This book is about last summer. I'll start before David saved me, though, when I was still living at home. I should have been in school, or in an apartment of my own, or teaching English in a village somewhere with noisy outdoor markets and old women who walked bent under piles of horsehair blankets. Instead I was in Chevy Chase. I slept every night under the same green baseball sheets I'd been sleeping under my entire life, the furnace clanking and chugging behind its door, and woke up every morning to Olive whining to be let in.
I'd started a semester at Americanjust a twelve-minute drive from homeand I'd been getting three Ds and a C. I kept thinking that someone would warn me if I was really getting myself into trouble, and then they did. When I got home for Thanksgiving Mom handed me a skinny envelope with the AU stamp. There was a letter inside from Dean Popkin telling me to take some time off and come back as a freshman next fall. He'd signed it, Have a restful year.
"Henry," Mom said, reading over my shoulder, "is this a joke?" She sounded like it really might be.
Dad said, "Well, you know what? You may just not be a scholar. There's no shame in thator else I should be ashamed myself. Fall comes around again, we'll see if you're ready to give it another go. But in the meantime, this is not just going to be time to loaf. Let's get you to work."
So every morning, for all those months at home, I walked with Dad the five minutes up Cumberland to Somerset, my old elementary school. It was like working in a Museum of Me. Here were these same yellow hallways with their same sour-mop smell, and the library with the hard orange carpet and wooden boxes of golf pencils, and the brown tile bathrooms with their squeaking sinks and empty paper towel machines.
And here was Principal Morrow with his pink head and wobbly walk. And mean, round Mrs. Kenner, who used to always say, "Do I come into your living room and put my feet up on the sofa?" (I used to picture her living in our classroom, reading The Book of Knowledge at her desk, making her dinner at the sink where we rinsed the paintbrushes.) And looking small and pale now, here was Mr. Lebby, who had lost half of his left ring finger in a woodshop accident as a kid. He was the only teacher I ever had who picked me out as a favoritewhen I was in fifth grade we used to stand around by the coat hooks during recess and talk about the Bullets, my opinions all stolen from Dad and so more important to me than if they'd been mine. The first time he saw me back, standing by the water fountain on the second floor, we had a fumbly hug and then he stood there with wet eyes saying, "Well." But after that what could he really do? By January he and everyone else I used to know just nodded at me in the halls. I peed in the urinals that came up to my knees, and pledged allegiance along with thirty droning voices, and, in a trance of boredom between classes, I held a piece of paper over an air vent to make it float like a magic carpet.
I ate the cafeteria food for lunch. Holding a maroon admit one ticket that could have come off the roll I kept in my desk in third grade, I'd wait in line, having to work not to feel like part of the nervous elementary school nuttiness around me. Seventy-pound boys would prowl, making tough faces, looking to butt or back-butt, and four-foot girls with headbandsthey could have been the same girls I'd gone to school withwould either let them in, quiet lawbreakers, or else raise their hands for the lunchroom monitor.
When I was a student there, Mrs. Moore, the gray-toothed lunch lady, would Magic Marker a symbol on the back of one Styrofoam tray each holidaya heart on Valentine's Day, a clover on St. Patrick's Day, a pumpkin on Halloweenand in the second before you turned your tray over your brain would go quiet. You got to go first in line the next day if you got the marked tray, I think, but the point was the feeling: The whole day turned into a lottery when you knew one of those trays was out there. But Mrs. Moore died of lung cancer when I was in eighth grade (Dad brought home a newsletter with a smiling picture of her on the back, over 1932-1997), and the trays they used now were made of hard brown plastic.
I'd eat the chicken pot pies and tuna melts and square pizzas in the art room, looking out at the kids stampeding around the basketball court, feeling a combination of sleepiness and hopelessness and boredom as particular to school as the smell of uncapped markers. New teachers would sometimes come sit with me, hoping to talk about apartments or what college I'd gone to, but eventually word seemed to get out that I wasn't really one of them. I'd gotten lost in my life, I kept thinking, and now herelike someone lost in the woodsI'd walked right back to where I'd started.
Between classes, when I didn't want to sit with Dad in the teachers' lounge, I'd wander. That dark little staircase between Mrs. Rivini's room and the computer room, where I once saw Teddy Montel kiss Sarah Sylver, dipping her like they were dancing. The Sharing and Caring room, with its posters covered in crinkly plastic and its taped-up beanbag chairs and its boxes and boxes of tissues. I'd run into Mr. Bale, the black turtle-looking janitor who once was in a commercial for the D.C. Lottery, and every time he saw me, every single time, he'd laugh and shake his head.
Dad taught six classes a day, forty-four minutes each, and I was his assistant. The kids called me Mr. Henry, so we'd know they weren't talking to Dad, and it seems now like most of what I did for those five months was set up the xylophones. I can smell the spray we used to clean them if I picture pulling them out of the closet, the dark one the size of an oven, the little metal ones with corners that cut my hands, the long ones that made nice plunking sounds when the bars fell off. And all those classes of kids, Rachel and Lauren and Andy and Peter, with high voices and clean floppy hair and scrapes on their knees, always crying for reasons too painful for them to explain, and raising their hands to tell me their mallets didn't work, and lining up for bathroom breaks. And the foreign kids, Gabor and Amir and Evelina and Nico. Dad used a special slow voice when he talked to them, and usually they were the strangest, quietest kids in the room, full of bizarre stories and languages that came out, when their brothers or parents finally picked them up at the end of the day, like the babble of people who've been possessed. (But they're all foreign kids, I'd sometimes thinkevery one of them got to the world less than a decade ago.)
Dad seemed older when he was teaching than he did any other time, sitting on his tall stool with his elbows on his knees, treating every class like they ought to think about dropping out of school to concentrate full-time on their music. "If anybody wants to come in and play during recess, lunch, or after school, tell me and I'll stick around as long as you feel like staying. I see a lot of talent here, a scary amount of talent."
When I had himwhen I was one of the little kids who loved shouting "Boo!" during the Halloween songevery music class was such a joy that all my weeks would aim straight for those Thursday mornings, the way other kids' weeks aimed for Friday afternoons. Having him was like being the son of an actor or a politician, but even more electric because I wasn't allowed to act like I was his son. I'd sit cross-legged on my mat, grinning, stuffed with secret power. At the end of the period I'd rush up to the front and stand there owning him while he packed away his music. From the piano bench now, though, I saw him the way the rest of the kids must have: an old man with huge glasses and gray hair and a loose belly who didn't seem to really listen to the questions people asked him.
Walking home in the afternoon, getting waved across Dorset by a crossing guard with a bright orange belt, he'd say, "You're a hell of a sport, listening to this rinky-dink stuff all day. You're going to put in some work, and people one day are going to be bragging you were their teacher."
Mom was less sure. Whenever Dad called me a musician, she looked down and starting paying angry attention to whatever she was doing. We sent little signals of hate and stubbornness to each other whenever she walked past me watching TV, or napping on the couch, or doing anything that wasn't pretending to plan on going back to college. Before she went up to bed to read each night, she'd put a hand on my shoulder, tired from all the quiet fighting, and almost say something but then not.
My leaving school was only the latest thing to disappoint her, the easiest thing to put a name to. She's always been dreamy, private, a little fed up with everyone she knows. She'll sometimes let bits of complaints slip"How long has your father lived here and he still doesn't know where the can opener goes?" "If Uncle Walter doesn't want to be alone, then he should do something about it"but they just feel like spoonfuls from a bath. She doesn't belong on the East Coast, she's not interested in the women in Chevy Chase, she feels cheated that she's fifty and all she's done is raise children (and furious when she senses someone thinking that all she's done is raise children). She has dark tea bags under her eyes, and for three, four hours a day she'll sit in her blue chair and read the Post, looking disappointed. When she's reading about politics she talks to the paper"Unexpected by you, maybe," "Oh, ho, ho, you are an idiot"but if you ask her what she means she doesn't answer. She clips her favorite "Doonesbury"s and uses them as bookmarks.
When she was twenty-one she took a bus from San Francisco to D.C. for a protest. She got arrested and put in the Redskins stadium for the night with thousands of other people, and sitting next to her on the field were four loudmouthed friends with beards and sweaters. They were in a jazz band, they told her, and the shortest, shyest onethe one who laughed like he had to think about it, who offered her his coat when she started to fall asleepwas Dad. She stayed in their house after they got out, and Dad convinced her to come on tour for a couple of months. She'd been looking for a reason not to go home.
She spent almost a year driving with them to clubs in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Delaware, even a few in Miami, only sleeping in the D.C. house a couple of nights a week. "I felt like an outlaw," she says now, "sitting around smoky bars at three in the morning. It was divine." But when the bassist quit to get married, Mom decided to go to nursing school. She loved doctors' offices, loved medicine, loved the idea of spending her days so busy and helpful and serious. But at the end of her first year she got pregnant with David, and that summer, after explaining to everyone she knew how women went through nursing school pregnant all the time, she dropped out. (She still has her medical books in a box downstairs, though, all of them heavy and covered in furry dust. When I was in fifth grade I used to sneak down to read the part in Human Biology on orgasms". . . a series of involuntary muscular contractions followed by . . ."and I'd go back up feeling as if I'd been downstairs with a prostitute.)
Dad had been managing a sheet music store in Georgetown while she was in school, and a few years after she dropped out he got a job teaching music to seventh graders in Gaithersburg. At night, instead of practicing, he'd stay up working on his lesson plans. "Those who can, do," he likes to say. "I don't kid myself about it." Sometimes he actually sounds sad when he says it, but usually he sounds like he's just trying to be modest, and hoping you'll realize he's just trying to be modest. Mom saysand you can see Dad wince whenever she says itthat she knew he'd teach for the rest of his life the minute he came home from his first day in the classroom. "You certainly don't do it as a get-rich-quick scheme," he says, but the truth is he doesn't need a get-rich-quick scheme. When he and Mom were in their thirties, just before I was born, they inherited a lot of money from Dad's parents. Mom, still good with a thermometer, still quick with cool washcloths, never got back to work.
In the pictures from when she was in her twenties she's smiling, sitting on a porch I don't recognize holding a cigarette, or standing in front of a mirror with Dad's sax around her neck, looking like a girl who might make me nervous. Her hair was still all brown then and her skin didn't hang and she liked to wear long, silvery earrings. Sometimes she sang with Dad's band. When I was little, before she was sad or maybe just before I realized she was sad, she used to sit on the edge of the rocking chair next to my bed and lean over me, singing in her whisperiest voice.