Archive for March, 2010

Chapter 7 “Two hours door to door.”

The nights are getting cold when we pack The Pelican for the last time to go back to Missouri.

I start kindergarten, and watch the moon landing with my class. My brother learns to walk and the year that killed Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy finally ends. This year has taught me that everyone good must die.

My father has worked hard and won a spot teaching magazine writing at Syracuse University, a city just a couple of hours from Clayton, which is the town just across from Bluff Island. While the rest of the country is in upheaval, my parents’ mantra is: “two hours door-to-door.” Now my father can go to the river any time! This is the solution to all of our problems. We are all ready for a fresh start.

Before we leave Missouri for the last time, my uncle Ronnie comes to visit us. He is home on leave from Vietnam.  He is her little brother. It’s when he comes that I really see how much he loves her:  he is gentle with her, and listens to everything she says like it is important. I’ve never seen anyone do that before. Uncle Ronnie has a dark brown crew cut, and dark brown eyes. His face is round and he has a shadow of a moustache. He likes to talk to me too. We sit at the kitchen table together for a long time.

“What’s that?” I point to a butterfly bandage on his thumb.

“That’s a band-aid.”

“It doesn’t look like a band-aid.” He is smiling,

“It’s a butterfly band-aid.”

“Where did you hurt yourself?” I’ve been instructed not to ask him about the war, but maybe now he will tell me something.

“Working on an engine.”

“Oh.” I say, and we smile at each other some more. Ronnie isn’t really about talking. He’s different. He’s just about being. Just being there with my mother in the room while she feeds Rufus. It worries me when he tells me he’s going back to Vietnam.

“Just for a little while.” He smiles at me and gives me a hug.

Now that daddy’s school is out, the movers come and pack up our boxes, and we follow them to a house we’ve rented in Syracuse, New York. After the one day it takes to unload the truck, we are off to the Island again.

My parents are more and more excited about our Fresh Start in Syracuse. Mom is doing yoga every day, and I help her. We “walk” on our butts up and down the veranda, the breeze flying our hair around. Mom and Dad still read me stories every night, taking turns to slide in next to me and when the story is finished, kissing me good night. Rufus is almost talking, and my father’s father, Walter, comes to visit. We haven’t had many guests other than Colin and his girlfriends over the years, but my grandfather, Walter, or Wooz, as we call him, is really lovely. He sits on the veranda and smokes his pipe, his long gray hair on either side of his bald head curling up gracefully with his pipe smoke.

“Remember when you were called Jake?” he says. My father starts to smile into the veranda breeze.

“That’s right,” he says. When Walter leaves, he shakes my hand, and lowers himself carefully into the boat. My father is gone a long time, driving him all way to the airport, and when he comes back, mom and I are making apple crisp. We are up to our elbows in butter and flour.

“I’m changing my name back to Jake,” he says.

“What?”  My mother starts to laugh, “What are you talking about?”

“I’m changing my name. I’ve never really felt like a Tim. We’re going to a new place, now is the time.” She looks down at the apple slices mixed up with the flour and sugar for a long minute, like something is breaking loose inside of her.

“Well if you’re changing your name, I’m changing mine. I don’t want to be Aleta anymore.”

“So what name do you want?” She doesn’t answer. “If you’re not Aleta, who will you be?”

“Rosey!” I suggest. She pats down the apples and helps me sprinkle on the oatmeal topping before she answers.

“I don’t know, but if you’re changing yours, I want to change mine.”

“Daddy, why are you going to be Jake?”

“It’s just an old nickname.”

“Mommy, do you have any old nicknames?”

“My daddy used to call me Jinx.” She looks up at my father and starts laughing.

“I don’t get it Mom.”

“He used to say I was unlucky because I was born on Friday the thirteenth, and that’s not a good day,” she explains.


“In fact, it’s a mean nickname.”

“Oh.” I wonder why I don’t have a nickname.

She settles on her middle name, Christine. For the rest of the summer, as we cross through the forest to the back of the island, where the giant stones look like whales lounging in the sun, when they aren’t fighting, my mother and father practice their new names with each other.

“Alet….oh, sorry, Christine…”

“Ti – oh, Jake!”

“Tim, Tim! Are you there?”

“Are you looking for Jake?” he asks, and they laugh.

Now the man formerly known as Tim is filling five-gallon jugs with boxes of Uncle Ben’s converted rice at the kitchen table. The rice is meant to join the other emergency rations in the closet in my bedroom.


“Yes, hold that – “

“Why don’t you just leave the rice in the boxes?”

“Moisture will get into it. This is for an emergency.” I think of ambulances and fire engines.

“Why would we need rice in case of an emergency?”

“Well, when I was a boy, during the war, people needed extra food.”

“Are we gonna be in a war?”

“Oh, no, no, no. That’s why it’s just for emergencies.”

“Can I call you Jake too?”  His hand jumps a little and rice sprays across the table.

“Well, will you still know that I’m your Daddy? Because I really like being your Daddy,” he says.

“I know.” I open the next box for him. “I’ll miss calling you Daddy, but I can still call you that sometimes, but I want to know if it’s okay if I call you Jake sometimes too.”

“Yes it’s okay.” Then I help him carry the rice up to my room and put it into the emergency closet in my room.

The summer goes well. Aleta and Tim make their best attempt to stop fighting. Jake and a slim Christine now share a mission: to become another couple. When we register for first grade, I am given an eye test and mom comes with me to order glasses. Apparently my fresh start in Syracuse is to show up at school in a new pair of brown horn-rimmed cat-eye glasses.

Which gives me MY new name:  Four Eyes.


03 2010

Chapter 6 Lana

Since the bucket full of blood, my new plan is to walk across the island to the Nadlers.

I don’t know what I will do or say when I get there, but I know I have to get there.

I get a pillowcase from the linen closet, my favorite one with a little plaid pattern in purple and blue and yellow and white, and I first fill it with my favorite books, and Bernard Bear. I look in the “emergency closet” in my room, where Daddy keeps his British army uniforms and five-gallon jars of rice and flour—“emergency rations,” he calls them—to see if there is anything useful for me to use. There is not. But it gives me an idea for real rations, and I go to the kitchen and put cans of hash and beans into my pillow case, then I go to the kitchen drawer, and, proud that I have remembered, I pull out a can opener and a fork, and I put them with the cans. Then I drag my very heavy pillowcase out to the windy overcast yard, where my mother plays with Rufus.

“Goodbye,” I tell her.

“Where are you going?” she asks. I don’t want her to feel bad that I want to join another family.

“I’m going to ask the Nadlers for a ride to the mainland,” I tell her.

“Now why are you gonna do that, honey?” I look at my feet. I just can’t tell her.  I am afraid I will make her like the sorrowful Indian again. I’m afraid she will cry.

“We don’t even know the Nadlers,” she points out. I stare up at the tall oak trees, waving their top branches to me, showing me their freedom in the wind. I don’t care if we don’t know the Nadlers. I know they will not shout and shoot things. I just know it. I stop staring at the trees, and drag my bag towards to the gate that leads out of the yard.

“Mommy, will you please open the gate for me?” I ask her. The latch is a piece of string at the top, but it’s too tall for me to reach. I wish she wasn’t here, because I would have just opened it myself, standing on a folding chair or something.

“Stephie,” she says. “Why don’t you have some lunch first?” she suggests. That sounds like it might be nice, but I know I have to go.

“No Mommy, I just have to go to the Nadlers.”

“No, you’re not going to go there. You are not going to talk to them about us.” I hear fear in her voice. And then everything is clear. She knows why I am going; she just doesn’t want anyone else to know about why.

“I won’t talk about us,” I tell her. This is one of my father’s rules.

“I know you won’t.” She wraps one hand on the edge of the pillowcase I still hold tight in my hands. “They would just bring you back to us anyways,” she says. I look up at her face, greedy for the pillowcase, and for a second I think maybe I can still go, and not say anything, not hurt anybody, but then she pulls the pillowcase from my hands, and when it is gone, I know my attempt is over. I decide I won’t let her see me cry. I quickly wipe my tears away, but she has already walked back to Rufus with my bag in her hand.

Since running away isn’t going to work, I decide to become a child star so I can get away from them. I know how to do it too, once mommy tells me the story of Lana Turner. The next time we go to town, I sit at the soda fountain counter in the drugstore and order a malted. While I drink it, I keep my eyes glued to the door. I suck on the straw like I will bring my stardom into being, suck it here, pull it to me. The first malted is almost gone now, and still I haven’t been discovered.


“Yes sweetheart?”

“How many times did Lana have to get a chocolate malted before she was discovered?” “Well, honey…” she starts.

“Because I can drink a lot of them, I mean, if that’s what she did.” I want everyone, but mostly Mom, to know that I will not be deterred. I will do whatever it takes to be discovered.

“Well, I think that guy found her the first time she went in…it was called Schrafft’s, I think.”

“Is there a Schrafft’s in Clayton?” I ask.

“No—it was Schwab’s. Schwab’s. It’s in California.”

“Oh.” My head falls, but only for a second. “Can we go to California?” That place again, I can hear Mama Cass’s voice: California dreamin’…

She hesitates to answer; I can see she’s not figuring out how to go to California, she’s figuring out how to tell me that there is no possible way. My mom will not go anywhere. She will not leave my father—he is irresistible to her. There will be no California; there will only be being here with Daddy. I smile at her and try to pretend that California is just a silly joke.


03 2010

Chapter 5 Fishing


The fishing reel makes its own particular sounds as it releases and stops the line.

“Now you wait,” says my mother. She is holding Rufus on her hip. My father is painting Dulcibella and we are all down at the dock. The fishing rod came when Jimmy Grant, Daddy’s friend from Newsweek, came to visit. He bought the clicky rod in the grocery story, and even though my father hates the fishermen who park themselves in our harbor, staring at us as they troll for muskie, he couldn’t say no to Jimmy Grant, so we got the fishing rod. It was fun when Jimmy Grant came to visit, because they all told fantastical stories about living in New York City, where I was born. My favorite was about how my father jumped over our black bureau—it’s four and a half feet tall—then had my mother, hugely pregnant with me, lay down on top of it to make it a higher jump for him. Jimmy Grant laughed and laughed telling how Daddy jumped over Mommy and me.

“Mommy, do you know how to fish?”

“Oh, yes I used to fish a lot.”

“Where did you do that?”

“Back in Oklahoma,” she tells me. My experience of Oklahoma is home movies of my father and grandfather chasing a chicken around a dusty yard with pistols. My mother’s brother sends us letters from Vietnam. The only object we have from Hugo, Oklahoma is a souvenir pitcher we use for lemonade with a picture of a sorrowful Indian on an exhausted horse. Both their heads are bowed. They are spent, broken, depressed, the way my mother is sometimes. Just below the Indian is spelled the explanation:  Hugo, Oklahoma.

She concentrates on putting a little piece of bacon on the end of the hook. She gets it, and shows me.

“Like this,” she says, then drops the hook, the line and the sinker into the water. I patiently stare at the red and white bob floating on the water. After an hour, it’s just Daddy and me down here now. Then, there is a tug on the line. I start clicking and bring in the hook and whatever is on it. I reel it close enough for me to see I have caught a little wriggling fish.

“Daddy, Daddy!” I yell, and his head pops up from the boat. “I just caught a fish!”  The shiny fish drips as it swings over the water. Now I can see that it’s beautiful, brown and speckled. It is six inches long. I’ve never seen a live fish so close up. Daddy jumps onto the dock and kneels next to me.

“Let’s throw it back,” he says softly.

“No, no Daddy, I want to do what people do with fishes.”

“Well, people throw fishes back.”

“Can we take it off the hook?” I ask. Daddy looks hopelessly at the fish. I can see he doesn’t want to touch it or have anything to do with it. He is a sailor not a fisherman.

“Your mother is better at this than I am. Why don’t you get her?”

I put the rod down with the fish still on it, letting it swim in the river, while I run up the path to get her.

“Mommy, Mommy!  I caught a fish!” I’m halfway up the path already. “Mommy, the bacon worked!”

“Get a bucket,” mom says. She grabs Rufus, and I carry a silver galvanized bucket, and we run down to the dock. Mommy expertly takes the hook from the fish’s lip, and we put the fish into the bucket with water. It’s so heavy now that Mom and I carry the bucket up together to put up on the back porch.

I watch the fish as it swims around and around in circles in the bucket. She goes back inside to cook dinner and sits Rufus up in his high chair. Daddy comes up with the fishing pole.

“You left this at the dock.”

“Daddy, I want to eat the fish.” His jaw tightens.

“If you want to eat it, that means you have to kill it,” he says. He is against killing things. “I want you to put the fish back into the river.”

“Well, I don’t want to. I want to eat him,” I say. “Just like you and grandpa ate that chicken.” He stares at me for a second then moves quickly past me, through the back door into the house. In one second, I hear his heavy footfalls in his study above the porch. I kneel down and stare at the shiny brown fish, circling around and around. I love this fish so much I want to eat it.

I hear my father coming back down his stairs and through the kitchen, my mother sees him and calls out to him, “Tim, Tim—what are you doing?”

When he comes out of the screen door onto the darkening, cluttered back porch he has a shotgun in his right hand. He steps to the bucket, aims in, and starts to shoot.


I am two feet from the bucket.


And it’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.


All he needs to do is point the gun up two feet and he’d be aiming at me.


Now the bucket is red, and red water runs everywhere on our back porch. I look down once, and when I see no fish, nothing but red, I cannot look down again. I look across the porch at the hill behind the house. I see rocks and grass and I am trying to be as far away as I can get.

“There,” he says, “you happy?”And he throws open the back door and stomps past me. I hear him going back upstairs, and then I feel liquid through the holes in my sneakers, I look down again, and see the holes he shot into the galvanized bucket.

I look up from the holes into the blank face of my mother through the screen door. I feel hot tears on my face. I didn’t mean to be a murderer. I didn’t want to make my dad a murderer.

“Mommy, why did he do that?”

“Daddy wanted to show you how precious life is, sweetie. Come in here, honey.” She sits me down in a chair, wipes my face and turns on the radio. She grabs a mop and goes out the back door with it.

I want the radio to play my favorite song, A Boy Named Sue, right now. I decide that, just like in the song, all the things my dad does, all the things I don’t understand, are part of an orchestrated plan to improve me in some way. I know my father loves me and I know, one day, it will all make sense. But I resolve never to fish again.

Tags: ,


03 2010

Map of St. Lawrence River

See Bluff Island down and to the west?



03 2010

Chapter 4 Kingston, August

The shouting in my room wakes me up.

“If you won’t go, I’ll take Stephie by myself!” My father is putting a pair of my pants, a shirt and a sweater into my little orange suitcase. I cannot see my mother’s face—the hall light is too bright—but I hear her voice:

“What are you, twenty years old? Jesus Christ!” My father picks me up out of bed and carries me past her. As he takes me down the stairs, she leans over the balcony, she is loud and she is angry. “What the fuck are you fucking doing?

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” She screams it again until the door out of the living room closes behind us and we are suddenly in the cool dark air of the garden. I know better than to ask what is going on, but the voice from inside the house gets higher and louder the farther we go.

“Is Mommy going to be okay?” I ask when we are out of the gate.

“I don’t know,” he says as we walk down the path. We brush past the leaves that are reaching out for us to stay. He steps carefully onto the dock, avoiding the holes and puts me down on a blanket on the floor of the boat, down between the two front seats so I will be out of the wind.
“Here.” He hands me another wool blanket to put over myself. He starts Pelican’s engine and as we pull out of our slip, I look up at his head, dark against the brilliant stars. The starlight gleams on his superman glasses. Even though Pelican’s engine rumbles through us, now that we are away from Mom, everything feels serene and quiet. When my mother is upset, sometimes she says she’s going to kill him, and sometimes she says she’s going to kill herself. Then, when he leaves, she gets mad at me. Then, after he’s gone a while, she gets quiet and we do things together, like make apple crisp to be ready “for when daddy comes home.” But this is the first time he’s taken me with him. And the fog of my mother hovers behind us, over us, it is a fog we cannot outrun even in this pristine silver night.

He wakes me as Pelican slows down. Ahead of us in the night is a lit city, floating above the harbor.

“Where are we?”

“This is Kingston,” he tells me. “We’re in Canada.”

“Why are we going here?”

“We are going to see your godfather, Colin.”

He brings us along side the dock of the glittering city, and then, by the light of the stars and the streetlights, he opens my suitcase and helps me put my clothes on over my pajamas. As we walk through the town, Daddy tells me that this is the place he went to University with Colin. Daddy pushes me ahead of him up about eight steep steps attached to the front of a house overlooking a wide park haunted with big tall trees. I push the button for the bell. A slim blonde woman answers, she looks at us curiously and calls for the host. Colin comes out of a group of people in his kitchen laughing and pours my father a scotch, and I realize we have come here for a party. It is a wonderful party of happy people in bell-bottoms of beautiful colors. Ridiculously pretty women with smooth long hair surround me on the sofa like I am a movie star. A brown haired woman with blue eyes and purple pants brings me some juice.

“Where’s your mama?”

“Mommy’s at home,” I tell her. In an instant I know why she was crying and why she wouldn’t come. My mother only has one dress—the dress that makes her cry because she is fat. She would not have fun with these young women. But my father leans in.

“Hello, I’m Tim.” He smiles to the pretty woman and shakes her hand.

“Hey there,” she says. “So where are you from again?” She squints a little up at my father, like she really wants to know. I look up at him and see him through her eyes:  English, he used to work at a big magazine in New York and lives on an Island. He is impressive. And funny. She asks him how he ended up in this little place of all places, and I’m glad, because I want to hear the story again too.

“I grew up on boats—and so here at University, I got my hands on a boat.” He gives Colin a look and they start laughing,

“That’s another story, another story,” Colin insists. Everyone at the party is around my father now, laughing.

“So we got a boat, and took it down the St. Lawrence River, and I fell in love. So when my father offered me a bit of my inheritance early, I took it, and then I found Bluff Island.” He shrugs; the rest is history.

“Oh, oh—remember when we went to pick up the keys?” Colin says, pointing the finger above his cigarette at my father. Colin’s knees buckle as he laughs at the story my father tells about how Jack Cutler didn’t want to leave and was having a party the night they came to take the keys. They laugh about Jack Cutler and his fisherman’s lodge. Maybe that is why fisherman linger around the shores of Bluff Island so much, wishing they could come back to the Lodge, and pay for a night to stay with us and get drunk at the bar where they used to drink.

I want to stay up and talk to the pretty girls too, but I fall asleep, and after a while, my father puts me gently down on a bed. I open my eyes for a second—it is a mattress on the floor, and I see dusty round wine bottles, bigger than any I’ve ever seen—then I am back to sleep.

I wake up for a second in the night. Daddy is sleeping next to me on the mattress, and I dream I am on a train, a wooden trolley train and I am wearing a Paddington Bear coat and I have a small satchel strapped around me. There are only children on the train, and we are all relieved to have left our sad parents behind. I look out the wooden window and see clumps of grass that look like rolling green waves held in the golden evening light by a wall. Finally the train is moving again, and then I know it: I am being evacuated, being taken away from bombs. I dream my father’s memories of the War.

And then I wake up and my father is still sleeping next to the dusty bottles of wine. I don’t want to leave the room without him, so I look out the window into the park. There are guys playing soccer. There are people with backpacks walking everywhere. I like this place, Kingston. There are people here.

When it is getting dark, we say goodbye to Colin and the pretty women who are left, and go back to The Pelican. Tonight, the dark is misty; Mommy’s fog is coming to meet us over the water. Even so, we find Bluff Island again. We pull into the slip, and in the dark, I jump out of the Pelican onto the splintered dock. I brush past the leaves on the path as I walk up ahead of my dad. As I come to the top of our path, I see one light on in the whole house. It is lonely and bright. With my father close behind, I lead the way up our back porch steps, and open the back door to the kitchen.

My mother is brightly lit under the single bulb in the lamp over the round kitchen table. Her short hair is tousled, her coke bottle glasses have slid down her nose, which she scrunches to push them back up, even though it never works. I’ve never seen her wear it before, but tonight she is wearing my father’s brown terry cloth bathrobe. There are thirty-three moths flying just over her head, trying to immolate themselves on this single light bulb—the only one shining within a half a mile—and as the bulb burns down on her, she smiles at me, and it is the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. I look to see what she is doing. She has woven five potholders, a craft project we were supposed to do together. I want to run to her and hug her, but first I stop to cringe against the fight I expect will resume. Instead, she smiles up at him, he bends down to kiss her and they hug. He is smiling as he tells her our stories of looking for Bluff Island in the mist, and as I listen, I see the brown bathrobe on her more clearly. She loves him so much that when he is gone she wants to be wrapped up in the robe that smells like him, that he wears every day. She loves him no matter what. As he talks to her, the bright single light shines off his head and his mouth is in the downward pointing smile he has when he’s telling a funny story. She smiles, listening to him.

So, I give each of them a goodnight hug and a kiss, and start walking myself up to my room. I am happy to put on my own pajamas and climb into bed, and it isn’t long before the two of them come into my room. They take turns sitting on the side of my bed and kissing me on the cheek.

“Nighty-night,” they say.

“Nighty-night.” I snuggle down under the covers, happy to be in my bed again, as they walk together back to their room.


03 2010

Chapter 3 Judy

“Jesus Christ, goddammit, I told you, I don’t want guests,” says my father. He is wearing paisley pajamas.

“But they’ve been driving for two days. What am I supposed to do?” my mother wails, her hand still on the phone in the kitchen.

“Tell them you shouldn’t have invited them in the first place.”

“I’m not going to do that. Sally is my friend.”

“Well I don’t want your stupid friends here.”

“She’s not stupid, she’s very smart.”

“I don’t want her or her stupid husband here, or their little stinking child.”

“It’s not necessary to talk like that.”

“Fuck your necessary, I don’t want them here, I told you.”

“Fuck you. You act like you’re okay with it, then say you don’t want them here when they’re standing on the dock waiting for us to pick them up!”

“You mentioned it once, months ago. I don’t want them here!”

“But they are waiting for us!”  I imagine my friend Judy and her family huddled on the town dock, all alone for hours, never knowing why we don’t show up.

“I don’t care.” My father is talking into the fridge, as my mother picks up a bowl from the table and hurls it at him.

“Fuck you, fuck you, you fucking asshole!”

The bowl crashes into the mayonnaise slot in the refrigerator door. My father has ducked just in time. He turns to her.

“You psycho! What in hell do you want from me?”

“I want you to…to…to stop getting in the way of my bowl!” she screams. There is silence for a second, and then they both laugh. Spent by her demonstration she collapses into a chair at the table, he pulls out a pitcher of orange juice and sits down too.

“This is my writing time,” he says.

“I know, and I’ll keep them busy, you won’t have to do anything.” He looks at her for a long time, and then gets up.

“They’re on the dock now?”


“Well, I better go.” He looks at her before he goes out through the swing door. “Two weeks is too long.”

My mother nods in silent gratitude. As the doors swing shut, my mother jumps up to clean up the pieces of the bowl, I fish the last of the broken cheerios out of my milk, and put them into my mouth. I wonder if my parents like to fight. I just wish they wouldn’t.

As I help Mom get the house ready, I keep running out to see if anyone is coming. Finally, Pelican crosses underneath the veranda so Judy’s family can absorb the full grandeur of the house. I run down to the dock to meet them.

Even though I haven’t seen her for a year, Judy looks the same, with pink cheeks and soft dark hair in deep bangs on her face, like an American Indian girl who lives in Brooklyn. Her mother, Sally, is slim and stylish, and her father Richard has curly dark hair on his head and on his legs where the hair disappears into the dark socks he wears under his sandals.

As the mothers go to the kitchen I take Judy through the front room where the fathers sit: mine is holding a beer can nodding slowly while Judy’s is talking, a soda next to him at the bar. When we get outside, I show Judy everything I can. She is the first friend to ever visit me at the island. I show her the tiny ants in the grass that carry the earth one piece at a time. Right now two weeks does seem like forever – and I’m happy about it.

The next day, Judy’s mom and mine pack sandwiches. My father’s hands are full with two cases of beer when he finds me.

“Oh, there you are,” he says. “Come here,” he waves with his shoulder, “bring that bag with you.” He nods to an orange nylon bag with a blue stripe. “Follow me.”

The beer leads us down the path to the O’Day Daysailer my father picked up used at the marina last year.

“Daddy, what’s in here?”

“That’s an extra jib, a sail that goes on the front of the boat.” He tells me.

“She’s a day sailer with a little cabin,” is how he described her to us when he told us what he would call her: Dulcibella, which means beautiful thing. When I hear her name I want my father to call me “beautiful thing” too, instead of “old thing” which is what he calls me.

When we’ve all finished loading everything, both families pile into Dulcibella’s white cockpit, bright against the dark water in the harbor. My father is captain to everyone, cheerfully directing Sally to raise the jib and Richard to cast off.

“We’ll have lunch when we go on the other side of Grindstone Island,” announces my mother.

Daddy has had a bunch of beers by the time we do come around the point of Grindstone Island, and Mommy announces that it is lunchtime.

“All you think about is food,” says my father. “Just like the fat cow you are.” Sally gives Richard a shocked look. I keep playing with Judy so she won’t notice.

The wind rips the wax paper off the sandwiches as soon as Mom takes them out of the basket. As if he’s the source of the bucking, pulling wind, my father keeps opening beers, drinking them, then dragging the empty cans under the surface to force water into them so they will sink to the bottom. He laughs louder and louder, as the hungry water tries harder and harder to drag each successive can out of his hand before he drops it.

“Stephie, bring me another beer, chop-chop!” he calls out. Judy’s mother’s eyebrows jump up as quickly as I jump down the hatch and pop back up with a fresh one.

“Tim, don’t you think you should…” My mother cares what Sally thinks, otherwise she’d never say anything about his beer.

“Shut up you fat, fucking, fat stupid cow.”

My father’s words flatten everyone. They stare at him, stunned. Then I hand him the red beer can. He opens it, and puts his eyes forward as the other grownups look down at the deck. Judy’s family is silent and so is Mom. She wipes tears from her eyes and looks out into the wind. The boat hits a wave and water splashes up on everybody then we dip again, and another cold splash comes over us.

“She’s going faster now because there’s more dead weight than usual,” he shouts over the wind to Judy’s father between sips of beer.

He demonstrates by steering her into the wind, and making the boat lean over farther.  As he does, water pushes up the downward side of the cockpit, a solid wall speeding by. Now Richard’s socks and sandals are soaking wet. It feels like the boat is trying to tip us into the cold water even though we’re holding on as hard as we can. That’s when Judy starts to cry.

“Stop that, you’re scaring her,” says Judy’s father. And then Mom tries too.

“Tim, cut it out.” My father’s face locks on her like a missile.

“I told you to shut up, you fucking cow.”

I can see none of our guests want to be on our boat or near us anymore. But the thing with a boat and an island is that once you’re on, you’re trapped. Even if you didn’t realize it right away, you’ve been trapped since you got there.

Even though we sail really fast, it seems to take forever to get back to the dock at Bluff Island. While I help tie up Dulcibella, Judy and her parents go straight up the path. By the time they get to the house, my parents are yelling and screaming at each other. I tiptoe up the stairs, and stand outside the guest room door. When I get really close, I can hear Sally and Richard’s low voices. I knock on their door. I want to be part of their family.

“Can Judy play?”

Judy’s mother opens the door a little and looks down at me through a six-inch gap, like she doesn’t want to let any more bad stuff into her day, but then she looks back into the room at Judy’s father.

“Let’s let her in, Richard. Please?” I see him shake his head.


“Not now, Stephie,” she says and closes the door.

I go downstairs alone again for the first time since Judy’s been here, and go to my spot on the veranda to look across at the Nadlers. Their boat isn’t there, but I still like to look at their place, like a happy glass octagon floating above the water. I hear my father making a drink at the bar, and I go inside just as Judy’s father comes down the stairs with sneakers on. Richard is carrying a blue suitcase, which he leaves by the door before he comes to the bar and starts talking.

“I need you to take me and my family back to town right now, please,” he says.

“Why?” asks my father, half smiling as he wipes the foam mustache off his upper lip by wrapping his lower lip over it.

“We don’t like your name calling around the girls,” Richard says.

My father starts to laugh, and looks at me. This is my chance to agree with Richard—what can my parents do to me with him here? But Richard is leaving and I am staying. I look at my father’s smiling face, his eyes asking me, “Come on, let him know he’s full of shit.” But I am silent, stunned by Richard’s bravery in telling my father what he really thinks. Now my father’s eyes demand me, and I want to be brave too, like Richard, and say what I really think. Instead, I do it, I laugh with my father. I help him make a fool out of Judy’s father even though I’d rather be his daughter.

“Okay then, let’s go,” says my father.

“Great. Thanks,” says Richard. And suddenly, I know. Richard doesn’t care if my father thinks he’s a fool, he just wants to get away from him.

Once Richard has the go ahead, it only takes Judy’s family a few more minutes to get the rest of the bags down to the splintery dock, and suddenly we are standing there to say goodbye. Judy’s mother looks at my mother then me with a worried face. She gives me a hug and starts to cry. And Judy’s dad looks at me, then looks away,

“C’mon, let’s go,” he says to Judy’s mom, who is wiping tears away. My mother is trying to look like she doesn’t care by keeping a half-smile on her face that makes her look like a puppet.

“Bye, Judy.”

“Bye, Stephie.”

We hug, and then she gets into the boat. As The Pelican pulls away from the dock, Judy waves back at me for a long time as I wave to her, but her parents don’t look back.


03 2010

Chapter 2 Treasure Island

“Remember this moment so you can tell your grandchildren.”

My father and I stand on the veranda, looking out across the water, back at the mainland.

My grandchildren. It is a funny thought that tickles me deep inside, but it seems unimaginably far away, like the long line of admirals that he always tells me we come from.

“Family is the most important thing,” he says, and then steps to the old wooden wheelbarrow.

“Get in,” he tells me, and once I’m in, he runs down the narrow path as fast as he can, and I bump all the way back down to the dock, my breath still on the veranda.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!  Sing it, sing it out!” I don’t really want to sing about a dead man’s hairy chest. He sees me hesitate.

“It’s a work song,” he tells me as we load the barrow, and when he starts to sing it again, I join him, and we bring the barrow up the narrow path, singing all the way, and start to unload it on to the back porch.

“Wait,” he says, “smell.” I pause in front of the screen door, puzzled for a minute. “Go in, go ahead, just remember the smell,” he says. I push against the screen, and then I smell it: cedar—an overwhelming rich, wooden welcome—binding me to this place more surely than a blood pact.

Here is Mom, waiting to put away the first boxes of groceries that we bring her. Just to the right of the door is a huge restaurant-style black Garland stove, with six anvils, two ovens, a grill and a separate broiler. On the next wall to the right is the three-foot-long wooden sink, lined in copper. The most modern thing in the room is a greasy black wall phone, hanging by the eastern window.

My father pulls a can off the red chunk of a six-pack on the round oak table and grabs a glass.

“Come on.” He beckons me with his loose shoulders. I follow him past the bags waiting to go upstairs, outside again to the veranda, where he pulls out a folding chair with faded webbing. While he arranges the chair, he sets the beer and glass down on a broad yellow table whose buckling wooden surface makes the beer’s perch precarious. I gently touch the veranda railing, and the brittle paint pops off more satisfyingly than any scab.

“Blub, blub, blub,” says the beer as my father carefully pours it. He takes a first sip, and gets foam on his lip. Looking south, back at the mainland, back at the rest of America, he smacks his lips and says softly, into the gentle constant breeze.

“This—this right here—this is the best place on earth.”

Then he hands me the beer can. I love the warm feeling I get from my little sip. It’s the warm feeling of being just like my father. After a few sips, he gets up to take down the plywood boards protecting the windows against the winter. I walk past him, to the far western end of the veranda where I can look out across a little harbor to see a small modern looking house. There are kids jumping off the dock into the water, they are hooting and hollering. They are having fun.

“Look, Daddy!”  I have discovered my new lifelong friends, but when I turn to him, he is scowling, and grumbling. “What’s a matter?”

“First of all, they shouldn’t be there. Jack Cutler wasn’t supposed to build right where we could see. Then to go and turn around and sell it to a bunch of rowdies…” He trails off in disgust, shaking his head, continuing to pull down the boards.

“What are they called?”

“The Nadlers.”

The name echoes, like the name of a mystical golden kingdom. I decide I like seeing them, giving each other towels, shivering and grinning.

“Can I go play with them?”

“No,” he says. “No way.” His voice is clear: they are a blot on the perfect panorama.

He turns away and walks back down to the other end of the veranda. I stick to my spot, staring west. One of the kids waves at me. I wave back.

“Bring me another beer,” he says over his shoulder, but I don’t hear him.

“Bring me another beer!” he roars. I jump out of my Keds. “Come on dreamer, look alive.” I run back to the kitchen. I am useful. I am his assistant. Those kids might be having fun, but I get to assist.

I go back to the kitchen and my mother has made me a peanut butter sandwich.

“Have a seat,” she says.

“Daddy wants another beer.” She hands me the red can that gets me back to the front porch. When I come back with the beer, he is sitting down, holding a worn brown book on his lap.

“Remember that song, ‘sixteen men on a dead man’s chest’?”


“Well it’s in this book here called Treasure Island.” He takes the beer.

“Just like this island?”

“Well, a little different—but they’re both islands. Here, I’ll read it to you.” He refills his glass with the new beer, and hands me the nearly empty can so I can take my second swig as I settle onto the porch near his feet to listen.

I love learning about this pirate place—the place we go together to escape. I love my mother. She is musky, she is earth. When she’s not mad at me, she washes my face with a warm wet washcloth. But today, my father, smelling of cedar and beer, reads me the first chapter of Treasure Island before dinnertime.

Part 1 Chapter 1 June

Now that we’ve crossed the country, it’s clear:  my father hates every inch of America—including my mother—

except for this place, this water that has been gleaming in his eyes since last summer. This water drives my father to bring us from Missouri in a stinky purple VW van, to this place, here at the northern jagged edge of New York State. After five days of driving, we’ve made it here at last, to Mercer’s Marina, on the St. Lawrence River. When he was in University on the shores of Lake Ontario, newly arrived from England, my father first discovered the freshwater islands of the St. Lawrence once inhabited by whiskey runners, muskrat hunters, and scouts during the French and Indian War. He fell in love, and when he started to work downstate, he knew he needed to come back to this place, so he asked his father for an early inheritance, and his father helped him buy part of an island in the Thousand Islands the year before I was born. And now—even though I vaguely remember coming here in earlier years—this is the first time things are clear.

I am lying on my stomach, in a dark boathouse that smells of motor oil and cobwebs, looking down into the moving, green water that picks up light from the outside and glows. Next to the empty boat slip, the Mercers have put the black wooden runabout my father bought along with the Island. He has named it The Pelican. He’s in her now, wiping off her dipstick. The light from the water reflects off his glasses. Like his name—Tim—they are perfectly pitched to his role of trim, 1960s intelligentsia. He went on from Business Week to write for Newsweek, and now he teaches magazine writing at University of Missouri. I want to see the world through his glasses, but I am learning to be content with looking at what he tells me to.

Aleta, my mother, walks into the boathouse, squinting through the thick cat-eye glasses she never used to wear.

“It’s cold in here.” She is always cold now because the only thing that fits her any more is the sleeveless maroon wrap dress that expanded infinitely as my brother Rufus grew inside her. Now she is holding his tiny four-week-old body against her full one. My father is busy pouring a can of black liquid deep into the Pelican, so he doesn’t look at them. My mother pauses for a second, staring at him, then at me, with my short light brown hair and bright eyes. My heart is pounding inside my life jacket, just hoping they don’t say anything to each other that will start another fight.

Last night we were all in the last hotel room of the trip, and she was so excited because we had a color TV to watch. She flipped the channel to show a beautiful round lady with elaborate hair singing: “California Dreaming…”

“Who’s that Mommy?”

“Mama Cass.”

“You look just like her Mommy!”

“Not for much longer I hope,” said my father with a little laugh.

“All the leaves are brown…” Click. My mother grabbed me by the neck of my pajamas and dumped me between the strange hotel sheets.

“You promised you wouldn’t talk about it anymore.” She started crying, “I told you I can’t help it.”

“Oh, Christ!” he said, making a funny face and mincing around on his toes. “Of course you can help it!” I started to giggle, but stopped when I saw Mommy’s wet face.

“You shut up,” she screamed at me. He grabbed his coat and the keys.

“Daddy, daddy!”  I held my arms out to him, crying because she was mad at me and he was leaving.

“Don’t worry,” he told me.

“I want to come.”

“Shut up you,” interjected my mother. He opened the motel room door and looked down on me.

“I’m just going out for a beer, I’ll be back in a little bit.”

In one step, he was out, closing the door hard enough to make the chain beside it swing. My mother and I looked at each other as we wiped the tears from our eyes.

“Stop looking at me,” she said.


“I’m fat, that’s why.” And she started to cry again. I dove deep under the sheets and turned away from her. I held on tightly to my teddy bear and thought about the Island, this place that we had been driving to for the last four days. That’s what my father always tells me when I feel bad: “Think about the Island.”

Like brown paper packages wrapped up with string, there’s the Island, and at last we’d see it tomorrow.

The water in the boathouse smells clean and fishy, so it makes sense when a fish family of five, floating just above the silty bottom, move out from the dock to where I can see them. They hover together, then all make a left turn at exactly the same time; they are connected. I drop a chunk of gravel on them, and they scatter, but come back together in an instant.

Now my father has loaded The Pelican with boxes of canned corn beef, and tanks of water and our bags of clothes and he is holding his hand up for my mother to step down into the boat like she is a princess. Except it’s not because she’s a princess, even though a year ago, she looked like one.

“Be careful of my son,” he says, just to be clear.

My parents used to make each other laugh all day, all the time. Aleta would start snorting she laughed so hard at what Tim would say, and he would stomp his foot at what she said, and I would laugh with them just because they were happy. But now, I don’t think he likes anything she does anymore. Before we left Missouri, she threw my favorite plates at him, until one shattered on his hand, and he was bleeding everywhere, and we all ran up to the bathroom and the sink was full of blood, and I could see the flap of skin on his hand in the water. Then they started laughing about it, because they still laughed about things and she wrapped his hand up in a big bandage.

Now that Rufus is in Mommy’s lap there is no room for me. Last year here at the river, I can hardly remember it, but I know it was just the three of us, and Mommy looked like a princess. I want things to be the way they used to be.

When I am told, I untie the boat, step onto her, and then I sit myself on the rumbling inboard motor. I stuff my feet below the tops of the grocery boxes to hold myself in because now we are moving. My father is expert with the wooden steering wheel; turning us around to head into the river. He shouts out, exuberantly.

“Here we are people, we’re on the River!”

We are all happy because he is happy. I watch the small town of Clayton and the waterfront businesses, like ragged dark teeth over the water, get smaller and smaller. The wind blows the wisps of hair left on my father’s head, as he calls me over to sit on his lap. I pick my way through the bags and boxes. He has me steer for a moment, which is when he points forward and talks right into my head.

“There’s your Island.”

I can see it. At first it is a green bump I can cover with two fingers, but The Pelican is fast, and soon the Island and the house on it are looming above us as we slow down for our first good look of the summer. The front of the house has a huge veranda, supported by wide pillars of stones that rise up from the rocky bluff. Pine trees, their branches perpetually blown east, grip tightly to the shore.

Between each pillar is a long horizontal stack – cement arch on the bottom, a narrow line of green porch in the middle and creamy railing on top. Even from down in the Pelican I can see the paint peeling off of all of it.

“She looks good.” My father nods and smiles to my mother, shouting over the engine and the water. Now he is turning east. He gives me directions as we move past our shore.

“Go grab the stern line and get ready to bring us in.”

I’ve never done this part before. So I pick my way back through the luggage. Then I do what I am told: grab the line and wait. Then suddenly, I’m looking at our dock, or more accurately, what is left of our dock. The first winter after we bought the Island, the boathouse was blown down by a storm and dragged away. What the ice left is just a rickety jumble of disgrace. I cannot tear my eyes away from the splintery holes across it as The Pelican’s motor revs into position. I can see what he needs me to do. If no one jumps out onto the crumbling dock as we get close to it, the wind will blow us back out of our slip. Mommy used to do this, but now he needs me to hold the boat in place while he finishes bring the Pelican in, and then he can jump out himself.

“Get ready to jump.”

I climb up on the seat in the stern and balance on the varnished edge.

Below me, black boiling water swirls in the three-foot gap between The Pelican and the dock. I look at the broken barren dock for a safe place to land, but I don’t see any. I feel queasy. But before I can think about it another second, he yells,

“Jump. Jump! JUMP!” I push off the Pelican into the air and sail over the black water.  I am flying. I am flying away from the milky warm armpit of my mother, into the wide broad adventure of my father’s world.

My feet end up on solid dock and I am keeping Pelican where she needs to be. I am on Bluff Island. I stare at the green forest across the harbor. My father jumps out with the other line.

“Well done,” he says to me. And I am proud. He takes the rope from my hand and kneels at my feet to make the stern line fast. I look over his shoulder at my mother. I think she might get madder at me because I just took her job. I look at her arms, fat outside of their sleeveless holes, holding my brother, and I look at my father, standing up now, holding out a hand for her hand to help her out of the boat. And now I can see, he’s holding out a hand to a stranger, a woman different than the woman he married, a woman different than the wife he was sleeping with even six months ago. As we head up the path to bring down the wheelbarrow, I look at the scrunched up face of my little brother, staring into the space behind my mother’s shoulder.

Still, I’m hopeful. Maybe now that we’re here, on the Island, I think, maybe we can have a happy family.


03 2010

Prologue, Columbia Missouri, 1968

Wakey, Wakey.”

It is my father’s voice in the dark – quiet, urgent.  There is something I must do.  But first I have to wake up.   Now he touches my shoulder,

“Wakey, Wakey.”   Is how the English wake their children for bombings, evacuations, and divorces, all things my English father knows too well.

“Wakey, Wakey.   I have to take your mother to the hospital, so you have to go over to the Larkins’.”

I can hear him, I just can’t move.

“Come on old thing, she’s going to have the baby.”   This baby thing is not so interesting to me.   “Call to Battle Stations.”  He flips on the light, pulls my arms into a sweater, then pulls it  down around my belly.   He puts some of my clothes in a small orange flowered suitcase.

“Come on – wakey, wakey – let’s go, tough guy.”

“What kind of a tough guy?”

“You’re a pirate and you’re on a mission.  You’ve got to be tough, for the Pirate Family.”  He picks me up and I put my arms around his neck.

“Your great-grandfather was a navy captain,” he tells me.  He lifts me up and out of my room to the top of the stairs.  I rest my head on his shoulder and look down at my mother, standing by the door in a huge black coat.  She looks up at us,

“Hey there sweetie.”  Her smooshy black pillbox hat makes her look like she is still mourning President Kennedy.   The hat is out of fashion and not right to wear to the hospital in the middle of the night:  my father’s opinion of her enters me through his hands.  Now we are at the bottom of the stairs.

“Shouldn’t I take her?” she asks.

“You can’t carry her, she’s too big,”

“She’s only four and a half…”

“I know how old she is.”

“Where are her shoes?”

“I’m just going to carry her across the street. She’ll go back to sleep in a minute.”  My mother turns to me,

“I’ll see you soon,” she says.  I lean over to give her a hug from my father’s arms and knock her hat off a little.

“Be careful,” she says, talking about the hat, and then offers me her cheek.  Usually it’s just me and her, cooking another corned beef, waiting for my father to come home so we can eat the salty meat.   But tonight, with the baby coming, I’m a key player in a Pirate adventure as my daddy takes me across the silent neighborhood street.

“Will you call the baby Rosey?”    He laughs.

“You still working on that?”

“Hmm humm.” I murmur into his shoulder. “No, we’re not going to name the baby Rosey.  But I’ll pick a name you’ll like.”

My last ride as his only child ends when Mrs. Larkin meets us at the door, her long robe dissolving into the dark.  I look through his Buddy Holly glasses floating under his young balding forehead:

“Bye-bye, Daddy.”

“Bye-bye, Stephie.  Be brave.”  His directive stretches far into the future, even though I know he means be brave here, alone with the Larkins.

He doesn’t understand.  The Larkins’ is where I don’t have to be brave.  Or tough.

“You be brave too,” I tell him.  Mrs. Larkin tucks me in on the sofa.  After she pads out of the room, I sit up on my knees and look out the picture window at my parents, my father holding my mother’s hand high in the air to help her down the steps.

I have never slept over at the Larkin’s house before.  I love it.  The grown-ups are not yelling or crying.  The girls are nice to me.

The next morning

is the first time I watch cartoons on a color television, and Mr. and Mrs. Larkin even watch with us. They are sitting behind us on the sofa when my father knocks and pops his head in the screen door,

“Hey there,” he says, stepping in and waving at Anita’s parents behind us.

“You want to come see your new brother?” he asks me. I can tell he’s excited. I’m not ready to leave yet, but this is another chance to go somewhere with him.

“Did you call him Rosey?”  I’m up high in the front seat of the VW bus he got to take us all to the Island.

“We called him Rufus, so same first letter.”

I think about the similarities as he tells me:  “Kids under eight aren’t allowed, but I’ve got a way to smuggle you in.”

We drive past the University Hospital of Missouri sign, into the parking lot, past five ambulances lined up in a row; I am ready to do whatever he tells me. The VW rumbles into a parking spot and he ratchets back the brake to make the wrenching sound that punctuates every arrival. Then, in the suddenly silent bus, I get my instructions.

“You’ve got to stay close to me, and stay quiet, and not make a sound. Got it?” I nod solemnly. “Say ‘aye-aye sir’,”

“Aye-aye sir,” I whisper.

I follow him as he steps lightly through the wide hospital doors. We slide with a smile past the front desk. My father looks side to side as we dodge into a back staircase. We walk up flight after raw concrete flight of emergency stairs. Each time we pass a door, I press the handle, and each one is locked. When we get to our floor, I know it, because my father pulls the small paperback he’s been reading from where he wedged it to keep the door open. As I pass him, I read the title—When She Was Good, by Philip Roth—as it disappears into the pocket of his tweed jacket.

He leads me past medical tools and carts and trays—everything is a dull yellow or a sick blue green—and suddenly we are in a room with my mother. She has a blue green sheet over her, and looking at it I am surprised to see that her stomach is still big.

“Sweetie,” she says weakly and opens her hand to me. I move to climb up next to her.

“Oh no, you can’t get on her.” My father grabs me by my t-shirt and pulls me back to stand beside him.

“Are you okay, Mommy?”

“I’m getting better,” she says. My father interrupts her.

“Are they bringing him in now?”

“The nurse just went to get him.” We wait in silence. I can’t stop staring at the bump;  I thought it would go away as soon as the baby came out. The nurse walks in. She is wearing a real white nurses hat and is holding a little bundle. She sees me and right away pulls the bundle up towards her hat, away from us.

“Mr. Hubbard, there are no small children allowed on this ward…”

“She’s here to meet her brother.”

“…because of germs she may be carrying, the baby is too small to be exposed.”

“She’s staying right here to see her brother.”

“She can’t stay, it’s against hospital policy.”

“But I want her to see her brother. She came all this way.”

“I’m sorry about that sir, but that’s our policy.”

“That’s okay. I can go, Daddy.”

“You stay right there,” he says to me, and then to the nurse, “We’re a family. Or at least we’re trying to be. ”

“As I said, it is policy for the safety of not just your baby, but for all the babies on the ward.”

“Fuck your policy.”

His words blow the nurse back into the hall, and I see her signal with her eyes to someone out of sight.

“Tim,” my mother says, in a tone that lets the nurse know she doesn’t approve. “Stephie, leave,” she says, like I will do what she says in front of my father. But I don’t leave, I stand frozen between the nurse and Tim, between the world outside my family, and my father, fighting for what he thinks will bring his family together. I don’t want to believe I am germy, or that I will hurt my brother, but I know the nurse knows better. Now that someone is on the way, she calmly turns her attention back to my father,

“Mr. Hubbard, your son…”

“It’s Professor Hubbard.”

“Professor Hubbard, your son has to get fed, so you need to take your daughter out of the room.”

I can see the bundle is squirming, and starting to let out a tiny sound, a baby cry.

“It’s okay, Daddy,” I say. My father stares hard at the nurse.

“Sir, sir.” Two other nurses and an orderly have crowded into the room. They angle their bodies between the nurse and my father. The people flooding the room make me think my father may be picked up and taken away. I back out of the room the way we came in. My germs and me. I wait by the instrument trays, and then he follows me.

“Stupid bitch,” he says. “That is just stupid. You should have been able to see your brother.”

“It’s okay,” I say. “I kind of saw him.”

As we walk back down the stairs I lag behind. I want him to take me back to the cartoons, back to the Larkins. But most of all, I want him to know I am on his side. The further we get from the nurse, the lower and lower down we are on the back alley stair case, the closer I come to convincing myself that he was absolutely right. But there remains my own small voice telling me he probably shouldn’t have brought me in the first place. I hang back to watch him a little bit, maybe to stay a little closer to Mom. But, above him on the rough concrete steps, the voice suggests that, in some small way, I know something he doesn’t.


03 2010

Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button Youtube button