Anybody who tells you he doesnt have mixed feelings about his mother is either stupid or a liar. Granted, Virginia York is a special case. Living with Virginia is like living with a myth. Shes only half-human; the rest is equal parts wolverine, hyena, goddess and rutting goat.
In other words, shes a poet.
But she smells great.
Know the way someone smells when theyve been outside on a chilly fall day? Thats how Mom smells all the time. Like rain, and wind, and leaf mold, and a faint hint of wood smoke. Hardly the way a woman is supposed to smell, but trust me: if the Glade Air Refresher people could bottle her scent, youd have her hanging in your car and your bathroom and your kitchen.
Sorry. I didnt mean to get all Oedipal on you.
Mom and I just moved into this old Victorian house in Oakland, New Hampshire. I grew up in Chicago, but Mom was offered a job at Cassidy College and we decided to get the hell out of Dodge. My dad Frank died last year. The coroner said it was a heart attack but what really happened is a poem got caught in his throat like a chicken bone and he choked to death.
Im not making this shit up.
He was in his library, listening to Chopin Nocturnes on the stereo and reading poetry for one of his classes. When Mom found him in his armchair there was a book splayed open upside down on his lap; hed been reading Herman Melville by W.H. Auden. Dad hated Auden. He called him "an overrated, pretentious queer with a penchant for sentimental excess."
Mom loves Auden. So do I.
The night Dad died I was in my room, painting. Mom was in her study writing. I thought I heard some odd noises coming from the library but I didnt think much about it. Dad seemed himself at µ dinner. A little tired, maybe, but cheerful and relaxed. He gently teased Mom for picking the olives from her pizza; he laughed at me for wolfing three slices in the time it took him to eat one. When Mom went to tell him she was going to bed, his body was already growing cold. She came to get me. The two of us stood on opposite sides of his chair waiting for the paramedics. I think I was trembling, but neither of us cried. Real life seldom makes us cry. The only thing that gets to Mom and me is the occasional Kodak commercial.
Im seventeen. My name is Noah. (Dont blame me; Dad had a thing for biblical names. It could have been worse, I suppose--Enoch, or Amalek, for instance.) Im going to be a senior this September. Thats still a month away. I want to get a job, but Mom wont let me until she and I get the house remodeled. Shes probably right. The place is a mess. Plaster dust, nails, boards, spackle, paint c ans, caulking guns, and a shitload of boxes. Well be lucky to have it finished by the time school starts. I keep telling her she should hire somebody to do the harder stuff, but she gets pissed and tells me shes "not going to hire some goddamn carpenter and pay him her firstborn son (and that means you, mister, by the way) to do what any idiot with a hammer and the brains of a squirrel can do, so just suck it up and get back to work."
Like I said, Mom has some issues.
I dont really mind working on the house. Its dirty, sweaty work but fun in a sick puritanical kind of way. By the end of each day Im filthy--my hair is clotted with dust, my clothes stick to me and when I clean my ears the q-tip comes out black with crud. But I like doing something where you can see your progress. Weve finished a lot of the downstairs and its nearly livable. The hardest part is stripping the woodwork. Some moron painted over every square inch of wood in the ho use (except for the mahogany banisters), and most of it is oak and maple. Sometimes I feel like Michelangelo, chiseling away at all the crap until nothing is left but the exquisite thing in the middle that no one else sees until its uncovered for them. Or was it da Vinci who said that was the way he worked? Whatever.
The house is great. When you walk in the front door its like stepping into another century. Theres an ancient chandelier hanging overhead as soon as youre inside, and even though it looks like its been dipped in dirt its still something to see, with hundreds of pieces of glass shaped like diamonds and rectangles. Theres an old steam radiator next to the door that Moses himself probably installed, and over that is a window facing west, made with some of that thick, leaded glass that has little waves in it. To the left of th e entryway is the living room (with a fireplace big enough to roast a goat), to the right is the staircase leading upstairs, and straight ahead and down a short hall is a massive kitchen with a giant ceiling fan. Theres a dining room on the other side of the kitchen, with windows facing east and south, and if Mom owned enough china to host a dinner party for twenty people shed still have no problem storing all the dishes in the colossal wall cabinet in there. Upstairs are four bedrooms and a bathroom, and as if that isnt enough house for the two of us, weve also got a basement and a full-sized attic.
The best part of the house, though, is the wraparound porch. I love sitting out there at night in front of the house, watching the cars go by. (We live right on Main Street, but Main Street in Oakland is just a two-lane brick road.) Theres a porch swing, but I prefer sitting on the steps. I like the solid feel of concrete under my ass.
You can separate people into types by what part of a house they like the most. Mom is a kitchen person. Kitchen people like late nights and early mornings, and they spend a lot of time at the sink, staring out the window at nothing while they wash the dishes. They like cooking for people and dont mind a friendly conversation about the weather, but if you ask them a serious question they hop up to take care of the boiling water on the stove or to get a loaf of bread out of the oven, and by the time they sit back down theyve forgotten what you asked them. Its like theyre always waiting for someone to come home, so they cant pay much attention to anybody already in the house with them because theyre too busy listening for footsteps on the front walk.
Im a porch person. Porch people also love late nights and early mornings, but were more likely to answer your questions than a kitchen person is, and we dont mind if someone to sit on the steps with us as long as he never mentions the weather. We sit with our chins in our hands and our elbows on our knees until we get uncomfortable, then we lay back and put our fingers behind our heads and let the breeze blow over us, tickling the hairs on our legs. I suppose were also waiting for someone to show up, but we want to know who it is before he gets as far as the door.
Im not sure what kind of person Dad was. Maybe a study person. Study people are off in their own world even more than kitchen people and seem to be genuinely shocked when they look up and see another human being in the room with them. Not displeased, really. Just shocked. Like theyve read about other people but never expected to actually see a live specimen.
Jesus. I am so full of shit. Where was I?
From Chapter 2: Noah and Virginia, after discovering a hidden poem in their house, meet J.D. Curtis, a sixteen -year-old neighbor boy, who invites them to eat with his family that evening.
J.D.s dad opens the door after Mom rings the bell. When he shakes my hand I can smell beer on his breath. His name is Tom, hes tall and fat, and J.D. doesnt look a thing like him. "Come on in. Welcome to the neighborhood."
Mom thanks him and I follow her into the house. Shes wearing a sky blue summer dress and sandals, and shes still got the necklace on. She made me wear long pants and a shirt and tie even though its almost ninety-degrees outside. I asked her if she wanted me to put on a parka and mittens too and she told me to knock it off because she wasnt in the mood to put up with my shit.
J.D.s ten year old sister, Heather, is sitting in front of the television watching a Gilligans Island rerun. Tom makes her turn it off and come over to meet us. She says hello then sits on the couch and sulks. J.D.s mom comes out of the kitchen.
"Hello, Im Donna Curtis." She shakes Moms hand and then mine. Her skin is clammy. I guess J.D. kind of looks like her. They both have blonde hair and blue eyes and that same big nose. But her face is out of proportion in a way that his isnt. Shes got enormous nostrils and her eyes are too far apart. J.D.s kind of handsome. Donnas not.
She tells us to sit down and goes back in the kitchen. Tom offers Mom a drink and she asks for a gin and tonic. He asks her if I can have one too and she says no, hell have a soda. While hes in the kitchen Mom asks Heather the usual stupid-ass questions grown-ups ask little kids ("What year are you going to be in school?" and "Are you enjoying your summer?") and Heather answers in surly monosyllables. Tom comes back with her drink and a can of Pepsi for me. I ask where J.D. is.
"He just finished mowing the lawn and needed to take a shower. I think hes out now if you want to go upstairs and find him." He talks really loud.
I stand up quickly and start walking out of the room with my soda and Mom tells me not to take it with me because I might spill it. Tom tells her its fine. Mom tells him I shouldnt because Im a klutz and you know how clumsy teenage boys are. They have a good laugh. I remind her that she spilled coffee all over her blouse two days ago. Her eyes narrow. Tom tells me to go ahead. I get out before Mom can say anything else. She hates it when I "talk back" in public. Tough shit.
I should probably apologize for how much I swear, but fuck it. Ive read that some people think swearing shows a lack of imagination and a limited vocabulary, but sometimes "darn" and "poop" and "oh heck" just dont cut it. Besides, swearing is kind of fun. Its not like I have a trash mouth all the time, but I like the way the words feel on my tongue, how they roll off the teeth, how they kind of blister the air. "Fuck" and "shit" may not be polite words, but theyre succinct " as hell and they let me blow off steam without hurting anybody. And if youre the kind of person who gets offended by gutter language you should probably get your thumb out of your ass and smell the goddamn roses.
The Curtiss house is way too clean and orderly. The magazines on the table at the bottom of the stairs are perfectly lined up and look brand new and unread; the pictures on the wall of the staircase (mostly school photos of J.D. and Heather) are hung so straight its all I can do to keep from turning them upside down. Theres one of J.D. when hes probably six or seven that catches my eye for a second. Hes sitting on a swing with Donna standing behind him, and theyre both laughing at something. They look a lot more alike in the picture than they do now. I guess J.D.s one of those rare kids who gets cuter as he gets older. I go to the top of the stairs and wander down the hall until I get to the open bathroom door.
Hes shaving at the sink with a towel tied loosely around his waist. He doesnt see me at first and I get a little flustered for catching him without clothes.
He jumps about four feet. "Jesus Christ, Noah. You scared the hell out of me."
"Sorry. Your dad said I could come find you."
"Thats okay. I just didnt hear you." He smiles a little. "Its a good thing I dont use a straight razor. I could have cut my head off."
He turns back to the mirror and I lean on the doorframe and watch him. Hes got more of a beard than I do even though hes a year younger. I only have to shave once a week or so, and then its just four or five hairs that need it.
"Did you meet everybody?"
"Yeah. They seem nice." Actually I think his dad is fat, his mom is ugly and his sisters a brat.
His eyes find mine in the mirror. "Theyre okay, I guess." He looks away.
J.D.s in pretty good shape. You can see all the muscles in his stomach and his arms look really strong. I can see his legs from the knee down and hes got good shin muscles too. Im too fucking skinny. My ribs stick out and my legs look like matchsticks.
He shaves another stripe of lather off his cheek and as he rinses the razor his towel starts to slip. Before he grabs it I see part of his butt and a patch of dark hair under his navel. We both blush and I stare at the floor while he awkwardly rewraps the towel.
"J.D.?" Heather comes up behind me and its my turn to jump. She ignores me. "Mom says hurry up. Dinners almost ready." She looks at her brother with distaste. "Gross. Put clothes on."
He doesnt even glance at her. "Youre just mad because my boobs are bigger than yours."
She glares at him. "Youre mean. Im going to tell."
She stalks off.
J.D. washes off the rest of the lather and pats his face dry with a hand towel. "Youre lucky youre an only child." He brushes past me, smelling of Ivory soap. "Come see my room."
I like his room. It has personality, unlike the rest of the house. Theres clothes on the floor, piles of books with mangled covers--I see The World According to Garp and a mangled copy of The Once and Future King --and a bulletin board over his desk covered with pictures of famous people--Janis Joplin, Buddy Rich, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein. The one of Einstein is great. Hes sticking his tongue out like a five-year-old and his eyes are crossed. "Why does every genius have bad hair?" I take a swig of my Pepsi and keep my eyes on the pictures as J.D. dresses behind me.
He laughs. "Probably because the jocks at their high schools gave them too many noogies when they were kids."
He walks over and stands next to me. He hasnt put on a shirt or socks yet but hes wearing pants. He points at Tolstoy. "Theres a homeless guy downtown that looks just like that."
"He probably smells the same too."
"I hope not." He touches a picture in the bottom right corner. Its a school photo of a girl about our age with long brunette hair, freckles and big teeth. "This is my girlfriend, Kristin."
She looks like the kind of moron wholl spend four hours putting on her makeup and brushing her hair just for one dumb picture. "How long have you been together?"
"Weve only gone out a couple of times. But shes really nice."
He asks me if I had a girlfriend back in Chicago and I tell him no one special, just someone I went to prom with last Spring. He nods and tells me there are "a lot of hot chicks" at the high school and hell } be sure to introduce me around.
We stare at the pictures together until his mom yells from downstairs.
From Chapter 3: Noah and J.D. go to the beach after Noah has a fight with Virginia.
I cant get used to these puny New England states. Mom and Dad and I once drove from Chicago to Colorado and spent a whole day just trying to get across Nebraska. J.D. and I are on the road for less than two hours and we go all the way through New Hamphire and southern Maine.
Theres a line of traffic waiting to get into Potter Beach. J.D. turns off the air conditioning and we roll down the windows. By the time we get to the lady taking the money at the booth were both drenched with sweat. I tell J.D. Im sorry I dont have any money because I ran out of the house so fast. He tells me not to worry about it.
It s a gorgeous day. Theres a slight breeze, no clouds, and the sun is just the right kind of hot--not enough to broil us, but perfect for a long, slow bake. I carry the towels, a beach blanket, the sunblock and a frisbee, and J.D. carries the cooler. We walk through some dunes and all of a sudden theres the ocean. I should be more impressed, I guess, but it looks a lot like Lake Michigan.
The beach is crammed. It reeks of suntan lotion and seaweed. There are little kids everywhere screaming and running around, and a lot of fat people sprawled out on the sand frying themselves, like maybe they think a sunburn will make them look thinner or something. We decide to walk as far away from the noise and the crowd as possible, and about fifteen minutes later we have a stretch of water and la .nd to ourselves. I spread out the blanket and we plop down on it, taking off our shirts and sandals.
We stare at the surf coming in, and in a minute J.D. starts putting on sunblock. He coats himself up pretty good then asks if Ill do his back. He lays flat on his stomach and hands me the bottle.
His skin is warm and his spine is bumpy. Theres a scar under his left shoulder blade and a small mole at the base of his spine, right next to the waist band of his shorts.
After Im done with his back I do my legs and arms and chest. He watches me and then sits up and offers to do my back. I lay on my stomach. The sunblock is a little cold but he works it in with his fingers. Neither of us talk while hes doing it, and I close my eyes and hear gulls crying above us and the waves washing against the shore a few feet away. He lets me know hes done with a playful slap between my shoulder blades and for a second rests his hand on my neck. After he lies back down beside me, I dont dare turn over for a minute. Ive got an erection the size of Florida. Its a wonder it doesnt drill through the earth and put someones eye out in China.
"Too bad we dont have some chicks with us," he says. Hes face up, eyes closed against the sun.
I dont know whats a bigger turn off. Him wanting girls here or calling girls "chicks." Whichever, it works like magic: no more erection. I turn over. "Yeah. Too bad."
In a while we play frisbee, about waist deep in the ocean. I cant believe how cold it is. Then he teaches me how to body surf. We crawl out shivering after a few good waves and have lunch on the blanket--peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apple juice, potato chips. We talk about music for a long time--he listens mostly to jazz and classical, but he seems to like just about everything else, too, from Tom Waits to Black Sabbath. He keeps asking if Ive heard this or that and sings snatches of stuff when I tell him Im not sure. Hes got a decent tenor voice and hes not self-conscious at all about singing. I sing something with him and he looks startled.
"I didnt know you could sing."
I shrug. "I dont very often. Every time I sing around the house Mom tells me to stop before she slits her wrists."
"Shes nuts. I like your voice."
I mumble t thanks. In spite of the sunblock hes getting a bad burn on his shoulders. I touch it lightly and my fingers leaves a stark white print.
He grimaces. "I guess we should get going while I still have some skin left." He scowls at me. "Youre not burned at all."
"Real men dont burn."
He grins, stands up, grabs my ankles and drags me back to the ocean, where he proceeds to dunk me several times. I accidentally swallow a little water and he holds me upright while Im coughing, his arms wrapped loosely around my chest. A couple of joggers run by and he immediately lets go and heads back to the blanket to pack up our stuff. I trail in behind him, my feet and shins gunked with wet sand.
We stop at the changing room to wring out our shorts. Neither of us brought swimsuits so itll be a damp ride home. The room is full of people changing clothes, but J.D. unceremoniously pulls off his shorts and underwear and stands naked at the sink while he wrings them out. I do the same thing and try not to look at him, but I can see his penis in the mirror, a little shriveled from swimming in cold water. His pubic hair is a lot darker than the hair on his head. He gives my body a surreptitious glance, then quickly pulls on his shorts and tells me hell wait for me outside.
During the ride home I fall asleep watching his hands on the steering wheel, wishing I could reach over and touch them, trace the veins in his forearms with my fingers, rest my head in his lap.
This scene takes place soon after Noah and J.D. have returned from the beach. Virginia has discovered another mason jar in the walls of the house, and Noah has witnessed Donna Curtis striking J.D. in the face.
Mom wakes up from her nap around sunset. Im sitting on the steps of the front porch when the screen door squeaks open and she comes out to sit beside me. She looks a little better now. Some of the strain has left her face. Shes got her hair pulled back in a bun and shes wearing a sleeveless blue-and-white cotton dress.
Its hot but not too bad. Im drinking ice tea, and Ive been reading The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Its about this emotionally repressed butler who needs to get laid in the worst way and never will. I started an hour ago and even though Ive read it before I cant put the damn thing down. My fingers are damp from sweat or from condensation on the glass, and the pages of the book stick together when I try to turn them.
Neither of us knows what to say. I know she feels bad about going nuts and I feel bad about pissing her off and disobeying her. She tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear and yawns. "Did you see the jar I found today? I left it in the kitchen."
Good for you, Mom. Act like nothing happened. Let hell freeze over before we discuss anything important. Shes always been good at avoidance, but since Dad died shes turned it into an art form. I tell her I saw the ring and the clipping, and that I compared the two photographs.
She nods. "I have colleagues who would give anything to get their hands on this stuff."
"Hard to believe. You said she was just a second-rate poet."
"Yes. But in some obscure academic circles shes been quite the mystery for the last fifty years. No one knew where she went or why she stopped writing, and now weve not on ly found where she ended up, weve also unearthed a poem no ones ever seen before. If word of this gets out well have a pack of salivating grad students beating down the door." She stares at her bare feet on the concrete steps, picks up a pebble with her toes and puts it down again. (We have the same toes, long and thin and absurdly flexible. Mom won a bet with Dad once when he didnt believe she could write with her feet. She put a piece of paper on the floor, stuck a pen between her toes and signed her name quite legibly, with a flourish.) "But I suppose Ill have to see if she has any surviving family members who might want anything weve turned up."
I look down the street at J.D.s house. I can see Heather playing in the yard and Tom sitting on his lawn chair, but no sign of either Donna or J.D.
Mom sees where Im looking. "Did you have fun today?"
I listen for sarcasm or reproach in her voice but dont hear any. "It was great."
"You got a lot of sun. Your back is really dark."
"J.D.s fried." One of Oaklands two police cars crawls by. "I imagine Donnas happy. Itll make him easier to torture."
"Is he in trouble?"
I tell her what J.D. told me about Donna hitting him, how I saw her slug him. She doesnt say anything. I cant blame her. Whats to say? Because I pissed her off today and she lost her temper and I ran off and she called Donna to try and stop me from leaving for the beach, the wicked witch of New Hampshire is likely using J.D. as a punching bag tonight. Courtesy of us. Plus Mom is probably not feeling like she can judge someone for hitting a kid when she tried to replace my brains with spackle this morning.
Its getting darker. The sun is almost down. I wish Id brought out my easel to paint it. The sky is a glorious fiery orange.
I slap at a mosquito. "Whered you find the jar?"
It seems Im my mothers son. Neither of us can talk about what matters.
"The ceiling in the pantry."
The pantry? Why the hell was she messing around in the pantry? Theres nothing wrong with the pantry. Or there wasnt until today.
Im too damn tired for another fight. I dont say a word.
The sun disappears and soon after that the stars start coming up. Within an hour the sky changes from mostly black into a glittering, dazzling mess. Scorpius is too close to the horizon and is mostly hidden behind houses and trees, but the brightest star in it, Antares, is right next to a neighbors chimney. I look overhead for Vega, my favorite star, and find it immediately, stuck in Lyra just like always.
Dad loved the stars and made me love t hem too. Living in Chicago it was hard to see much except the brightest ones, but here the sky is so packed I have a hard time picking out individual constellations. I know theres millions of miles between each of them, but from here it looks like one gigantic clot of light. The coolest thing about the stars is that thousands of years ago people were looking up at night and seeing basically the same damn thing Im seeing right now. This star or that one might go supernova, but for the most part not much changes. You can count on the sky to hold still and be what you need it to be.
Mom goes in for a minute and brings out a bottle of red wine and two glasses. Ive had wine before but tonight it actually tastes good. We chat about stuff like we used to when Dad was alive, and neither of us makes any move to go in when it starts to get cooler.
I dont remember the last time the two of us sat together like this. We talked a lot before Dad died, but Dad was always with us. Its not that we dont sometimes enjoy each others company, but Dad was the one who knew how to draw Mom out of her head and keep her involved in a conversation. She gets frustrated with me because she thinks Im too young and too full of shit to take seriously. Shes never said that, but I know its what she thinks. Most of the time when I try to talk to her she either looks bored or irritated. She may be a fucking genius, but Jesus Christ, she should hear some of the coma-inducing diarrhea that comes flying out of her pie-hole sometimes.
But tonight shes different. Maybe the wine is melting that giant stick shes got up her butt and helping her relax. If it is, she should drink more often.
I point out Sagittarius and show her how to find Arcturus and Spica by following the handle of the Big Dipper. She acts impressed and says she didnt know I knew so much about the stars. I tell her I learned everything I know from Dad, and she seems genuinely surprised, like she had no idea her husband was a star freak. I cant believe she didnt know, but I guess most of the time when Dad and I were watching the sky Mom was someplace else, usually scribbling in her room.
I have two glasses of wine to Moms four, and presto, the bottles empty. We eventually fall silent, just listening to the night, and I start getting sleepy. I shift a little, knowing I need to go to bed but not wanting to. The Milky Way is a vast smear across the sky, like a white brush stroke on a black canvas.
We havent said anything in so long that when she starts to talk it startles me, even though her voice is quiet, almost a whisper. "Did I ever show you a picture of your granddad when he was young?"
I cant see her face very well. "I dont think so."
"That wedding photo gave me a bit of a shock today. Theres an uncanny resemblance between my dad and Stephen Carlisle."
"I only knew him when he was in his sixties. I dont remember him looking anything like Carlisle."
"He did, when he was younger."
"What was he like?" I ask, then could kick myself because she stands up and says good-night.
I broke the spell. If Id kept my mouth shut, she might have actually said something real.