The Promise of Light: A Novel

The Promise of Light: A Novel

by Paul Watkins

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312267667
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/04/2000
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,299,450
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Paul Watkins is also the author of the novels The Forger,The Story of My Disappearance,In the Blue Light of African Dreams, Archangel, Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn, and Night Over Day Over Night (all in print with Picador USA), and the memoir Stand Before Your God. He lives with his family in Princeton, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

The Promise of Light


By Paul Watkins

Picador

Copyright © 1992 Paul Watkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8766-4


CHAPTER 1

RHODE ISLAND, 1921

Ships were burning in the harbor. Their rigging became branches of fire, scattering sparks as the blazing masts toppled into the waves.

I stood with Monahan on the beach across the bay. The tide was coming in. It bubbled up white over our shoes, but we didn't bother to move.

Monahan ran the ferryboat between Jamestown Island and the mainland. The ferry hadn't been late once in the ten years he'd been running it and he knew it and the people over on Jamestown knew it, too. As far as Monahan was concerned, those people who stood now on the Jamestown dock hadn't come to see the fire. They came to see if the flames would stop him from making the crossing. Then all of us would remember the fire, not because it swallowed Dillon's fishhouse, or the Seaside Restaurant, or because it lit up boats like candles and then snuffed them out and sent them to the bottom of the bay. It would be remembered as the day Monahan's ferry didn't make the crossing. Not even the hurricane of 1911 had done that, and people had run to the water's edge to see him ride the greybeard waves in his flat-ended boat, which took on water and spat it back out through the scuppers. Monahan's ferry roared in so fast on the tide that it smashed the dock to pieces and ploughed onto the beach, but at least he had made the crossing. And what his ferry hadn't smashed, the hurricane took with its white-boiling water and wind that sounded like a train run off the tracks.

Monahan raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. He kept his hair slicked back with Bay Rum, and it shone in a silver hood across his skull. "I could run aground on one of them sunk boats, couldn't I, Benjamin?"

"You could all right." I had been carrying my suitcase all this time. Now I set it down and kneaded the blood back into my knuckles.

"And I could catch a load of sparks on the wind and it could set my engine on fire. That would blast us right out of the sea."

I didn't answer him. By now he was talking to himself, weighing his boat against his reputation.

He dropped the binoculars onto his chest. They were German ones that his son sent back from the war. They had the name "Kruger" scratched onto the case. The binoculars reached Monahan in good condition, but his son had died and was buried in France, at a place called Château-Thierry.

I still remembered the shock when I heard about his death, as if a knitting needle had been run through one of my lungs. The news spread quickly on the island, from street to street and across the gardens like a huge black butterfly. I had been ready to spend the rest of my life catching sight of him around the island and stopping now and then to talk. In my mind, I had cleared the way for him to grow into a barrel-bellied replica of his father. Even years later, the space he left behind still hadn't closed up.

Monahan never took off the binoculars. People in town would touch their thumbs and index fingers together and raise their hands to their eyes, as if spying on something in the distance, and everyone would know who they were imitating. "I guess your father has about given up trying to put out the fire on the dock. I guess he's trying to make sure that the whole town doesn't go up."

"I'm sure he's doing all he can." My father was the fire chief. I knew he would be someplace close to the flames, sweat running so heavily off him that afterward he'd be able to pour it from his boots. It was the worst fire that had ever come to the island. I could see that from where I stood. My father's heart would be thundering out of control, and I knew he would be angry, vicious angry, if anything failed him now; man or woman or machine. He had an old scar on his forehead, from falling off a horse in his childhood back in Ireland. The scar would be red with his anger, as if it meant to split and bleed again.

"I have to go. You know that, don't you, Benjamin?"

"Yes, Mr. Monahan. People are waiting to see."

"Well, let's give them a show. I'm going to run this ferry clean into the flames and if there isn't a dock to stop me, I'll keep running until I've planted this boat on the steps of the Jamestown courthouse. I wish my son was here to see it, Benjamin. I swear to God I do."

I smiled and picked up my suitcase, thinking how cold the water would be if we had to jump over the side. The air was warm, but this water had spent its winter swirling around the crags of icebergs off Newfoundland and the brick-red Nova Scotia sand. The Labrador Current. It would be a while yet before the Gulf Stream returned, riding up from the south until it broke against the long beaches of Cape Cod. Then I could swim without the breath being punched from my body.

One car stood on the deck of the ferry, its axle chained to stop it from sliding around. The car was a new model Ford. It belonged to Mr. Dalrimple. He had been sitting in it, smoking a pipe, while Monahan made up his mind. But now he climbed out and came walking down the beach toward us. He had been to see his family in Saunderstown, as he did every week. His wife stayed behind, at the Sturgess Rest Home in Jamestown. Her mind was slipping away. "Are we going or not?" Fire winked on his glasses and for a moment his eyes looked like cinders.

"Of course we're going." Monahan stamped over to his ferry. "Benjamin and I were only planning the best route. Are you backing out, Dalrimple?" He climbed into the wheelhouse. "Because if you're backing out ..." His engines broke into thunder.

Dalrimple turned to me. "This is the end of my car."

I touched my thumb to my lips and made as if to disagree. But he was probably right and it made no sense to argue.

"There's no backing out. Not now that Monahan's made up his mind." Dalrimple tapped the ashes from his pipe on the heel of his shoe. Then he stuffed the pipe in his pocket and took off his glasses. He polished them with the tail of his shirt. He looked tired. Having his wife go slowly mad, like a slow fog creeping down the corridors of her brain, had dug trenches of age across his face.

* * *

I stood at the bow with Dalrimple.

Waves charged out of the dark and smacked against the steel sides of the ferry. Veils of spray blew past us and left a taste of salt on our lips.

Something exploded in the dockyard. The roof of Dillon's fishhouse burst into a flutter of slates and wooden beams. In the shudder of light that spread across the yard, I thought I saw my father. A man stood by himself, too close to the fire for safety. His arms were raised at the rubble of the fishhouse. I thought I saw the gleam of my father's brass fire helmet, which I had polished each Sunday night for as long as I could remember until I went away to university.

I knew it wasn't Dillon, because he would be fall-down drunk by now. He did that at every excuse, and this was the best one he'd got. Besides, it was known that he'd bought insurance only six months before. There would be talk, whatever the truth, that Dillon had burned the place himself. I'd have been drunk if I was him.

We passed the first of the burned ships, wreckage drifting in clumps around the black stump of the mast. Timbers bumped the ferry's hull, and I heard Monahan swearing up in the wheelhouse.

People on the dock were pointing at us. They ran down to the water's edge.

I heard Monahan laughing, a great rumble from his belly that would send the binoculars bouncing against his chest. He didn't care if his ferry struck wreckage and sank. In the morning, perhaps, it would dawn on him that his business was ruined for life. But for now he knew he was famous on the island, the kind of fame that would reach to the grandchildren of people who stood on the dock. It might even have reached to his own grandchildren, if his son had not died in the war.

The ferry dock hadn't burned, except for some tar that coated the tops of the pilings. They lit the way for us, like torches. We pulled up alongside the dock, the ferry engines churning into reverse and sending a froth of white water onto the sand. The smoking tar left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Monahan ran to the bow and unhooked the car's chains.

Dalrimple started his engine. He grinned, with the pipe jammed between his teeth. A few sparks had landed on the roof of his Ford, but not enough to ruin it. Only enough to let him claim some fame from Monahan's finest hour since the hurricane of 1911.

The front end of the ferry slammed down onto the dock.

People were running toward us, trampling footsteps on the dusty ground of the dockyard.

"Climb on!" Dalrimple slapped the side of his door. "You'll get stampeded to death."

Monahan's belly-roaring laugh met the oncoming crowd.

I threw my suitcase into the car and climbed onto the running board. I gripped the window frame and Dalrimple gunned his Ford over the ramp and out into the dockyard.

Smoke was everywhere. It billowed over the dust, carrying the smell of burnt tar and rubber and wood. I had grown used to the smell of fires. Not the dry and sweet smell of pine logs in the fireplace, or the tobacco reek of white birch. I knew the stench of melting car tires and tar-paper roofs, with their strange squealing sound as the fire closed them like fists one after the other.

One shack next to Dillon's fishhouse stayed out of the blaze, while everything around it had burned. The shack was Dillon's icehouse, where he kept the ice for fish fresh off the boats. He also kept salt in the shack, for fish that would be sent up to the Boston market.

The fire truck stood off to one side. All the water in its tank had been used up, and now firemen manned pumps that sprayed seawater over the houses close to the dock. I saw carpets set out on the roofs. These would extinguish the embers before they had a chance to light.

Dillon was drunk like I'd thought. He kept running into his ice shack, dragging out football-sized lumps of ice and throwing them into the remains of his fishhouse. Salt spilled out into the yard. The ice in his hands was coated with it. As Dillon threw his ice into the blaze, the salt flickered blue for a second, before the ball crashed into the fire-belching guts of the building.

The crowd pulled back to let Dalrimple pass.

Voices were calling my name. Hands brushed past my shoulders. But the fire was in my eyes and I couldn't see who was calling.

* * *

I found my father standing in the ruins of the Seaside Restaurant. Pillars of smoke rose up around him. He took off the brass helmet, smoothed back his hair, then set the helmet once more on his head.

Two men stood with him. They wore long overcoats and carried their hats in their hands.

My father's head jerked from one side to the other as he spoke to each of them in turn. He kept jabbing at pieces of wood with his toe and I could tell he was angry with the men.

I set down my suitcase and stood in the dark, waiting for him to finish. I didn't want to muddle my good news with the bad news I figured that these men had brought. I had a job now. That was the good news. For weeks, I had been taking Monahan's ferry back and forth to the mainland and applying for posts at all the different banks. I bought special bonded paper and wrote out my résumé each night before I went to bed. My father didn't mind me living at the house, but he knew and I knew that it was time to be moving on. The house was plenty big enough, especially with my mother being gone. And he could have used the company, but he figured that after graduating from university up in Providence, it was time for me to pack up and leave.

It had got to the point where I no longer cared about what impression I made at the banks. I moved easily in my new suit and was not constantly fingering the knot of silk at my throat. It made a better impression not to care so much, and when I walked into the First Bank of Wickford, having polished my shoes on the trouser cloth that ran down behind my calves, I knew I would have a job by the time I left. I'd been getting superstitious. It seemed that the people who interviewed me had been trained not as bankers but as smellers-of-fear. At first I had plenty of fear, and they smelled it and didn't give me the job. By the time I made it to the First Bank of Wickford, I'd stopped being afraid because I had also stopped giving a damn.

But now that I had the job, it seemed to me as if the rest of my life stretched out like railroad tracks. It was the way I once saw the train tracks that ran up from Kingston toward Boston, and down towards New Haven. I discovered them one day through the woods of the Great Swamp, when Bosley and I were hunting for quail. For a while we had sat on the tracks, pulled sandwiches wrapped in wax paper from the back pockets of our canvas hunting coats and eaten them for lunch. We found pennies that children left on the rails to be squashed by the trains when they passed.

The picture of the tracks stayed clear in my head—smooth and without obstacles. Now this was my life. I had found the path that I would follow and once I'd seen the path, I knew it was the one meant for me. I would spend two years clerking, a year as submanager and in five years I'd be running the bank. I had a house picked out to rent in Wickford.

I was glad not to be straying too far from this bay and this island. I had never been restless to leave and stay away. Long before, back into the smudged memories of my childhood, I had claimed the place as my own. The red-leafed autumns and the waves frozen green on the winter beaches and summer and spring were all wound up in my blood. Sometimes I thought of myself as a guardian of the rocks and tides, as if the island itself had a heartbeat that only I could hear, and if I pressed my ear to the grey stones in the fields, I could hear its constant thunder.

My father slapped his hand down hard on the shoulder of one of the men. "I got nothing for you, Pratt. I don't even know what the hell you think you're doing showing your face around here. Suppose someone recognized you. What then, eh?"

"They wouldn't be looking for me, Arthur. I'm already gone from their minds." The man kept his hands in his pockets. His shoulders were heavy and sloped.

"The hell you are!" My father turned away and said again, "The hell you are, Mister."

Now the other man held his hands palm up toward my father's face. "You can help us, Arthur. You know the ropes. You know the whole game. It's important to us, Arthur."

"But not to me!" My father jabbed his thumb against the chest of his black oilcloth fireman's coat. "I've done away with all that now. And I don't have any money for you. You ask Willoughby if you want money."

"We can't touch what he's got and you know it." Pratt nodded to the other man and both of them turned to leave. They stepped carefully in their good shoes over the puffed charcoal beams of the restaurant. "Well, maybe your son would have some interest in helping us."

My father swung around. He took hold of Pratt and pulled him back to where he had stood before. He took hold of Pratt as if the man was a doll and raised him in the air and shook him. "You say one word to my son and I'll put you in the place where everyone thinks you already are. I want your promise. I want it for old time's sake and for every damn favor you owe me, Johnnie Pratt. So what's it to be? Do I have your promise?"

"Yes, Arthur. I didn't mean to say it."

"I'm serious, now."

"I know, Arthur."

"It's because of my son that I can't help you. Because of him that I got out of all that. Does that not make sense to you?"

"It does. And could you put me down now, Arthur?"

My father dropped him in the ashes.

The other man had lit himself a cigarette. The tiny fire lit up his face and hollowed out his cheeks.

I had never seen him before. Never seen Johnnie Pratt, either.

My father slapped the dirt off his hands, as if grabbing hold of Pratt had somehow left more grime on his skin than any black dust painted on him by the fire. "Good luck to you," he called after the two men. There was a distant panic in his voice.

They didn't answer. They stepped into a car and drove away without turning on the lights. They reached the main road that headed up to the north end of the island, where the ferry owned by a man named Von Klug ran over to Newport. At the main road, they turned on their lights and the two white sabers cut along the road and they sped away into the dark.

My father watched them go. His mouth hung open slightly and I could tell that he was thinking hard.

I walked to where he could see me.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Promise of Light by Paul Watkins. Copyright © 1992 Paul Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Promise Of Light 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Perhaps Paul Watkins's most underrated novel. The story is engaging, the setting beautiful, and the action relentless. This will not disappoint.