With the deep emotion and insight of “a true storyteller” (Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times), Christopher Tilghman, the author of the acclaimed Mason’s Retreat and In a Father’s Place, has written a powerful new novel of men and women, fathers and families.
Eric Alwin has gone to visit his elderly father, a once commanding and charismatic Maryland senator who has seen his public service soured–and his family broken–by a sex scandal. Realizing that his own unfaithfulness, his disaffection with his career and marriage, seem to be a continuation of a family pattern, Eric is astonished to find his father proposing a bold expedition.
The ensuing trip through the Deep South and the American heartland becomes both a journey into the emotional truth of the Alwin family and a breakthrough into a new kind of resilience and understanding, and love. Along the way, Eric will know anew not only his mother, Audrey, but his sisters, Alice and Poppy, and his own wife and son. As he discovers the surprising secret behind the scandal that defined his father’s fate, he will also realize what he must do to shape a more authentic and coherent life for himself.
Christopher Tilghman’s Roads of the Heart is a brilliant achievement by an author who, grappling with the strains and discords of contemporary American culture, achieves a special understanding of how family members love and lose and find one another every day.
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
The sound his father had made was “mop-jeck,” or perhaps “mott-seck.”
“I’m sorry?” Eric leaned forward. He was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, a wood-grained model that the man from the rental company had suggested for a “gentleman’s décor”; his left buttock was asleep. They were speaking over the insistent tinny hum of an electric space heater. They were sitting in his father’s bookish study. Outside the door, the grandfather clock ticked. His father was installed in his wingback chair, which was where he always spent most of these Sunday afternoons, resting after the exertions of church. He had a steel hospital bed table drawn tight in front of him, as if to keep him from pitching forward. He had been listening quietly as Eric did the usual: emptied his mind of news, whatever stray bits, factoids, and epiphanies he could conjure out of the gray background of his suburban life. It was like chanting, this largely one-way form of conversing, an exercise in the free-ranging self-examination one might engage in while praying, or on an analyst’s couch. Unless his father grabbed the bait on a certain subject, Eric would just keep tossing out the line.
It was a dreary March day, casting the kind of spiritual light that seems to illuminate one’s vague fears and concealed regrets. That was the sort of thing Eric had been speaking about, whether he and Gail had made the right choices; whether their son, Tom, blamed him for his uncertain start in life; whether happiness is something you earn and whether unhappiness is a punishment for your sins. It was an odd, rather Calvinistic line for Eric to take: he had erred enough in life not to seek that sort of scorekeeping.
“Mottsecks,” his father said again, working his mouth around its hurried emptiness.
Eric’s father, Frank Alwin, had been a handsome man with a thin and craggy face, a serious nose and strong chin. He was tall and, though quite slender, had always given the impression of power: a gangly welterweight who might still deliver a brutal punch. He had been a dairy farmer of sorts, enough to give him troublesome skin and a penetrating, sun-narrowed scowl, but his real career had been as a state senator in his native Maryland, a career that he conspired to the level of majority leader before his enemies’ plots and his own deep character flaws brought him to his knees. Since then, age and physical calamities had ravaged his body: it was hard to think of any major medical event he had not been through, even if the Big One still seemed well in the future. But because he had lost so much of the use of his body, his eyes could seem almost magical in their ability to communicate, as if his soul had moved from his damaged heart and scrambled brain and taken up residence on those surfaces; the eyes, moist and youthful, quick as cats. Still, when a word is needed, even magic cannot replace it. It mattered to Frank, this ragged verbal fragment, and he looked at Eric desperately but not hopelessly, as if by trying once more, he could make the air in his voicebox behave itself and produce the sounds he imagined so precisely. He pointed his thumb back at his chest and said it again. “Mottsecks. Me.”
Eric had long ago devised an expression for times like this, when the word mattered. It was what one does with a friend who stutters, a look of support and patience, a calming and confident arching of the eyebrows, a face frozen, ready to reanimate as soon as the battle in the mouth’s soft tissue was done.
“Shit,” Frank said. Some years ago he had “plateaued,” as the speech therapists put it, but short words beginning with sibilants had always been easy. “Help.”
“Was it something I said?”
Frank sighed, deep with the frustration that would never be lifted. His blue eyes became moister. This state was actually not so new for him: his emotions had always been too big for him to contain: passions had led him astray; his softheartedness had caused him to hurt people. Tough on the outside; putty in the middle. That’s what had taken Eric most of his fifty-plus years to figure out about this man, a man who never admitted his faults, never apologized, seemed never to feel an ounce of guilt. “Don’t explain; don’t apologize”: that had been his unofficial creed in his political life. A typical postwar man, not one of a “greatest generation” but a human being deformed by history: that’s what Eric had initially concluded back when he used it as a reason for damnation. He had since rediscovered this explanation as a reason to forgive. But it all, the deformation and the subsequent charade, had to have taken a toll; none of it was natural. Eric had been assuming that for years now, inside, his father was bleeding from the wounds.
For a moment it seemed Frank would try the word again, his face tensing for the effort, but then he gave up. “Shit,” he said again. “Skip it.”
“No. Let’s get it. I’ve got time.” Eric tried not to wince as a sudsy mid-Atlantic storm began to splatter against the windows. The drive back up the New Jersey Turnpike in this slush would be hell; he imagined a wreck somewhere near the Cherry Hill water tower that would back up traffic all the way to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It was Sunday. He always made these trips on Sunday, the day one finally has to make good on everything procrastinated on through the week and weekend.
Frank shook his head but mouthed the damnable word again; his lips were loose and rubbery. Two syllables, soft at the beginning. Sometimes these clues meant something; sometimes they didn’t. “Grammy,” Eric said, an impulse. It didn’t sound anything like the word, but earlier they had been looking at a picture of his grandmother, who had been dead for forty years. Frank had been organizing old photographs, his latest project. “Garden,” said Eric, momentarily caught on words that began with “G.” It was probably time to order seeds, not that the vegetable and flower gardens on the place had ever been of interest to Frank. Gardens were something imposed on the place, and on Frank, by Alice, his elder daughter.
“No, no, no.” Frank pounded his hospital table in frustration, but the attempt came out this time as a plea. “Mottsecks. Help.”
Eric tried to recall exactly what he had been saying when his father interrupted, an impossible task since he was only rarely aware of what was coming out of his mouth in these conversations. From visit to visit he could rattle on at length about almost nothing: who would have thought to tell his elderly father about his neighbor’s new dog, how the housebreaking was going, the installation of an invisible fence? This could be an effective kind of torture, like riding coast to coast in an airplane with one of those people who like people. It reminded Eric of the patient-sitting jobs he used to get at the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire, back during Gail and his fling as rural hippies. Companionship during the long deep hours of the night was the point, but the patients were mostly cancer-ridden old farmers, and Eric was a hippie with long hair and a beard, and he believed that fertilizer was poison, that mechanized farming was evil, that the world was running out of oil anyway.
Off in the house, he could hear Adam Miller making tea. It was an odd arrangement, by Eastern Shore standards, a man as a nurse and a housekeeper for a gentleman; not quite right. What sort of man would do that work, Eric himself asked when Alice proposed Adam almost two years ago.
“What is that supposed to mean,” she snapped back. “Are you asking if he’s gay?” Alice liked to get to the heart of things, although the real person she was defending was their younger sister, Poppy, who was gay and lived in Houston.
Eric wasn’t asking that and he had never done anything in his life but support Poppy. She was the lost baby, the one they all loved best. “I’m just making sure you checked him out,” he said to Alice.
Alice didn’t answer. Of course she had done everything but hire a private detective.
“What does Dad think of him?” asked Eric.
“I don’t think Dad has that much of a choice.”
“I think he liked him.”
And so he did. It was Adam who helped Frank get started in the morning, tied his neckties, faced the daily task of giving him speech, filling in the blanks, writing the letters, making the telephone calls. Frank seemed to accept from the beginning that a man who had been married twice, divorced bitterly by the first—the mother of his children—and widowed by his second, and who had behaved wretchedly to both, probably should end up largely in the company of men. Ever since Marjorie, his second wife, had died of cancer, that’s the way his life had been anyway.
Eric gave his father what he hoped was a sympathetic smile and was met by a shrug. “What a bummer,” Eric said. The wind rattled the windows; the chill seeped into the room.
“Don’t know.” It came out “Du-now.” He meant, as he had previously been able to make clear, that after more than ten years of this he’d come to believe that an inability to speak was an affliction only his God could have served up as a test, a punishment, a preparation for the eternal fire. He did not like others, especially his son, dismissing his own private destiny—brutal as it was—as merely bad luck, simply a weak fitting in his brain plumbing.
“Sure,” Eric said. “Sorry.”
A shrug again, this one delivered with forgiveness, a gentle narrowing of the eyes.
“Want to try to write it?” Eric leaned forward to move the pad on the table under his father’s good hand. Sometimes this worked, but the letters and sounds were just as likely to become scrambled; his hand had deserted him as much as his tongue. Language was now a befuddlement to his whole body.
Frank picked up the pencil, fixed it against his thumb with three fingers as people writing with the wrong hand will do, but then put it down. He raised his bushy eyebrows as a joke. It meant he had given up.
This angered Eric, this luxury of powerlessness. Frank had made this precise gesture long before his strokes, back when he had made a good mess of something, let his children or his wives down, broken his public trust. Powerless in the face of what? His own character? Seeing it, Eric was suddenly back in the heat of older battles with his father, battles not so much won or lost as abandoned in a decisive draw and years of silence. And he was back in his private battles against his own repetition of these faults, his own weaknesses, his own willingness to leave important things undone in the name of what . . . peace? He could see his own eyebrows arching like that: an iterative curse. More and more, these days, as he looked into the mirror, unshaven in the morning, he saw his father’s face staring back.
This is the nature of family, after all, a certain compression of time, a simultaneity: all family joys in a single flutter of the heart; every woe dripping through a single unhealed wound, a fear that to fix any one piece of it, you have to fix it all.
“Is it Maryland? Are you talking about the state?”
“No. No. No.”
Eric drew the letters “M-O-T-T-S-E-C-K” on the pad and circled the “M.” “Is this right? Does it start with M?”
Normally, one might think they were getting somewhere. The problem was that yes could sometimes mean no. No was more reliable—that made its own sense: so much easier to express what he didn’t want than what he did; so much easier to send a dish back to the kitchen than to make it clear what he really wanted. But no was not unfailingly accurate.
“Mike? Mike Greer?” Mike was the plumber in town. It wasn’t right, but Eric was strangely unable to think of relevant or likely words that started with “M.” Mirage. Marriage. Million. Makeshift. Masterpiece. Montana. He didn’t even offer one of those, even though the thought of being on a two days’ hike into Glacier National Park was attractive. Frank was tired out by now, anyway. But the truth was, Frank never really gave up on a word even if others had. In a day or two, or in a few weeks, he might find a picture to point to, or Adam would draw one, or the word itself would emerge from those damaged lips, perfect as a newborn unscarred from its tortured birth. But lately Eric had begun to doubt that everything his father wanted to express was getting out. If the word were a thing, the thing would be found; if it were an errand or a deed, one of them would figure out what it was, all of it being fairly predictable. But what of his father’s thoughts, what of the existential? As Eric had tried to suggest to his sister Alice, even if she did not share Eric’s taste for literature, what of Wallace Stevens’s pressure on the heart of the inexpressible? “Sure. Sure,” said Alice, wary of poetry. But what late-life wisdom or reflection might his father have to share but be unable to express? He was eighty-two now, and despite his apparent indestructibility, he wasn’t going to live forever. It could be like this “mottseck” at the end, the small gathering at the bedside, the various families leaning forward to record the last utterance, only to dissolve into grotesque slapstick: “Did he say ‘glyfith’?” “No, I heard ‘glowforth,’ you know, ‘Go forth.’ ” “You’re all wrong. It was ‘Glaswirst.’ I heard it plain as day. He was asking for a glass of water.”
The door opened and Adam burst in with his tea tray. He was a big man, tall as Frank but much broader, with the sloping shoulders, heavy neck, and round close-cropped head of an athlete. His powerful physique made his talent and commitment to caregiving all the more appealing. On his time off he might well have been a weightlifter or a bruising attackman in the adult lacrosse leagues, but Eric knew nothing of Adam’s private life.
When Adam started working for Frank he had worn white nursing clothes, but within days had understood that this wasn’t necessary or even desired. Now he wore his own uniform, jeans and a sweatshirt, with a fanny pack full of Frank’s necessities: spare reading glasses, medications, pens, and a small steno pad for jotting down notes, or making pictures, or writing words. He had filled and saved many dozens of these pads, and Eric often wondered what a stranger or distant family member would make of these recorded transactions, the last years of a stroke victim’s life told in a rebus. Eric could read them perfectly. Upon arriving for his visits he always asked Adam if he could glance through the latest, and Adam would hand them over; but first, he rifled through them and ripped out a page or two here and there, sometimes several pages—a complete conversation—and placed these excisions from the record on a feathery pile he kept at one corner of his desk.
“It’s showtime,” said Adam. As always, he had brought along a Coke in a can for himself. He served them the tea and pulled up a Victorian stool, one of those monstrosities with claws and heads.
Frank took a long, very loud sip through the good corner of his mouth. “Perfect,” he said to Adam, fingers circled in the OK sign.
“Mr. Frank, he’s always trying to butter me up,” said Adam, popping the tab on his Coke. When Adam smiled his whole face became merry.
The aroma and steam of tea brought cheer into this crowded room, built as a library in those heady nineteenth-century days when an Eastern Shore farm, even one as modest as this one, deserved the high Victorian treatment. There were bookshelves on three sides of the room, running around the doors and fireplace. Frank had retained his ability to read, but only a few pages at a time; he often had a book out, something he had loved from his studious teenage years: Kipling, Jane Austen, Rider Haggard, Edna St. Vincent Millay, but the mildew in these volumes made him sneeze. “Dust catchers,” Adam called all the books and gewgaws: an unhealthful environment. “Call for a Dumpster,” he said the day he arrived, to the dismay of Alice, guardian of the family past.
The window in front of Eric looked out the lane and into the dark flat landscape beyond. Dusk was coming in and the wet flakes flattened into large splotches as they hit the black glass.
“I told you you shouldn’t have come,” said Adam. “It’s right nasty out there.”
“This was supposed to be rain.”
“Home,” said Frank. The word was round in his mouth, the “O” coming from deep in his throat; to someone untutored, it would have sounded like a groan. He raised his flat palm up and pushed the air toward the door. “Go home.”
This was an expression of love and concern, and Eric knew he didn’t need to respond. “Dad’s trying to get a word,” he said to Adam.
“Animal, mineral, or vegetable?”
“Vegetable,” said Frank. It came out “Jetable.”
“Dad. Come on.”
“What did it sound like?” asked Adam.
Eric kept his eyes on his father during this, because he hated to have conversations about Frank when he was in the room without pretending that he was part of the dialogue, the peculiar etiquette of caring for someone who could barely speak. “Dad, do you want to try again?”
Eric was tired, too. He and Gail had been out late the night before. “A classic Summit evening,” she had said sourly on the way home, but Eric had enjoyed himself. He was in one of those moods when all the women, women he’d known for years, seemed especially sexy; no harm in that. What else would brighten the day quite as much? He had fawned a bit over Rebecca Walsh, especially when she asked if anyone—“anyone” she had said, a private viewing—wanted to see her thong underpants. Eric didn’t really want to see them, but he would have loved to know if she was actually wearing them. By the time he and Gail pulled in to their short driveway they were both staring ahead into the wash of the headlights, as if they hoped something unexpected would pop out of the dark: children in Halloween costumes, a film crew making a movie, a moose. He had hoped they would put the mood aside for lovemaking, but she was still angry at him, so he went back downstairs and listened to all the longest and dreariest CDs in their music library—Bruckner, then Mahler, then Gorecki’s Third—and was at it late enough for Gail to come looking for him in her nightgown. “Is this necessary,” she bellowed over the screeching of the soprano.
“We’ll try later in the week,” said Adam. He ripped off the sheet from the pad.
“Fine,” said Eric. He stood up to go to the bathroom.
“Gail called,” said Adam as he brushed by. “She said to stay over.” There were no telephones in this end of the house; Frank hated now to hear phones ring, but he once had been a master on the phone, scheming with his cronies, mollifying constituents. When he was still quite little, Eric used to love to sit silently in the wingback chair and listen to his father talk, strings of syntax, the rhythms not of conversation and consensus, but of cajolery. Every once in a while, Frank would glance over at the small boy and wag his eyebrows. See? he was saying, see how much fun you can have with words? If Eric faulted his father for any of that now, it was that he had not warned him against being sucked in: if your words have the power to fool anyone, the biggest fool is usually yourself.
Eric went out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. The wind was picking up from the water and was driving billowy drafts down the center of the house; away from the space heater he felt the Chesapeake chill ebbing and flowing. He walked to the doors on the land side and cupped his hands around the sidelights, looked out onto the lane and into the gray fingers of bare beech boughs. Not much snow was sticking on the ground; Adam was correct about this being nasty, but it was no blizzard, a slushy inconvenience at worst. Winter in the landscape had always seemed benign to Eric, even as a child. Later, when he was sent off to prep school in New Hampshire in order to be removed from the family fray, he felt the first sharp warnings of a true freeze in November, and he learned that cold was nothing to be trifled with, that real winter could kill him in a hour or two, freeze the layers of his body until it stopped his heart. Not on the Eastern Shore. The heart was safe from the cold there; spend a winter night outside and you’d get wet, wet as a camper, but if there were danger to the heart, it would come from the inside.
He walked into the lavatory off the kitchen. This convenience, carved out of a pantry, had always given Eric the creeps, with a ceiling much too tall for such a small space, and an old-fashioned toilet tank mounted halfway up the wall. When he was eight or nine he was sitting on the toilet and glanced up at the tank to see the tail of a blacksnake. He had grown up with blacksnakes. Often they slithered their way into his solitary games, and they paid for the mistake with an ax chop or a .22-caliber slug to the head. But this snake curled overhead was something out of a jungle movie, a primal image, and it was years before he entered the room again.
He reflected on this memory for a moment or two before he remembered why he had come in, and then went back out into the kitchen. It had been renovated by his mother in the late fifties, done up in the optimism and appetite of those years. The yellow Formica of the counters, seared with brown circles, still looked as if it would last centuries, but his parents’ marriage had not survived the next decade. His mother had gone home to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1968 and remarried happily, had gotten on with her life as if there had never been this wartime wedding to a skinny Navy lieutenant in Norfolk, and over twenty years imprisoned on an Eastern Shore backwater pining after her husband, who was across the bay in Annapolis having affairs with senatorial secretaries in the shadow of the statehouse dome.
Eric reached for the phone and called Gail; she answered after several rings, breathless from her NordicTrack. Eric could imagine the tiny jewels of sweat across her upper lip.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Oh . . .” She paused, as if trying to pick out any one thing to apologize for. “I was crabby last night. It’s not really your fault.”
“ ‘Not really.’ In other words, my fault.”
“Not your fault. It’s just those people.”
“They just make me feel so hopeless. There’s nothing in their lives. All they’re doing is temporizing. They don’t even deny it.”
She was right, maybe, but the truth was, Eric had very little to do with these old fellow suburbanites. He’d never felt the pressure to join them as Gail had during her years as a largely stay-at-home mother. “Okay. But I really don’t need ‘hopeless’ right now. I’m in the Inferno already.”
Her tone brightened, a change of topic. “A tough visit? Is anything up?”
“No. Not really. Just more of the same. Maybe it’s the weather.”
“It’s snowing here. Did Adam give you my message?”
Eric said that he had, but that he needed to get to work early tomorrow. Besides, he added, in his current mood, spending the night at the farm wouldn’t be a lot of fun. It was the nights that were hardest, anyway, with the night nurses, and with his father wandering the house, bellowing his late-night lamentations in his private tongue.
“He’s trying to get a word.”
“What does it sound like?”
He fiddled with the telephone cord, picked up one of Adam’s cigarette packs. The Surgeon General has warned . . . “It’s nothing. Hard to explain.”
Adam and his father were conversing when he returned, sitting comfortably in the ionic heat of the space heater. “Gail says to give you her love.”
Frank smiled. “Good girl,” he said perfectly. “Lucky boy.” Often, when his mind and thoughts were unclouded by contrary emotions, Frank could speak almost normally. His thoughts about almost every younger woman were like this, uncomplicated, full of warmth, a joy to yearn for the female.
Eric considered this equation, GG = LB, and wondered whether it shouldn’t in fact mean more than it did. He had never for one second since he married Gail thirty years ago questioned the fact that he was a “lucky boy,” but that didn’t seem to stop him from screwing it up. Maybe even gave him license to fail, because what he had was undeserved. But Eric was feeling better for the conversation, as cryptic and married as it was; he knew the one thing he could not bear was to live without her.
“So beautiful,” said Frank.
In fact, Frank had thought so from the moment he met Gail. It was in 1973 when, freshly graduated from Middlebury, Eric and Gail paid a call in Maryland. Gail had never met her boyfriend’s father; over the year and a half of their courtship, Eric had told her little: a state senator, majority leader, kind of self-involved, why do you ask? But here they were, driving across the bridge from what Eric still called Friendship Airport, and she was nervous. “Don’t worry,” said Eric. “He might not even show up.”
But he did, greeting them from the top step of the back porch—khakis, white shirt, red bow tie—solicitous as an innkeeper. He stretched out his hand to take Gail’s and held it, in the Southern manner, longer than necessary, and his slightly crooked smile held a touch of gentle irony. “At last,” he said, as if he had been unfairly denied this pleasure previously. “Just as beautiful as Eric said. Don’t you agree, Mike?” His longest-lasting and most sacrificially loyal toady, Mike Billings, stuffed briefcase in hand, had followed Frank out onto the landing.
“That’s right, Frank. Pretty as a picture.”
“Come in. Come in. Mike was just leaving,” Frank answered, and then led Gail into the house, leaving Eric to unload their suitcases and to endure an extended leave-taking with Mike. Eric disliked him, had, at some time during his teens, ceased to be flattered that his father’s cronies thought it worthwhile to suck up to the Senator’s children.
Eric found them on the porch, drinks in hand, and Gail was sitting on a low wicker ottoman directly in front of Frank, practically at his feet. She was holding a tattered copy of The Lord’s Oysters.
“Get a drink, Eric,” said Frank.
“No. That’s okay. I’m fine.”
“I’m telling Gail y’all can’t possibly leave in two days. I’ve cleared the deck. No calls. I promise.”
Eric looked at Gail; he wanted to tell her not to be fooled by that “y’all”—Frank only used a Southern accent when he wanted someone’s vote. Perhaps she wasn’t snowed yet, but she was entranced by this outpouring of slightly reckless charm. He was perhaps nothing more in those days than a type, but he was a type of man that she had never experienced. So Southern in manner, so facile in conversation. Gail’s father was a loan officer in a bank in Reading, Massachusetts; her mother taught second grade.
“I’ve planned a dinner party for tomorrow evening. Mrs. Swenson has already started to cook. Alice and Alden are coming.”
“My sister and her husband,” said Eric.
“Well, she knows who they are, don’t you, Gail? Eric forgets about us when he’s up north, but down here we’re family, are we not?” He was acting positively Johnson-esque.
“Sure, Lyndon,” Eric answered, although the question had not been directed to him but to Gail, and Frank waited for her to answer, to assent, to accept this proposal, to crawl under his wing.
“If that’s what it takes to get supper,” said Gail.
Frank treated them to a round of full laughter. He took her hand and patted it. “Good. Good,” he said.
Frank had recently bought a boat, a clinker-built Chris-Craft with an eighty-horse Evinrude, which, for a lifelong and devoted sailor, signaled something, and in fact, Eric learned later that this was a time in his life when Frank was at his most reckless: he’d already passed the high-water mark of his congressional ambitions, and now he was intent on making as much hay as he could in his more local arena. He was moving fast everywhere, on land and on the water. After they had sat on the porch for a few more minutes, he told them he wanted to take them out for a spin to “clear your brains of airplane air,” as he put it. Gail and Eric went up to change, and after he had pulled on his bathing suit Eric tiptoed into Gail’s room and found her in her underwear, leaning over her suitcase. He came up behind her and put both hands on her waist, and then dropped them into her underpants. “Eric. No,” she said. “He’s waiting.”
“He is not. He’s already forgotten about us. When we come down I’ll have to remind him that he said he’d take us out.”
She turned her back to him as she put on her bikini, such a lovely body. When she faced him he said, “Don’t you have something a little fuller? I’ll have to bring along a bucket of cold water and douse him.”
“Oh, stop. He’s funny. You didn’t tell me that.”
In those days Eric was still trying to win her. That spring she’d been keeping him in a suspended state between delight and despair, going out on a date or two with other boys, and telling him he was uptight to complain. It was agony; maybe she’d actually slept with one of them. So here his father was, forcing her practically to accept a marriage proposal Eric had not yet made, charming her for him, a Cyrano in the wings. Eric knew it might help, but it made him sick, his father flirting with his date. Maybe they’d have to fight over her. The truth was, if it came to it, to a choice of some sort, a competition, Eric wasn’t sure who would win.
They took a six-pack of beer along for their boat ride, a full-throttle drag race across a bumpy chop, with Frank at the wheel chortling as the spray soaked them all to the skin. Eric drank two of the beers on the way to the crab shacks, cutting his lip once when his head was jammed into the can by the heaving of the boat, and when they came back, a bushel of crabs lashed to the transom, he drank two more. He was drunk and already nauseated by the time they hit cocktails on the porch, and threw up before the crabs hit the pot. Gail helped him to his bed and pulled off his pants, and he passed out. Later—God, it seemed like two in the morning—he was conscious for long enough to hear his father’s voice deep in the house blasting out a joke, and Gail laughing. When he woke in the morning, hung over, they were already in town buying supplies for the party. Mrs. Taylor, the housekeeper in Frank’s intermarriage years, said what Eric least wanted to hear. “If I were you, Eric, I’d sober up and keep an eye on that lady.”
On the last night of the visit, after Gail had gone to bed, Eric found Frank in his study—right here in this room. Eric tried to thank him for the visit, for making such an effort. Eric meant it; for the first time that he could remember, his father had been true to his word, had given the party, had let three days pass with no drop-ins from cronies, no trips to Annapolis. Perhaps exhausted from the effort, Frank was sitting glumly in his chair, in the dark of a single small lamp on his desk.
“We’ll be leaving at six in the morning,” said Eric.
“Fine. Safe trip.”
“You’ve been great to Gail. She likes you.” He was being grateful here; he owed his father this dangerous truth.
Frank sighed; he took a drink from his highball glass. “A lovely girl. You should marry her.”
“We haven’t quite gotten to that, but yes, I should. If she’ll have me.”
“She’ll have you, but—” He stopped himself, spent a moment stifling what he had a moment ago been raring to say, and then gave Eric a genuine but hopeless smile.
“You’ll probably just screw it up.”
Eric didn’t know how to react to this—was he commenting on Eric’s character, or on life in general?—and he still didn’t know what he felt about it. “Why?” he asked finally.
“Because you’re my son,” Frank answered.
That had been thirty years ago, and Eric was still in love with Gail, and Frank was still in love with her, and though Eric had screwed plenty up, the marriage had survived; from a distance, and perhaps even at the core of it, little had changed.
Adam had been talking to him as this long memory flashed its delicate and brief illumination. “I’m sorry?” said Eric.
“Mr. Frank wants you to call Mike Billings.”
“Mike Billings? Is that it?” Mike Billings. Mott Seck? Billings had been working, for reasons that were both obscure and suspect, on a “narrative,” as he called it, of Frank’s career in the Maryland Senate. He had taken pains to indicate that he was not interested in the “denouement”—in other words, and pronounced correctly, Frank’s expulsion for padding his payroll—but neither Alice nor Eric believed that for a second. “Mike?” he said again hopefully, accenting and drawing out the “M” as if to force it into his father’s mouth as a replacement for the lost word.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is high-quality reading that touches the emotions without giving them much of a workout. The writing is spare but attentive to detail. As someone who has lived in or spent significant amounts of time in all of these places, I felt transported by the narrative. And I think the author accomplished the near- impossible feat of getting me invested in the lives of characters whom I initially didn't like much. I believe he hasn't received the attention he deserves.-- catwak