What We Lost: Based on a True Story

What We Lost: Based on a True Story

by Dale Peck

In the haunting new book by the acclaimed author of Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, a young man must choose between his troubled family and the new home he loves.
Dale Peck, Sr., grew up poor in rural Long Island in the 1950s, sharing a one-room house with seven brothers and sisters, an abusive mother, and an alcoholic father haunted by his past. When, at


In the haunting new book by the acclaimed author of Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, a young man must choose between his troubled family and the new home he loves.
Dale Peck, Sr., grew up poor in rural Long Island in the 1950s, sharing a one-room house with seven brothers and sisters, an abusive mother, and an alcoholic father haunted by his past. When, at fourteen, Dale is more or less kidnapped by his father and taken to his uncle's farm in upstate New York, the change wrought by the move is remarkable. Thriving on the farm, Dale develops a loving relationship with his uncle Wallace, and for the first time he knows contentment. But when Dale's mother demands that he return, he is forced to choose between his broken family and the land and uncle he has come to love. It is a decision that will determine his future and the legacy he will pass on to his own son.
What We Lost is a coming-of-age story that startles in its immediacy and lack of sentimentality. Refracting his father's past through the prism of his own vivid imagination, the author Dale Peck forges a bridge between generations and reveals the dark secrets at the heart of family.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Accomplished novelist Peck's account of his father's horrific 1950s Long Island childhood is reminiscent of Angela's Ashes." Publishers Weekly
The New York Times
Gay writers in America have fought so many important battles with tradition -- and put such energy into being proud -- that the fatherhood point may seem moot, but I doubt it would seem so to Dale Peck, who has written, in What We Lost, a personal, nonfictional disquisition on manhood that masquerades as a portrait of an idyllic period in his father's childhood. — Andrew O'Hagan
Publishers Weekly
Accomplished novelist Peck's account of his father's horrific 1950s Long Island childhood is reminiscent of Angela's Ashes both in scope and tone. This stateside reincarnation of a world dominated by an abusive alcoholic father may not leave readers laughing, but it certainly provides a similar lens on a boy's resilience and optimism. The story unfolds as Dale Peck Sr., at age 14, is rooted out of bed by his good-for-nothing father and unceremoniously dumped at an upstate New York dairy farm owned by his kind but unfamiliar Uncle Wallace. Peck Jr. (Now It's Time to Say Goodbye; The Law of Enclosures), writes a description of the journey from one world to another that is so evocative, it's easy to forget he wasn't actually the boy in the passenger's seat. About the frozen banks of a river they drive along, he writes, "The glacial shelves look like teeth to the boy, cartoon teeth breaking apart after biting on a rock hidden in blueberry pie, and the boy laughs quietly to himself when he imagines the river being fitted for dentures like the old man. A trip to the country, he reminds himself, attempting to relax again. A weekend adventure." This weekend adventure unfolds into months, then years, until finally Peck Sr.'s mother disrupts her son's haven by demanding his return to the misery of their overcrowded, impoverished household. The boy is torn, but ends up abandoning the warm web Wallace and his stoic wife, Bessie, have spun around him. He is quickly subsumed by the depressing life he narrowly escaped, and Peck subtly demonstrates how this determined boy will not just endure life, but embrace it. (Nov. 3) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With his fourth book (after three novels, including Now It's Time To Say Goodbye), the deservedly praised Peck explores his father's traumatic 1950s childhood on Long Island. The tale begins with Dale Peck Sr., age 14, being awakened in the middle of the night by his drunken father, who takes him away from his abusive mother to a dairy farm owned by the father's brother upstate. In this new environment, helmed by loving Uncle Wallace and Aunt Bessie, the boy blooms; years of contentment pass only to have his mother tear him away and drop him into his old, depressing life. The story is moving as it chronicles a young man's trying to get by and then some. Lyrical and complex, like Peck's previous works, with vivid landscape descriptions and flashbacks, this poignant account belongs in all academic and publics libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Paolina Taglienti, New York Acad. of Medicine Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A childhood you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy: a series of mistakes, tribulations, and brutality, tempered by the sanctuary of an uncle’s farm in the Catskills. Related in the third person, which affords a modest buffer to the story’s grim terrain, novelist Peck (Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, 1998, etc.) tells of his alcoholic father stealing into his room, which he shared with seven brothers and sisters, in the middle of the night, toothless and giddy on cough syrup, whining ("I owe my troubles to a savage wife") and slurring that he wants Dale out of the squalor and the thrashings he receives from his mother, administered with a length of hose complete with the metal head. The dairy farm of Uncle Wallace and Aunt Bessie is no walk in the park, a shambles of an operation—"Dinner, sleep, morning reveille and sixty swollen udders eager to be drained, world without end, amen"—that Peck helps to drive almost insolvent. There are a few shining set pieces here: when Peck embraces a sense of place ("the land, history, time itself, absorbs all the things people forgo and forget"); and again, when a cow nears death as a result of his bungling, when he curls up next to the cow’s belly, warm as a campfire in the winter night, pining for "the body-stuffed bed of his parents’ house," despite its unspeakable occupants. His ultimate choice of immediate family over the aunt and uncle is mind-boggling, especially after another depiction of his father, crawling around the floor of the family house, thoroughly inebriated, being humiliated by wife and police officers: "Mercy, sir," the father pleads, and then fouls himself. The brief, years-later section tacked on at the end is insubstantial,following, as it does, the scorched earth of what came before.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt


The old man has an odor like a force
field. He wakes the boy before dawn.
Quiet, he says, and underneath his black
coat his kitchen whites reek of
cabbage, stewed meat, spoiled milk. We
don't want to get your mother up.

The old man's clothes stink of
institutional food but it is his
breath, wet and sickly sweet, that
leaves a weight on the boy's cheek like his
sisters' hairspray when they shoo him
from the bathroom. Reluctantly he
edges out of bed. Like the old man, he
wears his work clothes, jeans,
undershirt, brown corduroy
jacket—everything but shoes. He shivers
in his
socks and watches in the half light as
the pillowcase is stripped from his
pillow and filled with clothes from the
dresser, trying to warm his thin chest
with thin arms and the thinner sleeves
of his jacket.
That's Jimmy's shirt.
The old man claps him in the stomach
with a pair of boots.
You shut up and put these on.
The boots are cold and damp and pinch
the boy's feet as he
squeezes into them, and as he knots the
laces he watches Lance's drawers
and Jimmy's football jersey disappear
into the pillowcase.
But Dad.
The old man stuffs a pair of jeans into
the sack.
But Dad. Those are Duke's.
The old man looks at the shock of blond
hair on the far side of the
bed, and when he turns to the boy the
empty bottles in his pockets rattle and
the boy can smell what was in them too.
You won't have to worry about that
bastard no more, the old man
says, breath lighting up the air like
sparked acetylene. Not whereyou're
If any of the boys has awakened he
gives no sign. Already Lance
is hugging the extra inches of blanket
where the boy had lain, and Jimmy,
slotted into the crease between the
pushed-together mattresses, seems
folded along his spine like a blade of
grass. At the far end of the bed Duke
lies with his back to his dark-haired
brothers, the stiff collar of his
houndstooth coat sticking out beyond the
blanket. A few inches beyond
Duke's nose the rope-hung sheet dividing
the boys' bed from their sisters'
puckers in a draft, but Duke never goes
to sleep without making sure the
holes on the girls' half of the curtain
are covered by solid patches on the
boys', and so the boy can catch no
glimpse of Lois or Edi or Joanie as he is
surfed out of the room by the old man's
frozen spittle. All he glimpses in the
gap between curtain and floor is a
banana peel and two apple cores, and his
stomach rumbles and he wants to check
his jacket to see if his siblings have
left him any food. But the old man is
nudging him, Faster, faster, and the boy
has to use both hands to descend the
ladder's steep rungs. Down below, the
quilts fencing off his parents' bed are
drawn tight as tent flaps, and although
his mother's snores vibrate through
tattered layers of cotton batting both she
and the baby, Gregory, tucked in his
crib beside her, remain invisible.
The boy pauses at the stovepipe and its
single coal of heat in the
hopes of warming his stiff boots, but
the old man steps on his heels.
Hurry it up, he whispers, clouting him
on the back of the head with
the sack. Unless you feel the need for a
goodbye kiss from your ma.
Outside the air is cold and wet and,
low down—down around his
knees—gauzy with dawn vapors, and
underneath the vapors the frozen grass
breaks beneath the boy's boots with a
sound like ice chewed behind closed
lips. His ice-cold boots mash his toes,
but it's not until they've walked
through their yard and the Slovak's that
a space opens up between two
ribbons of mist and the boy sees that
the boots are pinching his feet not
because they're cold or wet but because
the old man has handed him
Jimmy's instead of his own. They had
been the boy's, up until about three
months ago, but even though Jimmy is two
years older and two inches taller
than the boy, his feet have been a size
smaller than the boy's since he was
eight years old, and just before
Thanksgiving the boy had traded Jimmy his
shoes for the pants he's wearing now.
The pants are a little long on him, a
little loose in the waist, the outgrown
boots squeeze his feet like a huckster's
handshake. But when he turns back toward
the house there is the old man,
C'mon, c'mon, hurry it up. It's late
enough already.
All around them the dark round shapes
of their neighbors' cars
loom out of the fog like low-tide
boulders, and down at the end of the block
the cab of the old man's flatbed truck
rises above them, a breaching whale.
The cab is white, or was white; it's
barnacled with flecked rust now, a lacy
caul of condensation veils the
windscreen. The boy stares at the
shape of it as he minces down the block,
not quite understanding why the
sight is confusing, unsettling even. Then:
Hey Dad. Why'd you park all the way—
The old man cuts him off with another
Sshh! and then, when the
driver's side door breaks open from the
cab with the same sound the shade
tree made when it fell in front of the
garage three winters ago, the boy
suddenly realizes how quiet their street
is, and the streets beyond theirs.
Seat springs creak and whine like the
grade school orchestra as the old man
settles into the cab, the pillowcase
rustles audibly as the boy takes it from
him and drops it to his lap. Then glass
clinks as the old man opens his coat
and pulls what looks like an empty
bottle from a pocket in the lining, and
when he arches his head back to suck
whatever imagined vapor lingers in the
brown glass the sound that comes from
his loose dentures is the same
sound that Gregory makes when his mother
puts a bottle to his toothless
lips. And all of these noises are as
familiar to the boy as the thinning strands
of the old man's hair, his winter-burned
scalp, the globe of bone beneath the
skin, but just as the half light shadows
the old man's features, deepening and
obscuring them, the morning hush seems
to amplify the noises in the cab,
giving them the ominous sharpness of a
movie soundtrack. And there is a
hardness to the old man's eyes as well,
slitted into the ravines of his slack
stubbled cheeks, a glint Duke once said
always came about nine months
before another baby. The boy can't
remember if Duke had said that before or
after the old man whipped him.
The old man throws the empty bottle
with the others at the boy's
feet and straightens behind the wheel.
His left and right hands work choke
and key with the resigned rhythm of a
chain gang, and after three rounds the
engine turns over once, twice, then
chugs into life with a lifelong smoker's
cough, and the boy remembers something
else Duke had said about the old
man. The old man, Duke said, used to
smoke like everyone else, but he gave
it up when one time his breath was so
strong his burps caught fire, and he
pointed to the charred leather above the
driver's seat as proof. Sitting in the
cab now, it is easy to believe Duke's
story. Everything about the truck is
animated as a carnival, from the
trampolining seat to the pneumatic sigh of
the clutch to the spindly stick of the
gearshift, which the old man
manipulates as though it were a cross
between a magic wand and a knob-
headed cane. Down around the boy's
throbbing feet the glass bottles tinkle
their accompaniment and up above are the
old man's fiercely focused eyes,
and the boy is so distracted by all this
drama that he nearly forgets to take a
last look at his house. By the time he
turns all he sees are the empty panes
of glass in the garage door that the
shade tree smashed when it fell. The
black rectangles gape like lost teeth
amid the frosted white panes, like pages
ripped from a book or tombstones stolen
from a graveyard, and for some
reason the sight of them fills the boy
with a sense of loss and dread. Then
there is just the shade tree, dead now,
leafless and twigless but otherwise
intact, and still blocking the garage
door as it has for the past three years.
Brentwood, Long Island, 1956. The most
important local industry
might not be the Entenmann's factory but
it is to a boy of twelve, almost
thirteen, and as the truck rattles down
Fifth Avenue the boy cracks open the
triangular front window in his door and
presses his nose to it as he always
does. It is too cold and the factory is
six blocks away and the boy can smell
little more than a ghost of sugar on the
wet air, but in his mind the street is
doughy as a country kitchen, and as he
inhales he pretends he can sort the
different odors of crumb and glazed and
chocolate-covered donuts from an
imaginary baker's hash of heat and wheat
and yeast. The sharp vanilla edge
of angel food cake or the cherry tinge
of frosted Danish or his favorite, the soft
almost wet odor of all-butter French
loaf. He likes it for the name even more
than the taste—a loaf they call it, like
bread, when it is sweeter than any
cake. In fact he has eaten it so few
times the taste is a memory trapped in
his head in a space apart from his
tongue, but whenever he stocks the
pastries section of Slaussen's Market
his nostrils .are as if they can smell
the brick-sized loaves through waxed
cardboard and cellophane.
It's when they pass Slaussen's that the
boy realizes they're
headed for the Southern State. Big white
signs fill the store's dark windows.
turns his head to stare at this
last notice as they drive by. It's the
second week of January and the
disjunction tickles his mind, but only
faintly, like the flavor of all-butter
loaf. But then he remembers something else.
Will I be back for work?
The way the old man operates the truck
reminds the boy of a
puppet show. He is all elbows and knees,
jerks and lunges and rapid glances
to left and right, and he doesn't spare
an eye for the boy when he answers
Close your window, he says. And then:
What time do you clock
I go in after school.
The old man turns right onto Spur Drive
North without slowing,
drops the truck into second in an
attempt to maintain speed up the on-ramp.
The tires squeal around the corner and
the truck bucks as though running
over a body when the old man downshifts,
and then the ancient engine hauls
the truck up the incline like a man
pulling a sled by a rope.
What time do you clock in?
The boy doesn't answer. Instead he
watches the road, not afraid,
only mildly curious, as the truck slides
across both lanes of the parkway and
drops two tires into the center median
before the old man steadies its
course. The old man has gone into the
median so many times that the older
boys refer to the strip of grass as the
Lloyd Parkway, and one time,
according to Duke, the old man went all
the way over to the eastbound lane
and was halfway to work before he
realized it. Now he continues half-on and
half-off the road for another quarter
mile before jerking the truck back into the
left lane.
Did you close your window?
The boy looks up. The old man is using
the end of his sleeve to
rub something, dust or frost, off a
gauge on the dash, and when he's finished
he squints at the gauge and then he
says, You won't be going into
Slaussen's tonight. He looks down at the
boy and lets the big wheel go slack
in his hands. Where you're going you'll
wish sacks of potatoes was all you
had to haul around. Shit, boy, he says,
that's what you'll be carting soon.
Wheelbarrels full of—
The crunch of median gravel under the
left front tire brings his
attention back to the road. The steering
wheel is as big as a pizza and twirls
like one too, as the old man wrestles
the truck onto the roadway.
Did you close your window?
The boy ignores him. The truck's heater
has been broken since
before he can remember and it will make
no difference if the vent window is
open or closed. If they drive long
enough the engine's heat might pulse
through the dash and if it does he will
close the window, but at this point,
despite the sack of clothes he has
buried his hands in for warmth, he doesn't
believe they will be on the road very
long. And besides, the pillowcase is tiny,
almost empty. Only one change of
clothes, even if none of them fit him. But
at least they won't hurt him, like
Jimmy's shoes.
Already the fog has thinned, skulking
in the median as if afraid of
the big truck, but no other cars are on
the road; and as they drive the pain in
the boy's feet changes. The sharp
pinching in his toes dissipates slightly,
becomes a general ache he feels
throughout his feet, less strong but more
pervasive, and he is trying to decide if
this is more or less bearable than the
initial pinching when the old man veers
toward the exit for Dix Hills.
The boy relaxes then. Even though he
doesn't know the names of
these streets he knows the rhythms of
the starts and stops and turns
through them, can feel the rightness or
wrongness of the truck's movement in
his belly—indeed, he's been feeling it
since his time in his mother's. Both his
parents are employed at Pilgrim State
Mental Hospital, and before the boy
started school he stayed at the enormous
hospital's daycare facility, which
he remembers as a place of lights so
bright he could never find Jimmy and
his sisters—Duke was already in school
by then, and Lance wasn't born until
after the boy started going to Brentwood
Elementary. Then, not long after he
left daycare, the boy's mother began
sending him with the old man when he
went to pick up his paycheck Friday
afternoons, because most of the bars
the old man frequents won't let him
bring the boy in with him and, during the
winter at least, the old man doesn't
make the boy sit out in the truck for more
than a half hour or two. And even though
it is Saturday morning and the old
man should have collected his paycheck
yesterday, the boy isn't all that
troubled. He simply assumes they're en
route to another of the old man's
errands: helping the hospital's dairyman
unload crates of eggs onto the back
of their truck, or taking out the
kitchen trash, which just happens to
contain a
couple gunnysacks of potatoes or waxed
cardboard boxes of broccoli still
tightly packed in ice. He ignores the
pillowcase in his hands, the glint in the
old man's eyes. The old man is twitchy
but repetitive, he reminds himself—a
broken record, Duke calls him, stuck in
a groove. If his actions sometimes
appear random, it is only the contained
chaos of one marble clicking off
another in the schoolyard, willy-nilly
inside the tiny chalk circle but easily
predictable within the broad scheme of
things. Eventually everything will
become clear, if not immediately then at
some not-too-distant point.
The looming crooked edifice of the
hospital is just visible in the
distance when the old man eases the
truck down a dark narrow alleyway,
seemingly forgetting to brake until the
nose of the truck is inches from the
sooty bricks of the alley's terminal
wall. Now the boy understands what's
going on. This is the Jew's back door,
and the old man comes here with
almost the same regularity as he goes to
the payroll office at the hospital a
mile down the road. The boy only takes
the time to loosen the laces on his
boots before pressing his ear to the
open window—his left ear, so he can turn
and face the scene taking place at the
back of the truck. Through the window
he hears the old man's muttered curses,
the soft thud of his fist on the gray
metal door.
Come on, come on, he growls, drag your
lazy ass out of bed,
come on!
This goes on for several minutes until
finally there is a muffled
voice from beyond the door.
All right, all right, enough with the
pounding, all right!
The Jew is shaped liked a candy Easter
egg stood up on end: oval
on one side just like a regular egg but
flat on the other. This morning his big
stomach pushes his white shirt and black
pants out of a bathrobe instead of
the lab coat he normally wears, and in
place of his black skullcap a
handkerchief is draped over the bald
wrinkles of his head. Both the
handkerchief and the hand that holds it
in place are as stained as the old
man's kitchen uniform.
Floyd, he says, getting the old man's
name wrong as he always
does, we don't normally see you this
early. Not an emergency I hope.
This is the part the boy is fascinated
by: the part where the old
man fakes a cough. He must summon a
breath for it, and when he does
manage to force out a sputter it's
hardly louder than the wheeze of a
punctured tire. His face contorts in
pain and both his hands clutch not at his
lungs but at his belly.
Ah jeez Doc, the old man says with
ragged breath. I'm feeling
pretty bad. What fascinates the boy is
the fact that this both is and is not a
A pity, a pity. And too early to see
your physician I'm sure.
Still at the country club. The old man
tries to soothe his grimace
into a grin. Probably on the golf course
right now.
The morning light barely penetrates the
high-walled alley, but the
Jew doesn't bat an eye at this ill-timed
delivery of the old man's line.
No matter. We'll send you home with
something that'll fix you
right as rainbows.
He closes the door in the old man's
face, offering a brief glimpse
of his white-cloaked back—from shoulders
to heels as flat as a tabletop after
the dishes have been cleared away. The
old man stamps his feet impatiently
but it's only a few minutes before the
Jew returns. The handkerchief flies off
his head when he opens the door and he
grabs for it with one doughy hand,
misses, then lets the hand sit there as
if embarrassed to be bareheaded in
the presence of a customer. The boy
thinks the Jew's wrinkled skull is as
ugly as a shrimp's mottled front
end—he's seen those too, at Slaussen's,
thousands of them as gray and slimy as
the ash pail when Duke takes a leak
into it—and then, one hand still
covering his head, the Jew holds out a
white bag weighed down by heavy round
I have taken the liberty of prescribing
seven. Two tablespoons
three times a day. They should see you
through the week, but if they don't.
He leaves the sentence unfinished.
The old man scrabbles through his
pockets. The first produces an
empty bottle and the second produces
another, but finally he finds a wad of
bills and extracts some and gives them
to the Jew. The Jew puts them in a
pocket of his robe without counting them
and hands the bag to the old man.
The boy knows from Duke how greedy Jews
are, but Duke has also told him
that the old man is even more desperate
than the Jew is greedy, and the Jew
knows this too. The Jew knows that the
old man will not shortchange him
because then the old man will not be
able to get his prescriptions renewed
anymore. The boy knows all this in the
same way his stomach knows the
twists and turns of the streets that
lead to this alley and his head knows the
taste of all-butter French loaf. He
knows that the bottles in the bag contain a
cough medicine whose primary ingredient
is corn syrup and whose active
ingredient is turpenhydrate, an
explosive word whose size and syllables
it in the boy's head somewhere between
peroxide and nitroglycerin, and he
knows too that it is the combination of
these two ingredients, corn syrup and
turpenhydrate, that makes the old man's
breath smell as sour as eggnog left
on the counter overnight.
And your son. The boy sees the Jew's
eyes glance toward the
cab. He is well I hope.
He's fine, he's fine. My boy's fine.
Your firstborn, no? Your eldest?
The boy knows the Jew has seen Duke and
Jimmy—his mother
had sent both of them in turn to guard
the old man's paycheck—and now he
knows the Jew is aware of this other
thing as well, less the family secret than
the family shame.
The old man turns and looks in the
boy's direction, but if he sees
him his face doesn't register it.
The boy's fine. We're going to see his
uncle Upstate.
A trip to the country! the Jew calls
out to the old man, already
heading back to his side of the truck. A
weekend adventure! All best wishes
for a speedy recovery and safe return.
Just before the old man climbs in the
cab, the Jew makes a clucking sound with
his tongue. Such a young man,
he says, and then both truck and
pharmacy doors slam closed at the same
The old man takes one of the bottles
from the white bag and
drinks it, and then he casts around the
truck until his eyes light on the
pillowcase filled with the boy's
brothers' clothes. The finger that
points to it
wavers like the needle of a cheap
compass, and the boy doesn't hand it to
him but instead pushes it across the
seat. With the persistence of a chicken
scratching for corn the old man attempts
to separate one side of the open
end of the pillowcase from another,
scraping and clawing until a hooked finger
manages to pull the sack open. The old
man scrunches up the white bag as
tight as it will go and then rolls the
bag into Duke's jeans and stuffs the jeans
back into the sack and pushes it toward
the boy. But the boy is still hearing
the Jew's last words. Such a young man.
For a moment he'd thought the Jew
was talking about him—he'd felt almost
grown up. But as he watches the old
man's balding but babyish face, his
purple tongue clamped between yellow
dentures as he concentrates on his task,
he realizes the Jew was referring to
his father.
Guard this with your life. One of these
breaks, it'll be your head.
The boy holds the bag for a moment,
then drops it to the floor of
the truck and puts one of his feet on
it. Even that small pressure hurts his
foot and, briefly, the boy thinks about
smashing the old man's medicine with
the heel of Jimmy's shoe. But the
morning's balance is already fragile, and
he doesn't want to risk sending it over
the edge to someplace new.
Someplace he has never been.
No matter how many times the old man
does it the boy can never
believe he will be able to back out of
the alleyway. It's as if all the
benevolence providence denies him in
every other area of his life is trapped in
this brick-and-mortar gulch, and no
matter how many medians or telephone
poles or dogs the old man runs into or
over he is always able to back the
truck out of the Jew's alley as easily
as if he were parked on a conveyor belt.
He doesn't even turn around—does it all
with mirrors—nor does he pause at
the exit, and more than once cars have
veered around the truck as it
catapults from the alley's blessed
sanctum. But the roads are clear this
morning, of cars and fog too, which
seems to have burned off in the few
minutes it took the old man to renew his
prescription. The sun has cleared
the horizon and ascends the convex
surface of the sky and the boy turns and
watches it through the warped glass of
the cab's rear window. If the boy tilts
his head the irregularities in the glass
distort the rising sun into a sliver, a
pinhole, an orange portal with
pulsating, beckoning edges, and he toys
the shape as the truck rattles toward
the parkway, not turning around until,
with a sickening lurch, the truck veers
right when it should veer left. Although
the boy doesn't know his compass
points—knows only that eastbound and
westbound lanes lead toward home and
away, that south shore and north
shore mark the poles of a socioeconomic
axis whose bottom end his family
occupies —he does know that a right turn
means they are heading beyond
Dix Hills. He has never gone beyond Dix
Hills before.
Quickly, he faces forward in his seat.
All he can think to do is
chart their progress by the signs that
dot the road, so that when the old man
pulls onto a side street for his
inevitable nap the boy will be able to
tell him
where they are when he wakes up, which
way they came from and how to
get back home. But even though the old
man's head nods every once in a
while he doesn't stop driving, and each
road he turns onto seems bigger than
the last. The Southern State to the Long
Island Expressway and the Long
Island Expressway to the Clear View
Expressway and the Clear View to the
Throg's Neck Something, the Throg's Neck
Bridge the boy sees when the
road lifts off the ground and floats
across an expanse of water, and after the
Throg's Neck comes the Cross Something
or Other, the boy doesn't see
what they are crossing because by then
the road is studded with signs, too
many for him to read, too many for him
to keep track of. Mother Mary
Dolorosa Welcomes All, as does Riccio's
Italian Restaurant—Family Style!
The Utopia Estates Promise A New
Beginning and Kaufmann Bros. Storage
Keeps Your Dreams Safe and the Maritime
Academy Provides Hope For
Tomorrow but right now the boy has no
dreams and he has no hope because
he's lost track of their route, and at
some point he's lost his feet too, which
have gone numb in their too-tight shoes.
It is an empty yet heavy sensation,
in its way much more compelling than the
pain that had been there before, or
the hunger gnawing at his gut. He had to
work last night and so hasn't eaten
since lunch yesterday, but he is so used
to being hungry that he almost
doesn't notice it, what with his feet
and what's going on outside the truck.
Over the course of several hours the
buildings have gotten bigger
and more numerous but now they're
smaller again, thinning out until finally
they're so sparse they seem to mark the
space between parcels of property
rather than the other way around.
Indeed, the land has an unfamiliar,
unsettling sprawl here. On Long Island
the water's boundary is always
palpable, even when it's not visible—
you can feel it in the horizon's abrupt
drop-off. But here the land stretches
out in all directions, leaving the boy with
the disturbing impression that they
could keep driving forever. And then there
are the mountains. The only mountains
the boy has ever heard of are the
ones the old man is always going on
about, the mountains of his childhood.
Those verdant slopes were green and
crisscrossed by babbling brooks and
sweet clean streams, and some quality of
the old man's words had always
led the boy to picture them as curved
and comely, nature's pinup stretched
on one hip across the horizon. Whereas
these mounds are jagged as cookie
dough: their leafless forests are as
ugly as January Christmas trees heaped
on the curb, their snowcaps ash colored.
Even their massive rock faces
seem smeared across them, like Lance's
cheeks after he eats a slice of
chocolate cake. The combination of the
land's sprawl and the lumpy
protrusions, in such stark contrast to
the old man's drunken rambles about
his youth in the country, give the boy
the idea that he is being driven into a
past that isn't as rosy as the old man
would have him believe. For a long time
the truck runs along an enormous river
though, and the boy is fascinated by
the two frozen shelves that stick out
from either shore and the ice-chunked
strip of ice-blue water between. The
glacial shelves look like teeth to the boy,
cartoon teeth breaking apart after
biting on a rock hidden in blueberry pie,
and the boy laughs quietly to himself
when he imagines the river being fitted
for dentures like the old man. A trip to
the country, he reminds himself,
attempting to relax again. A weekend
Hey Dad. How old are you?
The old man doesn't answer, but a
moment later his foot taps out
a rhythm. Da-da-DA-da, da-da-DA-da. He
taps with his right foot, the foot on
the gas pedal, and on the third DA the
truck surges forward with a grunt.
The old man turns. Twice he has had the
boy pull a bottle of
cough syrup from the pillowcase—as many
times as they have stopped to
gas up the truck—and the medicine has
pinked his pallid cheeks. He
examines the boy as if checking for
something then turns back to the road.
My own boy. My own and oldest boy.
The boy repeats his question.
My oldest boy, the old man says, louder
now. Not like that
bastard. Not like that bastard Duke. The
old man does something with the
truck's levers and pedals. The boy
doesn't feel any difference in the truck's
motion but the old man pats the dash
with the flat of his hand. That's a good
girl, he says. That's my baby. He sits
up straighter. Not like that bastard
Jimmy neither. Jimmy Dundas and Duke
Enlow, he says, looking down at
the boy. Jimmy Dundas and Duke Enlow and
Dale Peck. Son of Lloyd Peck.
My firstborn. My old and ownliest boy.
How old are you, Dad?
K-K-Katie, beautiful Katie, you're the
only g-g-girl that I adore!
The old man rocks the wheel like a
cradle and the truck meanders
from lane to lane until a horn blares
from somewhere below the cab and a car
appears from the right shoulder and
speeds ahead of the truck, still honking.
When the moon shines over the cowshed,
I'll be waiting by the k-k-
kitchen door!
How old were you when I was born?
Suddenly the old man turns to the boy,
leaning so far over that the
truck lists to the right. He makes a
sucking noise on his dentures like a child
with a lollipop and then, in a
confidential insinuating voice, he says,
I owe my
troubles to a savage wife. He nods,
sucks on his dentures, nods again. She's
a whore, son. Your mother is a whore.
The boy takes hold of the steering
wheel, righting it, and as wheel
and truck rotate to the left the old man
does too, until he is sitting up again.
But he is still staring at the boy.
They tell you to stay away from whores
but they never tell you
why. They screw like pros, that's why.
Your ma can screw with the best of
em. That's how they get you. That's how
she got me. She screwed me like a
pro. She had two bastard children and a
nose like Jimmy Durante and a
better man than me wouldn't've gone near
her with a ten-inch pole, but she
could swing pussy like a pro and I'm
just a drunk and she got me fair and
square. But I love my son. My firstborn
son. Dale Peck. Firstborn son of
Lloyd. I wouldn't let no whore take you
away from me, no sir I wouldn't. Not
Up until the end the boy has been
ignoring him. He has heard all
of this before, either firsthand or
secondhand. There is no place in their
that is more than a curtain away from
any other and his parents have had this
conversation too many times to count.
But neither of them has ever said this
last thing. Neither has ever said Not again.
What do you mean, Dad?
The old man makes a face, mouths an
Oops, turns back to the
Not again, Dad?
Pedals, lever, pedals again. Then:
I'm a drunk, son. You know I'm a drunk.
But never let it be said I
let some whore take away my oldest
child. My firstborn son. Never let
anyone tell you that.
I'm forty-two, the old man says. I was
twenty-nine when you were
born. I was just out of high school.
Suddenly the old man's voice changes
again. The strength is
gone, replaced by a plaintive whine. I
thought I told you to close your window.
His hand on the boy's head is not quite
a slap. Come on, come on now,
hurry it up.
The window has been closed for several
hours, and the boy
reaches instead for the pillowcase on
the floor.
Come on, come on, I don't got all day.
The boy hurries. Though he has never
been afraid of the old man
he has seen what happens to him when he
doesn't get his syrup, and he
doesn't want it to happen while the
truck is in motion. He has to hold the
wheel while the old man drinks bent down
below the dashboard. He holds the
wheel with his right hand and he watches
not the road but the old man. Ten
months later he will remember the old
man's pose when he sees a week-old
calf bend down on his forelegs and crane
his neck up to drink from his
mother's udder. The sinking and rising
at the same time, the blissful
expression in the eyes. Mother's milk,
witch's brew. He will beat the calf off
with a stick and hook his mother to a
milking machine where she belongs.
The old man wipes his mouth when he
finishes the bottle, and
then he licks the back of his hand. The
boy knows there is no use talking to
the old man right after he has had his
drink, but the stale sugary smell of the
open bottle has reminded him of his own
hunger. He puts his hands in his
pockets and then on through, roots
around in the hollow lining of his
jacket to
see if there is any food left. Last
winter the old man had brought the big
Duke, Jimmy, Dale, Joanie, and Edi, on a
field trip to the hospital's kitchen,
where he'd instructed them to stuff the
sleeves of their coats with any
vegetable they could fit down them—it
took Edi a week to shake all the
papery garlic shavings out of her coat,
and the smell lingered for months
afterward. When the boy got the job at
Slaussen's he'd done the old man one
better, he thought, by having Joanie
slit open the seams of his pockets so he
could conceal his own contraband inside
his jacket lining. He passes over
the staples in favor of apples, bananas,
whatever citrus fruit comes off the
truck from Florida, but by the time he
gets in at eleven from his after-school
shift he is usually so tired he goes to
bed immediately, and his brothers and
sisters take the fruit while he's
asleep—everyone except Duke, who refused
to go along with the old man's plan at
the hospital, and who won't eat the
boy's food either. Today he finds only
three grapes rolling around in his jacket
lining. He knows that Joanie will have
saved something for him, but Joanie is
at home with the rest of his sisters and
The boy rolls a grape between thumb and
forefinger, warming it up
like a marble before he shoots it.
What did you mean just now, Dad? Not again?
The old man purses his lips and shakes
his head. Uh-uh, he says
through clenched teeth and closed lips,
nnhh-nnhh, and then he opens them.
I want you to mind your Uncle Wallace.
Your Uncle Wallace is my brother
and a good man. A better man than I am.
I want you to mind what he says.
She was going to send you to military
school. But I said no. I said
not my firstborn son. I said she could
send one of her bastard children to
military school but not the firstborn
son of Lloyd Peck could she send to
military school. No sir. Not again.
The boy doesn't know what military
school is, although he has
heard the term used by his parents and
has ridden past the gate to the
LaSalle Military Academy on Sunrise
Highway more than once. He goes to
Brentwood Elementary, or at least he
does on those days when he isn't
suspended for betting on marbles in the
schoolyard or getting beat up by
boys who call his mother a whore and
spit on his shoes. He is small for his
age, the tiny son of a tiny man, and he
doesn't know who his Uncle Wallace
is though he has heard that name too. He
is almost thirteen years old and he
is not afraid of anything except the
unknown, but he knows so little that in
order to keep from being terrified all
the time he has long since ceased
believing in anything except what's in
front of him, and right now what's in
front of him is a cracked dashboard and
a dirty windshield and an empty
narrow road, gray, lined by shallow
ditches, and disappearing over a hill the
boy has to will himself to believe is
not a cliff. He eats the three grapes,
pretending each is an all-butter French
loaf, and he spits the seeds on the
floor one by one, and although he
doesn't aim each seed still manages to
ding off an empty apothecary bottle.
When a burp bursts from the old man's
mouth the boy sees it as a ball of
flame, but what it burns up he's not sure.
He looks at the blackened leather above
the old man's head and then he
closes his eyes as if they've been stung
by smoke.
I'm forty-two years old, son. I'm a
young man. But I'm old enough
to be your father.
He must fall asleep then because when
he opens his eyes the
truck is stopped and the old man is not
in the cab. He assumes they've
stopped for gas until he sees a gnarled
branch above the windshield like a jab
of brown lightning and he sits up. To
his right a row of leafless trees stretches
up the side of a hill and to his left
there is a white house, small and
rectangular, its tiny second-story
windows the shape of dominoes laid on
their sides. Before he gets out of the
cab he grabs the pillowcase containing
his brothers' clothes and the old man's
medicine, and the first thing he does
is fall flat on his face because he
can't feel his feet. Still half asleep,
he sits
on the crust of snow that covers the
ground like stale cake frosting and takes
off Jimmy's shoes. The ground is cold
and hard beneath his bottom but the
bottoms of his feet feel nothing at all,
and, teetering, rudderless, he stands
up and floats around the truck in his
socks, the pillowcase less ballast than
slack sail hanging down his back. A
pitted two-track driveway runs around
the house and up the hill toward a pair
of barns and a tall round building that
the boy recognizes instinctively as a
silo even though it reminds him of a
castle tower. At the foot of the silo he
sees the old man talking to another
man. Like the old man, this stranger is
short and thin and has only half a
dozen strands of hair slicked flat to
his skull, but unlike the old man he
stands absolutely still, one hand
holding a pitchfork lightly but firmly,
down, and a cap on the ground between
the two men, bottom up like a
busker's. The only thing that moves is
his head, which shakes every once in
a while, back and forth: no. The old
man's legs are wobbling and his arms are
flapping in the air, and as he wobbles
toward them the boy is reminded of a
seagull he saw once in the bay. The
seagull's legs were trapped in a fishing
net, and every time it flapped its wings
its orange legs would lift out of the
water trailing weed-draped mesh. Over
and over the bird's legs had shaken
like the old man's with its efforts to
free itself but each time, exhausted, it
splashed down again.
The old man and the stranger are still
a good twenty yards away
when the old man turns and reels toward
the boy. His legs and arms make
motions like the spokes of a rimless
wheel, and he is shouting,
I won't let her send him away! Not my
boy! Not my firstborn son!
Not again!
He jerks right past the boy without
seeming to see him, his
doddering gait half step and half slide
on the slick grade, and it seems pure
chance that one of his flailing hands
catches hold of the door handle, a
veritable miracle that he is able to
crack it open. The shotgun sound is like
an echo of itself in the quiet air, and
the boy whips his head from side to side
as if he can find the original source.
He is in the back of the house now.
From this angle he sees that it is
actually L-shaped. He can't see the
farmhouse across the street, the
mountain twenty miles to the south. He
sees only a bulbous clump of gray-green
evergreens and the tin-domed silo
and the two barns and a patch of
leafless woods at the top of the hill and
then a big field studded with
black-and-white and butter-brown cows. When
the truck coughs into life one of the
cows looks up from whatever thin strands
it is pulling from the ground, looks
first at the truck and then at the boy and
then drops its head again and roots
around for more grass—green grass, the
boy can see, even from this distance. It
is the middle of January and thin
streaks of snow paint zebra stripes on
soil hard as a city sidewalk, but the
grass that grows from that soil is still
green, and by the time the boy turns
back to the truck it has backed out of
the driveway, narrowly missing what
looks like a fencepost with some kind of
placard mounted atop it. The truck
would have gone into the ditch on the
far side of the road had there not been
a tree there. Instead something glass
breaks, a taillight that is not already
broken perhaps, and when the old man
shifts into first the boy hears first the
transmission's grind and then the glass
as it falls onto the road. The truck
goes so slowly that had he wanted to the
boy could have run after it, could
probably have caught it even, even with
his numb feet. But he just stands
there swaying, watching the truck recede
as if one of them, the truck or the
boy, is on an ice floe borne away from
the shore by a half-frozen current. By
the time the truck disappears over the
hill the stranger has walked down from
the barns and walked on by. There is
smoke coming from a chimney on the
left wall of the house and the
stranger's pitchfork makes a metallic
ping each
time it strikes the frozen ground.
Feeling floods into the boy's feet
then, as if a pot of pasta water
had tipped off the stove and spilled
over them. He reels, bites back a cry of
pain; catches his breath and catches his
Uncle Wallace? he says to the thin
brown back retreating down
the hill.
The stranger doesn't stop, doesn't turn
Get my hat, Dale, he says. At the door
he pauses to look the boy
up and down, and then he shakes his head
one more time. In the failing light
his scalp looks white and cold.
Don't forget your shoes, he says, and
walks into the house.

Copyright © 2003 by Dale Peck. Reprinted
by permission of Houghton Mifflin

Meet the Author

Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Peck started writing fiction as a freshman at Drew, but really blossomed as a writer in his junior and senior years. He worked closely with several professors in the Drew English department to hone a writing style that would earn him the department's highest honor for his unpublished first novel, All the World, which was his senior honors thesis. All three of Peck's published novels reflect his love of stories and story-telling. Martin and John recounts a gay man's coming of age; The Law of Enclosures, recently made into a movie, shifts the focus to John's parents; and Now It's Time to Say Goodbye places characters from the first two novels on a larger stage, prompting the Los Angeles Times to write that Peck is "one of the few avant-garde writers of any age who is changing the rules for prose fiction." Peck also teaches writing, and does book reviews for publications such as the Village Voice Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review.

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