A World Away

A Novel

Stewart O'Nan

Henry Holt and Co.

 
1
THEY DROVE THE NIGHT, through the blacked-out city and out along the Island. Fog stole in from the sea, lay heavy over inlets, white wooden bridges. The roads ran empty for miles, starlit, desolate. James had screwed louvers over the Buick’s headlights, it was the law. He thought they’d be stopped, Anne roused, Jay shielding his eyes from some air raid warden’s flashlight. For hours, whenever they slowed, the boy asked, “Are we there?” and now James couldn’t get it out of his head.
They went on, there was no one. The woods, the marshes, the lines slipping under the car. He’d been born here, his father was dying. Coming back to the sea made him doubt the years in between, his life a great work one plans yet never begins. Rennie was still alive, a world away, the name of his ship snipped out of his letters. James thought the South Pacific; Anne said it didn’t matter. They hadn’t made love in weeks. Their bags whistled atop the car. Are we there? When are we going to be there?
It was the summer of trains. The war needed everything, all the time, like an infant. His son, his students. The filling stations along the shore were closed. He had gas because Anne’s father had died, his Plymouth sitting beside the shuttered house, sucked dry, the seats gone brittle in the sun. James’s father was beyond driving. His face slid over bone; when he talked he looked off to the sky, as if the enemy were gliding in behind you. At Amagansett four spies had run the night tide in a raft. In May James’s sister had called and asked him to come.
“School doesn’t end till June,” he said.
“Then come in June,” Sarah said. She’d been there since the last stroke, tending the peeling beachhouse, the rotting cottages. Their father had been recovering, she said, until this. They’d been on the porch, doing the Times crossword. James smelled the wet wicker chairs, their guests’ gin breath. She’d just read him a clue. She looked over to find him asleep, nothing unusual.
“When he woke up,” she said, “you know what he said? ‘Sten. S-T-E-N.’ Then he couldn’t stand up. The doctor said it’s common.”
Their father had never liked her, it was a mystery. She lived twenty miles west in Sayville, in another age. The three rarely spoke, their father shocked at the cost of the phone.
“We better hang up,” James had said across the night, and went back to his chair, the light on the book he’d put down blinding.
“Another?” Anne said. She’d stopped racing James for the phone after the Kramers got their telegram. The new star bloomed gold in their window, a shrine, an omen. Rennie would have a messenger, like a prince; James and Anne would stand on the stoop and read it together, falling and falling. No, James thought, he wouldn’t be home. They’d have to get him in class, a face in the door. He’d stop King Philip’s War, the Panic of 1837, the Golden Spike. How far summer was, how soon.
“Sarah wants us to come down.”
“What did you tell her?”
He saw no decision, though loading the car this morning he’d burned his hand pulling tight some twine and swore (as Anne had wanted to after his answer but didn’t—good Anne, Saint Anne), hopping and holding his raw palm, cursing his luck, his incompetence, his mildness. They’d just come to Galesburg for her father. It was the third time in two years they’d moved.
Their catastrophes had all been expected. Her father died. Rennie resisted—against James’s advice, with his hesitant blessing—and was shipped to a work camp, first in New York and then California. After four months, his roommate at Cornell was killed on his way to North Africa, and, shaken, he enlisted as a medic and was assigned to the Pacific, Dorothy following as far as San Diego. Now James’s father’s stroke, or his latest, for he’d withstood a string of them, none devastating. Since her father died—in front of her, calmly, barely there—Anne had been distant, resigned. She didn’t have the energy to fight anymore. Together they were silent, alone spoke to themselves. Jay wandered beyond their orbit, confused, too old to be a boy but unwilling to give it up. It was a time James didn’t want to remember from his own life, just as he couldn’t imagine himself a few years older, having survived all this, somehow happy. It was like what had happened in Putney, though he couldn’t deny that had been his fault. A student. Foolish. He’d been paying for his one slip so long, yet it hadn’t lost the power to shame him. He could easily follow the whole chain of events back to that season of intimacy with Diane. His star player, sixteen and already as tall as he was. He’d been insane; it was the only explanation.
“Is it bad?” he’d asked Sarah that night on the phone.
“Yes.”
“Can you put Dad on?”
“Not really.”
“No?”
“Oh, Jimmy.”
They wormed along Montauk Highway, through the strips of beach towns, awnings cranked up for the night, angled parking slots empty. Baskets of geraniums hung from lampposts, sand drifted over the road. People were leaving the late show, the marquee dark. The fog made everything gray and soggy. It was his childhood; he refused to look too closely. They were almost there. Center Moriches, Eastport, Quogue with a view of the bay, a dogleg of banned lights across the water. On shore his old house faced them now, invisible, miles away. He never remembered winter; there were no famous snows. It was cold into mid-July, scorching at noon then chilly under the covers. June had seemed far off once. This would be the last time he’d see the house.
As a child, the sea smashing at night woke him, and he cried. His mother stopped in his doorway in her robe, her candle shaking the walls. When she died, they boxed her clothes and shipped them to her sister in Wisconsin, land of black lakes. Her bureau still stood in his father’s room, empty save sheets of newspaper full of wishful prices, going bad at the edges.
The last time he’d been back, three years ago, after his father’s first stroke, James had wanted to tell him that he understood, but she never came up (never did, never would), and James didn’t want to hurt the old man, suddenly vulnerable, his saint’s rage softened to crotchetiness. It was true of himself, James thought, for while he’d been wronged, he couldn’t stop loving his mother, his father, the life they’d had there. The boys went to bed, then Anne. The stroke was fresh and they had to sit with his father. In his sleep he whispered bits of scripture. Beside the bed, Sarah held her book at arm’s length, squinting in the dim light.
“Sleep,” she said.
“I can’t.”
He went downstairs to the pantry—where as children they’d hidden among the bins and barrels—and sipped his father’s scotch in the moonlight by the open window, a connoisseur of night. Hours later when Sarah found him he hadn’t finished the glass. He remembered to hide it from her.
“I can still smell,” she said. “Don’t worry. If I was, there wouldn’t have been any left.”
“I’m glad.”
“And how are you and Anne getting along?”
“Splendid,” he said, and thinking back now couldn’t remember if he’d actually meant it. There were days, seasons of Anne he kept like treasure, secretly peeked at to make sure they’d been real. Her hands now, clasped even in sleep. Her father’s long jaw.
They slipped over the town line into Hampton Bays. It had been his home; he knew it as he knew the boy he’d been, recollected hopefully, forgiven, thanked. Anne slept against the door, turned to him as if to argue. Jay lay across her lap, half under his jacket. In Galesburg, Anne thought they shouldn’t tell him about Rennie, when everyone at school knew. James opened his classroom one morning—the door was locked, the key in his hand—and saw on the board a parody of hangman, the word TRAITOR a foot high. There’d been boys from Galesburg on Bataan, men missing at sea. Saturdays Jay came home from the movies and had fiery nightmares. He’d never had his own room before, and woke alone, sobbing in the dark.
Each waited for the other to go comfort him, as if he were a baby, their sleep hard-won. It was her house; he was always smashing his toes. “You’re okay,” he said, and clicked on the light to find Jay sniffling, ashamed. Spring had been long, breakfast full of silences, the nights partitioned. He was unprepared for class and rambled at the board, punned, the boys in the back grim, impatient. It was a town of stone bridges, mills falling into a cold river. And still he thought of Diane, her long arms, her strong back, though all of that seemed—like their house in Putney—long gone. Galesburg knew only their latest shame. On the sidewalks, women steered around him, spat at his heels. Anne had grown up there; she’d been ready to leave at thirteen. Then in May, on the brink of leaving, she said she didn’t mean that, that everyone said that.
“So now you like it here,” he asked.
“I have a choice?”
“I don’t know,” he said, reckless, “do you?”
“We come back. Fall, no matter what.”
It was enough, it was all he wanted.
“You tell him,” Anne said. “I refuse to.”
Jay hadn’t left friends, hadn’t made new ones. Winter he’d spent in the town library or in his room, Anne’s old one, the flocked wallpaper sullied above the baseboards. He read on the floor between his bed and the window, invisible from the hall, the curtains jerking as he kicked his feet. In the fields, crows picked over last year’s stubble. Rain in black trees. Anne was always turning a light on for him. The house darkened, the windows glowed. For every book he read, James gave him a nickel. He was going through the Tarzan series—Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Tarzan and the Ant Men—the library had a whole shelf. With the money he bought comic books, the worst kind of trash. James had a drawerful at school, all muscles, guns and breasts. He was too old to be a father now, had been too old with Rennie. He’d made a pact with himself this year not to talk to Jay in school. Anne said it was hard enough for him as it was.
“I remember the beach,” Jay said. It was night, the boy had to have a light on. “There’s a lighthouse at the end of the rocks.”
“Your grandfather’s very sick.”
“Will Mom have to take care of him?”
“We’re all going to help a little. That’s what he needs right now, little things.” His sons had never known his mother. She’d gone the summer James turned ten. Her death was lost in his father’s grief, the last war, Anne, the wash of odd jobs, rented bungalows and impossible cars. Then Putney, then Diane. It seemed now that he hadn’t worried about Rennie at Jay’s age, but was that really true?
It was the war, on the radio like a show, London crackling with static. Anne didn’t like Jay to hear. James tried to reason with her but she was always right, always questioning his motives when he had none. Nightly he leaned closer to the Pacific, the ozone of warm tubes, listening for the thrum of his son’s ship. The Japanese had just given up one of the Aleutians.
“What is it now?” Anne asked.
“More Alaska.”
“There’s nothing there, don’t they know that? Is any of this supposed to make sense to me?”
She read and drank tea, sometimes knitted under the lamp in the corner. She’d only taken it up, and he didn’t see what it was supposed to be. At each missed stitch, she swore and threw her head back as if to howl. She hadn’t expected Rennie would go, and hadn’t forgiven him. Wednesdays after supper James gathered everyone and put down what they wanted to say to him. Jay liked to snip out the comics, the batting averages, the local crimes. He had his own section, like a columnist, half slang. James didn’t know what to write, but went on, gossiping. Anne added nothing; at school he typed a section and signed her name to it.
As if to spite him, she wrote Dorothy every week, composing in snatches as she cooked. Anne had never liked her, though, to James, Dorothy seemed the same Galesburg girl his wife had shed over the years. Her family had liked Rennie until he was arrested. Since the marriage, they no longer spoke with the Langers, their younger boy shrinking from James in the hallways. In the lunchroom, James ate, aware of Jay several tables over, like himself, alone. Later, driving home, he passed Jay, and though he had a mile to walk and the other children were nowhere near him, the boy looked down at his boots, or away, across the snowy fields, and James drove on. He’d promised.
Home. His father’s study looked out on the ocean. It was half their attic, the sill of the gable window flush with his father’s desktop. For years, by candlelight, after the guests had gone to bed and again before they woke, his father fretted over the books and wrote to his mother care of whatever hospital she was in. In the dark, James heard him haul the ladder down and yank it up after him. His father didn’t pace, but sat and wrote, then at a quarter to six lowered the ladder, crept downstairs and started the water for baths. Sarah wasn’t allowed up there. On the desk a telescope tilted in a turned brass stand. “What do you see?” his father asked James. “Tell me what you see.”
The waves. Green, blue, glittering, heavy. His father’s hand rested gently on the back of James’s neck, steering him. The moon drew up huge, beneath it, sharply drawn, the silhouetted stacks of a great oceangoing liner.
“Do you see it?”
“Yes,” James said. His father had taught him wonder and its complement, responsibility; now his father slurred his words, had to ask Sarah to come by and light the pilot.
“I’m not a doctor,” Sarah had said that night on the phone.
“I don’t want this to hurt Jay. He’s been through enough.”
“It’s never convenient, is it?”
The lower end of Hampton Bays was empty, the bars open but no cars outside, beer signs hooded. In his absence a crop of fried clam and ice-cream stands had sprung up and died. The road curved with the thrust of bay, the berm sandy, telephone poles a-lean. A cinder-block garage stood in one corner of the McCauffeys’ field, its whitewash an explosion in the dark. He turned onto the path he’d walked home over, winging buckeyes at the old man’s cows. The Buick rocked in the ruts. Scrub pine scoured the fenders, waking Anne.
“See any cows out?” James said.
“What?”
He’d forgotten; the field was overgrown, the McCauffeys gone.
They cleared a rise and the stars dropped, the sea a void. The house stood black against the moon, one downstairs curtain edged with light. Sarah’s Hudson jumped in his headlights, the wicker rockers lining the porch.
“Don’t tell me we’re here,” Anne said.
When he stopped the car a wave of dust rolled over them. He turned everything off. Anne waited for him to get out, Jay slumped against her, still asleep.
“It’s past somebody’s bedtime.”
“Just go,” she said.
His legs wouldn’t straighten all the way. The night was much colder than he’d thought, the sea louder. The moon was new; with the house blacked out, he couldn’t see the walk. The front door opened and Sarah appeared; it closed and she disappeared, her flashlight picking out the porch stairs, her feet, the wet grass as she made her way across the lawn.
“James,” she said, and kissed him, the flashlight hard on his back. She was always thinner, dwindling. “Dad’s asleep. He’s been good.”
“How about you?”
“Not a drop.”
“Honest,” he asked, as if it were a joke. He relied on her too much. There was no more younger or older, yet they kept it up.
Everyone kissed in the cold, groggy from the car. Anne had her purse, Jay his cigar box and Rennie’s old suitcase. Sarah guided them inside while James unloaded, fighting the twine. Above, a flag flapped, a halyard rang against the invisible pole. One knot was giving him trouble, and he stopped, his arms propped against the car, and looked up at the house. It seemed smaller each time, yet that was little comfort. He liked to sneak up on his mother in the kitchen. She stood at the stove, and when he was halfway across the tiles—beyond the cover of the chopping block, the help’s table—without turning from her work, she said, “I see you, James,” and he backed out as if he hadn’t been caught. The guests were on the lawn playing croquet with their children, dressed for supper.
Behind him, the sea broke and rolled, broke and rolled. Upstairs a light came on, eclipsed by a shade. He found Rennie’s old Boy Scout knife in the glove compartment, tore through the knot and took the two heaviest bags down, swearing at Anne for jamming them full, just as she had scourged him for having to pack them all by herself.
The wallpaper stopped him a foot in the door. The blemished mirror, the banister ending in a polished curl. He was always coming back, always stunned at his guilt, the tenderness his mother’s lamps filled him with. The light made him realize he was still moving from the car. They were upstairs, he could hear water. He put the bags down, and before the house could claim him, went back out, glad for the dark.
When he came in with the next set, Anne and Sarah were waiting. Sarah’s hair was between blond and gray, ashes mixed with dough. Her face looked worse in the light, her lipstick too young.
“Jay’s down,” Anne said. “I’m going up if you don’t mind.”
“No, go ahead. I should see Dad.”
“He can wait,” Sarah said.
“Do what you want,” Anne said, “I’m going to sleep. Which bed do you want?”
“I don’t care. Whichever.”
Sarah helped him bring the rest of the bags in. “Should I ask?” she said in the kitchen.
“Oh, you know how we are.”
“It must be awful.”
“No,” James said, as if he were going to explain, but, tired, let it go. He noticed he still had his coat on and draped it over a chair. “Don’t worry,” he said. “How are you?”
“Rich. I’m working over at Grumman’s where Terry used to, making airplanes. I’ve got muscles. I’ll get you in. They’re hiring all the time.”
“Sure.”
“I’ve got my bus at six. Did you want to see Dad?”
She led, as if he’d forgotten the way. The back staircase turned, a tunnel of matchboard lit by a single frosted fixture. She’d lost weight while he’d thickened, and he wondered if she had a man again. Terry had been her one love. James had liked him, though ten years ago he could see he wouldn’t survive the drinking. He wanted to ask Sarah how she’d come through all that to be here now. He never thought of losing Anne, only leaving her. He never saw beyond his wishes to the truth of his sister’s apartment, the weekends of rain, the bait store below open at four in the morning. In his daydreams, he’d designed the bright, airy house he and Diane would live in, the friendly town around them, the constant, perfect weather. Now, without her, he felt dull and incomplete, unable to explain to himself what had happened, let alone to those he was supposed to love. It was as if his heart kept its secrets even from him, and he was terrified he would become resigned to life as a baffled and sad old man. She was a beautiful girl and he had loved her. Was it really that simple? Then when would the merest thought of it not sting him?
Upstairs he was suddenly hot. The doors in the hallway were closed, the window at the end sealed with a blackout curtain. Distant, the sea rained down.
“You have to be quiet,” Sarah said, and, like a safecracker, palmed the doorknob, but once in he saw their father was awake, staring off into the dark. His distance was habitual, the strokes only widened his silence. The room smelled like a closet, a hint of moth crystals and belt leather. Their father was propped up with his nightcap half fallen off, his cheek sloping to jowl, gray in the light of the hall. His hands were crossed atop the covers. On the night table stood a glass of water, a splayed Bible, its silk string kinked and hanging off the back, holding no place. James knelt and touched his arm.
“Jimmy came.” His voice was thick, as if he’d been chewing a huge mouthful. “I guess I have to die now.”
“Dad,” Sarah scolded.
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing,” James said. “She said you needed someone to look after you.”
“I pee the bed, Jimmy. Imagine that. They never tell you.”
“Isn’t he great?” Sarah said. “Are you ready for a whole summer of this?”
“Your sister’s run out of patience. It’s not her fault.”
“You’re very welcome. You hear this? This is what it’s like.”
“Your brother’s here now. You’ve done your duty.”
“Why do you have to be like this?” she said, suddenly vicious, near tears. “Why can’t you just thank me?”
“I’m tired,” he said, and closed his eyes. “Go. Both of you.”
James took his hand back and stood. Everything seemed smaller this time, oddly wrong, as in a dream. He might brush the door-frame and knock out the wall.
“He’s a little better in the morning,” Sarah said on the porch, “but not much.”
“Why do you let him get to you?”
“I know I shouldn’t. God, the bastard. And you just sit there and let it happen. I guess I shouldn’t expect anything different.”
“Why is it me?” James said.
“Why isn’t it you, you mean. It’s always me because I’m the girl. It’s always been me, and it’s always going to be me. I guess I ought to be used to it by now.”
“No,” he said, but had nothing to follow it with.
She knotted her scarf under her chin and kissed him and got in the Hudson. Her headlights leapt off the cottages, flew over the dunes. He watched her away, then stood in the black, listening to the sea. Across the water came the sweet clank of a buoy; far out, lost in the dark, a troop ship mooed. I see you, James, I see you. At his back, the house creaked in its sleep.
“We’re here,” he said.



BLUE, OCEAN DAYS. Anne had become accustomed to her father’s hours, the restless schedule of the ill. She was up at five, dressing in the white dawn before James’s father got out of bed. She bowed her head in the back stairwell, kept a hand on the wall going down. The steel tables in the kitchen gave back the sky filling with light. The sun came here first; in Galesburg it was still dark, their house a target.
The stove lit with a hushed whump. She closed the doors to the pantry, the stairs, the back hall, and waited for the room to warm. The house seemed smaller before dawn, the gray hiding its size. The sun broke over the sea, reached in the high windows, long splinters of light. She squinted at its brilliance, bathed in its favor. She felt entitled to these moments alone, their quenching endlessness. Some days she never had to wake, kept her life inside, quiet as a patient. Flour, powdermilk, oleo.
At the hospital in Putney they made her serve breakfast before going home, and once on the empty bus—finding a blob of egg gone cold on her arm—she’d gotten sick, coughing into the dust under the seat. She was young then, and loved everyone she tended, torn by each bedsore, every child bled white. The confessions of the dying seemed precious, a validation of her father’s faith. She didn’t have the patience now, the infinite wisdom they needed. She hadn’t followed her father’s God, remembered flicking the purple hymnal ribbons and playing connect-the-dots while he preached, yet she’d never questioned his certainty. Mondays he drove all over the county, ministering to the sick. “Oh, you missed it,” he told them, sitting on the edge of the bed, and when they were well again, they made the trip to town to see him Sunday so they could groan at the new joke and, in the notes before the sermon, wait for him to say their names. After, being received, they held on to his hands. How tiring it must have been for him to bear their desires. The years, the dead. And what of his own? That last morning, she’d gone to her knees beside his bed and meant it, while he lay moaning, telling her why, on his own terms, he was unworthy. His confession was relentless, rending, his self-accusations hateful. “You must never blame your mother.” Each morning now she thought she wouldn’t recover from it, when she knew it was a matter of days, work, the right light. She didn’t want to give up this wistfulness. It was useless, stupid.
The griddle was big enough to do everything at once. James liked his bacon doled out a strip a day, while Jay feasted, willing to wait the week. She ate little, his father nothing, and they had enough. Tuesdays she biked to town to trade her red points for cheap meat. Mothers left their daughters to stand in line. She was the only adult; they called her Mrs. Langer, though she’d never offered her name. They waited for the grocer to open, sullen and dull, fishermen’s children, then, when he showed his face at the door, clamored. They all bought horsemeat, lean and gamy, their fathers sick of fish. The eggs were from the great duck farms to the west, reasonable, even cheap. The bacon was strictly illegal. She felt, in the crush, surrounded by bounty, that she didn’t need much.
“Thank you,” she said, “goodbye,” and the girls in line turned to watch her. Pedaling away, Anne laughed at her mystery. She imagined living here alone, a romantic, through the gray, gray days.
But she was, wasn’t she? A mystery, a romantic, alone. James was gone all day, Jay off on the marsh crabbing, terrified of his grandfather. On the porch Mr. Langer drifted in and out like fog. Only the gulls kept her company. They stood on the lawn in flocks, shedding feathers and fluff, their droppings caked like spilled paint. His father talked about fried gull, fishhead stew; hers never liked food, came to the table sated with the day, his parishioners, and barely ate. She could see him in Jay, had seen him in James. They had the same dream, to save everyone and owe the world nothing. Her men. Winter she had given too much.
His father came down first, dressed for hard weather, as if the chill might linger into midday. He had tomato juice in the same tumbler, the last of a matched set. She had to walk it out to the porch for him. He sat in a wicker rocker, a blanket over his knees, waiting for the paper. Every morning a thick boy delivered it by bike, shuddering down the sandy drive and across the gravel, then, at the edge of the lot, slamming into a skid and tomahawking it over the porch rail so the paper hopped across the floorboards and slid to rest inches from Mr. Langer’s old brogans. To Anne it seemed a miracle—reckless, headlong—yet the old man said nothing, merely reached down, didn’t even watch the boy, mortal again, push his bike back up the hill. By then he had the paper open.
She made James’s lunch while he ate his breakfast. He’d put on so much weight since Putney that she couldn’t watch him eat. Everything went back to that; he was so transparent. He had to bike to town to catch a bus to the plant. He wasn’t supposed to say what he made, though they knew it was planes. The night before Rennie had been taken away, James gave him a speech on how he believed in him, in the country, in history, as if he were teaching. Now he came home with grease on his sleeves, bits of metal set in his shoes, and after supper fetched his binoculars and headed out to the lighthouse—extinguished for the duration—and sat until dusk under the dead lens, peering out to sea for waves of invaders. Wednesdays he wrote Rennie letters that opened, Our dear son.
It wasn’t James who’d changed. She needed to believe; he still did. His optimism was a gamble she’d already lost. It was unfair, the little bitch had ruined not him but her. Anne was supposed to forgive him. The bitch, the bitch. Sixteen years old, her love bloody and pure, girlish. How could she compete? He came to her at night but, rebuffed, tried nothing. They didn’t fight: she fought while he fought for compromise, moderation. He no longer asked what was wrong, but went on, tolerant, even gentle, as if she were sick again. She had to cry sometimes, and this he didn’t understand, coming to hold her, stroke her. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed, “leave me alone!” and he stood back as if she’d caught on fire. She despised him most then, watching her cry, and chased him from whatever room they were in. She didn’t care if he was afraid of her or for her. She didn’t care about the wasted days.
“Thank you,” he said as she gave him his lunch pail, and set off through the gulls, wobbling. The birds stepped aside, then closed over his wake. His attempts at the hill maddened her, and once when he fell she let herself laugh, only to find Jay behind her.
She and Jay ate at the help’s table, facing each other over the brushed steel. She couldn’t explain her distance to him now, even if he did listen. Though she scolded James for it, she couldn’t stop weighing Jay against Rennie. Often she caught herself growing tender when he told her what he planned to do that day.
“I’m going to fish off the bridge,” he said, and she wanted to crush him against her. To be that happy, gulping in the thrill of summer.
They ate, then he was off to the salt marsh, biking east along the beach, and the day lay before her like the sea, flat as a table and shimmering, the horizon a line miles out, seemingly reachable. She washed the dishes, dried the dishes, put the dishes away. There were fifteen full sets—water glass, juice cup, salad bowl, soup bowl—yet she stayed with the same four at the top of the stacks. On the porch Mr. Langer grappled with the paper.
She was surprised she liked sitting with him. “Charlatans,” he accused the people in the news. “That Churchill is a pisscutter.” He could get in and out with little trouble, but sometimes came back from the bathroom downcast. “It’s no picnic,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.” Where James was apologetic, his father was gruff. It was mostly frustration, though sometimes he could be hard on Jay. The sun came all day; they had to move to new chairs just once, after lunch.
“There’s the prince,” Mr. Langer said, when she could barely pick out Jay coming up the beach. “Two o’clock,” he said, pointing to the invisible plane. She peered out over the sea. Blue, blue. In town the noon horn sounded, a distant ship. “On the nose,” he said, and tapped his crystal. This other husband, this strange vacation. She knitted for Dorothy and looked up to find him snoring, the sports page drifting across the porch.
“I’m not tired,” he said, not arguing. Only one side of his mouth opened. It wasn’t that noticeable.
“How do you feel?” she asked, leaning over him. He’d tried to shave that morning, and she could see where he quit.
“I’m tired,” he said.
Going up, he clung to the banister but made it all the way. She stayed a step below him, ready to take his weight, and once he was in his room, felt foolish. He wasn’t that bad, it was only her. A year ago she’d laughed with her father at the fit of his slacks, though she knew the withering meant the end.
She folded Mr. Langer’s blanket, still warm from his lap, and paced the porch. Gull fluff blew and caught in the lawn; they soared offshore, rode the lazy waves. Like Jay, they’d be back at dinner. She didn’t know what she’d make. She picked up her knitting, after a few stitches went inside and checked the icebox, but even looking at the food, nothing struck her.
Going in, coming out, the light was blinding. How she’d loved the sea; how she would now without James, his father, his mother’s old ghost. It wasn’t all her (was, was). Their honeymoon they’d made love in the dunes, guiltless, thrilled by the night sky. Sand worked up into her; she would save it to tell him later. How her body burned with him then. After, she could feel the heat bleed away. He pulled her sweater over her head, and the air shocked her. “What are you doing?” she said, but he had his off and was up, running, and she was after him without pause, across the packed sand and into the surf. The water seemed to freeze all but a warm core. Her skin, alive beneath his fingers, seemed heavy, asleep. He came out shrunken and she thought it funny, and after they found their clothes she took him again.
“James,” she said.
“What is it?” he asked, concerned, gone still in her.
“Look up,” she said, and for a time they did. When had she last wanted him like that?
She went upstairs and checked on Mr. Langer, went through her suitcase and found her blue suit. She was white from a life upstate, winter lingering into May. She could be pretty, she could still dare the mirror.
She cruised the dunes for a hollow and, not bothering to lay a blanket, spread her body on the hot sand and closed her eyes. The waves, the wind lisping in the saw grass. Gulls, gulls, go away. The day was shadowless, heat seething in her skin. Her father kept the coal stove going through June. She fed him soup. The broth spilled down his jaw onto the pillow. “I don’t expect you’ll forgive me,” he said. It seemed he was pleading. “It’s all right,” she said, and he hung on her arm, grateful, as if she’d saved him.
The blue drew the heat to it; a slick of sweat grew under her breasts. Should have made lemonade. Jay could tell time by the sun. Like a hunter, her father said, it’s a gift. She sat up. The house burned white, blinds drawn. Not a boat out, not a cloud. This was what she needed to shed her depression—herself, without help.
She lay back and slipped the straps from her shoulders, pulled the suit to her waist and, arching, slid it over her hips. She’d had it as a girl. Silly that it still fit her. Last summer James had made some comment on it. Time for a new one? Now it was loose on her, her middle ribbed from lifting her father in and out of bed, helping him from the tub. She stretched and the sand flared with a new heat. Was it the sun that gave her this sense of strength? Suddenly she felt an overwhelming hope for her father—that his faith, if not restored, was in those last moments not destroyed. That he had the courage to confess, to face her with his insane self-scourging, meant he thought her strong enough. Or was it, as she feared, that she was the only one left? Now, alone as the only child she’d been, she felt him in her, strangely contained, that last part of her, as if she would—under the sun, in her perfect skin—become unlimited. If faith would protect Rennie, who was she to say no? Here, she could almost believe.
“Your mother never knew any of it.”
Faintly, a plane was buzzing. She opened her eyes, but, blinded, didn’t see it until it was nearly overhead. It was loud and low, close enough to read the stars on its wings. Brazen, she waved, but once its engine died, felt ashamed and gathered her towel around her. Our dear son. She didn’t hate James, only the little bitch. Above, gulls keened, wheeling.
The front hall was dark, the upstairs twenty degrees hotter. His father was still sleeping, on top of the covers in his shorts, his socks on. Flies fussed against a window. A shade brushed a screen with a zithering sound; she pulled it down farther, then stopped and stood looking at him, oddly long in the mirror of the bureau, the wall beside her alive with explosions of white roses. The blue suit. James’s mother had been dead for forty years. She’d never heard Mr. Langer mention her, James only when coaxed. In the same way, her own mother cultivated an invisibility Anne noticed growing in herself. Why? She was no ghost.
Jay came in around dinner with a pail of blues—tough, ugly fish Mr. Langer refused to eat.
“Trash fish,” he said in the kitchen, lifting one by the gills. There was no reason. Lunch he had a cheese sandwich, dinner a hamburger cut up so he wouldn’t choke.
“Thank you,” she told Jay. “I’ll make us croquettes for lunch.”
He was a child, she could still please him. He muscled the bucket into the sink, then dashed up the back stairs to get ready.
“Where’s that hamburger of mine?” Mr. Langer asked, half joking.
“Keep your shirt on,” she said, and with her spatula smashed the patty flat.
She waited the spaghetti for James, but after an hour on the porch watching the sun fade, served Jay. Mr. Langer had her turn on the radio. She took Jay outside and tried to play catch with him, using James’s old glove. She’d never been any good. Jay played as if he were giving her lessons. One toss skipped off the tip of her mitt and caught her in the breast. “Oh,” she said, and held herself, crossing her arms. She kicked the mitt, and Jay said they didn’t have to play anymore. The dew was out now, the gulls in for the evening. When James finally appeared at the top of the hill, she didn’t feel like eating.
“Seven to seven,” he said, chewing. “Seven days a week. Everything over forty hours is time and a half, Sunday’s double time.”
“You’re hardly here as it is.”
“It’s not like I have a say in the matter.”
“I know that,” she said, rinsing the dishes. “I’m just lonely, I guess.”
“I know.”
Outside, Jay was playing commando, scaling the porch railing, leveling a bat like a rifle. In the living room, Nimitz steamed west across the Pacific. James got up and brought his plate to the sink and hugged her from behind while she scrubbed the red sauce off. She broke his hold to get the dish towel.
“I’ll dry,” he said, hopeful.
“Did you see Jay’s fish?”
“Nice.” He took the towel from her. “So aren’t you going to congratulate me? It’s like getting a gigantic raise.”
“It’s wonderful,” she said.
“Don’t overwhelm me.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Did you tell Jay?”
“I’ve only been home a few minutes.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “I’m already doing everything around here. He’s the one who’s going to miss you.”
He stacked a plate, fished another from the sink. “I don’t know why you’re so unhappy.”
“You don’t?”
Jay popped up in the window and shot James. He fell, clutching the towel to his chest.
“You’re not going to make me feel bad about this,” she said, and left him lying there.
He came to her later, in the dark. She heard his bed creak, his feet on the floor. Her covers lifted, exposing her to the cold, and he pressed against her, hard in the hollow of her bottom.
“I can’t sleep over there,” he said.
She slid out, walked around the foot and got in the other bed.



The next morning she rode to town for a few pounds of sugar. In line behind her stood three or four girls with bandages around their scalps, amateurishly wrapped. Spurts of mercurochrome hinted at extravagant wounds.
“Excuse me,” she asked one, “did you do these?”
“Oh, no,” a different one answered—red-haired, devilish. “Mrs. Ridley did them.”
“Is Mrs. Ridley a nurse?”
They all laughed.
“Mr. Ridley owns Ridley’s.” A few pointed across the street to a five and dime with RIDLEY in gilt script above the door. “We’re having a drill.”
“Really,” Anne said. “And what are you supposed to do?”
“We get to lie down in the middle of the street.”
“And make noises,” the shy one said. They made dying noises, ghostly moans.
“Do you know what to do if something real happens?” Anne asked.
“Get Mrs. Ridley?”
“When is this drill?”
“When the horn goes off. Then we have to lie down.”
“What happens then?”
“Then the soldiers come on the bus and fix us. Don’t you know anything?”
“Where we live we don’t have drills.”
“Oh,” the red-haired girl said, “you have to have drills. Else the Knotsies will get you.”
The grocer let one more in and they all moved up a step. As Anne turned to ask where the soldiers came from, the fire horn blew, and everyone around her crumpled to the ground. It was exactly eleven. Mr. Langer needed lunch. She stood for a second holding her purse, the sole survivor, then sat down on the hot sidewalk.
The medics took forever. They had little equipment and spent too much time talking. The one who worked on her was younger than Rennie, a blond boy with big teeth. He was sweating and half distracted by the children’s groans, as if afraid they were actually hurt. His name was sewn over his pocket, TEDDER. He started by taking her pulse.
“How do you feel, ma’am?” he asked with a southern lilt.
“I’m in shock,” Anne said. “I lost a lot of blood waiting.”
He took her blood pressure and wrapped her in an imaginary blanket. “How about a broken leg?”
“Compound, just under the knee.”
He seemed defeated. “I can’t do them yet.”
“It’s easy,” she said. “You don’t. If it’s bad, get a compress on it, stabilize the patient and get them to a hospital. Otherwise keep it clean, splint the limb, then move them.”
He pressed the heels of his hands against her shin, checked her pulse and pressure again. “You’re a nurse.”
“Used to be.”
“You’ll live,” he predicted, and, before scooting to his next victim, added, “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
The all clear blew at noon. It was after one when she put the bag of sugar in her basket and rode for home. Having to hurry ruined the view. Still, she loved the sea peeking through the dunes. She stood on the pedals to take it in, then, late, tried to make up time by racing the last half mile. Coming down the hill, she built up too much momentum and shot across the gravel lot, her back wheel sliding as if on ice. She was ready to jump, one eye on the strip of lawn beside the porch, and then the front wheel dug a rut and she was in control again, her face stinging with the thrill of it.
Mr. Langer had already made lunch. Jay sat at the table, glumly eating his cheese sandwich.
“You two don’t need me,” she said. “You can take care of yourselves.”
“You said you were going to make croquettes.”
“Don’t whine,” Mr. Langer said.
“I’m sorry, Jay. I’ll make them for dinner, how’s that?”
He looked at her, chewing. In the last year he’d perfected a blank stare balanced between anger and resignation. Whenever she raged or, more often, placated him, he resorted to this passive mask, his silence a judgment, eyes locked somewhere beyond her, as if daring her to strike him. He was so much his father’s son.
“Answer your mother,” Mr. Langer said.
“Yes,” Jay said. “Please.”
“Of course,” she said, trying (like James!) to smooth things over between the two of them.
With his last bite tucked in his cheek, Jay asked to be excused, and she let him go. Mr. Langer left his crusts. She got him settled on the porch, cleaned up, then went out and lay in the dunes.
Light, heat, the shadows of the grass. Sweat bled and pooled on her stomach, neck and brow. The white line of her suit grew sharper, her hips thinner, as if she were melting. These blue afternoons pleased her, yet even in their deepest reaches, her body burning with the season’s fever, an icy trickle of misgiving slid within her like the streams of her childhood, locked long into spring, black, their beds heavy with last year’s leaves. Her father would be dead for the rest of her life, the grass high on his grave. She couldn’t call up his voice; he spoke to her only words she’d already heard. “People in town knew—some, I’m sure.”
She banished him by opening her eyes. The sameness of her days here. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Shadows angling across the porch. When she thought of Rennie, she saw him face up in the surf, his chest plucked open, each wave floating him up the sand then drawing him back, splashing. It was a picture in Life, each week a different beach.
Here there was nothing. The rocks covered with gulls, the squat white lighthouse Jay pretended was a plane. He was up there now, aiming the heavy lens at invisible enemies. She waved on her way in, and he turned to her, all the time firing.
She’d been out less than an hour. The fish had gone bad; later when she told Jay, he went silent.
“Don’t you do that to me,” she said, pointing, and he stalked out of the house.
At dinner, she tried to be nice. He was polite. Mr. Langer’s hamburger was undercooked.
“Then give me it and I’ll cook it the way you like it.”
“I like it done,” he said.
She turned the flame up all the way and grease pricked her wrists.
“You’re welcome,” she said, dropping his plate in front of him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Excuse me.”
Waiting for James was the hardest part, and then when he came she didn’t want to talk to him.
“So,” he said after detailing his adventures, “what did you do today?”
The medic’s breath smelled of chewing gum. Tedder.
“Nothing,” she said.
The radio chased her upstairs. She knitted until Jay’s bedtime, got him in and went down to say goodnight herself. Only one lamp was on, in a corner, its shade topped with a beer tray. James and his father sat on each side of the big Philco, as if guarding it. They kept the same chairs and spoke—it seemed to Anne—more to the set than each other. They spoke to the war.
She listened for his father coming up first. In the dark she heard James say goodnight to him and then clump downstairs to search the night dial for more reports. New York, of course, and south to Philadelphia. Boston, Portland, and once, before a storm, oddly, Cleveland. The downstairs filled with static, crazy loops of stuck frequencies. She tried to be asleep before he tired of it, but hours later woke to explosions below her and, knocking her knitting to the floor, threw off her covers and from the top of the stairs called him to bed.
“Did James tell you?” his father asked the next morning, accepting his juice. “The Marines are on New Georgia.”
He seemed pleased, and she went back to the kitchen to mix James’s pancakes, thinking, I cannot stop this, hating her own weakness. She was sitting silently at the help’s table when something—a beam giving way, a bureau toppling, someone falling down the stairs—made the whole house jump.
Her fears were for Jay, and she ran to the front stairs.
“Here,” Mr. Langer called from the front door. He was standing, holding his juice and his blanket. “It’s the news,” he said, and pointed off the end of the porch. She didn’t understand but ran to the rail.
Below her lay the paper boy, twisted around his bike, his papers scattered around him in the grass. He was bleeding from one ear. She almost ran James down getting to the stairs.
The boy was out. His head was snapped back, showing his throat, and before she had a chance to feel his limbs, she knew—from how many kids diving into the haymow, the summer quarry—that his neck was broken. She got his pulse, much stronger than she’d thought, and started checking his legs. His shorts were seeping blood. Some part of the bike had torn his thigh near the groin. She covered the wound with her hands.
“I need a towel,” she said, and Jay, suddenly there and awake, ran.
Under her, the boy stirred.
“James, I need you down here.”
He hopped the rail in his pajamas.
She pointed to the boy’s head with her chin. “If he comes to and starts thrashing around, you’re going to have to hold him up there.”
“Here’s the towel,” Jay said.
“Give it to your father.”
The boy was coming out of it. She was wrong about the neck (how rusty she was, how glad to help!). She pressed the towel into the wound, and he shrieked and arched his body against the pain.
“You’re all right!” she shouted back. “Calm down!”
“Should I hold him?” James asked.
“He’s all right. You’re all right!”
The boy lay back on the grass, heaving out long sobs. She peeked under the towel. The gash filled and ran.
“Get the car started,” she said. “Jay, get your clothes on, you have to come with me. Where’s the nearest hospital?”
“Brookhaven,” Mr. Langer said.
“There’s an army base around here somewhere,” she said.
“I don’t know of any.”
She asked James when he brought the car around.
“Outside Flanders.”
“Where’s that?”
He pulled a map from the glove box and patted his pajamas for a pencil.
“Just show me.”
James helped her lay him across the backseat. He’d put an old blanket over the upholstery, which she knew was useless. Jay waited, afraid to touch him.
“Get in back,” she said. “You’re going to have to hold the towel to keep the bleeding down. Okay?”
“Okay.”
“I can go,” James said.
“You have to work,” she said, and (she would remember this later, linger over it like a mystery) before pulling away, kissed him through the window.
She had the map on the seat beside her, and stopped before each turn, wanting to be sure.
“How you doing back there?” she asked Jay. “Don’t worry if he yells. It hurts whether you press it or not.”
They had enough gas. She sped along the empty highway, so fast they almost missed the entrance, marked like a scout camp with an arch of sticks. The dirt roads of the base were badly marked and choked with soldiers, most just boys, the few men conspicuous. Riding with her window down, Anne followed their directions through the maze of tents to a Quonset marked with the red cross.
Someone had called ahead, because a crew was waiting for her. Before she could turn off the car, two medics had the boy out and on a litter, a clean compress on him. Jay stood aside, holding the soiled towel.
“Thank you,” she said. “I know that was very hard. That’s what your brother does.”
He didn’t answer; he was watching the medics carry the boy inside.
“He’s going to be okay,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay.”
“How about we go inside?”
“Is he going to get stitches?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Can I wait here?”
“Are you going to be sick? Do you feel like you’re going to faint?”
“A little.”
“Why don’t you lie down? Here.” She helped him into the front and got him situated. The morning was coming on and the blood smelled. “Do you want the door open?”
“Open.”
She opened the back doors too. “I’m going to go in. Are you going to be all right?”
“Yes.”
Inside, a nurse took her information. She wore cat’s-eye glasses on a chain, which made her look younger than she was. Anne was astonished at how much she missed a woman’s voice. She hadn’t expected any here and was mildly surprised, even pleased, to see three others at their desks. Clipboards hung along the wall. In the back, beyond a cloth screen, the boy was sobbing.
“My guess is it missed the femoral,” Anne said.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you look at him?”
“Not for long,” the nurse said. “Those are the kind I hate. And he’s only a kid, too.”
“I know. Wait till the parents get here. That’s when I have the trouble. I’m a nurse too.”
“Oh, where do you work?”
Anne told her about Putney and Montour Falls but didn’t mention being a shift supervisor. It was nice just to talk shop.
“So where are you working now?”
“I’m not. I’m taking care of my father-in-law—he had a stroke.”
“I’m sorry. If he gets better, we could really use you.”
“That’s very nice of you,” Anne said. Her name was Cheryl. In back, the boy stopped. “You did get his parents?”
“The mother’s coming,” Cheryl said.
“I’d better get back to my patient.”
“Think about it.”
“I will,” Anne said.
The backseat was a disaster. On the drive home, Jay kept his head out the window, just in case. After breakfast he seemed better, then disappeared down the beach. She watched him dwindle from the porch.
“How’d he do?” Mr. Langer asked.
“Good,” she said. “He did very well.”
“I put the bike around back.”
“You shouldn’t be doing that.”
“The thing rolls,” he said.
Midafternoon, the boy’s mother called to thank her. Her name was Marion Rodman, the boy’s name was Win.
“Edwin,” Marion explained. “They say he’s going to be fine. In the meantime, I don’t suppose your boy is looking for a paper route?”
“I’ll check,” Anne said, and after dinner, playing catch, asked him.
“Sure,” Jay said.
“Starting tomorrow.”
“Okay.”
James apologized for not calling. He’d begun to fade toward the end of the week, and ate leaning on one elbow, his head bent over the plate. His hands were dirty.
“You should be getting more sleep,” she said.
“I keep thinking I’ll make it up on the weekend. There isn’t any weekend.”
“You miss teaching.”
“Not after last year.”
“Jay has a job.”
“So he told me.”
She sat down across from him. “I talked to a woman up at the camp. She said they were looking for nurses.”
“And.”
“Maybe I could work there a few days a week.”
“You miss it.”
“I do.”
“What about Jay?” he asked.
“I think Jay’s old enough to take care of himself.”
“Can he take care of my father if something goes wrong?”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I’m going crazy in this house. You’re not here, Rennie’s not here, Jay doesn’t want to be here. I’m all by myself. I look at your father and I think of my father. I can’t keep thinking about him. I need to take care of someone who’s going to get better.”
“This is going to make you feel better, doing this?”
“I think so.”
“Then fine,” he said, as if he’d been for it all along.
She told Jay as she tucked him in. He gave her his blank face. “Look,” she said, “a lot of things are going to change around here, and you’re not going to like some of them. When you don’t like something, don’t make faces, come right out and tell me you don’t like it.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Good,” she said.
“What if Grampa Langer dies?”
“Remember I told you when your Grampa Clayborn was going to leave?”
“Yes.”
“I’ll tell you when Grampa Langer’s going to leave. Okay?”
“Okay,” Jay said.
James came straight to her bed, cold against her curled back.
“What about sleep?” she asked, but rolled over, opening to him.
Before the sun was up she woke Jay to get ready for his first day of papers. She came down to the kitchen and lit the stove. Outside, gulls stood on the lawn by the hundreds, some with one leg tucked under, still asleep. She made a pot of coffee and was about to sit down to the help’s table when she stopped, half fascinated by the light. She set her cup on its saucer, then went to the back door and opened it.
She walked down the steps and onto the wet lawn, her bare feet freezing. The gulls sidled away, eyeing her. She made for them but they scooted off, hopping a few feet ahead of her, jostling to get out of her way yet unconcerned. A few on the edge lazily took flight as she chased them, dropping to the lawn out of reach. “Bastards,” she swore, and, as if instructed, a pack of them lifted as one into the air, then another, and shouting “Go!” she sent them all off over the water, their calls like the cries of the dying.



THREE TIMES A DAY JAY HAD TO PASS THE SHOALS, twice on his bike and then again in bed. It stood back from the beach, its porch flush with the line of the woods, a white-shingled elephant of a hotel starting to fall apart. Some of its windows were broken, others covered with illegible, rain-browned bills. Bits of beer bottles glittered on its crossed walks. Win said no one had owned it for a while; there’d been a fire. It was a shortcut between Hickey’s Mart, where Mr. Barger dropped off his bundle of papers, and the town road, where most of his customers lived. Laden, Jay crept by the dry fountains and ruined flower beds, then, coming back with his sack empty, blew through the cracked parking lot.
In the dream he was just starting out, his sack so heavy it must have been a Sunday. Win had warned him about the chain strung between the stone posts at the foot of the drive. Each post had had a plaque bolted to it; in the dream they hadn’t been taken for scrap. Jay aimed for the rut outside the right post, where Win had worn through to a root. The drive ran under a canopy of trees, tangle on both sides sloping darkly away to marsh. Gravel plinked in his spokes, dinged off the chain guard. Weeds reached for him. The drive split, and, as instructed, Jay followed around to the right and up a slight rise, and there in front of him stood the Shoals, layered like a wedding cake.
By this time, he knew he was dreaming. Though nothing had happened, a faint buzzing had begun, and as he coasted down the drive he began to panic, knowing he wouldn’t keep going straight but would curl off and take the circle around to the canopied entrance. In reality only the poles and a few shreds of bleached canvas remained, but here it was, coming into view, a taut bright green, on the end its name in script. The sack’s strap bit into his neck, the buzzing became a radio, a lush ripple of static. There was no telling how long it would go on, and knowing it was a dream only made it worse, impossible to stop. Now he would flip down his kickstand. Now he would trip on the curb and his papers would spill out on the green carpet.
Inside the Shoals, far across a wide dining room overlooking the sea, Rennie would be sitting at a table, waiting for him. The weather had turned; a storm light bathed the room. In the dimness, Jay couldn’t see his face. He would have a plate in front of him and a napkin tucked into his uniform. Behind him, shadows of water rilled down the wall. Jay would come into the dark dining room, through padded double doors with portholes too high to see through and down the three carpeted steps. A wall-long window gave on a gray view. Far over the sea, explosions lit sinking ships. The buzzing came high now, on and on, dizzying, like watching wires run above him in the car. Unseen, his mother was shouting the way she did before she hit him, the word and then her hand: “Don’t. You. Ever.” Down the three steps, down the three steps, and then the arm of lightning would reach, was reaching, reached through the window and shook Rennie.



Jay explained in the dark, his father at his feet, making the mattress tilt.
“I understand,” his father said, “but these dreams have to stop. You’re too old for this. I’m too old for this. Okay, champ?”
“Okay,” Jay said, and the bed lifted.
His father filled the door. “Sleep now.” The hall went black and the stairs gave. Below, searchlights scoured the clouds, sirens tore across London.
“My light,” Jay called, and his father stopped halfway down.
“You want your light.”
“Yes. Please.”
His father came in, rigid. “What is it with this light now?”
“I just like it on.”
“I understand that,” his father said, straining as he bent to stick it in the outlet. The light was creamsicle orange and put a gleam in the glass knobs of the dresser. “Better?”
“Thank you.”
His father moved to the door, his shadow huge and soft. “We’re all worried, Jay,” he said, as if this might comfort him, then left him to the whistling fins.
Downstairs the radio stopped and his mother and father talked. Jay lay in the dark, buoyed by his father’s soft drawl, waiting for his mother to cut him off or fix him with her wise silence. It was about him but really it wasn’t. Outside, the sea rushed; the wind shivered the pane above his head. From the woods, so far in the dark Jay couldn’t pick out the clicking of the rails, came the long-drawn call of a train from the base.
Last week when his crabbing pond and the creek feeding it had turned a stinking black, he’d followed the slick upstream through brush farther than he’d ever gone and found a bridge. It was new, steel painted green, and beneath it in the water sat globs of oil, tarballs—or so he’d thought, for when he was in the shadow of the bridge he saw it was shit, a runny suspension that made him cover his face. Above, the rails began to hum and ring—Grampa Clayborn grinding a knife in the cellar—and nearby a train clattered, echoing over the skinny pines. Slow, a freight hauling potatoes, sea bass packed in ice. He had a nickel and scampered up the bank to set it on the track, then hid under the bridge.
The noise was enormous, drumming the air. The first engine pushed the piling he was leaning against down into the water, and he jumped away. Landing, his feet shot out from under him, and he sprawled, afraid he’d fall in. Above, the train ground across the sky, a string of cattle cars, slat-sided, out of which stuck a hand, a single finger pointing at Jay. Over the throb of the diesels came laughter, hooting. A cigarette butt landed near him, rolling, still lit. The hand turned over, gave him the finger and was gone.
“Soldiers,” his father told him, “headed for the war.”
“James,” his mother scolded.
“What am I going to do, give him nightmares? He already has nightmares.”
“This helps?”
“He knows. They show it at the Regal, right after Porky Pig.”
“You know it makes me angry,” she said.
“Are you going to tell him he can’t go?”
“They don’t scare me,” Jay said. “I like them.”
“See,” his mother said, “he likes them. This is your brother, for God’s sake.”
“Anne.”
“What, you can say what you want but when I say something I’m damaging him? We’re talking about Rennie here.”
The mention of his name made Jay angry.
“Rennie’s going to be fine,” his father said.
“Of course,” his mother said, but Jay could see she didn’t believe it. Since Grampa Clayborn died she didn’t even try to lie about things. That was up to his father now, and he wasn’t any good at it.
“Why don’t you go on outside,” his father said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“It’s almost dark.”
“Go ahead.”
Waiting with his father’s binoculars and the spotter cards, Jay swore. He’d forgotten the nickel. It was still back there, probably in the water.
The trains ran all night, their horns warning each other, waking him in the dark warmth of his covers. He had a dream for them. He had a dream for everything, that was the problem. They came on like the newsreels at the Regal except nobody said anything. The Arizona blew up to his room, the shouts of the drowning no louder than his Big Ben’s ticking.
He heard his mother coming up the stairs, and below, the radio going on again. When she shut the bathroom door, he snuck to the closet and got out his box and brought it to bed. His Indian head pennies jingled in the dark. He kept everything in the box, his little things—a Utica Club church key; half a jawbone of a woodchuck, the seams black between the teeth; a spent shotgun shell; a yellow shard of a clay pigeon; Grampa Clayborn’s back door key; the postcard from Rennie and Dorothy’s honeymoon in Hawaii.
He kept the box in his closet in case they moved. The time before last, he’d forgotten a miniature syrup jar he’d been waiting for all spring, and when he unpacked he saw the glass cabin standing amid the dim shelves of the pantry, a sliver of light trapped in its chimney. It would be there now, filled with a silt of dust and moth droppings.
That was Montour Falls, where the trains ran up the lake and his father taught shop because they already had someone for history. Leaving, he thought he’d never see the jar again. Now, with the war, he didn’t even want it.
That last time, Jay had almost hidden. His father came to find him, clumping through the downstairs, trying to keep his voice nice. The house was empty, swept; it made him sound huge. Jay stood at his bedroom window, trying to memorize the view. Below, under the buckeye tree, their car chugged in a drizzle, his mother’s kitchen chairs lashed to the roof, its heavy doors spread like wings. That was at the beginning of the war. Rennie was off at Cornell. His mother was in Galesburg, helping Grampa Clayborn die.
“Let’s go, champ,” his father called from the foot of the stairs, and clapped his hands twice, as if Jay were at bat. That spring his father came down during his free period and watched them in gym, correcting Jay from the bleachers as he ate his lunch. “Throwing behind the runner,” he called. “Missed the cut-off man.” His voice echoed in the rafters above the drawn-up backboards. Alone in the stands, he seemed tiny instead of gigantically fat. All year Jay found him drawn in stalls and gouged into desktops, a balloon with a striped tie and glasses, sometimes a pig with a book, curly-tailed, a triangle of handkerchief poking out. Lardass Langer. Lardo. Jay carried an eraser, a brown block that smelled of soap and crumbled like cheese, but after going through a few he understood it was no use and tried, as his father counseled, to ignore it; tried, as he tried to ignore his father’s presence, hopelessly, afraid he was betraying him. He would, he was. His father made them the same lunch, and as Jay clung to how many outs there were and which base to throw to, his father called down, “Apple again,” as if it were a surprise. The batter tapped the plate, took a few cuts. “Jay, macaroons!”
They’d been in Montour Falls a year. His hiding surprised Jay as much as it did his father, and when they were together in the car, with his father hunched over the wheel, peering through the useless wipers, Jay tried to explain.
“Don’t say you’re sorry,” his father said. “You’ve put up with a lot this year. I can’t promise, but I think we’re going to be at this new place a long time.”
That was Galesburg, at Grampa Clayborn’s. His mother helped him die because he was her father. Winter, those snowy days alone. His mother kept Grampa Clayborn’s door closed. A pan of water on the radiator made the air cold and heavy. Once he’d peeked in and seen his grandfather propped up, reading, his mother holding the Bible for him, turning the thin pages. His grandfather said the words—Jay could read his lips—but the voice he heard was his mother’s. She knew it by heart, and as she helped Grampa Clayborn say it, she turned her head toward the door where Jay stood, her eyes telling him to go, go.
She never left the house, sent him with a list to town when she needed things. He was happy to be by himself, walking, the black trees crossed against the sky. The library closed at dark; the lights went off in rows. He had class, his father had to teach.
They both got a day off for the funeral. Jay sat between them in the front seat. His mother looked angry and small in black; she said his grandfather had told her to tell him goodbye. In the coatroom, alone, he said it out loud in the mirror of the cigarette machine, but it didn’t mean anything. There was a pack of matches in the drop slot he thought of taking. King Edward cigars. It had snowed, the coats dripped on the carpet.
Grampa Langer was going to die, no one knew when. His mother said he was getting better, but all he did was sit on the porch and listen to the radio. In the mornings he wore a winter coat, and again after supper. Half of his face was dead, that eye rheumy, like a blind dog’s. His skin was like the Mummy’s; if you poked your finger through, out would come a puff of dust. When Jay came back from crabbing, he asked to look in the bucket, then muttered, “A good lot,” and Jay wanted to dump them in his lap and run. He was with him all the time now that his mother was working. They were supposed to check up on each other. Jay couldn’t wait until Win was allowed out.
Downstairs, his father walked around, locking up. Jay found Rennie’s postcard and angled it toward his night-light so he could see the volcano. Scenic! the back said. And real hot! He imagined Rennie’s ship going by the Arizona, pushing through the slick, the oil still bubbling up, all those guys inside.
Deep in the woods, a train blew a mournful chord, like a great harmonica. He saw the Shoals, white in a flash of lightning, and stuck the postcard back in the box, stowed the box under his pillow and pulled the covers over his head. “I’ll be back,” Rennie had said at the station and, surprising Jay, kissed him. It hadn’t embarrassed Jay as much as it frightened him. There was no reason to be afraid, his father always said, as if Jay had to come up with one. If his mother told him not to worry, it would be different. His father said nothing could happen, but he always said that. He’d said that about Grampa Clay born.



He went to the Regal to see Rennie die. He was the only guy in the balcony not in uniform. They came down from the base on pass and saw the late matinee. All the movies were the war now. The soldiers around him made fun of the story, then got quiet when someone died.
Only one important guy died; the rest of them got maybe one line. The Germans didn’t say anything but sometimes they looked surprised. Everyone laughed at that. Everything was in France. Some civilians died first, then some Germans, then some of the underground, more Germans, one of our guys that didn’t count too much, then a million Germans, and finally the star—always William Bendix. By then Jay had forgotten Ann Sheridan, the tough nurse, and when her face came down, soft and sharp and flame-lit for a dying kiss, his face got hot and he had to stay still or he might cry. Around him in the dark, the soldiers made slurping sounds—“Oh, baby!”—and Jay saw Dorothy in her swimsuit on the rock below the falls.
April, she had kissed him at the station in Utica, her breasts pressing against him, then her hard belly as she pulled him close. Since winter her face had gone heavy and spread over her cheeks; a pad of fat hung under her chin. With her bags massed at her feet, in her good camel’s-hair coat, she seemed almost an adult, and Jay fought to recall those days alone with her—the water flowing over the mossy rock, smooth as the slide at the town pool—when she had no one but him to talk to and everything he said had to be right. It was—he was. She held him sometimes, her chin over his shoulder, her suit hot on his skin, and then, releasing him, laughed at her fear and dove into the chilly water. He thought of her at night when his hands strayed (were they her hands on him or his on her?), then remembered Rennie and stopped, only to succumb the next night. All summer he’d dreamed of this kiss, dreaded it, and now with the meager last snow of the season drifting down outside, Dorothy was more like his mother, not a girl anymore. No one thought she should go, even Rennie, but she’d fought them, and now she was here, leaving. The station was hot, its long benches filled, a few people asleep. Dorothy’s neck smelled of talc and sweat and Evening in Paris, like a sour, flowery bread fresh from the oven. “When I come back you’ll be an uncle,” she said. “Uncle Jay, okay?” She’d been crying since she got out of her parents’ Chevy, quietly, dabbing at her eyes with a balled tissue and shaking her head, frowning as if annoyed with her own emotions. She and Mrs. Baines were the only ones crying. Mr. Baines and his father stood back, holding their hats and not talking. His mother had refused to come. At home she called Mr. Baines “that bastard,” even after his father asked her not to. “She’s just upset,” his father explained that night, as if she were sick, her venom temporary.
Ann Sheridan laid a clean sheet over the hero’s face. It wasn’t a bad death. He’d write the name of the movie on his ticket stub and put it in his box, but he knew he’d forget it. It wouldn’t come back the way Grampa Clayborn or Dorothy did, the way the lightning reached in.
For Rennie, he needed something at sea. A beachhead or, better, a torpedoed Liberty ship. He’d seen one in the newsreels, a few crew members floating face up in a swath of broken boards, their heads blackened by burning oil. He hadn’t dreamed Rennie into it yet.
Sometimes before the credits finished and the lights came up, Jay made for the bathroom and hid in a locked stall, his sneakers on the seat. The usher, Bart the Drunk, never checked, and when Jay knew his mother was working late at the base, he stayed to see the same sequence of cartoon, newsreel, serial, trailers and, finally, again, the feature, shocked at how often the movie he’d liked earlier that afternoon wasn’t any good. For the second show he always took the best seat—in the middle of the last row, under the projector hole. When things got slow, he spied on the guys who invited and then paid for the girls who waited outside every day.
Jay knew some from his route; they came straight from the Waquaumsett Country Day School, still in uniform but with lipstick and their buttons undone to show a stretch of neck. Each wore a ring of plain, polished jet to show they were waiting for someone overseas. Those closer to his age just talked and teased, sisterly; an older one might kiss and cuddle, the big question whether she’d let whoever it was slip his hand into her shirt. Jay watched with the same outrage and admiration, the same concentration he reserved for that slacker Musial. And like Musial standing on second, regal even in his shame, the girls came the next day, the pawing forgotten, to stand outside before showtime, french-inhaling Luckies. He thought of their houses, the long lawns and high hedges, the crushed-clamshell drives he rode over. They knew he’d taken over for Win; he hoped they didn’t think they were friends.
There was one blond girl, Sylvia Jensen, that he seemed to be falling in love with. She was only a year and three months older than him, according to Win, and lived on the bay side of the town road—403, a lopsided saltbox with steep stairs and a peeling porch. A cat hunched in one window, sunning. Her father worked with his father. Fridays he gave Jay a nickel extra for putting the paper inside their screen door, while Jay stood looking past him, trying to see Sylvia, terrified that he might. She didn’t seem to like him much, though once she’d looked back at him and made a face while her date tried to kiss her.
Sylvia wasn’t here today, he always checked coming in. Ann Sheridan was almost enough to make him stay, and Grampa Langer waiting for him, but his mother would be back at six. The credits ended and soldiers pushed through the rows. They seemed older than Rennie in their uniforms. Bart the Drunk waved them along with his flashlight, shaking the gold fringe of his epaulets. His face was red as a steak, and midway through the second show he fell asleep on the stairs. His flashlight didn’t have batteries. Jay waited for Bart to notice him and, when he didn’t, got up, unsticking his feet from the floor.
Along the lobby walls hung the coming attractions, framed by dead lightbulbs. Each poster drew a crowd, like paintings in a museum. A new picture was opening Friday night. The poster was just like the one in the window of Ridley’s that said SOMEONE TALKED, except above the struggling sailor with his mouth half full of water and one arm reaching hopelessly out to the crowd, it said instead, Action in the North Atlantic. Humphrey Bogart was the star, Rennie’s favorite, and the black-and-white stills thumbtacked at the bottom—all night and fire and water—made Jay think it might do the trick.
He liked coming outside into the brightness, the slope down to the curtained doors and then the blinding light, but today it was raining, drizzly, the boardwalk slick. The lights around the NOW SHOWING poster (Ann Sheridan stacked and angelic in her nurse’s whites) glimmered on the wet wood. The crowd was gone. Three soldiers stood hunched under the dark marquee, lighting up. Out on the end of the pier, the seatless Ferris wheel sat black against the sky, the food shacks shuttered for the duration. His bike was out there under an awning, but with the wind the seat would be soaked.
“Hey, kid,” one of the soldiers said, “what do people do around here?”
“I don’t know,” Jay said.
“What do you do?” another asked nastily. The three of them faced him now. With their haircuts, Jay couldn’t tell which one might be nice.
“Nothing,” Jay said.
“Nothing,” the mean one said, as if it were an insult. He wanted a different answer. The other two weren’t going to step in.
“Sometimes I fish.”
“Fish!” They all laughed.
“Hear that—the kid fishes!”
“Who doesn’t, right, kid?” The one on the left grabbed his crotch and made an exaggerated cast in the direction of Ann Sheridan. “For some of that red snapper, huh?”
“That’s us, the three fishermen.”
“Fucking priceless,” the mean one said, and they all walked away laughing, knocking each other off the yellow line painted down the center of the boardwalk, oblivious of the rain.
“Haven’t you heard?” Jay wanted to say, like Screwy Squirrel, “There’s a war on,” but they might have thought he was cracking wise and pounded him. He weighed the real chances of that as he walked to his bike, and decided he was right to be ashamed. He’d been afraid for nothing, like his father always said.
A few hundred yards out, a freighter slid, a new Liberty ship backed by a wall of fog. Jay raced down the boardwalk alongside it. Even so far in, it was too slow for him, and by the empty parking field he’d left it in the fog and was leaning back, knees high, riding no-hands. Dumb jerks. He should have just said, Screw you.
In Galesburg, they came up behind him in the halls.
“Hey,” Markie Arnold said, Donald Kosskoff said, “how do you spell coward?”
“Coward?” Tim Ray, Sammy Aaron.
“Yeah, you know, chicken, yellow.”
“C?”
“C.”
“O?”
“CO. You sure?”
“CO. I’d bet my life on it.”
“Don’t,” they both whispered, their breath on his neck, and Jay stopped and the two walked past him to class. His father told him to ignore the ignorant. When Jay repeated his advice to his mother, she laughed, then, feeling sorry for him, apologized, then laughed again.
“Screw you,” he said, his voice dead in the moist air. “Army jerks.”
He could follow the fading arrows to the exit and take the town road or cross the lot, hop a curb, ride along the surf for a mile and cut through the Shoals. His mother wouldn’t be home yet. Grampa Langer would be inside, reading the paper under the one light, but the rain and the thought of Sylvia Jensen seeing him riding by in it overcame his hesitation.
He regretted it as soon as he started down the beach. The woods beyond the dunes were dark, the sea a foamy green. The wind and the loose sand held him back, and though he couldn’t see it yet, he knew the Shoals was waiting for him. He could turn back but really he couldn’t. It was like a movie, the Marines going into Buna, and he was the first ashore. Point, they called it, as if one man were the sharp tip of the swooped blue arrows the paper showed arcing across the Pacific. He swung down to the hard sand along the water, cutting through the last bubbling traces of the waves. Out on the water, he imagined, bobbed carriers and cruisers, their engines cut, waiting for the signal flashed through the fog, the first barrage lobbed in. In his letters, Rennie didn’t say anything. Scenic! And real hot! The Army was supposed to be helping the Marines take the Solomons. Life said it could happen anytime.
The Shoals hove into view, dingy and huge. Jay stood up on the pedals and built enough momentum to get across the soft middle of the beach and onto the wooden walk through the dunes. At the edge of the sloping, overgrown lawn, he looked back; he couldn’t see the boardwalk anymore, only the vaguest outline of the Ferris wheel. He tacked to fight the incline—where the fighting was fiercest, Life said. It had been Win’s leg but Jay kept seeing his hands on Rennie’s neck, blood running in neat streams from his fingertips. In the pictures, the bodies were half swallowed by sand.
The woods closed on both sides, rain shaking the leaves, tricking him. Above, a curtain billowed in a broken window. He’d wanted to pass the place calmly—he’d been so close, almost heroic—but now with the water pouring from its rusted gutters, its windows black, the Shoals seemed equal to his dreams. He kept pedaling, his eyes on the crest of the hill, and once he reached it, sprinted for the drive.
As he crossed beneath the long window of the dining room, a foghorn boomed behind him. He put his head down and dug. He’d just turned the blind corner around the side when something went under his front tire—white, an animal already dead, or a bandage. He didn’t get a good look at it, but he didn’t want a good look at it, and he didn’t slow down until he hit Hickey’s, its interior lit against the gloom. Only then did Jay have time to re-create it, to realize that what he’d seen was a brassiere, wet and specked with grit, and though it was not in itself sinister, he knew it would be when it came back to him.



The letters they sent never made it to Rennie. They wrote care of an APO number in San Francisco, where workers opened the mail and took pictures of it. The Army flew the film wherever Rennie was and reprinted it on crinkly V-mail stationery. Exactly how, Jay couldn’t figure out; Life never said. The originals the Army kept. He imagined his clippings and the pages and pages of his father’s perfect hand filling cabinets, warehouses, whole wharves sticking into the bay. His mother never wrote anything.
Wednesdays, it was a ritual. His father got home just before dark. His mother heated up what he and Grampa Langer had eaten, mostly leftovers from the weekend and frozen food, fish if Jay had been lucky. Today he’d caught some fluke.
“I may be mistaken,” his father said, addressing his fillet, “but I think I met your brother on Monday.”
“It would be nice,” his mother said, “if I could come home and have someone cook for me for a change.”
“I appreciate that,” his father said. “It’s very good. Thank you.”
“Spare me,” she said, and Jay wished he were upstairs. She took off her apron and dropped it on the table and went into the living room.
“Did you thank your mother for making dinner?”
“Yes,” Jay said.
His father plucked a bone from his tongue and wiped it on the edge of his plate. “She’s worried. We all are. We just show it in different ways. Like the way you are with your light.”
“Yeah.” He could see his father was building up to Rennie, and asked if he could go listen to Fred Allen.
“Sure,” his father said, disappointed, “I’ll be in in a little,” and Jay left him to eat alone, angry that they’d all conspired to put him in this position.
In the living room they all had positions, his mother in the corner, knitting fitfully, his father to the left of the set, Grampa Langer to the right, still going over today’s paper. Jay lay down on the braided rug, took the sports and started cutting out box scores. Fred Allen was dumb, and it was impossible to listen with Grampa Langer. He waited all day for Jay’s father to come home to show him pictures of local guys killed in action. “You knew Ronnie Cobb,” he said, leaning across the speaker to show him the column. “John Tolliver who used to have that hardware store outside Quogue? Ronnie’s his sister’s youngest. Paratroops, it says, outside Tunis. That was what, two months ago?”
“Jay?” his father prompted.
“May seventh.”
“Month and a half’s a long time. Not that it matters, I suppose.”
His mother packed her knitting in her basket and started to leave. She did this every Wednesday, blamelessly, it seemed to Jay, as if provoked and holding her temper.
“Would you like to say anything to him?” his father asked her. Jay wished he would just let her go.
“You can tell him I’m working again,” she said, and disappeared upstairs.
“Well,” Grampa Langer said.
“Okay,” his father said, writing, as if cheering himself on. “Jay, what have you got?”
He laid out the week’s box scores, but for some reason they no longer pleased him. It was like the syrup jar or his tickets, suddenly utterly disappointing. He’d wanted his mother to say something, but now that she had, he wished she hadn’t. He didn’t know why.
“Senators and the Yankees,” his father noted. He’d moved to the floor, and Jay could smell the day’s work on him. Lardodo the Great. Mister History. “Rennie’ll like that. What else, any new movies?”
“Nothing good.”
Action in the North Atlantic? Humphrey Bogart.”
“It doesn’t start till Friday.”
“Got a date?” Grampa Langer asked.
“No.”
“Why don’t you invite Win?” his father said.
“He’s not ready yet.”
“I guess your old dad’s out of the question.”
“I can go by myself.”
“I know you can,” his father said, and patted him on the shoulder. His hand rested there as if he were going to give Jay advice, then slid off, all consolation. “What about Terry and the Pirates?”
“Sure.”
“Okay!” his father said.



The newsreel showed goats being driven through a minefield in Tunisia to set off charges before the infantry went in. Jay had never seen so many goats. A sergeant stood with a grinning herdsman. When a goat tripped a mine, it popped into the air. Around him, women clucked with disgust.
“Where are the Japs?” a soldier yelled, and everyone seconded him.
“Slap the Jap!” someone shouted.
“Right off the map,” another answered, and the audience caught on, clapping.
Above him in the projection booth, a tin lid clattered. The screen went black and everyone cheered.
The newsreel started again, a different number under the Movietone header. NEW GEORGIA A PEACH, the caption said, silencing them.
Soldiers were going over the side of a ship on a rope net.
“New Georgia, the Solomons,” the narrator intoned. “D-Day, H-Hour for the men of the Fourth Marine Raiders.” A few Army guys booed but were shushed. Cigarette smoke rose in the scissoring light. In the landing craft, a Marine couldn’t keep his lit and flicked it over the side. Swells bucked the camera. Along the beach, the palms nodded. The gray sky was blue, the gray waves green.
He’d seen Guadalcanal, but that was completely Marines, and Rennie was in California then. According to Dorothy, he’d left in late April, just long enough to make it to New Georgia. You mustn’t trust rumors, his father said, but Jay could tell from the way he listened to the Pacific—then switching off in the middle of the Air Force bombing Sicily—that he believed.
Rennie would be to the rear of the craft, running in behind the first lines like a halfback. When someone got shot, he had to get to them and try to help. Then, Jay figured, was when he’d get hit. He’d be kneeling by his dying friend, trying to save him, when a sniper would get him in the chest. He’d seen it in So Proudly We Hail except it had been Veronica Lake, and as he blinked back tears he thought how close she’d come to saving Rennie.
“In the calm before the storm,” the narrator said, “thoughts turned to loved ones, home,” and they showed a little guy whose helmet was too big holding a picture of some girl in a winter coat. It was covered with lipsticked kisses. The guy smiled. The craft ahead were almost into the surf. Ships’ guns swiveled, palms shook. The music boomed. Jay picked a helmet by the side and bet Rennie on it.
The first craft dropped their ramps, and the Marines waded to the beach. Jay waited for one to fall and float. They were going so slow, like people getting off a bus. One stumbled but another helped him up, and now the craft the camera was on stopped, and the ramp splashed, and everyone piled out. The helmet Jay had picked fell in line with his buddies. He had a rifle and looked shorter than Rennie, and suddenly, unaccountably, Jay did not want him to die, though he knew he had to.
The last Marine shuffled off, the ramp drew up, and the craft backed away from the beach. Offshore, a sailor in his Mae West peered through binoculars. A Wildcat buzzed the palms. The music stopped, only a trumpet whispering thin, indecisive.
On the beach, the men stood in line for chow, helmetless.
“Today no mother loses her son. The Japanese have pulled back to Munda, to the airfield there.” With the cheering, Jay couldn’t tell what else the narrator was saying. The music came up and then the theme, a jaunty march. Around him couples were kissing, and when the national anthem came on he stood and put his hand over his heart like everyone else, but he felt cheated and ashamed, and he promised not to kill Rennie anymore.
Action in the North Atlantic started all fake. It was supposed to be a night convoy, but you could see the shadow of the boat on the bottom of the studio tank. The couple in front of him were more interesting, the guy working at the hooks of the girl’s brassiere. He couldn’t help but think of Dorothy stretched on the hot rock, Sylvia Jensen’s ruffled front, and he was unprepared for the torpedo ripping into the Liberty ship.
He wasn’t trying now, or was now trying not to include Rennie, but once the lifeboats were over the side Jay chose a face to follow. The sailor went where Jay wanted him to, in the water. Like the ship, it had caught on fire. Smoke poured from the portholes. Humphrey Bogart reached over the gunwale, holding out an oar. The man looked like he could barely swim, like in SOMEONE TALKED. It wasn’t Rennie, Rennie would be fine, his father said so. It wasn’t like the Marine, it was only an actor. His fingertips were inches away from safety, violins trying to build tension, and Jay knew—already resenting the two men—that he would be rescued. In front of him, the girl arched forward, twisted her arm up the back of her sweater and undid her bra. The drowning man went under, a hand frantic, and suddenly the movie stopped, the music stopped, and Jay could hear the town horn outside, blaring its air raid warning.
The lights came up and people pushed into the aisles. “Man your battle stations!” Bart was yelling, waving his flashlight. “This is not a drill!” Girls were screaming. In Life there were pictures of Sicily, feet sticking out of the rubble, covered with brick dust. Jay walked over the tops of seats to the bottom of the balcony and wedged himself into the crush at the exit.
He was pressed into the back of a soldier. The crowd closed over him, inching ahead, kicking at his ankles. He couldn’t move his arms, and kept them bent against his chest so he could breathe. The heat of people. He caught a panicky whiff of shit, sweat, Evening in Paris. Above, the red exit sign passed, and they were going down the stairs, though his feet had lost contact. He felt himself slipping, sliding sideways, and with both hands grabbed hold of the soldier’s shirt.
At the bottom of the stairs, the crowd spread across the lobby, headed for the doors. The soldier shook Jay off, giving him a look. The manager had abandoned the candy counter, turned off the popcorn popper. Someone had knocked over an ashtray as big as an umbrella stand; there was sand everywhere. Outside, the horn wouldn’t stop. Jay hadn’t heard any bombs yet. He knew from his father that the closest shelter was in town (nothing on the boardwalk had a basement), and like the Marine with his picture, Jay thought of his father, his mother, even Grampa Langer and his stinky blanket, Rennie and the postcard, Dorothy’s kiss in the station, knowing that if he didn’t get home he was going to die.
Outside he didn’t hear engines, only the stampede of feet, shouting, and beyond it all, the horn. People were running down the boardwalk toward the parking lot. The marquee was out, but on the beach, down by the water, a crowd had gathered in someone’s headlights. Jay found himself drawn along with everyone else, away from his bicycle and down the ramp to the sand. Another car drove onto the beach—the police—its lights flashing across people’s backs. Everyone was running for the first car and then with a shout they changed direction, and Jay was caught in the rush. They were cutting through the water now, splashing, the sand sucking at his shoes—and suddenly stopped, pressing against each other. In the seaweed lay a man, black with oil, his eyes wide open.
It was impossible to believe, as if this man were Veronica Lake, except her death had been perfect. This no one knew what to do with. No one would touch him. Some turned and walked back toward the boardwalk; most just stood there, heaving from the run. Jay thought they were brave for staying, for a second forgetting himself. He wanted to leave but couldn’t stop looking at the man. He seemed no more dead than Grampa Langer, asleep under his blanket. Jay didn’t think he was afraid, but his right eye kept winking, flinching at something invisible.
A policeman he recognized from Hickey’s parted the crowd with his flashlight and knelt by the sailor. It wasn’t oil that blackened him, but fire. The policeman checked his neck for a pulse, wiped his hand on his own pants and thumbed down the dead man’s eyelids, then turned his light off.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s give him some room. Come on!” Everyone took a step back but no one left. The policeman kept wiping his palm on his thigh. “Let’s have some respect,” he said.
“There!” someone outside the circle shouted. A few men flashed past, and the crowd headed off down the beach.
“Hold it, hold it!” the policeman shouted, and seeing that only Jay hadn’t moved, swore and hauled the body out of the water’s reach. “Stay with him,” he commanded Jay, and ran off after them.
He wouldn’t look at the man, and then he did and looked away. The waves seemed louder now. It was a clear night, the moon perfect for U-boats. He could see the crowd thinning, disappearing down the beach, their shirts floating ghostly. The man’s jaw didn’t fit right. A sprig of seaweed stuck to his cheek. A fire truck at the edge of the parking lot shone its spotlight over the waves. The horn wouldn’t stop. People were running up and down the beach, in and out of the light. He thought it wasn’t so bad, that he could stand there if he didn’t think about it. His feet were freezing. Jay looked down and the man was still there, as real as his wet Keds. His breath left him, and he felt lighter, as if he might fly away, up among the blimps meant to protect him. This was all a mistake, he was in the wrong place. Galesburg, Montour Falls. How do you spell coward? Sylvia’s thin sweaters. His father should have stopped this.
Debris was washing up now, crates, clothes, torn portions of a raft. The horn, the horn. What picture did Rennie have of him? His kiss in the station had shamed Jay more after Dorothy’s.
He was going to be sick but didn’t have enough breath to retch. His mother had shut the door to Grampa Clayborn’s room and told him not to go in. “Do you hear me?” she said, threatening, as if he might do something to the body. Somewhere out there the ship might still be sliding down through the dark water.
An ambulance pulled up beside the fire truck, and Jay waved. It took the attendants forever to get their equipment, and then they went straight to the police car. Some firemen finally came to Jay, hefting a stretcher.
“Someone look at him?”
“The policeman,” Jay said, pointing, then couldn’t finish.
“It’s all right,” the fireman said, and took Jay by the shoulders and moved him aside like a chair. He wanted to explain that he wasn’t afraid, but stood by silently as one took the sailor under the arms, the other the knees. Water sloshed from the man’s nose onto the canvas and over the rubber sleeve of one’s coat.
“Son of a bitch,” the fireman said, and they lugged him off to the parking lot.
Jay stood there looking at the dent where the man had lain, then made his way through the crowd. People scampered across the sand; others were arriving from town on bicycles. A photographer’s flash went off like a bomb, and Jay headed for the boardwalk.
The Regal was closed, its posters black behind glass. Beneath the Ferris wheel, he unlocked his bike and toed down the generator that powered his light. The parking lot was filled with fire trucks from surrounding towns, ambulances, a few olive Army cars. He weaved through the commotion, leaving the scene like a hero, alone—like Humphrey Bogart, not wanting to remember.
On the town road, taking the long way home, Jay wondered what had happened in Action in the North Atlantic, whether the man he’d picked made it, then didn’t. What it meant about Rennie he didn’t know. Nothing. It was a stupid, kid thing to do. A car passed, blinding, not his father. Starting out, he’d thought the Shoals could no longer frighten him, but now the night closed around him, and he wasn’t sure anymore. He could admit he was afraid, though it didn’t change anything. His light jiggled in the ditch, over the white lines. The horn, he noticed, had stopped. In the woods, the wind riffled. The man was there, hidden in the dark, his jaw cocked, whispering, a trickle of salt water dripping from his chin. “Do you hear me?” his mother said. “Don’t you run from me.” Jay stood up on the pedals, racing the dark, the dead and Rennie, knowing, though he wanted to, that he was not going to suddenly wake up, that even if this were a dream of his, he could not stop it from coming true.
Copyright © 1998 by Stewart O’Nan