This Bright Riverby Patrick Somerville
From a writer and producer of HBO's acclaimed apocalyptic drama series The Leftovers, comes a compelling story of young love and old secrets.
Ben Hanson's aimless life has bottomed out after a series of bad decisions, but an unexpected offer from his father draws him home to Wisconsin. There, he finds his family fractured, still reeling/b>/i>
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From a writer and producer of HBO's acclaimed apocalyptic drama series The Leftovers, comes a compelling story of young love and old secrets.
Ben Hanson's aimless life has bottomed out after a series of bad decisions, but an unexpected offer from his father draws him home to Wisconsin. There, he finds his family fractured, still reeling from his cousin's mysterious death a decade earlier.
Lauren Sheehan abandoned her career in medicine after a series of violent events abroad. Now she's back in the safest place she knows the same small Wisconsin town where she and Ben grew up hiding from a world that has only brought her heartache.
As Lauren cautiously expands her horizons and Ben tries to unravel his family's dark secrets, their paths intersect. Could each be exactly what the other needs?
A compelling family drama and a surprising love story, This Bright River is the work of a natural storyteller, one whose dark humor and piercing intelligence provide constant, lasting delights.
The New York Times Book Review
"Serpentine and hypnotic, This Bright River depicts two vivid characters knocked hard by life, on a perilous journey that reveals the weight and pull of family history. The result is a novel that is both intimate and mysterious, harrowing and brave."
Serpentine and hypnotic, This Bright River depicts two vivid characters knocked hard by life, on a perilous journey that reveals the weight and pull of family history. The result is a novel that is both intimate and mysterious, harrowing and brave."Megan Abbott, author of The End of Everything and Dare Me"
This Bright River is a flood of virtuoso prose and characterization. Mystery, memory, pain, and a courageous strand of love are interwoven in a riveting narrative of voices, all singing, all merging into the singular vision of one of American literature's young masters."Nic Pizzolatto, author of Galveston"
This Bright River is nothing short of extraordinary. Somerville has a gift for writing gorgeous prose, complete with sharp humor and a perfect sense of place. But that's only half the story. There's also a great romance here and a shocking set of mysteries that get untangled along the way. Addictive, amazing, unforgettable."J. Courtney Sullivan, bestselling author of Maine
Each paragraph has at least one striking or hilarious line. Every few pages manage to bear the full weight of a short story. Dialogue snaps with a bizarre aptness reminiscent of Denis Johnson, and the novel in total presents a coiled, deeply sensitive intelligence....Go buy this book.The Daily Beast
If there's a middle ground between the pot-boiling, page-turning mystery and the novel of Big Ideas, Patrick Somerville has found it. "This Bright River," his second novel, is a serious literary tragedy of errors that also tells a gripping story.... The extent of Somerville's control over his narrative becomes apparent when the novel's back stories and present goings-on finally converge at that cabin in the wilderness. The slow revelation of a host of family secrets is handled so deftly you won't even mind getting sand in your Kindle.Andrew Ervin, The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
This Bright RiverA Novel
By Patrick Somerville
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2012 Patrick Somerville
All right reserved.
Some Frozen Night
He’s been drinking with this guy for a long time.
It was a rough day and this just sort of happened. The guy sat down and ordered a bourbon, neat, and after ten minutes of silence, the two of them saying nothing and drinking their drinks, looking up at the TV, they started to chat. First about the basketball game, then about campus, then about classes, then about the cold. Then women.
“There are amazing women in this town,” he says. “You know? It’s crazy.”
“That could be it.”
He’s completely drunk now, and he can’t see very well, but he’s been talking a lot, he’s sort of opened up to this guy, and the guy has continued to listen. He likes him. He’s a listener. He likes anyone who will listen to him when he gets going on a rant, but he likes this guy specifically because he’s tuned in. Listening in that good way. Bars are funny and it’s tough for two strangers to start talking because everybody’s got a thousand friends and everything is a party and everyone’s always on the way somewhere, and somehow he doesn’t have any friends anymore. But apparently this guy came here to do the same thing: sit down alone and drink out the gremlins.
“We make a good pair,” he says. “You know? We’re like Pancho and Lefty.”
The guy nods. “Yes. Totally.”
Gremlins is the word he uses when he thinks about everything bad within himself.
“I’m completely feeling it right now.”
The guy says he is too.
They’re both quiet for a bit.
The guy asks him if he wants to go get high.
Then: “Yes,” he says, nodding at his drink, furrowing his brow, very serious about it, because sometimes he has panic attacks and he doesn’t want that to happen this time. “I think I do. Let’s keep it going.”
“Okay,” says the guy. “Let’s go.”
They both put on their jackets, get up, and walk out of the smoky bar.
Outside it’s freezing, but it’s a nice relief from all the cigarette smoke.
The guy says, “I’m parked down here. Around the corner.”
“This’ll be interesting,” he says, raising his eyebrows, following the guy.
He doesn’t really know what he means, he thinks, looking down at his feet, watching them walk him. Everyone in Madison’s a pothead, though. It’s a real thing.
They turn off State Street, cross Johnson, and walk down Henry.
He’s sort of sick of it. He’s sick of a lot of things. It’s dark here. Pretty much everyone is a pothead.
“That’s an awesome jacket,” says the guy.
“Yeah?” he says, looking down at his own sleeve. “I never thought about it.” In truth he has not.
“It’s just so cold. That looks warm.”
“I have this thing, but it’s never as warm as it seems like it should be, you know? I mean, for the money I paid. It eats it.”
“I actually like it.”
“I like yours. You like mine. We should switch.”
“But people never actually do things like that, you know.”
“Did you say you lived here? Or you’re visiting?”
“I live here.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
“Okay, right here,” the guy says, nodding at a car. They both stop by the door.
“Here we are.”
“Cool,” the guy says back.
The guy unlocks the door, leans in, reaches across to the glove compartment, and rustles around.
Now the guy’s got something in his hand.
“You wanna just smoke on the street?” he says, squinting at the thing in his hand. “Or what? Maybe we should just sit in your car? It is cold. I knew it was cold, but I didn’t know it was this cold.” And it’s an amazing thing, he thinks, how cold it gets, and how nevertheless we usually do okay. He has something of a moment while pondering this.
Take hypothermia. Take, for instance, the stories of the lost men who wander away from their trapped vehicles in search of roads, in search of cars, in search of help. Even as a child, he was terrified by these stories. Usually there is a family left behind. Maybe a mother and an infant. There’s no more gas and they’ve been there for days and they’ve finally run out of crackers. The father decides he has to go for help. He’s tried to be reasonable up to this point, but it’s now or never. He leaves the car and goes out in a blizzard. He walks around in circles and almost always dies frozen, alone, and excruciatingly close to his starting point.
As a child, he would hear these stories and think to himself: How could this be possible? How could something so terrible and cruel even be possible? But this is what nature does to people.
“No,” says the guy. “I don’t want to smoke on the street.”
The tone of the guy’s voice awakens him from his brief, mediocre reverie. “Where, then?” he says.
“It’s not that,” says the guy. “I’m sorry about this. I really am, dude. I’m actually going to kill you now.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s the principle,” the guy says.
Then the guy hits him over the head with whatever he’s got in his hand.
When he comes to, he’s confused, and what he worries about first, for some reason, is the smell. It smells like wet towels. Musty. Moldy. It’s terrifying to smell it. Then he worries because he doesn’t know how much time has passed, then he worries because he starts to remember.
It’s pitch-black now, not just dark, and he can hear the sounds of the road.
It takes him a few minutes of careful thinking to remember the bar in detail, to remember the guy, to remember that they left the bar, and to make sense of the pain in his skull. He hit him. The guy hit him in the head.
Eventually, the pieces all tumble together.
He’s contorted in here.
He scrapes around in the dark, remembering what the guy said at the end.
He said it was the principle.
He scrapes around some more, tries to push.
He starts to pound.
At some point he starts to scream.
First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.
Regarding the Unreliable Jesuit Explorer Pierre Bettencourt
Sleep on the plane.
Dream of the ancient ocean I am leaving and a farewell glance at the tops of mountains I have not climbed.
O’Hare, then, changed in an unsayable way, but changed alongside the grays and whites and moving walkways, people drifting with their rolling bags, the smell of the Cinnabon, and the wedge-shaped line at the corner McDonald’s.
A disembodied voice compels the sea of walkers to part from behind; we watch as his beeping white cart crawls through the gap we’ve created, and he nods his chill thanks, chewing his gum and wearing his three-piece United Airlines suit like a tuxedo. An elderly couple is aboard his vessel, seated on the back puff seats, facing stern, facing us, eyes sleepy as heads rock left, right, absorbing buffets. They get to ride because they are so old.
Children run the wrong way on the moving walkway and therefore have no motion.
A girl asleep with her back against a white pillar in an empty gate, and she’s in her pajamas, as though she knew that it would come to this.
Planes like toys I used to fly with arm-power, drifting down to land, parking on the tarmac. I see them through the windows.
Shoeshine guys have a station against the wall.
And then the Quiznos, and I know that I am closer.
We’d heard about the vandalism from the cops, but even so, neither of my parents had been able to drive up to see the fallout for themselves. Since Denny was the last of our relatives to be living in Wisconsin, no one else had been up to see either, and all we knew about the Fourth of July party came down to a phone call, a county sheriff’s PDF, and the phrase significant damage scribbled in a few pieces of mail. You never knew what a cop might label as significant, though; it could be understatement or overstatement. Most cops I’d known saw the world through the wrong end of a broken telescope.
On the way into St. Helens proper I considered stopping at Golden’s to pick up cleaning supplies, but I hesitated at the turnoff, then drifted by the entrance to the store, foot up over the brake. Too soon for any of that, I decided. I figured I’d survey the damage first and see what needed to be done. I was tired and not used to driving, and I wanted to take a shower. At this point I was also three steps past disgusting.
I went by, kept straight, and a few minutes later I was halfway up the hill, and a few minutes after that, I was there. The turn into Denny’s driveway came back to me like I’d done it the week before.
Looking at the garage door, I killed the engine and rolled my neck in a stretch, marveled (as far as I could marvel) at how far a person could go in one day, especially if he put his mind to it and was wired enough dollars from his parents.
I’d flown from Seattle to Chicago on an early flight and taken a cab out to Peregrine Park, where I’d had to stop to pick up the car—which, according to my father, was now my car, registered in my name. It was a Nissan Maxima with a sewing machine for an engine. I had ignored my parents’ request that I spend a night at their place and instead headed directly to Denny’s, fearing that an evening in their home would begin with an unrelenting assault on my decision-making skills and conclude with the usual half-drunk sales pitch about permanently moving back to the Midwest. I did not want to hear it.
I played with the moon roof. I looked at the clouds. I looked back at the house.
I was thirty-two now, absurdly, and as far as I could remember, the last time I had been here was twelve years ago, when I was halfway through college and drove out from Madison for a weekend visit. It was a two-story cottage-style home made of what I thought might be limestone; I’d never really noticed how nice—how strong? sturdy?—it was when I was a kid. Now it struck me as a small keep, really. Not in perfect shape by any means, but a keep nonetheless.
I glanced over my shoulder at Jeremy’s computer, still snug down behind the passenger seat. I needed a monitor to do anything with it. I probably needed to talk to Jeremy too, as I had stolen it on my way out of Washington.
I started the engine again, turned up the air conditioner, and called my sister.
“I’m here,” I said. “I’ve made it to Constantinople.”
“Welcome home,” she said. “I’m there.” Which meant Boston. “Does St. Helens look the same?” she asked. “I always wonder. Are there Moors?”
“When I think about St. Helens.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Yes? I didn’t actually go into town. I did just go past Golden’s, though. Totally weird.”
She had worked at the grocery store too, but she and I intersected as employees for only a couple of months. She was the object of desire for many of the other bagboys, who never did much to hide their attraction to her when I was around. One kid, with whom I often faced the shelves at night, once turned to me to whisper, with grave seriousness, that he would give me upwards of fifty dollars if I brought him a pair of my sister’s panties. This kid was named Will Normal. One hundred if they were used, he said, which to me, at that age—and still, actually—made no erotic sense.
Back then there was a rumor circulating—these were the last months Haley lived in town, before she left to go to Choate—that she’d gotten involved with one of the managers, a man named Rick Hagan, who was married and in his early forties. People gave me shit about Haley and her looks all the time. I hated it. Will Normal, who I think ended up a semitruck driver in Canada, was the worst of them. His teeth had been like almonds.
When I confronted her about the Rick rumor a few nights before she left town, Haley laughed and said, “Um, no.”
“So it’s not true,” I said, watching her pack, because I wanted to know, and a part of me felt as though my sister was capable of it. I had already slashed Will Normal’s tires, but that hadn’t been about revenge so much as it was just to feel better.
“You’re asking me if I’m banging Rick, the four-hundred-year-old night manager at Golden’s, the grocery store where we work? Because some bagboy said so?”
“No, Ben. I’m not having sex with Rick.” She dropped an INXS T-shirt into the suitcase. “And this is why I am leaving,” she said. “Exactly this.”
“This,” she said, making two circles with her hands, Miyagi-like, I suppose to indicate the whole world around us and everything that was wrong with it.
Remembering this, thirty-two-year-old me leaned back into the seat and laid a hand on the wheel. “I’m sure the town is the same,” I said. “Time stands still here, like it does in a postcard. Or something. Right?”
“Or in hell.”
I guessed Haley would add some withering condemnation of the people here next, something along the lines of St. Helens being populated by the modern cultural equivalent of fourteenth-century peasantry, her usual attitude about Wisconsin, but she said nothing. I looked at a cloud of bugs floating in front of Denny’s garage, and then to the right, at the frame of an unfinished fence. It occurred to me that Denny had been the one who’d been working on it. And I knew my uncle. I knew how annoyed he would have been, had he still existed, that he’d left something partially finished.
We lingered in the silence.
“So?” I said eventually. “Anything new?”
“He’s back in Winchester at his parents’ house, living in the room where he grew up, masturbating into his socks.”
“The maid’s doing his laundry and he’s golfing with his father in the afternoons. He’s finally figured out how to crawl back into his own adolescence. It turned out to be easy.”
“John masturbates into his socks?” I asked. I frowned at the garage door. It seemed so uncomfortable.
“That’s his way.”
The situation regarding John Carraway, my sister’s husband, was simple on the surface, but the whole thing became a little more complicated if you’d spent any time with him and knew him, as I did, as a pretty decent fellow. Beyond the adultery. He was a soft-spoken, sensitive, balding Episcopalian from Connecticut who enjoyed birding and had studied classics at Yale, where he and Haley first met. (He liked watching squirrels too, although it’s possible this was just a deeply weird joke Haley liked to tell that I’d never understood.) He was an industrial-machinery executive—sinecure—who traveled a great deal, and a few months before, on some Tuesday night in St. Louis, idling in his rental car on a street corner in the Landing, he had managed to get himself arrested by a police officer who was posing as a hooker.
This had happened on a bleak night in March, and for weeks afterward John tried to conceal his arrest from my sister and from his employers. I found there to be great disharmony to it all. I didn’t know what to think and I was doing my best to stay out of it. Maybe it was a one-time thing. Maybe not. It was very hard to tell. For all I knew John had been doing this for years and years, possibly even running around with his penis out while chasing unsuspecting female bird enthusiasts through the woods of New England. The point is that it’s hard to know a person.
In the end it was just a piece of mail about his trial date that came while he was out of town that got him caught. Haley opened it; that’s it. She found his mug shot online and e-mailed me the link a few days after she kicked him out of the house, but his company still didn’t know, and so far my sister had stopped herself from telling John’s bosses, who were all a part of their social circle. She’d admitted to me that she’d been tempted more than once. Our parents didn’t know. They just knew about the separation.
John and Haley had three kids, two girls and a boy, and that made things, according to Haley, complicated.
I was trying to have no opinion.
“Things will be better when school starts again and it’s just me and the baby,” Haley said. “I’ll have more time to kill myself.”
“I think you should come up here for a visit.”
I did want to see her. How had she aged; how did it seem in the flesh? What had the middle of her thirties done to her? What might Haley look like walking through the downtown streets of St. Helens, where she hadn’t been in almost twenty years? Where she had once been a kind of queen? Time-related questions abounded. I had not seen her in almost five years. There were different explanations for this, but most of it was my fault.
Denny had a couple of flower beds dappled across the front yard, and I couldn’t remember whether they’d been there before. They were just the kinds of things Denny would have insisted on putting in himself, and I imagined him at work, hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow on a Sunday morning.
From the look of the woods at the end of the yard and Denny’s brown lawn, it had been a dry summer here. I would need to put sprinklers out for the grass. Nothing alive in the flower beds anymore—instead of color, just patches of vertical twigs.
“So how are you?” said my sister.
Which meant: Now let’s talk about your fucked-up life instead.
“Good,” I said. “I made it. I guess that’s it.”
“Is it feeling like the right decision?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Which was totally true, I wasn’t just avoiding. There was more to the story than my sister needed to know, though; a lot of it had to do with Jeremy and Allie, and the game, and not feeling comfortable in my own skin out west since my release, where I had been walking the streets of Southeast like a zombie, doing very little. How do I say it without putting people off? We’ve only just met. For some time I’d been feeling as though my whole self were coated in Novocain.
In the silence, I could hear her trying to figure out what could have gone so wrong for me in Portland, post-Chestik, that I would actually agree to my father’s recent proposal. Then I heard the clinks of her pouring wine.
Haley and John lived in some part of Boston the name of which I could never recall—something that sounded like an English fiefdom—and from what I could gather, the place was large, expensive, and sterile. John’s family was already rich, and Haley still had her trust fund, and between the two of them and all that wealth, they’d made themselves even wealthier. Unlike me, my sister inherited our father’s gift for understanding the flow of money in the river of the American economy, and I suspected she and he engaged in late-night chats, both of them drinking sixteen-year Glenlivet, discussing aspects of the day’s stock exchange action that made little sense to anyone but the 1 percent. The 1 percent of the 1 percent.
On top of this intuitive savvy, Haley worked too—she did IT consulting, usually from home, under the aegis of a company she’d created. Her clients were multinational corporations I had never heard of. Sinetco, based in Singapore. Lorent. One-word corporations, the kind with no function in the eyes of a regular person, the kind that did not pay taxes, the kind that spent money bulldozing the bodies of indigenous peoples into tremendous holes in order to make room for resource exploitation. (Or so I cynically imagined. In truth, I just knew nothing. At this moment in my life, my only real areas of expertise concerned ultra-obscure strains of genetically enhanced marijuana and backgammon strategy; it made me defensive to think that my sister knew so much more than I did about the world.) What I did know: her hourly consulting rate was more than I had ever legitimately earned in a week.
“Have you found a meeting yet?” she asked.
“I got here ten minutes ago,” I said.
“And leave me alone.”
“Do you think Denny has internet?”
“I think so,” she said. “We used to e-mail. Has anyone been paying his bills?”
“You have it then.”
“You and Denny used to e-mail?”
“Why do you say it like that?”
“I didn’t know he even had an e-mail address.”
“Of course he did,” she said. “It’s not 1996, Benjy.”
“I thought he only used Pony Express.”
“I think we’ve moved into a time in history when all people have e-mail addresses.”
“You actually think that?”
“The Luddite thing is not as compelling as you think it is.”
“As though most of the world isn’t poor and without plumbing, let alone internet?”
“Oh my God,” she said. “I mean among people who matter.”
“Do you know how much you sometimes sound like our father?”
“It’s totally on purpose.”
“You should not be proud of that.”
“Denny had a Facebook account too,” she said, ignoring this. “Didn’t you know that? When he died I put something up on his wall, just a little RIP note. It turned into a memorial. People all posted things, remembrances. You know. E-funeral. That’s what happens now. We may as well not even have bodies. We are the cloud.”
“I’ve never understood Facebook,” I said.
“I’ve been trying to e-mail them about Denny’s account. And tell them that he’s, you know… not alive.”
“What a bizarre thing to have to do.”
“But yesterday I was thinking—don’t you think it would make sense for them to give us his password and just let us into his account?”
“I think it would be nice to set up a kind of permanent memorial. Or so we can take the page down, eventually. Otherwise he’s going to be up there forever. It creeps me out.”
“I have no idea what that even means,” I said.
“Of course you don’t.”
“You can handle all of that. I’ll handle his house.”
I looked at his fence.
“I’ll finish the fence.”
The good news was that it turned out significant damage was not that significant. The house was not trashed—not according to my understanding of trashed, anyway, which was essentially unlimited. Yes, there were small signs. There was a coffee can full of cigarettes sitting on the kitchen table (I found that to be thoughtful, actually), a couple of broken glasses in the sink, lots of bottles, and the smell of stagnant alcohol about the place. However, but for a half-empty bottle of Colt 45 on the coffee table, on a coaster, Denny’s living room had been untouched. It really wasn’t so bad. The kids who’d had the party had kept themselves confined to the kitchen and the back porch, and I spent a few moments imagining the scene, imagining all of them around the table, laughing and drinking, not in the least bit disturbed by their surroundings, a dead man’s home, just glad to have found a place where they were safe—or so they thought. An insomniac jogger had been the one to do them in; at 3:00 a.m., he’d seen the cars in the driveway. And that’s all it ever takes, isn’t it? An intercepted e-mail, an unexpected jogger. A lost number. A rock in the wrong place. A man who can’t sleep who happens to be somewhere he usually isn’t.
I found that the sheets were a little messed up in Denny’s bedroom, but who knew whether that had been the work of the kids or just the remnants of Denny’s last morning on Earth. There could very well have been teenager sex here, I thought, surveying. Some lines I would not cross. I couldn’t decide, though, thinking about my uncle, whether he was the type to make the bed right away.
In the end I stripped it and took the heap of sheets downstairs and stuffed everything into the washing machine.
Upstairs, in the living room, I sat on the couch for a few minutes, sniffing at the air, trying to judge whether I was going to have to steam-clean the carpet, then just trying not to nod off. If I did now, there would be no chance of sleep tonight. So, lids heavy, I spied Denny’s record player in the built-in bookshelf across the room and got up to browse.
I found the CSNY right away.
I got some water, sat back down.
Stared at the wall.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
A little background as the song plays:
My sinecure was to guard the house. It was my job to clean it up, fix it up, and do whatever needed to be done in order to usher it onto the market and get it sold. For my services as flipper and resident, per insane agreement with my father, I was to receive 25 percent on the sale, which was a stupid percentage for the work I would be doing, but my father was aware that my whole trust was shot, and he had to have suspicions about the extent of my debt too. He knew for sure that I had nothing, is what I’m saying, and he had found a way to give me, at the very least, ground upon which I might potentially stand. Again.
They’d inherited Denny’s house, but my parents wanted nothing to do with the place. My dad thought it was haunted by his brother’s ghost; I think the whole thing just made my mother sad beyond words and that she couldn’t bear to think of Denny dying alone in the basement sanding a table, like he had. She never wanted to see the house again, she said.
That was all well and good and would have been no trouble in 2002, but now, because the real estate market had tanked—especially for old, unusual homes in little Wisconsin towns, and ones that needed work, to boot—there was no telling how long it would take to sell. After the Independence Day fiesta, the pressure had gone up. Now my parents thought of the house as more of a liability than an asset. What if those kids had burned it down and fried themselves during their party? What if snakes took over the basement? You know all the nightmares. What if “hoboes” began to squat? The risks were intolerable.
My dad called Portland in July.
“I have an alternative to your reprehensible plan to travel around the world, Ben. You might call it a favor.”
I had happened upon a copy of Eat, Pray, Love at the bookstore and had sent my parents a postcard telling them that I was going to do it too.
“I’m not traveling around the world,” I said. “That was a joke.”
“We have an alternative.”
He explained his fears about Denny’s house.
“Why don’t you just sell it for half of what it’s worth,” I said, “and just be done with it? It’s not like you need the money. And there’s no mortgage anymore.”
This was a nice July day out west. I was sitting on my front porch in Portland with a cup of coffee resting on my stomach, my feet up, crossed over the white paint chips of my railing, book (Vonnegut, Galápagos) hugging the arm of the chair, glad we had the sun. It was July 13, I think, a Sunday, and I hadn’t seen my mother or father since May, when they’d come to visit after my release and we’d spent three uncomfortable days going out to meal after meal in the nicest Portland restaurants, only to sit in an awkward triangle around the different tables as I said nothing about my time in Chestik and my mother attempted to keep things lively by flirting with the sommeliers. We’d talked when Denny died too, but I hadn’t come home for the funeral, nor had I wanted to—not because I didn’t think what had happened to him was sad, but because I guessed it would have been impossible for me to stay sober at the wake, and I had been doing well. Word to the wise and to those who will one day follow in my footsteps: it’s a hell of a lot easier to reinvent yourself when your family’s not there.
I explained my nonappearance away—they seemed to accept it. I’d gotten a new copywriting job in June, even after checking the I AM A FELON box on the application (hilarious), and I told my parents that my employer, a pharmaceutical company called Krieg Industries, wouldn’t give me the days off. In truth, I didn’t even ask. The day after Denny had his heart attack and died, I got laid off anyway, right along with every other employee at Krieg. They’d tanked—the FDA had pulled the plug during the phase II trials of what the company had hoped would be its flagship drug. It was called Hezonica, and it was supposed to help men stop snoring. Which it did. But it also decreased the circumference of their testicles.
“That sort of solution,” said my father, responding to my idea of selling Denny’s house cheap, “is how you started with money and now have nothing. And why your sister started with the same amount and now has quite a lot.”
“Isn’t it all profit anyway?” I said. “And besides,” I added, “isn’t there a value to having the inconvenience gone?”
“There is, yes,” he said, “but just because that’s the case, it doesn’t mean you have to immediately make a rash decision. I have a different idea. Let me run it by you.”
“What exactly is your current employment situation? Are they still wearing you out at the drug shop? Krieg?”
“The snore pills shrunk everyone’s balls.”
“What?” he said.
“It turned out that the drug, along with being the cure for snoring, shrunk everyone’s testicles.”
“By how much?”
“The company’s dead, Dad. I got laid off last week. That’s the whole story.”
“It’s an amazing time in the American economy,” he mused, and I imagined him grin-squinting like Theodore Roosevelt, shaking his head, because of course he was insulated from it all; as an executive at Hedley, he would continue to get richer as the realities of our failing economy became more and more apparent in the coming years. As payback for moments of smugness such as this one, for a long time it had given me great satisfaction to imply to members of my family, by way of well-placed hints here and there, that I believed in Soviet-style communism. The simple truth, though, was that I didn’t understand money. I just didn’t. I didn’t want to. I still don’t want to. And while I was aware, then, that this was a paradoxical privilege of the wealthy, to be able to choose to not understand it, I hadn’t yet come close to realizing how cowardly it was to detach oneself completely from the past.
“Have you heard about the current state of Lehman?” my father continued. “I suppose you don’t follow that kind of thing. But more important. This means you’re currently unemployed?”
That was what he needed.
I unpacked in Denny’s room. I hesitated in the hallway, wondering if it might be better to sleep in the living room on the couch, or in Wayne’s room, but Denny’s bed was the best, and I didn’t want to start my exile on a superstitious note. For all my father’s and sister’s realpolitiking about money and life and their cynicism about people and the way things were, for all their realism, the belief in ghosts and spirits was part of their shared ethos, another way in which they were the same. How does that happen? It’s as though all worldviews need escape valves of insanity. My mother—who was the principal of an elementary school and who spent a large part of her days talking to people who could barely count or tie their shoes, let alone tell the difference between fantasy and reality—found anything supernatural, whether it was God, pixies, vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, or krakens, silly. So did I.
I went out to the garage and got Denny’s empty blue recycling bin and started cleaning the kitchen, which stank of alcohol. The linoleum underfoot was sticky with spilled beer, but I discovered a half a bottle of Mr. Clean under the sink and mopped the floor. Then I gathered up the bottles and the cans. I found Denny’s liquor cabinet and poured everything he had down the sink.
After four or five bottles, the smell was strong enough to push me into the other room. I took a break and put on side two of the CSNY and then went and looked at the photos on the mantel—there were some pictures of Denny and my father as boys; a few of the whole family; and single shots of me, Haley, and Wayne, all from our high school years. We were the three of this generation. My picture was one I had seen a thousand times in my parents’ house. My hair was longer then, my face skinnier, but I had the same raised-eyebrow dipshit smirk I always wore when someone told me to smile.
I looked at Wayne. He was smiling a big-toothed smile, as though the person taking the picture had caught him in the act of laughing a genuine laugh, the opposite of mine. The guy had probably only said, “Say cheese,” in a lifeless monotone. I remembered that about my cousin. As long as he detected a try at humor, he would give up a good yelp. His hair was bushy and curly, and in the picture he wore a white button-down and a tie even though he’d gone to St. Helens High, just like me, and we had no uniforms. There was something about Wayne, though, in that era of his life—informal, but I could see him dressing up on picture day on principle, when most of his peers would have been wearing the same T-shirts they always wore. He cared about stuff like that; he always had. He looked neither dark nor depressed. He looked happy. This was taken before college.
It was past eight o’clock, deep into dusk, when I finally hauled the full recycling bin to the end of the driveway. There were too many bottles for the one bin, so I ended up using Denny’s wheelbarrow for the second load. I had worked up a sweat cleaning, and my white T-shirt was wet at the chest and under my arms.
Out at the end of the driveway, I saw some headlights. Unlike the county highways that crisscrossed Wisconsin and made the state into a grid of boxes, Beau Pointe Road, Denny’s road, wound up through the woods and the hills like a deer path, connecting maybe twenty homes to Highway 121, which led to St. Helens’s downtown and eventually became Main Street. Denny’s house wasn’t really in a neighborhood, and there wasn’t all that much traffic on the road.
I stood and watched, one hand on the wheelbarrow and one hand on my hip. I watched as a pickup truck towing a horse trailer wound up the hill.
The truck eased around the bend. I don’t think the driver looked at me, and the light was not good at all, but as it passed I was surprised to realize that the woman driving looked familiar.
My parents waited until I graduated high school before they moved to Chicago and left St. Helens, my father’s hometown, behind. For all those years in St. Helens, my father slowly climbed into and then upward through the ranks at Astronautics Corporation of America, a large company outside Milwaukee that for decades had been making technical instruments for the aeronautics field. His own father had worked there as an engineer for forty years, designing the gyroscopic gizmos that went into the cockpits of fighter jets.
My father did well. But the money—the big money—was all on my mother’s side. Her family name was Weltz, and the fortune was linked to a chemical company called Hedley. The money was old, diverse, and enormous. Even so, my father, after meeting my mother in Hyde Park at U of C in the late sixties, had insisted on coming back to St. Helens to work in his own way and raise his family like he’d been raised. Not in New York, where her parents were. Not “aristocratic.” Rather, with family nearby. With real people nearby. To prevent his children from “becoming psychopaths.” He and Denny had been closer in the seventies, right after the war, and St. Helens was a safer place to be than Chicago. The schools were good. It was his home, he’d grown up there, and he could vouch for the quality of life. So the complex argument went. My mother, who—to him, then—seemed to have grown up drinking tea in various Connecticut gazebos, surprised him by liking the idea.
Twenty years later, fully aware of my father’s weakness for the wholesome, or at least the appearance of the wholesome, my sister came up with the ingenious idea of working at Golden’s Grocery and Supply, something my mother didn’t understand—it meant the end of both of Haley’s careers, as ballerina and opera singer—but that my father loved, as he had been a bagboy there back in his school days. Bagboys: true labor. He liked to talk about good character and work ethic, how minimum wage could teach you some things about life. How customer service at that intimate a level would put good business sense in your bones. In other words: my sister worked my father’s class guilt until he let her apply for the job. He was a fundamentalist when it came to the narrative of the Midwest, and in this way he was vulnerable. Add to that that he could never say no to my sister, and the lessons in ruling-class activities were dropped; Haley learned to work the cash register instead.
I started working there when I was old enough, but only because Haley told me it was an unguarded portal to cigarettes, alcohol, and any drug I could possibly need.
It was 9:30 p.m., a half hour before closing time, and the store was now lit up like a Christmas tree. I’d come down because there was no food in the house.
After a moment of simply looking, remembering, I walked through the sliding doors.
The first thing I noticed was that they’d expanded and moved the checkout lanes. But the smell from the bakery was the same, and so were the yellow T-shirts of the girls working the registers. Only two right now, the hour being what it was. Mr. Golden had a strict policy: girls at the registers, boys at the bags.
I saw an old man bent over some ledgers at the customer-service kiosk. Muzak overhead. Not many customers around. Over at the end of the produce aisle, a skinny kid lazily pushed a gray parallelogram-shaped floor cleaner.
I filled a handbasket with some staples—for me, this meant saltine crackers and smooth peanut butter, two products of the modern era that can sustain the life of a vegetarian indefinitely and with great efficiency—and then wandered the aisles until I found the tea. I was impressed; the selection was more substantial than it had been in my time. I was reading the back of a box of something fancy when I felt somebody amble up to me on my left.
I stepped to the side to let the other shopper pass, not looking up, and heard a man’s voice say, “That’s not Benjy Hanson, is it?”
I glanced over. It was the same old man who’d been at the ledgers. He smiled, hands in pockets. He looked embarrassed.
“It is,” I said, trying to put face to name, still holding the box of tea near my eyes. I was about to say Do I know you? when I saw his name tag.
His face manufactured a new smile, some relief at being recognized, as I held out my hand, and we shook. It was Rick Hagan, the same manager I’d long ago asked Haley about and who’d come to mind when I’d driven by the first time. He looked like he’d aged 3,750 years.
“What’s it been?” he said. “Fifteen years?”
“At least that,” I said.
“Listen, I’m down a guy tonight,” he said. He cocked his thumb. “What say you throw on an apron and go face up aisle three for me?”
“I’m still wearing my apron under these clothes.”
This, for a moment, stopped Rick’s jokey smile in its tracks as he recomputed the new vector of humor, and his eyes ticked down to my chest for a moment as he solved the equation, then hammed up some fake investigating, squinting and looking closely at my T-shirt. Not the greatest timing in the world.
“I’m not seeing an apron under there,” he said. “Whoa!”
He laughed loudly now.
“It’s really good to see you,” I said.
“What gives us the pleasure?”
“I’m staying up at my uncle’s place,” I said, thumb over my shoulder in what I thought might be the right direction. “It’s empty now. There was a break-in, so I’m back to watch over it for a little bit. Just kind of passing through and helping out my parents. You know.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” he said. “Dennis.” He shook his head. “That was sad news,” he said. “Dennis. Always the nicest guy. Back then and now. He was always in here chatting up the girls.”
“What? The high school girls?”
“Oh God, no, not like that,” Rick said, performing a small, crisp version of an umpire’s safe signal with hands and forearms, shaking his head at the same time. Safe… from small-town pedophilia! “Harmless, harmless. Denny was just a big showoff. They all loved him. You know how he was.”
“He really was a character.”
“Really too bad.”
“It really is.”
“And you?” I said. “How are you?”
“Fine, good, yup,” he said, nodding deeply. “May’s doing well. Still at Prevea. The girls both went to Milwaukee for school and they’re still over there.”
“Remind me of their names?”
“Christy and Jennifer. You probably remember them, I bet. Am I right? We had ’em down here all the time.”
I did remember them, actually. They’d been tiny then, both under ten. In the summers they would come for ice cream from the dairy cooler and ride their scooters in the parking lot. You would sometimes see them shoot past the front windows. Wheeled nymphs.
“How long you staying around?” he asked. “This’ll just be a temporary thing, then, I’m guessing? Have you got a permanent setup somewhere else? Somewhere out west, is it?”
“I’ll probably just stick around until we can get Denny’s house sold.”
“You have a family with you?”
“You have a career out there?”
“You been doing anything interesting?”
“Not at all.”
“But you’ll head back after this, then.”
“Probably,” I said. “Either that or travel around the world. Like in Eat, Pray, Love.”
Rick nodded at this as though I had told him I had throat cancer.
It occurred to me that he was being kind by not asking about it, though, and that he probably knew that I’d gone to pansy prison and didn’t have much to show for myself as an adult, that I was a fairly pathetic case and that there was very little explanation, and that it was right for him to be showing me great pity, all things considered. And he knew that I was as reliably full of shit as I had been years ago. And that it was a stupid joke, actually, this joke of mine which I’d now double-used, and that it didn’t really mean anything and was even a little condescending. But I didn’t see anything like judgment in his eyes. Just that I was not anonymous, that he felt I was probably lost and, because of this, an object of curiosity.
“Well,” he said. “Okay then. I’ll let you get your shopping done. Just wanted to say hello.” He held out a hand to shake again. “If you don’t have too much stuff, come by customer service and I’ll check you out with the discount.”
He turned and walked away down the aisle.
He didn’t look that old, actually, now that I saw him walking. He looked healthy. It was only that now, today, I was nearly as old as he’d been back then. At least that’s how it felt.
I was outside putting my groceries in the trunk when I glanced over toward the dumpsters and saw another specter. This one was sitting on the concrete stoop smoking a cigarette.
I closed the trunk and wandered over in that direction, hands in my pockets.
“Do you have any extra meat you could spare?” I said. “Sir?”
He barely looked over.
When I took a few more steps, he finally glanced up to appraise me sidelong, but after a few seconds his expression changed, and he snorted and smiled and said, “Jesus. Fucking Benjamin. The prodigal son. What’s up, dude? Welcome back to the S-H.”
“Hey,” I said, walking over to him as he stood. We hugged. Grant was bigger than me, height and girth both. “You smell like pork chops,” I said. “Let go of me.”
He was smiling wide when he leaned away to take me in. His hair was long, like it had been years ago, but it was pulled back in a little knot and tucked up under a hairnet. He’d put on a little weight but he actually looked pretty good, I thought. Pretty close to how I remembered him. He’d never been my closest friend, but we’d always had a thing, me and him. (Besides, I thought right then, had I even had a closest friend?) We’d always connected well, and back when I first started at Golden’s, he’d taken me under his wing, taught me how to steal beer by putting it in the dumpster.
He’d been a good football player, I recalled, but not quite good enough for college. He’d stuck around in town after he graduated, and he had an apartment where I often went to drink, play video games, hang around when I was skipping school or didn’t feel like being at home. His apartment was where I stayed, too, those times I would come back to St. Helens during college. He never went.
We drifted apart, though, and I came back less often my junior and senior years, then never. I guess Grant was the kind of friend with whom you always had fun but with whom you did not keep in touch.
“I gotta say it, dude,” he said. “What happened to you out there?”
“What?” I said. “In Oregon?”
“Uh, yeah, out in Oregon. Prison? Were you not in prison?”
“I got out a few months ago.”
“How much time’d you do?”
“Fourteen months,” I said. “Most of it was in minimum security.”
“You’d be surprised.” I considered my groceries. Chestik was the prison for people who ate baby arugula when they weren’t in prison.
“And what’d you do again? Burn something down?”
“Not really,” I said. Then: “Kind of. It’s really very boring.”
He let it go after a few more vague questions. After, Grant and I sat for a while. I told him what I was doing back, told him some of my stories from Denver, told him about blowing out my ankle at Breckenridge. I didn’t tell him about the arson and he didn’t ask again. He told me how he’d gotten married to a girl from Mishicot and had a kid, but they were divorced now, and he only ever saw his daughter on the weekends.
“Which is the worst, man. I had a couple OWIs and that was it. Hell no, custody. It took me two years just to get a few days.” He took a drag from his cigarette. “If you don’t want pain, don’t have kids.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
We chatted for a little while longer, then I gave him my cell and stood up.
“I gotta go eat,” I said. “But, hey, before I go, let me ask you something.”
“So tonight I was there at my uncle’s place and I swear, I swear, that I saw Lauren Sheehan drive by in a pickup truck. Is that possible? Is she around? Do you remember her?”
“Yeah, she’s around. I think she does drive a truck. For work.”
“Why’s she here?”
“What, in town?”
“She came back maybe three or four years ago,” he said. “I honestly don’t even know why. Her brother says she had some crazy husband go psycho on her.”
“I don’t know. Just snapped, I guess? I don’t know,” he said. “But that whole family’s all secretive about it. And Bobby’s so fucked up I don’t trust anything he says anyway.”
“So she’s not married?”
“Look at you,” he said, smiling.
“Answer the question.”
I woke up at around two thirty. Insomnia since Chestik. Something to do with the size of the world.
I got out of bed and got dressed, went downstairs, and looked for a moment at Jeremy’s computer, still not hooked up to anything. Instead of booting it up, I rooted around in Denny’s kitchen drawers until I found a flashlight and then I got my keys.
Outside, the stars were bright, the houses on either side were dark. I went down the middle of the road, and after ten minutes of walking I came to the T I remembered from the times I’d walked this way in search of my cousin. Go right, pass the quarry and a half a mile of cornfields, and you could wind your way back down into town; go left and you could ascend the steeper part of Beau Pointe Hill. It was no more than five hundred feet high, but it was a mountain when I was young.
I went left, up. I walked past a half dozen driveways, the nearby houses hidden by the woods, the road still empty, silent. Being up here reminded me of Wayne. He used to make me answer riddles each time I came to see him. His riddles weren’t very good—they were just the ones you always heard, the who-am-Is. You’ve heard them. I think he had a book. But back then, I found them to be a kind of magic, and I have to say that looking at them again now, it’s difficult not to see them as inadvertently profound, no matter the answers. I make you weak at the worst of all times, I keep you safe, I keep you fine. I make your hands sweat and your heart grow cold, I visit the weak but seldom the bold. Who am I? You are fear. I am like day, you can find me near the river any day, and you can make almost anything out of me. Who am I? You are clay. The rich eat me, the poor have me, if you eat me you will die. Who am I? You are nothing.
This was Wayne, though, and so, mixed in with questions from his book, every fourth or fifth, there would also come from the Keeper of the Tree House—he yelled them down in a spooky voice—totally practical questions: How do you remember how to tighten and untighten screws, Benjamin? Lefty loosey, righty tighty. And what’s the best way to ensure that your car battery won’t die in cold weather, Benjamin? I mean, if you’re really serious about it not dying? You have to take the battery out. What is the exact temperature right now? Seventy-two. That is incorrect, according to my thermometer. What do you say to that? You don’t have a thermometer. You are banished!
Those times were all gone.
I came to the place I’d been looking for, a path that led off from the road, marked by a brown wooden sign, small-cap letters engraved and painted gold. I hadn’t turned on the flashlight and I didn’t need to do it now. I knew what the sign said. BEAU POINTE OVERLOOK. Discovered (white-man discovered) and named by a Jesuit explorer, Pierre Bettencourt, who’d come south from the river system in the Fox Valley at the end of the 1600s, making a slow trip inland while the more pragmatic of his fellow explorers stuck to Lake Michigan or the Fox or the Wisconsin, many of them still in search of a Northwest Passage. I liked to think of old Pierre as the black sheep of the Jesuits, either lost here in this place or completely impractical—or maybe just a wanderer—because there was no good reason to come here, fifty-five miles west of the big lake, or to climb a hill that overlooked nothing. Other than just to come.
I strolled across the empty parking lot and looked down at St. Helens.
The streetlights made a yellow grid, and the black line meandering through the center was the river, dark enough to be the river Styx. A few homes were lit up, a few spirits squaring off against the vacuum, like me. I watched toy-size cars crawl down Main. But there was no sound coming up. No sound of the city. Just what I could see. Just my breath. Just the trees. Just me, and beside me, the ghost of old Pierre.
I tried to guess what might have gone through his mind when he first looked down in this manner. What does a Jesuit consider? Most likely he was exhausted, starving. There was no town. His feet hurt. I have no idea if it was night.
I thought: All that we are given shall be taken in the end.
And I don’t know why these particular words came into my head, as they don’t strike me as appropriate even now, but those were the words I heard.
I took them as a greeting.
My Father Has a Ridiculous Request
Here is something.
From first grade on, after the SRAs, Haley and I were “gifted,” which meant we buzzed along the advanced track of the public school system.
This was right for Haley; my sister’s mind was a supercomputer. She thought through problems deliberately, slowly, carefully. She took excellent notes. She went back and checked her work. She was anal; she was a perfectionist. She was uncompromising but also good at everything.
I was not like Haley.
I hated details. I was sloppy; I often didn’t care about being right or wrong. I never talked to my teachers. I showed no interest beyond the interest I was supposed to show. I barely read. I thought about nothing. I forgot everything four days after learning it. I enjoyed playing Zork. I learned how to read playing King’s Quest.
But I was on the advanced track too, all the better classes, all the APs, all the telling signs of the future leaders of the world. And the only reason I got on that track, and later managed to get myself into Madison—though barely, as my GPA had gone from the high 3s to the low 2s by my senior year—was one simple, crucial characteristic that harmonized with our quantitative world: I was, and am, an amazing test taker.
This is different than understanding the world.
How do I say it? I listen. If you approach a situation in the right way—if you don’t care much but still listen—you can perceive what a poorly devised question’s getting at: you can hear the truth in the background. And most questions on standardized tests are poorly devised.
I needed to work for two years when I got to Denver after I graduated college—this calculation was based, simply, on knowing that I was going to gain control of my trust when I was twenty-four, so long as my parents believed I was responsible enough to handle it. They’d built it that way on purpose and had made it clear, all our lives, that during the two years after graduation, they would not support either of us. (As though floating for two years, single and with no children, resembled anything like making it in the real world.) But whatever. That was the task. I picked Denver because I wanted to ski.
For a few months I was a waiter. A bad waiter. (I was eventually fired for not knowing the difference between lobster and red snapper.)
But then one day, broke, having almost failed the test that had been manufactured by my mother and father, the test of simple self-sufficiency (especially humiliating because I was, as I’ve just said, a good test taker, but I think what I mean refers to paper, not life), I was walking home down Sixteenth Street and saw the storefront of a place where they taught classes on all the big standardized exams.
Kaplan, it was called.
I realized, watching a couple kids go through the glass doors, that there was an entire industry based on bullshitting.
I became a bullshitting tutor.
And I helped them.
I just helped them hear.
So, listen, person, because all of this matters.
Sleep came that first night eventually—sleep and dreams I could not remember. I woke earlier than I wanted, then ran, eyes greedy, pulling at the new greens and yellows of the farms, the stone and wood and sheet metal of the houses, sheds, silos, and warehouses of this place.
After I showered and ate my cereal, I hooked Jeremy’s computer to Denny’s monitor and connected the Ethernet to the back.
Haley was right—Denny’s internet still worked. When I logged in I saw there was an e-mail from my father with a subject line that read Extremely Important, Ben, Read Immediately, which I ignored, and an e-mail from our real estate agent welcoming me to town and telling me to let her know when I wanted to start showing the house. Her name was Theresa Orgogliosi. She used an emoticon.
In the chat box there were two green dots that showed who among my modestly populated address book was online: Haley and Jeremy.
I clicked Jeremy’s name and the chat window opened up.
I thought for a moment that it might be wiser to create some kind of fake address and try to disguise where I was (this was the extent of what I knew about internet espionage), but I figured that (a) this was Jeremy, and he’d be able to find me, regardless, by using dork internet magic, and (b) it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t hiding anyway. I chose aggressive honesty.Me: As you probably know, J, I stole your computer. Me: Sorry. Me: That’s sincere. Me: Really.
It took him about a minute to respond. I imagined him sitting at his desk in some vibrant loft office outside of Seattle, surrounded by two or three dozen twenty-somethings coding away, speaking Klingon to one another, riding unicycles to and from the bathroom. Jeremy, silent, staring at my words, considering. Jeremy: not joking around or even noticing the background because he was more serious than his employees. More calculating. Pencil in mouth. Wondering about my angle, or if I had an angle, or if I was only being impulsive and rash.
He had to know already that it was me who’d broken into his house, but since I’d taken the computer, I’d heard nothing from him, no e-mail or phone calls demanding it back.
Maybe he wanted me to see the complete version of the game. I hadn’t looked for it yet, but I thought there was a good chance it was on the drive. It’s possible he liked the idea.
Finally:Jeremy: why? Me: I think you know. Jeremy: i’m sure i do not know, benjy Me: Think harder. Jeremy: ok. i’ll play. you broke into my house and stole my computer for reverse-revenge because you inexplicably also DESTROYED OUR COMPANY FOR NO REASON RIGHT WHEN WE WERE ABOUT TO ACTUALLY MAKE SOMETHING AMAZING AND GOT CAUGHT BECAUSE YOU’RE STUPID Me: Caps means you’re yelling? Jeremy: its emphasis Me: There are lots of interesting things on your computer.
Like the picture of him and Allie on some beach, but not a beach in the Northwest, which I was now staring at in another open window. It looked like Hawaii; the water was Photoshop aqua. Jeremy looked healthier than he used to look—he had a tan and definitely had started going to the gym; the softness I associated with his body, the patina of blubber that is the inheritance of all nerds who spend their days entranced by computer monitors, leaning into them, drinking soda, psychically caressing pixels, was gone. Maybe yoga, considering Allie. (She looked painfully lean and amazing.) He was leaning back on a towel, waving a meek casual wave from the wrist, stupid grin on his face as though uncomfortable in this new body, uncomfortable in this new place with this new, too beautiful woman beside him. (Uncomfortable also because he now had no functioning soul.)
Allie was kneeling on her towel, caught in the act of getting up on her way to the water, smiling a big smile. Displaying her usual unself-consciousness, wearing a red and yellow bikini I had never seen. Her hair was still dyed black—she’d always hated her natural blond—but she’d grown it longer and the bangs were gone. She looked happy. Happier.
No message then, and so I stared at the picture for a little longer, felt myself getting sad and turned on at the same time. It wasn’t a great combination.
I clicked the little x and made Hawaii disappear.Jeremy: theres nothing interesting—like damaging, i mean—on that hard drive, ben. you can keep it, i don’t care. and i get that you were sending a message about the game, but honestly, i moved on when you got arrested. i’m pretty sure you understood that then. we don’t have a contract because you don’t sign things. i appreciate all of your contributions but we don’t have a contract. and you and i both know that our friendship was fucked up beyond allie. way before. Jeremy: three things, ok? i’m just pissed. let me say these. Me: Go for it. Jeremy: 1. wtf are you doing in wisconsin? i can see your ip. aren’t you on parole? can you really go wherever? or, hm, come to think of it, do you really think it’s smart to document in writing that you stole property from my house? invaded OUR house? why am I not just going to the police rt now? again? tell me. Jeremy: 2. I think you knew, probably expected, when you were mailing me all those puzzles from chestik that I was gonna use some of it in the game, that I was still working on everything, that it was all gonna be real, and I think you felt desperate and stupid about throwing yr life away and all yr money away on nothing, so far as i can tell, and you were trying in some fucked-up way to apologize to me and stay connected to allie and still pass it off like it was no big deal and you were all mr. breezy about everything still, oh hey here’s another totally f’ing ingenious puzzle for you, sent to you from inside of my white-collar prison because i just happened to write it, oh, hey, i just make these up to entertain the other guys in here, oh, no big deal, which is something you love, and that you didn’t care about anything, your favorite pose in the world… Jeremy: … that you didn’t care one way or another just like everything you ever do. but you do care, b. you care about everything. a lot. i know you. i know that u fucking desperately care abt the world and everything and u have no idea how to talk abt it or connect to it and that that’s what makes you how you r. Me: Are you going to need a copay for this? Jeremy: so pretending you’re somehow outraged that i actually MADE the fucking game despite what you did and used some—SOME—of your stuff is passive-aggressive nonsense, esp. considering we ALWAYS agreed that your role was going to be generate the content. and because you were really good at it!!!! u r trickier than jareth the goblin king!!! Jeremy: 3. that said, why not just come up and talk to me about it and work something out? allie and i are both sitting up here waiting to hear from you since the day you got out. excited to show u what we did. hoping we can all find a way to have a friendship again. technology is changing, the way people use technology is changing. apps make everything different. hardware is going to be built around them, not vice versa. that’s what’s going to make us rich and make this all work. it’s not like i’m pretending that i thought up everything or that allie’s art isn’t hugely important to it or that you don’t deserve a windfall or part ownership or credit too… you do, you’ll get it, we’re working things out still, we’re gonna have an ipo eventually… you can have credit, whatever, did you even look through the credits on the site, btw? HAVE YOU PLAYED IT? you’re in there already. if breaking into my house is supposed to be some symbol of me stealing from you, either allie or anything else, it just doesn’t make sense because i’m not stealing anything from you and i think you’d get that if you thought about it more. you’re smart. i wanted to be your friend. you were nice to me. so let me be yr friend now. we’re not children and in life there are complicated fucked-up emotional situations and the way people get through those is by communicating. not weird symbolic tricks and un-decodable secret messages. Me: I stuck your toothbrush in my anus when I was in there. Jeremy: great Me: I did. Me: You guys don’t need to worry about me. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but I know you think you are being sincere right now.) What’s your home address? Jeremy: you mean the house you just burgled? Me: Yes. Jeremy: really? Me: I lost the scrap of paper. Jeremy: REALLY???? Jeremy: 2673 tower dr., nola, wa, 68913. why? Me: I’ll send you back your computer. Me: Good luck with the game. I guess. I gotta go. And I don’t want your money, btw. I don’t care about the company or an IPO. Please. I also don’t care about you or Allie. In fact I fucking hate you. Please lose this e-mail address. The game’s yours. Jeremy: well. we’ll talk. when I know more. Me: There’s no need. Jeremy: i know you think that Me: I’m serious. Jeremy: i know that but i don’t believe u, u always say shit like that.
There was a meeting in downtown St. Helens at 3:00, and so after lunch and after I mowed the lawn (not too short, summer sun, rain’s been light) and set out some sprinklers, I drove to town and parked in front of the library. I was early, so I walked past it and went along the river to John Muir Park and sat on one of the benches that ringed the statue.
I looked up at the statue.
It had always been here, right in the middle of this park. I didn’t know the first thing about the man.
I looked to the right, at a bird.
I had no idea what kind of bird it was.
I knew nothing.
The meeting: same circle and the same tired faces I had seen out west.
When I got back to the house there was a cleanly taped brown package on the doorstep, addressed to me in my mother’s meticulous handwriting.
I brought it inside, opened it up, and looked at the contents.
I called my father.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“Did you read the e-mail, Ben?” He sounded like he was yelling at me from a helicopter.
“Why didn’t you read the e-mail? I don’t understand. Did you receive the e-mail?”
“I didn’t read it.”
“I marked it as priority,” he said. “Did you not see that?”
“No one uses that. Where are you?”
“I do. I certainly do, son. If it’s a priority, I do.”
“I haven’t checked my e-mail.”
“Well,” he said after an exaggerated, yelled sigh. “It’s all there.” He yell-sighed again. “Read it and call me back if you’ve got questions. I’m in the middle of something.”
“Are you in Atlantis?”
“The lost city of Atlantis.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Is this what I think it is?”
“Is what what you think it is, Ben?”
“What you sent.”
“I’m very stressed right now for multiple reasons,” he yelled. “I lost my telephone and had to get a new one. I’m speaking to you on an entirely different telephone setup right now, if you can believe that. But the number is the same. It’s all in the letter.”
“Is it not illegal to ship… organic matter through the mail?”
“I don’t know, son!” he yelled. “Probably. I don’t know. It’s Denny, though. There’s your uncle! Surely you can ship a man back to his own home. Where else does he belong? There’s nothing illegal about that! Not on my watch!”
Subject: Sadness and Cell Phone on the Shores of the Bright River
My Dearest Ben, Light of My Life, Residue of My Loins,
I hope you’re settling in well at the house and that you haven’t come across Denny’s disembodied and moaning ghoulish presence or been disturbed by more teenagers, the true ghouls of our modern times. You’ve had a tough couple of days, son, what with the move, and I should start out not by joshing you around but by reiterating just how glad your mother and I are to have you back in our neck of the woods, your troubles from the past now fully behind you. You’re very smart and still very young—the substance-abuse issues were always difficult for us to understand, always extremely troubling and complex for us, and I imagine for you, and I’m happy that you’ve got them under control. I’ve always been impressed by the intelligence of both of my children, and although your sister has gone on to build a more stable and traditional existence and lifestyle, we respect your adventurous rogue spirit, your (we presume) knowledge of the underside of humanity, and your ability to help us with Sudoku. You’re fully on the road to recovery. We can see that. Your mother and I believe in you and look forward to watching as you forge new paths of success. That last sentence was not a joke. We know it hasn’t been easy getting it together. We are proud of your strength and proud that you’re our son.
Now. The matter at hand, which is not so much a priority, now that I think of it, but more of an important matter with a somewhat flexible timeline. A notable distinction. When something is a priority it means that it’s at the top of the list, and that it most likely requires IMMEDIATE attention. Priority is preeminence. I would call this important. It will require some attention on your part, but not immediate, and the task is somewhat laborious. What it amounts to is a small rider with regards to our agreement concerning Denny’s house and this excellent business arrangement you seem to have lucked into.
Your mother and I have, between the two of us, committed something of an administrative error, Ben. We’ve argued about its physical, metaphysical, and karmic implications for the past few weeks, your mother being of the mind that we simply tell no one, as is her chosen method of handling all conflict and unpleasantness, myself being of the mind that, out of respect for my brother and his wishes and a larger, more general respect for the dead and the various nearby planes the recently dead very well may continue to inhabit, as well as my own personal, tangential fear of my brother’s ghost one day rising up out of the sand trap on the local club’s sixteenth hole and burying a set of phantasmagorical fangs in my neck, or at least chastising me and interfering with my sand shot, or entering my dreams to talk to me about my faults, etc., as well as my own additional personal desire to either eventually retrieve my cell phone or be certain it’s no longer functional—it’s a little confusing to me which thing is most worrisome, in all honesty—we’ll need to make this right. You’ll need to make this right, I should say. Ben: you are the only one who can make this right. Help me, Obi-Ben Kenobi! You’re my only hope!
It looks like we’ve had a little mix-up with the ashes.
Let me explain. Do you happen to remember Billingsworth, the fabulously expensive show dog we had for a little more than a year before your mother backed over him in the driveway? A beautiful animal. It’s possible you never heard the story, as it happened in the era when we weren’t doing much communicating. Sad stuff. I believe you were some combination of high and snowboarding for roughly a decade and you rarely answered your phone—otherwise we would have told you all about it. Billingsworth, God rest his soul, was not smart and not likable, not to mention ugly, placing nineteenth out of twenty-two dogs at the only show your mother and I managed to take him to. (Upon realizing the general degree of insanity required to participate in that subculture, we opted out in favor of drinking in our living room, as we often do, and watching him sleep as a kind of perverse entertainment. This had no effect on Billingsworth’s self-esteem, I don’t think, although they say show dogs—good ones, at least—do have hangups with vanity that require servicing if they’re taken away from the pageantry lifestyle. Your mother and I discussed purchasing some kind of audio CD with recorded applause that we could play for him from time to time, not to mention play for ourselves, as we were given this advice, but for his brief time on the planet, with or without the thrill of competition, he seemed content to sleep under the ottoman and fart his way through the evenings. The veterinarian suspected he suffered from narcolepsy, but I remain convinced that it is not possible for a dog to have narcolepsy. That is another issue, and I am no veterinarian. It just feels wrong.)
Billingsworth, overall, was a very difficult dog to care about. This is what I am saying. He had no traits outside of his deficiencies, no real personality to speak of, and on top of that, walking him was an incredible chore, as it was always possible that you might look down and find him unconscious at the other end of the leash. If you did, you most likely would then have to carry him the rest of the way home. He was not small. And he was asleep, incidentally, when your mother killed him. He was very catlike in the way he used to seek out the shade. Another disconcerting characteristic, as all cats are untrustworthy, haughty, and evil.
Your uncle Denny’s will directed that he (Denny, not Billingsworth) be cremated, which, I am happy to report, went off without a hitch. (!) Fire. The memorial service also went well although we missed you. In his will, though, Denny requested—somewhat sentimentally, I think, but that is neither here nor there—that his ashes be scattered in the Bright River, just where it passes through his property in the UP. Do you remember Denny’s cabin up north? You must, considering Wayne’s death in 1994. You went once or twice when you were young but we never went back after Wayne. It was too awful a thing. And I know Denny tried to continue using the cabin and making trips, but I’m fairly certain he stopped spending time there in the last few years.
Nevertheless, he wouldn’t sell it. Which is understandable, I suppose. I therefore now own the property and am unsure what to do with it. Eventually I may seek your counsel on what might be done, as I’m truly at a loss, but that’s for later. Either way, here’s the point, son: Dennis wanted to be scattered in the river, Dennis was my brother, and it naturally fell on me to take him up there, which I did two weeks ago, not long before your arrival. I left at 5:00 a.m., as there was no way in hell I was going to actually spend the night there, and I got to his property a little past 1:00 p.m. I made good time. I sped wildly. I ate in the car. And after a few wrong turns and a few consultations of the map, I finally got to where I was supposed to be, unlocked the chain, drove up the long dirt driveway, parked, went past the cabin and straight to the river, sat down on the bank, said a few perfunctory words, ate a banana, scattered the ashes, wept uncontrollably for longer than I thought I had it in me to weep, had trouble standing due to some mud, and drove the eight hours home, stopping once for gas and more food. I didn’t want to get too caught up in mourning for Dennis all over again, as the memorial itself, back in St. Helens, had just about completely done me in. But seeing the property and being there added Wayne back into the equation, and added many very old memories of my brother and me spending time up there together alone, and drew into focus how tragic, really, my brother’s life was. How unfair and tragic. Almost through and through. One horror after the next, all of it random. He went to war, a choice that lost him the respect of our father for the remainder of his life, and while at war he lost his friends and was backed into unacceptable moral situations. He largely failed as a businessman, then lost his wife, then lost his son. At least he’s at peace now. But what I thought, as I stood looking at the river after having a little trouble standing up, mud covering the ass area of my most comfortable pair of khakis, etc., was this: Denny had the misfortune of bearing witness to the natural tragedies of life unfurling before him in a well-spaced, chronological fashion. As though it had been arranged for him beforehand. We do all die, yes. Our loved ones do all die, but it’s unfair to be asked to watch such things happen and experience them as though they’re chapters in a book. At least he’s now at peace.
Well, nearly at peace. You see, here’s the first problem, and the point of this message. When I got home that night, exhausted, emotionally drained, I found your mother in the kitchen. She pointed at a small brown box near the telephone and said, “You forgot Dennis. Did you drive all the way up there and realize you didn’t have him?” I said, “I had the red urn from the mantel. You told me that was Denny.” “No,” your mother told me. “That was Billingsworth. Billy, I said.” “Billingsworth?” I said. “The f**king dog? We had the dog cremated?” “Of course we did,” your mother said. “I did, at least. You know how horrible I felt about that.” “Billingsworth the terrible dog?” I said. She laughed at me then. I stood staring. “You just drove nine hundred miles to scatter Billingsworth on your brother’s property,” she said. “I tried to call you.”
I patted my pocket to verify this. I said, “I don’t seem to have my phone.” I squinted at the wall, recalled the bank and the mud. Your mother, in her typical fashion, walked out of the room.
As you know, Ben, I am a very busy man.
And I have tangled with death enough.
Therefore, at your earliest convenience and, at the latest, before winter comes, please make the trip and scatter Dennis’s ashes in the Bright River. Right where the river runs through his property. Soon the urn, which is stainless steel (don’t confuse it with your travel coffee thermos!), will arrive at the house, sealed and—this time—clearly labeled.
A second issue, then: As I say, I believe my phone may have fallen from my pocket while I sat beside the river. I’ve already replaced it, but there are some documents and somewhat sensitive passwords on it, those sorts of things. Passwords that pertain to my business and my personal finances that I wouldn’t want anyone else to have in his possession. My guess is that the weather and the elements will destroy the phone—certainly in the winter—but I’ve been waking up with identity-theft nightmares for the past week, and I don’t think I’ll be able to rest easy until I know it’s no longer out there. Please try to find it, and if you do, throw the thing in the river.
All right, there you are. Go take care of these things when you can. It might be beautiful up there. Maybe you can find a girl and take her along. Our financial arrangement is absolutely and irrevocably contingent upon this additional duty.
Here is something else.
See it in the frame: a lime-green pickup truck, Denny’s ’66 F-150, and in front of it, my sister and I stand smiling, but the smiles are different.
I am twelve, wearing yellow swim trunks and making the shit-eating face again.
She is fourteen, wearing jean shorts and an orange bikini top, squinting at the person holding the camera, unprepared for the timing of the click.
Wayne, our cousin, is the one holding the camera. I remember him making us stop and pose. I remember him saying, “Ben, please. Chill with the stupid faces.”
I don’t know that I am making one. It is a hot August day. I am glad to be going along, glad that I am here.
We are up north, as we usually are for a week in the summer. This is the first year, though, that Wayne has his driver’s license, and he has just convinced my parents and his parents to let him drive us to the other side of the peninsula, past Gladstone and past the Little Bay de Noc to the Big Bay de Noc, at the border of the Hiawatha, where the Niagara Escarpment breaks up from the crust at the shore and shows itself for what it is: the edge of an ancient limestone and dolomite dish that is four hundred and fifty million years old and used to be the coast of a sea the size of Texas.
I am having trouble believing this is true, that this used to be a sea. That anything could have previously been a sea. But Wayne says so, and the adults seem to agree.
This morning, at the cabin, Wayne sold the experience as educational. Now, twenty minutes after the picture, we are doing sixty-eight down Highway 2, which is empty, and my legs are sweating and sticking to the F-150’s seat, and my cousin is driving, lighting his one-hitter, and trying to tell us about geologic time.
I am at the window.
My sister’s in the middle.
“Slow down,” Haley says, and I’m relieved.
But then she says, “Here. I’ll hold the wheel. You light the thing.”
“Thank you, darling,” Wayne says.
I smell the tangy weed when my cousin exhales a cloud of smoke. He then (shockingly, to me) hands the dugout and the lighter to my sister, coughs once, and says, “Take the Bright River. It’s nothing compared to the escarpment. Fuck. In terms of age. Or even the lakes? Michigan? It’s like a… it’s a puddle compared to what the sea was. Four hundred and fifty million years. Can you guys even imagine four hundred and fifty million? Even the number? Try to put that bitch in your head.”
“I can’t,” I say, because I can’t.
Haley is coughing now, having tried to smoke the thing.
“But that’s great, it’s beautiful,” Wayne says. “All of this. Up here, wherever. The Michigan Sea used to be here; now it’s not. The Bright River shouldn’t even be called the Bright River, you know? Because that’s not even how rivers work. It should be this one. And then you go up to it the next day and it’s this one.”
“You are,” Haley says, “super-deep.”
She is making fun of him but only teasing. I can tell. She is holding the dugout toward him and has not offered it to me, which is okay because it terrifies me and this entire outing terrifies me and I am wishing I stayed back at the cabin. They ignore me when it’s the three of us.
Wayne chuckles at Haley’s teasing in a way that reminds me of my uncle Denny. “Fine, I’ll shut up,” he says. “Just don’t make fun of rocks.” It sounds sad to me, like rocks have been getting made fun of for a long time and there’s now a self-esteem crisis. Haley says nothing. Wayne turns on the radio and starts scrolling through the static, looking for a song. Or anything.
We get to where we’re going.
It’s more than an hour. I don’t know where we are and Wayne hasn’t used a map, but he seems to know everything there is to know about the peninsula, a place that has always frightened me a little, frightened me for its differences, frightened me because it is wild. So big and so unknown. And yet Wayne knows its empty roads by heart. And I don’t even know if where we are now is a real park, though there’s a dirt parking lot, at least. We drove ten minutes through pines down a dirt road to get here.
Wayne is quiet and confident, leading us through the woods to the water. He sings a song called “Go Away, Bear.” He is shirtless. Tall and wiry. He has worked construction this summer and has become muscular. His skin is brown, not pasty white like mine. He has crossed the line and become a man. I don’t know him in the same way now. Haley walks in the middle. I walk at the back, listening to the flip-flops of our three sets of flip-flops, wondering if my sister is stoned, and what that even feels like. I am annoyed. She’s trying to act cool.
There’s a sandy beach at the shore, and Wayne stops at the water, hands on his hips, and looks out at the bay.
To the right, Lake Michigan opens up like an ocean and seems to go forever. Directly ahead of us, across the bay, a long rocky finger of land extends out, and it’s as though it’s pointing toward the same infinity I’ve just considered.
“That’s it,” Wayne says. “That whole thing’s fucking dolomite. And half a billion years old. Right there.”
I stare at it.
“How old are dinosaurs?” I say.
“Not that old.”
I imagine a brontosaurus out on the rocks.
Haley has taken a few more steps out into the water, hands on her hips just like my cousin.
“That’s so cool,” she says. “It’s so old.”
“How’s the water?” he says.
“Kinda cold,” she says. “It feels nice.”
Wayne glances at me, then back at the escarpment.
“I feel like swimming out there,” he says. “I did it last time I was here. It’s about a quarter mile, I think.”
“We can just walk around,” I say.
“Not really,” Wayne says, turning left, appraising the shore. “The woods are terrible all through there. See?” He points. “Dragons.”
“Well. Shitty walking, anyway.”
“Let’s swim out there.”
Haley has turned, her face bright at the idea. She looks at me. “You’re probably too little though, Benjy.”
I am furious that she has said this and terrified by the idea of swimming to the ancient rocks, and so I’m also glad that she’s said it.
“I can guard here,” I say. “I can guard the truck.”
Wayne looks back at the woods, then at me. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “We need a guard.”
He comes over to me, puts a hand on my shoulder, and squats down, pulling me to squat too.
“Here, though,” he says. “Check this out.”
He sweeps his fingers through the sand. Eventually, he pulls up a perfectly smooth, oval-shaped stone.
“There might be fossils here,” he says, turning it over so we can both look. But there’s nothing.
He drops it in the sand. “Trilobites.”
“Weird little ancient sea creatures.”
Wayne stands up, looks at Haley, nods. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Totally.”
She comes out of the water and unbuttons her shorts. As she starts pulling them down, revealing the other half of her suit, she hands me her sunglasses with her other hand. “These are for you, Dr. Watson,” she says, and I have no idea what she means. I take them; she smiles. I see that she is intimidated by the swim. I wonder if I should say something, because it seems too far to swim, but instead I put on the sunglasses.
“Find us one trilobite by the time we’re back, dude,” Wayne says to me, “and you are then the champion.”
Excerpted from This Bright River by Patrick Somerville Copyright © 2012 by Patrick Somerville. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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There's also a great romance here and a shocking set of mysteries that get untangled along the way.
Addictive, amazing, unforgettable. (J. Courtney Sullivan, bestselling author of Maine)
Meet the Author
Patrick Somerville grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and later earned his MFA from Cornell University. He is the author of the story collections Trouble and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, and the novel The Cradle. He lives with his wife and son in Chicago, where he teaches creative writing at Northwestern University.
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Ben Hanson is no stranger to mistakes. Recently released from prison, he understands that he made errors in both his personal and professional life. Now, free from confinement and with new sobriety, Ben wanders though life, searching for some kind of meaning. When his uncle Denny passes away, Ben's father, Jack, invites him to move back to his hometown to help settle his late uncle's estate. Upon his arrival, Ben is flooded with memories of his past. He recalls the tragic death of his older cousin, Wayne, a tragedy that still haunts his family. As he begins to delve into his uncle's estate, fragments of the past come to light, all adding to the mystery of Wayne's demise. In the same town, Lauren Sheehan is also trying to rebuild her life. Escaping from a violent ex-husband and abandoning her medical career, Lauren has returned to her hometown in search of a fresh start. In the small town, it is now surprise that the paths of Ben and Lauren intersect. Having no true past relationship, the two slowly become interested in each other. As time passes, their troubled lives become intertwined, creating a connection that they could have never imagined. Together, they kindle a romance and attempt to move on with their lives before their negative past catches up with them. Going into this novel, I was unsure of what to expect. Normally, I try to steer clear of any "romance" novels, but this story offered much more. By slowly presents fragments of the two characters lives, mostly through flashback from each character's recollections, Somerville provides just enough information to keep the reader wanting more. Intricately imagined, the characters seem like genuine people who have had a rough go at life. Drawn with a sense of reality and empathy, it is easy to get behind Ben and Lauren and to truly care about them. While the writing is really great, I will admit that there were times when the change in time and narrator got a bit confusing. In certain moments Somerville slowed the pace of the plot, focussing more on character development that advancing the narrative. Fortunately, this attention to character made it impossible to stop reading. At times, this novel can be hard to digest. The themes of family drama, second chances, and suspenseful drama permeate this fascinating novel making it a completely engaging read.
I had to pace myself reading this because it was so well written and such a compelling story. THIS should have been a BN recommends. I still have 40 more pages to the end and I'm savoring every word. Patrick Somerville is a superb writer.
I think that the concept of this book was good, but there was a lack of character development and it was rife with extraneous passages. The book could have and should have been about 100 pages shorter.
just read it...absorb it....ponder over it...and then remember it.....keen, crisp, edgy, and real...thought provoking and sensitive....tough and gritty and dreamy and crazy.....family....life....survival...and transition....read it
All in all ,I liked this book. Good, well drawn characters Plot was a little farfetched, but ok. I was wondering if the author was hinting at something at the end of the book when he brings up some old crime of the second to the last page. Going to try to find thisauthor's first novel "the cradle"