Chapter 15 Summer, 1972

Jake and I are in town,

and while Mom is getting groceries, we walk into Hungerford’s Hardware Store. We came in to replace our worn rope with supple bright white nylon line. While Hungerford’s son is measuring out the rope, Jake finds a big bin of new charts. He carefully sorts through them all to choose which he’ll get. I look up from where the Hungerford son is melting the ends of our new nylon bowline to see Jake carefully pull a chart out, and beckon to me. He takes me to a low counter on the side of the store and unrolls the chart. I don’t know why he would want to get it, because there’s not much on it, just a white expanse with little lines around the edges and a few spots. Nothing like the crowded river charts we use every time we try sailing Dulci on a new route around Grindstone.

“What do you say,” he says, “we go here?” And he points to a tiny little yellow blob in the middle of the huge white space.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Duck Island.” He stares at the tiny blob like going there will save his life. I know we are in for it when he turns to the other Hungerford son and adds to our order, “one hundred feet of seven-eighths line for an anchor cable.”

“What are we going there for?” I ask him.

“Practice,” he says.

“Practice for what?”  He looks around and kneels down; he doesn’t want the guys in the store to hear him,

“I am going to build a boat and sail it solo across the Atlantic.”

“The Atlantic Ocean?”

“Yes.” I am imagining my father alone and surrounded by a pack of icebergs when a Hungerford interrupts.

“How do you want that line?” Jake goes to finalize the details, and I look down again at the chart. Dulcibella is a 23-foot O’Day Daysailer, perfect for an afternoon sail, but not equipped for much else, despite having two slim bunks in the tiny cabin. I’m measuring the distance with the scale markings on the side when Jake comes back.

“How long will it take us to get there?” He looks long and hard at the chart.

“Three or four days.”

“Can we come?”

“Sure.” He smiles at the tiny spot of yellow that is Duck Island. I smile at him. I’m happy that we’ll all be going.

As soon as we get back to the Island, we start packing up Dulcibella like a North Sea trawler, cramming the side bins with cans, installing the new anchor, and keeping the old one as a spare. Now we are just waiting for the first north wind so we can sail west. One morning we know it’s turned when Jake wakes us all up by shouting, “Ducks! Ducks! Ducks!” And now we know that today we are taking our O’Day Daysailer into Lake Ontario. I help Mommy pack the milk and cheese and cold beer into a cooler.

As much as we love Bluff Island, we are grateful for a change of scenery. Apparently, even people on remote islands have to get away from it all by going to even more remote islands.

We make good progress on the north wind, then need to start tacking into the west as the wind changes to it’s regular south-westerly groove.

“Stand by to go about!” my father calls out when he is ready to tack. Mom and I stand on either side of the cockpit, each manning a winch while Jake works the tiller. Rufus must go into the cabin for safety reasons when we go about. It’s my job to let go of the sail, and mom’s job to pull it in.

“Ready about!” Now I stand ready to let the tight sheet of the sail off its little cleat.

“Hard A Lee!” He calls out and pushes the tiller downwind and the whole bow of the boat crosses over the wind, and the sail starts to flap, and when the sheet gets a little loose, I untie it super quick and let it go, and Mom starts pulling in on the other side, and now Dulcibella is headed 90 degrees across the wind from where we were going. I go help mom pull the new sheet in the final few inches. I help her put a winch handle in the winch and crank, crank, crank it in. Then holding it tight, we make the sheet fast on the new side. We all have a job. We are all working together. The cool clean wind blows into my smiling face. This is good. Jake quizzes me on seamanship.

“You’ve anchored on a north shore, the wind is coming from the south. During the night, the wind moves into the north and blows you toward the shore. Your anchor is dragging and your engine is out. What do you do?”

“Sail off?” I guess.

“Nope. Your boat is being smashed on the rocks, think fast!” Jake is laughing and teasing me, but I can’t think of anything else.

“Just tell me, please!”

“Put your back up anchor in your dinghy and row off shore, then drop the back-up anchor, row back to the boat and start winching in the new anchor line to pull yourself off the lee shore.” I do a mental checklist:  we have two anchors on board, and the blow up dinghy is scudding along behind us. We are prepared. I like how Jake is preparing me for self-sufficiency.

It takes three days of sailing all day then anchoring at night, sleeping and cooking in our tiny boat with four people, no galley or toilet or sink but finally we get to Duck Island.

Rounded grey stones, about four yards deep, line the beaches. The stones make musical sounds as we walk over them. Here in the middle of an inland ocean my weight makes the rocks settle and clink against each other.

“No human being has heard that sound in a thousand years,” pronounces Jake. I look down at my feet, and the little broken songs of the stones ring out special just for us. We walk from the one harbor with a lighthouse through open fields of hay and pastureland. I like this place: there are rutted roads where every hour or so, another person walks by. Because we are visiting their island, they are friendly to us and we are friendly to them. We walk all over Duck Island; I fall in love with its bluntness. We are on an Island with other people and we don’t have to hate them. I want to stay on Duck Island forever.

There are only two bunks below in Dulcibella, so my mom has one, and my brother has the other. I sleep on the floor in between them. Daddy sleeps outside on the floor of the cockpit with a sail over him against the dew. This trip, Daddy has been rereading Kidnapped to us. When he finishes tonight’s chapter, he takes a picture of his family ready for bed. I am in a pink flowery nightgown with princess puff sleeves. I take my glasses off so I’ll look cute for the picture. I am in my spot on the floor flanked by Rufus and Mommy; we are all smiling, brown as berries on our family island trip away from the Island.

In the night, a squall blows up from the west. It is like a sailing training question:  “A storm comes up from the west, do you ride it or wait it out?” Jake decides it is just what he needs to get some training for the Atlantic. Once we leave the safety of Duck Island Harbor, and the westward waves start hitting us, and the wind is blowing us faster and faster away from Ducks, it’s clear we cannot go back no matter what ancient mariner’s trick we employ. Each wave feels like it will blow Dulcibella apart. I sit up with Jake in my usual spot in the cockpit, until I’m slapped with a gigantic wave from behind.

“Stephie, time to go below,” he says in a low voice. I want to argue to stay, but I know better.

“Aye-aye, sir.” I say, and time my crossing to the hatch with the waves. What had been a cozy place to sleep has become chaos: towels and clothes have been tossed everywhere. Mommy and Rufus are throwing up again and again into a bucket; they have wedged themselves into a corner of the bunk. Whatever this is, it is serious. What ever this is, I would rather be in the wind-scoured cockpit then down in this cabin. I stagger to the steps, up to the hatch, hold on, and poke my head out into the screaming wind. I’m ready to argue for my ascent, but when I see the waves towering over my father’s head, I am speechless; I didn’t even know waves could be larger than a boat, but these are much, much higher than our boat. Next we are on top of the wave and it’s only sky around us and that is when I notice that Jake has a line tied across his body to hold him into his seat – he yells at me:



“THEY’RE JUST SEA SICK!” He roars back.

“WHAT’S THAT?” I yell, pointing at the rope across his waist, outside of one of the cheap green rubber raincoats. He’s not tied in exactly, he’s just leaning against the line which is helping him to stay in his seat, high up in the cockpit as Dulcibella is blown up onto her side by the storm.

“IT’S A LIFE LINE,” he yells back.


“IN CASE THE WATER TRIES TO SWEEP ME OVER!” Another wave towers up again, first ten, then twenty feet above him. I look back at my mother. She is so sick right now, and even if she weren’t, she doesn’t know how to handle a boat. I cannot even allow the possibility that he might be swept overboard, allow for what could possibly happen if first one big wave filled the cockpit, then another filled the cabin. All I know is that I must be up and out of the cabin, up in the cockpit with my dad. He might need help. I need to be riding through this storm with him.


“NOOO, STAY BELOOOW!” he calls out of his square mouth.

Determined not to be lumped with the sick ones, determined to have crucial information to save whoever of us might be left if the storm becomes more aggressive, I brace myself into the hatch and stay there. I stand by and watch the twenty-foot rollers rise up behind his head again and again, but more striking than the waves is my father’s huge smile. I have never seen him happier—strapped to a boat inadequate to the task, his family captive passengers below.


04 2010

Chapter 14 May

I am outside at Bluff Island, behind the house, and as my mother comes up the stone steps with a wicker laundry basket under her arm, I think how much I like the bones in her face as they tilt up in the light.

I know her ankle is still tender, so her smile confuses me. Then I see that my mother is wearing the most beautiful flower I have ever seen in a tiny vase pinned to her jacket.

“What is that?” I ask, looking closely at the yellow-centered red flower.

“It’s a red columbine,” she says proudly. She puts down the laundry and pulls out her wild flower identification book and shows me a perfect picture of the very flower she is wearing. Then she returns the book to her pocket and walks past me to start pinning up the laundry.

“Where did you get it?” I assume she picked it herself, and will tell me the spot.

“Your father gave it to me.”

“Oh.” He’s been so mean to her for so long, I don’t know what to think. All I know is that I am pissed. This—this giving of a flower—is a violation of the rules of the family. Everyone barely tolerates mom. We can love her, but we have to be a little mean to her or she will start taking care of herself. This thought comes into my head, and I don’t know from where. I had no idea I thought like this. Even so, it is not right that she has a flower and I do not. I had assumed my father liked me better. He should’ve given me the flower. The delicate red petals swoop back from the yellow center. I am indignant.

“Can I have it?” I ask. I expect my mother to give me anything she has, she always does, “No,” she answers.

“Mommy, I want it.”

“No,” she says.

“Where’d he get it then?” I’m determined to have one. I must level the playing field. I want to steamroller my mother. I’m going to get one of those flowers; I am going to straighten this out!

“I don’t think there is another one,” she says. “I think they are very rare.” I am surprised to notice that I take satisfaction that the bounce in her step has diminished somewhat from my push to take her gift. My mom has been unhappy for so long, I always imagined I wanted her to be happy. But maybe I thought it would be me who would save her.

She is almost done hanging the clothes. I can tell she wants to go back inside, get away from me.

“Well I’m going to find one myself.” I tell her, and begin by looking down at the rocks at our feet.

Amazingly, I find one almost where I am standing.

“Look Mom, here’s one. I guess they’re not so rare.” Her face falls as I hold up the flower. Now I point to the little bud vase on her coat.

“Oh Mom, do you have another one of those?”

“No sweetie, sorry.”

“Well, can I use yours then?”

“No,” she says. “That’s my pin.”

“Don’t you have another one?”


“Okay, so you should let me use it.”

“No, I said no.”

“I should get a turn.” She turns to walk away from me. “But I picked the flower, what’s going to happen to it?” She looks at me like I’m a retard.

“Put it in a jelly glass,” she says and slams the back door behind her.


04 2010

Chapter 13 Capture the Flag

I am meant for adventure.

I crave it, but so far, especially compared to the boys in Robert Louis Stevenson books, life has not been very adventurous. I am even more tortured by this because I ought to be doing better; after all, I’m on an island in the goddamned river all the time aren’t I?  I look out at the pine cones poised to fall onto the veranda in the next squall.

“That pine cone is going to go further than me,” I think, “because I never go anywhere or do anything.”

Jake flies into the room with two stakes of wood, each one with a strip of leftover cloth from when Mom made curtains last summer.

“Let’s play capture the flag,” he says. I jump up from my seat, and we run up into the forest. We’ve never done anything like this before. He explains the game: each team will go into the forest, and hide their flag. Once that is done, we may choose to defend it, or start hunting for the other team’s flag. He plants his flag, and I plant mine.

I wander through the woods, alone, looking for where he might have posted his flag. I am cycling through elation at actually doing something for once that isn’t just reading or watching television. I’m happy that Jake is playing with me. So happy. For a second. Because then I am scared that I will be lost, that I will be swallowed up in a sink hole, that it really is too dangerous out here, out anywhere, for me.

I run, but I run silently. There’s a spider web across my face. I run towards a place we like to go. A clearing filled with moss, bright in the sunlight, because trees can’t grow on the rocks. I see it there—a slash of the bright pink curtain—his flag. I crouch down, silently. I am one with the forest. I wait a long time. I hear the crows come and go around the clearing. It is time for me to make my move. I move silently towards the flag, vigilant, checking in all directions for anybody. I am ten feet away from grabbing the flag, pulling it out of the ground, and I suddenly see Jake’s sweater moving fast towards me. He never looked for my flag, just staked out his own. He tackles me from the side, my hand reaching, almost touching his flag, but suddenly I am on the ground, warmed by the hot mass of him. I smell his wet wool sweater smell and the leaves underneath me, and, when he lets me up a little, I squirm towards the flag. We are laughing, but he declares the game over as he picks up his flag and walks away towards the house.

Back in school, I am waiting in line for the bathroom. Capture the Flag has given me confidence. The other girls can sense it. The clique is being friendly to me.

“You want to play a new game?” Kathy Stamponato asks me. Some of the other girls laugh. They know about this fun game. I am flattered.

“Sure, how do you play?” I ask. Everyone circles around us as she holds me by my arms and I lean out over the granite floor. My feet are braced at her feet, and she swings me gently over the hard composite granite floor. I am the youngest and smallest in my class, so it’s easy to toss me around. She gently swings me back and forth.

“This is fun,” I say. Then I don’t feel her hands on my arms, the floor rushes up to my face. I fall tooth first into the stone floor. My glasses go flying and I crawl on the ground looking for them when I hear the girls behind Kathy laughing. I put my glasses on and turn to look at her. Blood is pouring out of my mouth between the fingers I’m holding over it.

“It was an accident I swear,” she says, trying not to laugh. Suddenly the teacher is there looking at me.

“It was an accident,” Kathy says again, very loudly to the teacher. Jake comes to get me in the car. I am sitting silently in the front seat, holding a cold pack to my face.

“Well, that shut you up,” he says, and laughs a little. I just don’t know what to say. Half my tooth is back on the school floor somewhere.


04 2010

Chapter 12 Spring

I am just like my father.

I can’t live without the Island. And when the time comes, I do what my father decrees in the name of family. I pack a bunch of sweaters into a bag on Thursday night, and get ready to leave from school Friday afternoon. We’ve lost Pelican to dry rot, and Jake has replaced her with a grubby Boston Whaler, a battered low-slung open boat propelled only by a weak outboard motor. Now our VW bus pulls up to the marina as the afternoon sky is darkening into a freezing April night.

Mom carries the groceries, and I pack our duffle bags onto the floor of the whaler. Then my little brother and I put on extra sweaters, and we each get one of the dark green leaky rubber raincoats mom found at a drugstore. None of us says anything to the other. We are conserving our energy for what is to follow. Once we are loaded and covered in our cheap cocoons, then we configure ourselves in the boat. I will be on the west side, with the prevailing wind hitting me on my right side and back. Mom is next to me. We make a wind break for Rufus, on the bench next to Jake, who drives the boat. He sits in the stern on the east side.

I get back up on the dock to wait to cast off while we all watch Jake pull again and again to start the little outboard motor tacked onto the back of the whaler. He finds a little button on the engine and pumps it, and tries again. It doesn’t even hiccough this time.

“Shit, I think I flooded it,” he says in the raw gloaming. The light is almost gone, and all of us know better than to say anything while we let the engine rest. Then he pulls the line again, and after a few more tries, it finally starts, making a lonely little putt-putt-putt, as we leave the dock. He steers us into the wide lonely river. The water is darkening gray, and the color of the shore is rotten yellow, the color of land that’s just emerged from being under snow for six months, and then we clear the western point, and the wind hits us. Hits me. Each time a wave hits the front of the boat, water slops up and over the side, right onto me. Every wave hits hard. I grind my teeth so they won’t get slammed by the BAM BAM BAM of wave after wave. Rufus looks like he’s frozen in his seat, and Jake’s face is a grimace, squinting into the wind, trying to see where we’re going into the gloom. We are all freezing and wet—closed in on ourselves—working on getting through this. But Jake’s face is forward looking. Even in the cold I can see he is exhilarated. Our love for him  has made us all soldiers, slaves to his vision of what it is to be a family.  Our hollow compliance is all we can give, because there is no other option for any of us but to be here with him.

I am cold and soaked, and I turn to look to see how far we have to go, and we aren’t even half-way to Pine Island yet. I cannot take this another BAM BAM BAM second. I stare at the bumpy blue surface of the floor of the whaler in front of me. Once, in someone else’s hands, it was bright blue, but now it is faded, and I think about my dream the other night, with Trapper John from MASH. He kissed me. And I think about his curly hair BAM BAM BAM and about how Valerie Contrastan threw the hard plastic lavatory pass at me again and again, and she doesn’t even know BLAM BLAM that I am a bad ass soldier, a warrior and even I don’t really know it myself and BAM BAM why does mom think these ugly green things keep out water at all, because I am soaked through, and that last icy wave totally got me wet, and I can’t believe it’s April. I look up again, and we are getting closer to Pine Island. I look across at my brother and he’s so BAM BAM little, and so cold and I look at my father again and wonder if we come with him because we are afraid. And I know:  I am not afraid of Jake. If he hits me, or calls me names or even kills me, I am not afraid of him. BAM  I am not afraid of him because I love him BAM BAM I love him because he is my father, and he is grand.  But that is not enough to make us a family.

There it is, the cedar smell, and finally we have stumbled inside to where we can see it is pitch black outside, and the electric space heater in the kitchen sputters on and its humming coils try to knock out the winter cold in the kitchen. I am peeling off wet layers and standing by the heater to dry my pants. Jake comes in after turning on the water at the pump house and lets out a cheery blathery “BRRRR.” He stamps his feet and joins me by the space heater to watch Mom make the burgers. “Well people, we made it!” he pronounces. “I checked last year’s calendar. This year we are earlier by six days.”

“Yay,” I say. The solitary thinness of my statement seems almost like I’m making fun of him, but I am not.

“Okay, guys, bedtime.”

Leaving the kitchen with a flashlight, I feel how I have grown since I’ve been here last. I am older, and wiser. I’ve almost finished second grade. I take note of the spooky scullery, the steps that go up to Jake’s study and the dining room and the huge living room with its bank of windows all rattling in the cold dark wind. Then I’m up the wide-open stairs, and into my room, where the dead flies are still crunchy under the windowsills. There in the dark freezing room where no one but spirits has lived since November, I finally take off my wet clothes and dig around in my duffle for my pajamas and socks and put them on, and run into the spooky toilet, looking like poop itself with its dark brown wooden seat from 1906, then I run to my squeaky little bed and slide under the covers and sheets that are damp from the air, and cold. I am afraid there are beetles between the sheets as I push my feet down between the layers of cold cotton and after a while I hear my parents come up the stairs to say goodnight, and by that time the worst of the cold has passed. They take turns coming to our rooms, sitting next to us in our beds,

“Good night.” Kiss.

“Sleep tight.”

“Good night.” On the first night there is no yelling because there is no time for drinking. We are troops sleeping after our journey, and tomorrow is another day.

Saturday after breakfast, we walk around. Even from the top yard, on the south-facing hill rising in the forest I see them. They cover the forest floor: trillium. There are no leaves on the trees, but the trillium bloom hillside after hillside. They are flowers that have three petals arranged in a triangle. And below the three petals there are three leaves. They are so elementary, like magician’s flowers.

For the first time in what seems like forever, my mother, who’s barely been able to function since her brother died, brightens. She loves the trillium. She takes their picture, walks among them, researches them, tells me all about them. They propagate like mushrooms under the leaves, and wait for their few days of life each spring. They come from underneath the heavy foggy blanket of brown oak leaves faded by the past winter, and, like a true resurrection, they grow, alive and beautiful, the Trinity, throughout the forest, into infinity. If these simple primordial flowers could come back guided by the earth year after year, then maybe my earthy mother can come back too. And if she can come back, maybe there is still hope for us to be a real family.


04 2010

Chapter 11 Invisible Man

Usually, every school day afternoon, my mom walks two miles in the snow, dragging my brother in a sled, to meet me and walk me home because she doesn’t drive.

But today Jake comes to pick me up in the VW bus. The drive home takes only a few minutes, but after he pulls into our driveway he doesn’t move. Instead he says, “I have something to tell you.”

He’s never said anything like that before, and I look out the bus’s window at the snow, and tell myself to remember what he is saying, remember that it’s February, and that I’m seven. Today the snow makes me think about the Invisible Man again.

“Your Uncle is dead in Oklahoma,” Jake tells me.

“My Uncle Ronnie?”  Thinking of him, I am back at the kitchen table in Missouri looking at his thumb. Someone so kind cannot be gone.

“How did he die?”  I think it is the Vietnam war that has killed him. I expect Jake to explain by saying DaNang, Laos, or Cambodia, the vocabulary I’m learning from the news. Finally, he answers.

“I’ll let your mother tell you that.” Now I know Uncle Ronnie has died in some shameful way a seven-year-old cannot know. “She’s going away for a few days to his funeral.”  Slowly I take off my seat belt. I stare at the snow. Did my uncle come back from the war, misunderstood by the village people till they shot him?   We cross the snowy yard. Standing out on the porch for one last minute before facing my mother in her grief, I stare back at our footsteps and imagine seeing my gentle uncle becoming visible in the snow below our front door, finally visible in death.

While Mom is gone with Rufus, everything is quiet and smooth. In a few days, she comes back on a tidal wave of pain, wearing a blue and maroon checked shirt I have never seen. She is unpacking one of Ronnie’s boxes in the living room when I ask her, “Mommy, where did you get that shirt?”

“It’s Ronnie’s.” She lets loose a long sad sigh. Mom has come back, but she hasn’t come back. She is grinding over what has happened. Later when she is taking the TV dinners out of the oven, I hear her talking to Jake.

“I had to go to the sheriff about getting Daddy out to come to the funeral.”

“Oh, they must have provisions for that,” my dad says.

“Well, they let him come. But I still had to go ask,” she says. I have lost my mother to secrets, to the unspeakable horrors of death and to Sara Lee cheesecakes. Every day after school I find Oreo pack wrappers, Sara Lee boxes and extra large empty Lay’s bags. My mother is gone from her body. She is trying to join her brother, guilty that she lives.



“What happened to Uncle Ronnie?”

“He died.”

“How did he die Mommy?”

“He died.”

“In Vietnam.”

“No. In Oklahoma.”

“Was he sick or something?”

“No.” Her voice is barely a whisper.

“What happened, Mommy?”   She is crumpling, collapsing. I stop asking.

It is a grey Sunday morning. Time for the Ma & Pa Kettle Sunday morning movie series. This is my chance to reconnect with Mom. From somewhere in the kitchen, she brings out a box and opens it for me to see four large cherry Danishes. Perfect.

She pulls one of the elaborate constructions out of the box for me. The bright red of the cherries looks even redder in front of the black and white television set. But today Jake is home with us. He hasn’t gone to research anything, or meet anyone or run an errand or finish a project for the Island. It is 9:59, a minute before Ma and Pa Kettle, and he comes in wearing his fraying brown robe.

“Have a cherry Danish, Jake,” Mommy says to him. She picks up her Danish to show him how it’s done. She lifts the pastry, covered in red sugary cherries and white frosting, to her mouth to take a bite.

“Don’t eat that!”  He is commanding, he is begging. She keeps her eyes on the television set and takes another bite. He says it again. “Don’t eat that.”

“What do you care?” she says.

“Just nothing, just don’t eat it.” He says it like his life depends on it. The movie is starting and I stare at it as if it will save mine.

“I’ll eat what I want to eat, Jake.” She turns away from him, back to the television. Then their movements quicken. He grabs the box of Danish. She tries to pull it back out of his hand. She is trying to slap him. I don’t know whether to hide my Danish, or cover Rufus’ eyes while I watch them. I cannot look away. I am burning the pictures of them into my brain, at first the slaps—

“You’re crazy.”
“No, you’re crazy.”

“I’m not the one with a killer for a father,” he says, and suddenly she stops trying to grab the pastry, and is up, tall, lunging at him to dig his eyes out of his head and he knocks her back into the table and she falls down quickly but in phases like a tree falling that is twisting in all the wrong ways. When the fall is done, she lies on the floor and he stands above her, not reaching out to her. She is hurt, she is crying. I stare down at the red cherries in my hands. I’ve only eaten two bites. Ma and Pa Kettle are on screen just above my downed mother.

“You broke my fucking ankle you animal!” she screams. She can’t follow him as he takes the box of Danish outside to dump them into the garbage can. Ma and Pa Kettle are arguing about their new racehorse while I stare at the Danish on my lap. I look at Mom, staring at me, tears still on her face. My father comes back in the house. They both look at me. Or rather they look at my Danish. I look at my mom. I look at my dad. I take one more bite, then walk to the garbage in the kitchen and throw the bright red sticky mess away.

They talk about whether to take her to the hospital. Jake watches Mom walk around the room, wincing and sobbing with pain. “No, no, I’ll be okay,” she says, and lies down on the couch with her feet up. Even though I hear her crying, I keep my eyes on the movie. I’m watching the movie. I would rather live without color, than in this.

When Jake is tucking me in that night, he tells me, “Your mommy and I love each other very much.”

“Oh, good,” I say, pretending to believe him.

“We just need to get to the River,” he says. My eyes widen. It is months before summer. Mom can hardly walk now. Still, he is confiding in me, so I ask what I’ve been dying to know.

“What happened with Ronnie?”

“Someone killed him for his wallet. He comes back from two tours in Vietnam and somebody kills him for his goddamned wallet in Oklahoma.” He shakes his head. “That’s what Oklahoma is like—barbaric.”

“You mean grandpa didn’t kill him?”

“No, your grandpa Ed didn’t kill him.”

“But why did you say her father was a murderer.”

“I’m not supposed to say anything…” He pauses. “He killed a guy, a different guy.”


“I shouldn’t have said anything. Look, your grandmother was with another man, and your grandpa killed him and shot your grandmother.” Suddenly I remember when grandma visited on crutches in Missouri.

Grandma, why are you on crutches, did you break your leg?

No, I most certainly did not.

“Oh. So why did Mommy have to go to the sheriff?”

“Your grandpa’s in jail now, and she got him out for Ronnie’s funeral.”

“Oh. So where was Ronnie when he got killed? ”  He starts to answer, then pauses like he’s been caught when we hear a movement from Mom. We both hold our breath listening. We hear the refrigerator open downstairs and rustling and a stumping half walk back to the living room. We both start breathing again.

“A guy shot him, and left him in a ditch. They had to identify him by his tattoo.” I never even saw his tattoo; he must have hidden it when he was visiting.

“What about his baby?”

“We don’t know.” He says. He pauses a long time as if the baby idea will dissolve in the silence. I decide I will let it, and ask the other thing I want to know.



“There’s a Brownie trip and I really want to go.”

“To where?”

“It’s an overnight, to Scout camp.”


“Daddy, will you sign my permission slip?”


“There are only nice girls in Brownies, this way I can spend time with Susan Salamone and Beth Cummings.”

“How much does it cost?” he asks.

“Sixteen dollars.” I pull the permission slip from my bedside table. He reads it. We both know he will have the final say—Mom can’t do anything these days. He reads it and shakes his head.

“It’s too expensive, and you have to drive with someone else. That’s not safe.”

“But Jake!” My voice is rising.

“Mom can’t take you, and I’m going away that weekend.” I don’t want him to see me cry, but I can’t help it.

“Those Brownies are going to be at a stupid camp, you know that, right?” His beard is almost close enough to scratch me as I nod. “You have a much better place than their dumb old Brownie camp,” he says. “You have the River.” I see the other Brownies, like in my Brownie book, sitting on logs, singing around a fire in the middle of them all. There might even be girls there who don’t know me, who I can maybe be friends with. We don’t have anything like that at the River.


There is so much to say, I don’t know where to start to let him know how much this is hurting.


“Don’t argue with me,” he says. “You might not be able to see now how lucky you are now, but you’ll see one day. Goodnight.” He kisses my face. I don’t want him to think I’m mad at him, so I wrap my arms around his neck, and feel his beard, rough on my cheek.

“I love you,” he tells me.

“I love you too,” I tell him. He gets up and leaves the room.

“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” he says, laughing a little with me. He starts to pull the door shut.

“No, no, leave it open please.” I tell him. He leaves the door ajar, and goes downstairs to bring mom another ice pack for her ankle.

I pull my book from under my pillow to resume my re-reading of The Call of the Wild by the hall light.

It is The Saturday. All the other Brownies have gone off to be in nature, even sweet, snuffly Susie Salamone and her mom. Jake is going to visit Colin.

My eyes focus on the electronic square in front of me. It is the Road Runner. I hate Road Runner. The Coyote tries and tries and he just keeps getting an Acme anvil dropped on his head. Even though I hate it, I watch it. I will be like Coyote. I will order the makings of countless contraptions into the middle of nowhere and try to destroy the only other living creature I find. Pointlessness is the only thing that makes sense to me today.

My mom is looking at the newspaper. “Oh, Stephie, I think you’ll like this one,” She is pointing to a movie listing in the paper. I look at the title: The Greatest Show on Earth. She looks through the yellowing movie reference book. “Okay, this is the one with Jimmy Stewart. It won best picture in 1952.”

When night finally comes, I watch the movie from under the blanket on the sofa. My mother takes a break from the box of Entemann’s she is sneaking in the kitchen to bring me a bowl of mashed potatoes. Jimmy Stewart plays Buttons the clown. He is a super nice guy. But it turns out he used to be a doctor, and the reason he became a clown is because he’s evading capture for killing his wife. But at the end he gets arrested and taken away, and it makes me cry and cry. I can’t stop crying as I walk upstairs to my room, and I can’t stop crying as I lie down on the rough wool blanket I have put on the floor next to my bed because it is as close to camping with the other kids as I can get. I can’t stop crying even though I’m not crying for myself, or even for the Brownie that wanted to go camping, or the mother who lost her brother and won’t drive, or for my father who can’t stay home, or my little baby cousin who lost his sweet daddy. I’m not crying for any of us, I’m crying for Buttons the clown. Buttons the nice guy who murdered his wife.


04 2010

Chapter 10 First Birthday Party

I, Four Eyes, am officially invited to Cindy Churchill’s birthday party.

This is my first invitation to anything in the two years since we’ve lived in Syracuse. For some reason, which really embarrasses everyone concerned, Cindy’s mom makes her invite all the girls in our second grade class. I accept immediately.

The icy Saturday night of the party, Jake drops me off in front of Cindy Churchill’s house. He watches me from the VW bus as I walk up to the neat brown house. Mrs. Churchill opens the door, and I wave at Jake so he can leave. I step into another world, where fathers don’t leave for adventures over the ice, and where mothers don’t eat entire loaves of bread in an afternoon. Suddenly, I’m uncomfortable.

“The girls are just getting started downstairs.” Mrs. Churchill points me to the basement stairs. I am filled with the same fear I feel at school: now that I am here, I know I will be teased and I won’t know what to say. There will be meanness.

“Honey, just go down…” she urges me. This is my chance to be normal, but I don’t trust it. I stand, frozen in the kitchen, then turn to her and two other women in the kitchen, neighbors or something. They are stirring dough in bowls, trays of cookies are cooling. I stare at them, willing one of them to say something.

“Hi, I’m Cindy’s aunt.” One pretty woman smiles, and holds her hand out to me.

“Hi.” I am so grateful. “I’m Stephanie.”

“We’re all making cookies up here, if you want to help,” the aunt offers.

“That’s okay,” I say and sit down on a stool at the kitchen island across from the cookie-making operation. Mrs. Churchill looks at me funny. She doesn’t understand why I don’t go downstairs. I know I’m making the women uncomfortable. They can’t talk about grown up things with me there, while I watch them to see what grownups are supposed to do. But I know I can count on them not to call me weird to my face. I’ve learned that much about adults so far.

Eventually Cindy and the other girls come up to the living room to open up the presents. I am one of the regular guests for a minute, sitting on the brown rug, while Cindy opens Easy Bake Ovens and Lite Brites. These are toys I’ve been wanting, but I know better than to even ask for toys from TV, especially since Pelican fell apart and we have to get another boat. Some of the girls’ parents are starting to pick them up, and I wish that Jake was first, but he is not. He is almost last.

Mrs. Churchill asks me again,

“Stephanie, are you sure you wouldn’t like a cookie?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Churchill,” I tell her. I can see Cindy rolling her eyes at Mary Alice Riordan as they sit on the brown sofa together, and I realize I sounded weird, then there is a rap at the door. It is Jake. I am already standing by the door with my coat on.

“Hi Jake, let’s go.” I open the door and I’m trying to push out.

“Good bye and thank you, Mrs. Churchill,” I call towards the kitchen. Then I mumble, “Bye Cindy, thanks,” and I am out the screen door, onto the concrete slab that is the Churchill porch. I step outside, gulping air, happy to be out of the brown cocoon but then I hear Cindy say to Mary Alice Riordan, “I had to invite her because I had to invite the whole class.”

I expect my father to be beside me, but he is not. I turn. He is standing just inside the door, wearing his Russian fur hat and big leather gloves, and I see his mouth is moving surrounded by his red beard, and the air smells like the scotch on his breath, even from out here, and he’s not speaking, he is spitting words at them. I am willing time to stop, to go backwards, but my father is unstoppable. Then the sound connects with my brain, and I hear what he is saying.

“You are lucky she came….” He says it like a curse—pointing his gloved hand at them, narrowing his eyes— “…you little shi….” Mrs. Churchill walks in and he stops. I can see that she is scared, and I look at the two girls and they are scared too, and he turns around, and the door slams behind him and we are outside under the bulb on the concrete slab. I can see my breath it is so cold tonight. I wish I could see what to do, what to say to him. I want to tell him thanks for trying to stick up for me. I want to yell at him for ruining the rest of my life at school. I take a breath, I don’t know what words will come out with my breath into the night air, and just then, halfway to the VW bus, he starts to laugh.

“Did you see their faces?” We get into the high gray seats. I look across at him as he starts up the VW bus. He likes it when it’s us against them. The bus is freezing. I shiver, staring at the dark gray dashboard like that will warm things up faster. I know he expects me to laugh along, mock those stupid suckers. But grown-ups don’t talk like that to other people’s children. Even I know that. He is talking, and I am not saying anything. I am not chiming in. He is embellishing his reenactment of the attack on Cindy Churchill and Mary Alice Riordan. The words slide through my head as he punctuates the air with his glove again. I cannot speak. I have nothing to say and he knows it. As a last resort to get me on his side, he tells me the curse.

“Just remember, those girls are all going to marry truck drivers.”

This is his final pronouncement. His way of making me feel better. The way he says it, I believe it. He is telling me this to comfort me and I take it. Even though I know the comfort comes wrapped in something disgraceful.


04 2010

Chapter 9 The Crossing

The brand new gear in the foyer is building up:  in addition to the boots, there is now a shearling coat, a wooden toboggan from L. L. Bean and flannel-lined jeans.

But this weekend, Jake has left it to represent him in his absence while he takes the last weekend to close down the Island by himself. I want to go with him to prove I can, but there is something quiet and soothing about being left home alone with Mom and Rufus—just women and children—for two whole days. Before the cinnamon toast, she would never let me eat sugar, but according to some strange slow clockwork, she keeps coming out of the kitchen, first with chocolate ice cream, then popcorn and even more cinnamon toast than usual.

While Rufus naps we watch the Saturday Monster Movie Matinee. The Werewolf reminds me of Jake. When he gets enraged, he changes into something he doesn’t want to be.

When Jake gets mad at Mom, I want to get between them, but when the Wolfman becomes awful, I hide with my bowl of chocolate ice cream behind Mom’s chair.

We have to move the furniture to have both a Christmas tree and all of Jake’s gear in the living room, and then finally, it’s the January Thursday night before he leaves to cross the ice and I have followed him outside to help him load the Volkswagen. Studying The Call of the Wild has both fueled my quest to join him, and clarified my fears of what could happen to him. Now I’m helping him pack for what could be the last time.

“Daddy, you know, if you get stuck, you can sleep under the snow.”

“Thanks Steph-o,” he says. He calls me Steph-o when I have a good idea.

“You’re welcome.” I love him and I don’t want him to go away forever into a blizzard. “Okay, so you’re going to sleep inside somewhere on the first night? Right?”  He stops stuffing a bag of freeze-proof oatmeal into his pack and turns to me; he gives me a look.

“Steph-o—I’m coming back, you know,” he tells me.

“I know you will.” I nod. But I’ve read the book and that’s what they all thought.

“I just wish I could be there to help.” I stare down at the package of oatmeal, still sticking out of the pack.

“You will be.” He smiles at me and touches his heart, “You’ll be right here with me,” he says and turns to finish pushing the oatmeal into the pack. We walk on the crunchy snow back through the slightly open front door and walk into the hot bright house.

Mom is in the kitchen organizing thermoses when she hears me come in: “You’ve got to go to bed, it’s ten o’clock.”

“Okay, Mom.” And then I slowly make the rounds, saying goodnight to mom, and giving Jake one last goodnight hug.

“I’ll take you to school tomorrow morning on my way out of town.” He promises.

“Okay.” I say and march upstairs.

I lie awake for a long time, listening to their quiet talking downstairs. I understand how he has to go away sometimes. I have the same feeling in my own heart: I have caught it from him. It is like the earth making an ache that tells you to go somewhere else, right there in your chest, and if you’re not doing something about it, it just gets worse and worse. I know this feeling. The next morning, he drops me at school.

“Bye old thing, don’t worry.” He gives me a kiss and a silly face as he waves on his way to the frozen arctic wasteland. That night, Friday night, Mom gets mad at me for dressing up Rufus like a girl in one of my old dresses.

“Don’t do that again,” she says, but Rufus spins around and laughs, happy for my attention. The furniture is still in its new place, even though the gear and the Christmas tree are both gone. When Rufus goes to bed, Mom lets me stay up late enough to watch That Girl with her. She makes a loaf of cinnamon toast. We know he isn’t going to call.

The next day is Saturday. Mom has Rufus’ nap timed perfectly to match Monster Movie Matinee. Today, they are screening The Invisible Man. I can’t believe it: when they take off his bandages, you can really see right through his head. It’s incredible.

But then he is naked, invisible and running away from the villagers who don’t understand that he’s not a monster. He runs in the snow, so his footsteps show where he is, and the villagers kill him and, tragically, he dies. A man dying naked in the snow. I put it out of my mind, but I know today, Saturday, is the day Jake is crossing, marching through the snow himself. He told me that the hardest part of the crossing won’t be on the middle of the ice, but on the edges of the islands he’ll be crossing. Even if he is okay, and didn’t leave his fingers and toes on the ice, we won’t know anything till late tomorrow. While mom and I watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she gets a phone call. When she comes back under the blanket she tells me.

“You have a new cousin.”


“Your Uncle Ronnie’s wife just had a little baby, Uncle Ronnie’s baby.” I turn away from Ted Baxter for a second. “His name is Jonathan. In Oklahoma,” she tells me, and gives my knee a happy squeeze under the blanket. Then we both go back to watching TV. Tonight she makes a giant pot of mashed potatoes. The mounds look like the snow I imagine Jake is sleeping in.

Sunday night his stamping feet wake me up as he comes in the front door. I run down the narrow staircase, afraid he’ll bark at me for being out of bed, but he is happy to see me and waves me down to sit with him.

“What happened, Jake?” I ask him. He is peeling off the same socks I know he put on Friday morning, except now the knitting has rubbed together from the snow and the wet and the walking. I stay a few feet away from him, even though I want to sit on his knee, but we don’t really touch in our family. Still, when he lifts his head I can’t stop myself from reaching out my hand.

“What’s that?” I ask. He has a line of red beard growing on his jaw.

“Oh,” he laughs, “I didn’t shave!”

“It’s red.”

“Yep,” Mom walks in with a plate of corned beef and potatoes for him. She smiles at the nascent beard.

“I like it.” she says.

“I like it too,” I say, tilting my head to see the prickly red hairs better.

“So what happened?” Mom asks. He lounges back on his hands, spreads out his legs in front of him like a boy on a lawn in summer.

“I started from T.I. Park, and walked west towards Bluff. The ice was pinging all around me.” He wiggles his shoulders and flares his eyes to let me know it was scary. “Then suddenly, I heard a cracking sound coming towards me.” He makes an amazing cracking sound with his mouth then pauses.

“What happened?” I manage to ask. He moves his shaggy face closer to mine.

“I fell right through the ice.” I gasp. People who fall through the ice, die. I imagine him sloshing in the freezing water, with the edges of ice crumbling as he struggles to get out.

“But there was another layer of ice underneath.”


“The water froze, then went down, and froze again. I was standing with ice up to my waist.” Now I have a new picture of him, his toboggan just behind him, unable to get out, this weird slashing layer of ice all around him, but not enough to hold him to get up on.

“How did you get out?”

“Milton Russo knew I was coming, and was out checking my route…”


“In a snow mobile ice boat thing. He came and pulled me out.” Now I can picture these local guys in their hardy river ice craft coming to check on the kooky professor, walking with his toboggan. He went on and stayed at Bluff that night, sleeping by the fire he made up in the dining room with the waterproof matches I watched him pack.

His new red beard fills out on his face, and soon his pictures of Bluff covered in huge drifts of snow come back from the photo lab. Proof that now my father is a true adventurer.


04 2010

Chapter 8 Fall, Syracuse

Instead of leaving the Island when the summer is over, we are able to keep going through the fall.

Now, every Friday, Jake comes and takes my little four-eyed face out of school early, and we pick up Mom and Rufus at home and drive as fast as we can, up Route 81, to exit 47. Then up 47, a country road really, past barns and cows and fields, to Clayton. After a quick stop at the Grand Union, we hurry to load the boat just as it’s getting dark. We make the scudding cold ride across the water through the autumn darkness, and a cold run up the dark path to where we huddle on the back porch, while Jake tries all his keys, until finally, he swings the door open and the cedar smell that makes us know we are in the right place welcomes us at last.

Mom turns on the space heater first, and starts to heat the skillet to make us hamburgers. I take my bag upstairs, padding gingerly through dark, cold rooms: dining room, living room, up the wide stairs, making a running stumble through my fear of the dark into my room, grabbing for the dangling string to turn on the light. There are omnipresent dead and dying flies buzzing their last buzz around the windows of my room, and they scare me. Everyone, including the bugs, is doing their best to outrun winter by running into our porous summerhouse. But really, none of us are ever properly prepared for the cold. We stop making the trip sometime in November, finally conceding the island to winter.

One weekend morning, back in Syracuse, we wake up and the air sounds different. We excitedly dress and run outside, and do our best to run through three feet of snow. In the cheap, flimsy boots Mom got for us at K-Mart, the snow stops us very quickly. It is a tantalizing winter playground and we are not prepared.

The next fall, when I am seven, and starting second grade, and after Jake has spent the summer talking to as many old locals he can find in Clayton about how the ice freezes, he comes home one afternoon with a box inside a bag.

“See,” he says, taking out a new pair of very sturdy looking leather boots lined in sheepskin.

“What are those for Jake?”

“For when I cross the ice, over to the Island.” He pulls out two pairs of new, very thick

wool socks.

“You’re going to cross the ice? From Clayton?”

“No, not Clayton, let me show you…” he leads me into the side room off the living room,

He pulls out charts of Bluff Island; he has been tracking different routes, marked with different broken lines.

“See, here, I can cross from Murray Island.” He shows me the route: –  –  –  –  -.

“And here, from T.I. Park.”  . _ . _ . _ . _ .

“How long is it going to take?”

“I’m going to drive up Friday night, then start out Saturday. I’ll spend Saturday night

at the Island, then come back Sunday morning.”

“Won’t the house be cold?” The electricity will be off and there’s no heat.

“I’ll build a fire.” He’s going to camp in our dining room.

“I want to come.” I tell him. He starts to laugh a little bit.

“It’s going to be very, very cold.” He says. But I don’t care; I want to be there with him.

“That’s okay, I’ll get some special boots too!” I know I’m tough, that I can make it

across the ice. He smiles and reaches up to a shelf above his desk.

“I was trying to save this for you for Christmas.” He pulls out a bag from the bookstore and hands it to me. I unwrap the book inside: it’s called The Call of the Wild, and there is a picture of a dog in the snow on the cover.

“Read that,” he tells me. “Then you’ll have a sense of it.” I resolve to learn everything I can to make sure he’ll be safe, whether I’m there or not.

I am embarking on my own adventurous mission this year that I believe will help me with my four-eyes problem—I join the Brownies. Mom, with Rufus in tow, takes me downtown on the bus (because she doesn’t drive) and we go to the Scout store where she buys me a Brownie uniform, which includes a brown belted shirt dress, a Brownie beanie, an orange tie, and my favorite, bright orange garters to hold up brown knee socks.

“Do you have to get all of that, Stephie?”

“Yes mom, otherwise I won’t be official.” I can tell Mom thinks it’s too much money. She makes it very clear. But I am grateful. Because of the Brownies, I will have my first new clothes since I can remember. Usually when we shop for clothes we go to the thrift store. For sneakers and underpants, which are the only things I get new, we go once a year to the K-mart basement, where I cry with frustration at having to choose the one pair of stinky plastic sneakers I will be teased about all year. I know I never have the right clothes. I know I look poorer even than the single-mom kids and the bus kids.

The Nottingham Thrift Shop is just a block from where we live.

“Here, try this on, see if this fits,” she hands me a pretty coat, grey and blue herringbone with a velvet collar. The thrift store is in a basement, just below the Nottingham Children’s Shop upstairs, a store I have never been in. I try to squeeze into the coat; I want it to fit too.

“Mom, can we go upstairs?”

“No. That place is too expensive,” she says. And that is why I love the Brownies so much. For one day a week, Tuesday, because of the Brownies, I can wear sharp new clothes that fit me, that are like clothes other girls wear. I have a chance with this group, because they aren’t the mean girls. But it’s still not easy, because I just don’t have any practice talking to other girls. It doesn’t matter much, because the troop leaders run the Brownie meetings like a class where they spend a lot of time talking about when we’ll get to spend a Saturday night at the local Scout Camp. Mom and Rufus walk me home after my third Brownie meeting. I am disappointed because we never go outside, which seems like an important part of being a Brownie. When we get home, Mom asks me what she always asks me if I am upset.

“You want a snack?”

“Yes, please.” My mother makes the best cinnamon toast. She slathers the bread with

butter, then covers it with sugar and cinnamon mixed together, and puts it under the broiler so the sugar makes a crust. I’m excited because she has pulled out twelve slices of bread to start. I watch the sugar bubble up under the broiler.

“Your show is on!”  I run to watch my beloved Bewitched reruns. Soon Mom comes

out with two slices of cinnamon toast.

“Where’s the rest?” I ask her.

“Well, I had one, and I gave one to Rufus…” It’s a commercial, so I get up to look in the

kitchen for more toast. There isn’t any there. The commercial is ending, and I sit back down with what toast she has given me.

“Oh, here.” I pull the permission slip for the Brownie camping trip out of my pocket and

hand it to her.


04 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

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