- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
By Caroline Leavitt
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1987 Caroline Leavitt
All rights reserved.
In the Fifties, Nick still had family. His father worked steadily in the mills, making enough to go down to South Street every Friday night and get himself good and blitzed and play some back-room poker. There were always guys he knew who were more than willing to take his money, to accept the makeshift IOUs he scribbled on the greasy napkins. He almost always lost everything. Money. His black cowboy boots with the red lizard dappling the sides, the watch his wife had engraved for him for their wedding day, "Helen loves Tom." He stayed in the games until he was kicked out, and then he would slowly wind his way home, feverish, drunkenly roaring out all the geographic songs he could think of, singing to all the places that called to him. Ok-la-ho-ma. San Francisco had his heart, Georgia throbbed in his mind. By the time he flopped back into the heady warmth of his house, his head was reeling.
Helen, waiting up for him, was always angry. He'd scoop her up, making her do a clumsy kind of waltz step with him across the kitchen floor. He'd murmur stories about France to her, how the three of them could live on bread and cheese and all those lights, how they'd have wine with every meal, even Nick. "No wine," Helen said, but he dipped her down low, making her hair flicker under the cheap lamp, and when she tugged away, her face still stubborn, he eased her back, kissing her. "I know you," he said. "You want the ocean. Orange groves. My California baby." He whispered into her hair. "You're drunk, Tom Austen," she said, and he rubbed her back, soothing her until she gave in, resting her head against his shoulder. "You'll wake Nick," she said.
But Nick was almost always awake, standing silently in the hall, his parents dancing so close to him they could almost have touched him. Apart, they paid attention to him. His father taught him how to find the Big Dipper, how to read a Texas road map and find north by the smell in the air. His mother took him to the movies and read his fortune from the tea leaves in a cup. She bought him the Davy Crockett hat he wore everywhere. But when his parents were together, they seemed to see no one else, their hearts became finite. He'd interrupt them sometimes, courting them with his own songs, but Helen just laughed, and Tom continued to sway her against him.
Once, when Nick was really young, when he was feeling most lonely, he had walked into the kitchen the way he had sometimes seen Tom come home, his body jelly-limbed, his mouth open. Tom's face had twisted. Helen had stopped what she was doing, all right, her wood stir spoon lifted, and then she'd taken two swift steps toward him and slapped his face. He pulled back, wounded. He went outside and sat in the high grasses where the grasshoppers bred and buzzed, and when he came back indoors, miserable, they both acted as if nothing were wrong.
They didn't treat him the way his friends' parents treated them. He wasn't called angrily in to supper. He could come in when he wanted. If dinner was too cold, he could make himself peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches, he could eat the rest of the eggs. He decided what he wanted to eat, and if it was in the house, then he could have it. They didn't worry. He was ten. He was responsible. Tom had made sure Nick could recite his name and address and phone number from the time he could talk. There wasn't much money in the family for choices, but what choices there were, Tom made sure Nick took advantage of. He was always allowed to pick out his own clothing. He favored orange pants in kindergarten, so bright, the other children stared; he went through a phase of bowling shirts; and once, for two months, he wore a baseball uniform he and Helen found at a resale store. He also decided on his punishments: When he drew on the walls, Nick denied himself the snowy picture of the TV; when he was caught ringing doorbells and running, he wouldn't let himself read any of the library books he had taken out. It made him feel strong and proud; it made him adore his parents.
He had one friend, Chuck Raymond, who loved to hang out at Nick's because of the way the house was run. He could go into the bread box for day-old doughnuts the same way Nick did; he could lie on any of the beds and just read. "In my house, every man is king," Tom told him solemnly. "In my house, it's my father," Chuck said.
Chuck lived right across the street. His father was convinced the cold war was about to escalate any second. He didn't trust Eisenhower; president or not, he was sure Ike was just another Communist, many of which, he hinted, were right in the neighborhood. He spent every free moment methodically digging up his driveway, trying to turn it into a fallout shelter. He showed Nick the plans he had drawn up, where the bedrooms would be, how the steel door would be so heavy that no one from the neighborhood would even think of breaking in. Nick and Chuck helped him dig sometimes, and all the while Nick dug, he searched for dinosaur fossils, for evidence of alien spacecraft, but he kept his opinions against his chest, he nodded when Chuck's father waved and pointed at the blueprints.
Chuck's father didn't approve of Nick's parents, and he kept telling Nick that he ought to persuade them to work on a shelter of their own. "I know you're Chuck's pal, but there's just so much room in the shelter," he said apologetically. "And Pittsburgh ... well, we got your steel, we got your iron—we'll be the first place blasted."
When Nick told that to Tom one evening, when the two of them were watching the sky, Tom laughed. "I can't think of a place more deserving," he said. He hated Pittsburgh. He was always talking about getting out, winning enough money to go someplace quiet and green and pretty. The Pittsburgh Plan, he called it.
When Helen had been pregnant with Nick, she'd stayed cooped up in their hotbox of a house because she had it in her head that the Pittsburgh air would hurt her baby. She had paced the rooms, prowling the house until Tom came home, and then her mouth would wobble and go all runny, and she'd be crying.
"You ought to get out," he said. "Ten minutes never hurt anyone."
But she was a coward. She waited, and then, one cool day, she went out and bought herself a surgical mask. She still stayed inside. She said she was too embarrassed to go outside looking like a scrub nurse, and anyway, who knew what a mask really kept out? When Nick was born, she used the mask on him, covering his bright little face, letting him toddle about in the scrubby backyard. She took him on the bus with her like that, ignoring the frank stares of the other people. But she always took the mask off when Tom came in. He'd tell her she was just giving credence to the bad air; that if she didn't think so hard about it, it wouldn't exist. And then, of course, Nick was old enough to tug the mask off himself, to be hot and embarrassed by it. Even then he had a mind of his own. A mind like Tom's.
It was something Tom had planned. Nick had grown up on Tom's stories. His first books were the colorful travel brochures Tom used to filch from the agencies. Nick would stand up in front of his class, just a small boy with uncombable black hair, in clothing too big for him, the colors mismatched, and tell the class when the best time to go to the beaches in France was, why the summer festivals in Venice were better than those in Spain. He had no idea who Humpty-Dumpty was; he had never read Peter Rabbit, not when Tom was giving him dimes for every foreign fact he could recite, nickels for every capital he could pick out on the frayed map they kept in the kitchen.
And the stars—oh, the stars. Tom would wake Nick up sometimes just to show him Jupiter. He'd walk him about the neighborhood at three in the morning, when it was so clear and cold you could see your breath, and he'd do it just to remind him that everyone else may be sleeping behind locked doors, alarms carefully set, but they two were alive. It intoxicated Nick. He'd be so wired, he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. He'd hear Tom snoring and then he'd get up and get his jacket and he'd walk around the neighborhood himself, just once, before he came back inside to lie down in his bed, to listen to his heart, how hard and fast it was beating, a Morse code he somehow understood.
Every Sunday, Tom went to the library to read the help wanteds in the California papers and the New York Times. He applied for everything—clericals, messengers, once even as an animal groomer in San Jose. He made up references, he lied about experience. But for the one position he actually thought he had a shot at—as a foreman in an automotive plant in California—he didn't lie at all.
He wanted that job so badly he couldn't talk about it, not even to Helen, who shared all his secrets. Guilty, he bought her chocolates. For Nick, he found a stray yellow cat. Nick was eleven then, and although he really wanted a dog, any pet was something, and this one, being a stray, had a certain wild romance to it. But when he tried to hug it, the cat swiped at him with needled paws. He had pinprick scratches on both arms, but he thought they looked kind of like tattoos, and he rolled up his sleeves to show them off. He named the cat immediately, trying to make it more his. Shelter, he called it, after the driveway shelter Chuck's father had abruptly abandoned, leaving it inexplicably in rubble for the boys to play war in.
The cat kept out of everyone's way at first. Nick kept trying to make it sleep on his bed, but the only person in the family the cat liked was Tom. Nights, when Tom would sit out on the front porch, watching the stars and worrying, the cat would suddenly settle into his lap. At dinner, it was Tom the cat sat by, washing itself and purring, spreading out to sleep. Nick mashed up his food against the sides of his plate; he thrust pieces of chicken at the cat, who, uninterested, pulled away.
It was a strange animal. It was really more like the dog Nick had wanted. Now, when Tom got up to walk, the cat followed, and when he stopped, the cat stopped, too. He'd test it, walking farther and farther away every night, seeing just when the cat would turn and skulk away. The cat was with him the night he picked up the letter from California, asking him to come out and interview for the foreman position, his expenses paid.
He was delirious. He ran back to the house, the cat lagging behind him, and when he told Helen he had an interview, she started to cry. "California!" he shouted. "Grass! Beaches! A whole brand-new sky!" He looked over at Nick, who was standing, amazed, by the kitchen stove. "I'll show you stars like you've never seen in your whole life."
He worried, though. He was convinced the right suit would get him the job, the right haircut. He spent hours prowling the cut-rate stores, making Nick come with him to pick out something right. Man to man, he said. He got superstitious. He kept thinking, if only he could win a little money, he could take his family with him for the interview. It would be like a vote of confidence in the future he had to have, and then maybe things would work out—he'd get the job and they'd never have to come back to Pittsburgh ever again. He could get someone from the plant to pack up the stuff here. Or they could just leave it for vandals, for anyone. What did he care?
He began gambling more and more, losing what money he had saved for another haircut, for a new pair of shoes, getting more and more frustrated. One night, he was starting off for Wobbly Joe's when the cat started following him. He was sure it would turn back, but it came all the way to the bar, and when he went inside, why, the cat came in, too, prowling about the corners, disdaining the hands that reached down to stroke his fur. Tom went to the back for the poker game, the cat beside him, and while he played, the cat twitched and fished through his legs.
He liked having the cat there—it relaxed him, made him play bold. And that night, Tom had his first win. Two hundred and eighty dollars. Enough to take his family with him for the interview. He scooped up the money in one hand, the cat in the other, and the two of them went home.
He didn't say anything to Helen or Nick when he and the cat came in, his face all lit up and secretive. He poured the cat some milk into a blue dish. "Hey, that's my good dish," Helen said, but he stopped her, digging into his pockets, bringing up all that cash, crumpled, as green as sprouted grass. "The cat brought me luck," he said. "We're all getting out of here, we're all going. Like a vacation that won't ever end on us." He looked down at the cat. "You, too," he said, and the cat licked at the edge of the bowl, toppling it, empty.
Chuck's father was retarring the driveway because neighbors had complained, sure the kids would pick up pieces of rubble and put one another's eyes out with it. Nick sat with Chuck on his front steps.
"You'll forget me," Chuck said. "I just know it."
"Will not," Nick said, but even then he felt himself moving away. He couldn't stop thinking about California. He could be doing perfectly normal things—brushing his teeth, pulling on a striped blue jersey that was too big for him—and he'd think, I could be doing this in California, and suddenly every motion would seem charged, somehow different and wonderful. He practiced what it might be like. He filled the bathtub with cold water and salted it with Morton's, and then got in with his underwear, because he didn't have a bathing suit. He shut his eyes and imagined he heard gulls. When he came out of the tub, his skin flushed, his eyes glittering, he stared at himself in Helen's mirror, imagining that even his features were miraculously changing. He put on all the lights in his room, sitting under his desk lamp as close as he could, imagining he was tanning, until Helen came in and scolded him about wasting electricity.
Oh, she was caught up in the trip, too. He saw how she put a big map of California on the kitchen door, how she stared at it while she fished the soapy dishes out of the sink, while she patted hamburger meat into a loaf for supper, giving generous pinches of it to the cat. She couldn't stop talking about the sun there. She had always been the sort who ticked off the months on the kitchen calendar until summer. In December she would go through Tom's travel folders until she found the ones for the tropics, and those she would tack up on all the cabinets. She never minded not being able to afford fans for the house. She said there were loads of cool breezes and she would just open up her house to encourage them in. Pulling open the windows, the doors, letting the sweltering heat enter, clamp down, and stick. Nick got used to swatting June bugs in the house, to seeing a bumblebee angrily circling in his bedroom, popping against the glass panes. He stepped on the garden ants that scouted kitchen sugar; he picked up the frogs and shooed them outside.
In summer, Helen always seemed in a trance. There was really never enough money, but in winter she managed to stretch out the cheap cuts of meat, adding flour to fill things out. Summers were different. Who could eat in this weather? she said. She insisted it was healthier to eat less. She stashed away the money she would have spent for milk, for bread, and on nights when Tom was gambling, she took Nick over to one of the dance halls. She sat him down in a corner and he watched while she wound her way from stranger to stranger, dipping and swooning on the music, laughing. He liked how she became. He felt as if she were letting him in on some secret. She left with her hair damp, her dress pasted along her back. There would be this patina of dream about her that wouldn't fade. She'd smile at Tom when he came in, his money gone, maybe his socks, too, but she wouldn't grouse at him, she wouldn't tell him about her evening, either. And when she looked at Nick, she winked.
It was snowing the day they were leaving, just two days after Nick's twelfth birthday. They had packed more than they needed because Tom said they weren't coming back. Nick had a pile of books, some schoolwork Tom had promised Nick's teachers he would do, work Nick already planned to flutter out the window onto the highway. The only thing the school knew about the trip was that it was some kind of family emergency, and when Helen fussed, Tom said that it really wasn't a lie.
Excerpted from Family by Caroline Leavitt. Copyright © 1987 Caroline Leavitt. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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.
Meet the Author
Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eight novels. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a columnist for the Boston Globe, a book reviewer for People, and a writing instructor at UCLA online.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews