There's the truth in there somewhere; there's the beginning. I took my ten-year-old son to Fenway to see the Sox play the Yankees, Clemens dueling Key. We drove two and a half hours to get there. I'd gotten box seats, and Sam spent most of the game standing with his chin just above the railing, looking down over third base, his hands clenched into fists. It felt, for a while, like a perfect day.
But the game didn't end when it was supposed to. The pitchers dueled and nobody won. It went into extra innings. Sam's fists clenched tighter and I started looking at my watch. His mother was expecting him back by seven; his mother, who was my ex-wife. It was five, then five-thirty, and I could feel trouble waiting for me there, the way you can feel rain before it happens. I could almost hear Ruth's foot angrily beating time on the front porch that I'd built myself, in Bow Mills, where she still lived, two and a half hours away.
The game nearly ended in the bottom of the thirteenth, but the Boston base runner was thrown out at the plate. I couldn't believe it. Now I wonder if there wasn't a kind of pattern to it all, or something like that. Things lined up just for me to knock them down.
At five minutes to six, the Sox finally clinched it with a grand slam. Sam said it was the best game he'd ever seen. Afterwards, the hands that had been fists for hours were turned loose, and as we made our way out of the stadium to the jammed parking lot, one of them found its way into mine. It took him a minute to realize what he'd done and take back his hand. I acted as if I didn't know anything about it--didn't know what I'd had, didn't know what I'd lost. We got in thecar and inched our way out to the Mass Pike.
The sun was still in sight, angled low through Sam's window and reflecting off his sand-colored hair. For some reason the color of the light then made me think about Buzzards Bay, where he and Ruth and I had spent a long weekend once when he was five, just before the accident. The memory came and went, no place for it to stick. And I drove as fast as the traffic would allow, talking baseball with my son.
I could tell he was tired. It had been a big day. Eventually I stopped talking, to give him a chance to sleep. Sam yawned a couple of times and grew quiet. The prospect of his dropping off then seemed like a good thing to me. I saw it as a kind of savings plan, a way to insure that he'd remember our day together fondly. As if a nap would make time stop on a dime for him, and the day would be encapsulated, wrapped like a gift, worth enough to hold on to till next Sunday, when I'd get to try again.
I turned on the headlights around eight o'clock, just as we were leaving the pike. The tolltaker told me my right headlight wasn't working. He mentioned also that it was against the law to drive with a broken headlight. Something about his tone irked me. Pocketing my change, I told him in a friendly way that I was a lawyer and no doubt knew the law better than he did, and was on my way directly to get it fixed. I didn't say anything to him about my ex-wife. It was none of his business. The headlight could wait, but Ruth Wheldon, formerly Ruth Arno, could not. As it was, I'd be lucky to get Sam back by nine o'clock, two hours late. I'd be lucky if Ruth didn't already have a cop or two waiting on the porch with her (the porch I'd built with my own two hands), all of them keeping time with their feet. I thought about calling her from a pay phone somewhere, but that would have just seemed weak. I lit a cigarette and drove faster.
There'd been a time when seeing my son had nothing to do with the rights of law. It's nowhere in the history books--the trouble-free times never are. Ruth and I were still married. The three of us were a family. Sam was five when all of that came to an end.
A lot of people said afterwards that I used to beat him. That was a lie, and Ruth knew it was a lie, but she didn't say so. She let people think it. The fact is I'd never laid a punishing hand on my son until the night I nearly killed him.
He was in bed asleep when I came home from work. I was with a hotshot firm in Hartford then, doing wills and trusts and the like, working hard and getting home late. A career going upward, that's what it was called. I went into his room and kissed him in the dark. I sat a moment there on the edge of his bed, part hoping he'd wake up and talk to me. But he was out like a light. All his days were full at that age, I guessed.
Ruth had my dinner on the table when I came out of Sam's room. She'd already eaten. I said, "He's sleeping like a log," and she didn't say anything. I opened a can of beer and ate the food she'd cooked. She sat down across from me and started talking in a rush about one of her piano students at the school, some little boy. Then it was as if she just ran out of things to say. We sat there in silence. And gradually, as the dead minutes started piling up between us, and while I drank a second beer and then a third, I began to feel there was something wrong in the house, a kind of stillness that I didn't recognize or care for. To me right then she looked not like my wife but like some woman alone in a roadside diner at night; some woman who was waiting for anything or anyone but the usual scene she found staring back at her. And I realized that for weeks now I'd hardly seen her or Sam; had, in fact, not a clue what she might be thinking as she sat across from me with her mouth closed and her eyes fixed on the table. Boredom? Indifference? Resentment? I had no idea. Which, finally, was the only thing I could think to say to her. That I didn't know. And that was when, still looking down at the table, she told me that she was having an affair with a man named Norris Wheldon.
From here it all looks simple. I'd always had a temper, though for much of my life I'd kept it hidden away, safe and out of sight. My father was a violent man who used to beat me with a stripped-down juniper branch he'd taken from our yard. He had his method. Each time, he'd raise that branch and pause, hoping to catch me flinching or, better yet, raising my own hand against him. Any sign of fear or anger from me gave him the right to thrash me like some runt in a bar. The happiest summer of my childhood was when my body finally started turning into a man's. If I hadn't gone off to college, I might have killed him. I was a freshman at U Conn when he dropped dead of a heart attack. I didn't go home for the funeral.
My wife told me that she was in love with Norris Wheldon and planned to divorce me so she could marry him. She said she intended to keep Sam with her. I could visit him when I wanted, she said, as long as when I wanted wasn't more than one day a week. It was a canned speech, as if she'd prepared it while making the meat loaf. I was a lawyer. I should've been calm right then, calm and already building my case against her. What I felt instead was something else. My old friend Jack Cutter, who later represented me before the state, made a big deal to the court about the five beers I'd drunk that night (he included the two I'd had while still at work). He called what happened a "double impairment" of my senses brought about by alcohol and jealous rage. That essentially was my defense. It sounded plausible to me. I wanted someone to explain to me and for me how I could have done what I'd done, and Jack obliged. I had been impaired. The court agreed, up to a point.
To this day it feels the same to me; it feels no different. I see it all. Ruth gives me her canned speech about her and Norris and my son and our future, her eyes darting away like minnows. Then, all done, she waits for me to react. And when I don't, when I sit there with my cleaned plate and my three empties and do nothing, she starts getting nervous. Too quick she says, "Well, okay, Dwight. Okay then. I thought I should tell you myself, and now I've told you. It's over. Bob Jamison's going to be my attorney. I'm sorry." She gets up, taking my plate, clearing my place like it's any old day, and goes into the kitchen.
She's halfway to the sink when I hit her. Hit her with my fist as hard as I can, my knuckles striking around her right ear and drawing blood. She cries out and crumples to the ground. My wife. The plate shatters on the linoleum. I take a look at her on the floor, but it hasn't registered yet, hasn't happened yet. It was somebody else's fist. I don't feel released or relieved. And I turn to go. It's not my house any more. Not my wife. Every bit of it is a mistake. I get to the front door and am putting on my coat.
She grabs me from behind by the hair and pulls, screaming, "Bastard!" Rips a clump of my hair out by the roots, scalp too, like somebody sticking hot pins into my brain. It makes me crazy and I lash out blindly, a roundhouse punch for her stomach. To end it.
I hit my son in the face.
He had arrived, running, to protect us from ourselves. It had never occurred to me he'd do that. The bones in his jaw were fragile like a bird's and I felt them break under my fist.
He was unconscious for a little while. He had a concussion. His jaw was wired, I was told, for weeks afterwards.
Jack Cutter, old friend, did his legal best and got me two years' probation, during which time I was suspended from practicing law. It was strongly advised that I move to another part of the state, which I did. I got counseling. Every week I wrote a letter to Sam. Once in a while, he wrote back. He said he was feeling okay, school was okay, he didn't like his stepdad so much. His spelling was bad, and sometimes I worried about permanent damage. It was four years before I was allowed to see him again.
I moved back to the northwest corner of the state, to a town about ten miles southeast of Bow Mills called Box Corner. So I could see my son again--Sundays, home by seven, nice and easy now. Ruth Wheldon looking at me. It was hard at first, but it was a life. Jack Cutter was good enough to take me on as a partner in his small-town practice in Canaan, and was patient when I was slow to bring in business. Not everyone was so friendly. There were some people around Bow Mills who still remembered all too well what they thought happened that night. But Sam wasn't one of them. He never mentioned what I'd done to him, or seemed to be chewing on it. If you didn't already know his history, I thought, you wouldn't know it. He was a pretty regular boy.
We went to ball games and things. And for a while, that was my life.
It was a quarter to nine and we were still twenty, twenty-five minutes from Ruth's. How had it happened? I had us on the shortcut that I knew like my own birthday, and we were zinging along in the dark without a right headlight, the trees standing dense as pitch on either side of the road. It was hard to see. I threw a smoldering butt out the window and lit another cigarette. We were late. Sam was asleep with his cheek pressed up against the door and I was starting to talk to myself. Sorry I'm late, Ruth. The game went extra innings. Sam says it was the best damn game he's ever seen, Ruth. Go ahead, ask him. . . . See? Right, okay then. Take that fucking noose from around my neck. It was tricky when my thoughts got going to keep my foot from pressing too hard on the pedal; just my brain trying to shape what was happening in a more favorable way. I switched on the radio--low, so as not to wake him. A little bit of country music to take the edge off.
But I couldn't keep from thinking: in the light of day you could see the faint scar on Sam's smooth face, a thin white tributary mapping the line of his reconstructed jaw.
I don't remember checking the speedometer. Reservation Road was too black for that speed. I was thinking about Sam, hoping he'd remember the day for what was good in it, when I drove us too fast into the first of the two sharp, tree-packed turns leading to Tod Lovell's gas station. The car started shimmying across the midline and too late I tried to adjust, cutting the wheel hard to the right. But I cut too hard. The front wheels were already on the near shoulder of the second turn before I jerked the wheel sharply back to the left, the tires screeching, quick and pinched, until I cut the wheel again and the fishtail straightened though the road did not, but still I felt control coming back and almost sighed with relief. And then suddenly on the right the trees opened and the three glowing red letters of Tod's sign appeared.
I don't know how a single frame could have held so much: two old-fashioned pumps and a flat-roofed building with one bright-lit window but no other lights, as if the planet right there was underwater. A station wagon parked in front with all its doors open, looking like a winged flying machine. And a man, a tall, dark-haired man with little round glasses, coming out of the office carrying something in his hand. He was looking at me and I was looking at him, through the dimness. I saw his mouth open wide, and then his eyes moved off me, his head snapping around to see the road ahead.
And then I saw what he saw.
The boy standing in the road as if he'd sprouted from it. Dark-haired like his father. And the father's shout suddenly making a kind of sense: "Josh!" The front of my car hit him in the chest. The useless headlight popped like a gunshot. And he flew away into the darkness.
The impact made the car shudder. My foot came off the gas. And we were coasting, still there, but moving, fleeing. Unless I braked now: Do it. My foot started for the brake. But then Sam started to wail in pain and I froze. I looked over and he was holding his face in both hands and screaming in pain. I went cold. "Sam!" I shouted, his name coming from deep down in my gut and sounding louder and more desperate to my ears than any sound I'd ever made. He didn't respond. "Sam!"
In the rearview mirror I saw the dark-haired man sprinting up the road after us. His fury and his fear were in his half-shadowed face, the frenzied pumping of his arms. He was coming to punish me, and for a moment I wanted him to. My foot was inching toward the brake. But suddenly I felt Sam warm against my side, curling up and holding on and bawling like a baby. I put my foot on the gas.
As we began to pull away, I checked the mirror one last time: the man had veered off our path and was bent over in the thick roadside shrubs. Where his child was. About my son's age, maybe still alive, though I knew he wasn't.
The car kept picking up speed. Then we were gone from that clearing, swallowed up by the trees.