***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Elisabeth Elo
He was a loser,” Thomasina says, head lolling. “But he was a good loser.” A fifth of Stolichnaya has put her in a nasty, forgiving mood. I’m tempted to take a few shots myself to medicate my grief and survivor’s guilt. But someone has to stay sober for Noah.
Thomasina paws something she sees in the air—maybe nothing, a spark of hallucination, or a particle of dust—and her tone goes flat. “I never loved him. I just wanted sperm.” She pushes the bottle half- way across the kitchen table and lays her head down on folded arms. Her shoulders heave a few times. Sorrow? Nausea? In her state it could be either, or even a hiccup of indifference. But when she picks up her face, it’s tear-stained. “But I must have loved him some, ’cause right now I feel wicked bad.”
Noah pokes his head around the corner. He doesn’t have the heavy, square look of Ned or what was formerly the haunting, big- eyed beauty of Thomasina. He’s small, thin, pale. Dark eye rings give him a monkish quality. He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t have friends. Maybe that’s why we get along.
“Noah, baby. Let mama get you something to eat.” Thomasina lurches to her feet and staggers to the refrigerator. When she opens the door, Noah and I look inside. Lime Gatorade, half a tomato, mold- speckled hamburger buns. “You want a tomato sandwich, baby?”
“No, thank you,” Noah says. He’s always been polite. He wanders back to the living room to continue whatever intricate activity he was engaged in. I’ve seen him build entire futuristic cities out of tongue depressors, popsicle sticks, and toothpicks.
Thomasina sways in a widening arc, her eyes start to roll back in her head, and her eyelids flutter and close. She slides down the refrigerator and collapses. I get one of her arms around my neck and haul her up, drag her across the scuffed linoleum to the dank bedroom at the back of the apartment. Clothes and shoes litter the floor. I recognize the lizard-skin cowboy boots she wears out at night. I let her fall across the king-size bed and push her legs onto the mattress.
The fall brings her back to consciousness. She mumbles, “You have to tell him how it happened, Pirio. He trusts you. He loves you. And you know better than anyone what to say—you were there.” She turns her face toward the closed window shade and says mournfully, “Remember, long time ago, when we were just little girls no one cared about? So we cared about each other. It was sweet, but we were so sad. Weren’t we, Pirio?”
“We were OK,” I say firmly, trying to steer her away from the rabbit hole of old pain.
“Can you believe it, Pirio? I can’t. Ned dead. Hey, it rhymes! Now Noah has no father. My baby’s half an orphan. Poor little kid.”
I don’t say anything. I can’t believe it either. I’d do anything to make it different. I keep asking myself what I could have done, but I keep coming up empty. No one could have saved him. Except the cowards on the ship.
“Want to know who I dreamed about the other night?” Thomasina asks musingly. Sometimes I’m jealous of the way booze gives her mind permission to wander up every alley and side street it sees. “Biggest asshole ever. You know who it is. You and me, we’re like peas and carrots, peas in a pod. Whatever. Insert your vegetable.” She puts two fingers over her lips in self-censorship. “Oops. Didn’t mean it that way.” Her hand flops away from her mouth, and her eyelids begin another rapid-fire fluttering. “Guess, Pirio. You’ll get it on the first try, I bet. Biggest asshole ever was . . . It was . . .” Her voice becomes a whisper. “It was . . .” Her eyes close.
“It was Dickhead Bates,” I say softly.
I push some pillows under her head and shoulders to prop her up so she won’t choke if she vomits, and pull a blanket over her. I take a minute to collect myself, then go into the living room.
Noah looks up from his project. “How’s my mom?”
He nods. With his limited life experience, he has no idea how worried to be. He knows his mom’s been trying hard not to drink so much. Sometimes he comes to my apartment in the evenings so she can go to meetings; then for days she doesn’t go out at all. He’s used to her taking naps at odd times.
I get a whiff of indoles and uric acid. Translation: shit and piss. There’s a small plastic cage on a table in the corner. I slide back the cover, reach inside, curl my hand around a quivering little body huddled in a pile of sawdust, and place the hamster in Noah’s cupped hands. He starts cooing to it, rubs his cheek against the rodent’s fur. Hi, Jerry. Are you OK, Jerry? It takes me a little while to clean the cage. When Noah places Jerry back inside, he makes his body round and hunkers down into the fresh sawdust, which smells confusingly of sweetened pine and searing ammonia. I try to imagine how the cheap chemical additives affect his tiny olfactory glands and decide he probably preferred the smell of his own waste. I hate the whole idea of keeping animals in pens. If he weren’t Noah’s pet, I’d let him go.
“Come on, Noah. I’ll buy you a hamburger,” I say.
Thomasina and I went to boarding school together. I’d been at the Gaston School since seventh grade; it was one of the only schools my father, Milosa, could find that warehoused kids that young. It was located in Boothbay, Maine, but to me it felt like Tomsk, Siberia, which is where I’d been told the Russian government lost track of my maternal grandparents around 1944. My mother died when I was ten, Noah’s age. Never an angel, I became increasingly defiant, noncommunicative. I pretty much just stopped answering adults’ nosy questions and heeding their hysterical warnings. Several of Milosa’s girlfriends tried hard to figure out what was wrong with me but came up clueless. Then he remarried, and my stepmother, Maureen, wasted no time pronouncing me a true, definitive problem child. She had stacks of books to prove herself right and got a doctor at Children’s Hospital to agree. A boarding school with lots of “structure” just made sense. In fact, Headmaster Richard (Dickhead) Bates was not even close to being the biggest asshole at the Gaston School. There were others more sadistic than he.
Thomasina arrived at Gaston in ninth grade, the detritus of a bitter divorce that left neither parent wanting permanent custody. She was eating-disorder thin, deeply tanned from a vacation with her mother in the Azores, bedecked in silver hoop earrings and bracelets that rose halfway up her left arm. And because she still wore braces, top and bottom, on her big square teeth, she gave the impression of being a starving small brown animal trapped in a metal cage. Her eyes looked wet, as if a tear were poised to spill, only it never did. She was too deeply, everlastingly skeptical to cry about anything.
We sized each other up, saw ourselves for what we were, and accepted what we believed to be our dismal fates. We skipped class; drank Boone’s Farm, Budweiser, and Lancers Vin Rosé; climbed over the high stone wall surrounding the school’s eighteen acres and jumped down onto the tarry shoulder of Route 27; hitchhiked into town. Wherever we went, we gloried in pissing off as many people as we could. After two years of being alienated in isolation, it felt good to have someone to get in trouble with.
Neither of us was interested in college, so after graduation I came home to Boston, and Thomasina joined me. We rented apartments a few blocks from each other in Brookline, a mostly ritzy, part-run-down urbanish neighborhood, and settled into independent lives. I joined the family business, a perfume company named after my mother, Inessa Mark. Thomasina’s parents—one in France, one on the West Coast—have scads of money and bottomless guilt, which essentially means she’s never had to work.
For the first few years, Thomasina and I caroused aimlessly. The nicer bars soon bored us; all those guys in Brooks Brothers suits took themselves too seriously. We gravitated toward the seedier taverns, especially down at the waterfront. Dockworkers and fishermen would literally follow us around. We enjoyed the power we had, flattering ourselves that we were breaking hearts wherever we went.
Then Thomasina met Ned, and the two of them fell away from the bar scene to snuggle into their supposed love nest. I boozed and dated a little longer, until I got tired of hearing lame pick-up lines from belching idiots, and eventually put down the bottle to fold myself into the heavy woolen blanket of the Russian novel. I guess it was some kind of roots thing—my attempt to understand the Russian character, to be connected to my Russian past. It didn’t work; I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when I didn’t find it. But I did encounter suffering more brutal and prolonged than anything my poor-little-rich-girl story could offer, and that bit of historical perspective nudged me to start growing up.
It came as no surprise when Thomasina and Ned’s relationship disintegrated. He was working-class Irish-Italian from South Boston. She’s a brilliant, privileged, slothful iconoclast. At first they seemed to transcend all that. They smiled at each other like angels lit from the inside with megawatt bulbs. That phase lasted, by my amazed reckoning, almost three months. Then, probably figuring he’d gone far enough in the conversation department, he started in with the blank stares and inopportune groin scratches, and she began to display the full power of her underused intellect with put-downs so brilliantly satiric he didn’t even understand them. Alcohol brought them to the brink of violence—dinners ruined, plates smashed, neighbors yelling out the windows to shut up. She just couldn’t forgive him for being dull. By the time Noah came along, they’d already split.
They never married, and Ned’s parents and sister refuse to accept that Noah is related to them at all. They prefer to think that Thomasina bewitched Ned into providing for another guy’s brat. I confess that I’ve wondered about Noah’s paternity myself, and I know Ned occasionally felt baffled at having spawned a genius kid who didn’t look like him or act like anyone he knew. But Ned was always a good father, at least as good as anyone could be under the circumstances. He insisted on paying child support, although no court required it and Thomasina didn’t need it. He got tickets to the Bruins, Red Sox, Patriots. Winter, summer, fall—Ned and Noah always had their outing. He visited Noah every other weekend—lunch and a trip to the park or library, depending on the weather. If Thomasina asked, he would even pick up Noah after school. Sometimes Thomasina let Ned stay overnight, and when he did, he seemed glad for it. I imagine him trying to curb his Southie manners, trying not to be stupid. People will do just about anything to get one tender caress.
But even with Ned doing his part, Thomasina was overwhelmed by single motherhood. The parents who hadn’t had time for their only daughter were even less interested in a grandchild, and she didn’t exactly fit in at PTA. But none of that really explains why what used to be a fairly standard type of admittedly ugly but relatively contained debauchery has morphed over the last year into a fierce, pathetic addiction.
She knows she’s in trouble. She’s tried it all. Not just A A, but also Rational Recovery, Tarot cards, the Enneagram, therapy, spas, meditation, confession, reading to the blind, and drinking only wine. Nothing’s worked. She gets a few days of sobriety here, enjoys a clearheaded week or two there, but eventually her shaking hand rewraps itself around the neck of a bottle. Looking at Thomasina today, you’d never guess what she used to be like—that at sixteen she learned flawless French in a few months, knew every character in Shakespeare, and could recite most of the Gettysburg Address backward, collapsing in gales of laughter when she was done. But you’d probably have no trouble guessing that the bulges in her handbag are little pops of airplane gin.
You stand by helplessly; you start getting truly scared. You sense something desperate inside, something far darker than what you thought was there. I’d like nothing better than to turn away from the spectacle of Thomasina’s relentless, incremental self-destruction. But then I remember Noah, and pick up the phone. Hear myself saying, How are you? How’s Noah? What’s up?
I’m Noah’s godmother. Seriously. It’s a Catholic thing. When he was two months old, I stood with Thomasina and Ned at the side altar of a big church, holding him in my arms. The baptismal font was cool white marble; a priest hovered at my shoulder, his pastoral vestments smelling of rich, rotting medieval leather flattened by a dry cleaner’s press. He asked me a question: Do you renounce Satan and all his ways? I blinked, taken aback. Satan? But Ned and Thomasina were watching and Noah was in my arms, so I thought about it seriously and replied, “If I ever met him, I’d know what to do.”
This answer must have been good enough, because the priest gestured for me to hold Noah over the font. He tipped the cup he’d been holding, and water flowed across Noah’s forehead into the marble bowl. Noah screwed up his wrinkled face but only cried a little. Even as a baby he kept his emotions in check, as if he knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of space for his feelings in this world. To my surprise, my eyes were wet with all the godmother blessings I wanted to bestow, but all I had to give him was a kiss. I saw Thomasina and Ned squeeze hands, and we looked at one another with a bit of shy nakedness, knowing we had stumbled across a perfect moment in our lives. A moment as fleeting as any other, already gone.
Now, at Taffy’s, a restaurant on the corner, Noah squares off in front of a hamburger and fries. He gets his fingers around the bun, lifts it to his mouth, and takes an enormous bite. He chews like a lion, gulps it down. He admitted he was hungry when I asked. It’s possible he’s actually starving.
It’s been three days since his father drowned. I have no idea how much he knows about the accident. The story was on the news in a slightly-more-than-sound-bite form. A picture of Ned’s regular-guy mug hovered in a small box next to the news announcer’s perfect cover-girl face, then expanded to fill the entire screen. When his face was in the box, he looked like a nice guy you knew in high school who forgot to comb his hair. When it bloomed to fill the screen, you could see the brown discolorations on the side of his face from years of being outside. His tea-green eyes looked bloodshot, wary, possibly dishonest. Or maybe he only looked that way because, on the news, everyone tends to look like a criminal. In any case, it would have felt drastically wrong to Noah to see his deceased father on a television screen.
“You want to know how it happened, Noah?”
“OK.” He’s learned to be accommodating.
“It was a crash, like the kind on highways, only this one was on the ocean.”
“I know that already.” He dips a French fry in a little paper bucket of ketchup to show how uninteresting this is.
Of course. He knows everything about crashes; he’s seen a million on TV. Sparks fly, buildings dissolve, cars burst into flame. Ho-hum.
I take the paper place mat from under the plate my BLT is on and turn it over. With a pen borrowed from the waitress, I sketch the coastline from Cape Cod to Maine. I put in the islands in Boston Harbor and roughly shade in Georges Bank. “Your dad and I were here,” I say, pointing to a spot that correlates to about twenty-five miles north- east of Boston. “The fog came in thick. Your dad was in the wheelhouse. I was in the stern baiting lobster traps. It was really quiet. I couldn’t even see the bow. The next thing I knew, something huge crashed into us. Huge, Noah. A freighter. It hit starboard, broadside. That means right in the middle of the boat. I bailed, and when I broke the surface and looked back, your dad’s boat was in splinters and the freighter was passing by.”
“My dad swam away, like you did.”
“The Coast Guard looked for him for about five hours that day, until the sun went down, and then from daybreak to sunset the next day. They had two patrol boats, two helicopters, and a C-130 search plane. Almost twenty hours of searching, Noah. Some fishermen were out there, too—your dad’s friends. A lot of people were involved. They searched an eight-mile radius from where I was found.”
“Cool,” he says. His eyes are vacant, as if he doesn’t know what I’m saying is real.
“They didn’t find him, Noah.”
“He got away like you did. He swam underwater.”
“He’d have to come up for air sometime.”
“Not if he went to Atlantis.”
“Atlantis is a made-up place.”
“No, it isn’t.” He looks at me reproachfully.
I’ve babysat him since he was an infant. I’m his good fairy god-mother, the one who plays games and willingly accompanies him on flights of fancy, who doesn’t ever tell him to be sensible or brush his teeth. This is a new me he is seeing.
Noah dips another fry in the ketchup. He draws it several times across the thin paper at the bottom of his hamburger basket, leaving reddish streaks. Maybe he’s writing a hieroglyph, trying to communicate. If he is, I’m probably the only person left in the world who would try to decipher it.
“A monster killed my dad,” he says, attempting.
“He drowned, Noah,” I say gently. “He’s gone.”
Fury knits his brows together, makes his tiny nostrils flare. “Why did that boat crash into him? Why didn’t they look where they were going?” He’s been told that a hundred times. Be careful. Don’t run. Watch what you’re doing. But he’s already figured out that adults don’t play by those rules.
“It was an accident, Noah. Collisions at sea happen more often than you’d think.” I could kick myself for making it sound mundane.
“Why didn’t the people stop to look for him?”
“Good question,” I say, buying time.
I feel helpless to the point of despair. I don’t want Noah to see my rage. If the captain had stopped the freighter immediately, as soon as he realized what had happened, he could have saved us both easily. But he didn’t. He just kept going. He probably wanted to spare himself an official inquiry and whatever damage his reputation would suffer.
I can’t say that to Noah. So I give the typical response. “The Coast Guard is looking into it. They’re going to find the people on the boat and ask them that.”
He looks at me with the weary, perplexed eyes of a disappointed man. He knows I’m holding back.
“It’s possible that the people on the ship didn’t even know they hit us,” I say. “That freighter could have been five hundred feet, and I don’t even know how many hundreds of tons. Double steel hull. Bridge about three stories up. And in fog like that, what’s the point of looking out anyway? They rely on radar in that weather. But the ocean is big and they’re not expecting anything, so if they see something small like your dad’s lobster boat, they might think it’s just sea clutter, like floating oil drums or garbage.”
Noah’s lip is trembling. He’s trying not to cry. His tears are so rare that the prospect of just one falling makes my whole body hurt.
But he gets himself together, gazes out the window. Across the street there’s a lamp store, a Walgreens, and an Indian grocery. Down the street there’s a park with a playground where he often went with his dad and where I’ve taken him, too. As a small child, he liked the swings but not the slide. On the swings he could keep an eye peeled for unusual occurrences; the slide was too disorienting.
I wonder what he’s thinking. Maybe that the world is deeply unfair and dangerous, only he wouldn’t have the words for that. Maybe he isn’t thinking at all, just soaking it up. Cars, boats, fog. Drunken mothers, distant fathers. Crash. I wish now I hadn’t said his dad’s boat could have been mistaken for garbage.
I draw a vessel that looks like the Molly Jones. “There’s something important I want you to know. Your dad probably could have jumped overboard and swum away, like I did. But if he’d done that, we both would have died because nobody would have known we were out there. So your dad stayed in the wheelhouse and called the Coast Guard.”
Noah is staring at me, and I’m having a hard time looking back.
“Your dad saved my life.”
Noah frowns. He picks up his hamburger slowly. “Did he want to marry you?”
“No. We were just friends.”
“Why were we friends?”
“Why didn’t he want to marry you?”
“He just didn’t. Marriage is a special thing. We were happy being friends.”
“How come my mom and dad didn’t get married? Were they just friends?”
This one’s tricky. I tell him they used to be more than friends, and then they became friends.
He puts what’s left of his hamburger down, takes the bun off, peels a pickle out of its mustard-ketchup goo, and places it carefully on the wrapper. Without looking at me, he says, “If you and my dad got married, you’d be my stepmom.”
That’s how I know how bad he’s hurting; he’s never said anything like this to me before. I take my time before I answer. “I’m not cut out for parenthood, Noah. But if I had to be someone’s stepmom, I’d want to be yours.”
He looks into my eyes with as much trust as he can give to anyone, and I think three words I haven’t used since my mother died. I love you. I would say them to him, but I’m afraid I haven’t got what it takes to make good on the promise they imply.
Noah takes something out of the pocket of his jacket. It’s a yellowish-white disk riddled with tiny veins and holes. Two inches in diameter, an inch thick, the edges smooth as glass.
“That’s nice,” I say. “Where’d you get it?”
“My dad. He gave me other stuff, too.”
“Where’d he get it?”
“Off a whale.”
“Is that what he told you?” It looks vaguely like it could have come from an animal, but I’ve never seen a bone like that. My guess is it’s some kind of rock. It’s obviously been cut and appears to have been polished.
Noah leans forward and whispers, “My dad fought a whale once. He got in a little boat and followed it and killed it with a harpoon. The whale didn’t die right away. It pulled my dad all over the world, but he hung on with all his might. The whale was bleeding the whole time and finally it bled to death, and my dad pulled it back to the ship. He stayed up all night cutting it into pieces, and he took some of its bones. See?” He waves the ivory disk. “A whalebone.” He gives it to me.
When Noah was a baby, he had enormous dark blue eyes. His lips would pucker in tiny exhaled kisses, as though he couldn’t help sending the love that filled him into the world. We used to play a game together: We would sit face to face, he in a high chair, me in a kitchen chair. We would pass something—a rubber duck or ninja figure or some other little toy—back and forth for a long time while we smiled into each other’s eyes. This reminds me of those times. Only when I try to return the disk, he pushes it right back to me.
Maybe the kind of hero I described—the kind who radios for help—isn’t good enough. He needs one who wielded harpoons.
I turn the treasure slowly in my hand, inspecting it, respecting it. “Nice, Noah. Really nice.”
He grabs it and stuffs it in his jacket pocket, closes and buttons the flap, and looks around the restaurant at the people eating. Suddenly he’s a restless kid again, perked up by a hamburger, secure in his right to believe stories that comfort him and to ignore facts he can’t under- stand. There’s still some time until he has to do homework, and he says, “Hey, Pirio, after this can we go to your place and play dominoes?”