The Smallest Colorby Bill Roorbach
Our secrets can come to define us, and sometimes after lying asleep for a long spell, a secret can awake frantic and hungry. Coop Henry's secret needs attention. His missing brother haunts his life and his life isn't holding up well under the strain. When his mother threatens to
A suspenseful first novel about two brothers and the thirty-year secret between them.
Our secrets can come to define us, and sometimes after lying asleep for a long spell, a secret can awake frantic and hungry. Coop Henry's secret needs attention. His missing brother haunts his life and his life isn't holding up well under the strain. When his mother threatens to hire a detective in one last desperate attempt to discover what has happened to his brother thirty years before, Coop's life begins to come unglued. Not even a glimmer of new love in his life can rescue him. It may be that only his missing brother holds the answers and that possibility is devastating, to Coop and to nearly everyone in his life.
Author Biography: Bill Roorbach, a 2002 NEA Fellow, is the author of Summers With Juliet, Writing Life Stories, and most recently, the novel The Smallest Color. He lives in western Maine.
- Counterpoint Press
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.48(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.85(d)
Read an Excerpt
I am Coop Henry. Anthony Cooper Henry. A man who talks to his dead brother. Talk, talk, talk, a continuous loop for thirty years, not all of it in the middle of the night anymore, not all of it even safely in my head anymore. I can't hold the cracks closed; I'm losing my strength; I'm leaking lava.
Though probably no one much notices. Face to face I'm just a regular nice guy: calm, gentle, sweet, caring, rational, maybe a little emotional, good listener, good talker, funny sometimes, reasonably nice looking, decent shape for someone mid-forties, not too tall, not too short, true to my one and only wife. Everyone knows this. I'm trustworthy, brave, loyal, obedient, all that good Boy Scout stuff without the homophobia. Cheerful, kind, reverent, too.
Maybe a little dishonest. And about that, Mom is back on my case. She's in search of the truth, that's all, simple truth, and she has every reason to come to me. She writes and leaves messages, faxes Madeline at work, and now we've even moved on to e-mail: she's going to get to the bottom of things, and things, Hodge, is you.
Big brother, listen: you are dead, quite dead, thirty years dead. Tell her for me, okay? Tell her the whole appalling thing, please? Because the phone is about to ring again, and I don't know if I can perpetuate the lies: that you are in hiding, that you send your love.
When the phone rings, I pick it up fast, murmur a friendly "Hello," looking out the porch windows and across the river over there and up into the boulders. I gentle thatphone. It's Mom all right. And brother, ask not for whom Mom calls, she calls for thee.
"Greetings," she says, sounding almost cheerfulshe knows I know just why she's calling.
"He says he won't," I tell her, my kind and sweet and guilty self, lying without preamble.
"Did you even talk to him?" she says. "Sometimes I think you protect him."
"Protect Hodge?" I say. And I look around the living room at all the belongings Madeline and I have collected in almost twenty years, good chairs and that deep red rug from our perfect six weeks in Mexico those many years ago, a thousand books on drooping shelves, a hundred rocks and shells and bowls and photographs. I note the suddenly lovely and golden cone of light from the heavy floor lamp, light that falls inside the greater sunlight of the many morning windows. I see as if for the first time the old hand-built ranch cabinets hanging in the open kitchen. I see the big chairs Madeline and I read in, the counter we cook on, the table we eat on. I say, "It wasn't Hodge I protected."
Another silence, and I picture Mom in their house, hers and Dad's, she on her kitchen phone, cradling the receiver in her two spotted hands, something fragrant cooking on her stainless-steel restaurant-grade range. I picture her tennis sneakers, her unstooped height, her perfect halo of coifed white hair. "You!" she says. "You cryptic little ... turd!" And she hangs up in my face.
Hodge, I'm called turd by Leslie Adams Keepnews Henry, our own sweet Ma, Daughter of the American Revolution, who has never said turd aloud in her life. And okay, I'll accept the charge. I'm a turd and cryptic as hell, a liar and a traitor. I'm going to have to tell her the truth and soon: you are dead. And it's worse than that. You and I, bro, we both know it's worse than that.
I stand in the living room seeing everything in it with great clarity, stand there for five long minutes to let her calm down a little and call back, truth at my tongue. But I get Dad, who just sighs and fumes and says, "Your mother will not talk to you, Cooper, and for goddamn good reason." He's fumbling with something as he speaks, probably sitting at his desk, maybe searching through his piles of papers for pliers or an old check or the slide rule he still maintains is faster than any (goddamn) computer. "She's at the end of her rope." Puffs of breath. "She's not going to talk to you or me or anybody till you tell her where your goddamn brother is. Your goddamn brother, Coop!" Papers rustling, the crash of something falling off his desk. "And it goddamn-well better be before this fiftieth-anniversary thing of hers." A snort as he finds whatever it is he's been searching for. "December tenth, Coop."
I start to bridle, almost speak, but tell myself no.
The old man whispers then, his tone more vicious with each phrase: "You tell Hodge he best goddamn-well call, boy. If Mommy dies of a broken heart it's your ass I'm coming after. And your brother, well, for all I care that scamming scum can stay where he is till the gates of Hades swing!"
You'll stay, all right.
Clippings in the mail from our poor Mom, dressed up with yellow sticky notes, her bright, famous handwriting (has Hodge seen this?!?). A light sentence for Tonya Boudreau. Amnesty for Jackson DeBeers. Former Black Panthers starting fried chicken chains. Forgiveness. Compassion. Sixties radicals a dime a dozen. Implied: time for Hodge to come out, too. Unspoken: what's the worst that could happen?
Mom on the warpath, bro. Our own gentle mother. And if you thought the campaign for your forty-fifth birthday was big, just wait. "This fiftieth-anniversary thing," it's coming, and Mom has demanded that you appear. Listen to this: she (by God) has resolved to hire a detectiveand not just any detectiveshe's put away thirty thousand dollars to hire the number-one missing-persons man in New York City. The same investigator that found Jimmy Hoffa, she says. And she's determined, Hodge, she's going to find your selfish soul even if it means spending every cent she's got, and she's got plenty. She doesn't even pause when I explain that Jimmy Hoffa's still missing.
Why can't I just tell her? Hodge Henry is dead. You, brother, you know this. Thirty years dead! Madeline knows it. I certainly know it. Why the mortal secret? What was the point? What were we thinking? Maybe that we'd keep you alive by telling no one, that blame would disappear? Did I really think I could bury the unspeakable secret by laying it on your chest? That Mom would just accept your disappearance? Just like that? Forever? I threw dirt on you brother, one shovelful, then the next. The damage is done. You're dead, man. You're gone.
Anthony Cooper Henry liked what he saw. Mountains and dry gulches and cattle in spare pasture. Derelict barns and fields of wheat. Dust devils, tumbleweed, fireflowers, boulders. Machinery for watering, machinery for harvesting, machinery for baling up hay. It all rushed by click click click behind bare telephone poles, the grasses at roadside a blur, the mountains trundling along more stately, as if the world were turning beneath the car and Dad, that fuckhead, only steered to keep up.
Coop opened his window and held his harmonica out so the wind played every note. His little sister, Cindy, already eleven, shrieked and jumped across baby Jeremy to get at Cooper's arm. Mom reached back to spank her, but Cindy leapt out of the way and over the seat and into the way-back with Cherry, the huffing mutt, and with gentle Morton, who at seven years old was already tubby, cheerful for life, a boy-Buddha facing backwards across America. Cindy crouched behind Cooper, cackled in his ear. Cherry barked. The harmonica droned. "Get her back up here, Cooper," Mom barked, reaching. "And stop playing the harmonica."
"No way," Coop said. This mission was as bad as he had imagined. He didn't want to see his grandmother. He didn't care about Seattle. He wanted to be free like Hodge, his draft-dodging big brother. 1969, late June, and Coop almost sixteen. He wanted to be underground like Hodge, loud music and liberated girls and happening dope and the talk all pigs and protest and politics.
"Then he'll spank you."
"Did you hear that Bob?"
"Cut out the language, Cooper, for the last time."
Mom said it again: "I'm frightened Bob! Every day more like his brother!"
The air in the car grew dense in a way Coop knew well and hated. He breathed, said, "This trip sucks." He liked the new word and the power of using it. "I'm just trying to look out the window a little, minding my own business, and now there's a crisis."
"You suck," Cindy said.
"Suck," Jeremy said, soulfully.
Mom spun in her seat to face him, blew up: "Anthony Cooper Henry, damnit all anyway, I'll snatch you bald."
"He'll shut up at the barbershop."
"Jesus fucking Christ," Coop said. He hauled the harmonica in and looked out the window, pretending not to notice his mother's awkward slap on his leg. Now the haircut again. He'd worked his ass off to get all A's for his whole high school career and skied his ass off for gold medals at every meet just so he wouldn't have to get a haircut and now he had to anyway because of Grandma Vanderhoop, supposedly, although he knew she didn't care. He'd put on his worst dirtiest ripped-up jeans and his giant flannel shirt at the motel that morning as a protest, but he was doomed: the haircut was going to happen.
"Well that's the limit," Mom said. She faced front sternly, crossed her arms in front of her. From a peaceful car ride to disaster in two minutes flat. "Never you mind the haircut. We'll take you to a psychiatrist."
This scene had been played with Hodge, and more than once, the last time two years past. What would Hodge have fired back? Something nasty: Mom was a cunt. Coop hadn't the heart.
Cindy pulled Morton's game book straight out of his hands and scrambled back over the seat. Morton said "Mahm," quietly. Jeremy crawled up on Cooper's lap. Coop picked him up, shook him, and put him on Cindy. Cindy shrieked again, her idea of grand fun. Jeremy wailed.
Dad roared: "I'm going to stop the car and thrash you all!"
Thrash who? Coop thought. He'd been there the day Hodge turned one of Dad's thrashings into a prizefight. And Hodge had almost won, eight hard shots to Dad's face before it was over, Hodge laid out on the floor and Dad all mopey and apologetic and man-to-man and fat lip and handshakes next morning. Thrash who? At sixteen you became an opponent and not a kid. Keep your psycho temper under control, thought Coop, but didn't speaknow that Hodge was gone, Coop was first in line.
"If you stop the car, we'll spank you," Cindy said brightly. Somehow she got away with remarks like that.
Coop opened and closed the chrome ashtray lid snap snap snap and watched out the window. Mom had stiffened further yet, and the thunderheads were inside the car now, black, and the wind was blowing, fierce. Next, Coop knewwithin minutesshe'd pretend to be calm and reasonably trot out her canned lecture on choices and responsibility and what Hodge had done to all of them with his bad picks for friends and his refusal to just fit in. Would Coop like to go away to school? Maybe a rehabilitative home? Because that's where he was headed, if he thought being a psychopath was "cool."
Coop thought of Hodge, whom he'd last seen almost exactly two years past. Hodge's graduation, whoa, how could Coop outdo that? The maniac told their parentsthese same miserable parentstold them he'd peacefully go graduate and make them proud. But wait ... there was an anti-war demonstration going on in Greenwich Village that same day.
And while Mom and Dad and two thousand other parents and every teacher in the high school and half the kids in town filed into the fenced confines of the football field, Hodge was driving very slowly through the high school parking lot in the giant new Athletics vanthe keys straight off Coach Riley's pegboard. Coop was one of the innocents who'd climbed injust a kid at thirteen! Just out of junior high! He'd climbed in the van for the joke of it along with Hodge's three girlsMissy Kirkbridge and Virginia Chance and Brittany Seusy (Missy in favor at the moment, all of them resigned to Hodge's ways). And they picked up whoever would get in, just a slow, bold ride around the parking lot, Dexter Blodgett still in his gown, Billy DiCresenzo in his gas station uniform, ten or eleven other kids till the van was full. Then Hodge turned up the heat in the sudden way he could. He pulled out onto South Avenue, drove right past the full football stands, drove right behind Mom and Dad and the other kids, drove right under the nose of every teacher he'd ever had, right past the coaches, zero to sixty in the Athletics van straight to the Merritt Parkway, New York City bound. On the fly he passed out joints, strong pot, enough for all to have their own, sent his special Zippo back. Seventy miles per hour, squeal and zoom, tight curves into the city; eighty miles an hour, Cross Bronx Expressway, West Side Highway; finally slower, poking through funny streets in the Village to Washington Square Park. Right there, Hodge heroically turned the smoke-filled van broadside in the middle of Thompson Street, stalled it to a chorus of honking, leapt out, flung the keys atop a trapped city bus with a whoop, and ran into the crowded park, his hair flowing golden behind him in bright sun, a warrior in worn blue jeans. Coop followed, loving him, Dexter hard at hand in flowing graduation gown, holding a mortarboard absurdly on his head, tassel flying. The othersHodge didn't care or noticethe others were left behind. In the park the freaks had gathered, the hippies, the beatniks, the eggheads, the kids whose fathers meant to send them to war. Megaphones, pot smoke, beer cans slugged from paper bags. A hotdog vendor, too. Love, a poster said. Peace, all the symbols said. Coop felt big and gentle and floating. This was freedom. This was war. He better not puke. He better not get lost. He chased Hodge closely, Hodge raging through the crowd pushing at the hapless with his mighty arms, Hodge's back a rippling of muscles under black T-shirt, huge dude, faster than someone so big had any right to be. Kill the pigs! That's what Hodge shouted. Which was different from Peace now!, the chant coming from up ahead. Hodge yelled and pushed people out of his way, leaving Coop to take the glares and shoves, Dexter to take actual punches. Hodge shouted: Kill the pigs! Kill the pigs! He shouted it and bellowed it, like someone not kidding, made his way to the shade under the famous arch, pushed a bespectacled intellectual off the makeshift podium there, which was a park bench. The means of production ... this man was saying mildly, but as Hodge would say: Fuck that shit! He jumped on the bench and knocked the old prof sideways. The crowd swelled forward, as if to get Hodge, but Hodge won them instantly: Kill the pigs! Stop the war! Kill the pigs! Stop the war! Fist raised over his head, pumping, the huge crowd with him all at once, fists raised, pumping. Coop too, Kill the pigs! He was beautifully high and thirteen back then and in the vast but dangerous protection of his big brother.
But he was fifteen now, almost sixteen, and what was he doing? Riding with his parents across the country to visit Grandmawhere was the life in that? What could be less cool? He clicked the ashtray lid at his elbow and watched the ranches go by and pictured the rally in very cool Greenwich Village those two years past perfectly.
The displaced little professor stood up tall then with his glasses askew and mouth open, not entirely displeased with the turn of events, the turn of the crowd. The others from the van were lost now, except Dexter in his gown, mortarboard missing, right beside Coop. The crowd surged and shouted and turned and pushed and began to move as one, marching up Fifth Avenue. With a thousand others Coop chanted Hodge's chant: Kill the pigs! Stop the war! Kill the pigs! Stop the war! He lost Hodge himself, though, and quickly lost Dexter, too. And then, suddenly, he was a boy thirteen and way too high and scared shitless and thoroughly abandoned by his fearsome brother. Whatever happened to Peace and Love? That was the part of the park Coop liked bestPeace and Love. The others from the van ride? Nowhere in sight, despite long searching. The van? Towed and gone. The train ride home alone after a bad collect call was terrifying. Dad would pick him up at the station.
And that was the last time any of them had seen Hodge, though polite FBI agents called regularly asking about him. Hodge was "associating" with some bad elements, they said. Hodge was on their "git-list." Hodge the wanted, Hodge the hero, Hodge the scourgeHodge free of the draft, free of Al the barber, free of Dad's fists and buckle, free and fast as a bullet accelerating through air to the thing it would hit.
The happy family came to Tyco, Wyoming, a town from a Western movie, long main street, the sudden geometry of thirty or forty buildings. Cowboys steered huge pickup trucks. Banners proclaimed the coming of the rodeo. Coop saw four horses tied to a real rail in front of a real saloon. He liked Tyco big time, saw himself hired at a ranch and so good with the wild horses that the ranchers went ahead and gave the whole place to him, and Connie Kirkbridge heard about it and forgot about Ted DeMartino and came out west and finally let him touch her as much as he wanted, which was a lot and always.
Evenly, Mom said, "We've got to talk about choices."
But Dad jerked the wheel, screeched the wagon into a gas station across Highway 87 from a perfect stainless-steel diner.
"Choices, Coop," Mom said, trimming the lecture to basics.
Thank God for gas. A lanky guy older than Dad gave a thumbs up to Dad's nod and shuffled to start the gas pumping. Mom, silenced, snagged Jeremy brusquely, pinched Cindy's ear, dragged them off to the ladies' room.
Dad just sat a second, rubbing his neck, saying nothing. Then he flung his door open, climbed out fast, yanked open Coop's door, wrenched him into the dry air, spun him, caught him by both biceps, hard. Coop wriggled in that furious grasp. The gas attendant watched with his eyebrows raised, hand on the nozzle grip, definitely cheering Dad, Coop thought, just the look on his face.
Dad breathed one of his dragon breaths, squeezed Coop's arms harder, pushed him against the car. He said, "I'll cut that wig of yours with a rusty axe, need be, you little shit."
Coop writhed in Dad's strong grip, pushed against Dad's hard belly with both fists, brought a knee up hard, caught Dad's thigh, spat in his reddened face, twisted free. Coop knew better than to run anywhere, stood ready for a blow, but Dad just glared and breathed hard, several puffing breaths, and abruptly marched right past Coop, cranked the back window open like he'd tear the handle off, tugged Morton out bodily, stormed off across the cement to the men's room with the little boy bouncing stoically sideways in his arms.
So Coop was alone, the gas guy lost under the massive hood of the spanking new station wagon. Sun hot, mountains all around, across the street a stainless-steel diner. Fast as the ski racer he was, Coop leapt back to the car, hawked two quarters from Dad's toll money and sprinted across the busy main drag, dodging cars.
The diner was long, ran narrowly back from the sidewalk, busy in there even though it was early for dinner. A waitress served the tables. Coop slunk along the length of the place to the bathroom at the back. People stared at him (of course people staredhis hair was a foot long and dirty, his demeanor 100% delinquent, his insides churning). Someone was in the bathroom so Coop gazed out the screened rear door at the mountains. Imagine the skiing around here come winter, the mountains of snow!
Far away and high on a grassy slope he saw a ranch, lots of cattle and twin silos, all of it baking in the sun. At the very ridge top, miles away, he made out a standing horse, silhouette before the hard blue sky, wavy and dreamish in the rising heat. He pictured cowboys jazzing him, the suburban greenhorn, heard the ridicule stop and turn to awe as he broke the one horse no one could break, the giant stallion called Wreckin' Ball.
After a leak he sauntered bowlegged up to the counter, mounted a spinning stool between a lady in a dress and a big man in overalls. But the fantasy didn't hold; he was just a kid without a driver's license, had never been in a restaurant alone before. The routine was familiar to him, thoughfrown a lot and don't look around. He picked up the menu, thinking he'd have a Coke, thinking Dad and Mom could pretty much come and get him. Through the big window and across the street he could see his father paying the gas guy.
The old man behind the counter bustled to Coop's spot, said, "What'll it be, kiddo?"
"I don't know. Maybe a Coke or something."
"Just a Coke? Maybe you better get yourself a bite. Hungry?"
"Take your time."
Coop looked out the window again. His mother was dragging Cindy to the car. Jeremy was in a world-class tantrum, face red, mouth open screaming, stubby hands hitting Mom around the face and neck. Mom, she looked about to explode.
Dad turned his head quick this way and that like a big chicken, looking for Coop, ha ha, looking every wrong direction there was, making tight fists. The gas guy just shrugged. Good. Coop had gone unseen.
The only thing on the menu for fifty cents was an egg sandwich. Even french fries were fifty-five. Coop Henry had never had an egg sandwich, but it sounded like something a cowpoke might eat. "Egg sandwich," he said.
"And the Coke."
"No, because I only have fifty cents."
The man hobbled down the length of the counter and talked to a lady who was back behind a stainless-steel slot cooking. The lady peered at Coop like she felt sorry for him. She reminded him of his grandmother and that reminded him that he would have to get his hair chopped and that brought Dad's lava face to the front of his mind fast and caved him in on himself right there on his stool.
The old man behind the counter hobbled back. "You all right?"
"Listen, special today, a Coke comes with the egg sandwich."
"Aw, thanks." Saying this, Coop saw himself in the mirrored wall across the counter, hair filthy and long past his shoulders, good, good. He sat up, squared himself. He was no Hodge, not in size, not in nerve. But, good, his shirt was big and ripped and really fuckingly dirty. He even had a brown streak across his forehead where Jeremy had swiped him after the chocolate bars they'd hawked from Mom's purse that morning.
The lady next to him made him nervous staring. These people thought he was some kid bum, maybe a runaway from the rodeo or an orphan just escaped from the cruel orphanage, and they were trying to help. He straightened his spine to look tougher, maybe a little mean, and poor, sure. But the lady next to him kept staring.
"Here," she said, finally. "Take my rolls. I'm not going to eat them."
Coop deflated, gave her a baleful look, wrapped the rolls in a napkin, put them in his shirt pocket. The lady got a look of angelic pity on her face, clearly pleased to be of service. So in a way he was the one helping. He really did feel poor.
The counterman brought the sandwich, it had about five eggs in it, and lots of melted cheese, and they'd put it on a huge plate along with heaps of vegetables and french fries. The man wrote the bill out, right there, so Coop would know it was all right: fifty cents.
"Wow" Coop said.
"Don't say a thing," the counterman said. "We know what it's like. A kid needs a meal."
Now the big man next to Coop looked over. "Jeez. I can't finish this-here. Maybe you want it for later on, or somethin'."
Excerpted from The Smallest Color by Bill Roorbach. Copyright © 2001 by Bill Roorbach. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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