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When a car crash takes a life, to whom does the tragedy really happen—-the wife who dies? The husband who was driving? Or the six-year-old son sitting in the backseat? Author George Harrar explores this provocative question in his debut novel, set in the arts colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, on the Delware River. The book begins 10 years after the accident when Jake Paine, now 16, comes home after almost a year as a runaway. His return sparks painful memories in his father, a man verging on a nervous breakdown....
When a car crash takes a life, to whom does the tragedy really happen—-the wife who dies? The husband who was driving? Or the six-year-old son sitting in the backseat? Author George Harrar explores this provocative question in his debut novel, set in the arts colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, on the Delware River. The book begins 10 years after the accident when Jake Paine, now 16, comes home after almost a year as a runaway. His return sparks painful memories in his father, a man verging on a nervous breakdown. Jake’s appearance also ignites old fears among townspeople about a boy who dances on the edge of craziness.
"Imagine being decapitated," my father said to me once as we were sharpening the kitchen knives in the basement. Flakes of steel floated into the air each time he pressed the tip of the blade to the grindstone. My job was to hand him the next dull knife when he was ready for it. I was only ten at the time, and I didn't know what "decapitated" meant. Dad always assumed I knew more than I did. "Your head falls to the ground," he said as he ran his finger over the edge of the meat cleaver, "and you expect to be dead. But your brain still has a few seconds' worth of oxygen left. You look up and there's the rest of your body still draped over the chopping block. That, my boy, is the most intense moment of existence I can imagine."
Dad could be a pretty depressing guy to live with. Whenever I wished for anything when I was little, he'd say, "Expect death, Jake, and you won't ever be disappointed." That was his philosophy of life: Expect the worst. The worst did happen to him—Mom dying in the car accident ten years ago. It happened to me, too. I mean, I was in the car. I saw her die. But I was only six at the time, and I believed Dad when he said she'd gone off to a better place.
On my sixteenth birthday I decided it was time for me to find somewhere better to live. I had no name for this place and no picture in my mind of what it would look like. I guess I was so used to Dad imagining different worlds for me that I couldn't imagine a new one for myself.
I didn't run because of him or even Jenny, who moved in about ayear after the accident. I called her my "mother figure" because she hated me calling her that. She had thick legs and skinny ankles and smelled like beer from serving drinks at The Logan Inn all day. She found something to yell at me about every time she saw me, but she was mostly harmless. The real reason I ran away was because the teachers, cops, and shrinks in town were starting to talk to each other, which meant they might actually do something about me. They said I was troubled. They said I lacked direction. They said I should be analyzed. Jenny told me all of this as we sat around the kitchen table the night after the "Shocking Canal Attack," as the Gazette put it in a giant headline. She sipped her whiskey coffee and stared at me with her lips tight, as if about to spit it on me. Dad drank his A&W root beer and picked at the yellow flowers pressed onto the Formica tabletop. My little sister, Krissy, came wandering into the kitchen singing some kid's rhyme, pretending not to be listening. I pulled Mars up on my lap and rubbed the old cat's ears to show I had feelings. Jenny liked to tell doctors that I didn't seem to feel anything. It was her favorite thing to say about me.
We were trying to understand how I had gotten into trouble again. I explained how unavoidable this mess was, like all of the others—the fire in Bantry's tractor barn, for instance, or Gerenser's dog drowning. I showed them how easy it was to get into these situations, at least for me. Jenny didn't like hearing that. She wanted me to be terrifically sorry and promise not to do anything wrong ever again. She wanted Dad to go beyond a simple punishment and on to some long-range plan of handling me. But not being my real mother, Jenny lacked jurisdiction, which made her furious. She pounded the table and grabbed the closest hard object—this time it was the ceramic Santa Claus that never got put away—and she swung it over our heads to make sure we listened to her. She said I had to start taking control of myself, or someone else would. She said I had to change.
That's when Dad's face went blank, and I knew something crazy was going through his mind. He said, "Imagine if ice didn't float."
Normally, Jenny let such statements pass by like some weird sound you hear in the night and don't really want to know about. But this time she shook him by the shoulders and yelled in his face, "What does ice have to do with this?"
Dad lifted his glass and rattled the ice cubes. "Water is the strangest thing on earth. When water freezes, it gets lighten Nothing else in the world does that. Ice floats. If it didn't, lakes would freeze from the bottom up."
"So?" Jenny demanded.
"If lakes were to freeze bottom up," he said slowly, "life would die out in the first big cold spell. Life began in the ocean, so it wouldn't exist ... if ice didn't float."
Jenny shook her head and turned away, then remembered something. "But ice does float," she spit out at him.
Dad nodded that she had finally gotten his point. When he left the kitchen, I followed closely behind him, before Jenny could get her hands on me.
* * *
I was thinking about my father as the train slowed into 14th Street. The doors pulled apart, and a woman stumbled on. She looked older than me, maybe 21. Her eyes were cloudy, like old marbles, and her face was a chalky white. There were plenty of empty seats, but she slumped down next to me as if I was something to lean on. I pulled away, but she slid close again. Her fat legs were busting through her slacks. The knees were worn away, like kids' jeans get from crawling.
She sat quietly for a minute, gripping a red straw handbag the way women do when they're afraid you might grab it. Suddenly she reached inside the bag and pulled out a penny. She bit it and then flicked the coin onto the train floor. "How old your mother?" she shouted into the air. Nobody riding the subway at midnight was going to answer a question like that. Not far down the aisle, two big black women sat side by side knitting, taking up four seats between them. At the end of the car an old guy was reading a newspaper. There was no one else except me.
The woman's head jerked up and down. "How old your mother?" she yelled at me. I didn't know exactly. When somebody dies, you stop counting birthdays. "How old?" the woman shouted again as she pulled a fistful of pennies from her bag and threw them over her head. They rattled on the plastic seats and rolled down the floor. Then her head fell to her knees, and she looked like she was coiling up to explode.
"Thirty-eight," I said, which was how old my mother was when she died. I figured she might as well stay that age forever.
"Alright," the woman laughed and stuck her hand between her legs. Then she started chewing pennies. Every few seconds she spit one out. When the train jumped forward she fell away from me and banged into the railing. She shook her head quickly, like a cat does after you rub it.
In a few minutes we reached Grand Central, and two kids got on. I knew they were trouble. The bigger one had scraped his head with a razorblade that left long red marks. A thick purple scar circled his left ear, like someone had tried to slice it off. This skinhead was flying on something and went right for the crazy woman. He dug into her pocketbook and pulled out a comb, a nametag, a knit hat. He held each thing up, and his buddy laughed like this was very funny. Then the kid jammed the bag down over the woman's head. A few pennies fell on her and bits of paper and crumbs of food. The black women were muttering to each other and looking to either end of the car for help. The old guy folded his paper and left.
The crazy woman jumped to her feet and the kids grabbed her arms and spun her around. Whichever way she moved to get away, one of their hands pulled her back. Each time they touched her she made a strange noise, like the ping of a video game. Then the skinhead lifted her arm and pinched the sagging flesh between his fingers. She squealed and he shoved his hand inside the top of her shirt.
"Let the child be," one of the black women called out.
The skinhead turned on her with doped-up eyes. He said, "You talking to me?" He stepped closer, rubbing his stomach, and the long bulge of a knife showed beneath his black T-shirt. The women looked away, as if he were a German shepherd you wouldn't stare at straight in the eyes.
"Leave her alone."
My voice cut through the screech of the train wheels. The skinhead laughed, and then his buddy did. I stood up and we faced each other, figuring how much we felt like risking on this fucking hot Saturday night in May, somewhere under New York City, over one mental bag lady. She yanked herself free from them and sat in her seat with her hands folded in her lap, like she was in a church. She seemed to forget the bag still squashed on top of her head. The skinhead flicked his thumb at her. "You want to bleed for that?" he said in such a thick accent I could barely understand him. I shrugged—I didn't need a reason to fight.
The train kept speeding on to the next station, rocking us in the aisle. As the lights blinked, the kid reached under his shirt for the knife. I attacked him with a quick side kick, but he stepped backward in time. He grinned at me and flashed the shining blade through the air. I could see he was the kind who needed a weapon to feel safe. That was a good sign. I turned my back on him, then whirled with a roundhouse kick to his chest. I caught him with his hands down. There was a cracking sound, maybe a rib breaking. He coughed like he had something stuck in his throat and dropped to his knees. "If they can't breathe, they can't fight," was the first lesson I learned years ago at Rocky's School of Self-Protection. The skinhead gasped for air, and I jammed my elbow down between his shoulder blades to finish him off. The kid collapsed to the floor like his bones had turned to water.
I stepped over him to take care of his buddy. "Don't fuck with me," he said, trying to sound tough. But you can't be scared and tough at the same time, and he looked scared to me. I faked with my left hand and followed with a short right jab to his nose. He cursed in some language I never heard before and held his face. Bright blood squeezed out between his fingers.
"That's right, hurt him," one of the black women called out from behind me. I waved my fist across the kid's eyes again to keep his brain occupied and then kicked his balls in with one sharp thrust of my knee. The fight ended as fast as Rocky promised when you get the first punch in to someone's face. He made a lot of money teaching that skill, and I learned fast.
"Hurt him!" the crazy woman yelled, like she was rooting at a hockey game.
I jabbed my fist into the kid's chin a few times more than strictly necessary because it always felt good hitting someone who deserved it. He dropped to the floor and rolled down the aisle as the train slipped into the station. Flashes of blue passed by the window, telling me there were policemen waiting. For the first time in my 10 months as a runaway, I didn't run away from them.
"You're a hero," Corporal Michael Rourke said to me on a dark Monday afternoon as he picked up a Daily News from Lenny's Smoke Shop. The big cop held out a dollar. Inside his little stand, surrounded by magazines hanging from clips, Lenny sucked on a thick carrot and waved the money away. Rourke tipped his cap and pointed to the headline at the bottom: "Runaway Busts Thugs, Rescues Bag Lady—Story, Page 4."
"I made page 28 once," he said as he walked me down the street, his heavy hand on my shoulder, "for saving a 200-pound pig from a fire." Rourke shook his head to let me know it wasn't a pretty story. "This huge porker was tied to the kitchen table in a little apartment on Eighth Avenue. When I got there the flames were already turning his tail into ham. The family had left him to burn—didn't even have the decency to cut the rope." He grunted like he had never seen such cruelty, which surprised me. "Vietnamese," he said, as if that explained things. Out in the street, two cabbies were leaning through their windows yelling at each other. One guy got out of his cab and kicked at the door of the other, but Rourke didn't seem interested in their argument. "I had to carry this hysterical pig down four flights," he said, circling his arms to show how big the animal was. "Almost gave me a heart attack. Next day I'm in the paper, the headline says, `Vegetarian Cop Saves Pig from Frying.'" He poked my shoulder to get my attention. "That night, what do you think? The family celebrates surviving by roasting the pig on the sidewalk for the whole neighborhood. Un-fucking believable, huh?"
Rourke, my official police escort, led me to the bus terminal, then steered me by the arm to Gate 17, Central New Jersey and Points West. "That's you," he said, nodding at the sign, "Points West." He lit a cigarette for himself, then gave me one. "You know," he said, looking around the waiting area the way cops do, "if you wanted to stay lost, you made a big mistake saving that bag lady." I nodded that it was a stupid thing to do and inhaled the good smoke of the Camel. "Of course," he said out of the side of his mouth, "soon as your bus crosses the river, you're no concern of NYPD. You could get off anywhere you want before New Hope, get lost again."
"Thanks for the suggestion."
"No," he shook his head, "it's just a possibility."
The bus driver walked past pointing to the sign on the terminal door saying "No Smoking." Rourke tapped his badge and we kept on puffing. The other passengers started loading, but I stayed there with the cop, smoking and listening to him tell about Brooklyn, where he grew up. People passing by glanced at him and then at me, checking for handcuffs or some other sign that I was dangerous. I liked feeling dangerous.
An announcement over the loud speaker came out half words, half static. We both heard "Pennsylvania" and moved through the gate. The driver, a black guy wearing a white shirt and blue bow tie, leaned out of the bus. "Get on if you're getting on."
"He's coming," Rourke said, jabbing me in the chest. I stamped out my cigarette and picked up my duffel bag. "Hold on a minute," he said as he checked his watch, "she should have been here by now." He ducked into the terminal, and I could see him through the glass door looking around. I didn't know who he was looking for, but I waited there like he said because for a cop, Rourke was pretty cool. He even smoked the same cigarettes as me. In a minute he came back pulling a woman behind him. She wore a black silk jacket and a purple scarf. Her skin reminded me of sunburnt grass. Her eyes were deep green-blue, the color of the Delaware River in winter. I couldn't imagine why a woman like that would hang around a cop.
"This is a friend of mine," he said.
She put out her hand for me to shake. Her fingers felt very cold for such a hot day. "I'm a writer," she said, "and I'd like to write your story."
So she was just another stupid reporter like the ones who had hounded me the day before about what was going through my head at every moment I was saving the bag lady, as if you had loads of time to think in the middle of a fight. "I'm leaving," I said, "that's my bus." The driver was drumming his fingers on the door. He spit on the pavement.
"I don't mean now. I'll come see you in a few days at your home." She smiled when she said this, and I noticed something strange—her top teeth were as jagged as mine. "Is that alright with you?"
I pointed at Rourke's Daily News. "I've already been written about, see?"
She dismissed the paper with a flick of her hand. "That's trash, and anyway, it just covers Saturday night. I want to write about your whole time on the streets as a runaway, and what happens when you go home."
"You expecting something to happen?"
"I don't know, what do you think?"
"Not much," I said, "about that kind of stuff. Anyway, I don't need some reporter following me around."
"Not many people get a big feature written about their life," she said, "especially when they're fifteen years old. And I've got a publisher friend of mine interested in a book. You could be famous."
"I'm sixteen," I said as I hoisted my heavy duffel bag to my shoulder. "The paper got it wrong. And besides, why would I want to be famous?"
She looked to Rourke for help with the question. He winked at her and lit another cigarette for himself. "Don't decide now," she said. "We'll talk about it when I come visit you, okay? I'll be in New Hope in a few days." She said this as if she were used to people doing what she wanted. Then she reached out and touched my arm. "Don't talk to anyone else—that's important, okay?"
I nodded that I wouldn't talk to anyone, and Rourke hurried me to the bus door. "You can trust her," he said in my ear. "She covers midtown for the AP. She'll write your story just like it is, no faking it."
He handed over my ticket to the driver and I climbed on board. The bus was half empty, but I headed to the back where nobody ever sat except kids like me. As the bus pulled out, I looked through the window, and there was Rourke and the writer smiling and waving at me, as if we were old friends.
* * *
I was going home to the Delaware, if anything.
I spent more time on the river than anywhere else. When the summer nights got too hot to sleep, I'd sneak out of the house to the riverbank to hunt. I carried a flashlight and Uncle Toby's World War II knife. Caught rabbits mostly, some small coons, and woodchucks.
Jenny used to yell at me for staying out all night until the morning she saw me skinning a rabbit on the back steps. My sneakers were smeared with blood and my hands were dripping red. I happened to be holding the knife blade up when I told her to get off my back. Usually it took a lot to shut her up, but not that time. Not being my real mother kept her wondering, I guess, what I might do next.
I always left the rabbit meat in the basement sink for Dad to deal with. He'd be stumbling around down there looking through Grandpa's boxes of old Lifes and National Geographics, the ones the mice hadn't eaten away yet. Then he'd smell the dead meat and find the rabbit. He'd come after me in my room as if I'd killed something human. I'd fake sleeping as he shook my body, telling me to wake up and listen to him. He wouldn't leave until I opened my eyes and he could explain to me again about forever, which is where I sent a lot of little creatures. "Forever is the worst thing that can happen to you," he'd say. "You slip into it one day and never get out, just like your rabbit." Then he'd go downstairs and make stew out of the meat, mixing in celery, peppers, and raisins. Dad hated seeing an animal die for no reason, and food was a reason he could understand, even if he was a vegetarian. He'd put it on the table that night for dinner saying that his father had eaten rabbit during the Depression when they were a lot poorer than us. Jenny said he should stop carrying the past along with him so much, and eating rabbit when you didn't have to was a perfect example. She never touched the rabbit. She said we'd probably die from eating a wild animal. Dad and I never had more than a few bites. The meat always tasted too gamey.
The long bus ride home gave me time to remember a lot of things, such as moleing. I earned good money from the New Yorkers who bought the big stone houses north of New Hope to have a place to breathe during the summer. You could see them all the time standing in their yards or sitting on the front steps doing nothing except sucking air and looking happy about it. I biked up River Road in May just as they were planting tomatoes. I'd hop off my bike and explain to them how much moles loved eating tomato roots. I told them that if you planted a garden along the Delaware, you had to hire a kid to keep the moles away. City people went out of their way to believe me. I wore a blue bandanna around my neck and a red T-shirt that said "No Hope High" on the front. They always asked about that. After I made up an interesting life story about the T-shirt, they usually agreed to pay me ten dollars for the season, which seemed reasonable to them and a fortune to me for doing nothing. Some of the guys wanted to take me inside for ice cream and stuff, but I just smiled and said I was too busy right then, which made them think that maybe sometime I wouldn't be too busy if they just kept giving me money.
I did catch a few moles each summer, mostly in Jenny's rhubarb garden. I'd drive the fireplace shovel through the mole's tunnel just ahead of him and spike the heel of my boot down behind him. I stood over the shaking mound of earth, watching the little animal turn around and around going crazy being trapped. If his mind could have made the leap vertical, then it was freedom, a new dimension for moles everywhere. But none I saw ever escaped being what they were—dirt-loving moles. I sent them off to Animal Heaven with the back end of my shovel. I figured they were better off there.
The best time living near the Delware was in August when the rains broke from the clouds as if they had been bombed open. You could feel the storm coming all morning. Then the sky would go black, doors would blow shut—that's when I'd run for the river. I'd crawl out onto the wing dam and let the rains and rapids pour over me. The river tried to sweep me into it. The water was thick as air. I used to lie out there feeling like a fish.
Dad told me that sometimes after a violent storm you could see God in the clouds. So I hung onto the wing dam in the middle of the river through terrible winds and rain, even a hurricane. I waited for God to suddenly step out of the sky and look around and not see anybody else brave enough to be outside. I wasn't going to ask Him to send Mom back—I just wanted to know how she was doing in Heaven.
He never came, and I learned later that the story was a lie. God doesn't show up in storms or any other time.
There aren't many good terrors left when you get older, not like waiting for God in the middle of a hurricane when you're eight years old.
* * *
During the spring runoff from the mountains, the river turned into "The Deadly Delaware," as the Gazette called it. The rapids below New Hope Bridge always surprised the weekend canoeists who were expecting just a little heavy water. I used to ride into town for a snowcone at Gerenser's and then sit out on the dam. They floated by and waved and some of the guys threw cans of beer to me. I waved back and laughed like they had nothing to worry about.
Then the rapids sucked them in. Most of them tried to back paddle, which was just the opposite of what they should have done. A few of them got lucky by doing nothing. But some panicked and rocked the boat so much they ended up drinking the Delaware. At first they'd laugh at each other like it was a real great adventure. But then they'd realize that they couldn't stand up and their canoe was floating away and the water was too strong for them to swim to shore. The current just kept dragging them down river toward Scudders Falls. I'd yell to them, "Watch out for the falls!" and point south, in case they didn't know about them.
Excerpted from FIRST TIGER by George Harrar. Copyright © 1999 by George Harrar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.