Winner of the 2004 Alex Award from the American Library Association



Leave Myself Behind

Chapter One:

I’ve never wanted a different mother. I just want my mother to be different.

Get in line, right?

Anybody who tells you he doesn’t 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. She’s only half-human; the rest is equal parts wolverine, hyena, goddess and rutting goat.

In other words, she’s a poet.

But she smells great.

Know the way someone smells when they’ve been outside on a chilly fall day? That’s 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, you’d have her hanging in your car and your bathroom and your kitchen.

Sorry. I didn’t 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.

I’m 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; he’d 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 didn’t 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.

I’m seventeen. My name is Noah. (Don’t blame me; Dad had a thing for biblical names. It could have been worse, I suppose--Enoch, or Amalek, for instance.) I’m going to be a senior this September. That’s still a month away. I want to get a job, but Mom won’t let me until she and I get the house remodeled. She’s probably right. The place is a mess. Plaster dust, nails, boards, spackle, paint c ans, caulking guns, and a shitload of boxes. We’ll 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 she’s "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 don’t really mind working on the house. It’s dirty, sweaty work but fun in a sick puritanical kind of way. By the end of each day I’m 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. We’ve finished a lot of the downstairs and it’s 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 it’s 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 it’s like stepping into another century. There’s an ancient chandelier hanging overhead as soon as you’re inside, and even though it looks like it’s been dipped in dirt it’s still something to see, with hundreds of pieces of glass shaped like diamonds and rectangles. There’s 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. There’s 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 she’d 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 isn’t enough house for the two of us, we’ve 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.) There’s 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 don’t 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 they’ve forgotten what you asked them. It’s like they’re always waiting for someone to come home, so they can’t pay much attention to anybody already in the house with them because they’re too busy listening for footsteps on the front walk.

I’m a porch person. Porch people also love late nights and early mornings, but we’re more likely to answer your questions than a kitchen person is, and we don’t 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 we’re also waiting for someone to show up, but we want to know who it is before he gets as far as the door.

I’m 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 they’ve 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, he’s tall and fat, and J.D. doesn’t look a thing like him. "Come on in. Welcome to the neighborhood."

Mom thanks him and I follow her into the house. She’s wearing a sky blue summer dress and sandals, and she’s still got the necklace on. She made me wear long pants and a shirt and tie even though it’s 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 wasn’t 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 Gilligan’s 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, I’m Donna Curtis." She shakes Mom’s 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 isn’t. She’s got enormous nostrils and her eyes are too far apart. J.D.’s kind of handsome. Donna’s 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, he’ll have a soda. While he’s 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 he’s 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 it’s fine. Mom tells him I shouldn’t because I’m 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. I’ve read that some people think swearing shows a lack of imagination and a limited vocabulary, but sometimes "darn" and "poop" and "oh heck" just don’t cut it. Besides, swearing is kind of fun. It’s 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 they’re succinct " as hell and they let me blow off steam without hurting anybody. And if you’re 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 Curtis’s 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 it’s all I can do to keep from turning them upside down. There’s one of J.D. when he’s probably six or seven that catches my eye for a second. He’s sitting on a swing with Donna standing behind him, and they’re 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.

He’s shaving at the sink with a towel tied loosely around his waist. He doesn’t 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."

"That’s okay. I just didn’t hear you." He smiles a little. "It’s a good thing I don’t 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. He’s got more of a beard than I do even though he’s a year younger. I only have to shave once a week or so, and then it’s 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 sister’s a brat.

His eyes find mine in the mirror. "They’re 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 he’s got good shin muscles too. I’m 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 it’s my turn to jump. She ignores me. "Mom says hurry up. Dinner’s almost ready." She looks at her brother with distaste. "Gross. Put clothes on."
He doesn’t even glance at her. "You’re just mad because my boobs are bigger than yours."

She glares at him. "You’re mean. I’m going to tell."

"Go ahead."

She stalks off.

J.D. washes off the rest of the lather and pats his face dry with a hand towel. "You’re lucky you’re 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. There’s 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. He’s 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 hasn’t put on a shirt or socks yet but he’s wearing pants. He points at Tolstoy. "There’s 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. It’s 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 who’ll spend four hours putting on her makeup and brushing her hair just for one dumb picture. "How long have you been together?"

"We’ve only gone out a couple of times. But she’s 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 he’ll } 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 can’t 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.

There’s 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 we’re both drenched with sweat. I tell J.D. I’m sorry I don’t 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. There’s 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 there’s 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 I’ll do his back. He lays flat on his stomach and hands me the bottle.

His skin is warm and his spine is bumpy. There’s 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 I’m 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 he’s 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 he’s 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 don’t dare turn over for a minute. I’ve got an erection the size of Florida. It’s a wonder it doesn’t drill through the earth and put someone’s eye out in China.

"Too bad we don’t have some chicks with us," he says. He’s face up, eyes closed against the sun.
I don’t know what’s 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 can’t 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 I’ve heard this or that and sings snatches of stuff when I tell him I’m not sure. He’s got a decent tenor voice and he’s not self-conscious at all about singing. I sing something with him and he looks startled.

"I didn’t know you could sing."

I shrug. "I don’t very often. Every time I sing around the house Mom tells me to stop before she slits her wrists."

"She’s nuts. I like your voice."

I mumble t thanks. In spite of the sunblock he’s 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. "You’re not burned at all."

"Real men don’t 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 I’m 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 it’ll 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 he’ll 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. I’m 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. She’s got her hair pulled back in a bun and she’s wearing a sleeveless blue-and-white cotton dress.

It’s hot but not too bad. I’m drinking ice tea, and I’ve been reading The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s 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 I’ve read it before I can’t 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. She’s always been good at avoidance, but since Dad died she’s 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 she’s been quite the mystery for the last fifty years. No one knew where she went or why she stopped writing, and now we’ve not on ly found where she ended up, we’ve also unearthed a poem no one’s ever seen before. If word of this gets out we’ll 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 didn’t 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 I’ll have to see if she has any surviving family members who might want anything we’ve 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 I’m looking. "Did you have fun today?"

I listen for sarcasm or reproach in her voice but don’t hear any. "It was great."

"You got a lot of sun. Your back is really dark."

"J.D.’s fried." One of Oakland’s two police cars crawls by. "I imagine Donna’s happy. It’ll 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 doesn’t say anything. I can’t blame her. What’s 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.
It’s getting darker. The sun is almost down. I wish I’d brought out my easel to paint it. The sky is a glorious fiery orange.

I slap at a mosquito. "Where’d you find the jar?"

It seems I’m my mother’s 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? There’s nothing wrong with the pantry. Or there wasn’t until today.

I’m too damn tired for another fight. I don’t 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 neighbor’s 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 there’s 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 I’m 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. I’ve 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 don’t 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. It’s not that we don’t sometimes enjoy each other’s 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 I’m too young and too full of shit to take seriously. She’s never said that, but I know it’s 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 she’s different. Maybe the wine is melting that giant stick she’s 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 didn’t 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 can’t believe she didn’t 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 Mom’s four, and presto, the bottle’s 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 haven’t 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 can’t see her face very well. "I don’t think so."

"That wedding photo gave me a bit of a shock today. There’s an uncanny resemblance between my dad and Stephen Carlisle."

"I only knew him when he was in his sixties. I don’t 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 I’d kept my mouth shut, she might have actually said something real.

Please go to Kensington Press and put Leave Myself Behind under title in the search engine.

There you will also find the first chapter of Bart's first book.

The Brothers Bishop

Chapter One:

When I was five years old I stuck a pencil in a nice man's eye. He was at a desk, typing a letter, and I was sitting on a stool next
to him, scribbling a brontosaurus on a sheet of typing paper. I remember looking over at him and wondering why he was so intent on
what he was doing, and I remember wishing he'd pay more attention to me. So I held the eraser end of the pencil by the corner of his eye
and waited until he turned toward me before making my move. I didn't push too hard and his lashes caught the bulk of the attack, but it
still must have hurt like hell.

"Jesus Christ, kid!" he yelled, cradling his eye socket. "What did you do that for?"
I didn't have an answer for him then. I still don't. Sometimes you hurt people for no reason. Just because you can.

So this is how it ends. The day, I mean, with the sun dropping in the dunes at my back, coloring the surface of the water red and gold.
I'm standing barefoot in the sand and the cold tide is licking at my ankles like a mutt with a foot fetish. I live half a mile from the beach, so I come here almost every day of the year to clear my head.

It's summer now so I don't have the place to myself like I do in the winter, but I can usually find a quiet spot and pretend the ocean
belongs exclusively to me. Tommy's coming home tomorrow, with his new scrotal-buddy and a young married couple in tow. He called last week and asked if he could come see me, but he waited until I said yes before he told me he was bringing an entourage. When I told him I wasn't really in the mood to entertain anybody besides him, he got pissed. "Don't be a dick, Nathan. You've had the cottage to yourself for
three years. Is it going to kill you to have a little company for a couple of weeks?" I told him that was the whole point, because we haven't seen each other since Dad died, and it would be nice to get together without a bunch of strangers barging in and taking over. He said his friends weren't really strangers, though, because "Philip is practically your brother-in-law" and "Kyle and Camille are my two best friends in the world." He assured me we'd all get along famously. He's been like this his whole life. He thinks if he loves somebody,
everyone else he cares about will automatically love that person too.

What an idiot. But of course I caved in. I always do. You can't say no to Tommy. Tommy's my younger brother and a complete flake. He bounces from one job to another and one relationship to another and one financial
crisis to another and all he does is eat, sleep, shit and fuck.

But he gets what he wants from everybody, anyway, because he won the genetics lottery. He got our mother's looks--thick blonde hair and startling blue eyes, clear skin, high cheekbones, delicate hands and feet--and he also got every ounce of her charm. I'm a clone of my father--pug-nose, high forehead, black hair, brown eyes, sloped shoulders, heavy limbs, and yes, okay, an admittedly unattractive
tendency to think of the world as a very screwed up place. If you saw us together on the street you'd never believe we're brothers.
I don't believe we're brothers, either. There is no way in hell somebody as beautiful and light-hearted as Tommy could be carrying around my father's genes. I think Mom took one look at me when I was born and decided she wasn't going to have any more dark, surly children, so she went and had an affair with a surfer or a Swedish porn star or something and got knocked up with Tommy. I don't really remember our mother. She died when I was five years old and Tommy was only three, so everything we know about her we got
from my father. From what he said, though, she sounds exactly like Tommy. Dad said that Mom could make people love her without even
trying. He liked to tell the story about the time they were at a restaurant and she couldn't make up her mind about what kind of soda
to order. Dad said she must have been overheard, because within half a minute three glasses appeared on the table--a Coke from the waiter, a Pepsi from the busboy, and a Dr. Pepper from the maitre d'. I guess I should warn you, though, that Dad was a liar. He had at least thirty different versions of that particular story--sometimes he'd say Mom was wearing a black evening gown with long sleeves, and
the next time he'd go on about how her tits were spilling out of a skimpy red halter-top. He always tailored his stories to fit his audience.
But something tells me most of what he said about Mom was true, because my brother can charm the short hairs off a troll, and he sure
as hell didn't learn that from anybody he grew up with. I think charm is genetic--a personality fluke equivalent to being able to shape your
tongue like a "u." Why I didn't get any of Mom's magic and Tommy got it all is just another of life's little inequities I intend to confront God with at the earliest opportunity. I've been standing in the water long enough for it to have covered my feet with sand and strands of foul-smelling seaweed. It's tempting to just keep standing here until I'm buried up to my neck.
I'm not ready to deal with Tommy yet. Especially not with three complete strangers in tow. This will sound terrible, but my life has
been considerably better since Dad died. When we cremated him, it felt like someone took a pillow off my face and I could finally
breathe for the first time in my life. Now Tommy is my sole remaining relative, and the truth is I hate that someone is still alive in the world who has a familial claim on me. I don't want Tommy to die or anything, I just want him to forget about me and leave me the hell alone.

It's not about love. Of course I love the little shit. But he knows too much about me that no one else on the planet knows, and when he's
around I have no choice but to think about everything I hate about myself and my past. He's a gangrenous leg attached to my psyche, and I need to hack him off before he infects my whole fucking soul. Okay, okay, that's pretty dramatic. But it's exactly how I feel. And if you were me, you'd feel that way too. A couple of teenage kids run by, both of them dressed in ratty old cut-offs instead of swimsuits. They're probably fifteen or so, and slender and tanned, and one of them slows down and smiles and waves. "Hey, Mr. Bishop."

Great. One of my idiot students. Just what I need today. He's new in town and it takes a second to remember his name. "Hi, Simon.
Having fun?"

"Yeah." He picks at some peeling skin on his shoulder. "We've been here all afternoon and now we're getting ready to go out on my Dad's
new boat before it gets too dark."

I glance at the falling sun. "You better hurry. There's not much daylight left." He grins. He has straight, white teeth with just the hint of an
underbite. "I know. Dad's trying to prove to Mom what a great sailor he is or something. We'll probably all drown just because he won't
admit he's not very good at night sailing."
The other boy is waiting for him and Simon gives another little wave.

"I guess I should go. See you later."
He runs to catch up, water flipping from his heels onto his back. I watch him go, admiring his speed and lightness. His ass isn't bad either.

I'm a high school English teacher. I never used to work during the summer, but for the last three years I've been forced to teach remedial grammar courses to kids like Simon who can't tell a pronoun from a potato. And no, I've never done anything improper with one of my students, and I never will. But it doesn't hurt to look. Is anything more flagrantly sexy than a teenage boy? They're so full of hormones and semen it's a wonder they can walk. Most of them spend every spare minute playing with themselves, but there are a few who
haven't yet figured out how to deal with all the sensations in their bodies. You can see it in their eyes--a moist vulnerability, like
their corneas are floating in cum and they haven't got a clue what's going on or what to do about it. Simon is like that, I think. He's a
true innocent, a kid who would be horrified to know what most of his peers are doing three times a day in bathrooms and bedrooms and behind the bushes. But one of these days his body will override his hang-ups and he'll erupt like Vesuvius, spurting jiz on everyone and everything within a thirty mile radius. Mark my words. I know the type well. A gull flies overhead, calling out. Why do they always sound so lonely? The breeze from the ocean picks up and I raise my arms like wings to let it blow over me and tickle the hair in my armpits. The gull dips and glides and I try to imitate how it moves. Tommy and I grew up on the beach. Not literally, of course, but we spent almost every day of every summer here when we were little kids, and when we were in high school we were both lifeguards. I can't imagine growing up someplace far away from the ocean and the dunes. What's it like to go home to dinner without salt on your skin and sand
between your toes?

I live in southern Connecticut in a little town called Walcott. The name of this beach is Hog's Head Beach, and it's about two hours north of New York City and an hour or so south of Providence. I'm thirty-one years old and except for the six years when I was in
college and grad school I've never lived anyplace else and I never will. Sure, the town is backward (like every other small town in
America) and the winters are cold and real estate is expensive, but who gives a crap? I own my cottage, and I'm within easy walking
distance of a good pub, the public library, and a terrific bakery. A quarter mile from my front door in the other direction is a small cliff with a lighthouse on it (my closest neighbor, Caleb Farrell, lives in the house attached to it), and woods all around, and this beach. I know almost everybody in town and they know me, and while that sometimes drives me crazy, for the most part it makes me feel safe.
Tommy graduated high school and moved away the following summer, but I think he was a fool to not come back after he finished college like I did. He keeps trying to get me to move. He's worried because I never
get laid and he says I'm wasting my life and he hasn't been to see me since Dad died because he says that Walcott is the rectum of the
universe and he'd rather glue his nipples to a car bumper than spend another second in "that godforsaken hell-hole."

But when I asked him why he was finally coming back for a visit, he said he was homesick. I knew it would happen, sooner or later. He can pretend all he wants, but he loves this place more than I do.

Walcott is a resort town that no one who isn't rich can afford to live in, unless, like me, you happen to be lucky enough to have inherited a house that's been in the family for over a hundred years. My great-grandfather was a fisherman in the early nineteen-hundreds
and he built the cottage himself, which apparently made my great-grandmother insane because it took him nearly eleven years to
finish it. He'd work on a room for a few days then he'd leave to go fishing for months at a time, refusing to rush the job or hire somebody else to do it. I feel sorry for my great grandmother, but I'm glad the old bastard did it that way, because he built the thing with a mind-boggling attention to detail that only comes from sitting around for weeks on end with nothing to do but fish and think about
what you want your house to look like.
He built it like a boat. I don't mean that it's shaped like one, but he designed it with the same practicality and space-saving principles
you find on small ships--nothing is wasted, nothing is merely decorative. It's two stories high, with the kitchen, guest room, bathroom and living room downstairs, and a gigantic master bedroom upstairs. The woodwork is simple and straightforward, but it's all oak and maple and pine, and when the sun comes through the windows in the morning the walls and the floors shine like church pews.
Bookshelves are everywhere; the door to the guest room is actually a bookshelf that swings out on hidden hinges and shuts again with a
quiet click. There's a potbellied stove in the corner of the living room, and a modest wine cellar under the kitchen, and in the master
bedroom there's a massive old Edwardian desk looking out from an alcove onto the cornfield behind the house. Family legend has it that my great-grandfather stole the desk from some snotty English nobleman who lived in Rhode Island, but like the rest of our family history the story is probably bogus.
My favorite part of the house is the narrow, spiral staircase that connects the two levels. It's the only incompetent piece of carpentry
in the house, rickety and uneven and somewhat dangerous to negotiate if you've had more than your share of red wine on a cold winter night.

All the upstairs furniture had to be lifted through the windows from the outside because none of it would fit up the staircase. But my great-grandfather built it like that on purpose. He was an exquisite craftsman and could easily have come up with something elegant and functional, but for some inscrutable reason he chose to build an eyesore instead. And what's really funny is that in his will he stipulated that no one was to alter the staircase in the slightest, save for replacing boards if the old ones rotted out. He never told his son or his wife why he did it that way and no one in the family since has had any clue. Maybe he wanted to restrict access to the upstairs; maybe he thought it was funny to have something ugly and out of place in an otherwise handsome home. Personally, I think he left it that way to piss off his wife. But whatever the reason, whenever I look at it, I wish I'd known the
contrary old son of a bitch. The staircase screams attitude, and the only people in the world worth knowing are people with attitude.

There's a note on the front door of the cottage when I get home. It's from the "chairman" of Walcott's historical society, Cheri Tipton, politely reminding me that we had an appointment earlier that afternoon, and she was sorry to have missed me, and could I please call her at my earliest convenience to reschedule. Shit. I forgot all about it. She called last week and asked if she could come over and take a walk with me through the cornfield, because she said she came across some historic papers that seemed to suggest that an old Indian village--predating European settlement by several centuries--may once have stood on my land. I told her I'd never found so much as an arrowhead out there but she insisted on stopping by anyway. I'm not surprised I forgot to be here. I have a bad habit of forgetting to show up for anything I don't want to do. I crumple up the paper and stand outside the door for a minute, wondering who else is going to invade my house this week. Jesus. Maybe I should just open a bed-and-breakfast and put up a neon sign advertising multiple vacancies. I make no apologies for being a hermit. My choice to live alone has
been deliberate and entirely voluntary. As a general rule, people piss me off and I'm a much happier man when I'm by myself. I should
mine the front yard and buy a couple of dobermans and then maybe I could finally get some privacy. I take a deep breath. There are two big bushes on either side of the door with cantaloupe-sized white flowers that smell faintly of cat urine. I have no idea what kind of bushes they are, but they've been there my whole life. I could ask Tommy, I suppose, but who cares? I don't need flowers by my door; I need a state of the art security system.

My father was a mean-spirited, petty old man, and a complete waste of human DNA. Aside from that, though, we got along fine. It's impossible to talk about my dad without getting mad. Tommy says I should get over it and move on, but Tommy has never understood the
healthful benefits of loathing someone with your whole heart. He thinks my bitterness is self-destructive and difficult to maintain,
but, truly, it's no effort at all. It comes naturally to me, like breathing, or taking a crap.
I'm being flip because I know Tommy's right. My resentment of my father eats at me like cancer. And I should get counseling or a
lobotomy or something and maybe eventually learn how to deal with everything he did to us as kids and adults--all the endless cruelties,
large and small, he so liberally bestowed on us--except there's one thing I know I can never get past or dismiss so I won't even bother to

He loved us. What a bastard. Yeah, I know how fucked up that sounds, but there it is. If he'd
hated Tommy and me, I think I could maybe forgive him for how he treated us. But he didn't hate us. He loved us, and still he went
out of his way to hurt us, time and again, and he never apologized for anything.

His name was Vernon Michael Bishop, and he had a glorious tenor voice. He sang for local weddings and funerals, and people always
said it was like listening to an angel. He ran the local paper, the Walcott Gazette, for a number of years, and I've been told--ad infinitum--how he generously allowed charities and "good causes" to advertise for free. He was interim mayor for two years when Cloris Adams suddenly died in her office and the town needed a replacement until the next election, and he organized the annual food drive for
the Lion's Club every Christmas. He was a big, hearty man who looked you right in the eye and did his best to make you laugh. He was a
pillar of the community. So goodness gracious, what's my problem? The man was a saint, right? Oh, did I neglect to mention that Vernon Michael Bishop liked to beat up little kids? Not all little kids, of course. Just two very special little boys. His sons. The worst time--though certainly not the first--was when he found
Tommy in bed with Jacob Roberts. Jacob had spent the night (he was the last overnight guest we were ever allowed to have, incidentally),
so I had given up my bed and slept in the living room on a cot. When Dad got up in the morning and came down to boil water for tea, he decided to poke his head in and see if Tommy and Jacob were awake.

They were nine years old, and they were naked, and apparently Tommy had his fist wrapped around Jacob's puny penis when Dad walked in on them. I was just waking up and came running into the kitchen just in time to see dear old Dad drag Tommy out of the bedroom and begin slamming his head on the counter by the sink. Jacob was scrambling
into his clothes in the bedroom and wailing like a cat in heat. I tried to get Dad to stop but I was only eleven and when I grabbed his arm and begged him to let go of Tommy, he backhanded me hard enough to break my nose and send me flying into the dish cabinet. I still have scars on my neck and shoulders from plunging through the glass.

Tommy told me later that Dad apparently came to his senses when he looked over and saw me crumpled on the floor in a puddle of blood. He let go of Tommy--who was only marginally better off than me--and calmly told Jacob to stop crying and go home. Dad called an ambulance for us and was soon arrested by the police, but because of his sterling reputation in town and the heinousness of Tommy's actions
(discussed, no doubt, in the strictest confidence), the charges were dismissed after a stern warning from the sergeant on duty, who then graciously offered Dad a ride home and probably gave him a cheerful clap on the back as he was getting out of the car. Dad gave his word that he'd never hit his children again, and, being a man who followed his own peculiar code of honor, he never did. But with physical violence no longer available to him, he was forced to come up with alternative strategies to continue waging war on his children. And that was when he began his long, inspired campaign of verbal and emotional abuse that continued until the day he died. In retrospect, I wish he'd kept hitting us.