My fragile rowing shell was moving fast and light down the river. It surged forward, then coasted while I recoiled for another stroke. I felt the pull of the sculls in my legs, then in my back. I heard only the splashing and the zing of the water dripping from the blades as I slipped by the ancient school. The endless lawns to starboard turned into soccer fields and then into the practice football field. The freshly painted goalposts marked the end of my practice session, and passing them I tasted my speed, closed my eyes and inhaled it, the vibrations of the boat in my spine.
I leaned back and the shell ran out beneath me, gliding over the water like a bird. A million trees up, the mountain threw rippled reflections across the water. The blades of my sculls kissed the smooth surface as I neared the Fenton School boathouse. I could turn and see the dock floating four inches above the waterline. Even this late in the season I could feel the heat rising up off the banks, as if the valley had kept part of summer’s warmth for the fall. I hunched over and drew a stopwatch from my sweatshirt and did the daily math, looking at the digital numbers through watery eyes. The calculations were easy. I knew how far two thousand meters was down the course and I allowed some time, because you rowed with the current to get down the river and fought it coming back. I was shaving off seconds, all right.
I had a notebook stowed under the foot stretchers and I pulled it out after I slid off the boat’s sliding seat onto the dock. I flattened the pages on my damp thighs to pencil in my new times, saw the improvement and shut the book fast, slid it in the waistband of my rowing trunks. I flipped the scull out of the water to my shoulders, then settled it on my head and waited while it dripped, balancing, my body the fulcrum as the boat gently teeter-tottered against my scalp. Holding the boat steady with my left hand wrapped around a rigger, I bent my knees and picked up the sculls with my right, straightened, and began the careful walk up to the boathouse. When I had negotiated the fifty-seven steps to the dark entrance, I aimed the bow into the straps hanging from the rafters within, then strapped in the stern. I popped open the deck plate and used a crusty, grease-stained towel to wipe the river water from the hull. I pulled the ropes that raised the boat to where it settled into a sliver of reflection in the gloom and tied up, still a little out of breath. I set the sculls upright in their wooden rack and pulled the great sliding doors shut.
As I steamed my way through the clear, early-morning cold of fall toward the school, my knees would start to ache by the time I reached the first buildings. The muscles in my back would tighten and my fingers would begin to burn. It didn’t matter because, thinking about the times in that notebook, I believed I had an edge.
* * *
Fenton was one of the few high schools in the country specifically planned to be a rowing school. As I made my way from the boathouse toward the neo-Gothic school buildings, I could see the dark trees and deep green autumn grass beside the water. Although the river ran slow here, its current was still stronger than anything I had experienced in the Black Rock Canal in Niccalsetti where I grew up and where I learned the sport.
The magnificent Schoolhouse overlooked the section of river we raced upon. The Fenton School’s founder had been a coxswain at Yale. Ignorant of, or more likely indifferent to, the muddy slog required to sink foundations in such soft valley soil, he had insisted that the school have this very vantage point beside the water. I could imagine my father walking along these old buildings thinking about this, toying with the idea of putting in a bid himself to drive down the reinforced rods you used to keep old piles like these standing. Busted-out buildings had kept him employed for twenty years in Niccalsetti, a place where they hadn’t replaced the museums and reform schools and prisons for a century and a half. My father still employed stonemasons, skilled second-generation Italians and Brazilians who brought their wives’ cold fettuccini and feijoada to the sites we worked.
After a quick shower and change, I hustled myself through the bright morning sun, my abraded hands held down, stiff and away from my body. The oar handles had torn into my palms, as usual, and I could feel the blisters forming. As I joined the throngs of students already on their way to breakfast I realized I was hungry. Ravenous. I could feel the sheaths of muscles over my gut, hard against my belt buckle. The smell of fresh cut wet grass and the trees just losing their leaves was almost overpowering. I stopped and looked up at the mountains behind the school, willing a sudden wave of nausea to pass. My lungs felt raw.
I was mesmerized by the trees exploding out of the valley, the river snaking slow and thoughtful by the buildings. I always regarded this beauty with a sense of awe. And also anger and disbelief. I’d spent four years slugging it out at the Niccalsetti Senior School where a freight train ran right behind the one ragged football field we had. I’d never considered the existence of schools with this immense, unending, perfectly manicured splendor. It seemed to me that the entire season—all the trees and the grass and the perfection of the water—had been created just for us, the four hundred or so Fenton students who knew for sure they’d live forever.
They had been dropped off here two weeks before along with their trunks stuffed with catalogue clothes and their stereos and their cube fridges and duffel bags and backpacks and suitcases and computers, all of which had been hauled into the dorms by kids and parents with good forehands and firm handshakes. Bank accounts had been opened and topped off and dozens of credit cards had been handed out. Framed posters and Indian tapestries had been taped, nailed, stapled and fun-tacked to the dorm walls. Ratted furniture, passed down from generations of Fenton students, was hauled out of deep storage and deposited in rooms where it would get yet more battered and suffer the stains of hormone rages, late-night binges and furtive blow jobs. Once the parents were gone, the contraband had been unpacked: Ziploc bags of dope, pills, condoms, porno, video games, junk food; more exotic drugs, knives, bottles of pilfered booze. These kids would deposit their youth here, and then move on to other beautiful campuses.
I was still trying to find my way around the place, trying to accept that a high school could have so many corridors and buildings and sub-buildings. Senior year at a boarding school was a bad time to be an outsider and I was a postgraduate rower—a scholarship one at that. I only had nine months of this kind of living and then it would be snatched away again and I’d be sent back to where I came from unless I was very, very fast on the water. Which was just fine by me, because I was dead sure that I was the fastest thing these bastards were ever going to see.
* * *
I didn’t even hear Connor Payne approach, quiet and lithe as a panther, and stand just behind me, out of my peripheral vision, in the fashionably wilted Brooks Brothers blazer, Fenton School Boat Club tie and pressed trousers he always wore to class. He fell into step soundlessly alongside me and waited for my reaction. My first thought, when I did notice him and tried to stay cool, was to picture him on the podium wearing his Junior Olympics medal in Belgium. How had he survived the Junior National training camp, skinny as he was? I’d seen pictures of him on the news board at home in the Black Rock Rowing Club’s boathouse, his fists punching the sky in victory. In the newspaper clippings he had seemed bigger, darker, more menacing. I’d been at Fenton for two weeks and he hadn’t even bothered to say hello. I’d learned enough about him to know that he’d choose his time to greet me, and of course it would be now, with my hands looking and feeling like they’d been put through a cheese grater. Like all predators, he had a nose for weakness and wounds.
“What did you do to your hands?” he asked, glancing down quickly and then away, as if I was already embarrassing him.
“I was out sculling today.”
I held them up and he grabbed the side of my right hand, studied it as if he were thinking of bidding on it. The pressure of his bony fingers made my eyes water. “I’m Connor Payne, by the way.” He turned his attention back to the wreckage of my palms. “And you’re Rob Carrey,” he continued, “from Niccalsetti. I voted to have you brought here. It was you or some rower from Philadelphia who’d been caught stealing cars last spring.” He continued to examine the red, sticky ridges of my hands methodically. “These hands are no problem. Bad, surely, but you’re going to be fine.” He let go and checked the watch inside his delicate wrist, a stainless Rolex on a leather band held together with a strip of pink electrical tape.
The sun caught him full in the face. His skin was impossibly pale. In profile his nose was almost a perfect triangle. He was perhaps an inch taller than me but I must have had him by ten pounds. He had long, sinewy limbs, a shock of blond hair—coarse hair, like an animal’s—and his eyes were dark gray, animated only for a second as he looked around furtively, a fellow rule breaker. “Come to the Rowing Cottage and I’ll fix you up.”
I felt ambushed.
“Your high erg scores were the reason I voted for you, by the way. No one else’s came close.” He glanced at me. “Did you fake them? You did, right? I mean, obviously.”
“I didn’t even send them in. Back home, they make about six coaches sign the scores.”
“It doesn’t matter now. You’re here. You’ll have to pull them again for Channing, though. I don’t care if you and your coach lied to us. What’s a few seconds on an application if it gets you out of a place like Niccalsetti? I’d understand your lying to us. I’d respect it. I would.” He nodded encouragingly.
“Want me to pull those scores right now?”
He shook his head, grinned. He had a salesman’s smile. It made you like him even if you knew it would cost you.
My hunger momentarily forgotten, I followed him away from the waking school, across the grass that was wet enough that we made two trails as we went along. He didn’t look at me as he ambled toward the small cottage, a cottage I’d passed every day, sculling. He pulled off his blazer and swung it over his shoulder. He was wearing four-hundred-dollar handmade shoes from England and they were getting covered in tiny grass clippings and stained with dew as he went. He surveyed the river and the buildings and the road into town and even the mountains beyond the school, inspecting it all as if he owned it. He moved with an easy, sleepy slouch you can’t fake or copy. He was enjoying being at boarding school, enjoying every day of being a champion rower who was well known even in Niccalsetti, New York. Connor would be the first millionaire’s kid I’d ever befriend, and probably the richest person I’d ever know. And the most gifted.
For almost everyone else at Fenton, things were different. After two weeks of confined dorm life you started to think about revolt and mutiny. The school was laid out like a little prison for privileged teenagers, and I don’t think the parents who put up the tuition—a year’s pay on my dad’s work crew if you scored a bonus—knew it. I’d visited the Scadondawa Prison with my father to pick up workers who’d called him when they were paroled because they had nobody else to spend the fifty cents on. He had pointed out its design; even if the whole place burnt you could lock it down and come in on the ground and over the top with riot gear, soften the convicts up for the screws in their white helmets and face masks who would charge in, ready to bust skulls. You could seal us up in Fenton’s dorms and bring down the cream of the east coast within a few minutes. Maybe those three dorms, each with a service road leading right into the quad, were constructed as they were so you could save the kids if there was a fire, but I doubted it. The guys who built those buildings knew who they were dealing with.
All that didn’t apply to the captain of the rowing team. Connor lived by himself in the Rowing Cottage. It was the first house you came to when you rowed down the river from the boathouse, a sentry standing on stilts. With its stern white clapboard siding, its dark shutters and brooding, heavily sloped roof, it looked like an island retirement house for a whaling captain, the kind you find outside of Niccalsetti on Lake Erie, for the wives of customers who sent my father pictures of houses they’d seen in Architectural Digest with three-page spreads and titles like “Hideaway in Martha’s Vineyard” or “Nantucket Dreaming.” My father liked having his crew doing the demolition and grunt work on those houses, houses that were meant to be on the ocean but were instead perched on that frozen lakeshore, built by people rich by Niccalsetti standards but not rich enough to get out. My father never kidded himself about those jobs. Most of what he did would never be featured in a magazine and after we had dug the foundations, or ripped the guts out of some ramshackle heap, another company would come in with its own architect to build somebody’s dream home. He would leave his card, CARREY’S JOINERY, and maybe a few pictures of kitchen cupboards he’d built for the few clients who cared about that kind of work, one of them being my mother. Half the cupboards in those pictures were in our kitchen. He would wait for the call that never came from families who didn’t care about wood, people who wanted brushed-steel kitchen appliances, pre-made fiberglass cupboards and granite counters. Day after day we’d load into the truck and drive to the next subcontracted demolition job or the next gutting. Never to build a kitchen or a bookcase. Still, my father refused to call himself a wrecker, or even a builder. Always a joiner, or a cabinetmaker. And no one he hired or begat ever questioned why.
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Irwin