Excerpts for Independence Day


Chapter One


In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems. Shaded lawns lie still and damp in the early a.m. Outside, on peaceful-morning Cleveland Street, I hear the footfalls of a lone jogger, tramping past and down the hill toward Taft Lane and across to the Choir College, there to run in the damp grass. In the Negro trace, men sit on stoops, pants legs rolled above their sock tops, sipping coffee in the growing, easeful heat. The marriage enrichment class (4 to 6) has let out at the high school, its members sleepy-eyed and dazed, bound for bed again. While on the green gridiron pallet our varsity band begins its two-a-day drills, revving up for the 4th: "Boom-Haddam, boom-Haddam, boom-boom-ba-boom. Haddam-Haddam, up'n-at-'em! Boom-boom-ba-boom!"

Elsewhere up the seaboard the sky, I know, reads hazy. The heat closes in, a metal smell clocks through the nostrils. Already the first clouds of a summer T-storm lurk on the mountain horizons, and it's hotter where they live than where we live. Far out on the main line the breeze is right to hear the Amtrak, "The Merchants' special," hurtle past for Philly. And along on the same breeze, a sea-salt smell floats in from miles and miles away, mingling with shadowy rhododendron aromas and the last of the summer's staunch azaleas.

Though back on my street, the first shaded block of Cleveland, sweet silence reigns. A block away, someone patiently bounces a driveway ball: squeak ... then breathing ... then a laugh, a cough ... "All riiight, that's the waaay." None of it too loud. In front of the Zumbros', two doors down, the streets crew is finishing a quiet smoke before cranking their machines and unsettling the dust again. We're repaving this summer, putting in a new "line," resodding the neutral ground, setting new curbs, using our proud new tax dollars--the workers all Cape Verdeans and wily Hondurans from poorer towns north of here. Sergeantsville and Little York. They sit and stare silently beside their yellow front-loaders, ground flatteners and backhoes, their sleek private cars--Camaros and Chevy low-riders--parked around the corner, away from the dust and where it will be shady later on.

And suddenly the carillon at St. Leo the Great begins: gong, gong, gong, gong, gong, gong, then a sweet, bright admonitory matinal air by old Wesley himself: "Wake the day, ye who would be saved, wake the day, let your souls be laved."

Though all is not exactly kosher here, in spite of a good beginning. (When is anything exactly kosher?)

I myself, Frank Bascombe, was mugged on Coolidge Street, one street over, late in April, spiritedly legging it home from a closing at our realty office just at dusk, a sense of achievement lightening my step, still hoping to catch the evening news, a bottle of Roederer--a gift from a grateful seller I'd made a bundle for--under my arm. Three young boys, one of whom I thought I'd seen before--an Asian--yet couldn't later name, came careering ziggy-zaggy down the sidewalk on minibikes, conked me in the head with a giant Pepsi bottle, and rode off howling. Nothing was stolen or broken, though I was knocked silly on the ground, and sat in the grass for ten minutes, unnoticed in a whirling daze.

Later, in early May, the Zumbros' house and one other were burgled twice in the same week (they missed some things the first time and came back to get them).

And then, to all our bewilderment, Clair Devane, our one black agent, a woman I was briefly but intensely "linked with" two years ago, was murdered in May inside a condo she was showing out the Great Woods Road, near Hightstown: roped and tied, raped and stabbed. No good clues left--just a pink while-you-were-out slip lying in the parquet entry, the message in her own looping hand: "Luther family. Just started looking. Mid-90's. 3 p.m. Get key. Dinner with Eddie." Eddie was her fiance.

Plus, falling property values now ride through the trees like an odorless, colorless mist settling through the still air where all breathe it in, all sense it, though our new amenities--the new police cruisers, the new crosswalks, the trimmed tree branches, the buried electric, the refurbished band shell, the plans for the 4th of July parade--do what they civically can to ease our minds off worrying, convince us our worries aren't worries, or at least not ours alone but everyone's--no one's--and that staying the course, holding the line, riding the cyclical nature of things are what this country's all about, and thinking otherwise is to drive optimism into retreat, to be paranoid and in need of expensive "treatment" out-of-state.

And practically speaking, while bearing in mind that one event rarely causes another in a simple way, it must mean something to a town' to the local esprit, for its values on the open market to fall. (Why else would real estate prices be an index to the national wellbeing?) If, for instance, some otherwise healthy charcoal briquette firm's stock took a nosedive, the company would react ASAP. Its "people" would stay at their desks an extra hour past dark (unless they were fired outright); men would go home more dog-tired than usual, carrying no flowers, would stand longer in the violet evening hours staring up at the tree limbs in need of trimming, would talk less kindly to their kids, would opt for an extra Pimm's before dinner alone with the wife, then wake oddly at four with nothing much, but nothing good, in mind. Just restless.

And so it is in Haddam, where all around, our summer swoon notwithstanding, there's a new sense of a wild world being just beyond our perimeter, an untalked apprehension among our residents, one I believe they'll never get used to, one they'll die before accommodating.

A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you'll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are, you worry like hell about them, you make provisions, take precautions, fashion adjustments; you tell yourself you'll have to change your way of doing things. Only you don't. You can't. Somehow it's already too late. And maybe it's even worse than that: maybe the thing you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath. And what you've feared will happen has already taken place. This is similar in spirit to the realization that all the great new advances of medical science will have no benefit for us at all, though we cheer them on, hope a vaccine might be ready in time, think things could still get better. Only it's too late there too. And in that very way our life gets over before we know it. We miss it. And like the poet said: "The ways we miss our lives are life."

This morning I am up early, in my upstairs office under the eaves, going over a listing logged in as an "Exclusive" just at closing last night, and for which I may already have willing buyers later today. Listings frequently appear in this unexpected, providential way: An owner belts back a few Manhattans, takes an afternoon trip around the yard to police up bits of paper blown from the neighbors' garbage, rakes the last of the winter's damp, fecund leaves from under the forsythia beneath which lies buried his old Dalmatian, Pepper, makes a close inspection of the hemlocks he and his wife planted as a hedge when they were young marrieds long ago, takes a nostalgic walk back through rooms he's painted, baths grouted far past midnight, along the way has two more stiff ones followed hard by a sudden great welling and suppressed heart's cry for a long-lost life we must all (if we care to go on living) let go of ... And boom: in two minutes more he's on the phone, interrupting some realtor from a quiet dinner at home, and in ten more minutes the whole deed's done. It's progress of a sort. (By lucky coincidence, my clients the Joe Markhams will have driven down from Vermont this very night, and conceivably I could complete the circuit--listing to sale--in a single day's time. The record, not mine, is four minutes.)

My other duty this early morning involves writing the editorial for our firm's monthly "Buyer vs. Seller" guide (sent free to every breathing freeholder on the Haddam tax rolls). This month I'm fine-tuning my thoughts on the likely real estate fallout from the approaching Democratic Convention, when the uninspirational Governor Dukakis, spirit-genius of the sinister Massachusetts Miracle, will grab the prize, then roll on to victory in November--my personal hope, but a prospect that paralyzes most Haddam property owners with fear, since they're almost all Republicans, love Reagan like Catholics love the Pope, yet also feel dumbfounded and double-crossed by the clownish spectacle of Vice President Bush as their new leader. My arguing tack departs from Emerson's famous line in Self-Reliance, "To be great is to be misunderstood," which I've trigged into a thesis that claims Governor Dukakis has in mind more "pure pocketbook issues" than most voters think; that economic insecurity is a plus for the Democrats; and that interest rates, on the skids all year, will hit 11% by New Year's no matter if William Jennings Bryan is elected President and the silver standard reinstituted. (These sentiments also scare Republicans to death.) "So what the hell," is the essence of my clincher, "things could get worse in a hurry. Now's the time to test the realty waters. Sell! (or Buy)."

In these summery days my own life, at least frontally, is simplicity's model. I live happily if slightly bemusedly in a forty-four-year-old bachelor's way in my former wife's house at 116 Cleveland, in the "Presidents Streets" section of Haddam, New Jersey, where I'm employed as a Realtor Associate by the Lauren-Schwindell firm on Seminary Street. I should say, perhaps, the house formerly owned by formerly my wife, Ann Dykstra, now Mrs. Charley O'Dell of 86 Swallow Lane, Deep River, CT. Both my children live there too, though I'm not certain how happy they are or even should be.

The configuration of life events that led me to this profession and to this very house could, I suppose, seem unusual if your model for human continuance is some Middletown white paper from early in the century and geared to Indiana, or an "ideal American family life" profile as promoted by some right-wing think tank--several of whose directors live here in Haddam--but that are just propaganda for a mode of life no one could live without access to the very impulse-suppressing, nostalgia-provoking drugs they don't want you to have (though I'm sure they have them by the tractor-trailer loads). But to anyone reasonable, my life will seem more or less normal-under-the-microscope, full of contingencies and incongruities none of us escapes and which do little harm in an existence that otherwise goes unnoticed.

This morning, however, I'm setting off on a weekend trip with my only son, which promises, unlike most of my seekings, to be starred by weighty life events. There is, in fact, an odd feeling of lasts to this excursion, as if some signal period in life--mine and his--is coming, if not to a full close, then at least toward some tightening, transforming twist in the kaleidoscope, a change I'd be foolish to take lightly and don't. (The impulse to read Self-Reliance is significant here, as is the holiday itself--my favorite secular one for being public and for its implicit goal of leaving us only as it found us: free.) All of this comes--in surfeit--near the anniversary of my divorce, a time when I routinely feel broody and insubstantial, and spend days puzzling over that summer seven years ago, when life swerved badly and I, somehow at a loss, failed to right its course.

Yet prior to all that I'm off this afternoon, south to South Mantoloking, on the Jersey Shore, for my usual Friday evening rendezvous with my lady friend (there aren't any politer or better words, finally), blond, tall and leggy Sally Caldwell. Though even here trouble may be brewing.

For ten months now, Sally and I have carried on what's seemed to me a perfect "your place and mine" romance, affording each other generous portions of companionship, confidence (on an as-needed basis), within-reason reliability and plenty of spicy, untranscendent transport--all with ample "space" allotted and the complete presumption of laissez-faire (which I don't have much use for), while remaining fully respectful of the high-priced lessons and vividly catalogued mistakes of adulthood.

Not love, it's true. Not exactly. But closer to love than the puny goods most married folks dole out.

And yet in the last weeks, for reasons I can't explain, what I can only call a strange awkardness has been aroused in each of us, extending all the way to our usually stirring lovemaking and even to the frequency of our visits; as if the hold we keep on the other's attentions and affections is changing and loosening, and it's now our business to form a new grip, for a longer, more serious attachment--only neither of us has yet proved quite able, and we are perplexed by the failure.

Last night, sometime after midnight, when I'd already slept for an hour, waked up twice twisting my pillow and fretting about Paul's and my journey, downed a glass of milk, watched the Weather Channel, then settled back to read a chapter of The Declaration of Independence--Carl Becker's classic, which, along with Self-Reliance, I plan to use as key "texts" for communicating with my troubled son and thereby transmitting to him important info--Sally called. (These volumes by the way aren't a bit grinding, stuffy or boring, the way they seemed in school, but are brimming with useful, insightful lessons applicable directly or metaphorically to the ropy dilemmas of life.)

"Hi, hi. What's new?" she said, a tone of uneasy restraint in her usually silky voice, as if midnight calls were not our regular practice, which they aren't.

"I was just reading Carl Becker, who's terrific," I said, though on alert. "He thought that the whole Declaration of Independence was an attempt to prove rebellion was the wrong word for what the founding fathers were up to. It was a war over a word choice. That's pretty amazing."

She sighed. "What was the right word?"

"Oh. Common sense. Nature. Progress. God's will. Karma. Nirvana. It pretty much all meant the same thing to Jefferson and Adams and those guys. They were smarter than we are."

"I thought it was more important than that," she said. Then she said, "Life seems congested to me. Just suddenly tonight. Does it to you?" I was aware coded messages were being sent, but I had no idea how to translate them. Possibly, I thought, this was an opening gambit to an announcement that she never wanted to see me again--which has happened. ("Congested" being used in its secondary meaning as: "unbearable.") "Something's crying out to be noticed, I just don't know what it is," she said. "But it must have to do with you and I. Don't you agree?"

"Well. Maybe," I said. "I don't know." I was propped up by my bed lamp, under my favorite framed map of Block Island, the musty old annotated Becker on my chest, the window fan (I've opted for no air-conditioning) drawing cool, sweet suburban midnight onto my bedcovers. Nothing I could think of was missing right then, besides sleep.

"I just feel things are congested and I'm missing something," Sally said again. "Are you sure you don't feel that way?"

"You have to miss some things to have others." This was an idiotic answer. I felt I might possibly be asleep but tomorrow still have a hard time convincing myself this conversation hadn't happened--which is also not that infrequent with me.

"I had a dream tonight," Sally said. "We were in your house in Haddam, and you kept neatening everything up. I was your wife somehow, but I felt terrible anxiety. There was blue water in our toilet bowl, and at some point you and I shook hands, standing on your front steps--just like you'd sold me your own house. And then I saw you shooting away out across the middle of a big cornfield with your arms stretched out like Christ or something, just like back in Illinois." Where she's from, the stolid, Christian corn belt. "It was peaceful in a way. But the whole effect was that everything was very, very busy and hectic and no one could get anything done right. And I felt this anxiety right in my dream. Then I woke up and I wanted to call you."

"I'm glad you did," I said. "It doesn't sound like anything that bad, though. You weren't being chased by wild animals who looked like me, or getting pushed out of airplanes."

"No," she said, and seemed to consider those fates. Far away in the night I could hear a train. "Except I felt so anxious. It was very vivid. I don't usually have vivid dreams."

"I try to forget my dreams."

"I know. You're very proud of it."

"No I'm not. But they don't ever seem mysterious enough. I'd remember them if they seemed very interesting. Tonight I dreamed I was reading, and I was reading."

"You don't seem too engaged. Maybe now isn't a good time to talk seriously." She sounded embarrassed, as if I was making fun of her, which I wasn't.

"I'm glad to hear your voice, though," I said, thinking she was right. It was the middle of the night. Little good begins then.

"I'm sorry I got you up."

"You didn't get me up." At this point, though, and unbeknownst to her, I turned out my light and lay breathing, listening to the train in the cool dark. "You just want something you're not getting, is my guess. It's not unusual." In Sally's case, it could be any one of a number of things.

"Don't you ever feel that way?"

"No. I feel like I have a lot as it is. I have you.

"That's very nice," she said, not so warmly.

"It is nice."

"I guess I'll be seeing you tomorrow, won't I?"

"You bet. I'll be there with bells on."

"Great," she said. "Sleep tight. Don't dream."

"I will. I won't." And I put the phone down.

It would be untruthful to pretend that what Sally was wrestling with last night was some want or absence I didn't feel myself. And perhaps I'm simply a poor bet for her or anybody, since I so like the tintinnabulation of early romance yet lack the urge to do more than ignore it when that sweet sonority threatens to develop into something else. A successful practice of my middle life, a time I think of as the Existence Period, has been to ignore much of what I don't like or that seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away. But I'm as aware of "things" as Sally is, and imagine this may be the first signal (or possibly it's the thirty-seventh) that we might soon no longer "see" each other. And I feel regret, would like to find a way of reviving things. Only, as per my practice, I'm willing to let matters go as they go and see what happens. Perhaps they'll even get better. It's as possible as not.

The matter of greater magnitude and utmost importance, though, involves my son, Paul Bascombe, who is fifteen. Two and a half months ago, just after tax time and six weeks before his school year ended in Deep River, he was arrested for shoplifting three boxes of 4X condoms ("Magnums") from a display-dispenser in the Finast down in Essex. His acts were surveilled by an "eye in the sky" camera hidden above the male hygiene products. And when a tiny though uniformed Vietnamese security person (a female) approached him just beyond the checkout, where as a diversionary tactic he'd bought a bottle of Grecian Formula, he bolted but was wrestled to the ground, whereupon he screamed that the woman was "a goddamned spick asshole," kicked her in the thigh, hit her in the mouth (conceivably by accident) and pulled out a fair amount of hair before she could apply a police stranglehold and with the help of a pharmacist and another customer get the cuffs on him. (His mother had him out in an hour.)

The security guard naturally enough has pressed criminal charges of assault and battery, as well as for the violation of some of her civil rights, and there have even been "hate crime" and "making an example" rumblings out of the Essex juvenile authorities. (I consider this only as election-year bluster plus community rivalry.)

Meanwhile, Paul has been through myriad pretrial interviews, plus hours of tangled psychological evaluations of his personality, attitudes and mental state--two of which sessions I attended, found unremarkable but fair, though I have not yet seen the results. For these proceedings he has had not a lawyer but an "ombudsman," who's a social worker trained in legal matters, and who his mother has talked to but I haven't. His first actual court date is to be this Tuesday morning, the day after the 4th of July.

Paul for his part has admitted everything yet has told me he feels not very guilty, that the woman rushed him from behind and scared the shit out of him so that he thought he might be being murdered and needed to defend himself; that he shouldn't have said what he said, that it was a mistake, but he's promised he has nothing against any other races or genders and in fact feels "betrayed" himself--by what, he hasn't said. He's claimed to have had no specific use in mind for the condoms (a relief if true) and probably would've used them only in a practical joke against Charley O'Dell, his mother's husband, whom he, along with his father, dislikes.

For a brief time I thought of taking a leave from the realty office, sub-letting a condo somewhere down the road from Deep River and keeping in touch with Paul on a daily basis. But his mother disapproved. She didn't want me around, and said so. She also believed that unless things got worse, life should remain as "normal" as possible until his hearing. She and I have continued to talk it over every bit--Haddam to Deep River--and she is of the belief that all this will pass, that he is simply going through a phase and doesn't, in fact, have a syndrome or a mania, as someone might think. (It is her Michigan stoicism that allows her to equate endurance with progress.) But as a result, I've seen less of him than I'd like in the last two months, though I have now proposed bringing him down to Haddam to live with me in the fall, which Ann has so far been leery of.

She has, however--because she isn't crazy--hauled him to New Haven to be "privately evaluated" by a fancy shrink, an experience Paul claims he enjoyed and lied through like a pirate. Ann even went so far as to send him for twelve days in mid-May to an expensive health camp in the Berkshires, Camp Wanapi (called "Camp Unhappy" by the inmates), where he was judged to be "too inactive" and therefore encouraged to wear mime makeup and spend part of every day sitting in an invisible chair with an invisible pane of glass in front of him, smiling and looking surprised and grimacing at passersby. (This was, of course, also videotaped.) The camp counselors, who were all secretly "milieu therapists" in mufti--loose white tee-shirts, baggy khaki shorts, muscle-bound calves, dog whistles, lanyards, clipboards, preternaturally geared up for unstructured heart-to-hearts expressed the opinion that Paul was intellectually beyond his years (language and reasoning skills off the Stanford charts) but was emotionally underdeveloped (closer to age twelve), which in their view posed "a problem." So that even though he acts and talks like a shrewd sophomore in the honors program at Beloit, full of sly jokes and double entendres (he has also recently shot up to 5'8", with a new layer of quaky pudge all over), his feelings still get hurt in the manner of a child who knows much less about the world than a Girl Scout.

Since Camp Unhappy, he has also begun exhibiting an unusual number of unusual symptoms: he has complained about an inability to yawn and sneeze properly; he has remarked about a mysterious "tingling" at the end of his penis; he has complained about not liking how his teeth "line up." And he has from time to time made unexpected barking noises--leering like a Cheshire, afterwards--and for several days made soft but audible eeeck-eeecking sounds by drawing breath back down his throat with his mouth closed, usually with a look of dismay on his face. His mother has tried to talk to him about this, has re-consulted the shrink (who's advised many more sessions), and has even gotten Charley to "step in." Paul at first claimed he couldn't imagine what anybody was talking about, that all seemed normal to him, then later he said that making noises satisfied a legitimate inner urge and didn't bother others, and that they should get over their problems with it, and him.

In these charged months I have tried, in essence, to increase my own ombudsman's involvement, conducting early-morning phone conversations with him (one of which I'm awaiting hopefully this morning) and taking him and now and then his sister, Clarissa, on fishing trips to the Red Man Club, an exclusive anglers' hideaway I joined for this very purpose. I have also taken him once to Atlantic City on a boys-only junket to see Mel Torme at TropWorld, and twice to Sally's seashore house, there to be idle-hours bums, swimming in the ocean when syringes and solid human waste weren't competing for room, walking the beach and talking over affairs of the world and himself in a nondirected way until way after dark.

In these talks, Paul has revealed much: most notably, that he's waging a complex but losing struggle to forget certain things. He remembers, for instance, a dog we had years ago when we were all a nuclear family together in Haddam, a sweet, wiggly, old basset hound named Mr. Toby, who none of us could love enough and all doted on like candy, but who got flattened late one summer afternoon right in front of our house during a family cookout. Poor Mr. Toby actually clambered up off the Hoving Road pavement and in a dying dash galumphed straight to Paul and leaped into his arms before shuddering, wailing once and croaking. Paul has told me in these last weeks that even then (at only age six) he was afraid the incident would stay in his mind, possibly even for the rest of his life, and ruin it. For weeks and weeks, he said, he lay awake in his room thinking about Mr. Toby and worrying about the fact that he was thinking about it. Though eventually the memory had gone away, until just after the Finast rubber incident, when it came back, and now he thinks about Mr. Toby "a lot" (possibly constantly), thinks that Mr. Toby should be alive still and we should have him--and by extension, of course, that his poor brother, Ralph, who died of Reye's, should also be alive (as he surely should) and we should all still be we. There are even ways, he's said, in which all this is not that unpleasant to think about, since he remembers much of that early time, before bad things happened, as having been "fun." And in that sense, his is a rare species of nostalgia.

He has also told me that as of recently he has begun to picture the thinking process, and that his seems to be made of "concentric rings," bright like hula hoops, one of which is memory, and that he tries but can't make them all "fit down flush on top of each other" in the congruent way he thinks they should--except sometimes just before the precise moment of sleep, when he can briefly forget about everything and feel happy. He has likewise told me about what he refers to as "thinking he's thinking," by which he tries to maintain continuous monitorship of all his thoughts as a way of "understanding" himself and being under control and therefore making life better (though by doing so, of course, he threatens to drive himself nuts). In a way his "problem" is simple: he has become compelled to figure out life and how to live it far too early, long before he's seen a sufficient number of unfixable crises cruise past him like damaged boats and realized that fixing one in six is a damn good average and the rest you have to let go--a useful coping skill of the Existence Period.

All this is not a good recipe, I know. In fact, it's a bad recipe: a formula for a life stifled by ironies and disappointments, as one little outer character tries to make friends with or exert control over another, submerged, one, but can't. (He could end up as an academic, or a U.N. translator.) Plus, he's left-handed and so is already threatened by earlier-than-usual loss of life, by greater chances of being blinded by flying objects, scalded by pans of hot grease, bitten by rabid dogs, hit by cars piloted by other left-handers, of deciding to live in the Third World, of not getting the ball over the plate consistently and of being divorced like his Dad and Mom.

My fatherly job, needless to say, is not at all easy at this enforced distance of miles: to coax by some middleman's charm his two foreign selves, his present and his childish past, into a better, more robust and outward-tending relationship--like separate, angry nations seeking one government--and to sponsor self-tolerance as a theme for the future. This, of course, is what any father should do in any life, and I have tried, despite the impediments of divorce and time and not always knowing my adversary. Only it seems plain to me now, and as Ann believes, I have not been completely successful.

But bright and early tomorrow I am picking him up all the way in Connecticut and staging for both our benefits a split-the-breeze father-and-son driving campaign in which we will visit as many sports halls of fame as humanly possible in one forty-eight-hour period (this being only two), winding up in storied Cooperstown, where we'll stay in the venerable Deerslayer Inn, fish on scenic Lake Otsego, shoot off safe and ethical fireworks, eat like castaways, and somehow along the way I'll work (I hope) the miracle only a father can work. Which is to say: if your son begins suddenly to fall at a headlong rate, you must through the agency of love and greater age throw him a line and haul him back. (All this somehow before delivering him to his mother in NYC and getting myself back here to Haddam, where I myself, for reasons of familiarity, am best off on the 4th of July.)

And yet, and yet. Even a good idea can be misguided if embarked on in ignorance. And who could help wondering: is my surviving son already out of reach and crazy as a betsy bug, or headed fast in that dire direction? Are his problems the product of haywire neurotransmitters, only solvable by preemptive chemicals? (This was the New Haven guy's, Dr. Stopler's, initial view.) Will he turn gradually into a sly recluse with a bad complexion, rotten teeth, bitten nails, yellow eyes, who abandons school early, hits the road, falls in with the wrong bunch, tries drugs, and finally becomes convinced trouble is his only dependable friend, until one sunny Saturday it, too, betrays him in some unthought-of and unbearable way, after which he stops off at a suburban gun store, then spirits on to some quilty mayhem in a public place? (This I frankly don't expect, since he has yet to exhibit any of the "big three" of childhood homicidal dementia: attraction to fire, the need to torture helpless animals, or bedwetting; and because he is in fact quite softhearted and mirthful, and always has been.) Or, and in the best-case scenario, is he--as happens to us all and as his mother hopes--merely going through a phase, so that in eight weeks he'll be trying out for lonely end on the Deep River JV?

God only knows, right? Really knows?

For me, alone without him most of the time, truly the worst part is that I believe he should now be at an age when he cannot imagine one bad thing happening to him, ever. And yet he can. And sometimes at the Shore or standing streamside at the Red Man Club as the sun dies and leaves the water black and bottomless, I have looked into his sweet, pale, impermanent boy's face and known that he squints out at a future he's unsure of, from a vantage point he already knows he doesn't like, but toward which he soldiers on because he thinks he should and because even though in his heart of hearts he knows we're not alike, he wishes we were and for that likeness to give him assurance.

Naturally enough, I can explain almost nothing to him. Fatherhood by itself doesn't provide wisdom worth imparting. Though in preparation for our trip, I've sent him copies of Self-Reliance and the Declaration, and suggested he take a browse. These are not your ordinary fatherly offerings, I admit; yet I believe his instincts are sound and he will help himself if he can, and that independence is, in fact, what he lacks--independence from whatever holds him captive: memory, history, bad events he struggles with, can't control, but feels he should.

A parent's view of what's wrong or right with his kid is probably less accurate than even the next-door neighbor's, who sees the child's life perfectly through a gap in the curtain. I, of course, would like to tell him how to live life and do better in a hundred engaging ways, just as I tell myself: that nothing ever neatly "fits," that mistakes must be made, bad things forgotten. But in our short exposures I seem only able to talk glancingly, skittishly before shying away, cautious not to be wrong, not to quiz or fight him, not to be his therapist but his Dad. So that in all likelihood I will never provide good cure for his disease, will never even imagine correctly what his disease is, but will only suffer it with him for a time and then depart.

The worst of being a parent is my fate, then: being an adult. Not owning the right language; not dreading the same dreads and contingencies and missed chances; the fate of knowing much yet having to stand like a lamppost with its lamp lit, hoping my child will see the glow and venture closer for the illumination and warmth it mutely offers.

Outside in the still, quiet morning, I hear a car door close, then the muffled voice (softened to the early hour) of Skip McPherson, my neighbor across the street. He is returning from his summer hockey league in East Brunswick (ice time available only before daylight). Many mornings I've seen him and his bachelor CPA chums lounging on his front steps drinking a quiet beer, still in their pads and jerseys, their skates and sticks piled on the sidewalk. Skip's team has adopted the ruddy Indian-warrior insignia and hard-check skating style of the '70 Chicago Blackhawks (Skip hails from Aurora), and Skip himself has taken the number 21 in honor of his hero, Stan Mikita. Sometimes when I'm up early and out picking up the Trenton Times, we'll talk sports curb to curb. He frequently has a butterfly bandage over his eye, or a gummy fat lip, or a complicated knee brace that stiffens his leg, but he's always high-spirited and acts as if I'm the best neighbor in the world, though he has little notion of me other than that I'm a realtor--some older guy. He is typical of the young professionals who bought into the Presidents Streets in the middle Eighties and paid a big price, and who are sticking it out now, gradually fixing up their houses, sitting on their equity and waiting for the market to fire up.

In my "Buyer vs. Seller" editorial I've noted that even though most people won't be happy with whoever wins the election, 54 percent of them still expect to be better off this time next year. (I've omitted the companion statistic, cribbed from the New York Times, that only 24 percent feel the country will be better off. Why these numbers shouldn't be the same, is anybody's guess.)

And then suddenly, it is seven-thirty. My phone comes alive. It is my son.

"Hi," Paul says lamely.

"Hi, son," I say, the model of upbeat father-at-a-remove. Music is playing somewhere, and I think for a moment it's outside my window--the streets crew, possibly, or Skip--then I recognize the heavy, fuzzed-out thunga-thyunga-thunga-thyunga and realize Paul has his headphones on and is listening to Mammoth Deth or some such group he likes while he's also listening to me. "What's going on up there, son? Everything okay?"

"Yeah." Thunga-thyunga. "Everything's okay."

"Are we all set? Canton, Ohio, tomorrow, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame by Sunday?" We have compiled a list of all the halls of fame there are, including the Anthracite Hall of Fame in Scranton, the Clown Hall of Fame in Delavan, Wisconsin, the Cotton Hall of Fame in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the Cowgirl in Beaton, Texas. We've vowed to visit them all in two days, though of course we can't and will have to satisfy ourselves with basketball, in Springfield (it's close to his house), and Cooperstown--which I'm counting on to be the ur-father-son meeting ground, offering the assurances of a spiritually neutral spectator sport made seemingly meaningful by its context in idealized male history. (I have never been there, but the brochures suggest I'm right.)

"Yeah. We're all set." Thunga-thyunga-thunga-thyunga. Paul has turned it up.

"Are you still pretty keen to be going?" Two days are paltry, we both recognize but pretend we don't.

"Yeah," Paul says noncommittally.

"Are you still in bed, son?"

"Yeah. I am. Still in bed." This doesn't seem like a great sign, though of course it's only seven-thirty.

There is really nothing for us to talk about every morning. In any normal life, we would pass each other going this way and that, to and fro, exchange pleasantries or casual bits of wry or impertinent information, feel varyingly in touch with each other or out in harmless ways. But under the terms of our un-normal life we have to make extra efforts, even if they're wastes of time.

"Did you have any good dreams last night?" I sit forward in my chair, stare straight into the cool mulberry leaves out my window. This way it is possible to concentrate totally. Paul sometimes has wacky dreams, though it may be he invents them to have something to tell.

"Yeah, I did." He sounds distracted, but then the thunga-thyunga-thunga-thyunga goes very low. (Last night was apparently a good one for dreaming.)

"Want to tell me about it?"

"I was a baby, right?"

"Right."

He is tampering with something metallic. I hear a metal snap! "But I was a really ugly baby? Really ugly. And my parents were not you or Mom, but they kept leaving me at home and going off to parties. Veddy, veddy posh parties "

"Where was this?"

"Here. I don't know. Somewhere."

"In Deep Water?" Deep Water is his wisenheimer's name for Deep River, calculated precisely to make Charley O'Dell feel as unappreciated as possible. He conceivably has less use for Charley than even I do.

"Yep. Deep Water. And that's the way it is." He adopts his perfect-pitch Walter Cronkite voice. A headshrinker, I'm confident, would read signs of dread and fear in Paul's dream and be right. Fear of abandonment. Of castration. Of death--all solid fears, the same ones I entertain. He at least seems willing to make a joke out of it.

"Anything else going on?"

"Mom and Charley had a big fight last night."

"Sorry to hear that. About what?"

"Stuff, I guess. I don't know." I hear the weatherman on Good Morning America giving us the good news for the weekend. Paul has activated his TV now and doesn't want to talk more about his mother's marital dustup; he simply wants to announce it so he can refer to it usefully on our trip. For a while I've sensed (with an acuity unique to ax-husbands) that something wasn't right with Ann. Early menopause, early nostalgia all her own, late-breaking regret. All are possible. Or maybe Charley has a honey, some little busty button-nosed waitress from the boatyard diner in Old Savbrook. Their union, though, has lasted four years, which seems long enough under the circumstances--since its chief frailty is that Charley's nobody anyone in her right mind should ever marry in the first place.

"So look. Your ole Dad's got to go sell a house this morning. Slam home my pitch. Reel in the big fish."

"D. O. Volente," Paul says.

"You got it. The Volente family from Upper High Point, North Carolina." He has decided, from his one year of Latin, that D. O. Volente is the patron saint of realtors and must be courted like a good Samaritan--shown every house, given the best deals, accorded every courtesy, made to pay no vigorish--or bad things will happen. Since the rubber incident our life has largely been conducted as a reticule of jokes, quips, double entendres, horse laughs, whose excuse for being, of course, is love. "Be a pal to your mother today, okay, pal?" I say.

"I'm her pal. She's just a bitch."

"No she's not. Her life's harder than yours, believe it or not. She has to deal with you. How's your sister?"

"Great." His sister Clary is twelve and as sage as Paul is callow.

"Tell her I'll see her tomorrow, okay?"

The volume suddenly zooms up on the TV, another man's voice blabbing at a high-decibel level about Mike Tyson making 22 mil for beating Michael Spinks in ninety-one seconds. "I'd let him sock me in the kisser for half that much," the man says. "Did you hear that?" Paul says. "He'd let him `sock him in the kisser.'" He loves this kind of tricky punning talk, thinks it's hilarious.

"Yeah. But you be ready to go when I get there tomorrow, okay? We have to hit the ground running if we expect to get to Beaton, Texas."

"He was Beaton to the punch, then socked in the kisser. Are you gonna get married again?" He says this shyly. Why, I don't know.

"No, never. I love you, okay? Did you look at the Declaration of Independence and those brochures? I expect you to have your ducks in a row."

"No," he says. "But I've got one, okay?" This refers to a real joke.

"Tell me. I'll use it on my clients."

"A horse comes into a bar and orders a beer," Paul says, deadpan. "What does the bartender say?"

"I give up."

"`Gee, why the long face?'"

Silence on his end of the line, a silence that says we each know what the other is thinking and are splitting our sides in silent laughter--the best, giddiest laughter of all. My right eyelid gives a predictable flicker. Now would be a perfect moment--with silent laughter as sad counterpoint--to think a melancholy thought, ponder a lost something or other, conduct a quick review of life's misread menu of what's important and what's not. But what I feel instead is acceptance hedging on satisfaction and a faint promise for the day just beginning. There is no such thing as a false sense of well-being.

"Great," I say. "That's great. But what's a horse doing in a bar?"

"I don't know," Paul says. "Maybe dancing."

"Having a drink," I say. "Somebody led him to it."

Outside, on the warming lawns of Cleveland Street, Skip McPherson shouts, "He shoots, he scooooores!" Restrained laughter floats up, a beer can goes kee-runch, another manly voice says, "Old slapshot, ooold slapshot, yesssireeobert." Down the block I hear a diesel growl to life like a lion waking. The streets crew is up and going.

"I'll catch you tomorrow, son," I say. "Okay?"

"Yeah," Paul says, "catch you tomorrow. Okay." And then we hang up.

Copyright © 1995 Richard Ford. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-679-49265-8




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