With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Last winter started out really bad. The Buffalo Bills went to their first Super Bowl and lost to the New York Giants. For Valentine’s Day, Margaret Trafalcanti took me into the coat closet at school and let me kiss her on the lips and the throat and put my hand on her hip, but then she didn’t talk to me for the rest of the year. Also in February an owl nested in the tall white pine in my backyard for about a week, but then a bunch of crows, which I later found out is called a “murder,” chased it away. They heckled that owl for days, and one night at dusk there were just too many of them diving at the owl, one after another, and the owl headed out toward the river, and I never saw it again.
Probably the worst thing that happened, though, was that my father stopped calling every Sunday and started calling only like once a month, and my mother started dating this awful man named Kevin, who lived in an apartment forty minutes away in Batavia, New York, where he worked in a prison. He drove a green van with a bad muffler and wore an earring in his left ear. When my father did call, he would ask, “What’s new with your mother and that idiot?” I don’t usually like that sort of negative talk, but I also didn’t like Kevin very much, so I would kind of laugh at my dad’s joke.
Kevin would stay over at our house in Rochester on the weekends, so on Saturdays I tried to stay gone all day. One Saturday morning at the end of February I woke up early and went upstairs and quietly opened my mother’s bedroom door. Kevin had a drool stain under his mouth, and my mother looked fake and mean under her quilt. It hurt me that she would let this man into our house and sleep with him in her bed. It’s not that I was in love with my mother or anything. It’s just that I had once loved her completely, and now I had reasons not to, Kevin being the biggest one.
Somehow she must have felt my presence in the room, because she opened her eyes and looked at me. She seemed confused at first, and then I could see her tense up.
“What are you doing, Whit?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” I said, not whispering, but just talking in my normal voice. The room smelled like sleep and stale wine, which was upsetting to me.
“What are you doing in here?” she asked. She was looking at Kevin when she said it, afraid we would wake him.
“Nothing,” I said again.
“Why don’t you go downstairs,” she said.
“Why don’t you shut up,” I said, and I walked out.
I suppose it was an immature thing to say, but I didn’t have the words to tell her how I really felt, which was left out and alone. I did go downstairs, and I went into the pockets of Kevin’s leather jacket and took his pack of mentholated cigarettes. Then I bundled up against the snow in duck boots and a red wool hunting jacket that had belonged to my grandfather, and I went out to the garage and got my father’s old ice-fishing equipment and put it in a duffel bag. I took a lawn chair down from a peg on the wall and unfolded it in the driveway, and I sat and smoked one of Kevin’s cigarettes while looking up at the bathroom window and waiting for my mother to appear. Before finishing the smoke, I took an old hockey stick from the garage and, squinting with the cigarette between my teeth, broke some of the icicles that hung down from the gutters. I made a lot of noise about it. After every swing of the stick, I looked up at the window, thinking my mother would open it and yell at me, but she never did.
I finally got bored and walked up the street and across Lake Avenue to the Blessed Sacrament Church, where the Knights of Columbus ran a weekend bowling league for neighborhood kids. I went into the basement of the church hall, which smelled of popcorn and cigarettes and beer from the bingo games they held at night. Margaret Trafalcanti was there, talking to her girlfriends. Margaret was a good bowler. I wasn’t. In fact, I rarely broke a hundred. I sat down on a metal folding chair, which felt cold even through my jeans and long johns. I dug some sneakers out of the duffel bag full of fishing equipment and changed out of my boots. The heat clicked on along the baseboards, and the Knights of Columbus stood around drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups while the basement warmed up.
My friend Frank sat down next to me. Frank’s mother was thin and pretty, and his father was a lawyer or a businessman or something, and they lived in an old mansion on the lake. I really wanted Frank to like me, but I couldn’t tell if he did or not. He had a lot of friends.
“Hi, Frank,” I said.
“I brought the fishing gear.”
“It’s pretty cold out,” Frank said and wiped his eyes.
“You’ll like it,” I said. “You’ll see.”
“OK,” Frank said, but it was kind of awkward.
Suddenly I didn’t feel like bowling. “I don’t think I’m even going to bowl today,” I said. “My hand hurts. I’m just going to watch.” And I sat there and watched the other kids bowl and thought about my mother and what I would say to her when I got home.
My mother and I live on Canal Street in Bull’s Head, about four blocks from Lake Ontario. Bull’s Head is a blue-collar neighborhood, except for all the fancy houses that run along the shoreline on Beach Avenue, where Frank lives. My father used to live with us, but he moved to Texas after he and my mother separated. They’ve never bothered to get a divorce.
My father let me visit him once after he first moved to Texas. I had to take a cheap flight that went to Philadelphia, then Memphis, then Dallas–Fort Worth, and finally Amarillo, where my father picked me up and drove me to the house he was renting in Lubbock. Since I’d last seen him, he’d begun biting his nails, which made me uncomfortable. His cousin had gotten him a job as a night janitor at Texas Tech. The whole visit my dad asked questions about my mother, like “How much would you say your mother weighs now?” and “What does she see in that guy?” He asked what color her hair was and how many nights a week she went out and what hours she was working. I tried to shrug off his questions, because answering them would have felt sort of like a betrayal.
I was in Texas for six days. At night I was alone in the spooky rental house while my father was at work, and I was too scared to sleep much. During the day I was just kind of bored. On the second-to-last day, my father drove me out to this empty lot he had bought on the outskirts of Lubbock and made me help him plant a grove of black-walnut trees. It was hard work, but my father said that in thirty years the lumber would be worth half a million dollars. It’s going to be his retirement fund. I didn’t say anything, and to be fair I don’t really know much about black walnuts, but the little trees didn’t look too promising. The lot seemed windy and hot and dry and gravelly, and the saplings looked sad and lonely, their leaves beginning to wilt before we had even finished getting the grove planted. There was a pawnshop across the street and a boarded-up record store with a mural of Buddy Holly painted on the side.
On the way to the airport on the last day, my father swerved to miss an armadillo, but he couldn’t avoid it. He made me get out and watch while he stepped on its head and killed it. “Got to put it out of its misery, Whit,” he said. I gagged.
I hated that trip, but I used to think about it all the time. Sometimes I dreamed of Texas, and I’d see that armadillo. In the dream it was still alive, and it would put its face close to mine and try to speak, but I could never make out the words.
After bowling, Frank and I bought bait from a vending machine outside a corner store on Lake Avenue, and then we cut through the cemetery behind JFK Towers on River Street and tramped down through the woods toward the river. There were some trees there that I thought might be black walnuts, strong and tall and beautiful. I took my glove off and touched one.
The elevators of the cement plant towered over the riverbank. They looked like old grain elevators, and the sky behind them was a wintry shade of purple-gray. Frank and I had to crawl through a hole in the fence to get to the best fishing spot, where the panfish were attracted to the warm wastewater that ran out of the cement plant. I opened the duffel bag and took out an ice auger and a chisel. There were already holes in the ice about ten feet from the bank, so I walked toward them. The ice creaked and whined underfoot.
“Is this dangerous?” Frank asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “See those holes? Somebody was here earlier this morning. We just have to poke through.”
“We should have brought skates,” Frank said.
Frank and I used to play on the same hockey team, but I had to quit when my father moved away, because we couldn’t afford it anymore. I took an ice dipper and tapped through the new ice in two of the holes and then scooped out the shavings. Then I dropped some of the mealworms into the hole and lay down over it and put my hood up to block out the sunlight. After my eyes got used to the dark, I could see the white worms float down and settle to the bottom. Some little sunfish gathered around the worms and stared at them. I stood up, took my coat off, and handed it to Frank.
“You try it with my hood,” I said.
Frank lay down over the hole and looked in.
“I see a perch, Whit,” he said, but I doubted he knew what one looked like.
While Frank peered into the hole, I baited the jigger rods. Dead, faded cattails stuck out from the ice along the shore, and downriver the blue bow of a sunken sailboat pointed at the sky, which had turned white from snow clouds rolling in off the lake.
“Last winter,” I said, “I saw a giant cluster of red newts mating under the ice.”
“Really?” Frank said.
I was very proud of the sighting, because afterward I’d gone to the library and read about it and found out that mating clusters were quite rare. You could go your whole life and not see one.
“It gave me an erection,” I said.
Frank countered with a story about how his doctor was a woman, and once he had gotten an erection during a checkup, and the doctor had struck it with a pencil and made it go away.
We found an empty beer box and used it to start a fire, burning some sticks that Frank had gathered in the woods. The sticks were wet, though, so the fire was smoky. We sat with our lines in the water and watched the fire.
“Why do you think Jesus chose fishermen to be his disciples?” Frank asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because a fisherman is a good thing to be.”
Frank talked about a piece he was learning on the piano, and I tried to pay attention, but it was boring to me.
“Sometimes I dream about it,” Frank said. “Like, how to hold my hands and stuff. Or I dream I’m in a concert, playing something that no one’s ever heard before, and some of the people in the audience are crying.”
I told him about my armadillo dream, and Frank said that it was probably a bad omen.
“My sister studies dreams,” he said. “She has a book. I’ll look up armadillos.”
Frank got a couple of bites, but the fish kept getting away, because he was doing it wrong. I sat behind him and wrapped my legs around him so that we could both hold the jig, and I taught him how to set the hook.
“Close your eyes,” I said, looking into his ear, which was clean and red. “Now tilt the tip of the rod up so that the line’s taut, and you can feel the softest touch on your bait.”
The two of us sat there like that for what felt like a long time. I sort of wanted to rest my chin on Frank’s shoulder, but I was afraid of what he might say. Then we got a hit, and I showed him how to pull up on the line, quick but smooth, and set the hook in the fish’s mouth. It was a good-sized perch, and we put it in the snow to look at it. Its scales were golden and green with beautiful black markings that reminded me of the shadows that the sun makes when it shines through leaves onto a creek in the summer.
“Let’s put it back,” Frank said.
“No,” I said, and I struck the fish in the head with the butt of a broken hockey stick that I kept in the duffel bag. The fish strained and quivered and died. We caught two sunfish and another perch as the white sky faded to a blue-gray color, and the shadows grew deep along the riverbank.
“Let’s go back to my house,” I said. “We can fry the fish with bacon and make toast. Then we can smoke cigarettes in the garage.” I wrapped the fish up in newspaper and put them in the duffel bag while Frank put out the fire. The ice whined under us, and a low pop sounded from downriver. Out in the middle of the river, a steady flow of brown water headed for the lake.
When we got back to my house on Canal Street, I was relieved to see that Kevin’s van was no longer in the driveway. Ice crunched underfoot as we climbed the walk to the front door, which was locked. I tried the side door — also locked. I dug my keys out of the duffel bag, but my mother had put on the deadbolt, which I didn’t have a key for. Frank sat in the driveway and unfolded the newspaper and examined one of the sunfish while I tried to jimmy a couple of the windows. I thought about yelling for my mother to let me in, but I decided not to; I didn’t want to give the neighbors anything else to talk about.
“We’re going to have to break in,” Frank said.
“The windows on the second floor are probably unlocked,” I said. “Sometimes I smoke in the bathroom with the window open.”
Frank, who was as tall and strong as a man, bent over next to the garage, and I climbed onto his shoulders. He straightened up and swayed a little before he found his balance. I put my hands on the gutter overhead and stood up on Frank’s shoulders.
“Hurry up, Whit,” he said. “You’re hurting me.”
I pulled myself onto the roof and lay down on it, afraid I would slip on the snow and ice. My neighbor Antonio was walking his dog, and he stopped to watch us from the sidewalk. Antonio was a fifty-year-old bachelor and a deacon at Blessed Sacrament, but he wanted everyone to think he was a priest and even dressed up in the collar and everything.
“What are you boys doing there?” Antonio asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Frank giggled at this exchange, which bothered me. It was easy for him to laugh at the antics on Canal Street. I suddenly resented his fancy house on the beach and his piano lessons, and I thought about what it might be like to punch him in the mouth.
Antonio walked away. Stars were starting to shine in the east, and I could make out Orion’s belt turned on its side. I let my body relax and listened to my breathing go in and out, in and out. Then, while Frank watched from below, I inched my way over to where the garage roof met the house and pushed up on the bathroom window, but it was also locked.
“Maybe we should go to my house,” Frank said.
“No, I can’t.” I slipped my glove off and tapped on the glass. “Ma?” I said. “Ma, it’s Whitney. Let me in, please.” After a minute or two I heard the window lock click, but I couldn’t see anything, because the glass was all fogged up. My mother opened the window a crack and peeked out at me. Then she opened it all the way. She was completely naked and bathed in the glow of the streetlight.
A gust of heat surrounded me as I pulled myself in and dropped onto the bathroom floor. I could hear my mother padding down the hallway. I took off my other glove and rubbed my hands together and blew on them. They hurt from the cold. Then I took off my boots and walked down the hall. The door to my mother’s bedroom was open, and the air reeked of her perfume and the cigarettes she bought in bulk at the Seneca Indian reservation. The bed was unmade, and a man’s brown sock lay in the middle of the floor. The sight of the sock made me feel disgusted and angry and embarrassed. I wondered how one sock could do all that.
“Ma?” I said.
She was still naked and looking at herself in the full-length mirror on the inside of her closet door. One morning, when I was small, I had gone into my parents’ bedroom and seen my mother’s bare bottom before she covered herself with a quilt. But now I could see all of her: her wide, rounded hips; the fullness of her breasts, which looked blue in the faded winter light; and the dark mound of her pubic hair. What alarmed me, though, was her face in the mirror, which looked frightened and hopeless. On the dresser, a cigarette burned in an ashtray I had made for her in the fourth grade.
“Where’s Kevin?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He left.” She looked away from the mirror and into my eyes. “Do you think I’m fat?” she said.
“No, Ma,” I said immediately, “you’re not fat,” although, in truth, my mother was about forty pounds overweight. She reminded me of these red moons we sometimes get over the lake — all full and red. They’re beautiful, but also huge and sad, and it breaks your heart to look at them.
“Thanks, Whitney,” she said.
My mother put on her bathrobe, and I went outside and told Frank he had to go home. “Was that your mother?” he asked. “I saw her tits.” I took the fish from him and slammed the door in his face.
I cooked the perch with bacon, and my mother ate Frank’s half of the catch. I wasn’t sure what had happened between her and Kevin, but I could tell that she had already forgotten about me telling her to shut up that morning. Twice while we ate she got up and looked out the front windows.
“What are you looking for, Ma?” I asked the second time.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just looking.”
She decided she wanted a beer, so I went and got some from the basement. I felt kind of like my mother’s nurse or something. My mother drank three cans of beer while we watched the six o’clock news. I remember she lined the empties up in a little row at her feet in the blue glow of the television set. We didn’t speak, but after the third beer I could see her body relax, and she even smiled at one of the commercials. Then we watched a tape of The Sound of Music, which was one of my mother’s favorite movies. It was a strange night, but good in the end, because the von Trapps escaped despite all the odds against them, and that’s kind of what I wanted for my mother and me.