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WE WERE OUR AGE
DUKE'S brother died under the ice in spring, the season I met Duke. The other kid survived—shivering, fat-lipped, the instigator, littler. A miracle, the search team said. Just a hurt front tooth, a gash, a stitch. A boy's likely story. This is what I heard, but not from Duke.
Duke said, "Go."
Duke said, "Ladies first, please."
Rock, rock, gap, stone-cold to the lighthouse—Duke and I were spiny in the dark. Weeds swam up. Weak sunk stars, a lap, suck, and bubble. The usual. Lake and pier. Us and us. Month after month.
Duke was always finding things to skip across to who knew where.
A school was in the ebb of the tide, bellied over easy.
"Ready or not," Duke said.
We were our age.
Fishing was the only sport in our town. How it was. Pick. Any house in our town was any house in our town. Any wind in our town was the wind in our town. Down was down. Queasy was a way of life. Bored to crackers, snap, kerplunk.
That Duke was smart. Had a flat-out daddy, elbow-room. Had boxes' worth of weatherproof clothes, size close enough. Had any-purpose pockets.
Maybe I obliged. The least I could do.
All the talk in our town was talk, talk, talk. That, no this. Rain, no shine. More, no less. Pardon me, ma'am.
Duke said, "No news is good news."
Quiet, that was me. To a fault. Sneakers on the rocks. A torn boy's poncho, blue, somebody else's breath in the hair. Braids—loose. Skin—pale. Sky—slow and dangerous.
The lighthouse was an eyesore. Fenced to match. Wood—swollen. Tender is what I would have liked to have said. Gulls—posted.
Signs ignored by us.
Single file in the evening, Duke and I.
Ready and not.
NO one was allowed to go beyond a certain point.
Certainly not with Duke.
COMMON—the names they had. The kid. The brother. Had had. Short. Like Duke.
I was the kind of girl to write lists:
Hook, I think.
Peau de soie.
In the night, on the skin, erasable, rinsable. Or only in the skull.
THE smell of these things was a whole other story. I could be that discreet.
HERE is how it was another way in our town, in any icy season (puddly fall; the holidays—glint, glint and breakage, scouting for the egg in the shy grass): scraped and dug. Glare. Any house in our town was sealed. Any words in our town were used. Any sorrow underfoot.
On the lake: red right encrusted. Pier—tied off. In the mudrooms: boots and salty rinds. Skin and wool, wet. The weight of skin and wool, wet. The feel of skin and wool, wet; not to mention the smell—pale nose scrunched and sunk in a crook, the way a girl would do.
Any window had somebody waiting behind it. Wet air seeped.
In the square of our town: bank, bait and tackle. Gulls and bread. Rx. The hill. The wayward strands of the light.
In the churchyard: Duke. Duke's sobered-up or anywise daddy, scrubbed. Chin—coarse, perhaps. A kid with a kid's common name. Me.
This could almost be a scene in our town.
SIX in one—any scene in our town. Before.
THE kind of girl I was, I could swallow ink. Paper, too. A hangnail, laces, possibly a fin, a dove, a jack-in-the-box, cement, and, with a little urgent purpose, someone's dry wrap, a buoy.
We had local standards. Had to.
I could have won a cup.
SIX in one.
ANY conversation could go like this:
"Ladies first, please."
Or this: "No news is good news."
Or this: "Feel?"
Or this: Lapse.
Any lapse in our town was mine. Any pause. Any possible yes.
But only sort of.
SUMMER—easy. So much was obvious, stripped of the cloak of the ice, salt. Duke was Duke. Fish washed up. I was a girl who could see through skin, but only to the bones. Natural events took place. Bells rang. Supper cooled. Corn turned sweet, got picked in another Middle West.
In the mudrooms: mud.
On the doors: screens, gripe in the hinges. Someone on the pier hooked a sock—size boy's obvious, same as the one that got away.
Duke had a knack. He could tie a tourniquet. Said so.
Heat could wobble. Did so.
Lightning struck us dopey.
In the square of our town: speculation, counter-talk. Knee-bang on Formica. Anybody's saucer pooled.
By Fridays, anything a body could abide—by rasher, by platter, by bucket, by stretcher: potatoes, potatoes, slaw, slaw, slaw, and something burning.
The keeper of the lighthouse drank. "According to the actual physical record," as Duke's daddy told it.
Duke said, "All you can. And after that, then some."
Duke's daddy by September got a gut.
I WAS a girl who wanted silk.
Our lake was great. Could have been an ocean.
Under the surface, everything shone.
HERE is how it was in the night with Duke, alone on the pier, a stone's short throw from the world: We were ourselves. A keeper could blink. I could swallow gristle and muscle; oh, that bloody reek—my heart.
Fell in. Likely. Urge and rage, a boy and girl, and once in, over and over, rage and urge, diving for the thing that would not save us.CHAPTER 2
THE OTHER R'S
THE R's—the other R's, not us—had something the matter with their baby. In the summer in the after-dinner light of our street, when Mother and the mothers with babies would be sitting, two and three and four, to cool on cool stoops, to knit and clack or beg and share a lipsticked cigarette, yarns puffing out of bundles at their feet, the arms of sweaters, loose, crissed across a waist, a mother's belly, a neck—hair rolled; when the babies would be sucking or asleep, Mother and the mothers drinking drinks of bottled pop, tree-tied tires would be swinging, red flies lighting, and poor Mr. next-door M, bushed, being pulled on a leash, one of the two of the boarder nurses hooked up, honked for, riding out of uniform again with men, and children: G's, J's, us—C and DR, clovering and fighting and whuffing picky milky balls of weed off weeds, fathers hosing, sweating; when all the goings-on of our street, our lawns, would be going on and on, the R's—the other R's—would not, would never, once, come out.
Their house was draped. Tight. Tucked in on the block.
We were made to snoop.
He, Mr. R—not our father—could be seen in the mornings leaving, never coming back. She would be out in the high heat of day, a mother buttoned and bunchy in the elbows, a mother not ours, wearing saddle shoes, a mother passing other mothers' houses, bumping the carriage on the sidewalk, stepping on the cracks.
The carriage was a dark, hooded thing.
We would hang back to watch—quiet, drawn.
We had heard the priest had come.
We had heard it was supposed to be a boy, this R baby neighbor the nurses swore they had each seen, that the soft nurse said she had bathed once, that the pocked nurse vowed was feeding, gaining its weight.
We would be a fat-tongued gaggle, looking at the sparkle in cement. We would be burnt-nosed, flat feet thonged. We would be thick into shrubs, cross, scratchy in the burrs.
We saw wheels. Spokes and pleats were what we saw, the carriage's ribs, her looking in—in and in. She would be touching the hood of the carriage, touching crushed net. She would be moving her lips or else looking at us: a sticky and streaky, scab-kneed clan—G's all jam on the fingers, shirttails, somebody chewing on a braid, BG not much but ears, and minus teeth, three hipless J's, each in the next J up's old last year's clothes, Peggy in the middle with the asthma, picked-on, C and I our own can't-pry-usapart, don't-try-it selves. Or could have been she didn't even know us.
Her eyes were pale, and she had pale lank hair, pale lips, the palest of voices.
What did she utter? We did not hear.
We had never heard crying from deep in the carriage.
WE had heard it had a heart.
(How could it not?)
MOTHER and the mothers would stand in heat to knock at the storm-doored door, fixing their faces, smoothing their hair in the smeared, distorting glass. They carried covered dishes: small foods, creamed to soothe—peas, corn; sweet pie steaming through a forked crust; loaves and loaves wrapped up in shine.
Mother brought a spoon. Mrs. G brought an animal, bright-eyed, stuffed; a musical mobile of fat-finned and fat-tailed creatures of the water.
Mrs. M brought a son. He was a junior version of Senior, always appearing to be chewing something used. He was there to weed, his mother said. He would help to prune, she said, and dump.
No one brought a thing conforming to the body—darlingly footed, tenderly cowled—nothing blushingly pink or baby blue.
HOW could they not? It was impossible not to, really: They compared—sitting on stoops, perspired in kitchens, stirring, pouring—the mothers did—over the clotheslines—"What did you see?"—engaging the sprinklers—"She said what?"—wiping a nose, a blotchy cheek, changing the babies—"You?" "You?"
It was, for us, a humming. We were busy as mothers, C and I. Screens banged. Pops dripped. Rules were set, according to the ordinary governance of children—tap, tap, rotten egg and last one in; a dare, a threat—and always leaving Peggy wheezing (balled-up face enraged).
The shame of it, the mothers said. That we heard. That was clear. Not a minute in the nursery of those sad R's. Not a coffee in the kitchen, a peek in the hall. And on the doors, the mothers said, storm glass still.
"No breeze," said Mother, anchoring pigtails. "Not a lick," she said, "of air, and it so hot. Dank."
"That blinding smell," said Mrs G. "Ideas?"
There were ideas.
There were serious pieces of mind.
"The woman," Mrs. M said, "has my pretty tray."
"My bowl," Mrs. G said. "Not that it hurts me."
Someone was screaming.
"If I were Mrs. R," Mrs. J said.
Someone was howling.
"Stop right now," Mrs. M said. "Someone could lose the use of an eye."
"If you were her," Mother said.
"Do you want to be punished?" Mrs. M said.
"If," Mother said.
"Well," Mrs. J said, "I just can't think what, if you know what I mean."
THE nurses knew. They were openly privy to the what was what. "No damage to the lungs," the soft nurse said. "Nothing the matter with the wind," she said. "It breathes," she said. She'd had it all firsthand: She was dating a doctor. The pocked nurse supposedly told Mr. next-door M, Mother said, the trouble was, it lived.
"PATIENCE of a saint," Mother said.
Our street smelled mowed.
"He is like to drink," Mrs. J said to Mother.
"Someone is listening," Mother said.
Peggy was pinned.
Mrs. J was cutting piping. Her spools were on the stoop. She was making a frock, its oneof-a-kindness some kind of consolation for Peggy. ("And where will Peggy wear it?" Mother had said.)
"The shame of it," Mrs. J said. "Out all night, he is," she said. "Think of it."
(I thought of it—a man, not our father, in the night, in the night-lit glow of smeary rooms, nakedly smoking.)
"Ladies," Mother said.
C was scratching. Peggy coughed. I was peeling skin. We were bitten and reddened from the long, oiled days; spare nights pitched-tented in the side yards, spooking Peggy, parched.
Our breathing grew ragged.
"Count your blessings," Mother said.
Hood, pleat, rib, rib—we were gawking witnesses.
"The shame," Mrs. J said.
For there it was: Mrs. R was laboring—crack, crack—doubling almost over the terrible carriage's terrible cargo.
I DID not see the candles. I did not see the gown. I did not see the priest. I did not see the long black car in the light of the morning. I did not see Mother. I did not see the fingers of my sister, digging—nails in the heat of my flesh. I did not see the earth. I did not see the marks. I was playing blind, eyes covered with linen, the day they buried Peggy.
MUST we continue? Summer continued. ("No one could help it," the soft nurse said, speaking of Peggy. "Better off," the pocked nurse said. "Don't you think?") The mothers baked. Sweetly, and ever so gently, Mrs. G inquired as to Peggy's piped frock, which frock, as it happened, Peggy was wearing wherever Peggy was. They had closed the box.
"There must be a reason," Mother said.
"There will be an angel," the soft nurse said.
"There will be roses," the pocked nurse said, "with plenty of thorns."
Roses there were: thorny, snitched. Someone, it seemed, was stealing from the gardens of our street. Willy-nilly. Violets shabby and rotting, limp petunias, daisies bald as "loves-me-not," the weekend blooms of Mr. M, dog-eared stalks and watered ragweed—rank and flung they lay, weeping and stinking on the stoop of the bereaved.
"Why, why, why?" Mrs. J said. "There is no sense."
Someone, the mothers agreed, with an unfit mind was darting about in the dead of the night.
Days grew shorter. Days-old bread appeared. Flat cake, greenish biscuits—ugly. "Why in the world?" said Mrs. J, dressed in black, her face pinched. She would not bend. She would not pick these up, these ugly things, untouchable, delivered to the very stoop of her house.
"What else?" Mother said. "What in the wide world else will the woman have to suffer?"
This: the heaping plate outside her door, identified as something belonging to Mother.
THERE was a mystery here: The carriage was missing.
"Bite your tongue," C said.
Nobody answered the storm-doored door. The mothers knocked. Mrs. M took to kicking.
What had Mother not got back? the mothers said.
"My bowl," Mrs. G said. "Not that I notice."
Day leaked into day leaked into day, and no one saw it—pleat nor rib, bulging hood. (The more the unseeable thing was not seen on our street, the more I nearly saw it: a speck in my eye, a flicker, there in our yard, there in our house, a tightness down in my throat, and there in our room, a shadow.)
Oh, I was tired, yawning.
"Seal your lips," my sister said.
"What did she see?" I wanted to know.
Why, the soft nurse might have said, had Peggy, according to a certain dated doctor, run?
What was Peggy doing in the dark, alone, where she had been found?
(I am afraid to think, still, of what the pocked nurse might have said.)
"Who shut the windows?" Mother said.
"What did she see?" I said to my sister.
Night leaked into night.
"Not healthy," Mother said.
"Who?" my sister said.
"Someone has entered the cupboards," Mother said.
"Then speak for yourself," C said.
Head bowed, in whispers, faint, through screen, I would confess to Mr. M, mourning his garden.
"What do you have to say?" Mother said.
I did not sleep.
C, I think, must not have slept. "Go away," she said.
There were the sounds of our unsound nights.
There was the question the mothers had for Mother: What had Mother lent?
IN the night, our street, our houses vanished. Whole, lost. One by one, two and three; and three of us, there would be three of us, nightly moving, shut of our houses, out of our tents—nights, nights, nights. A lone seam, milky, rising, coming as if from an unseen flue—we would see it rise. We would let it lead us, two abreast and one behind, and one night, one of us forcibly piggied at a window. One shriek. Four arms, four legs, two heads—nights, nights—unable to look in the face of the other: That was us. All there was was this: the noise of our nights—a whimper in a torn-through garden, snores, a moan—love, I think—of a woman or a man, a father, anyone's father; our rent breath, a crying, pallid and rising, almost a keening, rising, the falling and the falling of our feet.CHAPTER 3
SOMETHING IS MISSING OF YOURS
THEY are burning the leaves out back, at the edge of the yard—far back enough for the father's peace of mind from the house. The father, of course, is the one who is taking care of the burning. The daughter, having done her share of raking and bunching, is standing aside in the shrubby bramble, hands slid into her loden pockets, watching the house for signs.
"Smell," the father says.
"I'm cold," the daughter says. "I can see my breath."
"That's impossible. Look at these reds," the father says. "Elm leaves maybe. Maple."
"I have a burr in my shoe," the daughter says.
The father jiggers the leaves with a length of branch, scaring up cindery flecks. "You're sounding just like her," the father says. "Really. You know what that's liable to spell?"
Excerpted from In the Year of Long Division by Dawn Raffel. Copyright © 1994 Dawn Raffel. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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