Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories is an examination of what defines the relationships that define each of us, and the myriad forms they take, in a story collection that doubles as a casebook of how we interact with each other.
It is an exposé—in narrative—of what binds—or breaks—the bonds between fathers and sons, partners in crime, brothers, roommates, bandmates, co-workers, the past and the present, man and machine, the living and the dead, book and reader.
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About the Author
Colin Fleming writes for The Atlantic, Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, ESPN The Magazine, and The New Criterion. This is his first book.
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Between Cloud and Horizon
A Relationship Casebook in Stories
By Colin Fleming
Texas Review PressCopyright © 2013 Colin Fleming
All rights reserved.
Case #1: FATHERS AND SONS
Terry from the Cape
The first time I saw Terry, my son and I were fishing for crabs on the jetty behind our house. We spent a lot of time on that jetty that summer. My wife had died in the spring, of a brain tumor. It was very sudden. A series of headaches gave way to a migraine that refused to go away. The migraine turned out to be symptomatic of an aggressive tumor that had been advancing, remarkably, without causing any pain, until it was too late. She died on the operating table.
My son Rory and I held each other word- lessly in the post-op waiting room. I don't really believe in premonitions, and as a doctor myself, I'd raised Rory to be similarly grounded. Cause and effect—there is always a reason for why an event unfolds as it does. One would hope.
On the drive back to our house in the southern Connecticut suburbs, Rory—who was more voluble at twelve than I was at thirty-six—wiped away the tears he was trying to hide from me in the passenger's seat, and said that maybe change would be good after all. I knew immediately what he was referring to. My parents, who had a place in Sandwich, on the Cape, just over the bridge, had been talking about making a double-wide trailer in Venice, Florida their full-time home. They didn't want to move though until the place—a bandbox of an old Cape house which retained the feel of the fisherman's storage shack it had been converted from—was occupied by a family of Adrushes, as it had been for some ridiculous amount of time. Since the late seventeenth century, to hear my father tell it. Then again, he'd also try to tell you that our distant relatives played an early game of baseball with driftwood and quahogs on Sandy Neck Beach, with one local team billing themselves as the Red Sox, with near miraculous prescience.
I had been reading an old book that my wife loved, called Uneasy Freehold, which is about a man and his sister relocating to an old house on a lee shore lashed by the wind, and the ghosts they came to find there. I suppose that put me more in the mood for change. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in how memories can haunt you. There were just too many in that Connecticut house, so Rory and I made our way up north. My folks stuck around for the first week or so, before leaving for Florida. My father gave me a handshake that was harder and more painful than any he had ever given me, and of course we both well knew why. And then it was just me and Rory, alone, together.
Rory was at that age where kids sleep late, so to while away the time in the morning—the gerontology research gig I had put in for at Mass General Hospital in Boston had yet to begin—I did what every full-time Sandwich resident worth his proverbial sea salt did. I walked from my house—over on Salt Marsh Road—to the Rusty Scupper, the coffee shop-cum-bait store on the main drag where the old-timers and the newly-landed neophytes talked over local developments. Which is to say, they gossiped, and argued about where to set your lobster traps.
Once they discovered who I was—"say, did your old man ever tell you his theory about the Cape Cod Red Sox?"—it was all you could do to try and stop these guys from arguing about crabs. Our place, to hear them tell it, was on the hottest of the local hotspots. Boy were we lucky.
I'd come home, and by then Rory would just be getting up, and I'd drag him out behind the house to the jetty. Crying is fine for a boy, but you have to get out, even if you're forced to get out, and I suppose by forcing Rory, I was forcing myself too. So we took ourselves down to the jetty. The Rusty Scupper crew regarded this as perhaps the key cartographic element—from a crab fisherman's viewpoint—of our native seashore. It's kind of an unofficial boundary marker denoting where the salt water river, on the west side, ceases to be a salt water river, and gives itself over to the ocean proper, on the east, as it wraps itself around the far edge of the jetty.
This is where you get the best crabs. Closer to shore, you're most likely to find rock crabs—which are tasty enough, but a little bland after a while—and spider crabs, which are filled with orange gunk and hideous to look at. But on the jetty you can catch highly desirable blue crabs without a boat. The fishing technique is pretty simple: you get some cordgrass from shore and a handful of mussels from between the jetty rocks, and then you crack open a mussel and tie it to the cordgrass. Perfect fishing line. We'd dip the grass in between the cracks of the rocks, and a blue crab would latch on, refusing to corral his determination to eat not just a mussel, but that particular mussel, until you'd dropped him in the bucket. After a couple hours, ours would be nearly full.
In mid-July, we spent an entire Sunday out on the jetty, our ostensible recreation finally beginning to feel like actual recreation. My summer sabbatical, such as it was, was coming to an end, and soon I'd be making the long commute into Boston to take up my new post, which was on a temporary, trial basis. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with Rory, who was right proud that he was now considered old enough to look after himself during the day.
We were rounding up our stuff, when a rotund—but pleasingly so—middle-aged man with reddish-colored hair came bounding towards our fishing post. It was a drizzly day, so not many people were out. We watched him advance across the beach, and he was big enough and the sky overcast enough that he seemed to proceed with a rolling effect, as though he were a ball released at the top of a hill. Rory laughed, and I did a little as well.
As the figure drew up on us, we saw that he was positively coated in the telltale signs of the sports fanatic. He had on a Steve Grogan Patriots jersey from the late seventies that draped loosely over his massive frame, and a Red Sox hat in the style of their 1975 team, the one that lost the World Series to the Reds. He wore green sweatbands on his wrists, with Celtics decals on them. And just when it seemed as though there was no more room on his copious person for anything else emblematic of our local professional sports teams, I heard Rory utter a stifled "look!" as we both noticed, simultaneously, the black and gold Bruins-style socks of our friendly-looking interloper.
He stopped his forward progress at the base of the jetty, as Rory and I were descending with our bucket of blue crabs.
"Boy howdy that's a haul and a half that you men have there. There'll be a gale blowing tonight. The sea can't be happy parting with such a treasure."
I didn't know what to say. My son did.
"I'm Rory," he said, sticking out his hand.
"And I'm Terry," the figure replied, as his own hand swallowed up my son's. "Or maybe you already know me. I'm on the radio."
We didn't encounter Terry again for a few days, but we did hear plenty about him. The mere mention of Terry's name at the Rusty Scupper was enough to stop all the fishing talk. Muffins and donuts were dropped back onto their plates in great haste, and coffee cups clanked against the soapstone table tops as throats cleared and the regulars readied themselves for Terry talk.
There were enough Terry anecdotes, as I discovered, to fill a volume the size of the Physicians' Desk Reference. Even on those occasions when Bryce, the cafe owner, strode through the doors and tossed his latest herculean striper on the front counter, as was his habit, the subject of Terry was not one to be bypassed.
"Nice catch, Brycie, but Jackson here was just telling us about meeting Terry the other day. Weren't you Jackson?"
"I was at that. My son took a shine to him, sure enough. That was probably inevitable though given the way this guy was decked out in all that sports gear. And any boy that age doesn't mind seeing his father made fun of a bit."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, Terry asked me my name, I told him, and he said there was no way that would fly—float rather—around here."
Bryce, who had picked up a fillet knife while he hovered over his catch, put it down, momentarily, as a smile began to take shape from out of the corners of his mouth—one of those smiles that precedes a series of bellyaches.
"He said that Jackson was way too close to Reggie Jackson, and he hated Reggie Jackson and all things Yankees, and if I had any sense of decency, I ought to have had my name changed. But since I didn't, he'd do it for me. And then he told me he was going to call me Jax from then on."
The guffaws rang out for a while as tabletops were slapped and cutlery fell to the floor.
"What you gotta understand, Jackson," Bryce began, "is that Terry is what the ESPN SportsCenter guys would call 'big time.' In his own mind, that is. He doesn't just think he's part of our colorful local landscape. It's more than that. And we got some real nut jobs around here. Take old Jack Rossdale for instance. He thinks he's a regular Captain Ahab hunting down some super tuna that he says sunk his beat-down motorboat twenty years ago. But Terry is something a little extra. He thinks he's a sports star, of the sports personality variety. Give him half a chance and he'll tell you how he almost made the Patriots once upon a time. And how he's going to sail around the world in a dinky little homemade boat with only two genuine Fenway Park seats to sit on. Like a modern day sports-loving Joshua Slocum. He's a character and a half. Jax."
I don't mind being the butt of a joke, and whatever I learned about Terry at the Rusty Scupper I shared with Rory, who got a big kick out of it. My son shares my father's passion for sports, with a special wrinkle on that passion: he loves his sports eccentrics. We used to watch old videos of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych when he pitched for the Tigers in the mid-seventies. The Bird would talk to the ball on the mound, commanding it to do his batter-tricking bidding before launching his body into his whirligig wind-up. Afterwards, Rory and I would go out back to have a catch, and he'd be whispering down into his glove before tossing the ball back to me.
I guess all the talk about sports eccentrics put me in a nostalgic mood, so when I got home I went hunting amongst the moving boxes for our baseball mitts. Rory was more into basketball at the time, but he was up for a game of catch, provided his old man didn't complain when he felt like working on the old heater. There's an easement next to our house, with three apple trees that do nicely as bases—even though it's nearly twice the distance from second to third as it is from first to second. We were chucking the ball around for a while, when a familiarly robust figure popped out of the front door of one of the houses across the street—a gothic style house with a turret on each side of its roof—pounding his left-hand into a sorry-looking glove on his right.
"Load my weapon, son! Load my weapon!"
"I think he wants you to throw him the ball, Rore."
"And indeed I do, Jax!"
Rory launched a sidearm toss at Terry. The ball was off to the side and on the short-hop, but this exceedingly large man acquitted himself with balletic grace as he casually collected the errant toss in one fluid motion, double-pumped, and, turning 360 degrees, fired the ball back over our heads, on a line, and over about fifty feet of beach and a couple hundred feet into the ocean. After which he produced a fresh ball from inside the clutches of his Red Sox track suit.
"This one's better, son. And you can keep it. It has a genuine Carl Yastrzemski signature printed on it. I promise to be more judicious with my weapon"—he pointed to his left arm—"with a ball endorsed by a legend."
Rory was laughing his ass off.
"And if you think that's something, you and your dad can come over and see my loaf of Carl Yastrzemski brand white bread. I've had it since 1968. It's lived in ten different freezers. It's an organic collectable."
"Can we go over and see it, dad?"
What the hey, right? My own father couldn't stand Yaz, Boston's beloved left-fielder who did the impossible and took up where Ted Williams left off. He said he was arrogant. He really was, I realized as I got older. But you let a boy Rory's age make his own choices about who they're going to admire. As he bounded at this eccentric's heel and we walked into Terry's front yard, it occurred to me that here, in the summer of our grief, my son viewed this local oddity of a man in a manner which my father did not see fit to view the mighty Yaz. It was the first time I ever remember feeling old.
We spent a lot of time in the company of Terry over the next several weeks. Rory was always asking if he could run across the street and invite him over when we were grilling in the back. We'd watch the Sox games outside on a portable TV. The fireflies flitted in the distance as though they were in search of bleacher seats of their own. Whenever the hometown team coughed up a lead, Terry would stare at the set and sadly shake his oversized head, a forlorn hippo staring down into a loved one's grave. "That's not what we're looking for."
Soon, Rory was using the phrase himself, for just about anything that went wrong, like when a crab made off with one of my mussels, out back on the jetty. "Not what we're looking for, dad."
Terry could eat with the best of them, and he reciprocated our dinner invitations with some prandial generosity of his own: kielbasa cookouts in his front yard, with growlers of Cape Cod Beer for me and him—A Vacation in Every Pint according to the hulking bottle—and blueberry sodas for Rory.
"Why do you like kielbasa so much, Mr. Denacourt?"
"Terry, son, Terry. I'm sure your dad can tell you."
I wiped the potato salad residue from the corner of my mouth as I readied my answer, only to realize that I didn't have one.
"I have no idea."
"Why, Yaz, of course. He was Polish. Like kielbasa," Terry explained, as he slid one of the sausages down his throat with two quick chomps of his jaw. Any time we had hot dogs or sausages after that, I'd have to remind Rory to chew his food, that we weren't all competitive eaters. It was a chore, trying to put on a bold, parental face—a face that was somehow, by some miracle, not suggestive of one that was missing.
Terry's yard was littered—although he said "decorated"—with large, decrepit stadium artifacts that gave it a kind of Stonehenge-for-sports-buffs vibe. There was a rusted-out snow plow that Terry claimed was used to clear off the field at the old Schaeffer Stadium, as well as the chassis of a Zamboni—similarly rusted—from the Boston Garden. Two rows of stacked lobster traps framed the boating contraption that the Rusty Scupper crew had mentioned to me. It was a doozy. I thought at first that part of it was an actual bath tub. On closer inspection I realized he'd cut off the hull of a motorboat and reinforced it with several layers of bonded fiberglass. The guy was a nautical Gordon Matta-Clark, taking a chainsaw to whatever was handy to fashion his abstract art. Piles of tires that appeared to have been melted together were fastened to the edges of Terry's craft. In the middle were the two Fenway Park seats, well worn from years of backsides crashing back down into them after the Sox had taken us all to the brink, only to blow it again.
"Look, dad! Real Fenway seats!"
"Those are bleacher seats, son. That's where the bleacher creatures rest their big tookuses. If you know what I mean, Jax."
Terry winked at me. Rory scrambled up over the port tire side, giggling all the way.
There were quite a few lazy, Cape nights like that with Terry. I'd head home to do some reading for work. Rory would often hang out with Terry for a while, debating the relative merits of sluggers like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in comparison to Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk, the players I grew up with, and who Terry must have watched as a young man.
My research position in Boston started soon enough. The hours were long and so was the commute. Rory wasn't allowed to swim in the ocean without me around, but I didn't mind if he wanted to try and catch some more blue crabs, or dig for clams when the tide went out, or pal around with Terry, who never appeared to work.
When I asked him what line he was in, or if he was between jobs—adult talk that I confined to whenever Rory ran off to grab some piece of beach bric-a-brac he wanted to impress us with—I'd get the same refrain.
"What do you think I'd do, Jax, with a name like mine?"
"I have no idea. Tuna fisherman maybe? Whale watch guide? I don't have a clue."
"I'll give you some. Like my initials. TD. Six points, baby. Touch down! And Denacourt. Court. Where the Celtics hoop it up. I'm a sports man. I'm on the radio."
"Okay, Terry," I'd say. "Don't tell me."
By then Rory would be running up with a hollowed-out sea urchin shell, or a dried-up horseshoe crab carcass for us to inspect.
I sat in a lot of traffic on my way to MGH at the foot of Boston's Beacon Hill. It was as tony and well-kept a neighborhood as our small Sandwich enclave was sandy and scrubby. I didn't feel especially at home there, and being stuck in the car didn't help my mood either. There was a lot of sorting and interpreting of case files for patients who'd taken part in a battery of tests on how aging affects the mind—whether a twenty-five-year-old's brain changes at a rate faster than a thirty-five-year-old's, that kind of thing.
Excerpted from Between Cloud and Horizon by Colin Fleming. Copyright © 2013 Colin Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
Case #1: Fathers and Sons Terry from the Cape,
Case #2: Classmates Country Miles,
Case #3: Neighbors. The Bee's Knees,
Case #4: Occasional Friends Dare Me to Breathe,
Case #5: Bandmates Bone's Blues,
Case #6: Husband and Wife Mushroom Wine,
Case #7: Co-workers. Piles, or, Climaxing in a Forest Fire,
Case #8: Partners in Crime Padraig and Lorcan,
Case #9: Brothers Hail, the Eye,
Case #10: Man and Machine Sega Man,
Case #11: The Damaged Crab Apples,
Case #12: Roommates The Dedicated Antiquarian,
Case #13: The Past and the Present Fording the Street,
Case #14: The Living and the Dead Send Me Your Pillow,