it is; I know what it is now. My father is not a werewolf or a bear or a monster and now I can run away.

And here is Kathleen, lying in her bed, which is set in the bare branches of a tree as dark as a burned-out vision-black-limbed, ash-sapped, spun in night. It is winter and winter winds shake the branches and the bed moves with them. It is winter, and the tree has been stripped of its bright mantle of leaves. It is winter because she lies awake with a bare heart, trying to remember a fuller season. She thinks, I must have been a young woman once.

She lies on one half of the bed. The dark form of her sleeping husband lies on the other half, turned away, sleeping so deeply, it is as if sleep is another world. Only her face is visible above the top of the bedcovers. It glows like a pale egg. Beneath her face, tucked under her chin, is the clean, ironed, starched white sheet, folded back over the top quilt evenly and overlapping it by exactly six inches, as her mother taught her when she was a young girl. Her hair is pinned up and covered by a sleeping cap that her mother sewed for her many years ago. Although her hair reaches below her waist, she lets it down only to wash it-twice a month in summer, once a month in winter. Her hair is auburn but has lost its richness; it has begun to thin on the crown of her head. She finds herself furious that the cut on her husband’s head might bleed through the bandages and stain the clean pillowcase. She hears George groan in his sleep in his room across the hall. None of his fingers seem broken, but he probably needs a stitch or two to properly close the wounds made by Howard’s teeth. She could not raise Dr. Box on the phone, since it was Christmas Day, so she plans to take George to his office first thing in the morning.

Her stern manner and her humorless regime mask bitterness far deeper than any of her children or her husband imagine. She has never recovered from the shock of becoming a wife and then a mother. She is still dismayed every morning when she first sees her children, peaceful, sleeping, in their beds when she goes to wake them, that as often as not the feeling she has is one of resentment, of loss. These feelings frighten her so much that she has buried them under layer upon layer of domestic strictness. She has managed, in the dozen years since becoming a wife and mother, to half-convince herself that this nearly martial ordering of her household is, in fact, the love that she is so terrified that she does not have. When one of her children wakes with a fever and a painful cough early one freezing January morning, instead of kissing the child’s forehead and tucking him or her in more snugly and boiling water for a mug of honey and lemon water, she says that it is not man’s lot to be at ease in this world and that if she took a day off every time she had a sniffle or a stiff neck, the house would unravel around them all and they would be like birds with no nest, so get up and get dressed and help your brother with the wood, your sister with the water, and yanks the covers off of the shivering child and throws its cold clothes at it and says, Go get dressed, unless you want a good dousing. She has convinced herself, at least in the light of day, that this is love, that this is the best way she can raise her children to be strong. She could not live with herself if she allowed herself to believe that she treated her own this way because she felt no more connected to them than she would to a collection of stones.

As she falls asleep, half-dreaming of flight and beds in trees, she decides that it is time to do something about her sick husband. She will ask about it after Dr. Box has looked at George’s hand.

The next morning, she dressed early. There was a frost on the inside of the windows and no sight of the sun yet.

Howard stirred and asked, What’s that?

Kathleen said, I’m taking George to the doctor.

What for? What? Howard said.

Kathleen answered, For his bite, Howard; for the bite you gave him.

Howard croaked, The bite? A bite?

The walk to Dr. Box’s house, the front two rooms of the first floor of which served as his office, was a little over two miles. Dawn overtook Kathleen and George as they walked along the side of the road, she in front and he shuffling behind her, half-asleep and only aware of the cold and his aching hand. At first, it was just a cindery lightening of night, then a red light beyond the horizon that illuminated the undersides of clouds coming from the west. Kathleen had worried that she might lose her resolve to speak with Dr. Box about her husband, but as she and George came closer to his office, her determination grew.

Dr. Box’s house was tucked into the last bend in the road before entering West Cove. Kathleen and George came over a low slope, expecting to see the two-story building with its wraparound porch, where patients who were not too ill or sometimes not ill at all liked to sit in the summer and gossip as they waited for a tincture to cure their sour stomachs or a poultice to spread over a throbbing corn.

The house was gone. Kathleen stopped walking and looked around. The clouds that had colored the dawn copper had advanced and were now fastened overhead like a lid of stone. Flurries of snow spun in the wind. Kathleen surely stood in the right place and the doctor’s house surely was vanished. Instead of the house, there was a hole in the earth. What had been Dr. Box’s storage cellar, where his bottles of ether and rolls of bandages had stood alongside jars of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes and pears in syrup, was now an empty ditch exposed to the elements, already filling with snow and the windblown detritus of winter.

What happened, Mum? Was there a tornado?

A trail of fresh earth and deep ruts led from what had been Dr. Box’s front yard out to the road and continued around the bend toward West Cove. Kathleen stood at the verge of the foundation. Without the house in its proper place, the lake beyond the trees in the former backyard was visible. Kathleen turned back to the road, and then back to the hole in the earth, unsure of what to do. A panic fluttered in her that all of West Cove might be gone, that if she walked beyond the bend in the road, she would find a bare, raw clearing in the distance, at the edge of the lake, pocked with the open foundations of missing buildings, the entire town pulled from its sockets and dragged somewhere beyond the mountains to the north.

Hear that, Mummy?

Behind the wind, there was another sound. Kathleen took George’s good hand in hers and led him back onto the road. She heard a rumbling she could not place. She paused and tried to identify the sound. It was not thunder; it was not a train. Standing still she found that the sound was accompanied by a slight trembling of the earth. She began to walk again, toward the bend in the road. Just before she reached the bend, the din became less confused. She heard men shouting to one another and, in the unmistakable tones she had heard all of her life, at animals. There was a sound of harnesses and of beasts hauling at the yoke. And there was another sound-that of heavy timbers grating against one another.

There’s something up there, Mum. George let go of Kathleen’s hand and ran ahead. Kathleen called his name once, but he disappeared around the corner. The snow was heavy now, cascading out of the stone-colored sky in gouts. Kathleen rewrapped her scarf about her head and neck. She was cold; the tips of her toes stung and her nose dripped.

Kathleen turned the corner, eager for the first look at West Cove that any traveler had when she approached town from the south. The bend in the road was on the top of a hill and one looked down onto the town from above. Beyond the town was the lake, which stretched toward the horizon and during the winter was a vast white plain interrupted only by the humped black tufts of the four islands in its midst. Kathleen wondered whether the islands would be visible in the storm. She expected not. But instead of seeing the town and lake, she saw Dr. Box’s house. It sat in the middle of the road, set on top of wooden trucks. The house and the trucks rested on a bed of massive logs, which had been lined up across a foundation of thick, planed beams set along the road. It was being dragged over the logs a foot at a time. Men wearing woolen red plaid coats and brimmed hats circled the house, carrying sledgehammers and crowbars, and yelled back and forth to one another around its corners. A flatbed truck idled behind the house. Its open bed was loaded with four enormous iron jacks. George stood in the road, halfway between the house and his mother. He turned from the house to her and she held a hand out toward him. She reached her son and took his hand and they walked up alongside the house, keeping to the side of the road, nearly in the ditch. The men ignored them or nodded their heads once distractedly in Kathleen’s direction. Each time the house lurched forward, it proceeded along on the logs, which rolled beneath it over the beams. Kathleen saw at once that the process must be nearly impossibly slow; the house could be moved forward only six or eight feet at a time before the men would have to raise it up on the jacks and realign the logs beneath it and take up the timbers over which it just had been rolled and relay them in front of it.

As mother and son came abreast of the front corner of the house, they saw that it was being drawn by eight yoke of titanic oxen. The oxen were yoked in a train and harnessed to the house by chains as thick as Kathleen’s wrists. A man marched up and down the length of the team with a bullwhip, cursing and whipping the beasts on their rumps. The oxen heaved and steamed in the cold. Each time the man yelled and cracked his whip, there was a rippling of wood and leather and iron as the chains fastened to the house snapped tight and each successive pair of oxen strained into the weight of the house and the building ground forward an inch or two, its windows rattling, its frame vibrating, and then the man with the whip yelled, Take yeere rest dogs, and the sixteen animals stopped pulling all at once, as if they were a circus act. The man was Ezra Morrell, George’s best friend Ray Morrell’s father.

Standing off to the side of the road, keeping slightly ahead of the progress of his home and business, was Dr. Box. He was dressed like the other men, except that his hat and his eyeglasses were of better quality. The eyeglasses were justified because of his profession; the town physician simply needed the best eyes he could get. The hat was his one public indulgence, the one symbol of his status in West Cove which he permitted himself. It came from a shop in London, where Dr. Box liked to say that there was an exact replica of his head in wood, around which each year a new hat was fitted for the real head thousands of miles away. (When he could not find his stethoscope or a tongue depressor, he’d say that the heads were mixed up-that the real head was in London and the wooden one in West Cove.) Otherwise, he wore the same wool coat of red plaid, the same dark wool pants, the same heavy boots, which laced up nearly to his knees. He munched on the stem of a pipe, now and then taking it from his mouth to say, That’s it, boys! Or, Careful, fellas. Mother Box’ll skin me if anything happens to the castle! When he saw Kathleen and George coming along, he made a show of stepping back, bowing slightly, and sweeping a hand across the space in front of himself for Kathleen to pass, and then snapped to attention and saluted George.

Come along, ma’am. Come along, sergeant. Just moving HQ closer to the line!

I’m sorry to interrupt, Doctor, Kathleen said, standing behind George with her hands resting on his shoulders. It’s just that yesterday-

Dr. Box yanked his pipe from his mouth and set his large, slightly stained teeth together in a way to show that he was listening as a professional. Before Kathleen could continue, however, he saw George’s bandaged hand.

Well, soldier, hurt in the line of duty, I see. Let’s take a look.

Kathleen urged George forward a step and he shyly allowed the doctor to take his hand.

Don’t worry, sergeant, I’ll be careful. Dr. Box squatted and unwound the bandages. When he saw the puncture marks, he turned George’s hand over and back twice, whistled, and said, A dog got you, huh, soldier? George looked at his mother.

Kathleen said, Well, it was an accident. We didn’t-

I’m afraid you’re going to need a stitch or two on the deepest cuts, the doctor said. Nothing broken, but you’ll be sore for a good while. You’ll probably feel it for longer, maybe even when you’re an old man. Who’s the dog? We need to see about rabies.

Kathleen said, That’s the thing, Doctor. Can ICould we- The doctor looked up from George’s hand.

Yes, yes, of course, ma’am. Of course. He wound the bandages back around George’s hand. Listen, sergeant, he said to George, your mother and I need to talk for a minute, so let’s get you someplace warm. Dan! Danny! The doctor put his hand against George’s back and steered him toward the idling truck. The driver’s window was down and a man sat at the wheel, his head tilted outside the cab, smoking a cigarette. He looked up when the doctor called his name.

Danny, roll that window up and let this soldier warm up in there; he’s been injured in the line of duty!

The man, Dan Cooper, cinched his lips around the cigarette and pulled his head back into the truck cab. He rolled up the window, opened the truck door, and stepped down off the truck.

All yours, Doc, he said.

There you go. That’s it, sergeant, the doctor said, helping George up into the passenger seat. You just mark time here and your mother and I’ll be done in a jiff.

The cab of the truck warmed up quickly. The seat bench was covered in cracked brown leather. George felt broken seat springs through the bottom of his coat. Old manuals and newspapers and a coffee mug lined with the silt of long-since-evaporated coffee cluttered the space between him and the driver’s seat. The glass steamed over and George watched the men and oxen and the moving house turn to phantoms in a silver mist. He remembered stories that his father had told him about ghost ships that had foundered on the rocks off the coast a hundred years ago but whose mournful, doomed crews and splintering keels could still be heard on foggy nights.

Kathleen and the doctor talked for ten minutes, toward the end of which George saw his mother bow her head and cover her face in her hands. He had never seen his mother cry and he knew it was about his father and that it was serious. Dr. Box hugged Kathleen to himself with one arm, patted her on the back twice, and then let go. He marched towards the truck. George looked past him to the blurry vision of his mother through the glass. She wiped her face on the sleeve of her coat and shook herself as if to slough off her weeping with the snow. She turned her face up toward the sky for a moment. Dr. Box grabbed the truck door open and saluted George.

Okay, sergeant, we’re headed on ahead into town, where I can get you back into fighting shape.

George climbed down from the truck and went to his mother. Her face was flushed and her eyes red. She smiled at George and took his hand.

It’s okay, Georgie, she said. George noticed for the first time that his mother was still a young woman. Dr. Box conferred with Dan Cooper, who had taken up his seat in the truck again, and two other men and then went back to Kathleen and George.

Ready, troops?

Kathleen said, It seems so sad your house out in the middle of the road. She began to weep again.

Oh, poor Mrs. Crosby. There, there. We have to do something. It’s time for us to do something. We’re going to take care of everything.

Kathleen chopped wood, shaken. Howard was still on his rounds. The girls were in the parlor, doing needlepoint and keeping an eye on Joe, who was having a conversation with Ursula, a bearskin rug that he treated like one of the family pets. George slept upstairs, on top of Kathleen and Howard’s bed. The wind was still up. But it will soften and die down when it gets dark, she thought. Wisps of snow were still on the wind, too, sweet and sharp. The sun was going down. It sank into the stand of beech trees beyond the back lot, lighting their tops, so that their bare arterial branches turned to a netting of black vessels around brains made of light. The trees lolled under the weight of those luminescent organs growing at the tops of their slender trunks. The brains murmured among themselves. They kept counsel and possessed a wintery wisdom-cold scarlet and opaline minds, brief and burnished, flaring in the metallic blue of dusk. And then they were gone. The light drained from the sky and the trees and funneled to a point on the western horizon, where it seemed to be swallowed by the earth. The branches of the trees were darknesses over the lesser dark of dusk. Kathleen thought, That is like Howard’s brain-lit and used up and then dark. Lit too brightly. How much light does the mind need? Have use for? Like a room full of lamps. Like a brain full of light. She patted her coat pocket to feel the folded prospectus for the Eastern Maine State Hospital in Bangor, located on top of Hepatica Hill overlooking the beautiful Penobscot River. When Dr. Box had given her the brochure, her first thought had been to remember that the hospital had originally been called the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital. But the pictures in the brochure showed clean rooms and a broad, sunny campus and a huge brick building with four wings that looked to her like a grand hotel. The idea of a hotel seemed benevolent rather than cruel, seemed, in the suddenly alien backyard, full of glowing, leaky, vanishing brains, a warm, safe shelter that she envisioned as if she were a famished and half-frozen traveler on a planet made of ice, breaching a hill and catching sight of a lodge with lights in every window and smoke pouring from the chimneys and people gathered together, luxuriating in the dreamlike delight that comes from grateful strangers sharing sanctuary. The brochure was not in either of her coat pockets, and Kathleen realized that she must have placed it somewhere in her room when she helped George onto her bed.

George slept on top of his parents’ bed. He lay curled up around his bitten hand. The bandages on the hand were tight, and in his shallow sleep a black dog held his hand in its mouth. The dog looked up into George’s eyes and George knew that the dog would bite his hand if he tried to remove it. The dog would never move. It would never tire nor need to eat or sleep, and the thought that he would never be able to move again, but could only sit still, with his hand in the dog’s mouth, for the rest of his life terrified George. He panicked and, by reflex, yanked his hand back. The dog’s jaws sprang like a trap and the first pressure from the bite startled him awake. He whimpered for his mother. The room was cold and the blue in the windows so dim that it did not seem to be light, but the cold itself, which seemed to pry between the bed and his body, where the only warmth was. George shuddered and whimpered again and tried to burrow deeper into the bed, but he lay on top of the covers and could not get warm. Oh, Mummy, he groaned, and rose up onto an elbow. He looked at his bitten hand. The bandages seemed luminescent, as if the last light in the room might be coming from them. George felt his blood pulsing against them in his palm. The hand ached. He wanted to call for his mother again, but he heard the tock-tock of the hatchet in the yard. In the dark and the cold, it sounded as if his mother was chopping at rock, not wood, and a trace of his dream about the dog made him suddenly feel as if he would have to spend the rest of his life freezing and stranded on the bed with a crushed hand, listening to his mother uselessly chopping at stone out beyond the window fitted with panes of black ice, when what he most needed was to be curled up in her warm lap, with her warm hands on his face and her soft, quiet voice cooing to him that everything was all right. Instead, George sat upright and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood up and slid a foot forward in the total darkness of the floor, testing for the edge of the cable rug or a stray shoe that might trip him. He shuffled toward where the door was. He held his bitten hand limply above his head, as if he were crossing a river, and patted at the dark with his good hand until he felt the corner of his mother’s bureau, which stood to the left of the door. He opened the door onto deeper darkness still. Rather than risking the hallway and the stairs, George tapped his fingers along the top of the bureau until he felt the lamp. He lifted the glass and set it down and felt for the box of matches. He held the matchbox against his stomach with the heel of his bitten hand and struck a match. The top of the bureau appeared and the image of him holding the match appeared in the lamp glass. There was a pamphlet next to the lamp, with a photograph of a building that looked to him like a school, called the Eastern Maine State Hospital. George realized that this was what Dr. Box had given to his mother after he had finished with the stitches in George’s hand (there had only been four, and they had not hurt at first). Underneath the picture of the building, a caption read Northern and Eastern Maine’s care facility for the insane and feebleminded. George touched the match to the lamp wick and light swelled up and out into the room. The light resolved the furniture and the walls and the floor and ceiling and George’s eyes as if it were liquid. He opened the pamphlet and began to read. Patients at the hospital experience relief from the frantic modern world, which aggravates so many cases of insanity. They enjoy sessions of hydrotherapy, extended periods of bedrest, harvesting crops, and tending the piggery. They also make and repair furniture and do the laundry….

Never you mind that, George. It’s time to come down and get dinner. Kathleen had come upstairs without George noticing. George started when she spoke, and suddenly his head and his neck and his legs and his arms all ached and he felt feverish. Kathleen saw that he felt a kind of humiliation at being caught reading the pamphlet and at knowing just what it meant, even though it was something he should not even know about. She, too, suddenly suffered the weight of the day and felt cold and hungry and impatient.

My bureau is not yours to dig around, she said. She snatched the brochure from George’s hands and shooed him out of her room and toward the stairs. Go get your brother ready to eat and tell your sisters to pour everyone a glass of milk. Go.

Yes, Mum. George stifled an urge to burst into tears. He went downstairs. Kathleen folded the brochure in half and stuffed it into a wool sock, which she tucked under a sweater at the back of her bottom bureau drawer.

That night, Kathleen and the children ate dinner without Howard, who was still not back from his rounds by seven o’clock. Afterward, she took up mending a pair of Joe’s overalls in her rocking chair next to the woodstove. Darla and Margie played with two dolls, which they pretended were Susan B. Anthony and Betsy Ross preparing tea for George Washington and Andrew Jackson. Darla hopped Susan B. Anthony over to Betsy Ross, who was already sitting at the table, double-checking the tea service.

Darla made Susan B. Anthony bow to Betsy Ross and say, Happy New Year, Betsy!

Margie stood Besty Ross up and made her curtsy. And happy 192 7 to you, Ms. Anthony!

Darla said, No, Margie, it’s 1776.

George sat on the couch, holding a book called Mark the Match Boy open on his lap with his injured hand and an apple in the other. He stared at the print but did not read. He thought about his father, who had bitten him and who was a madman about to be taken to the madhouse. It suddenly occurred to him that his brother, Joe, would be sent to the madhouse, too, sooner or later.

For years, an old bearskin rug of indeterminate origin had been lying in a far corner of the parlor. Sometimes, on cold nights, when the family gathered in the parlor, the children sat on it, pretending that they were riding a bear in a circus. Howard had named the rug Ursula. It was a ragged, mangy thing, with a bald patch running from its snout to between its eye sockets, which either had been pitted of their original glass eyes or simply left empty. The previous winter, George had inserted marbles in the sockets, one a milky green with gold sparkles, the other obsidian black. The black eye made the bear look alive. The milky green eye made her look as if she were half-blind, or as if she had one eye on another world, since the gold sparkles in the green looked like a tiny whirlpool of stars spinning inside a cataract. George took a bite of his apple and watched Joe, who jumped on the rug and pretended he was riding the bear and then rolled off it as if it had bucked him.

Stop that fussing around, Joe, Kathleen said.

Joe sprang up, smiling, and stepped toward George. He pointed back to the rug and said, George, that Ursula looks like she’s fixing for to bite me!

George waited until Saturday to run away. He hitched Prince Edward to his father’s wagon and led the animal and wagon out to the road, holding the reins tightly and walking right next to the mule and whispering to it, urging it, shushing it. When he was out of sight of the house, he mounted the wagon and snapped the reins and said, Hya, boy, not in the manner of his father, who merely flicked the leather leads and made a clicking sound with his tongue against his back teeth, but of his friend Ray Morrell’s father, who talked with a strange accent George had never heard before and would never hear again, and who seemed to have stepped out of some bank of mist on the other side of which was, perfectly preserved-or, not even preserved, but still actual -the previous century. Ray’s father Ezra, owned sixteen oxen. When he drove them, he said, Hya, hya, boys or, Work it, ye dogs. Mr. Morrell was the only person George ever knew who used the word ye.

So George said, Hya, boy, and Prince Edward barely noticed and started to walk at a pace a little slower than usual, as if registering his awareness that this was not his usual route, not his usual driver, not his usual cue. The sunny weekend morning, the lackadaisical mule, and the extra heaviness of the slow rate imparted by the bulk of the wagon conspired to dilute George’s half notions of speed and flight and pursuit and evasion. In his mind, he, during school the previous days, had seen trees flying by, alternating trunks and light flicking by. He saw hounds baying and scrambling past a thicket of reeds and cat-o’-nine-tails at the edge of water and, after they had passed, the stalks parting and his own head rising half out of the water, alert, sharp, animallike. Now, he inched along in full daylight atop a wagon as big as a house and as noisy as a suitcase full of Turkish cymbals. For the first time, he wondered about what all of those drawers were packed with. He realized that he had formed a vague conception of the wagon’s inventory-brushes, mops, pots, pipes, socks, suspenders, polish-a single picture that appeared in his mind whenever he thought about the wagon. It came up like a road sign, a billboard, or an advertisement-simple and all-encompassing and, he now understood, cursory and distorted. He peered over the side of the wagon. I couldn’t even say what wood the drawers are made from, he thought.

When the turnoff to his friend Ray Morrell’s farm came up, George took it without thinking. He was nearly at the old curing house, now a toolshed, or at least shed for odd planks and hoops and handles and blades of wood and iron for which there was no longer use, each artifact having split or worn out or dulled to the very end of usefulness, so that not even Ray’s father, the most frugal farmer in a countryside of frugal and impoverished farmers, could nail it, tie it, or hammer it back into place and eke out one more execution of whatever task the piece of wood or metal was supposed to perform. The curing house was at the end of another turnoff along the dirt tracks that led from the main road (which was dirt as well, this far out of town, but of wellpacked and -tended dirt) to the Morrells’. George had taken both turns without thinking. The curing shed was where he and Ray Morrell went and smoked and played cribbage and told stories and jokes after they had finished working for Ray’s father-milking the cow or sweeping the yard or, most often, unyoking and feeding and inspecting Ray’s father’s giant oxen.

(Ray Morrell already, at twelve years old, had the air of a chaste, fastidious old bachelor, someone who knew about commemorative coins and prevailing winds and who, already, had a taste for the turpentinelike bathtub gin his father always had a bottle of stashed away under the basement stairs. And many years after he had enough money to comfortably buy better, Ray continued to buy the most wretched gin he could find, until his swollen liver gave out. He was pleased to allow people to think that his taste for rotgut was because of thrift born of his childhood dirt-farmer poverty, when, in fact, it was because he was forever soothed by the memories of drinking hooch that could have doubled as paint thinner in the old curing house with dusty blades of sunlight stabbing through the gaps in its wall boards during afternoons after school with his best friend in the world, George Washington Crosby.)

Ezra was known throughout the county and beyond as the man to call when you needed something big pulled. This was the source of many crude jokes. The smallest of his oxen stood at just under six feet at the shoulders; the tallest, over seven and a half. The oxen were one of his two passions. The other was baseball, which he followed in the papers every week, nearly committing all of the box scores to memory, so that as he plowed his fields or whipped his team (which he hired out in pairs, from two to the full regiment of sixteen, and which he himself always oversaw), he muttered batting averages and runs batted in and earned- run averages out loud to himself, which, overheard, were simply random-sounding streams of numbers. The statistic that gave Ezra Morrell the most pleasure to contemplate was that of the players’ batting averages, and every time he acquired a new ox, he named it after the most recent batting champion from the American League. When he cracked the whip, then, he could be heard variously harassing Ed Delehanty, Elmer Flick, George Stone, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, Harry Heilman, Babe Ruth, one of the three Napoleon Lajoies, or six Ty Cobbs (because he had more oxen than different batting champs, so that when he ran out, he started back at the beginning and named the animals for the different years the same players had won). Hya, Napoleon One, ye dog, lean into it, Ezra would yell. That’s no four-twenty-two effort! Unlike other fans of the sport, Ezra took no pleasure in talking about the game with anyone else. When his son dared ask how the great Cobb had fared on the last road trip, Ezra cuffed the boy on the ear, and said, The great Cobb Three has shat his stall full again, ye chatty pup. Now go clean it up before ye’re behind with the feed.

George tied Prince Edward to a tree in front of the shed. The inside of the shed felt colder than the outside. Sunlight streamed through cracks between the log cribbing of the walls and seams between boards in the roof where outside the shingles had come loose and blown away. The light flowing in from the roof dropped toward the floor in rectangular planes, which were broken by the heavy rafters. Some of the rafters still had curing hooks hanging from them. There was an abandoned barn swallow’s nest in the crook of one of the rafters and a support beam. A dusty hill of droppings remained on the floor beneath the nest.

George stood in the shed. He was suddenly aware that if he was running away, this was not the place to go. To run away meant away. He had never been away. Away was the French Revolution or Fort Sumter or the Roman Empire. Maybe, Boston, three hundred miles south. He had no idea what was in the three hundred miles between here and Boston.

George poked through the pile of ashes and cigarette stubs next to the three nail kegs he and Ray had set up so that each could sit and the cribbage board that George had taken from home could be set between them. He found a butt with two or three drags left to it. He pinched it by the very end. There were no matches. He pitched the cigarette back onto the pile.

A door lay lengthwise against the far wall of the shed. It was from the old Budden place, long since burned down. It was mammoth: made of oak two inches thick. Its hinges and handle had been hacked at. The side facing out into the shed was charred and striated by fire. When George and Ray sat in the shed smoking whatever they had been able to find, which was rolled corn husks as often as it was tobacco, and playing cribbage with the board George had stolen from his own house, they liked to recite the story about the winter of ’06, when the snow was twelve feet high and the sun didn’t shine for three months and Budden went mad and took the big ax into the house and staved all of the furniture and piled all the broken pieces together in the middle of the parlor and doused it all with kerosene and took a match to it. The hack marks in the door were not from Budden. They were from the volunteer firemen and neighbors (who were the same thing: each a neighbor, each a volunteer firefighter, because you were a fireman if you were a man fighting a fire) who had tried to chop their way through the door to get to Mrs. Budden and the children. By the time they realized that the door was too thick and that they should try to go through a window or the back door, the fire was too ferocious to be able to do anything but leap off the porch. Then, just as they realized this, just as they collectively understood that the door could not be breached, something inside the house exploded and the door wrenched from its hinges and blew outward, plowing the men in front of it, so that they and it landed in the front walkway, they on the ground, it on them-the side which now faced out into the shed burning and gushing smoke. But here was the thing, the reason for the recitation and repetition of the story: When the fire was finally put out, and they found the bodies, Tom Budden’s corpse in the kitchen but also one adult (a woman, it was determined) and two children, spooned up against one another within the boundaries of the iron frame of the Budden’s big double bed (the mattress, the sheets, the blankets burned away), calm and peace ful as if they were taking an afternoon nap, cooked to smoldering crisps, and whom everybody assumed were Mrs. Budden and the Budden children, and so the town started to make funeral preparations, Mr. Potter measuring the charred corpses as best he could to make the coffins, Mrs. Budden and the children showed up from Worcester, where they had been visiting her mother. No one had ever figured out who that woman and those children were who had been sleeping in the Budden house on the afternoon Tom Budden went berserk and set it all on fire.

George crawled behind the door and lay down. He put his bitten hand against the cold wood and imagined it as scorching hot, imagined it holding back a tremendous fire, which battered and seared it and built up behind it and blew it loose from its hinges. The fire thumped on the other side of the door. George lowered his hand to his lap. He tried to squeeze it into a fist. It was still too sore to fully close. Once again, he fell first to wishing that his father would just disappear from the face of the earth-not die, not be put away, but just miraculously suddenly not be-and then to wishing that his father were a child himself and that he be bitten by his own father, so he could suffer how awful it was to have been attacked by his own sire. George’s feelings had moved back and forth between these two thoughts the entire week, except for when he had actually seen his father, who had for the most part stayed away from the house the rest of that week, and had kept to corners and alongside walls and just beyond doorways, like a kicked dog, when he had been home. Whenever George saw his father in the house, he had to keep from crying at being so angry for having a mad father whom he loved and pitied and hated. He tucked his injured hand into his coat and fell asleep. His breath steamed from his half-opened mouth in little clouds, which rolled upward, fragile, and broke apart against the underside of the door.

Kathleen said to Howard, George has run away.

He said, How do you know?

She said, He left Joe alone in the toolshed. He didn’t split the wood. He didn’t get the water. He didn’t help Darla with her numbers. He took Prince Edward and your wagon.

He said, I don’t think he’ll get too far. He thought, I hope he makes it.

She said, What, exactly, are you going to sell today without your wagon?

He said, Kathleen.

She said, You can borrow Lady Godiva from the Levansellers. He can’t be more than two miles away.

He said, Kathleen. But she was already walking back around the house to the tin washtub full of steaming soapy water and clothes.

Seems George’s run away.

That so.

Yes, it is.

Well, I never.

Nor I.

The two men looked at the sky and then at the dirt yard ringed in dirty snow where chickens strutted and pecked. Jack Levanseller pursed his lips and blew air from his mouth.

Howard looked toward the Levanseller barn, which was more like a large garage fitted out to stable the old nag Jack Levanseller had bought for his daughter, Emily, when she just had to have a horse and had cried and said things at meals like, I don’t want potatoes; I want a horse! for a week, until her father finally could not take the twelve-year-old’s theatrics anymore and had gone to the horse farm over in Dexter and bought the cheapest, most run down, wheezy creature on the lot for six dollars. When she saw the horse, with its runny nose and scabby ears and its ribs as visible as the staves of a barrel and its pelvis, too, she screamed, What is that! and her father had said, That is your horse and it looks hungry. And cold, too. And it was true; even though it was the end of June and nearly eighty degrees, the horse seemed to be shivering. Jack slapped the horse on its bony rump and, noticing that the beast was missing a good amount of its hair, and that it was a mare, said, This is your horse and her name is Lady Godiva. Now go get a pail of water and some hay and that old blue blanket and start taking care of your new horse. Emily cried, I don’t want that disgusting creature! I’ll bet you can’t even ride it! And she had refused to have anything to do with the wretched beast, so that her father had taken care of it from the moment he brought it onto his property and complained to anyone who would listen about how he lost a lot more than six dollars on that horse, considering how much of his time and oats he spent keeping the thing till it decided to die.

Howard said, Lady Godiva-

Jack said, She’s a dollar a day.

Howard said, A dollar.

Jack said, Plus oats.

Plus oats.

The men looked at their hands, at the chickens.

Well, I suppose I can walk.

I suppose.

Well, thanks, Jack.

Don’t mention it, Howard.

Howard walked past his house without telling Kathleen that Levanseller wanted a dollar for Lady Godiva and that he had decided to walk. She would make him go back, even though a dollar was twice what he made most days, after he paid Cullen back the cost of its brushes and hairpins and the penny or two profit afterward. He walked past the house, with its tall front windows and chipping gray paint and rotting unpainted shutters, sitting in its nest of winter grass and snow. It was bright outside and dark inside, but as he passed he shaded his eyes and looked into the dining room and could just see the table and empty chairs.

After Howard has passed beyond sight of the house, Kathleen stops her washing, dries her hands on the front of her apron, and goes into the house. She climbs the stairs to her bedroom on tiptoe, even though she does not have to hide the fact that she is going to her room. She enters her room and opens the bottom drawer of her bureau. The bureau stands directly next to the doorway. She fishes around in the back of the drawer and pulls out the wool sock in which she hid the brochure for the mental hospital. She removes the brochure from the sock and without looking at it places it in full view on the corner of the top of the bureau and returns to her washing.

It was not difficult for Howard to find his son. The fresh wagon and mule tracks left from the yard, away from town. Howard walked along the road and looked at the winter weeds poking up from the new snow. There was more variety than Howard had ever noticed. There were papery shells of burst pods and thorns and whitish nubs at the ends of pannicles. Some were bent over, broken-backed, with their tops buried in the snow, as if they had been smothered in the frost. The interlocking network of stalks and branches and creepers was skeletal, the fossil yard of an extinct species of fineboned insectoid creatures. All of these bones, then, seemed to have been stained by sun and earth from an original living white to brown, and not the tough fibrous flower and seed-spilling green they actually once had been. Howard wondered about a man who had never seen summer, a winter man, examining the weeds and making this inference-that he was looking at an ossuary. The man would take that as true and base his ideas of the world on that mistake. He would concoct narratives about when those thorny animals picked through the brush and fields, sketch outlandish guesses, publish papers, give talks in opulent rooms to serious men all wearing the same formal suits, draw conclusions, get it all wrong. Howard thought, I do not even know if that is ragweed or Queen Anne’s lace.

When he came to the turnoff for Ezra Morrell’s farm, he saw the wagon tracks turn with it. There was a moment of sorrow, disappointment, and deep love for his son, whom he at that second wished had had a chance of real escape. Never mind why or whether or who or what consequence or ramification-the wake of sorrow and bitterness and resentment you would trail behind you, probably mostly for me-I just wish that you had made it beyond the bounds of this cold little radius, that when the archaeologists brush off this layer of our world in a million years and string off the boundaries of our rooms and tag and number every plate and table leg and shinbone, you would not be there; yours would not be the remains they would find and label juvenile male; you would be a secret, the existence of which they would never even be aware to try to solve. An image arose in Howard’s mind of an archaeologist examining the small bones of George’s hand and explaining to his colleagues that the boy whose bones these had been had at one time been bitten by another person, an adult, perhaps as part of some savage ritual or because people were more like wild animals in this place in those times than had ever previously been imagined.

Howard stepped into the shed. Light came between the log cribbing where first the original grass and mud and then the wadded-up comics pages from Sunday newspapers had dissolved.

George. Where are you?

Here I am, Daddy.

Where?

Here. George crawled out from behind the old door.

Howard’s eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the shed. He made out George’s face peeping from behind the old door. He remembered the fire. He remembered the story about the woman and the children. He thought, My son hiding behind the ruins, my son hiding behind the last burned token of a house. Houses can be ghosts, too, just like people. And when he thought this, it was because he realized that whenever he imagined (Am haunted by, really, he thought, because that is what ghosts are, what they do, whether they knock plates of off shelves or blow a door open at night or simply present themselves in our minds, it is all haunting) that woman and her children, they were always in the house, which, like them, was gone from this earth. And we were like the men giving papers on the skeletons lining the ditch; we were certain the bones were those of Addie Budden and the kids, but they were not. So there is my son, hiding behind the last vestige of a house transformed from timber into ash into the dimming memories of those who still remember it. If the door survives us all, it will be, like most things, just another relic sitting (somewhere, somewhere not here, even, but somewhere unlikelyin the grass of the plains, a swamp island in the bayou, down an Arctic crevasse among other artifacts perhaps not yet even made but heading towards made, being pulled toward being made (or fashioned: made in the sense that they are and always have been latent in living wood, in underground seams, in stars and the black sky), but even then, before made, rushing toward their being unmade and perhaps made again. Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?

So there is my son, already fading. The thought frightened him. The thought frightened because as soon as it came to him, he knew that it was true. He understood suddenly that even though his son knelt in front of him, familiar, mundane, he was already fading away, receding. His son was fading away before his eyes and that fact was inevitable, even though Howard understood, too, that the fading was yet to begin in any actual sense, that at that moment he and his son, the father standing in the dimness, the son kneeling and partly obscured by the charred door, were still only heading, not yet arrived, toward the point where the fading would begin. Howard simply knew that that point was coming and that he somehow had caught a glimpse of its existence beforehand, as if the moment were like the burned door: an object sitting in the shed, leaning among the rusty old saws and spades and rakes, but also as unimaginable and unknowable as his extinct creatures with grass bones.

Mother’s worried, George. You have to come back.

I know, Dad.

George stood and walked to his father. Howard put his hand on his son’s shoulder for a moment and looked into the boy’s eyes. He seemed about to speak but then smiled and removed his hand. George climbed onto the cart and Howard untied Prince Edward. The mule responded much more readily to Howard’s guidance, and father and son drove back to their house without speaking.

The next evening, Howard passed by his house before he realized he had seen a brochure for a place called the Eastern Maine State Hospital that morning on his wife’s dresser and that she was planning to have him committed there. He passed out of the center of town, heading south. Dinner was on the table in the house. Everyone sat at their seats, wordless, waiting for him to turn in to the dirt driveway and tether Prince Edward and give him hay and then to come inside and say grace, which he always ended with the words, And God let us perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own work. Amen.

He had spoken no words to himself. No conscious thought precipitated his action, as if spending the whole day contemplating what he was going to do, had already done by the time he fitted words to the actions, which was to ride past the kitchen window that framed his family and leafed them in its gold light, would have diluted his resolve, would have led him to turn himself over to a fate that, had he thought about it, he would have accepted rather than acknowledge its implications. He could not have let himself be witness to the simultaneity of his wife passing him a plate of chicken or a basket of hot bread as she worked out her plans to have him taken away. Howard had assumed that their silence over his fits, over everything, stood for his gratefulness to her and her loyalty to him. He had assumed their silence was one of kindness offered and accepted.

The distance between Howard and his house lengthened and, as it did, segregated him from his life as if it were time. The smell of the wood oil and kerosene from the wagon made him think of the rooms and stairways he already knew he would never enter again and he realized that what he sat upon, the swaying cart full of products for cleaning, scrubbing, patching, organizing, maintaining domestic life, was a house. I am perched on a house, he thought. He thought, God let us perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own work. God hear me weep because I let myself think all is well if I am fully stocked with both colors of shoe shine and beeswax for the wooden tables, sea sponge and steel wool for dirty dishes. God hear me weep as I fill out receipts for tin buckets, and slip hooch into coat pockets for cash, and tell people about my whip-smart sons and beautiful daughters. God know my shame as I push my mule to exhaustion, even after the moon and Venus have risen to preside over the owls and mice, because I am not going back to my family-my wife, my children-because my wife’s silence is not the forbearance of decent, stern people who fear You; it is the quiet of outrage, of bitterness. It is the quiet of biding time. God forgive me. I am leaving.

There was an early January thaw and it had been raining all day, but just before sunset the storm clouds passed and it rained only in the trees. Steam lifted off of the snow. Trees stood half in light, half in shadow as the sun lowered and striped the world in a weave half of itself, half of the approaching evening. Howard drove Prince Edward late into the night. The mule was difficult to handle. It tried to turn around several times. Several times the mule stopped and refused to go forward. Finally, Howard gave in and stopped for the night twenty miles south of his now-former home. He turned off the road at a clearing where for some reason the snow had melted away and there was a circle of grass wide enough on which to park the cart. He unhitched Prince Edward and fed him and then fed himself by eating the lunch he had saved that afternoon because, even though he had not permitted himself to think consciously about his flight, some part of him had known to save the ham sandwich and cold potatoes for later.

Howard leaned against one of the wagon’s rear wheels and stared at the candled sky and looked back at the candle he had lit and wished it would turn blue with the light of the stars and that the stars would turn gold like burning wicks. He wondered if Kathleen and the children were still sitting at the dining room table in front of their cold food.

So what if he could give them circus ponies and silk dresses? What, too, of cinders and hair shirts and bites on their hands and feet? Howard imagined that neither would bring peace to his wife’s heart. Her piety depended too much on a pose of forbearance, a face of oppression. Red ribbons served as well as stove ash. That she made a point to eat only the gristliest chicken bits, the burned biscuits, the mealiest potatoes, while she complained that his children were, variously, weakminded, hysterical, or sickly, and seemed to imply that such afflictions were the result of the lack of a good piece of steak or a new bonnet, was only circumstance; were she installed on a throne at a twelve-course banquet table teaming with all of God’s creatures brought from both air and field, trussed and roasted and swimming in their own succulent juices, she would heap her plate with the most exquisite victuals and lament that his feeble offspring were the way they were because they had it too well and what they really needed was a vat of cold porridge and a tureen full of dirt.

Howard thought, Is it not true: A move of the head, a step to the left or right, and we change from wise, decent, loyal people to conceited fools? Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely: Sun catches cheap plate flaking-I am a tinker; the moon is an egg glowing in its nest of leafless trees-I am a poet; a brochure for an asylum is on the dresser-I am an epileptic, insane; the house is behind me-I am a fugitive. His despair had not come from the fact that he was a fool; he knew he was a fool. His despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker, a copier of bad verse from two-penny religious magazines, an epileptic, and could find no reason to turn her head and see him as something better.

He slept in the grass beneath the cart. The moon rose and arced above his sleeping form. Night played its play while he dreamed of empty rooms and abandoned hallways. A small pack of wolves came from the hills. They circled his cart once, sniffed, and padded away. He woke once just before dawn and thought he saw lights in the trees, but a slight wind rose through the grass up and into the branches and scattered them away, so he closed his eyes again.

He woke to Prince Edward snuffling at the grass near his head. He grabbed for his hat because the mule had eaten it off his head once before, leaving the beast ill and gassy and he behind it with teary eyes and a sunburned nose. Birds traded their chirps and whistles of alarm and warning. It was early enough so that the grass in which he lay beneath the cart was still blue and gray and purple. Outside the shadow of the cart, the snow was blue. The rainwater on the trees had frozen overnight and turned into sheaths of ice that refracted the gold light from the rising sun into silver light that glittered in the breeze. A crop of mushrooms had somehow grown overnight in the grass next to Howard beneath the cart. He examined them and was slightly alarmed at how large they had grown from nothing in such a short time and in such cold.

 

 

 

3

T HAD NEVER OCCURRED TO HOWARD TO TELL George about his own father. Howard thought to himself, That’s right; my own father was always in the room upstairs at the walnut desk tucked under the eaves, composing. He was even there when we ate dinner and when I did my lessons. He would comment on this sometimes; he would say, What an odd thing, how I am here eating peas and there, too, scratching at my sermon. We said nothing, but a shiver would run through me at the thought of rising from the table at my father’s left-hand side and passing into the narrow unadorned hallway and up the narrow stairs, which were the only way to the second floor, to the study, where I would see my father bent over his work. Sometimes I spent entire dinners imagining myself in a sort of loop where I continually went between my father at his desk and my father at the dinner table, always baffled in my intentions by his ability to be in two places at once and my limitation to only one. My father was a strange, gentle man.

A wind would come up through the trees, sounding like a chorus, so like a breath then, so sounding like a breath, the breath of thousands of souls gathering itself up somewhere in the timber lining the bowls and depressions behind the worn mountains the way thunderstorms did and crawling up their backs of them the way the thunderstorms did, too, which you couldn’t hear, quite, but felt barometrically-a contraction or flattening as of tone as everything compressed in front of it, again, which you couldn’t see, quite, but instead could almost see the result of-water flattening, so the light coming off of it shifted angles, the grass stiffening, so it went from green to silver, the swallows flitting over the pond all being pushed forward and then falling back to their original positions as they corrected for the change, as if the wind were sending something in front of it. The hair on my neck prickled from nape to crown, as if a current were passing through it, and as the current leapt off of the top of my head and if I had my back to the trees, I would feel the actual wind start up the back of my neck and ruffle my hair and the water and the grass and spin the swallows in its choral voice stirring all of the old unnamable sorrows in our throats, where our voices caught and failed on the scales of the old forgotten songs. My father would say, The forgotten songs we never really knew, only think we remember knowing, when what we really do is understand at the same time how we have never really known them at all and how glorious they must really be. My father would tell me this from his desk up under the eaves while I was across the pond tracking otters or fishing off the fallen fir tree near the point. I would hear his voice and look across the water to the white of our house, just visible behind the line of trees, to where I knew his open window was inhaling and exhaling the plain white curtains my mother had insisted on in the name of minimal domestic propriety. He whispered in my ears: Bring string and bottle caps and broken glass; bring candy wrappers and nickels and smooth stones; bring fallen feathers and fingernail parings; the old songs have shaken our small home to the ground again and we must rebuild. And our house across the pond would flicker and then blink out, disappear, because it had been such a fragile idea in the first place. Then I would again be on the far shore, looking at where we would build our home, once we cleared the woods and dug the foundation.

How can I not wonder what it would be like to sit in that cold silver water, that cold stone water up to my chin, the tangled marsh grass at the level of my eyes, sit in the still water, in the still air, bright day behind me lighting the face of everything under the dark millstone cloud lid in front of me, watching the storm coming from the north? There is my father whispering in my ear, Be still, still, still. And yet you change everything. What was the marsh like, waiting for the storm before you came and kneeled in the water? It was like nothing. Watch after you leave the water, now cold and regretful, miles from home, certain of the belt on your backside, the cold shoulder, the extra chores; watch. Watch the water heal itself of your presence-not to repair injury but to offer itself again should you care to risk another strapping, because instead of the sky being dark and the trees and stones bright, the next time the sky will be bright but the world gloomy. Or there will be rain with no wind. Or wind and sun. Or a starry sky laced with clouds that look like cotton thread. You could not do better if you passed a thousand acts of Congress.

0, Senator, drop your trousers! Loosen your cravat! Eschew your spats and step into that shallow, teeming world of mayflies and dragonflies and frogs’ eyes staring eye-to-eye with your own, and the silty bottom. Cease your filibuster against the world God gave you. Enough of your clamor, your embarrassing tendencies, your crooking of paths in the name of straightness. Enough of your calling ruin upon the Moor and the Hindoo, the Zulu and the Hun. None of it gains you a jot. Behold, and be a genius! At a breath, I shall disperse your world, your monuments of metal, your monuments of stone and your brightly striped rags. They will scatter like so many pins and skittles. I shall tire myself more quenching a candle in its sconce. Phew! There: you are gone.

I should say that the sermons my father gave on Sundays were bland and vague. Parishioners regularly drifted off to sleep sitting up in their pews and it was common to hear snoring coming from this or that corner of the room. My father’s voice droned on about the importance of every little creature in the field, enumerating practically every crawling, swimming, flying beast he could and reiterating that it, too, was as important as any other of God’s creations. And consider the rats in the grain, he would say. And the barking crows, and the squirrels collecting nuts. Are they, too, not God’s creatures? And the foraging raccoon.

There was no correspondence between these inept speeches with the passionate, even obsessive writing he did up beneath the pitched roof. It seemed, in fact, that the more time my father spent in his study composing, the worse his sermons became, until they were practically no more than incoherent mumbling, in the midst of which, here and there, if one was actually listening, you could pick out the name of the odd prophet or the citation of a psalm or chapter or verse. The people of the town had little patience for mumbling, and what they at first must have taken as perhaps an especially indirect intelligence, one perhaps even given to constructing his sermons as parables in emulation of Christ, they soon got fed up with and began to complain about first in discreet letters, then directly to my father on the way out of church. My father responded to this criticism with genuine surprise, as if shocked that what must have really been on his mind had not been included in his sermon. My goodness, Mrs. Greenleaf, he would say, I am so sorry the sermon was not to your liking. The path is narrow. I must have wavered, he would say, and look confused. This was the first sign that he had in some way become unhitched from our world and was already beginning to drift away.

Finally, the situation became so alarming to the congregation (after a particularly baffling Sunday-morning service, during which my father at one point clearly mentioned something about the devil being finally not so bad after all) that the parishioners demanded a special meeting to address their new minister’s deteriorating condition. On the Wednesday morning he was to meet with the deacons and the congregation, my mother practically had to dress him herself. He was pale and unshaven and seemed like a child. My mother saw him and cried, What are you doing? We have to go to the church for your meeting. Good Lord, good Lord. Throughout my father’s deterioration, my mother had kept her thoughts to herself. She cooked and ironed and kept his house and must have trusted at first that my father was in some sort of a slump, that his weak sermons and increased time working on them must be part of a natural ebb and flow in any minister’s career. Perhaps she even believed that he was going through a kind of healthy crisis of belief, one from which her husband would emerge with his faith refreshed and his convictions stronger than ever. Whatever she thought, she never spoke a word about it.

When my mother finally succeeded in getting my father shaved and into his clothes and off to the church, she ordered me to stay home from school and tend the house and be home when they returned. After they left, I sat at the kitchen table with my history book open to the chapter I was studying on Napoleon. There was a painting of him on a white horse and one of him leading a charge with his sword drawn and pointed toward an unseen enemy. I could not concentrate on the text. I worried about my father. Throughout his illness (that is the word that now, for the first time, came to my mind, and it shocked me and suddenly made me frightened), he had remained kind and remote toward me, as he had always been, but I had lately noticed him looking at me with a sort of wistfulness, as if he were not looking at me, but at a drawing or photograph of me, as if he were remembering me.

It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see. One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing. To all appearances, he scribbled at a sheet of paper. When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared. I could not tell whether he had been there in the first place or if I had asked my question to some lingering afterimage. He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes. He would ask me a question from behind the box on which I sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes for my mother, and when I answered and received no reply back, I would turn around, to find his hat or belt or a single shoe sitting in the door frame as if placed there by a mischievous child. The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had something more packed into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat, but on a blistering August noon, as if the last few times I felt him as another being rather than as a recollection, he had thought to check up on this world at the wrong moment and accidentally stepped from whatever wintry place he was straight into the dog days. And it seems that doing so only confirmed to him his fate to fade away, his being in the wrong place, so that during these startled visits, although I could not see him, I could feel his surprise, his bafflement, the dismay felt in a dream when you suddenly meet the brother you forgot you had or remember the infant you left on the hillside miles away, hours ago, because somehow you were distracted and somehow you came to believe in a different life and your shock at these terrible recollections, these sudden reunions, comes as much from your sorrow at what you have neglected as it does from dismay at how thoroughly and quickly you came to believe in something else. And that other world that you first dreamed is always better if not real, because in it you have not jilted your lover, forsaken your child, turned your back on your brother. The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.

Another time, I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in a window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of the other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father’s, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull-no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.

Suppose that my mother helped my father dress on an early April morning. It was dark and windy outside, with flurries of snow swirling down from the sky as if they were chips dropping from chiseled clouds, and the three of us had been indoors together for four days as it rained and blew and the rivers and lakes swelled and spread beyond their banks. Two nights before, we had even seen Old Sabbatis paddling a canoe through the woods behind our house. My father was stooped and could not get his arms through his jacket by himself. And when my mother helped him, the sleeves of his jacket gathered those of his shirt and both rode up to his elbows as he pulled them too far up his arms. His head shook, and in his and my mother’s struggles with his coat, his wide-brimmed hat was pushed to an odd angle, so that it looked as if my mother were straining to dress a scarecrow. My mother said to him in a voice that was both vexed and solicitous, Oh, Father, you know you’re not supposed to put your hat on until the end. He seemed parched and worked his tongue in his mouth as if he were searching for water.

Suppose that my mother dressed my father in the parlor rather than their bedroom and that this frightened me, seeing, for example, my father’s thin, pale legs naked in the room where he consoled widows. The shades in the two windows were drawn and my mother had not lit a lamp, so that they struggled in the thin light entering the room around the borders of the shades. I stood in the doorway to the kitchen, watching them. My father suffered a great indignity and I was helpless to restore him. That he and my mother should wrestle him into his clothes in the dark seemed furtive and awful. And yet, the thought of walking across the room and opening the shades and letting the raw, weak light pour down on them seemed worse, as if the least my father could be granted was that he be allowed to fall apart in the dark.

When he was dressed, my mother pointed my father to the kitchen. They walked together side by side in a sort of half embrace, my mother rubbing his back with one hand and holding one of his hands in the other, guiding him and soothing him, murmuring softly to him, watching his feet to make sure he did not trip over himself. I backed into the kitchen, and when they came through the door, my mother saw me and said, You’ll have to make your own breakfast today, Howard, I’m taking Father. My father looked at me and nodded, the way you might when you first meet the acquaintance of a friend on the street. My mother opened the outside door and the light came in and carved every object in the kitchen into an ancient relic. I could not imagine what people had ever done with iron skillets or rolling pins. Through the door, beyond our yard, at the edge of the road, four men stood, all in black coats and black hats, waiting for my mother and my father. They were my father’s friends, men from the church. I stood in the doorway and watched my mother and father reach the men, who gathered around them and escorted them to a coach drawn by four horses, which waited for them at a respectable distance and which was driven by a man I did not recognize, who sat hunkered into his coat and scarf to keep out the wind and the snow and the rain, which had begun again. The men helped my father into the coach first and then my mother, a reversal of their usual and ritually observed manners, which seemed to me final and devastating. The driver snapped the reins and the horses lurched and found their footing in the mud, even though they dragged the coach for several yards before its wheels caught and began to turn. The coach and the seven dark hunched figures passed the far corner of the yard into the trees, and that was the last I saw of my father.

The next morning, I went down to the kitchen, where my mother was making pancakes. I sat at my place at the table and noticed there was no setting for my father. I usually sat on his left and my mother, when she sat to dinner (she never sat with us at breakfast), ate across from him at the other end of the table. I said, Where is Dad? My mother paused in her cooking, spatula in one hand, the other holding the handle of the iron skillet wrapped in a dish towel. Howard, she said, Father is gone. The windows in the kitchen all faced west, so they allowed the morning light into the room only as it was reflected from the last clouds receding with the darkness and from the trees at the edge of the woods beyond the yard. It seemed to me that this was a dream of my father’s death, a sort of rehearsal for when it really happened, rather than a simple fact of the waking world. It was difficult for me to distinguish the actual from dreaming during that time, because I often had dreams in which my father came into my bedroom to kiss me and cover me up with my blankets, which, restless sleeper that I was, had fallen to the floor. In those dreams, I awoke and, seeing my father, felt an overwhelming sense of how precious he was to me. His having died once, I understood what it would mean to lose him, and now that he had returned I was determined to take better care of him. Dad, I said to him in those dreams, what are you doing here? I’m not gone just yet, he would tell me in a humorous tone that I should have recognized as belonging to a dream, since he had never used it in life, although I had often wished for it. Well, this time we’re going to make sure you stay well, I would say, and hug him.

But what, scurrilous babbler? Shall your barren wind slake the flame burning within my own heart? By no means! For mine is the flame that does not consume, and the guff from your bellows shall only fan it, that it burns all the brighter, the hotter, and the more surely.

I decided to try to find my father in the woods. When I walked through the woods, I wore my father’s old boots. They were too large, so I had to put on three pairs of socks to make them snug. I carried my lunch in his old wicker creel, slung over my shoulder. I wore his widebrimmed hat. When I walked through the Gaspars’ corn patch, I imagined breaking an ear from its stalk, peeling its husk, and finding my father’s teeth lining the cob. They were clean and white, but worn like his. Strands of my father’s hair encased the teeth instead of corn silk. As I hiked through the woods, I imagined peeling the bark from a birch tree, the outer layers supple, like skin. I would peel until I came to the wood. I would insert the tip of my knife into the wood and force the blade deeper until it touched something hard. I would cut a seam in the wood, prying it open an inch at a time, and find a long bone encased in the middle of the trunk. I imagined pulling flat rocks up from creek beds. I imagined climbing trees and tasting for traces of my father in their sap. This is how I thought of myself, as looking for what he had always called in his sermons the deep and secret yes, an idea I never knew whether was his own or something he had read in his books. I roamed the different places that we had gone together, but soon found myself hiking toward the outlet of Tagg Pond.

Spring rain made temporary ponds of the deep ruts along the abandoned tote roads. The water was shin-deep and the color of iron cream. Howard had to walk through one sometimes because it extended across the width of the entire road and into the woods. As he waded through, his feet pushed up milky, rust-colored clouds of mud from the bottom, out of which spurted schools of bright green tadpoles disturbed in their rapid and fragile evolutions. The tom-tom tap of a pileated woodpecker sounded from somewhere in the woods, to Howard’s left. He thought of leaving the road to find it but decided not to. Grass covered the raised spine of the road where it was not sub merged in the metallic water. Howard walked along this narrow path. The road originally had been more or less straight, but, once abandoned, the woods had shifted it over the years, canting lengths of it to the left or right, skewing it and encircling it above, so that walking down it was like walking through a tunnel. Light filtered down from the sky in various amounts. The branches of maples and oaks and birch leaned across the road toward one another and intertwined and became nearly indistinguishable, their leaves mixed up, apparently sharing common branches, as if, after so many mingled seasons, the trees had grafted into one another and become a single plant that produced the leaves of several species. The light was trapped above Howard’s head, glittering and abundant. Very few drops of it made their way through the tangle and into the grass. Howard twice passed places where the light gushed down and pooled over the ground-once where a giant blighted oak tree stood and then farther on, where lightning had split a huge spruce.

What looked like the end of the road was, in fact, merely a shift to the left or the right or a dip or gradual rise. And the way the clouds moved, mostly invisible, above the canopy of trees, now revealing the full light of the sun, now obscuring it, now diffusing it, reflecting it, and the way it sparkled and trickled and gushed and flooded and spun, and the way the wind dispersed it even more among the flickering leaves and twitching grass, all combined to make Howard feel as if he were walking through a kaleidoscope. It was as if the sky and the ground were turning end over end in front of him, around in a circle, so that the earth, as it swung up over the sky, dropped leaves and spears of grass and wildflowers and tree branches into the blueness and, as it rolled back down toward its proper place, in turn, received a precipitation of clouds and light and wind and sun from the sky. Sky and earth were now where they belonged, now side by side, now inverted, and now righted again in one seamless, silent spinning. Heedless animals picked their way through this turning thicket; birds and dragonflies dropped onto twigs and took off again for the skies; foxes padded over clouds and stepped back onto the forest floor without a pause; and a million tadpole tails flickered down from the watery ceiling and then sank back to their muddy nests. The light, too, shattered like a vast plate and rejoined itself and splintered again, shards and chips and glowing glass and backlit wisps of it turning in hushed and peaceful exchange and saturating everything Howard saw, so that all things themselves finally seemed to dissolve away and their shapes be held by nothing more than quills of colored light.

Howard eventually comes to the outlet at Tagg Pond. The day is unusually warm. He stoops to examine how the water has arranged silt and leaves around the stones in the pools beyond the first reaches of the outlet. The silt and water combine in an element that is half earth and half liquid. The appearance is that of a solid streambed. Howard takes off his father’s boots and the three pairs of socks he is wearing and rolls up the legs of his pants. When he steps into the water, the mud yields, a phantom floor that gives way to the true ground with little more resistance than the water flowing over it. Howard’s legs stir the silt into clouds, so he stands still for a time, watching a pair of cedar waxwings catch insects over the water and return to the same branch on a juniper bush growing on a hump of grass in the middle of the pool. The clouds of silt unfurl and the current carries them away. Then the water in which he stands is clear again and his legs look as if they end at the knees. The sunken halves of his legs stand buried in the silt among hidden branches and stones, which, because they are invisible, feel somehow like bones. After a time, small brook trout return to where he stands near the high grass and bushes of the bank. Clusters of frog eggs float past him, some close enough to see the embryos inside. Howard traces the riverbed with his feet and finds a flat stone broad enough to sit on. He finds another stone to place in his lap, so that the water will not lift him. He sinks down into the silt and sits on the flat stone. The silt is so deep where the stone is that only his head rises above the water and only his neck rises above the silt. He watches the silt billow away from his neck, as if his severed head has been tossed on the water and, rather than blood, bleeds clouds of soil.

It is now the middle of the afternoon and Howard decides to sit this way through the entire night, until the sun rises the next morning. By the time the shadows begin to lengthen and creep across the water, the stream has healed itself back around him and he imagines that he will now be able to see the animals and the light and the water the way they are when he is not present, and that that might tell him something about his father. I will have to sit still, like a guru, he thinks. I will have to ignore cramps and the cold. I have to breathe very slowly and very quietly, so that my breath does not even stir the water flowing past my chin. I have to ignore whatever slithers past me in the mud. I cannot fall asleep. I am bound to see frightening things. What if I see lights in the sky? What if I see shadows sprinting through the tops of the trees? What if I see wolves walk on two feet and crouch like men to drink from the stream? What if there is a storm? What if it is clear and the sky brimming so full of stars that the light overflows down onto the earth and transforms into luminescent white flowers along the bank, which sparkle and disperse without a trace the moment the planet passes the deepest meridian of night and begins turning back toward the sun? What if I see my father, just inside the trees, humming softly to himself, content and at peace until he notices me sitting in the mud?

Sometime after midnight, I saw another head on the water, partially obscured by the grass overgrowing the bank, several yards downstream, just before the pool turned into a brook and turned east. The moon was bright and it illuminated the head. The head faced me. I tried to see its eyes, which I knew were open and were staring at me without blinking, but when I looked straight at them, my vision inked over. It was only by looking to the left or right of them that they became clear, or at least clearly eyes, which I imagined were open and staring. It was an Indian. He had not been there when I sat down in the water. I had not seen him arrive, even though we faced each other. Somehow, I knew that I could not move, that something terrible might happen if I did. I regretted coming to look for reliquaries of my father, at the foolishness of the act. It seemed to me then that my father had been a man of steady and real faith and that I was a foolish, lonely, miserable child. The night passed and the Indian did not move, except for once, when a small trout leapt from the water and down his throat.

I thought that the Indian must be Old Sabbatis. Sabbatis had grown up living on an island in the lake before he went to live with Red in his cabin. He worked as a fishing and hunting guide. Usually, he wore a flannel shirt and pants held up with white suspenders and a floppy wide-brimmed hat. The only traditional part of his costume was his moccasins, which he made himself. Some sportsmen were clearly disappointed when they first saw him, their fantasies of being led through the woods by an Indian clearly having conjured a more exot- is image. Once a year, though, Sabbatis put on an old headdress and buckskin leggings and beaded vest, bought and kept for him by J. T. Saunders, and good naturedly, we thought, played the part of Indian chief in Saunders’s display down at the Boston Sportsmen show.

But the head on the water did not look like Sabbatis. Its stillness could have been Sabbatis’. I had often heard stories of sportsmen leaving him at camp early in the morning, after he had made them breakfast, sitting in a certain position, facing a certain direction, and returning several hours later to find him in the same place. He always rose, though, the moment the men returned, and took whatever fish or small game they had caught and began preparing lunch, joking about how all of the big fish must have been hiding from the white men. But this was a different stillness. It seemed terrible, nearly inhuman. When the head’s mouth opened, almost before the fish had even broken the surface of the stream, it made a hole, into which the dark water smoothly flowed. Although the head was far away, I was certain I heard the echo of the water funneling down its throat in the instant before the fish leapt. When the fish leapt, it was not like the normal rise of a fish striking a mayfly; the fish, unlikely, impossible, invisible itself, its existence only traced by the water from which it emerged, jumped directly down the Indian’s throat. It did not struggle. It did not thrash its tail against any teeth, nor did it worry with the tongue, which might possibly have seemed to it like another fish. It simply dived straight down the open throat, with the mouth closing behind it so quickly that the whole event seemed as if it hadn’t actually happened outside of my imagination. In fact, it seemed not to happen at all, but, rather, suddenly, to have happened.

The Indian’s face was as it had been before.

Then the face was my own. For an instant, the Indian’s face turned to mine and I was looking at myself, as if in a mirror. I noticed the very first light of the day in the tops of the trees. There was a sudden breath of wind and I felt sore and so cold, I thought I might lose consciousness. The head in the water was gone. I could not have looked away for more than an instant, certainly not enough time for the Indian to have risen from the water and disappeared into the woods. The water was undisturbed, too; there wasn’t a trace of any body entering or leaving it. My dismay at the head’s disappearance is the last thing I remembered before waking up slung in a canvas tent and being carried out of the woods by Ed Titcomb and Rafe Sanders, who had come upon me while hunting and found me, passed out half in and half out of the water in the outlet. The canvas smelled like fish guts and stale smoke and old rain. He’s not dead, I guess, Rafe said when he saw my eyes open. He was at my head, Ed at my feet. Should be, Ed said without turning. Rafe’s face was directly above me, it and the trees behind it swinging in rhythm to Rafe’s and Ed’s steps. Their progress was quick but awkward and I am certain they would have preferred to carry me lashed to a birch pole by my wrists and ankles, the way they carried the bears that they shot. Rafe was smoking a cigarette, as always. Might still yet, he said. The ash sagging from his cigarette exploded like a burst of confetti when he said the s in still and it spun down into my hair and onto my face. I looked forward and saw Ed’s stooped back covered by his red flannel shirt. His hat covered his wavy black hair but his head was bent forward and his pale neck visible. I thought, He’ll be chewing his tobacco, too, and just before I lost consciousness again, I saw a jet of tea-colored juice spurt from his hidden face into the brush alongside the trail.

I remember that my father had a birch canoe when I was very young. Indians made the canoe and my father bought it from them. Every spring, when the ice went out, one of the Indians would appear out of the woods one morning and restore the canoe for the season. I never saw my faher speak with the Indian and I do not know how payment was made or collected or in what currency it was paid. After resewing loose seams and inserting new bark where it was needed, the Indian simply disappeared back into the trees. I remember squatting in the grass several yards from where the Indian worked, trying to learn what I might, which was nothing, but still something I felt compelled to do, as if my lesson was no more than the effort I made. After glancing away for a moment to look at the first robin of spring, I looked back at the canoe and the Indian had vanished without sound, without, seemingly, even movement, but, rather, had been reabsorbed back not only into trunk and root, stone and leaf but into light and shadow and season and time itself.

It may have been Old Sabbatis who repaired my father’s canoe every spring, not long after the ice had gone out of the ponds and lakes. He seemed to me as old as light and just as diffuse. I thought about him when the sky filled with files of dark clouds, whose silhouettes were traced by the sun and which were interspersed with the clearest and cleanest blue imaginable. When gold and red and brown leaves blow across paths and are taken up by circles of wind, it seems like the passing of his time. When new buds light up wet black branches, they seem to burst forth from another side of time, which belonged to Sabbatis and men like my father. Of course, Sabbatis is ancient only to me. My father is ancient, too, because both were men who passed from life when I was young. My memories of them are atmospheres. Old Sabbatis was used to scare children or to explain strange weather. Sometimes he was seen in the tops of trees. Sometimes men on the lake saw him dart by in the water deep beneath their boats, chasing salmon. Old Red was famously silent about Sabbatis. Men who used him as a guide regularly asked Red about him and Red would say only that Sabbatis was gone. Even the older men who had used Sabbatis himself as a guide before, the year being sometime around 1896 or 1897-no one could agree; it was somehow just understood that Red was now the guide for fishing and hunting trips-even they would not talk about him, deepening an impression of a nearly prehistoric era, when hunting must have been far more dangerous and brutal, not the least for being orchestrated by a still half-wild Indian, who was old enough to remember his own grandfather’s stories of raids not on bear or deer but on men, and who, for that reason, was closely watched and quarantined from the supply of rye and whiskey while on any expedition, in case the spirits should spark some atavistic fury. None of these older white men doubted for a moment that the Indian could slaughter a party of eight or ten armed men should he avail himself of his forefathers’ savage wisdom. And, from the talk of theirs I heard when I was a boy, none of them thought for a moment that he actually ever would scalp a party in its sleep or as it was spread out through the woods on a hunt, although none of them seemed to mind that the more they protested Sabbatis’ pacific nature, the more people seemed convinced that these men had somehow undertaken to set up camp with the devil himself, and that sleeping and hunting under his direction for weeks on end in the wilderness and coming home afterward, unscathed, to their jobs as bankers and lawyers and managers at the mills was a sign of their deep and true faith and nearly heroic strength of char acter, and they themselves eventually came to seem men who stood astride the old world of fire and flood and the new one of production quotas and commodities markets.

Of course, Sabbatis was a man, like any other. It was known that he liked looking at any photographs people were willing to show him, although he refused to have his own taken, unless, strangely enough, it was with a baby. Several photos exist of him standing on the front gallery of Titcomb’s general store or on the porch of the North Carry Hotel (where he worked for many summers cutting wood) with a child held in the crook of his arms. These were the only times Sabbatis was known to have smiled. He also had a fondness for saltwater taffy, which he regularly accepted as part of his payment for acting as a guide from sportsmen who came up from Boston. He had no teeth and simply slid a stretch of the candy between his gums and his cheek and let it dissolve. He and Red, who was called Little Red in those days, lived in a cabin just beyond town, behind where Gooding street was made and houses put up for the new managers of the mills, who were hired in anticipation of the increase in business when the trains came through West Cove. No one knew whether Sabbatis and Red were related by blood. Some of the old librarians, who had a sense of the town’s history, thought they might be distant cousins, and could easily be provoked into heated arguments about the matter during a slow winter twilight at the checkout desk in the library. It may simply be that Sabbatis and Red lived together because it was better to them to live with even the strangest Indian than the friendliest white man. They were rarely seen together outside of their yard and were never heard speaking with each other at all. Little Red became Old Red only when Sabbatis died, or disappeared, as the case was. In the fall of 1896 or 1897, depending on who was asked, men came to the cabin to arrange for the season’s hunting trips, and Sabbatis was not there. Red said, He’s gone, and that was that. Red seemed to understand the disappointment of the men-that he was somehow more tame and domesticated than his predecessor. So, Old Red took the men on their trips and did just as well as Sabbatis had, with apparently neither training nor experience. In becoming Old Red, he seemed to relinquish himself as a particular man and become the embodiment of some eternal thing that itself stood outside of time and whose existence as any given person was merely circumstantial.

Ed and Rafe did not want to miss out on a good day’s hunting, perhaps because their families depended on it, and they must have decided that I was in no danger of perishing because they dropped me off at the junction of two tote roads, where, they knew, a lumber crew would pass sometime that morning. I must have wakened at some point and wandered back into the woods. This is when I believe I had my first epileptic seizure. When I awoke again, I spent some time lost and I did not return home until after the sun had set. I was wet and chilled through. Blood caked my hair and had run in a line from the corners of my mouth, down along my jawline, and into my ears, where it had collected and thickened. Even though I could hear my own panting as I made my way through the dark, I thought I had gone deaf because I couldn’t hear anything outside of me, like my own footsteps or the wind. My tongue was swollen so much from my nearly biting it off that I could not properly close my mouth.

When I entered the kitchen through the back mudroom, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table mending a pair of my socks. She said something to me without looking up or even moving her mouth. This was the way she usually addressed me. There was no reason for her to raise her voice or look me in the eye or say my name, for that matter, in order to get my attention. She and I expected that I would simply always heed her words.

I shouted back to her, I had a spell and went deaf.

She put down her needle and thread and came and took me by the hand and led me to the table. She sat me down and went out to the pump, where she soaked a towel. I could smell the plain soap she used, and the wood burning in the stove, and the food smell of the kitchen, which was vaguely like chicken and butter and bread, although she had not cooked any dinner.

First, she scrubbed the blood out of my ears. The sounds of the world hissed in my head, clearer than I remembered them.

I said you are in a state, she said.

I went looking for Dad.

Then she scrubbed the blood from my face and hair. My skin stung from how hard she scrubbed and it seemed she would pull my hair right from my scalp. She wept as she cleaned me. She did not sob, but must have muted her grief by cleaning me so fiercely that I finally yelped, and she calmed. She took my face in her hands, which were cold and raw and calloused, and told me to open my mouth.

You must not speak for a week.

I began to say, No, I went looking for Father’s teeth in tree wood and his hair in the stalks of bushes andbut she clamped my face more tightly and said, Stop. Seven days. Your tongue will fall off if you speak any more. It may have been true, for all I ever knew. It felt forked in my mouth, odd, mangled. I didn’t dare to look at it in the mirror.

This was the first night my mother and I spent together in the kitchen without my father, she mostly at the stove preparing food or in the straight chair by the woodstove mending our clothes. On Sunday nights, she ironed the sheets and the curtains and I did my homework to the sound of the hissing steam and the smell of scorched starch. Long after my tongue healed and I was able to speak, my mother and I remained silent.

That first night, however, she made a broth and fed it to me through a tin basting wand, which she inserted into my mouth along the side and down to the back, nearly into my throat, in order not to touch my tongue, like a mother bird feeding a chick. The broth was very hot and salty and it scalded its way down to my stomach. Once its heat was inside me, it radiated out from my middle, until I was finally warmed through. My mother was very patient. The process took nearly an hour. I recall only the gradual exchange of coldness and pain for warmth and exhaustion. The forest had nearly wicked from me that tiny germ of heat allotted to each person and I realized then how slight, how fragile it was, how it almost could not even be properly called heat, as its amount was so small and whatever its source so slight, and how it was just like my father disappearing or the house, when seen from the water, flickering and blinking out.

 

 

 

4

URING THE DAYS, GEORGE WAS AWARE OF A large group of people murmuring and flowing in and out of the room as if on tides. At night, though, when he awoke, there was only and always one person sitting on the couch next to his bed, reading by the dim light of a small pewter lamp set on the rolltop desk at the far end of the couch. The person was always familiar to him, but he never knew exactly who it wasif the person was a man or woman, relative or friend. It was as if every time he tried to gather his senses and focus on the person-hair, eyes, cheekbones, nose-in order to recall a name, the person retreated to his peripheral vision, this even though the person remained sitting in full view.

The first night he found the benevolent stranger, he asked, Who are you? And the person looked up from the book and smiled and said, You are awake. He asked, What time is it? The person answered, It is very late. This exchange seemed to occur without him or the person speaking. George could not tell if it was the pills or his normal confusion or if, in fact, he and the person were even communicating at all. It seemed even that when he wondered this to himself, the person answered, You are right here, speaking with me. You are as clear as a chime.

George attempted to see the person clearly by looking away for a moment and concentrating on the stilllife painting at the opposite end of the room and then looking back, concentrating on trying to look straight into the person’s eyes. When he did this, the person seemed like a will-o’-the-wisp, seemed not to sit on the couch, but to hover just above its cushions, and, whenever looked at, to dart to the left or right, up or down, without apparent conscious effort, as if the movement was a reflex, some natural defense, so that instead of being observed directly, he or she always presented an elusive vision flickering against a background of curtain, lamp, desk, couch.

The person was young-not a child, not an adolescent, but much younger than George’s eighty years, at least in body; the person radiated a sense of possessing hundreds of years, but as a simultaneity: The person contained hundreds of years, but they overlapped, as if the person experienced any number of times at once.

I was just thinking, the person said in a silvery voice, I was just thinking that I am not very many years old, but that I am a century wide. I think that I have my literal age but am surrounded in a radius of years. I think that these years of days, this near century of years, is a gift from you. Thank you. Now, let me read you something to get you back to sleep.

Cometa Borealis: We entered the atmosphere at dusk. We trailed a wake of fire. We were a sparkling trail of white fire hurtling over herds that grazed alluvial plains. The purple plains: steppe and table, clastic rocks from an extinct river strewn over the bed of an extinct ocean. Perhaps, far away, there was a revolution-the storming of a bereft fort built on the bend of a remote, misty, woods-shrouded river. But here only heavy-coated caribou lifted their shagged heads, their velvet antlers, not even stopping their chewing while our silent blazing passed across the cold sky, followed by their wet black eyes, but only because that is the nature of eyes and of light. Winds swept over the plains. We never saw the caribou or the revolution. We were a burning fuse. We barely caught a glimpse of the darkening world below us before we burned away to nothing.

Seventy-two hours before George died, Nikki Bocheki, an old acquaintance from the Unitarian church, showed up in a red Alfa Romeo convertible and flowing scarves. She took off her large sunglasses and kissed George’s wife on each cheek. When she saw George in his bed, she said, Oh George, you handsome thing! She kissed him on the forehead and her lips left a livid lipstick print. George did not recognize her but made a silly face like a cartoon character. And who’s this beautiful lady? he said, which was just the right thing to say, even though he said it not only to be charming but also because he did not actually know. Nikki put a hand on his shoulder, called him an incurable gentleman, and blushed.

Nikki was an old woman who dressed like an aging former starlet whose most dramatic, and final, role was that of the aging former starlet persevering under the tyranny of time. She was, in fact, a nurse. Once she had chatted with George (who never remembered who she was) and his wife, she shooed the exhausted family from the room. I have three hours before my shift and I can’t think of a nicer way to spend it than taking care of this sweetie pie. May I have a razor and a towel and some hot water? It isn’t right that George doesn’t have a good shave; he always dressed so smartly. He always looked so dapper.

When the family returned two hours later from their naps and furtive cigarettes and whispered arguments in the side yard, Nikki was sitting next to George, reading a glossy magazine called International Luxury Properties and chewing a stick of sugarless gum. George lay asleep beneath a white sheet, with only his head visible. His face was clean and smooth, his hair trimmed and combed. He wore his glasses. He looked as if he had fallen asleep in a barber’s chair. When the family said what a lovely job she had done, Nikki said, Oh, yes, yes, well you know, all we have is our looks.

The escapement on a clock consists of a collar on a pinion, called a pallet, and an escape wheel, located at the top of the clock’s works. It is placed at the end of the going train. The going train is that part of the clock which keeps time. If a clock has chimes, there is also a striking train. The striking train powers and regulates the clock’s striking mechanism, which most simply consists of a gathering pallet, a mallet, and a coiled length of steel, which, when struck by the mallet, produces a chime. Each of these trains is powered by a spring. The spring, or mainspring, is a long spiral- shaped ribbon of flattened steel. The spring is attached at its end that is the innermost of the spiral to an arbor. This arbor is turned with a key to wind the clock; that is, to wind the spring. The spring is kept from unraveling during winding by a click wheel and ratchet pawl. In later clocks, it is housed in a brass drum called the spring barrel. The mainspring then unwinds and the power thus released is transferred to a series of wheels and gears, which move the minute and hour hands around the dial of the clock. At the end of this train is the escapement. This is where the energy generated by the mainspring finally escapes the clock. It is also where the clock’s regularity of beat is maintained; so we have returned to the pallet and escape wheel. The power comes through the escape wheel, which, being at the end of the going train, is the finest, most elegant and sensitive of the wheels. It bids the power, which has been tamed by the successive gears from savage energy to civilized servant, to perform the most rarefied of tasks: namely, to cooperate with the pallet to mark precisely each of the 86,400 seconds in our earthly day, and, furthermore, to do so for eight days at a time, making for a total of 691,200 seconds, or 192 hours. This cooperation, and each of these hundreds of thousands of seconds, may be heard at our leisure as the calming, reassuring tick-tocks of a winter’s night from the bracket clock on the mantel above the glowing fire. If we call roll through the years, Huygens, Graham, Harrison, Tompion, Debaufre, Mudge, LeRoy, Kendall, and, most recently, Mr. Arnold, we find a humble and motley, if determined and patient, parade of reasonable souls, all bent at their worktables, filing brass and calibrating gears and sketching ideas until their pencils dissolve into lead dust between their fingers, all to more perfectly transform and translate Universal Energy by perfecting the beat of the escape wheel. Listen, horologist, to the names of their devices: verge, dead-beat, tictac, gridiron, grasshopper, rack lever, gravity, detente, pinwheel. Like our greatest bards, those manly and sensitive souls who range over hill and through wood, who ponder the sheep grazing among the ancient ruins and there find rhyme and meter; in short, find the music of sweetest verse, so, too, our greatest clock men find that poetry resides in the human process of distilling civilization from riotous nature! Welcome, fellow, welcome!

-from The Reasonable Horologist,

by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783

Family and close friends never knocked before entering George’s house and they always came in by the back door, through the three-season porch, and into the kitchen. George would either be in the basement working on clocks, napping on the couch in the living room (his forearm over his head, his glasses on the coffee table), or, if it was lunchtime, sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the Wall Street journal and complaining to his wife that the meal was taking too long, to which she would respond, Oh, shut up and make it yourself if you want it so fast. He and his wife often bickered like this. He would complain about her cooking (which was very good) or his laundry (which she not only did but also ironed every piece of, including his undershirts and briefs) and she would bellow back that he could go to hell if he didn’t like it and that she was going shopping for shoes. They’d both laugh then. So the house smelled of starch and laundry detergent and roast chicken and linseed oil and brass. Visitors appearing in his living room and waking him from his light sleep never startled George. (Even at night, as he snored uproariously, the quietest word would rouse him to complete wakefulness.)

Customers dropping off or picking up clocks came to the front door, which was located in a small entryway attached to the living room. By the time of his final illness, George’s wife had tired of her days being constantly interrupted by strangers appearing with black marble mantel clocks in cardboard boxes, walnut schoolhouse clocks tucked under their arms, or decrepit long-case clocks lashed to handcarts and wheeled up the walk. She also tired of George’s way of talking with his customers, a combination of easy, joking familiarity and conspiratorial regret. She became especially uncomfortable when the customers pulled out their checkbooks and asked what they owed. The price always seemed to surprise, if not actually anger them. When he had few or no customers scheduled to come to the house, George often spent the day driving all over the North Shore and Cape Ann, redeeming checks at the banks from which the funds were drawn, so that all of his deposits to his own accounts were made in cash. He also kept safety-deposit boxes at six different banks, which he worked at filling with one-hundred-dollar bills. By the time of his dying, there were these six boxes of cash, another full of treasury bills, three checking accounts, two savings accounts, and seven certificates of deposit tucked away in a total of eight different banks. George regularly visited each bank in order to soothe himself with rates and principals, compound interest and tightly banded stacks of bills.

George most often visited with Edward Billings, the manager of the Enon branch of the Salem Five bank. Edward stood a foot and a half higher than George, like a fleshy Olympian pear trussed up in a three-piece suit. Even his head seemed tall and elongated. It was topped by a bald dome, which reflected the ceiling lights of the bank so clearly that it seemed lit from within. The band of hair circling the circumference of his head was meticulously dyed, and when he did not have his hands pressed to each other at the tips of his fingers, as if in a kind of prayer or exhortation, he smoothed it down along the back of his skull with the end of a middle finger. The two looked like a vaudeville act one Tuesday morning in January, standing next to each other behind Edward’s desk at the back of the bank, looking at the especially large Vienna regulator clock hung on the wall. George maintained the clock for Edward (at the bank’s expense, of course), and the two contemplated the motionless pendulum as they spoke.

Damn thing just stopped, Mr. Crosby, Edward said.

George said, These things are tricky bastards. George saw, with his years of experience, that the clock had been merely brushed off level by the enormous banker as he had inserted or extracted himself behind his desk, and that the pendulum would therefore run down and stop ten minutes after whenever it was started. Edward’s phone rang and he excused himself to answer it. He spoke with his head bowed and his back turned to George. As he told a Mr. White on the other end of the line that, yes, he’d have those summaries by the end of the week, George righted the clock on the hook from which it hung. Edward turned back toward George and held up an index finger and nodded to him, saying into the phone, Yes, yes, that’s right, Friday at the latest, Saturday morning at the very latest, if the Lynn branch can’t hop to it. George nodded back and mouthed, I have to go out to the car.

George brought a stepladder and a tackle box full of tools back into the bank. He set the ladder up in front of the clock, opened its large glass door, mounted the ladder, and peered up into the clock. He grunted and swore and dismounted the ladder to change tools three times, all while thinking of his children and his grandchildren, their winter clothes and their new roofs, their failing transmissions and foundering marriages, their fifth years at private colleges. At the end of half an hour, he finally said, Aha, I got you, you little son of a- And he climbed down the ladder, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Edward filled out a yellow form and drew three one-hundred-dollar bills from one of the tellers’ drawers, which George promptly handed back to the teller, a middle-aged woman named Eddie, who had worked at the bank since it had opened in 1961, and told her, just put these in that little gray box I have out back, my dear, along with all the others. How did I ever know you were going to say that, Mr. Crosby? she said, laughing and making her chewing gum pop. She took the bills and licked her thumb and snapped each one twice, counting, One two three, One two three, and buzzed herself into the bank’s vault. At that moment, the bank, quiet and ordered, bland music quietly burbling overhead from the speakers in the ceiling, seemed to George bathed in a golden light.

The wallpaper in George’s basement workroom had a pattern of larch branches on a dunn-colored background. Clocks in various states of repair and disrepair hung on wall, some ticking, some not, some in their cases, some no more than naked brass works fitted with their pairs of hands. Cuckoos and Vienna regulators and schoolhouse and old railroad station clocks hung at different heights. There were often twenty-five or thirty clocks on the wall. Some of them were clocks he wanted to sell. None was marked. The closet to the left of his desk was made from raw pine planks and took up the space beneath the stairway. Between the pine planks and the arboreal wallpaper and the wood of the clocks, and the fact that the only windows were two small dry wells high in the wall near the ceiling, one felt one was in some odd, ticking bower. George sat at his desk at all hours of the day, looking down through his bifocals and often through one or two lenses of a clip-on set of jeweler’s loops down into the brass guts of clocks, pushing and pulling at arbors and gears and ratchets, humming non-existent melodies, which evaporated as he unconsciously composed them. In this setting, he drove numerous fidgety grandchildren to near madness, insisting that they sit in a hard chair and watch him hum and poke around to no apparent effect. This is the thing to get into, boy. I tell you, this is how you can make some bucks. There was little to do but try to pick out recognizable bits of songs from his humming, which none of the children could do, and listen to the way that the tickings of the different clocks, which not only lined the walls but were also crowded onto several folding card tables, an old cot, and the shelves of a built-in bookcase, fell into and out of beat with one another. On rare occasions, every clock in the room seemed to tick at the same time. By the next tock, however, they all began to drift away from one another again and George’s hapless victim would nearly weep at the prospect of having to sit still and listen again for the confluence. The only light in the room was one small wall lamp fitted with a forty-watt bulb and George’s flu orescent jeweler’s lamp, which was clamped to the desktop and could be pulled into almost any conceivable angle in order to illuminate almost any depths the works of a clock might present. This light provided the only other source of diversion for the child condemned to witness the mysterious, agonizing, glacial, undramatic doings of antique clock repair: watching the dust float. The jeweler’s lamp brilliantly lit the dust in the air near whatever clock was being worked on. The rest of the room was dark with clocks and the evergreen wallpaper and so provided a perfect contrast to the front-lit specks of dust that floated down into or across the lamp’s halo. The child imagined the flecks were miniaturized ships exploring inner space: The giant is fixing the time machine. We can only hope he doesn’t sneeze or make any sudden moves and create a vortex that will send us hopelessly off course. The ship is made only of lamb’s wool and dander!

How to Make a Bird’s Nest: Take a wafer of tinker’s tin. With heavy scissors, cut four triangles. The triangles shall be small, no taller or wider than half an inch, preferably smaller, if possible. Punch holes near the two angles at the base of the triangle, using a small hammer and the slimmest nails or brads possible. A large, sturdy sewing needle is even better, as it will yield a finer hole. Fold each triangle along an imaginary line extending from the top point to the middle of the base. The angle of the fold should be as close to ninety degrees as possible, using only the naked eye (as the utility of the tool does not depend on exact mathematical measurement). Thread each of the pieces with a length of fishing line or kitchen string or strong sewing thread. Now, patience is required; place in turn each piece of shaped tin over the nails of the forefinger and thumb of each hand so that the end point of each piece extends approximately one-quarter of one inch beyond the fingertip. Fasten each piece to the finger by tightly tying the thread around the finger at the first joint (but not so tightly that circulation is lost). This may take practice. Join the thumb and forefinger at their pads. By rolling them together forward and back, the two folded triangles should variously meet and separate; these are your beaks. It is with these that you will pick up grass and twigs and tinsel and stray bits of string and weave them together in the branches of a chosen tree or bush or thicket, depending on the species whose nest you wish to undertake. (This in itself requires preparation and it is suggested that as many examples as possible of the desired type of nest be studied before attempting one’s own version. Even more desirable is to spend as many a spring afternoon as manageable watching the birds themselves weave their homes; such observation will help immensely in learning the particular stitch required.) Keep in mind, though, that the materials for the nest must be col lected and woven strand by strand. Birds do not gather their lumber, so to speak, all at once, but, rather, search out each plank and shingle one at a time. Such a birdy method may at first seem absurd to the forwardthinking nest maker, but soon it will be found that the pleasures of the project are not derived from efficiency. (Another desired eventuality is that as one becomes more and more dexterous weaving nests, one will begin to do so with only one beak, as it were. And here, then, too, is another temptation to overcome-keeping one’s free hand behind one’s back and refraining from giving the birds a helping human hand!)

Once the nest is complete, then what to put in it? Anything your heart desires, of course: acorn eggs plucked from their cups; stones smoothed in a river; a lock of your sweetheart’s hair; your firstborn’s milk teeth-anything you choose that will fit into the nest and give you pleasure to consider whenever you visit. Over time, one’s whole countryside might be fitted out with a constellation of such nests, each holding its own special treasure.

-from a lost pamphlet by Howard Aaron Crosby, with accompanying illustrations and instructional diagrams, 1924

Howard entered North Philadelphia at seven in the morning on a Saturday. By nine, he had sold his cart and wares for twenty dollars and was a bag boy at the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. The manager Harry Miller, asked me my name and I thought, I stole the wagon and all of the supplies and sold it as my own, so my name is no longer Crosby, and I said to him, Lightman, Aaron Lightman, not sure if I should even keep my first name but not wanting to lose my name altogether, not wanting to cut the last thread, so I used my middle name, so here I lie on my bed next to my wife, not Kathleen Crosby, nee Black, but Megan Lightman, nee Finn, Aaron Lightman. He started as a bag boy. He loved the job, the smell of the fresh coarse brown paper, the bundles of bags, sharp blocks of pulp, peeling bags off the piles, snapping them open. And he loved packing the bags-fitting boxes and jars and bottles and cans and the meat snugly in butcher paper, stringed tight, and fresh loaves of bread in their own bags. He took pride in fitting each bag like a puzzle, fitting the most items in that hollow rectangle of a cubic foot or two without making it too heavy for a woman to carry and balancing it perfectly so that the bag would not tear. The moment a woman began to pile her groceries on the checkout counter, Howard began to sort them and order them in his mind, so that by the time the crackers and the pot roasts and the sacks of flour were pushed his way, he already had them bagged in their neat brown wrappings and all that was left to do was embody those bags in his mind out of the actual apples and cans of lard and boxes of salt. Two months after he was hired, he was promoted to head of the produce section and he made a paradise of fruit and vegetables. He made Thebes in oranges and lemons and limes. He made primeval forests of lettuce and broccoli and asparagus. He was enchanted by the smells of wax and cold water and packing crates, of skins and rinds breathing rumors of the sweet pulp beneath. In six months, he was an assistant manager. He worked seven days a week and wrote poems extolling his company over the competition (The floor’s a mess and I feel a dope, I scrubbed it down with Red Lantern soap). He married a woman named Megan Finn who talked without pause from the moment she woke-Well the good lord has given me another day! shall I cook eggs and ham or flapjacks and bacon? I have some blueberries left but those eggs will go bad if I don’t use them and I can put the blueberries in a cobbler for dessert tonight because I know how much you love cobbler and how the sugar crust soothes you to sleep like warm milk does a crabby baby although I don’t know why because I saw somewhere that sugar winds a person up but I’m not going to argue with what works-until she went to sleep: Oh! Another day tucked away and here we are tired and honest and in love and happy as two peas in a pod, two peas in a pod! isn’t that silly? peas don’t come in pairs! if they did it wouldn’t be worth it snapping them open, it’d take too long to even get a spoonful never mind enough to fill from nine o’clock to twelve o’clock, that’s how the blind know where the food is on their plates, like a clock, ham at six-thirty! biscuit at four! just like that, that’s how Helen Keller did it, I bet, just like that, potatoes at high noon! goodnight my love.

Megan worked as a sorter in a canning factory. Well, I sort the beans and the peas and the carrots…. Oh, it’s terribly hard and boring and you have to go so fast! In comes the asparagus and just like that I have to sort it by size, color, and quality into the different bins-and fast, fast, fast!-but it’s for a good cause and canned food is better than fresh-I’m sorry, Mr. Produce Man!because more vitamins get cooked away in the steam that comes out of the pot at home than when the wee peas are cooked right in the can. I know because they told us that they know that there are more vitamins in the canned peas because of all the experiments they do on white rats. It takes them five times as little canned food as fresh not to get scurvy!

Howard brought her flowers every day, and oranges. Each night before he left the store, he stopped in the produce section and lingered at the fruit bins, inhaling the clean smells of lemons and oranges, their citrus perfume. These sharp odors invigorated him. He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them up and held nothing to whirl and eddy and collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning.

George woke at night. He could barely speak. One of his grandsons was sitting on the couch. He said his wife’s name, Erma. What, Gramp? Erma. No more than a whisper, the name sounded remote in his mouth. He could not shape the air, was unable to make the first syllable with his tongue against his upper back teeth, could only get the second syllable to work-ma -so that it sounded as Uhma. Uhma. Water? Do you want some water? Uhma. Erma? You want Nanny? Uh. Uh. Yes.

His wife came from their bed, where she lay in shallow sleep, alone, for a few hours each night as he died. She wore a light blue cotton robe with darker blue piping. Her slippers scuffed on the wood floor of the hall because she walked with small steps and shuffled a bit with sleep and fatigue. The scuffing stopped when she stepped onto the Persian rug covering the living room floor. She stood by his head and leaned down to him and stroked his face. Oh, George, you are my heart’s delight. Haven’t we had a wonderful life together? We’ve been around the whole world together. She gave him a sip of water from a juice glass with painted birds on it. The water helped his mouth and he spoke. Who is reading to me? Who is reading? What is that book? She said, What book, George? Have you been reading to Gramp, Charlie? Charlie said, No, Nan. She turned back to George and said, No one is reading to you, George. George said, The big book. No, my love, there is no book; no one is reading to you. There is no one here at all.

Howard had fewer seizures in Philadelphia. They still left him dazed, still left him feeling acrid and burned, as if an electric fire had swept through him. But afterward he enjoyed the cheerful ministrations of Megan. She led him to bed and rubbed his temples and gave him hot tea. Sometimes she read to him from one of her dime novels. The seizures did not upset her. She had read somewhere that they were considered holy in some cultures. Oh, my sweet, sweet Aaron, what an awful fit that was! I thought you’d break all of our finest china, the way all the cups and plates rattled in the cabinets. My goodness, you must feel terrible. Let’s get you into bed and warm you up. What do you smell this time? Do you taste anything? I hope it’s pork chops, because that’s what’s for dinner tonight, or apple pie, because I baked one this morning. I’m so glad there wasn’t so much blood this time. You didn’t bite your tongue at all, did you? That broomstick works so well. It’s just the right size and I don’t think you could ever bite through it. It looks like it’s been chewed by a dog!

Eventually, she persuaded him to see a doctor, who prescribed bromides, which further lessened the frequency of the seizures. Lordy, I don’t know what sort of witch doctors they have up in Canada, but here in the USA they are the best in the world. From the sounds of it, you were lucky they didn’t shoot you like a dog with rabies. My dog, Mr. Jiggs, had rabies when I was a girl and he foamed at the mouth and stumbled in circles around the yard and my father rushed home from the mill with Charlie Weaver’s shotgun and shot Mr. Jiggs dead right there on the spot and I cried for a week. He was such a free spirit! He chased all the boys and tore their pant cuffs and dug up all the neighbor’s flower beds and ate a cat for dinner every day. Poor Mr. Jiggsy!

Domestica Borealis: 1. New Year’s morning we watched crows collect tinsel for their nests from the discarded Christmas trees along the road. 2. We watched the leaded glass of our windows knit frost into lace. 3. We lashed fishing line to playing cards and raised a house. 4. After Sunday dinner we changed into our sackcloths and threw crab apples at our younger cousins. 5. We drew straws and flipped coins and played Chinese checkers. 6. When it came time to pick bedrooms, we arm-wrestled for choice. The winner chose the room resplendent with crowned kings, queens bestowing benedictions, mocking jokers, jacks with sly smiles. The loser was stuck with a more modest space of twos and fours and sevens, although we were all smitten with the glossy clubs and spades, the livid diamonds, the hearts so bloody red, they seemed nearly to beat.

George awoke for the last time forty-eight hours before he died. He had been unconscious for two days. This was when he understood the situation and needed to tell people things. There was $2,400 in cash hidden in his workbench downstairs. The Simon Willard banjo clock on the wall was worth ten times more than he’d ever told anyone. There was an inscribed first edition of The Scarlet Letter in a safety-deposit box. He loved everyone dearly.

He roused at a time when the last of his body’s major systems had begun to stop. His lungs were full of liquid and he felt like he was drowning. When he tried to speak, he could only make noises that sounded like a rusted pulley turning over a dry well. He looked from person to person around his bed for help. This upset his family, particularly Marjorie, his sister, who cried and looked at his wide eyes and said over and over, He looks so scared. He was like my daddy, he looks so scared, he was like my daddy-until she was taken to the kitchen by one of the cousins. A grandson said, just relax, Gramp, panicking just makes it harder to breathe. He gasped more, gasped faster. The grandson said, I know how it feels, Gramp; it happens when I get an asthma attack. I get scared, too, scared I can’t breathe, but I just relax and I can always breathe. It happens to me, too. He looked at the young man, someone he knew and trusted. As his eyes closed, he still heard the gurgling and felt the nerveless weight of his body, but also felt himself falling away from it, as if he were lying just beneath the contours and boundaries of something that had formerly fit him perfectly, and which to fully inhabit meant to be in this world. It was as if he lay faceup just beneath the surface of water. Voices rose and fell and the sounds of bodies in motion thumped above him. All seemed increasingly foreign, other. He just made out someone saying, No way, no way; I’m keeping him under now.

Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in themselves; they are now simply clues pointing in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe. For is it not true that our universe is a mechanism consisting of celestial gears, spinning ball bearings, solar furnaces, all cooperating to return man (and, indeed, what other, unimagined neighbors of whom we are ignorant!) to that chosen hour we know of from the Bible as Before the Fall? And as an ignorant insect crawling across the face of that clock, who sees not the whole face, the full cycle of numbers, the short hand and the long (which pass in his sky with predictable orbits, cast familiar shadows, offer reassurance through their very repetitions, but which, ultimately, puzzle and beg for the consideration of deeper mysteries), but who merely treads over the surface which hides the gear train and the springs without any but the most indirect conception of what lies beneath, so does man squirm and fret on the dusty skin of our earth, ignorant of the purpose of the world, indeed, the cosmos, beyond the fact that there is one, assigned by God and known only to Him, and that it is good and that it is terrifying and that it is ineffable and that only rational faith can soothe the desperate pains and woes of our magnificent and depraved world. It is that simple, dear reader, that logical and that elegant.

-from The Reasonable Horologist,

by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783

One January night in 1972, Howard’s attention strayed from the book he was reading in bed. He imagined his own sleeping form, imagined that if one could pan back from peaceful face to bird’s-eye view, one could see the supine figure floating not upon the vastness of a dark ocean of sleep but reposing in the vastation itself, the soul or whatever name one cared to give it divested of the body, so that what seemed reposing body was sim ply the most likely image of the whatever named soul, freed of its salt like seawater evaporating in the sun, so that the actual body, resting in bed, sighing, mumbling, came to be more like a scurf, more like that saline column of myth, while the soul or whatever one named it reattached itself in some way to the actual thing of itself like a shadow, as if when his waking self walked down the street on the way home from work, the shadow he made, of man with a paper bag holding six oranges under one arm and a small bouquet of lilies beneath the other, was some reduced version of himself, which, freed from its simple two dimensions defined by an obscurity of light, a projection of dark, would be autonomous and free to move independent of the silhouette cast by the man, and which, for all he knew, when the sun went down and the lamp was turned down, when all light, in fact, was removed from possibly coming between the body and the planes and surfaces upon which its form might be projected by sun, lamp, or even moon, actually did; he saw no reason to doubt that his shadow dreamed just as he did for the reason that he could imagine himself to be a shadow of something-someone-else and that perhaps even his sleep, his dreams, constituted his duty as a shadow of someone else and that perhaps while that someone else dreamed, he was free to live his waking life, so that this alternating, interdependent series of lives formed a sort of intaglio; the waking day of each shadow was the opposite side of its possessor’s sleep. When he tried to explain this to Megan as they lay in bed, he with a copy of The World’s Book of Favorite Popular Verse tented on his chest, she keeping her place in The Poor Orphans of Tinsley Grange with a forefinger, she said, That must be why you can’t sleep some nights and have those awful nightmares about those big dark houses full of all those people you know but who don’t recognize you, or that woman and her twin daughters frozen in the lake ice with all their long hair tangled up; your shadow wants a nap and so you have to get up so that it can sleep. Imagine that! And if your shadow wakes you up and you wake me up, my shadow must be taking a nap, too! Maybe our shadows are in cahoots, sweet pea; maybe they’re partners in crime, just like us! Howard said, Maybe, my love. Maybe that is so, and he kissed Meg on the ear, closed his book, fell asleep, and died.

As George died, the dark blood retreated from his limbs. First, it left his feet, then his lower legs. Then it left his hands. He was aware of this only from a great distance. When the blood left, it was as if it had evaporated; it was as if the blood had turned to some fumy spirit too thin to carry its own minerals. And so, it evaporated and had left a residue of salt and metal along the passages of his dry veins. His bloodless legs were hard like wood. His bloodless legs were dead like planks. His bone-filled feet were like lead weights that were held by his dried veins-his salt-cured, metal-strengthened veins, which were now as tough as gut, as strong as iron chains. It was as if it would be possible to reach into his chest and grab the very vessels leading from his heart and pull at them and hoist the heavy bones of his feet up through his legs and trunk until they hung just below that nearly exhausted engine, and might, as their ponderous weight pulled at arteries and veins and they began to lower back down through his body, drive that worn-out organ just a little longer. But his heart was brittle and worn and out of beat. Its bushings were shot. It was caked in gummy scar. Now his blood trickled through its chambers with the weakest of ticks, whereas before it had flowed and eddied, tended, administered by supple and strong muscle.

His face was pale. It no longer showed expression. True, it showed a kind of peace, or, more precisely, seemed to predict that peace, but such peace was not a human one. It captured breath and let breath escape in fluttery little gasps and sighs. It no longer reacted to light. Shadows passed over it and it merely registered their angles, registered the pilgrimage of the day by their lengths. Certainly, George’s family did not allow the direct glare of the rising or setting sun to fall upon his face, but their adjusting of curtain and shade was a palliative for themselves, for living eyes and living skin, and had nothing to do with the vision of their husband, brother, father, grandfather lying on the hospital bed. Human consideration was no longer to be his, for that consideration could be expressed now only by providing physical comfort, and physical comfort was as meaningless to him (to it, for that was what lay before his family now-the it formerly he-at least to the extent that the he, although still figured by the struggling, fading, dying it, was plumbing depths far, far from that living room filled with a weeping sister and daughters and wife and grandchildren and the it merely maintaining a pantomime of human life), was as meaningless to him now as it would have been to one of his clocks, laid out in his place to be dusted and soothed with linseed oil, fussed over and mourned even before it was was (because that is how the living prepare, or attempt to prepare, for the unknowable was-by imagining was as it is still approaching; perhaps that is more true, that they mourn because of the inevitability of was and apply their own, human, terrors about their own wases to the it, which is so nearly was that it will not or simply cannot any longer accept their human grief) as its broken springs wound down or its lead weights lowered for the last, irreparable time.

Thought that he was a clock was like a clock was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows? And so it is not he who was like a clock but me.

Two things happened in 1953: The new interstate highway opened and Howard’s second wife’s mother fell sick in Pittsburgh. Megan told him he could not go with her to Pittsburgh. Mother was the strictest of Catholics and if she ever found out that her daughter was married to the son of a Methodist minister, any chance she had of recovering from her illness would vanish. Mother would die with her mouth full of curses mingled with my name, she said. This meant he had to spend Christmas alone. Megan baked a banana cream pie and a meat loaf. He walked her to the bus station and helped her onto the four-thirty to Pittsburgh and all points between. She talked the entire time. She opened the bus window to tell him to take the vanilla ice cream out of the freezer fifteen minutes before he had it with the pie, that that made it soft, just like he liked it, and said, I love you. He said, I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, still baffled that she had a mother in Pittsburgh. Twenty-five years she had a mother in Pittsburgh.

Five months before, the interstate highway had been finished. It ran in one long line up the eastern seaboard. Immigrants, hobos, manual laborers pounded, carved, blasted, and peeled the earth open through forests, rivers, and gorges, mountains and swamps, then lined the path with good clean gravel, filled it with piping-hot blacktop, rolled it smooth, let it set to cool, and painted a line down the middle. These new superhighways had numbers for names. On the day before Christmas, he put a cold meat loaf sandwich and six bottles of cola in a paper bag, along with his dopp kit, and called his friend from the A&P, Jimmy Drizos. He asked Jimmy if he could borrow his car, an old Ford sedan. Jimmy said, Sure, sure. The in-laws are coming here this year. Sure, sure you can, pal. He took a bus to Jimmy Drizos’s house in the Greek part of town. Jimmy was replacing bulbs on strings of lights he had threaded around the iron handrails of the steps to his apartment. Jimmy offered him a drink. He said, No, thanks, Jimmy, no. Jimmy offered him some food to take back home. He said, Thank you, Jimmy, thank you and your wife. Jimmy gave him the keys and a plate of lamb and said, Easy on the clutch, pal. He nodded and pressed the clutch pedal and let the car roll out of the driveway, running in neutral. He shifted the car into first gear and let out the clutch as he pushed the gas pedal. Gears whirred, meshed, then jammed. The car lunged and stalled. Jimmy Drizos looked from his stairs, a colored Christmas bulb in each hand, and yelled, Whaddya’, been drinking, pal? and laughed. Howard waved, got the car into gear, and crept away at five miles an hour until he reached the corner, drove over it, turned, and stalled again, this time out of Jimmy Drizos’s sight. He spent four hours lurching through the streets of Philadelphia on Christmas Eve, teaching himself to drive. At nine o’clock in the evening, as a light snow started to fall, he drove Jimmy Drizos’s Ford onto the highway heading north.

Megan’s secret from him was that she had a mother in Pittsburgh. His secret from her was that he had tracked his first family and their migrations throughout New England. He had called post offices to confirm addresses. He called operators and was given new phone numbers. When his son George moved to Enon, Massachusetts, there were two G. Crosbys given by the operator. Howard called the first number. An old woman answered and said, This is Mrs. Gus Crosby. To whom am I speaking? Howard hung up and wrote the second number in his daybook.

Somewhere in Connecticut, he stopped and slept in the backseat of the Ford for four hours. He awoke freezing. He had stopped behind a gas station. He took his dopp kit and used the station bathroom. He brushed his teeth, combed his hair and ran a splash of tonic through it, and shaved with the straight-edge razor his father had given him when he was sixteen and which he still kept sharp enough to cut skin with only the weight of the blade. At noon, he left the highway at exit 24. He took a left and followed Main Street for three miles. He took another left onto Arbor Street and slowed, looking for street numbers on door frames and mailboxes. He came to a small yellow Cape Cod-style house with green shutters. The mailbox at the end of the flagstone walk leading to the front door read GEORGE W. CROSBY. Without turning the engine off, Howard got out of the car, walked up the walkway, and knocked on his son’s front door.

Homo Borealis: 1. We kicked the bark off of dead trees and the soft wood beneath was as pale as sawdust and sometimes covered with strange designs that looked like writing that had been drawn into the wood with a stylus or fine-carving tool and the bark then fitted back over the trunk-a rough skin, a splintery hide that protected the secret language. These hieroglyphs we discovered like revelations, like messages someone had left for us alone to discover and to ponder and to poke and scratch at with our sticks but not to understand and to leave like totems for whomever they were actually meant while we crashed away through the bushes. 2. We made up stories about men who had been tattooed with intricate and important instructions. The tattoos were inked into deep layers and the men would be recognized by long, I-shaped scars on their backs, which would have to be recut and the skin opened like a pair of doors to reveal braids of muscle and the secret script. Of course, the men would not know that they were the bearers of these signs. And of course the people who were supposed to read these messages had to go through a very long and difficult process of deciphering obscure clues and directions in order to find these special couriers, in order to protect both the man and the message. The seeker would find the messenger; he would find himself recognizing the messenger as the messenger was trying to sell him an old horse, or serving him breakfast at an inn, or com plaining about politicians during the morning coffee break. 3. Those stories were ignorant. We sensed, finally, the foolishness of attributing the unknown to secret cabals, to conspiracies. Everything was almost always obscure. Understanding shone when it did, for no discernable reason, and we were content. We built our town, then, out of whatever came our way, or whatever we got in the way of, so that we dwelled in huts of hair, in nests of wrappers and tinsel and string, which we looped through nuts and hung from the ceilings with a bit of tape or a piece of old gum because they all had different threads from the bolts we found. Town Hall was constructed of drinking straws (some with elbows, most not) and hubcaps and the foil from cigarette packages. Any number of people lived in the crooks of trees beneath tented Sunday newspapers, which were aged brown by the sun. When it rained, these buildings swelled and then turned to pulp and washed away and the tenants would dry themselves in the sun when it came back out and begin again to collect tin cans and nickels and matchboxes and greasy paper boats that had once held french fries or onion rings. 4. The green sea turned gray and its surface rolled like a membrane. When we dived for shells, it parted for us without resistance and sealed itself behind our up-pointed toes. We felt around, blind, in its slick graphite body, we sifted its sand and came up with smooth stones for our mantles of wind and mist, and whatever of it was held in our hair when we surfaced ran out like quicksilver and rejoined the rest of itself, seamless, molecular, slick, atomic. We traveled in pods. We breached surfaces and caught glimpses of sheer cliffs, columns of flint capped in fir, boreal. We saw beaches of snow and blizzards of sand. 5. When it came time to die, we knew and went to deep yards where we lay down and our bones turned to brass. We were picked over. We were used to fix broken clocks, music boxes; our pelvises were fitted onto pinions, our spines soldered into vast works. Our ribs were fitted as gear teeth and tapped and clicked like tusks. This is how, finally, we were joined.

The last thing George Washington Crosby remembered as he died was Christmas dinner, 1953. The doorbell rang just as he and his wife and two daughters-Betsy and Claire, the two daughters who now sat at his bedside haggard, pale, exhausted; the daughters he loved and whom he realized would be daddy’s little girls as long as he allowed them, which was until the day he died, which was today-were sitting to eat. As he died, he did not remember getting up from the table and muttering, For Christ’s sake, what is it now? and walking to the door. He remembered all of the time that stood between himself as a boy of twelve and himself as a middle-aged husband and father contracting to zero as he recognized the old man on his front steps as his father, whom he had not seen since he, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, had come upon the family house in West Cove, Maine, one night after making rounds through the county selling brushes and soap to housewives, seen his family in the dimly lit kitchen window, hit his mule, Prince Edward, with a hickory switch, and kept on down the road in his cart until he arrived, nameless, in Philadelphia.

His father sat on the edge of the couch with his hat in his lap and the motor of his rented car idling outside. Food steamed on the table and he said No, no, he couldn’t stay. He asked how things were: Are you well? How are your sisters? Your mother? Joe? Oh, I see. And this is? Ah, Betsy. And you are? Claire, yes. Yes, yes, of course you are shy-I am a strange old man, yes. Well, no, I’d better be going. It was good to see you again, George. Yes, yes, I will. Good-bye.

 

 

******************************

 

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

About authors:

 

 

Paul Harding (born 1967) is an American musician and author, best known for his debut novel Tinkers (2009), which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2010 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize among other honors. Harding was the drummer in the band Cold Water Flat throughout its existence from 1990 to 1996.

-from wikipedia

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Ekko von Schwichow

 

William Joseph Kennedy (born January 16, 1928) is an American writer and journalist born and raised in Albany, New York, the son of William J. Kennedy and to Mary E. McDonald. Kennedy was raised a Catholic. Many of his novels feature the interactions of members of the fictional Irish-American Phelan family and make use of incidents of Albany’s history and the supernatural. Kennedy’s works include The Ink Truck (1969), Legs (1975), Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), Ironweed (1983, winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; movie, 1987), and Roscoe (2002). In 2011, he published Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which one reviewer called a book “written with such brio and encompassing humanity that it may well deserve to be called the best of the bunch”.

-from wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am a neo expressionist.