Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

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

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