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A World Away
By Stewart O'Nan
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Stewart O'Nan
All rights reserved.
THEY DROVE THE NIGHT, through the blacked-out city and out along the Island. Fog stole in from the sea, lay heavy over inlets, white wooden bridges. The roads ran empty for miles, starlit, desolate. James had screwed louvers over the Buick's headlights, it was the law. He thought they'd be stopped, Anne roused, Jay shielding his eyes from some air raid warden's flashlight. For hours, whenever they slowed, the boy asked, "Are we there?" and now James couldn't get it out of his head.
They went on, there was no one. The woods, the marshes, the lines slipping under the car. He'd been born here, his father was dying. Coming back to the sea made him doubt the years in between, his life a great work one plans yet never begins. Rennie was still alive, a world away, the name of his ship snipped out of his letters. James thought the South Pacific; Anne said it didn't matter. They hadn't made love in weeks. Their bags whistled atop the car. Are we there? When are we going to be there?
It was the summer of trains. The war needed everything, all the time, like an infant. His son, his students. The filling stations along the shore were closed. He had gas because Anne's father had died,his Plymouth sitting beside the shuttered house, sucked dry, the seats gone brittle in the sun. James's father was beyond driving. His face slid over bone; when he talked he looked off to the sky, as if the enemy were gliding in behind you. At Amagansett four spies had run the night tide in a raft. In May James's sister had called and asked him to come.
"School doesn't end till June," he said.
"Then come in June," Sarah said. She'd been there since the last stroke, tending the peeling beachhouse, the rotting cottages. Their father had been recovering, she said, until this. They'd been on the porch, doing the Times crossword. James smelled the wet wicker chairs, their guests' gin breath. She'd just read him a clue. She looked over to find him asleep, nothing unusual.
"When he woke up," she said, "you know what he said? 'Sten. S-T-E-N.' Then he couldn't stand up. The doctor said it's common."
Their father had never liked her, it was a mystery. She lived twenty miles west in Sayville, in another age. The three rarely spoke, their father shocked at the cost of the phone.
"We better hang up," James had said across the night, and went back to his chair, the light on the book he'd put down blinding.
"Another?" Anne said. She'd stopped racing James for the phone after the Kramers got their telegram. The new star bloomed gold in their window, a shrine, an omen. Rennie would have a messenger, like a prince; James and Anne would stand on the stoop and read it together, falling and falling. No, James thought, he wouldn't be home. They'd have to get him in class, a face in the door. He'd stop King Philip's War, the Panic of 1837, the Golden Spike. How far summer was, how soon.
"Sarah wants us to come down."
"What did you tell her?"
He saw no decision, though loading the car this morning he'd burned his hand pulling tight some twine and swore (as Anne had wanted to after his answer but didn't — good Anne, Saint Anne), hopping and holding his raw palm, cursing his luck, his incompetence, his mildness. They'd just come to Galesburg for her father. It was the third time in two years they'd moved.
Their catastrophes had all been expected. Her father died. Rennie resisted — against James's advice, with his hesitant blessing — and was shipped to a work camp, first in New York and then California. After four months, his roommate at Cornell was killed on his way to North Africa, and, shaken, he enlisted as a medic and was assigned to the Pacific, Dorothy following as far as San Diego. Now James's father's stroke, or his latest, for he'd withstood a string of them, none devastating. Since her father died — in front of her, calmly, barely there — Anne had been distant, resigned. She didn't have the energy to fight anymore. Together they were silent, alone spoke to themselves. Jay wandered beyond their orbit, confused, too old to be a boy but unwilling to give it up. It was a time James didn't want to remember from his own life, just as he couldn't imagine himself a few years older, having survived all this, somehow happy. It was like what had happened in Putney, though he couldn't deny that had been his fault. A student. Foolish. He'd been paying for his one slip so long, yet it hadn't lost the power to shame him. He could easily follow the whole chain of events back to that season of intimacy with Diane. His star player, sixteen and already as tall as he was. He'd been insane; it was the only explanation.
"Is it bad?" he'd asked Sarah that night on the phone.
"Can you put Dad on?"
They wormed along Montauk Highway, through the strips of beach towns, awnings cranked up for the night, angled parking slots empty. Baskets of geraniums hung from lampposts, sand drifted over the road. People were leaving the late show, the marquee dark. The fog made everything gray and soggy. It was his childhood; he refused to look too closely. They were almost there. Center Moriches, Eastport, Quogue with a view of the bay, a dogleg of banned lights across the water. On shore his old house faced them now, invisible, miles away. He never remembered winter; there were no famous snows. It was cold into mid-July, scorching at noon then chilly under the covers. June had seemed far off once. This would be the last time he'd see the house.
As a child, the sea smashing at night woke him, and he cried. His mother stopped in his doorway in her robe, her candle shaking the walls. When she died, they boxed her clothes and shipped them to her sister in Wisconsin, land of black lakes. Her bureau still stood in his father's room, empty save sheets of newspaper full of wishful prices, going bad at the edges.
The last time he'd been back, three years ago, after his father's first stroke, James had wanted to tell him that he understood, but she never came up (never did, never would), and James didn't want to hurt the old man, suddenly vulnerable, his saint's rage softened to crotchetiness. It was true of himself, James thought, for while he'd been wronged, he couldn't stop loving his mother, his father, the life they'd had there. The boys went to bed, then Anne. The stroke was fresh and they had to sit with his father. In his sleep he whispered bits of scripture. Beside the bed, Sarah held her book at arm's length, squinting in the dim light.
"Sleep," she said.
He went downstairs to the pantry — where as children they'd hidden among the bins and barrels — and sipped his father's scotch in the moonlight by the open window, a connoisseur of night. Hours later when Sarah found him he hadn't finished the glass. He remembered to hide it from her.
"I can still smell," she said. "Don't worry. If I was, there wouldn't have been any left."
"And how are you and Anne getting along?"
"Splendid," he said, and thinking back now couldn't remember if he'd actually meant it. There were days, seasons of Anne he kept like treasure, secretly peeked at to make sure they'd been real. Her hands now, clasped even in sleep. Her father's long jaw.
They slipped over the town line into Hampton Bays. It had been his home; he knew it as he knew the boy he'd been, recollected hopefully, forgiven, thanked. Anne slept against the door, turned to him as if to argue. Jay lay across her lap, half under his jacket. In Galesburg, Anne thought they shouldn't tell him about Rennie, when everyone at school knew. James opened his classroom one morning — the door was locked, the key in his hand — and saw on the board a parody of hangman, the word TRAITOR a foot high. There'd been boys from Galesburg on Bataan, men missing at sea. Saturdays Jay came home from the movies and had fiery nightmares. He'd never had his own room before, and woke alone, sobbing in the dark.
Each waited for the other to go comfort him, as if he were a baby, their sleep hard-won. It was her house; he was always smashing his toes. "You're okay," he said, and clicked on the light to find Jay sniffling, ashamed. Spring had been long, breakfast full of silences, the nights partitioned. He was unprepared for class and rambled at the board, punned, the boys in the back grim, impatient. It was a town of stone bridges, mills falling into a cold river. And still he thought of Diane, her long arms, her strong back, though all of that seemed — like their house in Putney — long gone. Galesburg knew only their latest shame. On the sidewalks, women steered around him, spat at his heels. Anne had grown up there; she'd been ready to leave at thirteen. Then in May, on the brink of leaving, she said she didn't mean that, that everyone said that.
"So now you like it here," he asked.
"I have a choice?"
"I don't know," he said, reckless, "do you?"
"We come back. Fall, no matter what."
It was enough, it was all he wanted.
"You tell him," Anne said. "I refuse to."
Jay hadn't left friends, hadn't made new ones. Winter he'd spent in the town library or in his room, Anne's old one, the flocked wallpaper sullied above the baseboards. He read on the floor between his bed and the window, invisible from the hall, the curtains jerking as he kicked his feet. In the fields, crows picked over last year's stubble. Rain in black trees. Anne was always turning a light on for him. The house darkened, the windows glowed. For every book he read, James gave him a nickel. He was going through the Tarzan series — Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Tarzan and the Ant Men — the library had a whole shelf. With the money he bought comic books, the worst kind of trash. James had a drawerful at school, all muscles, guns and breasts. He was too old to be a father now, had been too old with Rennie. He'd made a pact with himself this year not to talk to Jay in school. Anne said it was hard enough for him as it was.
"I remember the beach," Jay said. It was night, the boy had to have a light on. "There's a lighthouse at the end of the rocks."
"Your grandfather's very sick."
"Will Mom have to take care of him?"
"We're all going to help a little. That's what he needs right now, little things." His sons had never known his mother. She'd gone the summer James turned ten. Her death was lost in his father's grief, the last war, Anne, the wash of odd jobs, rented bungalows and impossible cars. Then Putney, then Diane. It seemed now that he hadn't worried about Rennie at Jay's age, but was that really true?
It was the war, on the radio like a show, London crackling with static. Anne didn't like Jay to hear. James tried to reason with her but she was always right, always questioning his motives when he had none. Nightly he leaned closer to the Pacific, the ozone of warm tubes, listening for the thrum of his son's ship. The Japanese had just given up one of the Aleutians.
"What is it now?" Anne asked.
"There's nothing there, don't they know that? Is any of this supposed to make sense to me?"
She read and drank tea, sometimes knitted under the lamp in the corner. She'd only taken it up, and he didn't see what it was supposed to be. At each missed stitch, she swore and threw her head back as if to howl. She hadn't expected Rennie would go, and hadn't forgiven him. Wednesdays after supper James gathered everyone and put down what they wanted to say to him. Jay liked to snip out the comics, the batting averages, the local crimes. He had his own section, like a columnist, half slang. James didn't know what to write, but went on, gossiping. Anne added nothing; at school he typed a section and signed her name to it.
As if to spite him, she wrote Dorothy every week, composing in snatches as she cooked. Anne had never liked her, though, to James, Dorothy seemed the same Galesburg girl his wife had shed over the years. Her family had liked Rennie until he was arrested. Since the marriage, they no longer spoke with the Langers, their younger boy shrinking from James in the hallways. In the lunchroom, James ate, aware of Jay several tables over, like himself, alone. Later, driving home, he passed Jay, and though he had a mile to walk and the other children were nowhere near him, the boy looked down at his boots, or away, across the snowy fields, and James drove on. He'd promised.
Home. His father's study looked out on the ocean. It was half their attic, the sill of the gable window flush with his father's desktop. For years, by candlelight, after the guests had gone to bed and again before they woke, his father fretted over the books and wrote to his mother care of whatever hospital she was in. In the dark, James heard him haul the ladder down and yank it up after him. His father didn't pace, but sat and wrote, then at a quarter to six lowered the ladder, crept downstairs and started the water for baths. Sarah wasn't allowed up there. On the desk a telescope tilted in a turned brass stand. "What do you see?" his father asked James. "Tell me what you see."
The waves. Green, blue, glittering, heavy. His father's hand rested gently on the back of James's neck, steering him. The moon drew up huge, beneath it, sharply drawn, the silhouetted stacks of a great oceangoing liner.
"Do you see it?"
"Yes," James said. His father had taught him wonder and its complement, responsibility; now his father slurred his words, had to ask Sarah to come by and light the pilot.
"I'm not a doctor," Sarah had said that night on the phone.
"I don't want this to hurt Jay. He's been through enough."
"It's never convenient, is it?"
The lower end of Hampton Bays was empty, the bars open but no cars outside, beer signs hooded. In his absence a crop of fried clam and ice-cream stands had sprung up and died. The road curved with the thrust of bay, the berm sandy, telephone poles a-lean. A cinder-block garage stood in one corner of the McCauffeys' field, its whitewash an explosion in the dark. He turned onto the path he'd walked home over, winging buckeyes at the old man's cows. The Buick rocked in the ruts. Scrub pine scoured the fenders, waking Anne.
"See any cows out?" James said.
He'd forgotten; the field was overgrown, the McCauffeys gone.
They cleared a rise and the stars dropped, the sea a void. The house stood black against the moon, one downstairs curtain edged with light. Sarah's Hudson jumped in his headlights, the wicker rockers lining the porch.
"Don't tell me we're here," Anne said.
When he stopped the car a wave of dust rolled over them. He turned everything off. Anne waited for him to get out, Jay slumped against her, still asleep.
"It's past somebody's bedtime."
"Just go," she said.
His legs wouldn't straighten all the way. The night was much colder than he'd thought, the sea louder. The moon was new; with the house blacked out, he couldn't see the walk. The front door opened and Sarah appeared; it closed and she disappeared, her flashlight picking out the porch stairs, her feet, the wet grass as she made her way across the lawn.
"James," she said, and kissed him, the flashlight hard on his back. She was always thinner, dwindling. "Dad's asleep. He's been good."
"How about you?"
"Not a drop."
"Honest," he asked, as if it were a joke. He relied on her too much. There was no more younger or older, yet they kept it up.
Everyone kissed in the cold, groggy from the car. Anne had her purse, Jay his cigar box and Rennie's old suitcase. Sarah guided them inside while James unloaded, fighting the twine. Above, a flag flapped, a halyard rang against the invisible pole. One knot was giving him trouble, and he stopped, his arms propped against the car, and looked up at the house. It seemed smaller each time, yet that was little comfort. He liked to sneak up on his mother in the kitchen. She stood at the stove, and when he was halfway across the tiles — beyond the cover of the chopping block, the help's table — without turning from her work, she said, "I see you, James," and he backed out as if he hadn't been caught. The guests were on the lawn playing croquet with their children, dressed for supper.
Behind him, the sea broke and rolled, broke and rolled. Upstairs a light came on, eclipsed by a shade. He found Rennie's old Boy Scout knife in the glove compartment, tore through the knot and took the two heaviest bags down, swearing at Anne for jamming them full, just as she had scourged him for having to pack them all by herself.
The wallpaper stopped him a foot in the door. The blemished mirror, the banister ending in a polished curl. He was always coming back, always stunned at his guilt, the tenderness his mother's lamps filled him with. The light made him realize he was still moving from the car. They were upstairs, he could hear water. He put the bags down, and before the house could claim him, went back out, glad for the dark.
Excerpted from A World Away by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright © 1998 Stewart O'Nan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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