Long For This World Pa

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Overview

A wise and richly symphonic first novel, Long for This World is a thoroughly contemporary family drama that hinges on a riveting medical dilemma. Dr. Henry Moss is a dedicated geneticist who stumbles upon a possible cure for a disease that causes rapid aging and early death in children. Although his discovery may hold the key to eternal youth, exploiting it is an ethical minefield. Henry must make a painful choice: he can save the life of a critically ill boy he has grown to love—at the cost of his career—or he ...

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Overview

A wise and richly symphonic first novel, Long for This World is a thoroughly contemporary family drama that hinges on a riveting medical dilemma. Dr. Henry Moss is a dedicated geneticist who stumbles upon a possible cure for a disease that causes rapid aging and early death in children. Although his discovery may hold the key to eternal youth, exploiting it is an ethical minefield. Henry must make a painful choice: he can save the life of a critically ill boy he has grown to love—at the cost of his career—or he can sell his findings for a fortune to match the wealth of his dot-com-rich Seattle neighbors. Henry turns to his family for support, and in their intimately detailed lives unfolds a story of unforgettable characters grappling with their own demons.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
There are many moments of quiet awareness and expectation in Long for This World, but it is also a noisy novel of manners -- and money. — Kerry Fried
Publishers Weekly
Dr. Henry Moss, the protagonist of Byers's compassionate, richly detailed debut novel (after an acclaimed short story collection, The Coast of Good Intentions), is a gentle, committed physician who studies a rare syndrome that causes rapid aging and premature death in children. While treating two sons from the same family who are both stricken with the syndrome, Moss discovers the holy grail of the medical profession, a blood mutation that has the potential to arrest the human aging process. On the one hand, the use of his discovery might tangle him in severe ethical dilemmas, and perhaps even cost Moss his license. On the other hand, he could make a lot of money. Byers cleverly sets his tale in late-1990s Seattle, at the height of the dot-com craze; the good doctor, like most everyone around him, is far from oblivious to the immense financial reward his discovery might bring him. With infinite tiny, prosaic and precise brush strokes, Byers depicts not only this riveting dilemma but also Moss's relationship with his family: his wry, critical Austrian wife, Ilse, his clownish, good-hearted 14-year-old son, Darren, and his 17-year-old daughter, Sandra, a talented basketball player who falls in love with a black player on a boys' team. These characterizations are so vivid and convincing that they are nearly hyper-real, as if Byers had set his protagonists under a microscope. Herein lies the book's great strength: while lesser writers would probably allow the compelling plot to dominate the narrative, Byers takes equal time to deliver a sympathetic but unflinching portrait of the American middle class and its discontents, brilliantly capturing the texture of late-20th-century life and the innate decency and fallibility of human beings trying to cope with its challenges. Author tour. (June 9) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The Mosses lead a fairly comfortable middle-class existence in dot.com Seattle surrounded by Microsoft millionaires and the exuberance of the 1990s. Yet they are a family on the brink of unsettling change. Dr. Henry Moss, a researcher studying the rare Hickman disease, is close to a medical discovery that could make his career-and compels him to consider some tough ethical questions. His wife, Ilse, is in the throes of a mid-life crisis; she can't understand how she went from being a caring doctor who worked with elderly women to being an administrator at a large hospital who minds other doctors. Teenage daughter Sandra is a gifted basketball player about to finish high school and move on to the rest of her life, and son Darren faces puberty and the discovery of young love for a popular girl who doesn't give him the time of day. PEN/Hemingway finalist Byers has written a moving tribute to the modern family, realistically addressing contemporary issues and creating engaging characters whose thoughts and feelings are wonderfully rendered. It is all the more striking that, despite their troubles, this family stays together; the result is a sort of anti-Oprah tale of angst. Great reading for all; highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Superheated Seattle is the setting for a wise story of ethics and family affection. Everyone around him seems to be raking in zillions for nothing more than a concept or a fortunate pre-bubble home purchase, but Dr. Henry Moss has been too distracted by his lifetime of work in a backwater of medical research to get in on the gold rush. His study of children cursed with Hickman syndrome, the horrifying genetic problem that zooms infants into old age without passing go, has proven rewarding only in its contacts with the ancient youngsters and their bewildered and adoring families. The number of victims is too tiny to rate a telethon, but the study is fascinating. Now, though, there may be hope. The family of a recently presented Hickman child also includes a son who has the fatal gene combination but shows no symptoms. Thomas is, in fact, uncannily healthy, thanks probably to an extra genetic factor that seems to erase aging. Building his story around Moss's unethical use of the miracle gene to help the wonderfully winning William Durbin, a Hickman child nearing the end of his expected life span, first-novelist Byers (stories: The Coast of Good Intentions, 1998) includes the lesser but absolutely real dilemmas faced by the Moss family's Ilse, a nonpracticing Austrian physician; Sandra, a basketball phenom; and Darren, smart, a little geeky, and William Durbin's secret link to the normal world. No one is overdrawn, everyone is as real and worth knowing as he or she can be. Ilse is looking for her place in a country she would never have chosen for herself were it not for Henry, and the children are looking for their spots in the only country that they could possibly understand. What may upsettheir applecart is the possibility that the anti-Hickman gene may be their ticket to the stupendous wealth that is washing through the American bloodstream. Deep and real.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618446483
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/21/2004
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 444
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Byers's story collection The Coast of Good Intentions won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Long for This World was featured on the History Channel's 'Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine.' The recipient of a Whiting Foundation Writer's Award, Byers lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two children.

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Read an Excerpt


1

It was a big old pleasant high school gym, built in the twenties and not much disturbed by renovation. The iron rafters met at a shallow angle at the roofline, and the tall windows were made up of a dozen big panes, each reinforced with chicken wire, and the two ancient clocks sat on opposing brick walls, ratcheting their works forward with an audible whir, hiss, clunk. The gym smelled nostalgically of varnish, sweat, and paint, but it was not an obsolete or shabby place. An electronic scoreboard reading garfield — visitors — quarter — fouls — time out had been added on the east wall, and a recent grant from FareWatchers.com had supplied the courtside officials with a new Huston-Marke computerized scoring system, a sleek blue box that sat beneath the long scorers’ table and extended its heavy gray cables to an outlet hidden under the bleachers.
The purple Garfield bulldog, wearing its studded collar, snarled up from the court’s center circle, and the backboards were regulation glass, and the nets were in good repair, and when the boys played here a riotous, explosive sort of crowd would gather, and the breakaway rims actually got some use, and once in a while — once a decade or so — someone would appear who was so obviously superior to the rest of the boys that his future would be discussed with the frank and half-informed calculation any phenomenon inspires. The boys’ team often played in the state tournament and had won it six years ago, and its purple banners hung from the rafters, drifting sideways when the big purple entry doors were left open to the hall.
But tonight the girls wereplaying, and very few people were there. From his seat midway up the home bleachers Henry Moss could see almost everyone who had come out of the rain to watch — a hundred or so people, including his wife, Ilse, and son, Darren, who sat directly in front of him, a row below, so he was looking down into their hair; and Sandra, his daughter, who was on the court, holding the ball with her back to the hoop, wearing the stern and thoughtful expression of someone taking apart a complicated bomb. The girls’ team was not nearly as good as the boys’ — in fact, they lost almost every game they played — but Sandra herself was very good, the starting center, and despite the team’s terrible record she carried herself up and down between the baskets with a kind of preoccupied confidence that plucked at Henry’s heart and made him lean down now and then to grasp his wife’s shoulders. She would pat his hands and hold them for a second before letting go. It was not an uncommon gesture there; the team was so bad — so unwatchably bad at times, really — that nearly everyone in the gym was related in some way to one of the players. So it was a tender and familiar gathering, on the home side, anyway, under the old painted roof, and Henry was faintly conscious of the fellow feeling that surrounded him. A girl made an unlikely shot, or rolled her eyes in some characteristic way, or wiped her mouth in a gesture of embarrassed happiness, and somewhere in the bleachers Henry sensed someone’s heart rising; there would come a bark of surprised laughter or a few beats of applause while the team fell back ten points, twenty before halftime. Even Darren would applaud his sister when he felt like it, though Henry suspected it was largely to draw attention to himself. He cupped his hands and shouted, “Go, Moss!” when she had the ball in the post, and when she stood at the foul line, her knees bent and the ball resting easily in her big, practiced hands — resting, resting — Darren would wait in silence until she cocked her elbows and sent the ball feathering through the net, when he would shout down at her, “And one!” with his newly deep voice, the voice of a stranger.
Behind them at the top of the bleachers tonight were a dozen or so children too young to be left at home alone but old enough to throw crumpled-up paper at each other, and occasionally at Henry. After being hit twice in the head, not accidentally, he had had enough, and he made his slow way up to the top of the bleachers, where the benches were deeply gouged with graffiti, blue and black, name after name: Michelle Grigo Peeper LaShelle VeeVee Ashlee Adam Brad LaVonn. The children, seeing that he was there to stay, moved off to the other end of the stands and eventually through the open purple doors into the long empty hall outside, where they could be heard chanting, “Got no money, got no friends, got nobody that he can —” and then something he could not underrstand.
The crowd below him was clustered into groups of five or six, with a small population that circulated from group to group, making the rounds. As he watched, Darren, just turned fourteen, stood and maneuvered down beside a clutch of thhhhhree girls, who after a moment burst into laughter at something he had said. His boy! Darren was not a handsome kid — his jaw was too long and seemed packed with teeth, and his eyes sat very deep in his skull, as though someone had pressed them in with a thumb. Henry had looked exactly the same at fourteen and had spent most of his adolescence staring at girls longingly from across the room, but Darren was different. Fearless.
Henry’s wife tipped her head back, looked at him strangely, upside- down. What are you doing up there? her eyebrows asked.
He shrugged. Nothing. Enjoying the view. Up close, the iron rafters could be seen to have been painted dozens of times, white over white over white, and a faint tapping on the roof was rain. When he peered down through the slats of the bleachers, he could see in the looming darkness below a discouraging litter of potato chip bags, soda cans, miscellaneous papers, odd articles of clothing, but it seemed to Henry a secret, alluring kind of place, way down there and out of sight, the sort of hideout he would have liked to investigate if he were not fifty-one, a father, and an eternal source of potential humiliation to Sandra and Darren. So he stayed where he was.
After a few minutes the chanting children came leaking back in from the hall, and one by one they ducked under the bleachers. Everyone knew they were not supposed to be there, but no one stopped them from running back and forth forty feet below him, ducking through the steel supports and laughing at the sight of a hundred asses on display in rows — laughing and laughing, until someone’s mother finally corralled them and distributed them to their various parents in the stands.
At length Henry’s wife rose and climbed to join him. She was tall — she had given Sandra her height — and wore a white turtleneck and white jeans. “I do not foresee a comeback,” she announced. She was Austrian, her accent smoothed by eighteen years of American English. “You look very sinister up here, like that man in The Parallax View up in the catwalk. Did you see that?” “I think we saw it together.” “I mean Darren. Did you see him go down to those girls?” She leaned closer. “The one on the left, farthest from him, has been looking at him all night. Isn’t she pretty?” “That’s Tanya. She was at his birthday.” She put a hand on his knee. “He’s not handsome, but he is smart,” she said. “If it’s done the right way, it can be very attractive.” “Does that count as a date?” “I don’t think anybody actually dates anymore, I think they just all clump together like that and go around in a big . . .” — she searched — “a big herd. He said he was going down to check on something and then he just went right down and sat next to them!” She shook Henry’s leg in excitement. “He’s so much braver than I was, Henry — he must get it from you.” “I think he gets it from your mother.” “What a terrible idea! Don’t tell her, she’ll just hate him all the more. How awful it must be to have us here in the first place. I’m sure the only reason he came was because he knew Tanya was going to be here too. Good for him.” “What’s she doing here?” “Maybe she knew he was going to be here. Or maybe he’s developed some kind of mind control device. Henry, you should ask. I’m going to cry if they kiss.” “She is pretty.” “He’ll grow out of that poor face of his,” she assured him. “He’ll end up looking normal.” They sat together in silence for a minute, listening to the rain overhead. It was a driving, solid rain; it had been raining for weeks and weeks. Sandra scored, then watched the other team race ahead of her for an easy basket while Marcia Beck, the Garfield coach, looked on with her arms folded.
“You realize if we stay too long up here together talking, people will think we’re having some kind of marital troubles.” “I like it up here. Nobody chucks stuff at my head.” “I promise I won’t chuck stuff at your head. Oh, isn’t it exhausting, even thinking about being a teenager again? Please, darling.” She stood, took his hand. “Come be old with me.
We’ll sit far away and not disturb him.”

It was January, wet but strangely warm, unnervingly so, and with the four of them in the car the windows quickly fogged. “What were you doing way up there on the top step?” Sandra asked him as soon as they pulled out of the lot. “I looked up there and I was like, What is my dad doing?” “I was trying to get onto the roof.” “So you could jump, I guess, thanks a lot.” She leaned forward and spoke almost directly into his ear, too loudly. “By the way, that ref is totally incompetent. He used to do JV games and he was okay but now he’s doing varsity and he thinks he’s all that and he doesn’t even know the rules half the time. He kept saying things were sideouts that weren’t and we were like, That’s not a sideout!” She had Henry’s round bland face but Ilse’s long, articulated body, and after games she was almost always hyper like this; other times she hardly spoke at all. “Who was that up there with you?” “That was me,” said Ilse.
“No, before you.” “Just a bunch of kids.” “No, I mean there was somebody else up there with you, some grownup.” “It was just your mom.” “Before her.” “No, honey,” he said, “there wasn’t anybody else up there.” “Yes there was,” she insisted. “There was some guy sitting next to you with a white shirt.” Ilse turned to him, looked back at Sandra. “That was me, darling.” “I know what you look like, Mom, duh.” “She thinks you look like a man,” Darren said from his dark corner.
“No I don’t, Mom. I saw you going up there, but this was before.” Ilse turned to him again. “Henry?” “You’re seeing things, baby.” “I am?” Sandra’s voice was quieter, confused. “That’s weird.” They drove on in silence. Christmas lights were still up in a number of houses, and they bleared through the foggy windshield. It was a Friday night, not quite ten o’clock, and in the neighborhood around Garfield the low-riding cars were out in number, parked in the fluorescent glow of the gas stations or thumping past on their way downtown, the windows tinted black, the chrome wheels shining. Henry did not find them particularly menacing but someone must, he imagined.
“Seriously, there wasn’t anybody up there?” his daughter asked.
“No.” “Really? It was some blond guy.” “Honey, that was me! Never mind. I can see I’ll have to get a new haircut.” “I’m not trying to insult you, Mom.” Sandra leaned forward again, her hands draped over the seatbacks. “I like your hair, it’s totally feminine.” “It isn’t too puffy?” “No, it’s nice! It’s soft.” She touched it. “I wish mine was like that.” The neighborhood got more expensive as they went toward the lake. The houses grew larger and were placed farther back from the street, and the trees were taller and included some truly immense firs and cedars, majestic old trees that had been spared the saw a hundred years ago and now could be seen from blocks away, towering over everything. The two hemlocks on Hynes Street were both enormous specimens, six feet across at the trunk and at least eighty feet high, with broad spreading branches that dropped millions of tiny needles all year long. Now and then during big storms, upper branches would come loose and fall to the street, broken, like huge green wings. The neighborhood had debated cutting the trees down, but so far they had both survived, and Henry was happy about this; he liked them, the oceanic sound they made in a good wind, the sheltering sense of them above the houses, the shade, the size of them, the way you could stand at the base and look up into them and let your eyes climb from branch to branch. A big tree is like a house, he would think, looking up into them, and like anyone else he had a fondness for big houses.
“You’re lovely,” he told his wife when they parked.
She smiled faintly. “Don’t you start,” she said.
Their own house, standing within needle range of the bigger of the two hemlocks, was a smallish, haphazardly kept, shingled gray structure that needed paint and possibly a new roof, though neither was likely to happen anytime soon. They were saving for college, and while they earned good salaries, they weren’t rich, and the amount of maintenance required to keep any house in fighting shape was, for Henry and Ilse, not worth the money or the effort. Squirrels lived in the eaves, and the baseboards were all coated with dust and the plaster was crumbling, so a good hard rap with the knuckles could set off a long, disintegrative trickling within the walls, and the basement was a warren of unlabeled storage crates and defunct equipment that for some reason was too valuable, too interesting, or too loaded with sentimental value to discard.
Most of the sentimental stuff belonged to Henry, it was true, and though once in a while he felt an impulse to rid himself of unnecessary things, he could not contrive, when it came down to it, to really find anything completely unnecessary — not his high school graduation gown, though the purple polyester had gone brittle with age and smelled chemically strange, as though its component materials were gradually separating from one another, not the old corduroy driving cap he had worn to medical school but that was now too big for him (he had had a sort of Afro in the seventies), and not the keys to his first and now long-vanished car, a green Dodge Valiant station wagon on whose radio he had first heard “Here Comes the Sun” while driving across North Dakota.
None of the things in the fifteen or twenty unopened boxes could Henry bring himself to discard. Did he love himself so dearly as this? He did, he supposed, but he felt it was a more or less harmless vice. And the children added their own things, their heaps of books and rollerblades, and Darren in particular seemed to undress himself at random around the house, so his long skinny T-shirts and battered sandals showed up everywhere, and Sandra had five or six gym bags and grabbed whichever one was at hand and left the others to sit and ferment delicately — she did not sweat much — here and there.
For all this the house was not disorderly, exactly; Ilse was precise with the family accounts, and Henry was a meticulous scientist with a famously tidy office. But their energies were spent elsewhere than at home, and though he and Ilse both noticed that the carpet was dark and grubby and the foyer was a heap of discarded shoes and the attic was a disorganized clutter of still more boxes and put-aside toys, Henry didn’t care. Tonight he emptied the trash, and that was enough. He took a hat from the rack, carried the bag with him into the back yard.
It was a warm, wet January night, getting warmer. Above him, the mountain ash was bare of leaves, but how long would it wait before it was convinced that spring was on the way?
Three pear trees and a ragged ditch full of ivy separated them from the Nilssons, whose back yard abutted their own; in the ivy lived a population of Hyla regilla, the Paci.c tree frog, little inch-long creatures encased in a taut green skin that had the bright reflective glossiness of oil paint. The frogs shuffled through the ivy and lurked under the pear trees like a kind of fallen, inedible fruit, and often, especially after a big rain, they would arrange themselves in sixes and sevens on Henry’s driveway, panting as if desperately sick, peeping with a frightened insistence, Hell-o? Hell-o? Hell-o? It was unsettling to see. Henry — he was a geneticist — knew that chemicals in the groundwater were breaking down the zona pellucida of the amphibian egg, and that increased levels of ultraviolet radiation were introducing into the amphibian helicase a deadly rate of mutation, and that there was nothing he or his wife or anyone could do about any of it, really, except sit around and worry about what seemed the precipitate decline of the world, which Henry already did plenty of anyway. It was too warm, the warmest winter on record, warm enough for the frogs to be singing like this in January. If he stamped his feet he could scare them all back into the safety of the lawn, but a minute later they would creep back out into danger, seeking on the hard flat concrete something Henry could not imagine. Their own demise. Their own relief. He hated to see anybody suffering, even these dumb old frogs who didn’t have the sense to look after themselves anymore.
He lifted the lid of the plastic can and dropped the garbage in. Shuffled his feet to silence the frogs.
But when he put himself to bed, their song had begun again.
“You’re sighing,” his wife told him.
“I am?” “See? That. That was a sigh.” “Those dumb guys are out there again.” She rolled to him, lifted herself on her elbows, peered down into his eyes. From six inches away her big face was a dark moon, her yellow hair standing on end around it. “Henry, I don’t really look like a man, correct?” “Correct,” he said. “Do you really like my new hair? Sometimes I think it makes me look just a little bit like Michael Landon.” “He had nice womanly hair.” “But it’s something about my face — it looks strange lately. I think my nose is getting bigger or something.” Zumsing.
“I don’t think so.” “But,” she countered, “have you actually measured it?” “Have you?” “I’m afraid to. I think it will tell me two millimeters per week — welcome to Big Wide Nose Land,” she said. “Now you have to stop sighing. You can’t do anything about the frogs, sweetheart, they’re lonely for love.” “They’re out there right now, it’s crazy.” She thumped his chest.
“Don’t I try to dress nicely?” “You do.” “Don’t I paint my toenails sometimes?” “Baby, you’re beautiful.” “Maybe I’m not beautiful, but I am big and powerful,” she said, and levered herself on top of him. “I can squish you like a bug.” “Say that again.” “Like a bug,” she said. Lie-ek ay-a bugg-a, exaggerating. “Did you know you were moaning in your sleep last night? Again?” “I was not.” “You certainly were! You were lying there moaning like a mummy.” “I was?” “You were.” “Like the Mummy or just a mummy?” She considered. “I think like the Mummy. I think you were having a dream.” She lowered her head to his chest. “Actually, you sounded very sad.” “I’m not that sad.” “Was it a dream?” Her head was warm on his chest. “I don’t remember. ” Last night was a blank to him, but he worked with sick children, dying children, and it was possible the work had been spilling over into his dreams. A favorite patient of his, William Durbin, was going to die soon, and he was only fourteen — only as old as Darren.
Fourteen! It was a horrible thing, but it was going to happen; there was nothing anyone could do about it, nothing in the world. “It’s probably just William,” he said.
His wife said, into his chest, “Poor William. I’m sorry, darling.” “I know.” “I don’t want you to be sad,” she said.
He reached behind his head, closed the window, embraced her again. She was heavy, but it was a nice weight. She was as tall as he, no taller. They matched. The room was quieter now, dark. Patterns from the streetlight danced on the ceiling. His wife, heavy on his chest, an anchor, a shield. “I know you don’t,” he said.

Copyright © 2003 by Michael Byers.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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First Chapter

1

It was a big old pleasant high school gym, built in the twenties and not
much disturbed by renovation. The iron rafters met at a shallow angle at the
roofline, and the tall windows were made up of a dozen big panes, each
reinforced with chicken wire, and the two ancient clocks sat on opposing
brick walls, ratcheting their works forward with an audible whir, hiss, clunk.
The gym smelled nostalgically of varnish, sweat, and paint, but it was not
an obsolete or shabby place. An electronic scoreboard reading garfield —
visitors — quarter — fouls — time out had been added on the east wall, and
a recent grant from FareWatchers.com had supplied the courtside officials
with a new Huston-Marke computerized scoring system, a sleek blue box
that sat beneath the long scorers' table and extended its heavy gray cables
to an outlet hidden under the bleachers. The purple Garfield bulldog,
wearing its studded collar, snarled up from the court's center circle, and the
backboards were regulation glass, and the nets were in good repair, and
when the boys played here a riotous, explosive sort of crowd would gather,
and the breakaway rims actually got some use, and once in a while —
once a decade or so — someone would appear who was so obviously
superior to the rest of the boys that his future would be discussed with the
frank and half-informed calculation any phenomenon inspires. The boys' team
often played in the state tournament and had won it six years ago, and its
purple banners hung from the rafters, drifting sideways when the big purple
entry doors were left open to thehall.
But tonight the girls were playing, and very few people were there.
From his seat midway up the home bleachers Henry Moss could see
almost everyone who had come out of the rain to watch — a hundred or so
people, including his wife, Ilse, and son, Darren, who sat directly in front of
him, a row below, so he was looking down into their hair; and Sandra, his
daughter, who was on the court, holding the ball with her back to the hoop,
wearing the stern and thoughtful expression of someone taking apart a
complicated bomb. The girls' team was not nearly as good as the boys' — in
fact, they lost almost every game they played — but Sandra herself was very
good, the starting center, and despite the team's terrible record she carried
herself up and down between the baskets with a kind of preoccupied
confidence that plucked at Henry's heart and made him lean down now and
then to grasp his wife's shoulders. She would pat his hands and hold them
for a second before letting go. It was not an uncommon gesture there; the
team was so bad — so unwatchably bad at times, really — that nearly
everyone in the gym was related in some way to one of the players. So it
was a tender and familiar gathering, on the home side, anyway, under the old
painted roof, and Henry was faintly conscious of the fellow feeling that
surrounded him. A girl made an unlikely shot, or rolled her eyes in some
characteristic way, or wiped her mouth in a gesture of embarrassed
happiness, and somewhere in the bleachers Henry sensed someone's heart
rising; there would come a bark of surprised laughter or a few beats of
applause while the team fell back ten points, twenty before halftime. Even
Darren would applaud his sister when he felt like it, though Henry suspected
it was largely to draw attention to himself. He cupped his hands and
shouted, 'Go, Moss!' when she had the ball in the post, and when she stood
at the foul line, her knees bent and the ball resting easily in her big, practiced
hands — resting, resting — Darren would wait in silence until she cocked her
elbows and sent the ball feathering through the net, when he would shout
down at her, 'And one!' with his newly deep voice, the voice of a stranger.
Behind them at the top of the bleachers tonight were a dozen or
so children too young to be left at home alone but old enough to throw
crumpled-up paper at each other, and occasionally at Henry. After being hit
twice in the head, not accidentally, he had had enough, and he made his
slow way up to the top of the bleachers, where the benches were deeply
gouged with graffiti, blue and black, name after name: Michelle Grigo
Peeper LaShelle VeeVee Ashlee Adam Brad LaVonn. The children, seeing
that he was there to stay, moved off to the other end of the stands and
eventually through the open purple doors into the long empty hall outside,
where they could be heard chanting, 'Got no money, got no friends, got
nobody that he can —' and then something he could not understand.
The crowd below him was clustered into groups of five or six, with
a small population that circulated from group to group, making the rounds.
As he watched, Darren, just turned fourteen, stood and maneuvered down
beside a clutch three girls, who after a moment burst into laughter at
something he had said. His boy! Darren was not a handsome kid — his jaw
was too long and seemed packed with teeth, and his eyes sat very deep in
his skull, as though someone had pressed them in with a thumb. Henry had
looked exactly the same at fourteen and had spent most of his adolescence
staring at girls longingly from across the room, but Darren was different.
Fearless.
Henry's wife tipped her head back, looked at him strangely,
upside- down. What are you doing up there? her eyebrows asked.
He shrugged. Nothing. Enjoying the view. Up close, the iron
rafters could be seen to have been painted dozens of times, white over
white over white, and a faint tapping on the roof was rain. When he peered
down through the slats of the bleachers, he could see in the looming
darkness below a discouraging litter of potato chip bags, soda cans,
miscellaneous papers, odd articles of clothing, but it seemed to Henry a
secret, alluring kind of place, way down there and out of sight, the sort of
hideout he would have liked to investigate if he were not fifty-one, a father,
and an eternal source of potential humiliation to Sandra and Darren. So he
stayed where he was.
After a few minutes the chanting children came leaking back in
from the hall, and one by one they ducked under the bleachers. Everyone
knew they were not supposed to be there, but no one stopped them from
running back and forth forty feet below him, ducking through the steel
supports and laughing at the sight of a hundred asses on display in rows —
laughing and laughing, until so mother finally corralled them and
distributed them to their various parents in the stands.
At length Henry's wife rose and climbed to join him. She was
tall — she had given Sandra her height — and wore a white turtleneck and
white jeans. 'I do not foresee a comeback,' she announced. She was
Austrian, her accent smoothed by eighteen years of American English.
'You look very sinister up here, like that man in The Parallax View up in the
catwalk. Did you see that?'
'I think we saw it together.'
'I mean Darren. Did you see him go down to those girls?' She
leaned closer. 'The one on the left, farthest from him, has been looking at
him all night. Isn't she pretty?'
'That's Tanya. She was at his birthday.'
She put a hand on his knee. 'He's not handsome, but he is
smart,' she said. 'If it's done the right way, it can be very attractive.'
'Does that count as a date?'
'I don't think anybody actually dates anymore, I think they just all
clump together like that and go around in a big . . .' — she searched — 'a
big herd. He said he was going down to check on something and then he
just went right down and sat next to them!' She shook Henry's leg in
excitement. 'He's so much braver than I was, Henry — he must get it from
you.'
'I think he gets it from your mother.'
'What a terrible idea! Don't tell her, she'll just hate him all the
more. How awful it must be to have us here in the first place. I'm sure the
only reason he came was because he knew Tanya was going to be here
too. Good for him.'
'What's she doing here?'
'Maybe she knew
developed some kind of mind control device. Henry, you should ask. I'm
going to cry if they kiss.'
'She is pretty.'
'He'll grow out of that poor face of his,' she assured him. 'He'll
end up looking normal.'
They sat together in silence for a minute, listening to the rain
overhead. It was a driving, solid rain; it had been raining for weeks and
weeks. Sandra scored, then watched the other team race ahead of her for
an easy basket while Marcia Beck, the Garfield coach, looked on with her
arms folded.
'You realize if we stay too long up here together talking, people
will think we're having some kind of marital troubles.'
'I like it up here. Nobody chucks stuff at my head.'
'I promise I won't chuck stuff at your head. Oh, isn't it exhausting,
even thinking about being a teenager again? Please, darling.' She stood,
took his hand. 'Come be old with me. We'll sit far away and not disturb
him.'

It was January, wet but strangely warm, unnervingly so, and with the four of
them in the car the windows quickly fogged. 'What were you doing way up
there on the top step?' Sandra asked him as soon as they pulled out of the
lot. 'I looked up there and I was like, What is my dad doing?'
'I was trying to get onto the roof.'
'So you could jump, I guess, thanks a lot.' She leaned forward
and spoke almost directly into his ear, too loudly. 'By the way, that ref is
totally incompetent. He used to do JV games and he was okay but now
he's doing varsity and he thinks he's all that and he doesn't even know the
rules half the time. He kept saying things were sideouts that weren't and we sideout!' She had Henry's round bland face but Ilse's
long, articulated body, and after games she was almost always hyper like
this; other times she hardly spoke at all. 'Who was that up there with you?'
'That was me,' said Ilse.
'No, before you.'
'Just a bunch of kids.'
'No, I mean there was somebody else up there with you, some
grownup.'
'It was just your mom.'
'Before her.'
'No, honey,' he said, 'there wasn't anybody else up there.'
'Yes there was,' she insisted. 'There was some guy sitting next
to you with a white shirt.'
Ilse turned to him, looked back at Sandra. 'That was me, darling.'
'I know what you look like, Mom, duh.'
'She thinks you look like a man,' Darren said from his dark
corner.
'No I don't, Mom. I saw you going up there, but this was before.'
Ilse turned to him again. 'Henry?'
'You're seeing things, baby.'
'I am?' Sandra's voice was quieter, confused. 'That's weird.' They
drove on in silence. Christmas lights were still up in a number of houses,
and they bleared through the foggy windshield. It was a Friday night, not
quite ten o'clock, and in the neighborhood around Garfield the low-riding cars
were out in number, parked in the fluorescent glow of the gas stations or
thumping past on their way downtown, the windows tinted black, the chrome
wheels shining. Henry did not find them particularly menacing but someone
must, he imagined.
'Seriously, there wasn't anybody up there?' his daughter asked.
'No.'
'Really? It was some blond guy.'
'Honey, that was me! Never mind. I can see I'll have to get a new
ha leaned forward again,
her hands draped over the seatbacks. 'I like your hair, it's totally feminine.'
'It isn't too puffy?'
'No, it's nice! It's soft.' She touched it. 'I wish mine was like that.'
The neighborhood got more expensive as they went toward the
lake. The houses grew larger and were placed farther back from the street,
and the trees were taller and included some truly immense firs and cedars,
majestic old trees that had been spared the saw a hundred years ago and
now could be seen from blocks away, towering over everything. The two
hemlocks on Hynes Street were both enormous specimens, six feet across
at the trunk and at least eighty feet high, with broad spreading branches
that dropped millions of tiny needles all year long. Now and then during big
storms, upper branches would come loose and fall to the street, broken,
like huge green wings. The neighborhood had debated cutting the trees down,
but so far they had both survived, and Henry was happy about this; he liked
them, the oceanic sound they made in a good wind, the sheltering sense of
them above the houses, the shade, the size of them, the way you could
stand at the base and look up into them and let your eyes climb from
branch to branch. A big tree is like a house, he would think, looking up into
them, and like anyone else he had a fondness for big houses.
'You're lovely,' he told his wife when they parked.
She smiled faintly. 'Don't you start,' she said.
Their own house, standing within needle range of the bigger of the
two hemlocks, was a smallish, haphazardly kept, shingled gray structure
that needed paint and possibl though neither was likely to
happen anytime soon. They were saving for college, and while they earned
good salaries, they weren't rich, and the amount of maintenance required to
keep any house in fighting shape was, for Henry and Ilse, not worth the
money or the effort. Squirrels lived in the eaves, and the baseboards were
all coated with dust and the plaster was crumbling, so a good hard rap with
the knuckles could set off a long, disintegrative trickling within the walls, and
the basement was a warren of unlabeled storage crates and defunct
equipment that for some reason was too valuable, too interesting, or too
loaded with sentimental value to discard.
Most of the sentimental stuff belonged to Henry, it was true, and
though once in a while he felt an impulse to rid himself of unnecessary
things, he could not contrive, when it came down to it, to really find
anything completely unnecessary — not his high school graduation gown,
though the purple polyester had gone brittle with age and smelled chemically
strange, as though its component materials were gradually separating from
one another, not the old corduroy driving cap he had worn to medical school
but that was now too big for him (he had had a sort of Afro in the seventies),
and not the keys to his first and now long-vanished car, a green Dodge
Valiant station wagon on whose radio he had first heard 'Here Comes the
Sun' while driving across North Dakota. None of the things in the fifteen or
twenty unopened boxes could Henry bring himself to discard. Did he love
himself so dearly as this? He did, he supposed, but he felt it was a more or
less harmless vice. And the children added their own things, their heaps of
books and rollerblades, and Darren in particular seemed to undress himself
at random around the house, so his long skinny T-shirts and battered
sandals showed up everywhere, and Sandra had five or six gym bags and
grabbed whichever one was at hand and left the others to sit and ferment
delicately — she did not sweat much — here and there.
For all this the house was not disorderly, exactly; Ilse was
precise with the family accounts, and Henry was a meticulous scientist with
a famously tidy office. But their energies were spent elsewhere than at home,
and though he and Ilse both noticed that the carpet was dark and grubby
and the foyer was a heap of discarded shoes and the attic was a
disorganized clutter of still more boxes and put-aside toys, Henry didn't care.
Tonight he emptied the trash, and that was enough. He took a hat from the
rack, carried the bag with him into the back yard.
It was a warm, wet January night, getting warmer. Above him, the
mountain ash was bare of leaves, but how long would it wait before it was
convinced that spring was on the way? Three pear trees and a ragged ditch
full of ivy separated them from the Nilssons, whose back yard abutted their
own; in the ivy lived a population of Hyla regilla, the Pacific tree frog, little
inch-long creatures encased in a taut green skin that had the bright reflective
glossiness of oil paint. The frogs shuffled through the ivy and lurked under
the pear trees like a kind of fallen, inedible fruit, and often, especially after a
big rain, they would arrange themselves in sixes and sevens on Henry's
driveway, panting as if desperately sick, peeping with a frightened
insistence, Hell-o? Hell-o? Hell-o? It was unsettling to see. Henry — he was
a geneticist — knew that chemicals in the groundwater were breaking down
the zona pellucida of the amphibian egg, and that increased levels of
ultraviolet radiation were introducing into the amphibian helicase a deadly rate
of mutation, and that there was nothing he or his wife or anyone could do
about any of it, really, except sit around and worry about what seemed the
precipitate decline of the world, which Henry already did plenty of anyway. It
was too warm, the warmest winter on record, warm enough for the frogs to
be singing like this in January. If he stamped his feet he could scare them all
back into the safety of the lawn, but a minute later they would creep back
out into danger, seeking on the hard flat concrete something Henry could not
imagine. Their own demise. Their own relief. He hated to see anybody
suffering, even these dumb old frogs who didn't have the sense to look after
themselves anymore.
He lifted the lid of the plastic can and dropped the garbage in.
Shuffled his feet to silence the frogs. But when he put himself to bed, their
song had begun again.
'You're sighing,' his wife told him.
'I am?'
'See? That. That was a sigh.'
'Those dumb guys are out there again.'
She rolled to him, lifted herself on her elbows, peered down into
his eyes. From six inches away her big face was a dark moon, her yellow
hair standing on end around it. 'Henry, I don't really look like a man he said. 'Do you really like my new hair? Sometimes I
think it makes me look just a little bit like Michael Landon.'
'He had nice womanly hair.'
'But it's something about my face — it looks strange lately. I
think my nose is getting bigger or something.' Zumsing.
'I don't think so.'
'But,' she countered, 'have you actually measured it?'
'Have you?'
'I'm afraid to. I think it will tell me two millimeters per week —
welcome to Big Wide Nose Land,' she said. 'Now you have to stop sighing.
You can't do anything about the frogs, sweetheart, they're lonely for love.'
'They're out there right now, it's crazy.' She thumped his chest.
'Don't I try to dress nicely?'
'You do.'
'Don't I paint my toenails sometimes?'
'Baby, you're beautiful.'
'Maybe I'm not beautiful, but I am big and powerful,' she said, and
levered herself on top of him. 'I can squish you like a bug.'
'Say that again.' 'Like a bug,' she said. Lie-ek ay-a bugg-a,
exaggerating. 'Did you know you were moaning in your sleep last night?
Again?'
'I was not.' 'You certainly were! You were lying there moaning like
a mummy.'
'I was?'
'You were.'
'Like the Mummy or just a mummy?'
She considered. 'I think like the Mummy. I think you were having
a dream.' She lowered her head to his chest. 'Actually, you sounded very
sad.'
'I'm not that sad.'
'Was it a dream?'
Her head was warm on his chest. 'I don't remember. ' Last night
was a blank to him, but he worked with sick children, dying children, and it
was possible the work had been spilling over into his dream going to die soon, and he was only
fourteen — only as old as Darren. Fourteen! It was a horrible thing, but it
was going to happen; there was nothing anyone could do about it, nothing in
the world. 'It's probably just William,' he said.
His wife said, into his chest, 'Poor William. I'm sorry, darling.'
'I know.'
'I don't want you to be sad,' she said.
He reached behind his head, closed the window, embraced her
again. She was heavy, but it was a nice weight. She was as tall as he, no
taller. They matched. The room was quieter now, dark. Patterns from the
streetlight danced on the ceiling. His wife, heavy on his chest, an anchor, a
shield. 'I know you don't,' he said.

Copyright © 2003 by Michael Byers. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2008

    Sigh!

    I thought this was going to be an excellent book. There is far too much story on the kids and I'm so tired of foul language. I'm on page 266 and this is where it ends for me, I'm not plugging through to page 432.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2004

    Expected Too Much?

    Reading the book jacket, I expected a couldn't-put-it-down type of well-written (this book won several awards) fiction. In my estimation, Byers missed the mark by having too many side bars (enough already with the confused, teen-aged kids who talked and thought like 30-somethings!) and his running commentary on his disdain for the got-rich-quick Seattle dot commers wore on me after awhile. The ending TOTALLY disappointed -- it was almost like Byers had a great subject (the potential cure for a fatal but rare genetic disease) but didn't quite know how to deal with it. I read it through but by the time I reached the ending, I felt cheated.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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