Authors: Eleanor Henderson
Ten Thousand Saints
EpigraphBehold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints,To execute judgment upon all.
—THE BOOK OF JUDE
About the Author
About the Publisher
Is itdreamed?” Jude asked Teddy. “Ordreamt?”
Beneath the stadium seats of the football field, on the last morning of 1987 and the last morning of Teddy’s life, the two boys lay side by side, a pair of snow angels bundled in thrift-store parkas. If you were to spy them from above, between the slats of the bleachers—or smoking behind the school gym, or sliding their skateboards down the stone wall by the lake—you might confuse one for the other. But Teddy was the dark-haired one, Jude the redhead. Teddy wore opalescent, fat-tongued Air Jordans, both toes bandaged with duct tape, and dangling from a cord around his neck, a New York City subway token, like a golden quarter. Jude was the one in Converse high-tops, the stars Magic Markered into pentagrams, and he wore his red hair in a devil lock—short in the back and long in the front, in a fin that sliced between his eyes to his chin. Unless you’d heard of the Misfits, not the Marilyn Monroe movie but the horror-rock/glam-punk band, and if you were living in Lintonburg, Vermont, in 1987, you probably hadn’t, you’d never seen anything like it.
“Either,” said Teddy.
They were celebrating Jude’s sixteenth birthday with the dregs of last night’s bowl. Jude leaned over and tapped the crushed soda can against Teddy’s elbow, and Teddy sat up to take his turn. His eyes were glassy, and a maple leaf, brittle and threadbare from its months spent under the snow, clung to his hair. Since Jude had known him Teddy had worn an immense pair of bronze frames with lenses as thick as windowpanes and, for good measure, a second bar across the top. But last week Teddy had spent all his savings on a pair of contact lenses, and now Jude thought he looked mole-eyed and barefaced, exposed, as Jude’s father had the time he’d made the mistake of shaving his beard.
With one hand Teddy balanced the bud on the indentation of the can, over the perforations Jude had made with a paper clip, lit it with the other, and like a player of some barnyard instrument, he put his lips to the mouth of the can and inhaled. Across his face, across the shadowed expanse of snow-stubbled grass, bars of sunlight brightened and then paled. “It’s done,” he announced and tossed the can aside.
Bodies had begun to fill the grandstand above, galoshes and duck boots filing cautiously down the rows, families of anoraks eclipsing the meager sun. Jude could hear the patter of their voices, the faraway din of a sound system testing, testing, the players cleating through the grass, praying away the snow. Standing on his wobbly legs, Jude examined their cave. They were fenced in on all sides—the seats overhead, the football field in front, a concrete wall behind them. Above the wall, however, was a person-size perimeter of open space, through which Teddy and Jude had climbed not long before, first launching their skateboards in ahead of them, then scaling the scaffolding on the outside, then tumbling over the wall, catlike, ten feet into the dirt. They’d done it twenty times before, but never while people were in the stadium—they’d managed to abstain from their town’s tepid faith in its Division III college football team; they abstained from all things football, and all things college. They hadn’t expected there to be a game on New Year’s Eve.
Now Jude paced under the seats and stopped five or six rows from the front. Above him, hanging from the edge of one of the seats, was a pair of blue-jeaned legs. A girl. Jude could see the dirty heels of her tennis shoes, but not much else. He reached up, the frozen fingers through his fingerless gloves inches away from her foot, but instead of enclosing them around the delicate bones of her ankle, he lifted the yellow umbrella at her feet. He slid it without a sound across the concrete and down into his arms.
“What are you doing?” whispered Teddy, suddenly at Jude’s elbow. “Why are we stealing an umbrella?”
Jude sprung it open and looked it over. “It’s not the umbrella we’re stealing,” he whispered back, closing it. Walking into the shadows a few rows back, he held it over his head, curved handle up, like a hook. In the bleachers above, there were purses between feet, saving seats, unguarded, alone, and inside, wallets fat with cash. Teddy and Jude had no money and no pot and, since this morning, nothing to smoke it out of but an empty can of Orange Slice.
Last night they’d shared a jug of Carlo Rossi and the pot they’d found in the glove box of Teddy’s mom’s car, while they listened to Metallica’s first album,Kill ’Em All,which skipped, and to Teddy’s mom, Queen Bea, who had her own stash of booze, getting sick in the bathroom, retch, flush, retch, flush. Around midnight, they’d taken what was left of the pot and skated to Jude’s to get some sleep, but in their daze had left Jude’s bong behind. When they returned to Teddy’s in the morning (this was the rhythm of their days, three rights and a left to Teddy’s, a right and three lefts to Jude’s), the bong—the color-changing Pyrex bong Jude’s mother had given Jude that morning as an early birthday gift—was gone. So were Queen Bea’s clothes, her car, her toothbrush, her sheets. Jude and Teddy wandered the house, flipping switches. The lights didn’t work; nothing hummed or blinked. The house was frozen with an unnatural stillness. Jude, shivering, found a candle and lit it. When Teddy opened the liquor cabinet, it was also empty—this was the final, irrefutable clue—except for a bottle of Liquid-Plumr and a film of dust, in which Teddy wrote with a finger,fuck.
Beatrice McNicholas had run away a few times before. She’d go out for a six-pack and come home a week later, with a new haircut and old promises. (She was no nester or nurturer; she was Queen Bea for her royal size.) But she’d never taken her liquor with her, or anything of Teddy and Jude’s.
The boys had stolen enough from her over the years to call it even. Five-dollar bills, maybe tens, that Queen Bea would be too drunk to miss in the morning, liquor, cigarettes. She was the kind of unsystematic drunk whose hiding places changed routinely but remained routinely unimaginative—ten minutes of hunting through closets and drawers (she cleaned other people’s houses, but her own was a sty) could almost always turn up something. Pot was more difficult to find at Jude’s house—his mom’s hippie habits were somewhat reformed, and though she condoned Jude’s experimentation (an appreciation for a good bong was just about all Harriet and Jude had in common), occasional flashes of parental guilt drove her to hide her contraband in snug and impenetrable places that recalled Russian nesting dolls. In Harriet’s studio, Jude had once found a Ziploc of pot inside a bag of Ricola cough drops inside a jumbo box of tampons inside a toolbox. While Queen Bea seemed only mildly aware that teenagers lived in her midst, sweeping them off her porch like stray cats, Harriet had a sharp eye, a peripheral third lens in her bifocals that was always ready to probe the threat of fast-fingered boys. So Jude and Teddy stole what was around: a roll of quarters from her dresser, the box of chocolates Jude’s sister, Prudence, had given her for Mother’s Day. They took more pleasure in what they stole out in the world: magazines and beer from Shop Smart (Shop Fart), video game cartridges from Sears (Queers), and cassettes from the Record Room, where Kram O’Connor and Clarence Delph worked. And half the items in Jude’s possession—clothes, records, homework—were stolen, without discretion, from Teddy.
But this bold-faced thievery beneath the bleachers embarrassed Teddy. It was so obvious, so doomed to failure. Sometimes Teddy thought that was the prize Jude wanted—not the money or the beer or the cigarettes but the confrontation, the pleasure of testing the limits. Jude was standing on tiptoe, umbrella still raised like a torch, eyeing the spilled contents of a lady’s bag. His tongue, molluscan and veined with blue, was wedged in concentration in the cleft under his nose.
“Hey,” said someone.
Teddy tried to stand very still.
A pair of eyes, upside-down, was framed between the seats above them. It took Teddy a few seconds to grasp their orientation—the girl was leaning over, her head draped over the ledge. “What are you doing?” she said.
Jude smiled up at her. “You dropped your umbrella.”
“No, I didn’t.” The girl had her hands cupped around her eyes now, staring down into the dark. No one else seemed to notice.
“It fell,” Jude insisted, hoisting the umbrella up to the girl, his arm outstretched, letting it tickle one of her fingers.
“Just give it back,” said Teddy. It was the way Jude always made him feel—tangled up in some stupid, trivial danger. Teddy closed his eyes. He didn’t have time to mess around; his mother was gone. He needed money, more money than Jude could pickpocket with an umbrella. His body clenched with his last memory of her—the acrid, scotchy stink of her vomit through the bathroom door; the blathering hiccups of her sobs. Had she been crying because she was leaving, or just because she was wasted?
Then the umbrella, the pointy part, speared him in the gut.
“Ow, man.” Teddy opened his eyes.
“You were supposed to catch it,” said Jude.
Teddy looked up into the bleachers. The girl was gone. But a moment later, a pair of blue-jeaned legs appeared over the wall behind them.
They watched as the girl jumped from the ledge, her jacket parachuting as she plummeted. She landed feetfirst and fell forward to catch her balance, then strutted a slow-motion, runway strut in their direction. She stopped a car length away and stood with her hands on her hips, inspecting them. Her eyes were shining with disdain.
If you were a girl, Jude Keffy-Horn was a person you looked at, hard, and then didn’t look at again. His blue eyes, set wide apart, watched the world from under hooded lids, weighed down by distrust, THC, and a deep, hormonal languor. A passing stranger would not have guessed them to be the eyes of a hyperactive teenager with attention deficit disorder, but his mouth, which rarely rested, betrayed him. He was thin in the lip, fairly broad in the forehead, tall and flat in the space between mouth and upturned nose, the whole plane of his face scattered with freckles usurped daily by a lavender brand of acne. He wore not one but two retainers. He wasn’t tall, but he was built like a tall person, with skinny arms and legs and big knees and elbows that knocked around when he walked. He wasn’t bad-looking. He was good-looking enough. He was the kid whose name you knew only because the teacher kept calling it.Jude.Jude.Mr. Keffy-Horn, is that a cigarette you’re rolling?
Teddy shared Jude’s uniform, his half-swallowed smirk, but due to the blood of his Indian father (Queen Bea was purebred white trash), his hair was the blue-black of comic book villains, his complexion as dark and smooth as a brown eggshell. By the population of Ira Allen High School he was rumored halfheartedly to be Jewish, Arab, Mexican, Greek, and most often, simply “Spanish.” When Jude had asked, Teddy had told him “Indian,” then quipped, nearly indiscernibly, for he was a mumbler, “Gandhi, not Geronimo.” With everyone else, though, he preferred to allow his identity to flourish in the shadowed domain of myth. Teddy’s eyelashes were long, like the bristles of a paintbrush; through his right eyebrow was an ashen scar from the time he’d spilled off his skateboard at age ten. Then his face had been cherubic; now, at fifteen, it had sloughed off the baby fat and gone angular as a paper airplane. He had a delicate frame; he had an Adam’s apple like a brass knuckle; he had things up the sleeve of that too-big coat—a Chinese star, the wire of a Walkman, a cigarette for after class, which he was always more careful than Jude to conceal.
What’s that kid up to?
That was the way the girl was looking at both of them now, under the bleachers. “What are you people doing down here?”
Jude stabbed the umbrella into the ground. “Hanging out.”
“Are you smoking marijuana?”
“You can’t smell it,” Jude said. “We’re out in the open.”
“Can I have my umbrella, please?”
“Why? It’s not raining.”
“It’s supposed to snow, for your information.”
“Oh, for my information, okay. It’s a snow umbrella.” Now he was pretending that the umbrella was a gun. He held it cocked at his hip, the metal tip against his cheek, ready to shoot around a corner.
“Jude,” Teddy said. “Over here.”
He clapped his hands, and Jude obediently, joyfully tossed him the umbrella.
“Motherfucking monkey in the middle!” said Jude.
Teddy walked three paces toward the girl, head down, and returned it to her.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Brit?” In the bleachers above, two more girls were peering down at them. They never came alone, girls; they always came in packs. “What are you doing?”
“I’ll be right there!” A moment later, she was gone.
“Brit theshit,” Jude said, but Teddy didn’t say anything.
Jude Keffy-Horn, adopted by Lester Keffy and Harriet Horn of Lintonburg, Vermont, met Teddy McNicholas on the second day of seventh grade, in 1984. Teddy had moved there with his half brother, Johnny, and their mother from Plattsburgh, New York, across Lake Champlain. After school, Jude showed Teddy how to smoke a joint in a gas station parking lot, in the backseat of Teddy’s mom’s Plymouth Horizon, while she shopped for groceries inside. That Jude, not Johnny, or even Queen Bea herself, had managed to pioneer the first hallucinogenic experience of the person who would become his closest and really only friend made Jude happy. He didn’t have much to be proud of, but he was good at sharing new and forgotten methods of getting high.
It was one of the few talents passed down from his father, who, before leaving for New York when Jude was nine, had grown several generations ofCannabis sativain their greenhouse. Les had a year of college at Vermont State, one fewer than Harriet, followed by fifteen as a lab assistant in the botany department, a position that largely entailed mating strands of Holland’s Hope with Skunk #1, which he offered at a deep discount to the department. Although Jude had been too young to apprentice, he’d observed the objects of his father’s hydroponic ventures—Styrofoam, milk jugs, a fish tank pump—with reverence. He’d admired his father’s self-reliance, and he’d learned early that, even in a nothing town like Lintonburg, Vermont, you could find fun with a little imagination and care. With Teddy, he’d imbibed NyQuil and Listerine; tripped on dairy farm mushrooms; huffed gas, glue, and Jude’s sister’s nail polish remover; brewed beer in Queen Bea’s bathtub; and during a period when they were watching a lot ofMr. Wizard’s World,built a bong out of a garden hose and a coffee urn. Jude liked fucking Teddy up. He liked the dumb, happy look he got on his face, one eye roving, then the other, toward some distant, invisible moon.
Next year, Jude and Teddy were going to New York. Teddy’s half brother, Johnny, lived there, too. They’d had $140 saved up in an empty pack of smokes until a couple of weeks ago, when they used it to buy some pot from Delph and the contact lenses for Teddy and two mail-order Misfits T-shirts. But when they saved some more money and when they were both old enough to drop out (Teddy would be sixteen in May), they were going to buy bus tickets to Port Authority and stay with Johnny until they could find a place of their own.
Johnny was eighteen now, and Jude’s memories of him were obscured by the scrim of vodka he and Teddy would sneak from Johnny’s He-Man thermos. Johnny would skip school on Ozzy Osbourne’s birthday and grew his blond hair down to his ass. He’d keep notebooks full of drawings shelved in his closet, full of superhero chicks and space-age cars and guys with thighs muscled like Rottweilers. He spent a lot of time chasing the boys out of the room he shared with Teddy, but he taught them both how to play guitar, and even let them play in his band, with Delph on bass and Kram on drums, Teddy and Jude sharing one untuned, spray-painted guitar, Johnny playing another, singing without a microphone. Everyone huddled on Queen Bea’s front porch in their hooded sweatshirts and black jeans, bodies chattering in the cold. Jude’s fourteen-year-old fingers stretched into cramps, frozen as wood, trying to follow Johnny’s through Hendrix’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On Johnny’s mismatched stereo, they’d play their stolen tapes—hard rock, heavy metal, hair metal, black metal, death metal, thrash metal, metalcore, hardcore, grindcore, punk—Black Sabbath and Whitesnake and Black Flag—and then methodically, with ears tilted to the speakers, they’d copy them. They dragged out the old orange extension cord and chugged away on Johnny’s practice amp, decorated with Metallica stickers and glow-in-the-dark stars. They were Demon Semen, Baptism of Jism, the Deadbeats, the Posers, and finally the Bastards, which most of them were, more or less.
That was two years ago. Then Johnny turned sixteen, quit school, and left for New York with his pockets full of snow-shoveling money and two guitar cases, his guitar in one of them and his clothes in the other, to live with his father, who it turned out wasn’t dead after all, and maybe Teddy’s wasn’t either. Turned out Queen Bea was maybe a big fat liar.
Teddy and Jude, on the other hand, were going to New York to start a band, and to get fucked, and to get the fuck out of Vermont, not to find their long-lost dads. Jude wasn’t even going to tell his dad he was coming. He wasn’t even going to look him up in the phone book. If he ran into him on the subway, he’d be like, Hey, how’s it going, you fucking chump? Okay, see you around.
Lintonburg, Vermont, in 1987 was not a place of surprises. There was the second-run theater, the rec center, Wayne’s Billiards. There was the Tap House, the jock bar, and Jacque’s (Birkenjacque’s), the hippie bar. There was the drive-thru creemee place, the pawnshop-music-store, and Champlain Park, where when you skipped school you could hide in the construction tunnels and smoke up, and there was decent skating at the university if you didn’t get kicked off campus. There was enough to do so that you didn’t necessarily want to put a hole in your head. It was the biggest city in Vermont, and this fact was reflected with smugness in the busy gait of its residents down Ash Street, the brick-paved pedestrian mall; in their efficient street plowing; in their towering thermoses of coffee; in the dexterous maneuvering of their four-wheel-drive station wagons and their one or two tasteful bumper stickers:BERNIE;GREEN UP;I L♥VERMONT. Lintonburg’s relatively metropolitan status confused but did not ease the state of small-town disgruntlement that Teddy and Jude had perfected. There was, finally, the Ash Street Mall (the Ass Street Mall), where after leaving their post under the bleachers and skating down the hill through the bitter, lake-blown wind, they came across Jude’s mother. She was sitting on a stool next to the entrance, smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback. Beside her was a table disguised by an Indian print tapestry and cluttered with glass ashtrays, vases, pitchers, bowls, in blues and sea greens and swirled, psychedelic pinks. Harriet’s single professional fixture was a wooden sign, propped up against a set of mugs, that readHARRIET HORN HANDBLOWN GLASS.
No sign hung over the door of the greenhouse in their yard, where Harriet blew her glass and where she sold her bongs and pipes, the items that paid the bills, the items she couldn’t sell on the street and had to hawk at summer music festivals on far-flung farms, Jude and his sister, Prudence, trailing behind her with baskets of pipes over their arms. Her studio didn’t need a sign—people knew where to find her, just as they knew where to find the guy they called Hippie, who cruised town on his ten-speed bike and sold pot out of his fanny pack. They’d knock on the greenhouse door and she’d remove her safety glasses and happily make her exchange. Harriet Horn, the Glass Lady. “She can handblow me anytime,” Delph had said more than once, not because Harriet was all that fetching but because she was, to other people—especially to Teddy—cool. Now the word fumbled in Jude’s head—handblow, glandbow, land ho!He was vaguely dyslexic, messed up his letters even when he wasn’t high.
“I don’t have any money, birthday boy,” Harriet said. She removed her glasses—enormous, tortoiseshell, spotted with fingerprints—and let them hang on their chain of plastic beads. With the tobacco-stained fingers of her wool gloves, she dog-eared her place in the book and placed it on her lap. Jude felt his buzz die a quick and common death.
“You haven’t made any money today?” Teddy asked, sympathizing. He picked up a salad bowl and smoothed his palm over the inside of it. “This is really cold.”
“Not enough money,” Harriet said, gently taking the bowl back from Teddy. She was protective of her glass.
“Ma, not even like ten bucks?”
“And what do I get? A hug?”
When Jude refused, Teddy leaned cooperatively into Harriet’s coat. For this, Harriet produced two wrinkled dollar bills from her apron pocket. Jude paddled his skateboard over to the table and covered up theGandLof the sign so it saidHANDBLOWN ASS. “Look, Ted.”
Teddy looked and nodded. He’d seen Jude do it before.
“You take your medicine, Jude?” Harriet asked.
“You mean pot? Yeah, but we need more.”
“Jude. You didn’t take it?”
“I did,” Jude said, although he hadn’t. For several weeks he’d been selling his Ritalin pills for a dollar a pop to a kid in his homeroom named Frederick Watt, who liked to take them before tests. A few times Jude and Teddy had taken a bunch at once and wigged out a little, but it was no fun doing drugs you were supposed to do. Jude was too old for Ritalin. He preferred mellower means of controlling his temperament, and his fingers itched for a joint. “Come on, Ma, I need more than two dollars.”
“I believe you already got your birthday gift, fella.”
“Yeah, well, somethinghappenedto it already.”
Teddy shot Jude a look.
“What happened to it?” Harriet asked.
“Nothing,” Teddy said. “He just lent it to someone.”
“Who’d you lend it to?”
“We’ll get it back,” Teddy said. Quickly he and Jude exchanged a silent, reflexive pact. “It’s just temporary.”
“It better be,” Harriet said, picking up her burning cigarette, which she’d propped in one of the ashtrays. “I spent a long time on that.” She expelled a lungful of smoke and shook her cigarette at him, remembering something. “Your father called again. Eliza will be here at six-oh-five. She’s taking a different train. Still staying till midnight, I think.”
“Who’s Eliza?” Teddy asked.
Jude thwacked him on the sleeve. “Eliza? The chick who’s hanging out with us tonight?”
“His father’s girlfriend’s daughter,” said Harriet, crossing her legs.“Eliza Urbanski.”
In the seven years since Les had left their family, Jude and Prudence hadn’t laid eyes on him. His calls and cards came once or twice a year, cash less, although not because, as far as Jude knew, he didn’t have it—he paid his child support on time, regular as rent. The last birthday gift Les had bestowed on Jude was for his thirteenth: subscriptions toPlayboy, Barely Legal,andJuggs—the excess and range signifying both an uncertainty of the boy’s tastes and what Jude considered a boastful display of financial prowess.
But on Christmas night, when he called to wish his children a happy holiday, he had announced that his girlfriend’s daughter would be in town, skiing with her friends in Stowe for winter break—would Jude and Pru like to show her around? “She’s about your guys’s age,” said Les.
“How old is that?” Prudence had asked him—she, even more than her brother, had moral objections to pleasing Les—and passed the phone to Jude.
It had been known for years that Les had a girlfriend, a ballerina from England. This brief characterization had so belabored Jude’s imagination that he had been only abstractly aware that she came with a daughter. Standing with the phone in his hand, he had looked at his mother, who was scrubbing the empty sink with wanton cheerfulness, pretending not to eavesdrop, and understood that his father wanted to make her jealous. Skiing at Stowe—the girlfriend was probably loaded. Jude said okay, whatever.
Despite himself, he’d dreamt about the girl. Eliza. Dreamt, dreamed. It was a faceless, plotless, colorless dream—he knew only that she was there, the idea of her, and that, as with most dreams these days, he’d woken this morning in the viscid pool of his own anticipation.
The Ass Street Mall was long and dark, like a tunnel that went nowhere, and Jude had memorized every one of its uneven, roach-brown tiles. He and Teddy darted in and out of stores, up and down escalators, past the food court comprised of a Häagen-Douche and a Pizza Slut, searching for Jude’s sister, who always had money, until they found her behind the glass wall of Waldenbooks. She was standing at the magazine rack with a pair of friends, readingTiger Beat,and when she saw them, she looked up for a moment, then away.
Jude didn’t see Prudence much, but when he did, he saw a girl in bloom. One recent morning, he’d walked into the bathroom and found her standing naked over the heating vent, pale and nippley and terrified. He thought immediately of their childhood pet, Mary Ann, a tabby cat who had nursed a litter of kittens on a set of pink, swollen mammaries the size and shape of his sister’s. Since then, it had taken him a great deal of effort, when coming across the pastel bras hanging from the bathroom doorknob, to ward off that horrible, wet-haired vision. Teddy liked to point out that, not sharing the same DNA, Prudence was like any other girl in Lintonburg—in another life, if he hadn’t been adopted by her parents, Jude could get a hard-on looking at her and not have to feel weird about it. There was no way his sister could give him a hard-on, but the possibility did make him feel lonely and sick. His sister was smart and pretty and she and Jude had nothing in common, and seeing her naked was seeing how irreconcilable they were.
“What do you want?” she mouthed now, flipping through her magazine. Her voice was far away, muffled through the glass.
“Forty bucks,” Jude said, tucking his devil lock behind his ear.
Prudence’s hair—ashy blond, the kind with a glint of gray in it, the kind Harriet used to have—swirled around the hood of her parka, and her braces, pink and purple, flashed like fangs. There was something sort of metallic about her, a silver, fishy glow under her skin. “Why?” she said.
“Because,” Jude said, “I want to buy you a birthday present.”
“It’syourbirthday. My birthday’s in September.”
“I know that,” he said. He knew because Prudence was nine months younger than he was, and also because she still had the invitation from her party taped to her bedroom door, along with a Just Say No poster featuring Kirk Cameron. “I’ll pay you back,” Jude said. “You know what a fine brother I am.”
Prudence stared at her magazine; her eyes didn’t move. The two friends whispered something Jude couldn’t hear, gold hoops swinging from one pair of ears, silver hoops from the other. Were they looking at Teddy? Teddy was looking at them.
“What happened to his glasses?” Prudence asked, nodding at Teddy.
Harriet Horn, after several years of sex with Les Keffy, her college sweetheart, had been declared infertile by a Lintonburg obstetrician. Her fallopian tubes were clogged like straws full of mud, but through this obstruction, right about the time Jude himself was being born (on the last night of 1971, in a New York City hospital), one of Les’s relentless and ironic sperm prevailed. When Prudence was born, nine months after Jude was adopted, Harriet nursed them at the same time, one on each side, like two of Mary Ann’s blind, slimy kittens. Jude, his mother told him, had liked to kick his suckling sister in the face. As a toddler, standing on a step stool, he tried to drown her in the basement sink, and when they were nine, she threw a pair of nail scissors at him, spearing the hollow under his right eye. He fingered this moon-shaped scar now, finding his pale image in the window. His forehead had left an oily streak on the glass, and he wiped it with his wrist.
“I’ll pay you back, Pru.”
“No, you won’t. You’re just going to spend it on you-know-what.” With the nail-polished fingers of her right hand and the sign-language skills she’d learned the first semester of tenth grade, she spelled out something frantic.
“I don’t know what that means!”
“Drugs!” she pronounced, cupping her hands against the glass.
Prudence’s puritanical streak was a matter of mild embarrassment for their mother, but for Jude it was simply proof of their genetic divide. “It’s my birthday!” he yelled. The itch in his fingers had spread to his hands, which he mashed into fists, pressing his knuckles to the window.
“I hate you, too!” Prudence shrieked, hands flying like fighting birds. Then she and her friends disappeared into Young Adult.
Jude scavenged. He probed a finger into the coin return slots of pay phones, vending machines, the children’s carousel that had been broken for as long as Jude could remember. He found nothing but a lone gumball in a candy machine, which turned his tongue a defeated electric blue. To spend one’s sixteenth birthday—and New Year’s Eve!—in a shopping mall, with no pot, no beer, no prospects to offer a mysterious, loaded, out-of-town girl—it was too shameful to consider. He swallowed his pride and suggested they head for the Record Room. Maybe Delph would take an IOU.
Anthrax’s “Soldiers of Metal” was playing over the store speakers. Behind the counter, Delph was preparing to thwack a pencil at the one Kram held pinched between his fingers.
“Boo!” Jude yelled, and Kram flinched.
“There will be no skateboarding in here,” Delph called, shaking a finger at Teddy and Jude. “Out with those things, gentlemen, or I’ll call mall security.”
“No!” Jude said. “Not that fat guy on the golf cart.”
“Don’t start on fat guys,” said Kram, who at eighteen had a full-blown beer gut. “I’ll pin you right here, little boy.” And he clambered over the counter and fell on Jude, digging his knees into his ribs.
Kram O’Connor and Clarence Delph III regularly put Teddy and Jude in headlocks, charged them outrageous rates for marijuana, and invented for them a seemingly tireless list of abusive nicknames. Teddy got the worst of it—Teddy Bear, Teddy Krueger, Teddy Roosevelt, Teddy Ruxpin, Teddy Graham, Teddy McDickless, McDick. Never mind that Delph refused to be called by his own first name, or that Kram got his nickname from accidentally tattooing his real name backward in a mirror. They had been friends of Johnny’s, metalheads with muscle cars and big-haired girlfriends (Kram’s car they called the Kramaro), and although they would be graduating, barely, in June, and although Johnny had left town two years ago, they still let Jude and Teddy follow them around, gave them rides, came over to Jude’s every once in a while to jam and tell him how shitty his cheap guitar sounded. The purpose of their alliance they made clear: they required Teddy and Jude for news from Johnny, nothing more. Johnny was in a straight edge band. Johnny’s straight edge band had played a show at CBGB. Johnny was tattooing full-time now, had traded an eight track for his own machine and some needles, and since tattooing was illegal in New York, as it was in Vermont, he had to do it from his apartment, a studio in Alphabet City that was literally underground. He’d stopped returning Kram’s and Delph’s calls months ago; his phone was turned off when he didn’t pay the bill, he wrote Teddy, and he left it off. He could live without it.
Which meant Teddy was screwed. His mother had bolted, and his brother was the only person he could go to. But Teddy didn’t have money for a bus ticket—he’d have to write Johnny and ask him to send some. It would be days before Johnny got the letter, and days before Johnny could send him the money. Teddy couldn’t stay at home with the power gone out—he’d freeze his balls off—but he couldn’t stay with Jude, either, not forever. He didn’t want Harriet to know his mother had left. He wouldn’t be able to stand her pity.
If only Teddy were sixteen—he would have been living with his brother already. Or maybe, if he was alive, with his dad. He didn’t dare mention this to his mother, who had long ago forbidden the subject, or to Jude, who regarded curiosity about one’s missing father as one of the telltale symptoms of being a fag, but he’d been thinking about his dad a lot lately. His whole life, his mother had been telling him he was dead, but then Johnny had found out that his own dad was alive. Didn’t that mean Teddy’s dad could be out there, too? But how did you find someone you knew nothing about, not even a name?
“You guys got any money I could borrow?” Teddy asked. He kept his voice down, though there were no customers in the store.
“What for?” Kram asked, climbing off of Jude.
“I want to visit Johnny,” he said, keeping it simple and hoping Jude wouldn’t decide to elaborate. But Delph and Kram didn’t have any money, either. They’d gone broke buying Christmas gifts for their girlfriends.
“We’ll settle for some pot,” Jude broke in.
Delph snorted. “No more IOUs, Judy.”
“Come on, man! We’re dry.”
“I don’t need any pot,” Teddy said. “I just need a bus ticket.”
Delph leaned an elbow on the counter. “Listen to young Edward,” he said. He had a dark, horsey mullet and a big moon of a face, craggy with craters, so white it was yellow. “He’s gone straight edge, like his brother! Just Say No, right?”
“I still say he’s lying,” said Kram. “Michelob McNicholas? He’d go into cardiac arrest if he stopped drinking.”
“Those straight edge kids don’t fornicate,” Delph said. “That’s what I heard. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’tbreathe. . .”
“What, like Jehovah’s Witnesses?” Kram said, rubbing his Buddha belly.
“The music’s pretty wicked, though,” Teddy said. “Johnny made me another tape. You guys heard that Youth of Today album yet?”
“Told you, Teddy Bear. We don’t have that crazy rock-and-roll music in stock.”
“Come on, Delph,” Jude whined, impatient with the conversation. “Just a dime? It’s my birthday.”
Delph slapped the counter. “Jeezum Crow! I knew that, man.”
“Aw, Delphy, you gotta hook him up. Man’s sweet sixteen, right?”
“You finally going to turn in that V-card tonight, little man?”
Then they were talking about Eliza, the girl Jude would meet in a few hours at the train station. As if they didn’t have girls in Lintonburg; they had to import them from New York. That was the sad thing about Jude and those guys, thought Teddy—they hadn’t been anywhere. They hadn’t seen shit. The other day Jude had insisted that Wichita was a state. He thought you got a girl to like you by stealing her umbrella.
Teddy made his way over to theYsection in Rock, scanning the cassettes, just in case. The Yardbirds, Yes, Neil Young, but no Youth of Today. Over the past few months, the negligible shelf of vinyl at the back of the store had been phased out by a growing bank of compact discs. Soon the Record Room would sell no more records. Teddy stood disheartened in front of the display, his hands crammed in his pockets. He was tired of Vermont, tired of the homemade drugs and the farm boy slang and the cold. He was tired of letting Jude cheat off his algebra tests. Just before winter break, the guidance counselor had called Teddy into her office and said, “Edward, have you given any thought to college?” The truth was, he had not, but the word chimed in his head for days afterward like the sleigh bells tinkling from the guidance counselor’s earlobes. When Jude asked why he’d been pulled out of class, Teddy told him he’d been caught smoking in the boys’ bathroom, then faked an afternoon of detention, studying alone under the stadium bleachers.
College he could not afford, but at least Teddy knew there was a world beyond Vermont. Before Lintonburg, he’d lived with his mother and brother in Plattsburgh; before that in Newport, Rhode Island; before that in Dover, Delaware; before that in Williamsburg, Virginia; before that somewhere in North Carolina; and before that in some places he didn’t really remember, all the way down to Miami, where he was born. But he’d never been to Manhattan. In Manhattan, Johnny said, there were crates and crates of vinyl in every record store, a hardcore matinee every weekend at CBGB, endless concrete built for the wheels of a skateboard. And fathers. Jude’s, Johnny’s. That’s where the fathers were. For a second Teddy could picture himself there, standing on the street in front of a building, a set of keys jingling in his hand.
Teddy had last spoken to his brother on Christmas. When Teddy handed the phone back to his mother and left the room, he could still hear her scolding Johnny about something in a desperate sort of whisper, as though she didn’t want Teddy to hear. She was sitting on the couch, hunched over a beer, her bra strap slipped off her shoulder and out of her sleeve.
“All right, dude, just a dime,” Delph was saying. If Jude met him at Tory Ventura’s New Year’s party at nine, Delph would gift him with some kind bud.
“Tory Ventura?” Teddy said, looking up from the cassettes. “Not that dickhead.”
Tory was a senior, played football with Kram. He liked to grab Jude and Teddy by the scruff of their coats and slam them against their lockers. They all hated him, but his parents were out of town, and there would be three kegs. “It’s supposed to be wicked,” said Kram, doing push-ups against the counter, the armpits of his T-shirt dark with sweat.
“Bring your lady,” said Delph.
“We’ll be there,” said Jude.
In the street, an inch or two of snow had accumulated, and it was still falling steadily. Jude and Teddy stepped soundlessly into it and carried their skateboards back to Jude’s, where they made English muffin pizzas, splitting the third one in half. It was a big, bony house, first a warehouse and then a schoolhouse, and now Jude lived there with his mother and his sister. It was misleading to call it a house—it was a brick building in an alley, narrow as an ice cream truck, four stories tall if you counted the basement. Jude’s father had bought it for $1,800 in 1969; he was in the middle of renovating it when Jude, and then Prudence, were born. When Les was finished (and he never really was, according to Harriet), the house was a monument of found object art. The shutters were made from leftover chalkboards; the steps were two separate spiral staircases joined together, one pine, one steel; the living room couch was a claw-foot tub with the front sawed off, lined with an orange mattress from an old chaise lounge and throw pillows Harriet had sewn with her Singer. After the renovation project, Les devoted himself to the less architecturally challenging greenhouse, and when he took its profits to New York in the form of a Dodge camper van full of marijuana plants, he left the half-assed results of his ten-year enterprise. They had no kitchen drawers: they kept their silverware in mugs. They had no kitchen ceiling: just insulation and ducts and wires like so many guts and veins.
The basement still held the scent of antique allergens—sawdust, chalk, the fertilizer that had been stored here half a century ago. In one corner was the Bastards’ equipment, still occasionally revisited—Jude’s third-hand guitar, Kram’s beat-up drum kit, Johnny’s old amp. The rest of the room was scattered with cardboard boxes, sawhorses, an old door leaning against the wall, a bicycle with a plastic baby seat, and an assortment of wooden school chairs. Some of them, stacked yin-yang style, were turned into makeshift easels from the years when Harriet taught life drawing, slabs of plywood wedged in their upturned legs, yellowed drawings held up by clothespins. A single bare bulb hung from the low ceiling. Jude turned it on, then went straight for the bottle of turpentine over the sink. “Just to tide us over,” he said. His cold fingertips fumbled. His heart, though, was warming up like an eager, rattling engine.
“What are we doing?” Teddy asked, sitting down on the basement couch. It wasn’t really a couch. It was the row of seats Jude’s father had removed from his van sometime in the seventies.
“Give me that underwear.”
From his pocket, Teddy presented the underwear he’d stolen from Victoria’s Secret. Jude soaked the panties with the turpentine. They were silky and pink, with a pink tag still dangling. “Remember this?” He plunged his face into the panties as if drying it on a towel. It had been a long time since he’d inhaled this particular elixir, but the sensation was recognizable right away. It smelled like being twelve, being with Teddy, being a redheaded boy in pajamas, and before long Jude’s nostrils were flaming nicely, and warm, acid tears were burning his eyes.
Jude passed the panties to Teddy, and Teddy pressed them to his face; they made a little hollow boat in his open mouth. It was a moment of weakness—he wanted to smother the thought of his mother, of their dark, empty house. He breathed in vigorously, then broke into laughter. Teddy’s laugh was sloppy, muffled, embarrassed, and usually accompanied by closed eyes. He sat like a blind man, mouth agape, waiting. That was how trusting Teddy was.
“This is wicked,” Teddy said.
Jude sat down beside him and took another huff, choking on a noseful of fumes. “Is itpanties,” he asked, “orpanty?”
“There’s only one,” said Teddy.
A dish towel or a paper bag would have worked just as well, but it was wonderful, getting high off of a panty. Jude put his head between his knees. For a moment he felt as though he were floating on or in the ocean, he felt as though he were made out of water. Then he panicked, drowning, and grabbed Teddy’s ankle and held on.
He sat up. “Dude, you know you’re staying here, right?”
Teddy reached for the panty and breathed. Snowflakes beat against the two ground-level windows. “Maybe for a little while.”
“For good, man. For bad, whatever. Richer or poorer.”
Jude redampened the panty. Teddy was quiet. Jude said, “All right, you fag?”
The train car was empty. She liked the long, silent chain of seats, the domed ceiling above, dark as a theater’s. She sat listening to her headphones, socked feet resting on the seat ahead while she looked through her reflection to the black screen of snow. She always felt at sea when she was outside New York—giddy but lost, disbelieving how abysmal the world was. Cocooned here on the train, she could be anywhere. She could step outside and find herself in heaven, or Alaska.
But it was better here than in the bright white terrain of the last week, the fake snow on the slopes, the fluorescent lights of the room at the resort, where she did coke and shots with Nadia and Cissy and Cissy’s older sister and rolled her hair in curlers so tight they burned her scalp. It was better than being at home, where she watched videotaped episodes ofSanta Barbarawith her mother, smoked on the fire escape, taught herself David Bowie songs on the piano, and practiced makeup on Neena, the live-in housekeeper, whom she bribed with coke—the poor woman really had a problem—to cover for her when she snuck out. And it was better than being at school, whatever school she’d find herself in when the semester began. She had been kicked out of two boarding schools in a year and a half—both times for drugs, the second while skinny-dipping in the school’s Olympic-size pool.
She’d thought finally she’d have the chance to go to public school, but her mom had pulled some strings at some desperate place in New Jersey that agreed to consider her application for the spring semester (no doubt for an increased fee). To the first question in the essay section—What are your personal goals for the future?—she had responded with 250 words about her ambition to become a makeup artist, written in eyeliner and beginning with “My personal goals for the future, as opposed to my personal goals for the past . . .”
While Les had applauded her creativity, her mother had tossed the essay in the trash compactor and sat down at the Macintosh computer that looked like an object from a spaceship in the ancient opulence of their apartment, the Oriental rugs and pewter ashtrays and crystal chandeliers, and proceeded to respond to the second prompt:Describe a person who has had a dramatic impact on your life. “The person who has made me what I am today,” she read aloud, her manicured nails typing clickety-clack, “is my mother.”
If Eliza had been forced to respond to the question herself, she would have written about Les. Her dad, an in-house counsel at a downtown brokerage, had died of a cerebral aneurysm when she was three, but by the time she was ten her mom had had the good sense to meet Les and keep him around. Les was the best thing about her mom. He was moody and lazy and seriously stubborn and he went days sometimes without showering, but from time to time he got her mom high, which was what she really needed, and he had this you’re-on-my-team respect for Eliza that continually surprised her. He’d let her paint his toenails. He’d let her crash on his futon in the East Village when she fought with her mom. He knew all the vegetables she didn’t like, and he’d tweeze them out of her stir-fry with a pair of chopsticks.
It was strange, then, wasn’t it, that he paid his own children so little attention. In the only picture Les had of them, they were toddlers in a bathtub, their hair sculpted into soapy Mohawks. These were the babieshe had deserted,orphans, really. And one of them atrueorphan, adopted at birth, from her own New York. “What are their names again?” she occasionally asked him, even though she knew, just to hear him say them. Now he would say “Dick and Jane” or “Simon and Garfunkel.” She wondered, as the Amtrak sighed to a halt in Lintonburg, what they knew of her.
Out on the cold platform, the world was white, even in the heavy dark. The snow had stopped. On the other side of the tracks, a wilderness of cars, frozen in the lot over the winter holiday, lay buried under it. No one was around except for two boys, lurking a few cars down—that darkly dressed, alley-dwelling species of boy you could depend on for directions if you dared ask. She was about to do so—she was a city girl, not easily afraid—when one of them called her name. She must have nodded, or waved. Here they came, trotting over, cigarette smoke trailing behind. “Hey.” They stopped at a safe distance, nodded their heads. “Are you Eliza?”
Two boys: she had not expected this. There was a black-haired one and a red-haired one, whom she deemed to be Jude. She had composed a picture in her head, an accelerated version of the children in the tub, but now, in front of these real-life faces, it dissolved. She snapped off her Walkman, slipped her headphones from her ears, and let them fall around her neck. “That’s my friend Teddy,” said the redhead. “I’m Jude.”
“Jude,” said Eliza. His eyelids were heavy. Was he high? Then, raising her voice over the roar of the train roaring away, “Hi, but I thought I was meeting a girl, too? Prudence?”
“She had plans,” said Jude, who was smiling painfully. “Plus, she’s sort of young for her age. How old are you?”
“So’s Prudence. I’m sixteen.”
“It’s his birthday.”
“On New Year’s Eve?” Eliza asked doubtfully.
“I didn’t ask to be born then. I just was.”
“Are you getting your license?”
“No. My mom doesn’t have a car.”
“Oh.” Eliza adjusted her backpack. “Well, happy birthday.”
“You don’t have any stuff?” Teddy, the dark-haired one, asked.
“Just this.” The rest of the bags she’d taken to Stowe had gone home on the plane with her friends, who were spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square, she explained. “Fucking last place on earth I’d want to be tonight.”
“You haven’t seen Lintonburg yet,” mumbled Teddy.
“We’re going to a party,” Jude said. “But it doesn’t start for a while.”
“You don’t have another cigarette, do you?” Eliza asked. “I smoked my last one in the bathroom on the train.”
Jude unveiled the pack of American Spirits he’d taken from Harriet’s carton.
“Thanks,” Eliza said, taking out a lighter. They all stood in a circle on the platform, staring at the red eyes of their cigarettes, trying to keep warm, no obvious place to go. It was not hard to fend off the disappointment that she wouldn’t be meeting Prudence. She had been curious to know what Prudence looked like, to observe her from afar, but it was Jude, she realized now, that she had wanted to meet. Girls irritated her, intimidated her, and finally bored her; around girls she became territorial, sniffing their asses, showing her teeth. It was not a part of herself she liked. Around boys she was herself, she could relax; she had nothing to win but them.
Still, she’d expected . . . something different. The novelty of a foreign exchange student. Provincial fashions. Elaborately laced snow boots. These boys looked like they’d just stood up from Les’s stoop on St. Mark’s Place.
“You guys get into a fight or something? You look sort of bloody.”
Under the streetlight, she could see that Teddy’s mouth was ringed with red bumps. At first she thought it was acne, but Jude had it, too, a raw, rosy stubble, like a beard of hives.
“No, it’s huffer’s rash,” said Jude. “It happens sometimes.”
“From turpentine,” said Teddy.
“Turpentine,” she mused. Maybe they did have their tricks in the country. Maybe they wouldn’t be impressed by the cocaine in her makeup bag. “Are you fucked up right now?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Jude said.
“It wears off pretty quick,” said Teddy.
“I thought it was part of the Dracula punk thing.” She tipped her cigarette toward Jude’s devil lock. “You into the Misfits?”
Jude and Teddy exchanged glances.
“They’re not bad,” said Jude.
“I saw them at Irving Plaza when I was ten. It was my first show. With the Necros and the Beastie Boys.”
“It was some show,” she said, looking up at the Vermont sky, remembering. So this is where Les used to live, in this snowcapped village, with his other family.
Jude said, “Your mom let you go to a show when you were ten?”
“Not by myself.”
“Who took you, then?”
She watched her smoke rise white in the air, and then her breath, fainter. “Your dad,” she said. “I sat on his shoulders.”
Jude’s desire for girls was indiscriminate, feverish, and complete; he wanted them all equally, and he wanted them not at all. Blondes or brunettes, big ones or small ones—they were cold, fragile, impenetrable creatures, all desirable as they were undesirable, all perfumed and pretty. To get one, he would have to get near one. He’d attempted this at a barn party in Hinesburg, kissing the girl unkindly and without asking, kind of pressing her up against a wall, and the whole drunk drive home in the backseat of the Kramaro, he’d felt so bad that he hadn’t said a word about it to anyone, not even Teddy.
Eliza was different and not different. She was a girl, a painted doll. Her hair, bobbed to her elfin ears, was thick and black, her heavy bangs straight as a blade. Her eyes, too, were black, Egyptian, or was it an effect of the makeup shadowing her lids, the stiletto lashes, the feline inflection of the black, what was it called, eyeliner? Her lips were red, her skin translucent as wax paper. Her coat was white and puffy and slick, with cinched cuffs and a hood that looked like it was made of feathers, and she wore tights and a kilt. She could not have been much more than five feet; he could have opened up his own coat and smuggled her inside.
The fact that she possessed knowledge about his father, for instance that he still sold pot and that he still owned his 1968 Dodge camper van, was what was disconcerting. It was as thrilling and as freakish as if she had revealed to him that she was his flesh-and-blood sister, come all the way from Manhattan to find him.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, getting down to business. In an effort to offer her the Vermont experience, they’d taken her to Ben & Jerry’s, the only place on Ash Street that was open on New Year’s Eve. Her treat—Jude and Teddy were still broke. It occurred to Jude to be embarrassed, but she insisted on paying, peeled a starched twenty out of a wallet that looked like lizard skin. They sat in a booth, Eliza on one side, Jude and Teddy on the other. She said, “I think your dad wants to be part of your lives.”
Jude licked his cone. New York Super Fudge Chunk.
“Lives?” Teddy said.
“Jude’s and Prudence’s. Sorry.”
“He said that?” Teddy asked.
“Not like, those exact words. But Isenseit.”
“My dad’s a prick,” said Jude. “He doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
“How do you know, though?” Eliza asked. There was a gap between her two front teeth, just wide enough to slide his napkin through.
“Because I haven’t seen him in seven years?”
But that was the thing, Eliza said. Les felt that Jude and Prudence wouldn’t want anything to do withhim. He’d been gone so long that he felt he was better off leaving them alone. “I think he feels bad about everything. I can tell he does.”
“You know, deserting you. Not being there for you.”
“Jude, okay, listen.” Eliza stabbed her spoon into her cup of Cherry Garcia. Jude did not want to listen. Whatever she had to say wouldn’t be true, not because he knew his father better than she did but because his father no longer existed. He was a voice on the phone, that was all.
“You should have seen him at Christmas. He got drunk—which I’ve never seen him that drunk—and he wascrying,Jude. It was after he talked to you on the phone. He was standing out on the balcony, and he was alone, justcrying.”
“You were there? When I talked to my dad?”
“Isn’t it sad?”
Jude said it was sad that he’d sent her to be his messenger.
“Oh, he didn’t. He wouldn’t do that. He just thinks I’m here to, you know, meet you guys.”
Eliza deposited a lump of ice cream on her tongue and swallowed. “I was in the neighborhood.”
“Stowe’s not really in the neighborhood,” Teddy pointed out.
She shrugged. “I feel bad, I guess. I’m hogging Les all to myself.”
Jude laughed. “Really, that’s okay. You can keep him.” Then, having lost his appetite, he turned his ice cream cone over onto the table. “No offense, but it’s not really your business.” The cone settled, and then began to melt.
Teddy was working on his own cone. Jude looked at him and Teddy looked back. Teddy’s rash looked like a birthmark, a twin scar that bound them together. They were parentless; they were orphans, fiercely so. Eliza, Misfits or no, could not get to them. Her red mouth was pouting. Jude wanted to lean over the table and glide his tongue against the groove between her teeth: that would shut her up.
“Maybe you should go see him,” Teddy said to Jude.
“Maybe you should give him a chance.”
Jude looked at him. “Don’t mind Teddy. His mom left this morning. He’s feeling homesick.”
Teddy fired a look at Jude. It was the same look he’d given Jude in front of Harriet earlier, drained of all its pleading warmth. Their silent pact had been broken.
“She left?” Eliza asked. “Where’d she go?”
“We don’t know,” Jude said. “We just woke up and she was gone.”
Eliza put her small white hand on top of Teddy’s brown one. “Oh,shit. What should we do?” Her nails were painted with red polish, now chipped. Jude wanted to put his hand on top of theirs, as if they were making a promise or cheering before a game, but he didn’t know what they would be cheering for.
On Christmas, Les had asked her, “Do you know what your problem is?”
“I don’t appreciate my mother.”
“Or my trust fund.”
They were sharing a bottle of wine on his fire escape overlooking St. Mark’s Place.
“You’re young,” Les said. He got like this when he was tipsy—enigmatic, flirtatious—but now he was full-on drunk. “You’re naive, girl. You’re a drama queen. You’re a sad-story addict. You’re drawn to them like a moth to a flame. You believe you can save the world by saying so.”
“Whatever,” Eliza said.
“Fine,” said Les. “Go up there. Scatter your pixie dust.”
Salvatore “Tory” Ventura lived on Lake Champlain in a colossal stone house, bearded with ivy, that Jude and Teddy had passed a thousand times. Up and down the street, cars were double-parked, jammed in snowbanked driveways and scattered across the white lawn. A guy who was not Tory was manning the door, and with an indifference that Jude took as a sure sign of their triumphs to come, he waved the three of them in, through the foyer, past the piles of coats and shoes, through the marble kitchen smelling of microwaved food. In the cavernous, wood-paneled living room, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was drowning out Dick Clark. People were crowded around the coffee table, playing poker in the low light, and Jude recognized them as he recognized semifamous people on television. Wasn’t she from that one show? Wasn’t she in his homeroom? It was nine o’clock, but he didn’t see Delph or Kram.
Twenty-odd years ago, when Les and Harriet had been in college here, they’d met at a party. Les once told Jude it had really been anorgy,that he had found Jude’s mother’s body in a pile of other bodies (a mass like a writhing octopus), and that she’d been wearing nothing but a string of love beads, purple and pink. He’d taken her hand and pulled her out, Les to the rescue.
Since then, the health of Lintonburg’s hippie movement had followed a series of dips and inclines, the same undulating route of the Dow Jones, for which most of the New England Boomers, by the end of Vietnam, had abandoned their peace pipes. By the time Les was fired from his lab position at Vermont State in 1980, the town’s marijuana market had dried up. His customers got promoted, got pregnant, got older.
But then there were their kids. By the end of 1987, at Ira Allen High School, the hippie thrived again, enjoying with the jock a marriage of tolerance, if only for their sheer numbers. Metalheads and punks, though, were few and far between, and they knew how to watch their backs. At Tory Ventura’s house, no orgy greeted Jude with outstretched hands. He and Teddy and Eliza entered the room just as someone was snapping a picture: they would be forever captured in a photo they didn’t belong in, blinking against the flash. Escaping from the room, they took cover on the landing of the staircase, in the shadows of the wide window seat. Eliza went in search of beer while Teddy and Jude stayed put, keeping an eye out for Kram and Delph.
“She knows her way around a party,” Teddy observed.
“She’s not shy,” Jude agreed.
“You like her?”
Jude looked out the window. “She’s awful damn nosy.”
“She’s just trying to be nice.”
In the backyard below, a bonfire was blazing. The light caught a flash of glass—a beer bottle soaring into the lake.
Teddy said, “She’s pretty, though, right?”
“She’s pretty,” said Jude.
Here came another girl now, slithering down the stairs, and up her denim skirt went Jude’s eyes. Whether Tory Ventura, escorting her, caught Jude’s glance, Jude didn’t have time to decide. Tory grabbed Jude’s devil lock and gave it a jerk, as if milking a cow. “I like your pigtail, Maybelline.”
Tory had given Jude the name in Spanish II on the day Jude had made the mistake of borrowing his sister’s acne concealer, a tube of what looked like flesh-colored lipstick. He gave Jude and Teddy a hard time in the halls, for Teddy’s glasses, Jude’s retainers, their band T-shirts. It didn’t help that the members of the Christian Fellowship Club had started wearing T-shirts that reconceived the logos of these bands—Prayerinstead of Slayer,Megalifeinstead of Megadeth—implicating Teddy and Jude in the same substratum of hallway prey.
“You and your boyfriend been making out?” Tory asked Jude. He was staring with disgust at the rash around their mouths. “Looks like you got a giant hickey.”
“It’s from huffing,” Jude said. “Turpentine? To gethigh?”
Tory was wearing a hot pink T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a pair of pleated khakis with a braided leather belt, and boat shoes with no socks. From his pocket, he withdrew a tube of ChapStick and circled it lazily over his lips, concealing the whole tube in his hand like a kid would hold a crayon. “Hell you doing here, anyway?” he asked Jude, his lips shining.
“Hellyoudoing?” Jude asked, feeling bold.
Tory laughed. The girl, still standing at his side, combed her fingers through the dark hair at the nape of his neck. “It’s my house, dipshit. Who invited you? Fitzhugh?”
Jude hopped down from the window seat, and Teddy followed. The fact that Tory Ventura suspected Jude might have been invited to his party, by a person named Fitzhugh, whom Jude didn’t know; that a girl who had taken a train to see him was fetching him a beer; that Lintonburg might in fact be bigger, more generous than he’d believed, gave him courage. He ran a slow finger around the bruised contour of his lips.
“Fitzhugh?” he said. “You mean the guy who gave me this?”
Jude grabbed Teddy’s elbow, and they took off running. A group of people had gathered on the steps below, trying to move past, and they dove through them, taking the stairs two at a time.
Outside, the night was so cold it hurt to move through it. It was 9:35, and Delph and his pot weren’t anywhere. They found an unlocked LeBaron and slipped inside, Jude in the driver’s seat, Teddy in the passenger’s. They scrunched down low, even though they didn’t seem to have been followed. “Why do you always have to piss people off?” Teddy said.
He was breathing heavily from the sprint out the door. He could feel the snow in his shoes and the sweat cooling in his armpits. The car reeked of beer.
“You always want to get in a fight.”
“So you’ll never win.”
Teddy opened up the glove box. Inside were a manual, a flashlight, and a box of condoms.
“Let me see those.” Jude grabbed the box, opened it, and let the package unfurl. The condoms they’d stolen from Shop Fart when they were thirteen were hidden, still unopened, in an empty Mötley Crüe cassette case in Teddy’s dresser drawer. Now Jude tore one off the pack, tossed the rest back into the glove box, and turned on the overhead light, which Teddy snapped off.
“You want everyone to see us in here?”
Jude pocketed the condom. “I wasreadingit.”
“You think Eliza’s going to do you just because it’s your birthday?”
“Shut up, Ted.”
“You’re so sad.”
“Shutup,Ted!” Jude jumped at him, mashing Teddy’s face in his hands. Teddy found Jude’s mouth and sank his frozen thumbs in deep, and Jude bit down. They’d done the blood brothers thing when they were twelve, cut open their fingertips with a paring knife and made them kiss, the hands of God and Adam, E.T. phone home, almost as faggy as last night, in Teddy’s still-bright bedroom at Queen Bea’s house, when they’d shared a mouthful of pot smoke—ashotgunwas what it was called, a word Jude had taught him—one breathing it into the other’s mouth like a secret. Now their fluids slipped under each other’s hands again, spit, snot, sweat, the tears from Teddy’s eyeballs as Jude bored his knuckles into his sockets, Teddy trying to blink with his eyes closed, Jude snorting and gagging and elbowing the steering wheel, hitting the horn, which turned his gag into a cackle, which made Teddy laugh, too. Teddy pried Jude’s fingers off his face. Jude bent Teddy’s fingers back. Teddy screamed, “Uncle! Uncle, my contact!” Jude let go, and a cool wind flew into Teddy’s right eye.
“Don’t move,” Teddy said. “I lost my contact.” He scanned his lap, the seats, the floor, but the car was thick with darkness, and he could see out of only one eye. He took the flashlight out of the glove box. “Help me,” he said. Panting, he passed the light over the dashboard, the gearshift, their bodies. Maybe it was still in his eye. His glasses were at home, tucked safely in the drawer with the condoms, and the thought of them there, useless to him, just out of reach, made him start to cry, so that both eyes, the seeing and the unseeing, now spilled hot tears.
“It’s all right, man,” Jude said. “We’ll find it.”
And he did, plucked it off of Teddy’s own cheek, where it had affixed itself to his moist skin. Teddy took it from him, fragile as a jewel, and looked at the soggy dome on his fingertip, too tired to put it back on. He would wait until his eyes dried out. He would sit here and wait. Maybe Johnny knew where their mother was. Maybe they could find her and bring her home. Or maybe Johnny could help him find his father. He’d asked him as much in his last letter, a question he wouldn’t admit to Jude. It was as if, by asking about his father, he’d made his mother disappear.
“Jude, I got to get to New York,” he said.
Jude gripped the steering wheel. “All right,” he said to the dashboard. “If you’re going, I’m going, too. I’ll go see my dad. You know how to hotwire a car?”
“Now? What about Eliza? You don’t even know how to drive.” Delph kept saying he was going to teach them. Delph was always saying shit.
“We’ll take her with us, man. We’ll steal some keys.”
Teddy turned off the flashlight and put it back in the glove box. He looked at Jude, who had his seat belt buckled. Jude believed they were in their getaway car, their Batmobile, the DeLorean that would transport them, with a rocket-fart of fire, back to the future.
Teddy’s eyes were closed now. He said he was.
“All right,” Jude said. “Let’s haul ass.”
“All right. Let’s do it.”
But neither of them moved.
She’d told him her name was Annabel Lee. She didn’t remember his. That was many minutes ago, and still she stood in the bathroom doorway, trapped by his large arm, bumming cigarette after cigarette, letting him refill her plastic cup from the keg in the tub. She supposed she could have walked away. Why didn’t she walk away? He lifted the silver necklace out of the collar of her coat, bounced the charms dumbly in his hand. It was hot in here—did she want to take off her backpack? Her coat? She did not.
It was her punishment for making this trip. Instead of spending her New Year’s Eve talking to some drunk prick in New York, she would spend it talking to some drunk prick in Vermont. He could have been any of the guys from home she’d let lift her necklace out of her coat. The weekend after her bat mitzvah she’d lost her virginity to a lacrosse player named Bridge Fowler, her friend Nadia’s stepbrother, at his dad’s place in the Catskills. She’d met him there when she went over with Nadia to ride a horse named Athens, and when Eliza went back with Bridge they snorted coke—another first—off of a silver serving platter, then did it in the barn. Afterward Bridge put on his loafers, lit up a cigar, and set off on a walk to visit the horses. He never touched her again. He passed her along to his friends, one weekend after another, weekends singed with the chemical smell of cocaine and latex and new cars, the smell of having achieved something she’d had little doubt of achieving.
Now Teddy and Jude had left her to fend for herself, and she was fending. She was a girl who knew how to fend.
Well, she came, she saw. Sipping beer from her cup, the remains of her red lipstick staining the rim, she felt lost and tired, but serene. She had wanted to lay eyes on Les’s children, to be known to them, and one out of two wasn’t bad. Strange, how she felt that she knew Jude already, how she already missed him, wished it were he standing in front of her, breathing into her ear. She had known him and Teddy only a few hours longer than this guy, but they were her companions for the evening, her guardians. She imagined Jude appearing and whisking her efficiently into one of the quaint, New England bedrooms—there would be exposed beams, a quilt. There would be kissing. He’d make stupid jokes. He was eager, young. He was sort of dangerously adorable, like one of those wide-eyed donkeys that would either kick you or eat out of your hand.
Then what if he came back with her to New York. What if he moved in with his dad. Would Les laugh at her then?
And then there was Teddy—not Jude, but Teddy—saying, “There you are!”
His rash had faded a little, but his eyes were swollen, and his cheeks were flushed.
“I’ve been here the whole time.” She slipped her hand around Teddy’s back and kissed his cheek. “Missed you, baby.”
Teddy looked petrified only for a moment, then hooked an arm over her shoulder. He nodded. “Me, too. You, too.”
“This your boyfriend or something?”
“His name’s Teddy,” said Eliza.
The guy laughed bitterly and emptied the rest of his beer. “You kids have fun,” he said and made his way past them to the keg.
“Thanks,baby,” she whispered. “That guy was ready to maul me.” The line for the keg nudged them farther into the brightly lit bathroom. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Let’s just go.”
“You look sort of ruffled. What happened to you?”
A girl, drunk and laughing, sat on the toilet with her underwear around her knees. Behind her, three or four people bent purposefully over the bathtub, trying to extract the last frothy drops from the keg. The guy who’d been talking to Eliza announced that it was dry. The crowd, disappointed, muscled back out into the hall, pushing Eliza up against the sink. She slipped off her backpack and hopped onto the counter, Teddy jammed against her knees, until everyone slowly filed out of the room, leaving the two of them alone. On the way out, the guy turned off the light and pulled the door shut.
“We should go,” Teddy said, but he didn’t move to turn the light back on.
She said, “My train doesn’t leave till midnight,” although she wasn’t sure what time it was now. She took a swig from her cup. She was drunk, she knew, but not beyond reason. Someone tried the handle, but the door didn’t budge.
“I guess it’s locked?” she whispered.
“I can’t see, anyway,” Teddy said. “My contact fell out and I can’t get it back in.”
“Where is it?”
“Right here, in my hand.”
Eliza put down her cup. “You’re going to lose it. Let me see it.” She was still sitting on the rim of the sink, her knees grazing his hips. She felt him find her elbow through her coat and then her hand. He placed the lens in the middle of her palm. It felt like a wet breath. She popped it in her mouth as though she were swallowing a pill, and let it soak on her tongue.
“What are you doing?”
“I put it in my mouth.” Her voice slurred around the lens. “It keeps it moist.”
“Oh. I just got them. I’m still getting used to them.”
“Come here. Which eye is it?”
He led her hand to his right eyelid. His lashes were stiff with cold. Holding him by the ears, she eased his head back, then spit the salty lens onto her fingertip. She had saline solution in her backpack, but she didn’t want to turn on the light. She liked the idea of her saliva lubricating this kid’s eyeball. Gingerly she drew back his lid and fit it over his eye.
“Is it in?”
After a moment, Teddy said, “I think so.”
On the other side of the door, someone else jiggled the knob, then gave up. The floor was vibrating with music and a few feet away people were laughing. She was afraid Teddy was about to turn on the light. Instead he said, “You live in New York, right?”
He told her the story. He was moving there. He had a half brother named Johnny in Alphabet City. Teddy had no money; Johnny had no phone. Could she take a message to him?
Eliza was the one to turn on the light. For several seconds they blinked at each other, as though surprised that the other was made of pigment and flesh. From her backpack she withdrew a pen and a sheet of the stationery she’d taken from the inn, and he wrote down his brother’s address and Jude’s number. He told her to tell Johnny to call him there. She liked the idea of carrying a message, riding through the snowy night to deliver urgent news to a stranger. She wrote down her own phone number and tore it off, and Teddy put it in his pocket. “You’re not going to lose that, are you?” It was suddenly something that was important to her, not being lost to him. If she held on to Teddy, she could hold on to Jude. “Why don’t you just come back with me tonight? I’ll cover your ticket.”
“What about Jude?”
“We’ll bring him with us. He can live with his dad. It would be perfect!”
Teddy turned his eyes toward the empty red cups littering the bathtub. Here it was—a free ticket, dropped into his lap. He allowed himself to imagine the prospect of a solution, an adventure.
“I don’t know if Jude can come tonight,” he said. Eliza could hear him swallow. “And I don’t know if I could just take off with you. I feel bad enough we’re doing this.”
She gave his shin a gentle kick. “What are we doing?”
He laughed nervously. “Standing around like retards.”
Eliza reached for her backpack again and began rummaging around in it.
“What are you doing?”
She fished out her makeup bag and unzipped it. “I have a little something in here.” After fumbling for a moment, she produced a razor and a small plastic bag. She was glad she’d saved some.
“Jeezum Crow,” Teddy said.
Eliza laughed. “You’re so country. Haven’t you done this before?”
“Uh-uh. Only thing I ever snorted was ground-up chalk.”
She tipped the powder onto the counter and gathered it neatly with the razor’s edge. Then she took a bill out of her wallet and rolled it up. She did the first line, and then Teddy copied, expertly. After a few seconds, he staggered back and leaned against the wall. He nodded rapidly, eyes closed. Then he looked at her and grinned. He had very, very white teeth. They each did one more line, then finished Eliza’s beer.
“Let me see this,” Teddy said. She felt his cold fingers on her clavicle, the weight of the chain snaking against her skin. He cupped the charms in his palm, jiggled them like a pair of dice. He inspected the locket, the Star of David, the keys, then tucked them back inside her coat. “Neat.”
“I like yours, too,” she said. She tapped a finger on the cool disk around his neck.
“It’s for the subway. My brother sent it to me, for when I go to New York.” He looked down at it, holding it just under his nose. “It’s missing the silver circle in the middle, so my brother says it’s lucky.”
“It must be,” Eliza said. “I’ve never seen one like that.” Teddy let the token hang. “How do you feel?” she asked him.
“Now? Wicked. How come you didn’t tell us you had this before?”
“I was saving it.” She crammed the plastic bag into her makeup bag and the makeup bag into her backpack. “We should turn the lights off again.”
“We should do that.”
They were little kids, playing a game. She turned the light off, found Teddy’s cold face in the dark, aimed her mouth at his, and kissed him. It was so dark she was asleep, dreaming. It was a dreamy kiss.
“So are you Indian?” It seemed safe to ask, now that they were in the dark. He was shaking a little. It was probably, she realized, his first time. This made her want to pull him close and pat him on the back, which she did.
“Yeah. Gandhi, not Geronimo. But my mom’s white.”
They kissed again, leaning forcefully into each other. “Don’t worry. We’ll find her.” They kissed until a knock sounded at the door. Eliza and Teddy held their breaths, trying not to laugh. The doorknob rattled, and the visitor disappeared.
Teddy whispered, “He’s looking for us.”
Teddy didn’t answer.
“I don’t think he’d mind,” Eliza said, but maybe she wanted him to. Maybe she wanted Teddy to tell Jude. Maybe she wanted Teddy to pass her on like Bridge Fowler had, like an expensive new drug.Try it, you’ll like it.
She peeled off her coat, and the coat, electrified with static, zapped the air. A shock of blue sparks sputtered between them. “Whoa,” they said together. She found her way up onto the sink again. His cold hand found her knee, and then her hip, and then the long, goose-bumped length of her arm, and then the sleeve of her T-shirt, and then darting through this opening, the hand swallowed a breast whole.
Les was wrong. She wasn’t young. She didn’t want to save anyone; she wasn’t in love with other people’s suffering. She wanted to be consumed by it, eaten alive.
Jude roamed. They had split up—Teddy upstairs, Jude downstairs—but Jude searched upstairs, too, wandering the hall, trying doorknobs, looking not only for Eliza but now for Teddy, Delph, Kram, anyone but Tory, for beer, for the bathrooms, all of which seemed to be locked. He drank a watery centimeter of beer from an abandoned cup, but it only made him thirstier. He found the kitchen phone and called Delph, not caring how late it was, and left a message after his father’s nerdy voice: “This is Jude. Where are you?”
Days seemed to have passed, whole, eventless weeks, since the girl had knocked on the driver’s-side window. She had a wall of blond hair and a low-cut top that Jude stared down as she leaned over, cleavage that went and went. Could they move their car, please? They were blocking her way. And hey, actually, was this their car? Um, not really. It was their friend’s. They’d go get him.
On a wicker love seat on the back porch, Hippie was passed out in a Santa hat, his glasses knocked askance. He’d graduated the year before, but he still hung out with the high school set, cruised his bike around the school parking lot each afternoon. The story was that in exchange for pot, Hippie was under Tory’s protection, which meant that instead of being robbed by Tory, Hippie chose to supply him. Leaning over, Jude nudged his shoulder, and Hippie sat straight up, palming the leather fanny pack at his waist.
Jude said, “Hey, you got anything left?”
Hippie squinted at him. An icy wind blew through the porch screen. “Who are you again?”
“Jude. Jude Keffy-Horn.”
Hippie adjusted his glasses. “Your mom’s the Glass Lady?”
“How do you know my mom?” It wasn’t until Jude had asked the question that the answer became obvious. He’d never wondered where his mom got her pot since his dad left town.
Hippie said, “We’ve traded services a few times.”
Jude did not like the sound of that. He tried to banish the image of his mother engaged in a business exchange with Hippie. “How about a dime for some of my mom’s glass? That’s a good deal.”
“Hippie’s not doing any trading tonight,” said Hippie.
“Or how about this?” Jude reached into the inside pocket of his coat and revealed two round, white pills, fuzzy with lint. “A little vitamin R. I’ll toss them in.”
“Hippie takes cash.”
“Come on, man. Be a friend.”
“Sorry, brother. Can’t help you out.” Hippie leaned his head back against the love seat. From the pool table behind him, Jude took a pool stick and thrust it like a javelin through the porch screen, startling himself and Hippie, who leapt up from the couch. The wind whistled through the hole in the screen.
“Screw you,” Jude said. “You’re lucky I don’t steal that fag bag off you.”
He kicked open the screen door, trundled through the snow, and pissed into a dark corner of the backyard, leaning a hand on the cold, slickly painted fence, drilling a steaming hole in the snow. As a kid he had done this with his father many times, stood beside him in the outdoors and pissed with pleasure into snow or gravel or grass, the sun or the moon on their faces.
It was just after his ninth birthday that his dad had left. This day was always the same. The false jubilation, the snow.
“You making pee pee, Maybelline?”
Jude zipped up. When he turned around, Tory Ventura was a black silhouette against the distant floodlight on the porch. Behind him were five or six more silhouettes. What remained of Jude’s earlier bravado quickly sank.
“That’s him,” said Hippie’s voice.
“That’s him,” said a girl, the girl who had discovered Jude and Teddy in the car.
Tory stepped closer. Jude could see only his outline, his moon-limned shoulders and knuckles. “You been vandalizing my house, Maybelline? You been messing with my car?”
The bonfire shivered at the far end of the yard, crackling with the smoky voices of the figures standing around it.
“It was unlocked,” Jude said, ignoring the first question. “We were just trying to stay warm.” How the fuck hadn’t he known that Tory Ventura drove a LeBaron?
Tory stepped to Jude’s left, and Jude stepped to the right, doing a little do-si-do. The light now fell flat on Tory, revealing his face to Jude, all but his deep-set eyes, darkened with circles below, as though with permanent paint, and Jude whiffed a swift air-gun shot of the beer on Tory’s breath. “You come to my party without an invitation,” Tory said, “and then you destroy my property?”
“I didn’t mean to,” Jude said. “I was supposed to meet someone.”
“You’re going to have to pay for that,” Tory said, and for a moment Jude thought he meant money.
Then Tory took a step forward and shoved Jude back into the snow. It wasn’t a particularly brutal shove, but he didn’t try to get up. The snow had stopped falling and the sky was clearing, a gauzy cloud traveling over a spray of 3-D stars. Down the waist of his jeans, the packed snow numbed his back.
“You think you and your little friend can just walk in here, you little freak?”
Tory kicked at the snow, his boot stopping just short of Jude’s face. Snow pelted the molars in Jude’s open mouth, the inside corners of his blinking eyes. He had never been jumped before, and he braced himself for the boots. More than any other moment in that endless and disappointing day, he wanted to be blacked out, knocked out, out cold, gone. But when the boots came, they kicked him over, flipping him onto his belly like a fish in a pan. Coming down on his chin, he bit his tongue. Warm blood filled his mouth. He heard the zip of a belt through belt loops and then he felt the belt, not on his back but around it. The others held him down while Tory threaded the belt around Jude’s trunk, clamping his hands behind his back and cinching it over his crossed wrists. They grunted wordlessly, as though lassoing a calf. Jude closed his eyes. Then, through the ear pressed to the ground, the ear listening for his tribe to come stampeding to his rescue, he heard the gentle trickle of liquid, a tributary making its slow way through the crystals of snow, and he opened his eyes to see the golden pool forming before him. Beer. He opened his jaw for it as Tory shoveled in the handful of soaked snow—he struggled to bite down on his knuckles, but already his mouth was too full—and just as he heard the woodpecker reel of laughter above, and the halfhearted protest of one of the girls, he discerned the true contents on his throbbing tongue, and tasting the ammonia through the aluminum of his own blood, his mouth stuffed open with snow as with a pair of balled socks, he gagged, and then vomited, his mouth now filling with vomit as well.
When Teddy and Eliza found him alone in the snow, perhaps ten minutes, perhaps an hour later, they were standing elbow to elbow, as though hiding something between their bodies. They unbuckled the belt and helped him to his feet. “Oh, shit,” Eliza kept saying, her hand over her mouth, but Teddy was dusting the snow off Jude’s jeans, saying, “You’re fine! You’re fine, right? You’re fine, man, right?”
Jude tried to spit into the snow. He couldn’t feel his tongue or his face.
Teddy was sort of panting. Teddy was messed up. Jude did his best to cock his head.Are you messed up?he asked with his eyes, and Teddy’s black eyes blinked back, with painstaking slowness, with remorse,Yes.
They practically had to force Eliza onto the train. She wanted to stay until they were home safely, but Jude wouldn’t let her, and Teddy pressed his hand to the small of her back as she climbed the stairs of the car. She didn’t have to ask Teddy if he was coming with her. She knew he couldn’t leave Jude now. Teddy watched the train disappear without him.
Now he let the force of the snow, falling again, carry his body down the hill, past his own street and his empty house, toward Jude’s. The antiseptic flakes burned his skin. His heart was skidding on ice.
“You okay?” he asked Jude for the fourth time.
Jude nodded, hobbling stiffly beside him. He was holding something. Out of the pocket of his jacket snaked the end of the braided belt, wet with snow. “Where were you guys?”
Teddy had hoped to find something heroic about Jude’s defeat, something that could be salvaged and spun into a story for Johnny or Delph or Kram. But now it felt unusable, a black stain, and entirely tangled with the bright memory of what he’d done in the dark while Jude lay outside in the snow. That was a story for another time, too. “Looking for you,” Teddy said.
Up ahead, the frozen lake was lit like the ocean, like there was nothing on the other side. Now that Teddy was leaving this place, he had a biting fondness for it, a feeling that was unfamiliar to him; he’d left the other cities of his childhood without regret. He kicked the snow as he walked, spraying arcs of white mixed with the pebbly dirt beneath. She’d tried to kiss him again as they dressed in the dark—he could feel her raising up on tiptoe—but he’d swooped out of the way to feel for his jacket on the floor. He’d meant to punish himself, withhold one last indulgence, but he knew by her stunned silence that he’d punished her instead. “He’s probably worried,” he’d explained, zipping up the jacket. The cold teeth of the zipper bit his hand.
“Dude,” he said now as they entered the alley behind Jude’s house, “when we go to New York, we’ll get away from that asshole. Everything will be different.”
The streetlight shone on the patch of dirt where, in the spring, Harriet planted her garden. “Yeah, for sure.” Jude stepped into the light and then through it, past the greenhouse, toward the office building next door. Teddy followed.
In front of the building’s air conditioner, Jude knelt in the snow. He put his hands on the pipes that curled at the side of the machine. Fumbling, he pinched and pulled in the dark until he found the right valve.
The last thing Teddy wanted was another experiment. His heart was still shuffling frantically, and he wanted to still it, to burrow under the warm covers on Jude’s top bunk and fall asleep. But Jude was on a mission, and he needed a partner, and after what had happened, Teddy could not refuse him. He had expected a glowing green light, something that might simmer wickedly in a test tube, but in the end the freon was a lot like the turpentine—invisible fumes, cheap and fickle, that turned you into your own ghost. They knelt, knees frozen, and sucked the valve like a straw, Jude blowing Teddy a mouthful, Teddy tonguing the night air until they were sky high, kite-light, whites-of-your-eyes fucked-up. There was a fire in the sky. There were fireworks. It was a new year. Bursts of red and gold flowered above them, petals of color fading and falling with the snow, and Teddy went up there. He felt himself float up into the alley, up over the lake, evaporating.
In the morning, it was Harriet who found them. Jude heard her before he saw her—the crunch of her boots over the snow. When he opened his eyes, the sky was twilight gray, and she was standing above him with a snow shovel hanging from her hand like a claw. He couldn’t feel his body. The world had tipped sideways.
“What on earth are you boys doing?”
Teddy was curled up on the ground beside him with his hands between his knees. His face was a mask of ice. Jude tried to answer, but he couldn’t speak.
The shovel fell. She threw down her gloves. His mother’s hand was like a hot iron on his face. She had a hand on Jude’s face and a hand on Teddy’s; she was the warm current between them. “Jude, be still,” he heard her say. “Teddy, wake up.” When Teddy didn’t open his eyes, she lifted his elbow, then dropped it. “Teddy, honey, wake up!” She clapped her hands, as though to scare a flock of crows from her garden, and the three beats echoed in Jude’s waiting ears, taking flight through the valley and up into the morning.
The Atari comes on Jude’s ninth birthday. It’s three Christmases after everybody already has one, but when his father brings the package downstairs after dinner—the whole thing wrapped in that morning’sLintonburg Free Press,the cords coiled around it and the joystick balanced on top, as if somebody had packed up the cat—Jude’s so excited he doesn’t care that his father bought it at the Ferrisburg Flea Market.
“Look at that,” his mother marvels, coming into the kitchen. She’s wearing her silky rouge-pink dress and smoking a cigarette and smelling like patchouli. She puts her hand in Jude’s curls.
“It’s got Frogger in it!” Jude says, pulling out the cartridge still wedged inside. On the wood paneling of the game system, the numbers 44.99 are written in Magic Marker, but the first 4 is in a different color than the second, and in his dad’s handwriting.
“You shouldn’t have spent so much money,” says his mother dryly to his father, who is flossing his teeth at the table.
“Nothing’s too good for my birthday boy.”
It’s the night of his parents’ New Year’s Eve party, and for once Jude doesn’t mind sharing his birthday with his parents’ friends. The house is full of eggnog and balloons, which that afternoon Jude helped to blow up. His dad rubs a stray one on Jude’s head, letting it hang above him like a cartoon thought bubble. Then he sends him upstairs, promising he’ll wake him at midnight.
In the bean bag chair in his room, on the black-and-white TV with the rabbit ears, he plays Frogger, winning again and again. He’s played it at Frederick Watt’s house, and each time he’s kicked Frederick Watt’s ass. There is no greater exhilaration than the mad dash of the frog against heavier and heavier traffic, the leap from log to log across the croc-infested waters, the perfect dance of plunking oneself safely in one of the boxes at the top of the screen, unless it’s watching one’s little sister being squashed repeatedly by a truck, two leaps into the street. No matter what those boxes at the top of the screen are or why a frog would want to be in them—each time the circus music begins again, death has been evaded, shelter has been found.
But after Prudence, crying, tired of dying, goes to bed, Frogger ceases to jump. The screen is a storm of grays, the street, the river, a jumble of shapes just out of reach. Jude removes the cartridge, blows mightily into it as he’s seen Frederick Watt do, but the thing’s broken. His heart beats with disappointment. Downstairs, Paul Simon is singing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” to which Jude and Prudence know all the verses. There’s laughing, and that high-pitched delight in women’s voices.Just slip out the back, Jack. He puts on his bathrobe and his boots and climbs out the window, down the rusty fire escape from the third floor to the first.
Through the thin yellow curtains, he can see the party taking shape in the living room, just below eye level. There are the Hausers and the Mayhews, and the lady who poses for the life drawing class Harriet teaches (she’s wearing clothes), and the Donahoes, and the rest of the botany professors and their pretty wives. The glasses in their hands are filled with liquid the color of fluoride rinse, except for Mrs. Donahoe’s, which looks like it’s filled with ginger ale. She’s wearing a sheer white dress with a slit up to her thigh. Jude kneels to find the part in the curtains. He can see Mrs. Donahoe’s nipples, and her outie belly button, which looks like a SpaghettiO. She’s examining the ice in her glass. She looks, Jude thinks, sad.
He sits up straight. He’s on the bottom rung of the fire escape, his legs dangling over the edge, and when he turns around, he can just see the roof of the greenhouse. He can see the Christmas lights blinking in the window of the office building next door—red, green, red—and the wreath of mistletoe his father has hung on the front of the camper van parked in the alley below. He can hear the front door of the house opening and closing, and he can see Mr. Donahoe, the department chair, come around the corner in his overcoat. He’s big and tall, with a shock of white-blond hair and a nose with a cleft in the middle, like one of those monster strawberries. He leans up against the side of the van, in its shadow. Jude sits very still, thinking that if he can make himself invisible, something will happen. What seems like many minutes later, his mother comes out of the house, her camel-colored coat draped around her shoulders, a martini glass in her hand. In her unlaced snow boots, she walks to the van and, unsurprised to find Mr. Donahoe there, lights a cigarette beside him. The two of them are talking close, so close Jude can’t hear them, their lips moving just a few inches apart. The van is called the Purple People Eater, because Jude’s dad painted it lavender and once fit twenty-four friends inside it.
The Donahoes have been coming over to play poker for years, dancing in the living room and smoking the Donahoes’ hookah after sending Jude and Prudence to bed. One night that summer, when his parents went to the Donahoes’ house for dinner, they left Jude and Prudence in the van parked in the Donahoes’ driveway, too cheap to hire a sitter, with their comic books and Cracker Jacks. A slumber party, Les said. Jude told Prudence ghost stories, swallowing the orange glow of the flashlight in his mouth, until she cried herself to sleep in her sleeping bag.
And one morning not long ago, when Jude asked his mother where his father was, she looked at Jude as though trying to think of a good lie, and then, changing her mind, said, “He’s on the Donahoes’ boat with Mrs. Donahoe.” She was emptying a glass ashtray in the garbage can, and she banged it so hard it split down the middle and sliced her finger open. Jude has been on the Donahoes’ sailboat before. It’s namedFeelin’ Groovy,and below deck there’s a bed.
But the way Mr. Donahoe is leaning into Jude’s mother’s hair is more businesslike than romantic, conspiratorial in the way Jude and Prudence occasionally are. They look worried, Jude thinks. He can’t hear their whispers, only the music inside, and the early fireworks bursting here and there over Tamarack Street, and over the lake, where other people are having parties. Jude’s mother pours the green liquid from her glass into the snow, drops her cigarette in the puddle, and goes inside. After she leaves, Mr. Donahoe, who once for no reason gave Jude a very valuable collector’s copy ofCaptain America 100,takes a piss beside the van, then follows her. The snow has started again, white flakes floating down like feathers in a pillow fight.
It’s snowing still, maybe several hours later, when Jude wakes up to more sounds in the alley—the slamming of the van door. Crawling from his bed, still in his bathrobe and boots, he opens the window and hangs his head outside. The bottom half of his father is disappearing into the Purple People Eater, a flashlight bobbing inside. Jude thinks he must be sleeping in the camper, as he has been known, in warmer weather, to do. Instead he emerges with the sleeping bag in his arms. He’s now wearing a pair of snow boots, a parka, and the dashiki he wore to Woodstock. He’s halfway to the greenhouse, waddling through the snow, when he stops, panting heavily, then looks up at Jude’s window.
“What?” he says.
Jude doesn’t say anything. The cold air is burning his ears and his nose.
“Come on, then,” says his father, shuffling along again.
By the time Jude reaches the greenhouse, his father has turned on all the lights—twelve overhead lamps, plugged into a network of extension cords—and the warm room is getting warmer. The light is bright and orange, and the air smells sweet and spicy at the same time. It’s been a while since Jude was allowed in here.
There is no glass, no hothouse plastic, no natural light. But it’s green, and it’s a house of sorts: an aluminum shed painted the color of a tennis court. All around—on shelves, beneath tables, in a kiddie pool that neither Jude nor his sister has ever played in—are his plants. They’re the greenest green Jude has seen all winter, and some of them, the ones wrapped in chicken wire, the ones sprouting purple flowers, are taller than he is. Jude’s father takes out his army knife. From one of the dried branches hanging upside down from the clothesline, he carefully cuts away the outer leaves, removes a thimbleful of hairy bud, and then, sitting down in the old rocking chair, packs his brown glass pipe with it. The greenhouse is the size of Jude’s bedroom—big, the whole third floor of the warehouse—and as he burrows into the sleeping bag at his father’s feet, he wishes he could sleep in here instead.
“I thought the lights weren’t supposed to be on at night,” Jude says. In the orange light his father’s left cheek is an angry red. “What happened to your face?”
His father puts two fingers to his cheek. He has a soft, pale, leathery face, with splotches of pink age spots along the roots of his hair, which he parts down the middle. Since he was a teenager he’s worn it long and stringy, to his shoulders. His overgrown beard is the same copper color, the rim of his mustache stained tobacco brown. In the summer he wears cutoff jeans and flip-flops and no shirt, walking around the house scratching the copper curls on his chest. Now he pulls the hood of his parka over his head. “Born that way, champ,” he says.
Jude puts his hands behind his head, gathering his shoulders into the depths of the sleeping bag, which smells like gasoline and his mother. She used to take it camping at Camel’s Hump with Jude’s father, who now has a piece of pot caught in his beard like a crumb. Jude asks if he can try some, but his father shakes his head.
“You let me try the eggnog with rum in it.”
“Reefer is for grown-ups. But some grown-ups are too grown-up for it. Some grown-ups think it’s unfashionable now.” His father takes a smooth hit. “I’m afraid I’m not needed here anymore, champ.” When Jude says nothing, his father asks, “You know why people smoke reefer? It’s a comfort, champ. It restores you, like sleep. It makes you like a baby again, a sleeping baby. Know what I mean?”
“No. You won’t let me try.”
“You’re already a baby. You don’t need to become one again. When you’re older, you’ll know.”
“I’m not a baby. I’m nine today.”
His father rocks slowly in his chair. “You’re right. You’re not a baby anymore.”
“Do you know what Mom and Mr. Donahoe were talking about outside?”
He stops rocking. His gray eyes, which have been rolling around the greenhouse with a liquid dreaminess, fall on Jude’s face, as though he’s just spotted him there, lying at his feet. He looks almost pleased.
“As a matter of fact, I believe they were talking aboutmoi.”
A sheet of snow tumbles off the warming roof.
“I’m going to tell you something, champ, because I need another man’s opinion. Okay?”
“Mrs. Donahoe, she’s pregnant. You know, she’s going to have a baby.”
Jude absorbs this information. As cold as it is outside, he’s hot in his sleeping bag, his forehead sweating under the lights. “Then why were they talking about you?”
“Well, because I’m the one who made her pregnant. You know how that happens and everything?”
Jude nods slowly. He knows, more or less. When he asked his mother where babies came from, she drew him a diagram in colored pencils.
“And what do you think about that?”
“Is Mom pissed?”
“Yes, she is. She’s very pissed and doesn’t want to be married to me anymore. And she’ll probably be even more pissed that I told you all this, but you should know the truth. You’re a big guy. You can handle it, right?”
Jude is lying perfectly still, even though he wants to crawl into his father’s lap and touch the red spot on his cheek. He wonders if it was Mr. Donahoe who hit him, or Jude’s mom.
“What will happen to the baby?”
“We find ourselves in a strange position. Do we keep the baby? What happens to the baby?”
“Where will it go? Does—will it be Mr. and Mrs. Donahoe’s?”
“It’s a possibility.”
“But where will the baby go if they don’t?”
His father takes a quick hit of his pipe, then puts it down on the workbench beside him. Reluctantly he exhales the smoke.
Then something occurs to Jude. “The baby’s going to be my brother or sister, isn’t it?” He was just a baby when Prudence was born. He doesn’t remember his mother being pregnant.
“Would you like a baby brother or sister? Would you like that?”
“I guess,” Jude says, because his father sounds as though he needs cheering up. His eyes are glassy and wet, like they are when he tells scary stories about Vietnam, stories he’s stolen from friends who were there. Jude remembers one about an arm in a tree, waving.
“Here’s the thing.” Jude’s father rubs his beard. “There are lots of things that can happen to babies. Sometimes—sometimes babies aren’t born at all. Sometimes when they do get born, they get raised by their parents, and sometimes they get raised by other people. For example, what’s the name of that program you and your sister watch, with the black kids?”
“Good Times?” Jude is so glad to have a question he can answer he lets out a breath.
“No, the one with the two boys and the white father.”
“Diff’rent Strokes. So, for example, those children are being raised by someone other than their real parents. They’re adopted, right?”
“So, as a matter of fact, we planned to wait, your mother and I, to tell you together, but your mother would wait forever if she could, and I don’t have that long, champ. I think you’re old enough to know.” He leans forward on his elbows, so Jude can see up into the dark spheres of his nostrils, and tells Jude that he’s adopted, too.
Jude doesn’t make a sound. He presses the sleeping bag over his nose, breathing in his mother. He smells Cracker Jacks, midnight in the Donahoes’ driveway. For a moment he thinks,Mr. Donahoe’s my dad,but that doesn’t make any sense, but nothing else makes any sense, either.
Where did he get this red hair?asked a friend of his mother’s once, pawing through it as though she’d never seen red hair before.
Jude’s father places a palm on top of Jude’s head. His touch, neither hot nor cold, shouldn’t feel like anything, but it does. His dad isn’t his dad; he’s just a man. He tells Jude that his real mother was just a teenager, and that he was adopted from a hospital in New York City when he was ten days old. “You were as little as a rabbit. You could fit right here.” He puts one finger on his thigh and one finger on his knee. “It’s quite common, really. Aristotle was adopted. Lee Majors was adopted. Lots of people are, and you wouldn’t even know it.”
Jude squints up into the bright lights. He thinks of Mrs. Donahoe’s belly button and the little lump of a person inside her. Inside his sleeping bag, he dips his finger into the warm hollow of his own navel. Later, at a less finite moment, he’ll come to imagine his nine months in utero with not only curiosity but nostalgia. He’ll understand what his father meant about marijuana—its deep, peaceful sleep; its small, fragile gift of forgetting. He’ll imagine that being high is something like being unborn, alive but not present, and when he’s savoring a mouthful of smoke, he’ll sometimes find himself swimming toward that drowsy, padded place—brainless, blind, curled in the pink womb of a stranger.
Then the room goes black. The lamps blink once, then are gone. When Jude’s eyes adjust, they find the soft light in the doorway, nine candles that illuminate his mother’s stunned face. She is wearing her coat over her dress, and her unlaced snow boots, which have tripped over the extension cord. The cake looks homemade.
In the house, the party is counting backward to one. Then it bursts into a roar.
“How could you tell him?”
Jude looks at his father sideways. He’s not sure which part she’s talking about. He wishes he could unknow all of it, just tilt his head and shake it out of his ear, like bathwater.
After the last guest has gone home, Jude’s mother comes to his room and sings to him. This is what he remembers most of all, years after his father is gone—pretending to be asleep while his mother sings at the foot of his bunk bed. Her face is lit by the slice of light through the bedroom door, and her breath smells like peppermint and liquor. She’s too drunk to remember all the words, but it doesn’t matter—he already knows them. It’s his song, the one he was named for, and she’s sung it since he was a baby. He knows all about carrying the world on your shoulders, all about letting her into your heart, all about making the sad song better.
It was two-thirty in the afternoon when Eliza woke up. She couldn’t sleep on the train, too amped from the coke and Teddy and what had happened to Jude, but by the time she’d gotten home, the sun rising orange above the Manhattan skyline, she was tired enough to crash. Now she threw off the covers and looked down at her body. She was not hungover. She was not enrolled in school. And her mother was not home. She sat up and reached for her backpack on the floor, found the slip of paper on which Teddy had scrawled his brother’s address. East Sixth Street.
In the shower she reviewed the details of last night, trying to recall if Teddy had touched the parts she washed: her wrist, her belly button, her earlobe. He had not touched her excessively. He’d been quiet and polite. The only thing new was her surprise: she’d expected this time to be different. And perhaps worse, she had the feeling that Teddy would not tell Jude what had happened. The night would be lost, a secret between the two of them, as though they’d done something wrong. Only now did it occur to her that they might have. She had done it on a bathroom sink with some guy she didn’t know, in some state she’d never set foot in again. When she did it with guys who knew her, her reputation, her money, her address, at least she was not entirely alone. She would wash off the shame of one weekend with the next.
But she did not want to wash off what had happened last night, and it was because, she decided, she liked Teddy. She had not liked Jeffrey Dougherty or Hamish Macaulay or Bridge. She had only wanted them to like her. With Teddy, though, she didn’t stop when he produced no protection. “Not on me,” he apologized, and she locked her ankles around the fragile length of his torso, as though climbing an unsteady tree, and whispered, “It’s okay.” She’d come so far, the train and all, and Teddy was sweet. He was almost certainly a virgin, disease-free.
Was that it? Did she like Teddy? Perhaps it wasn’t him she’d wanted; she only wanted something to happen. She wanted access into the life Les had left behind, a tunnel out of New York, and now she had it—a mission. Teddy needed her help. When she was dressed, contacts in, teeth brushed, makeup done, she pocketed the address, donned her headphones, and rode the 1 train to the 7 to the 6. Traveling from the Upper West to the Lower East Side could take nearly an hour, but she enjoyed the busy anonymity of the subway. She wondered what Teddy was doing, if he was thinking about her at all, if he’d stayed the night at Jude’s, if Jude was okay. It had been a cold kind of shock to find him facedown in the snow. For a moment, she’d thought he was dead. The evening had been momentous enough already, awkward but complete, and then it had ended on such an unpleasant note. They hadn’t parted on clear terms. She’d wanted to stay with them, make sure that Jude got home all right, but they’d made her get on the train, and with Jude there she and Teddy couldn’t say much but good-bye. What would they have said, if Jude hadn’t been there? And if Teddy hadn’t been there, what would she have said to Jude?
The neighborhood east of Tompkins Square Park was unknown to Eliza. Her mother was the kind of New Yorker who lamented the gentrification of the Lower East Side but, when passing a junkie on Les’s comparatively safe St. Mark’s Place, would grab Eliza’s hand and hurry her by. Eliza burned through two cigarettes while she walked from the Astor Place station, past Les’s building, across Avenues A, B, C (A: you’re Asking for it, B: watch your Back, C: you’re Crazy) and approached D (you’re Dead), watching the addresses, walking purposefully, trying to blend. She turned off her Walkman, kept her ears open. “Wassup, baby girl?” a man called from the top of his steps. But most of Alphabet City was sleeping, bums dozing peacefully in snow-padded alleys and doorways. A spiral of smoke rose out of a metal garbage can, but its effect was more reassuring than spooky. On a clear afternoon like this one she could almost believe the windows had been shot out by stray baseballs. Up ahead, the East River glistened as bluely as Lake Champlain.
On the south side of the street, the buildings were numbered haphazardly. There was no answer at apartment A in the first building she buzzed, and there was no apartment A in the second. The next building was hollowed out—no doors, no windows. She could hear the faint throttle of music, but she couldn’t tell where it was coming from. In the basement of the second building was a narrow storefront. The awning and the shuttered door were both painted the same ochre as the building, and no sign hung above it. At the bottom of the staircase that led to it, the landing was carpeted with trash, but as Eliza moved down the steps, the music became louder, and then very clear. Hardcore. She stood outside for a moment, listening to it.
I’m as straight as the line that you sniff up your nose
I’m as hard as the booze that you swill down your throat
I’m as bad as the shit you breathe into your lungs
And I’ll fuck you up as fast as the pill on your tongue!
Before she could change her mind, she knocked insistently on the metal door. No answer. She knocked again. A few seconds later, the music stopped, and a voice called, “Who is it?”
“I’m looking for Johnny?” she said.
The person on the other side struggled with the door, kicking it several times. Then slowly it squeaked open. Eliza’s eyes alighted on a guitar, a drum set, a card table, a couch, and an orange cat sitting in what looked like a dentist’s chair before landing on the blue-eyed boy of eighteen or twenty who stood in the doorway. His head was stubbled, all but bald, muscular as an apple, but the hair he did have, on scalp and cheek, was as yellow as a toddler’s. His face was heart-shaped: broad forehead, severe cheekbones, chin like a spade. He wore a small gold loop through each earlobe, a strand of wooden beads wound three times around his neck, and although it was nearly as cold inside the apartment as it was out, only a pair of camouflage shorts. From his waistband, the dark, serpentine shapes of tattoos climbed up the downy path to his navel, across the ladder of his ribs, circling the pale sinew of his arms, feathers and scales and flames and gods, sea green and devil red.
Across his chest were the wordsTRUE TILL DEATH.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, trying not to stare. “I thought you were someone’s brother.”
He tugged at one of his earrings. The nest of hair in his armpit was golden and sparkling with sweat. “What makes you think I’m not?”
Absently, she introduced herself. She must have looked like a runaway, shivering in her coat, standing on broken beer bottles in a neighborhood she didn’t belong in. Maybe that was why he was so quick to extend his hand—each tattooed from wrist to knuckle with a fat, blackX—and smiling, as though any friend of his brother’s was a friend of his, say, “Johnny McNicholas.”
On the way to the pay phone at Tompkins Square Park, walking back across the four avenues, they talked about everything but the boys’ mother. Eliza was brief on that point, because it was difficult, she realized, to relay bad news to a stranger, and because she didn’t really remember what Teddy wanted her to say. She said, “I guess your mom’s missing? He wants to know if you know where she is,” but she didn’t think that was quite right.
She almost said, “He wants to move in with you,” but how could Teddy live with him there? In the glimpse she’d gotten of his apartment, it was surprisingly—even hauntingly—neat, but the couch seemed to be the only place to sleep, and the whole room was warmed by an ancient space heater. She counted three cats. He was paying next to nothing in rent, he’d said, and the place was buried enough to serve as a tattoo studio and big enough to serve as a practice space for his band. “Prewar,” he’d joked. “Private entrance.” While he’d looked for a quarter, she’d explained her tenuous link to his brother—through her mother, Les, and Jude. Acquaintances, four times removed.
They passed two clusters of pay phones with the phones missing entirely, the arterial wires flowing to nothing. Eliza offered him a cigarette, but he declined. He was straight edge—didn’t smoke, didn’t drink.
“I heard the song,” she said, exhaling. “It’s funny, you having a brother that’s, like, the opposite of you.”
“We’re more alike than we look,” he said, and Eliza worried that she’d offended him. She hadn’t wanted to get Teddy in trouble. She hadn’t told Johnny anything about last night.
“I don’t know Teddy that well, actually.”
In the phone booth at the corner of Tompkins, a man was sleeping. Johnny knocked gently on the glass to wake him and, addressing him by name, asked if he could use the phone.
“You got to call your old lady, Mr. Clean?” The man stumbled out of the booth, the smell of urine following him out into the cold.
“You know it, Jack.” One of the man’s eyes coasted luridly over Eliza, staring through her, before he wandered into the park. The tents across the park were blue and yellow and army green, made out of cardboard and bedsheets and tarps, drooping with snow, and she might have thought she was in a third world country, or on a battlefield, or at some abandoned circus, if she hadn’t known she was standing in her own hometown. The park was full of tents, and this was why it was called Tent City, and seeing it she felt a dull stab of shame and distaste. Not long ago she had heard on the news that a man had frozen to death in this park. Or maybe it was another one.
“Is that guy blind?”
Johnny looked up from the number he was dialing. “He’s just a faker. Hang around a sec, would you? Make sure I have the right number?”
She’d been hoping to, of course. She wondered if there was a gracious way to insert herself into Johnny’s conversation. She would linger at a distance, pretending not to eavesdrop, and then tell him not to hang up. She’d ask Teddy how Jude was feeling, if he’d had any word from his mom, what his plans were.
“Prudence, hey, it’s Johnny McNicholas. Teddy’s brother. Remember me?”
The snow that had fallen the week of Christmas had hardened into slick, icy mounds, stretching across the park like the tentacular roots of trees. She missed the cold purity of New England.
“Who did?” Johnny asked.
Eliza thought of the snow that had fallen over them last night, the flakes like small, wet mouths, whispering.
“Where is he?”
Johnny was standing up straight in the booth, gripping the phone cord. Eliza pulled the collar of her coat tight around her ears. She had been too young when her father died to remember her mother’s face when she got the call, but she’d imagined it. She had not known until now that she’d imagined it, but she had, a thousand times; she knew this grim dream as well as she knew her mother’s voice.
Johnny’s eyes froze, and then darted for a place to land, and then pinned her where she stood.
Prudence hadn’t gone with them to the hospital. The vehicle into which Jude’s stretcher was fed had room only for their mother. The sirens had woken her, and by the time she’d found her bathrobe and slippers and dashed down the stairs, the paramedics were already loading the boys into the twin ambulances, their bodies draped in blue blankets, and from the look of them there was no reason to believe that one was alive and one was dead. The same substances were discovered in their systems—THC, alcohol, petroleum distillate, and chlorofluorocarbons—except in Teddy’s there was also cocaine. Whether this distinction was of significance the doctors could not say. Her brother had fallen into a severe state of hypothermia, but Teddy had died of heart failure before he’d had the chance to freeze, had been dead all night behind their house, not far from the bed where Prudence had been sleeping.
She spent two nights at her friend Rachael’s. Rachael’s mother, who was a student at the New England Culinary Institute, practiced her foie gras on them both nights, and each time it tasted marvelous. Rachael’s father kept talking about his frat brother Rusty who’d OD’d in college, and they all went to church on Sunday morning and prayed that Teddy’s soul would be accepted into heaven. Afterward Rachael’s sister took them to the mall to buy black dresses to wear to the funeral, which was held at the same church the day after Jude was released from the hospital.
Beatrice McNicholas wasn’t there. She’d disappeared. Her housekeeping clients were questioned, but nobody had a clue where she’d gone, and as far as anybody knew, she didn’t know her son was dead. After two days, when it was determined that neither of Teddy’s parents could be found, that Teddy’s father couldn’t even be identified, Johnny, Teddy’s closest living relative, barely eighteen (who had borrowed Les’s camper van to make the drive from New York, after Eliza enlisted his help), signed the papers giving permission for his brother to be cremated.
The service was attended by Jude, Johnny, Harriet, Prudence, Kram and Delph and their parents, Rachael and her parents, the guidance counselor and two teachers from Ira Allen High School, and six or eight dutiful, well-dressed students, mostly girls, whose names Prudence knew but Teddy probably hadn’t. They had received permission to miss half of their second day back at school, and arrived on a school bus, the driver of which, a large black woman with pink curlers in her hair, also attended. The minister read a passage about shepherds and lambs. Delph played “Stairway to Heaven” on Jude’s guitar, but it wasn’t tuned. Jude wore a white button-down shirt, navy blue Dockers, a pair of Vans, and a clip-on tie borrowed from Delph.
Before Johnny returned to New York, he went through Teddy’s room in Queen Bea’s abandoned house, taking with him Teddy’s posters and clothes and record collection and the cardboard box of ashes. The rest of the family’s furnishings were sold in a yard sale organized by Kram’s mother, the proceeds from which she later sent to Johnny, folded in a cream-colored note she signedJoan,which he studied for some time before placing the name.
In the ICU, Jude had breathed warm air that tasted like the beach, listening to the Darth Vader rasp of his lungs. Salt water flowed in his veins, sugar and saline, thawing his limbs. His temperature when the ambulance arrived had been eighty-seven degrees. He had been shivering violently—his mother believed he was having a seizure—and if he’d been any colder, they said, his body would have shut down, and soon his heart would have stopped beating.
On the third morning in the hospital, the young doctor who had overseen Jude’s MRI, the one who wore a ballpoint pen speared through her elaborate French twist, led Harriet into her office. When she drew a folder from a stack on her cluttered desk, Harriet knew what was coming: the bill. She had signed three or four consent forms already, on clipboards balanced on her knee beside Jude’s bed, but no one had mentioned money, and she hadn’t mentioned that she didn’t have any. Before the divorce and for brief periods afterward, she had invested in family health care plans of the discount variety, but her children were rarely sick. It was cheaper to pay for Jude’s Ritalin out of pocket than to cover the monthly premiums. For the big things, like the children’s braces, she called Les.
She would, of course, have to call him again. She had called him the day it happened (strangely, he already knew the story—his girlfriend’s daughter and Teddy’s poor brother, who had somehow become associated, had just burst through the door with the news), but she’d been too panicked at that point to discuss finances with her ex-husband—or, for that matter, to talk to the daughter, whom she’d hoped could fill in the details of the previous evening. The detective assigned to Teddy’s case soon took care of that, questioning the girl and Teddy’s brother and Jude’s friends Kram and Delph. Jude, when the oxygen mask had been removed, volunteered that the huffing, both times, had been his idea, and that the marijuana had been Teddy’s mother’s (how easily it could have been her own!), but nobody seemed to know anything about how the boy had gotten his hands on cocaine in Lintonburg. In the end, Harriet wasn’t certain it mattered. Thankfully, the police officer was discreet, and kind; he did not wish to badger a boy in a hospital bed. No foul play had taken place, just an accumulation of poor choices.
“Mrs. Horn,” began the doctor, extracting the pen from her hair.
“Ms.I’m divorced. In fact, I never took my husband’s name. Always just Ms. Horn.”
“I hope you have some more papers for me to sign,” Harriet said lightly, putting on her glasses.
The doctor produced an exasperated smile. “Actually, I was just reviewing your son’s records. Tell me—this might come as a shock, but—has he ever been assessed for fetal alcohol effects?”
Harriet, who had been sitting, she realized, in a rather unladylike position—knees apart, back slumped, pocketbook in her lap, wearing the same sack of a dress she wore yesterday—now sat up straight. She removed her glasses, let them bob on their chain. A trivial amount of alcohol had been found in Jude’s system, but it was the freon that had caused him to pass out. And he was okay now: scheduled to go home that afternoon. She said, “Jude’s sixteen.”
“Yes, I know. Most children are diagnosed at a younger age, but not always. And I see that he’s adopted. Was he tested for birth defects as an infant?”
“I’m—I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Is anything known about the pregnancy?”
Harriet shook her head. The doctor scribbled. She knew almost nothing about Jude’s biological parents. That was the way most New York State adoptions had worked then.
“And he’s on methylphenidate. Kids with FAE or FAS are often diagnosed withADHD, often have trouble in school, even trouble with the law, which is why it’s so important to take precautionary measures. Now, the hyperactivity and dyslexia, combined with the adoption and the telling facial features, lead me to suspect—”
“Hold on, facial features? What—you have to spell things out. FAE?”
“Fetal alcohol effects, which includes fetal alcohol syndrome.” The doctor, who appeared to be all of twenty-one years old, went on to describe Jude’s cranial symptoms with a precision—as though she, not Harriet, had kissed the boy good night every day for sixteen years—that pierced Harriet’s very brittle sense of reality. She felt dazed, dizzy, listening to the list that reduced her son’s face to a series of tribal malformations. Short, upturned nose; flat space between nose and mouth; thin upper lip; small chin; short eye openings—
“Hiseye openings—are just fine. Are perfect. I—”
“Perhaps it’s a mild case,” the doctor said, not unkindly.
Harriet said nothing. She was suddenly exhausted. She had slept about ten minutes in two days.
“Think about it awhile. When Jude has had time to recuperate, bring him in.” He would just need to undergo a few tests—motor functions, language skills. The doctor recommended a birth defects specialist whose name Harriet promptly forgot. “A firm diagnosis could be helpful to you. You could consider other medications. It could help answer questions about the source of your son’s behavior.”
“The source,” said Harriet dreamily. She looked down into the gaping pocketbook on her lap. In it was the detritus of her slipshod motherhood—keys, Kleenex, aspirin, cigarettes, checks decorated with the Grateful Dead dancing bears, a Snickers wrapper, an old shopping list, and a dime bag inside an Altoids tin inside a glove, which she decided then and there to flush the next time she had the chance. She closed her eyes. She could fall asleep right here, disappear. How wonderful it would be to find the source of all this, to blame it on some other mother.
At home, she was a shadow, a voice. She flitted in and out of his dreams, in and out of his room, opening the curtains, picking up the clothes from the floor, leaving a mug of warm milk on the nightstand. Sometimes she sat at the edge of his bunk bed, humming his song but not singing the words, running a hand over his arm or ankle, still trying to return heat to his body. Most of the day and most of the night he lay curled on his side with his back to the room, his Walkman turned up, his nose pressed to the cold wall.
Delph and Kram visited every day after school, always together. One sat in the bean bag chair, one in the wooden school chair with the butt cheeks scooped out. Again and again they apologized for not showing up on New Year’s Eve—their girlfriends had dragged them to another party. If only they’d gone to Tory’s instead! Maybe things would be different.
But mostly they didn’t talk about Teddy. They talked about school, what new albums were coming out, how Kram had hidden a sensor chip in the sole of Delph’s shoe to set off the Record Room’s new security alarm. They brought things in paper bags—tapes, porn, cigarettes, candy bars, pot. They’d crack the window and smoke some together. When they climbed down the fire escape, fat Kram would pretend to get stuck in the window, trying to make Jude laugh. Then the Kramaro would roar away, fast as it could go.
She allowed him time. She didn’t want to push. She left breakfast on his desk in the morning, toast and eggs he ate at some point, leaving the crusts behind as evidence, then walked to Ash Street, where she sat in front of her table from eight in the morning to eight at night, chain-smoking, reading the same page in her library book over and over again. The bookmark was a pamphlet on FAS. On the front was a picture of a pigtailed girl on a carousel. Jude had been a happy child, exuberantly, senselessly happy, but also gloomy, and unpredictably hostile, and strange. He bit, and he kicked, and he threw. At five or six, he’d brought to her in a shoe box a collection of gifts: a button, a toy truck, some coupons she’d clipped, the husk of a beetle. When she’d responded with inadequate awe, he’d given her a black eye. His fists were still pummeling when she lifted him by the armpits, his little legs wheeling, his face sopping with sweat. Where did this person come from? she’d thought. One of her drawing students, suspecting Les, had called in the domestic violence agency from Montpelier, and she’d had to swear up and down that her abuser was in kindergarten.
A week after he came home from the hospital, she sat on his bed and said, “Jude, honey? You’re going to have to get back to school soon.” She was rubbing his calf rapidly through the blanket, as though trying to start a fire. When she saw what she was doing, she put her hands in her lap. “You don’t want to get too far behind.”
Jude said nothing. He was wearing his headphones, she realized. He was lying on his side, facing the wall, his body entwined in the sour-smelling sheet. The only times she’d heard him leave the room all week were when he crossed the hall to the bathroom, and evidently it hadn’t been to take a shower.
The next morning she came into his room before the sun rose. “Come on, babe, I started the shower.” She made the mistake of sitting on his bed, sighing loudly, and slapping him—tap, tap—on the bottom.
Into the pillow, he said, “I’m not fucking going. Ever.”
“Jude,” she warned, reaching to slip his earphones from his ears.
He spun around at her so fast she flinched. His eyes were distant and glazed, but they burned right through her. It was seven o’clock in the morning.
“You’re stoned,” she said, more to herself than to him. Of course he was. Why wouldn’t he be? What else were Delph and Kram bringing him in those paper bags?
That afternoon she listened for the jangle of the fire escape as they left his room, and then leaned into the passenger side window of Kram’s car as it was about to drive away.
“I know you think you’re helping, boys. I appreciate it, I do. But if you help him anymore, I don’t think he’s ever going to get out of bed.”
They hung their heads, nodded at the dashboard. Nobody felt compelled to look anybody else in the eye, and she was glad.
And then there was Prudence, crawling onto and across Harriet’s bed, skulking in her nightgown like that clingy old cat of theirs, depositing her sullen head on her mother’s breast. Harriet spread her open book across her lap, removed her glasses, ashed her cigarette, and kissed the part in Prudence’s hair. “What is it, babe?”
“When’s Jude going back to school?”
Every day that Jude missed school, the attendance office called with a recorded message. Two of his teachers had called. The principal, whom Harriet had had the pleasure of meeting several times before the funeral, had sent a letter, asking Harriet to come in for a conference, which she did, not bothering to take off her coat. She could feel the disapproval steaming off of him, just as it always had, dressed up in courtesies. She thanked him for his patience. Her son just needed a little more time.
“He just needs a little more time,” she told Prudence.
“How much time?”
“Pru, stop it with the baby voice. Talk to me normal.”
“How—much—time?” Prudence sassed, propping her head up on her hand.
“Your brother’s sixteen now. If he wants to drop out, there’s not much we can do about it.”
With her finger Prudence traced one of the diamonds on the faded patchwork quilt. “People are saying he dropped out, andIdon’t even know if it’s true.”
Harriet ashed her cigarette again in the ashtray on the nightstand. “People will say all sorts of things.”
“Someone said Teddy killed himself. He didn’t, did he?”
“Of course not.”
“And Rachael said someone saidJudekilled him, that the drugs were all his idea.”
Harriet put her cigarette to her lips, then removed it. “How can that be true,” she asked, “if Teddy killed himself? Which is it?”
Prudence sighed. “You shouldn’t smoke in bed.”
“You shouldn’t tell your mother what to do.”
It irritated Harriet and comforted her, the persistent morality of her secondborn. She, too, had been named for a Beatles song, a fanciful name given by fanciful parents (but it was a good song!) who couldn’t have known how apt it would grow to be.
She had a funny thought: if she had a spouse, it was Prudence. Prudence was the one who shared the worry about their Jude. But now Prudence had surprised her. She would have expected her daughter to be the one to intervene with Jude, to try to speak some sense into him, but Pru was as apprehensive around Jude as Harriet was, hovering at his door but never daring to knock. As far as Harriet knew, she had not laid eyes on her brother since he’d returned home.
What were they so afraid of? He was just a teenage boy.
The next evening, the first evening his friends didn’t come, Harriet brought dinner to his room—macaroni and cheese with sliced hot dogs—and took her seat on the bunk bed. He was lying on his stomach, facing her. No headphones, but his eyes were closed. “Jude, hi,” she said, as though she’d just been passing through the hall and decided to drop in. “Look, I’m not going to bug you about going back to school. I know you’ll go back when you’re ready.” His eyes remained closed. “I just want to tell you that, if you need medicine, we can get it for you. If you need to talk to someone, someone professional, you can do that, too. If you’re not taking your Ritalin, we can—”
Jude emitted a long, painstaking groan, intended to obscure her voice.
“Jude, they’ve got drugs for depression now. All kinds of things.”
A louder groan, flat, dispassionate.
“Jude,Jesus.” She tapped him on the bottom again, as if to turn him off, and oddly, it worked. “I spoke to one of your doctors when we were at the hospital.” She was looking at the pamphlet in her lap, speaking quickly. “She said your birth mother might have drank alcohol, drunk alcohol, while she was pregnant, and it could be the reason you’ve been having so many problems, and apparently it’s fairly common. She said there are drugs for this kind of thing, you just have to get tested, and apparently the drugs are justphenomenal. . . .” She trailed off. She placed the pamphlet on the bed beside her and gave it a pat. The fact that she had a history of communicating to her son through pamphlets with titles such asWhat Are Nocturnal Emissions?did not make her cowardice any more bearable. Still staring into her lap, she didn’t see her son’s eye, the one not pressed to the pillow, peel open, slow as a budding flower, fix itself to the side of her face, and then close.
Delph and Kram began to come separately, or not at all, and when Jude’s stash ran out and the minutes were stinging and clear, the afternoons they didn’t come were like open wounds. When they did come, they didn’t bring pot. “That fruit will kill you, dude. You should keep the brain cells you have left.” Delph said he’d run dry. He was actually thinking about giving the stuff up.
“I got money,” Jude said, staring at the slats of the bunk above him, where Teddy had drawn a marijuana leaf with a pencil. Jude’s father had built this bed.
“No you don’t.”
“I’ll pay you later.”
“You get your ass out of bed,” Delph said, “and I’ll think about it.”
But the longer he stayed in bed, the harder getting his ass out of it was. Every point of his body that touched the mattress burned, no matter how much he tossed and turned. The tissue that made up his body no longer seemed to be muscle. His limbs felt like dead branches. He looked at the pale legs lying in front of him and wondered how they could be his, how his organs powered on, oblivious.
But that night, after Delph left, while his mother and sister were eating dinner downstairs, Jude swung his legs over the side of the bed. He walked past the bathroom and down the stairs, farther than he’d walked in a month. He took all twenty-eight dollars from the leather purse hanging on Prudence’s doorknob. Then he got dressed, grabbed his Walkman, and descended the fire escape. It was easy to be quiet—his body was so feeble it could barely produce a sound. Being outside was like being on Mars. The dark itself felt bright. He could smell everything: the sweet and sour Panda Palace, the methane of Dairy Road dung. A styrofoam cup whispered across the slushy street, following him.
It took him nearly two hours to find Hippie. He was smoking a cigarette in front of Birkenjacque’s, his dog hanging off a leash.
“Weren’t you the guy who threw a pool stick at me on New Year’s Eve?” Hippie didn’t entirely remember. He just remembered seeing Tory whip that belt out—whoa. “I had no part of that, by the way. Hippie’s a lover, not a fighter.”
“No hard feelings,” Jude said, showing Hippie his money.
“Is it your friend that OD’d?” Hippie asked.
It was his curiosity on this point, Jude suspected, that softened him. Hippie gave him a cigarette, and they walked to his apartment on Sunset Court, a room over a garage on the lake, the moon shining oily white on the water. Jude bought a bag and Hippie threw in some papers and they shared a joint, sitting side by side on the couch, under a windshield-size silkscreen of Bob Marley, watchingRemington Steele.
Sometime around one in the morning, as he climbed through his bedroom window from the fire escape, every muscle of his body aching, Jude heard a door open and restless footsteps cross the floor below. He knew it was the sound of relief—Jude had gone out into the world, and he had come back.
Still, there was no more money after that night. They kept it where he couldn’t find it. That night, long after he heard the last door close, he tiptoed downstairs to Harriet’s room. His mother and sister were asleep in her bed, Harriet flat on her back, Prudence curled on her side. Only their hair touched, the bronze ends lost in each other on their pillows. On the dresser was his mother’s wallet, and in it was a single, soundless dime.
His thoughts had lingered on Eliza Urbanski, tripped across her, dragged their feet, and he had hurried them past, out of her reach, out of an unconscious respect for Teddy: she didn’t belong in the mourning of his friend. But now, sober, his head as clear as an empty fishbowl—he had finished off Hippie’s bag in two days—Jude couldn’t keep her out. He saw her red mouth, the spiderweb tear in the knee of her tights. He saw her standing over him with Teddy, elbow to elbow, silent as repentant children. Fucked up on something, fucked up in a way neither Teddy nor Jude had been before. Cocaine, someone told him later. (His mother? A cop?) No one knew whether it was the cocaine that killed him, if the huffing alone would have been enough to stop his heart. No one knew anything.
Looking for you,Teddy had said when Jude had asked where he’d been that night. Teddy was doing cocaine, and maybe he was with Eliza, or maybe Eliza knew where he’d gotten it, or maybe she didn’t. If she was lying, she wasn’t the only one.Looking for you,he’d said.
He was too sober to sleep. He played Duck Hunt on his Nintendo, leaning on his elbows at the foot of the top bunk, Teddy’s bunk, the dark room silver in the light of the black-and-white screen. By the time he finally drifted off, his brain was full of arcade dreams, the gray shapes still playing behind his eyes. He counted the raining ducks like sheep.
Two days after the pot ran out, Jude woke up to an empty house, put on his headphones and his hooded sweatshirt, and skated unsteadily back to Hippie’s apartment. No one answered his knock. He looked around for something to open the door with, found a plastic ice scraper stabbed in the snow, and for several minutes rattled its edge in the keyhole uselessly before giving up and hunting for a spare key—under the mat, in the mailbox, on the window ledge, and finally in the wooden birdhouse, where it was entombed in snow.
Inside, the place was dead still. He opened cupboards, closets, drawers, rattled around the contents of the kitchen trash. In the bedroom, a mangy dog lounged across the bed, eyeing Jude with a restless boredom. When Jude approached, the dog didn’t move. Jude whispered, “You’re not a very good guard dog, are you?” The dog—was it a girl dog?—raised her eyebrows. Were they eyebrows? “Or are you a good dog?” he asked her, his voice strangely high. “You know I’m good?” He placed a tentative hand on her head. He could feel the grit of dirt in her fur, the bony shape of her skull. He worked his hand into the mass of her neck, her long, tight belly, smooth as the curve of a guitar. For a few minutes he lay down on the bed beside her, his arm looped around her warm body, feeling her breathe, feeling his own body tingle and pulse.
In the closet were overalls and lumberjack flannels, Birkenstocks and boots. Under the bed he found sleeping bags, a hiking pack; on the dresser was an envelope of photographs. “Where does he keep it, girl? Huh?” Most of the pictures were of Hippie and his family at Christmas, Hippie in his Santa hat, people pulling ribbons off of gifts, but the last few in the roll were of a different party—a group of stoners raising peace signs. It was Tory Ventura’s house. With a start Jude recognized an overexposed sliver of Teddy—eyes closed, midstride, his mouth forming a silent, careless word.
Jude folded the picture and put it in his wallet. Turning to go, as though it was what he had come for, he almost missed the bathroom. He ducked back in, opened the medicine cabinet, the shower curtain, and in a sealed bucket under the bathroom sink, found four gallon-size freezer bags, each packed full of pot. Jude pressed the cool plastic of one of them to his face. It smelled like a miracle. It was as big as a loaf of bread, probably half a pound. Hippie wouldn’t miss one of them. He would miss it, but it was better than taking all of them. Jude skated home with the bag tucked in the pocket of his sweatshirt. He looked pregnant.
He was halfway inside his room, one leg on each side of the open window, the skateboard tossed in on the floor, when he saw that his mother was sitting on the bottom bunk of his bed. She had an issue ofThrasheropen on her lap.
“Where were you?”
Jude sat straddling the windowsill, looking down into the alley, three stories below. His room had begun to secrete its own body odor. He closed his eyes, exhausted and weak. For a moment he thought he might throw up.
He felt himself sway, slip. When he opened his eyes, his mother had caught him by the hood. She helped him swing his leg over the sill and slide down to the floor.
“What happened to you? Where’d you go?” She closed the window against the cold. “I’m glad you’re getting out.” She gathered her skirt and squatted down beside him. The handkerchief in her hair and the moccasins on her feet made her look as though she were foraging for food in the wilderness, or coaxing an animal out of hiding. “But you’re not strong enough to climb up and down that fire escape. Whatisthat?” She came closer, knelt in front of him, and raised a hand toward Jude’s belly. With a force that surprised them both, he smacked her hand away. She fell back on her heels and sat staring at him for a few seconds, wide-eyed with shock. Then she stood up and hurried out of the room.
He hid the stash as Harriet would, nesting it inside a jacket, then inside his backpack, then under the bed. Then he went to the bathroom and stepped into the shower, but the water hurt his skin too much to stand under it. He sat on the floor of the shower, leaning his head against the tile, half sleeping in the steam.
When he returned to his bedroom, he found that his bed—both bunks—had been made. Lying atop the fresh sheets of the bottom one was the plastic bag. Except for a glaze of fine, green dust, it was empty.
Delph came over the next evening. He did not bring pot. “Guess who came into the store today.” He sat leaning forward in the desk chair, his elbows on his knees, rubbing his palms together. “Hippie.” He’d been looking for Jude, Delph said—did he know where he was? “I’ll hand it to you, dude—you have some balls.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“That there was no way a trustworthy guy like Jude Keffy-Horn would have swiped his weed.”
“Thanks,” Jude said.
“No sweat. But you know what this means. Tory won’t be far behind.” Delph looked at his hands. “You know better than anyone that you don’t want to piss off Salvatore Ventura.” Jude could see he was struggling. Delph didn’t want to get involved in Jude’s problems, but because he’d left Jude and Teddy hanging at Tory’s party, he already was. “I’d lay low for a while. That’s all I’m saying.”
Delph left it at that, climbed out the window and down the fire escape, and when Jude woke up the next morning, his mother was outside the window, standing on the same landing. She was fastening to the railing of the fire escape what seemed to be a padlock, which was looped through what seemed to be a chain, which was looped, tight as a fishing line, through the handle at the bottom of the window. Jude watched her through the glass. “It’s for your own good,” she called, her voice nearly swallowed up by the wind outside. “And don’t you dare try to break the glass! You’ll bleed to death.”
Jude suspected his mother wanted not only to lock him in but also to lock others out, and through the teeth of his anger, he was grateful. Should Hippie or Tory or one of their comrades pay him a visit, Jude would be bolted safely inside.
He stared at the belly of the top bunk. He was so sober he could feel every particle of his fear, as distinct as the hair on his arms.
So when a man appeared at the same window several days later, Jude thought he might be hallucinating, a trick of a mind gone unstimulated for too long. He was listening toWasted . . . Againon the stereo and playing Mario, the cord stretched up to the top bunk. A sound like a key in a door fluttered in his ear, then a series of minor crashes across the fire escape. Jude turned drowsily around, and as he watched a person climb through the window, the game control slipped out of his hands and off the bunk, then clattered to the floor. It was snowing outside, a soft, steady snow, and when the man emerged fully in the bedroom, there were snowflakes in his beard, crystalline, whole. He was wearing a pair of Carhartt’s, a white linen shirt, a lined denim jacket, and a New York Yankees cap. Only when Jude saw the shadowed eyes beneath its brim did he recognize the man as his father.
“Sorry,” said Les, blinking away the snow. “Didn’t mean to alarm you.” He held up a key in one hand and the wet padlock in the other. “Your mother sent it to me.”
Jude sat straight up in bed, his head almost grazing the ceiling. “What are you doing here?” His heart was slowing, relieved—he’d been certain that the person at the window had been sent by Hippie.
“Kidnapping you,” Les answered, dancing his fingers in the air. “I’ve come to take you away from this suicide trap they call a town.” He took off his hat and shook the snow from it, revealing a crown of matted hair, cut short now, and a glossy bald spot. He smelled of cigarette smoke. “Don’t tell the girls I’m here yet, okay? I want a few minutes with you first, man-to-man. Man-to- crazed-teenager.” He looked around the big, unlit room, at the wool rug, the yellow bean bag chair, the unmade bunks with their pillows kicked to the floor. He approached the poster hanging over the desk—H.R. of the Bad Brains, life-size, dreadlocked—and sized him up. Months ago Teddy had stabbed a cigarette in H.R.’s mouth, but last week, in a moment of desperation, Jude had reclaimed it, and now there was a hole there. The cigarette had tasted like sawdust. On the desk Les set down the lock and key, and turned on the metal desk lamp, illuminating the tapes and records scattered across the floor. The unspooled tape from one of the cassettes lay tangled on the rug. “Turn this stuff off, can we?”
Jude said nothing. In addition to Black Flag, the Nintendo music was still playing. Mario had fallen off a cliff and the blackGAME OVERscreen was flashing.
“I’m sorry,” Les said. “Do I have the right bedroom?” He lowered the volume on the stereo himself, then walked over to the TV—he knew right where the button was—and snapped it off. “She said you weren’t talking, but Christ. You dropped your thing,” he said, picking up the game controller and handing it up to Jude.
“You look different,” Jude said. He didn’t extend his hand. Les put the controller on the bed. “You’re bald.”
“Yeah, well, you look a little different, too. What’s with the hair?”
Jude put a hand to his mangled locks. He’d forgotten he had hair.
Les was shrugging out of his wet clothes, his head bent to his waist, tossing them on the rug in a soggy pile. “You got some dry clothes your old man could borrow?”
Naked to his underwear, Jude’s father was goose-bumped and hairy. He had wide, square shoulders and a long torso, kidney-shaped love handles hanging over the waist of a pair of red briefs. His arms were white and meaty, his legs football-coach stout. Jude recognized the lightning-shaped scar on his ankle, the one he’d had since he nicked himself with a chain saw, barefoot, while slicing their bathtub couch in half. Grudgingly, Jude eased down from the top bunk and went to his dresser. He found his navy blue sweatshirt, the one with the pocket he’d hidden the pot in, and a matching pair of sweatpants. He held them out to his father.
“So, I hear you’ve been stealing large amounts of illegal drugs.” Les stepped into the pants, almost losing his balance, and after sniffing the sweatshirt, pulled it over his head. “You making a habit out of that?” His hair was sticking up like Jude’s now.
“Not really,” Jude said, climbing back up to the top bunk.
“That’s good.” Les sank into the bean bag chair in the corner. It made a sound like a ball deflating, swallowing him up. “Smoking pot is one thing. Stealing it is another. I’m very sorry about your friend Teddy.”
Jude crawled back under the covers and pulled them tight to his chin. “Why?” he said to the ceiling. “You didn’t know him.”
“I’ve met his brother,” Les said, and Jude remembered with reluctance that it was Les who had paid for the funeral, who had lent Johnny his van.
They were both quiet for a while. On the record player, the last song ended, and the arm crossed back to its resting pose. When Jude looked down at his father, his knees were spread wide and the crook of his elbow was covering his eyes. Was he sleeping?
“Why didn’t you just come in the front door? Why’d Mom send you the key?”
Les let his arm drop to his lap. His gray eyes were small and glazed. He was exhausted, or high, or both. “For safekeeping,” he answered. “She was afraid she’d break down and unlock you.”
It was February. Black History Month, the Winter Olympics, Valentine’s Day carnations sold in the cafeteria for a dollar apiece. Prudence had no valentine, but she had long entertained the notion, as far-fetched as she knew it was, that her father might return, and that he’d bring her flowers—an offering, an apology.
But when he appeared in the kitchen one day, he was carrying only a pair of shoes, as though he were curious what was in the fridge. Her mother had warned her he was coming—her parents had agreed it was best that Jude live with his dad for a while—but still it stung that Les had come to see her brother, not her. Jude, the adopted one, had always found a way to hijack the attention of his parents and the sympathy of strangers. No one seemed to remember that Les had abandoned her, too.
“How’s it going, Lester?” she asked, with the theatrical boredom she’d practiced.
Les, unruffled, said, “Asi, asi,” seesawing his hand. “How you doing, kid?”
Prudence put her hands out in front of her, as if doing push-ups against a wall, and pumped her arms twice.
“What’s that, sign language? What’s it mean?”
She let him plant a scratchy kiss on her forehead. Then he put on his shoes and said he was going to round up some dinner.
“He’s here,” Prudence told her mother, opening her bedroom door without knocking. Her mother, who already knew, who also had been listening all day for the sound of the van, nodded but didn’t look up from her book. “Why does Jude get to go to New York?”
“Do you want to go, too?”
“With Dad? No.”
Prudence stood, studying her mother, whose socked feet were propped up on a pillow. Her cigarette hung over the ashtray, smoldering. This was the bed her parents had slept in. This is where they’d made Prudence. Prudence, visited by nightmares, had climbed into this bed a thousand times, pressed between her parents’ warm bodies.
“Are you wearing my blue eye shadow?”
“No,” said her mother.
“He’s pretty bald,” Prudence pointed out.
At this, Harriet raised both eyebrows, but still her eyes hung on the page.
When Les returned from his errand, he brought with him a cardboard carton of milk shakes and a bag of Al’s French Frys that smelled strongly of cheeseburgers. He dragged the bean bag chair to the middle of Jude’s room and turned on the Nintendo. With the fingers of one hand he played the buttons of the control pad like a keyboard, the other hand retrieving fries from the bag.
“Make yourself at home,” Jude said, taking a seat beside him on the rug. He took the controller out of his father’s hand and started playing, sending Mario leaping across the screen.
“Do you know there’s a Kmart on Garden Boulevard? And all these gas stations. I barely recognize this town. It looks like Disney World.”
In the reflection of the TV, Jude could see the two of them, the shiny blocks of their distorted foreheads.
“So that’s how you do it,” Les said, his mouth full. “Very nice. How do you make him jump?”
“A,” Jude couldn’t help answering. “The red button.”
“Makes you go fast.”
Les nodded. “Want a cheeseburger?”
Jude said no, even though he did.
“I got one for your sister. Her favorite.”
“She doesn’t like them anymore,” Jude said. “She mostly eats salads and stuff.”
“What for? Is she a vegetarian?”
“I don’t know.”
“She’s not having sex, is she?”
Jude fumbled with the controls, tripping over a turtle. “Definitely not,” he said.
“I need your help with this one,” Les said, sucking a sticky finger. “Do I try to talk to her, or do I give her some space?”
“Who? Prudence or Mom?”
“Prudence,” Les said, waving his hand.
Jude thought about it, zipping through the clouds, through strings of musical coins. “You could ask her to come with us to New York,” he said. He hadn’t agreed to anything himself. He was considering his options. If he lived with his father, he would have to avoid Teddy’s brother. At the funeral, Jude had been too chickenshit to approach Johnny. He had only stared at the back of his bald head, a numb sort of amazement strangling his guilt (how much the back of his head looked like Teddy’s!).
But New York was a big city. If he stayed with his mother, Hippie and Tory would surely find him. Stealing pot wasn’t a crime that could be reported to the police, but he did not want to find out what other punishments were in store. He did not want to end up in the hospital again. Plus, who was Jude going to get his pot from now? His father had pot. His father wanted Jude to live with him. So what if his mother had put him up to it? If he stayed here, his body would shrink and atrophy, like a limb in a cast.
“I don’t know if there’s anything for Prudence in New York,” Les said. “She’s sort of a small-town girl, isn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Jude admitted.
“She’d get swallowed up by New York. Besides—where would she sleep?”
“Where wouldIsleep?” Jude asked.
“In the loft,” Les said. “Kind of like a bunk bed, with a ladder and everything. Only below you is the living room.”
“Do you have cable?”
“Check,” Les said. “No video games, though. You’ll have to bring yours.”
“Do I have to go to school?”
“ ’Fraid so, champ.”
Champ. After Champlain’s Loch Ness monster. He’d forgotten his dad called him that.
“Forget it, then,” he said. “I’m not going to school.”
Les blew his nose in a napkin, then tossed it across the room at the trash can. He missed. “All right, fine. New York public schools are dreadful, anyway. You’d be safer on the street. But you’ll have to find some kind of gainful employment. And you have to promise not to tell your mother.”
Jude pressed the pause button. “When are we leaving?”
“First thing in the morning. We’ve got to get out of this house. Can you feel the negative vibes in this place? That’s what happens when you get more than one female under one roof. They all start bleeding on the same schedule.” With effort, he stood up from the bean bag chair and stretched. “Get your stuff together. And get a shower and a shave, will you? You look really awful.”
In the bathroom, Jude acquainted himself with the things he’d need on his trip, all of the essential items that belonged to him. His retainer case, Noxzema, deodorant. He stepped all the way into the shower this time, letting the warm water pelt his skin until the burning became uniform, sufferable. He shampooed with Prudence’s pink, perfumey bottle, but it did nothing for his hair but work it into a tangled, fragrant nest. Standing in front of the steamy mirror, bath towel wrapped around his waist, he combed at it, knot by knot. Then, with the inside of his wrist, he cleared the steam from the mirror and put his face close to the glass.
He looked, of course, nothing like his father. He had never looked like anyone. That was why it had been such a shock to open the pamphlet his mother had left him—days later, bored out of his mind—and see the faces that looked like his. He had felt as though he were looking at a family photo album, brothers and sisters he didn’t know he had. It had given him a chill. And yet he’d opened it again and again, waking up in the morning, in the middle of the night, brushing a finger over the wide path between his nose and mouth. He did so now, stroking each hair. He looked hard in the mirror. There were a lot of them. Thick, bristly, rust red hairs.
Teddy had started shaving not long before he died, had made a show of walking around with little kernels of bloody toilet paper stuck to his neck. Jude hadn’t had anything to shave. But while he’d been sleeping away the last six weeks, his peach fuzz had gotten fuzzier. He ran a finger over his chin, across his cheeks, between his nipples, under his arms, untucked the towel from his waist—he was hairy as hell. From under the sink, he took one of his sister’s pink plastic razors, and from the shower, he took her shaving cream. This time he didn’t fear the image that came, uninvited, to mind—Prudence standing naked, right here where he stood. Maybe it was because he’d finally caught up with her, or because he already sort of missed her, or because for once, luck had come to him, and not her. He slathered on the cream, uncapped the razor, and went slowly, sensibly about it. When he was done, his face was bleeding in three places, but he liked the burn of the hot water on his skin. His cheeks were as smooth as his sister’s.
And then there was the hair on his head. When he combed at the knots again, tears came to his eyes. Another hunt under the sink and he found the rusty nail scissors, the ones that Prudence had hurled at his face, and with them he snipped away at the most hopeless of the kinks. Before long a heap of hair the size of a small red rodent had amassed in the bottom of the sink. One devil-lock-size clump fell heavily to the bath mat. What was left he lathered with shaving cream, the gel foaming white, his head flowery and cool. He circled the razor around his head in a ring, from his ears to the tip of his quite nicely shaped skull, until there was nothing left but scalp.
Then he stuck his head under the faucet, letting the warm water wash the hair down the drain. He looked in the mirror. He was round and pink, like a baby. A blue vein swam up his neck from his collarbone to his temple. He was tired and sweaty from the steam.
He took another shower, scouring himself with the fresh bar his mother had stocked in the soap dish. He remembered all the ways she’d looked after him—bringing him meals, folding his laundry, the pairs of socks curled up like snails. His father had never done those things for him. That was what was so strange about imagining Les with Johnny McNicholas, comforting him after Teddy died. Until now, clean and clearheaded, Jude hadn’t thought that someone else might have needed taking care of.
The classrooms were cold, the buildings square, the grounds skirted by leafless bushes as stiff as coral. The teachers were overdressed. The kids were gloomy and skittish, with poor posture, aggrieved by their low PSAT scores. Eliza decided if she heard one more person say “I’m just not good at taking tests,” she would hang herself. Every weekend she could, she took the train from Jersey an hour back to her mom’s place in New York.
Perhaps because the curators of the school were accustomed to this breed of luckless, moneyed offspring—those plagued by attention deficit disorders and indiscreet drug habits—they were as surprised as Eliza herself that she was,when she applied herself,good at taking tests. She was good at reports and papers and presentations, a diorama of the Globe Theatre, with a square of tissue paper for each window, canary yellow. To say that she had lost herself in her studies would imply a surrender, an accident; she was lost, but she had lost herself willfully, as one does when being chased. Into each fluorescent classroom she leapt sharpened pencil first, into Western Civ and British Lit and Algebra II and Attic Greek, into the labyrinth of protasis and apodosis and second aorist subjunctive active and her favorite, the optative of wish:
May we be killing / kill the goat.
If only we may be killing / kill the goat.
I wish that we may be killing / kill the goat.
Cocaine had been until then purely recreational; only now did she understand its functional power. She stayed up late, long after lights-out, listening to the Buzzcocks on her headphones and studying flashcards by flashlight until her contacts burned her eyes; she woke early, readThe Canterbury Talesin the dining hall over breakfast: a cinnamon-raisin bagel, dry. It was all she could get down. For her intramural, she swam lap after lap. That she had no friends was of help. She didn’t bother making any. She was glad enough to be rid of the old ones. She sniffed around only enough to find some Izod who sold coke, which she cut in her dorm room on a Bakelite hand mirror while her roommate Shelby Divine was at squash practice or in the bathroom, or behind the sheet Shelby had hung on a clothesline between their beds, for privacy. The most skin Eliza had seen on Shelby was her wrists. “I’m not a lezzy, you know,” Eliza said, the first time Shelby had disappeared behind the sheet in her bathrobe. “Oh, I know,” Shelby had apologized. Shelby was from Charleston. She had a voice like sweet tea.
One evening late in January, as the two of them lay belly-down on their beds, the curtain drawn back, textbooks spread before them, Shelby asked, “Who’s T.M.?”
On the front of her chem folder, Eliza had drawn a pulpy heart, stabbed with an arrow, Teddy’s initials bleeding fatly inside. She slipped off her headphones. “Teddy,” she said, surprising herself. “Teddy McNicholas.” She hadn’t spoken his name aloud before, and the peal it produced was more solid than the hollow sound that had tolled and tolled in her head.
“Is he your boyfriend?”
Shelby was wearing an ankle-length nightgown of virginal white and a spotless pair of socks. Eliza pressed her pencil into the seam of her open book. “Not exactly.”
“Was he your first love?”
Shelby turned on her side. The bedsprings creaked. “Well, who is he?”
Eliza wished she had a cigarette to take a drag from now. She would send a cloud of smoke out into the black-and-white night, dense and full of meaning, interpretable.
“He’s a boy who died,” she said flatly, picking up her pencil, but there were real tears in her eyes, for she wasn’t selfish, she wasn’t unfeeling, she wasn’t. But were the tears for Teddy, or for her? Were they for what she’d lost, or what she’d done?
She hadn’t given a thought to the cocaine. She’d nearly forgotten about it—barely two lines apiece!—until the look Johnny had given her there at the edge of the park, the phone hanging limply in his hand, her nostrils burning in the cold.
Teddy was a big boy, she told herself. He could have said no.
If only he’d gotten on that train with her!
She had wanted to make something happen; she had asked for heartbreak and she’d gotten it. And it was bigger than anything in her life. She wanted to forget Teddy, and she wanted something to remember him by.
She was aware of this paradox in a subliminal way, and of Johnny’s and Jude’s part in it. She wanted to know them, too; she wanted to forget them. She tried hard to drown them out. She ignored the blank page of her underwear, didn’t count the days, thought past and around and through them. If she occupied her brain—If only we may be killing / kill the goat!—she could think herself out of it. Because she couldn’t be. There was no fucking way.
The thing was, no one in New York knew Teddy was dead, because no one in New York had known Teddy existed. New York was its own solar system. Maybe once Sid or Kevin had seen a letter hanging around, had said, “Hey, who’s this from?” and Johnny’d said, “My kid brother.” Maybe not. Maybe someone had said, “Hey, Johnny, you got any family?” And maybe Johnny, keeping it simple, had said, “Not really.” He’d left Teddy with his mom so he could live with his dad, and after his dad went to jail, Johnny didn’t go home. He was doing his own thing. He’d send Teddy a mix tape now and then, a subway token with the center cut out. Now the subway token was gone, who knew where.
Through January, into February, in Chuck Taylors and undershirt, over cracked sidewalks, under claws of elms, Johnny skated. He tried to get lost, make a maze of the city, turned north, then left, then right, then west, chased a bumper sticker, a blue jay, turned up the volume on his Walkman. Through both sides of Minor Threat’sOut of Stepand through both sides again, through paradise and slum, past falafel cart and flower shop and carriage ride, over cobblestone and manhole, past brownstone and mirrored steel, past Les Keffy’s lavender Dodge van, on a different block each week, the parking tickets on the windshield faded and dried like autumn leaves, past the vacant, piss-stinking newsstand, past one building that had burned down, past another, past the dealers and the crackheads and the squeegee men, past every bum who knew his name, past every thug who’d stared him down,Go ahead, asshole, kill me,but no one did, and always when he stopped, lungs packed full, expelling white breath into the air, there would be the city, inexorable and vast, and a subway station that threatened to lead him home.
He skated to the river, to the bodega, to Venus or Sounds or Some Records or Bleecker Bob’s, or Angelica Kitchen, or across the Williamsburg Bridge to the Hare Krishna temple in Brooklyn, to shows at CBGB, the Ritz, the Pyramid, the Limelight, Irving Plaza,ABCNo Rio, Wetlands, Tramps, skating home in the dark bruised and frosty with sweat, standing under the showerhead until the water went cold. He did push-ups and sit-ups and chin-ups—up! up! up!—cleaned the minifridge, fed the cats, made the bed, made a pot of chamomile tea, teapot whistling on the hot plate, the space heater and the stereo and the tattoo machine, the mouth of the guy he was tattooing, staring down the needle for hours, at hair follicle and inky vein, busy busy busy, and the mouths of all the guys in his band, and all their amplifiers, as much noise as electronically possible without blowing the circuits, that was the trick.
Sometimes his skateboard would take him to the southern point of Manhattan, and he’d look out over the bay past the dollar-green Lady Liberty to the distant biscuit of Staten Island. Somewhere over there was the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, where his father and uncle lived. Now that his mother had disappeared and his brother was dead, they were the only family he had left, but his father was dead to him, too, as dead as his mother had told him he was in the first place.
For his antiseptic lifestyle, plus the white T-shirt, bald head, and gold hoops, Johnny had been dubbed by his friends Mr. Clean. He hadn’t had a drink or eaten meat or smoked a cigarette in almost two years. There was no reason to start now. The sannyasis at the Hare Krishna temple promised that renunciation of desires brought peace.
She chose a New Jersey town she’d never set foot in before, whose name she’d heard uttered only by the train conductor. Cissy’s older sister had had one, and Eliza’s own mother had had two. You called; you made an appointment. Eliza made the call from the hall phone in the dorm, cut swimming that afternoon, and walked from the station to a clinic in the corner lot of a Grand Union shopping center, next door to a travel agency. One of the clinic’s store windows was shuttered with plywood; the miniblinds in the other were shut tight.
Inside the door, behind a chest-high counter, stood a security officer dressed in a blue shirt and tie, like a person who worked in a museum or airport. His mustache was tobacco stained like Les’s, and his name tag saidBILL T.He gave her a brisk nod, not quite looking at her, and made a motion with his hand—C’mere—that implied he wanted her to hand something over. A form of some sort? Her fake ID, also from her coke dealer, which put her at twenty-two?
“Your handbag, miss.”
Eliza took off her headphones and tapped the bottom of the book bag hanging on her back. “I just have this.”
“Let’s see it, please.”
To her left, framing the entrance into the office, stood what appeared to be a metal detector. Beyond it, the waiting room was nearly full. A dozen girls, black, white, Hispanic, all of them looking exactly fifteen, sat staring into magazines and clipboards, beside mothers or boyfriends or sisters, silent. She said, “It’s just a backpack.”
“You’ll get it back directly, miss. Just need to take a look.”
One of the girls, wearing a pinafore dress and Keds, was very pregnant. About three inches from her face she held a book with a plain red cover, titled in gold lettersYou Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. Eliza had been trying to keep Teddy out of her head, but now she couldn’t help picturing him in heaven, a place she was pretty sure she didn’t believe in, sending down a quizzical, disappointed look.
“I’m not—comfortable,” she said, looking from the man to the girl, back to the man, “giving you, since I have some private things in here. Can I—”
“It’s policy, miss.”
“Okay.” The girl flipped a page and rested an absent hand on her belly. “I’ll leave it in the car.” Before he could say anything, she turned around and pushed herself out the door, the chime ringing blandly behind her.
When she walked in the door of her mother’s apartment on Riverside Drive, a cone of incense was burning on the coffee table beside a glass of blood-colored wine. Eliza’s mother was perched on the divan, pumping a ThighMaster between her knees and talking on the cordless telephone. It was Friday evening. Neena’s night off.
“All right, darling, she’s here,” she said and hung up. To Eliza, she said, “I thought you might be the delivery boy. I ordered from the Brazilian place.” She glanced at the watch face on the inside of her wrist. “You’re a little late.”
Eliza slipped her keys into her backpack. “I missed the first train.”
“Did you?” Her mother put the ThighMaster aside, picked up the wineglass, and padded across the wood floor in her ballet slippers to kiss Eliza between the eyes. “I just ordered somefeijoada,with hearts of palm. I wasn’t sure.”
Eliza plucked the glass from her hand. “Can I have a sip?”
“You don’t normallyask. How was your week?” Taking Eliza by the shoulders, she kissed her repeatedly on the forehead, pecking like a bird, while Eliza looked deeply into the pool of wine. When the kissing was over, Eliza put her lips tentatively to the glass and drank. “That was Les. Guess what. He’s gone to Vermont, to fetch his son.”
Eliza swallowed. “Tofetchhim?”
“Yes, to bring him here, to live with him for a while. I’mso—”
“Why?” said Eliza.
“Well, he’s been having a difficult time. Of course he has. I think it’ll be good for Les, don’t you? And the son, I hope.”
“When will he be here?”
“Tomorrow, I guess. If that vehicle will make it back.”
“I’m going to start on some homework real quick.”
“Oh, you had calls. Nadia and Cissy both called the other night—they said they’ve been trying to reach you at school.”
“Okay. I’m going to real quick just start some algebra, while it’s fresh.”
“Darling?” Diane Urbanski had a pert, compact face, her eyes dark and round, eyebrows full, skin white as cream; she wore her black hair, always, in a French braid. Her grandparents had been Russian Jews. Together they had sailed to England from Murmansk, her grandmother pregnant with their only child, her grandfather fleeing the Great War. On the passage over, he died of the 1918 flu, and their daughter, Eliza’s Babushka, never met him. “I’m happy you’re making a fresh start,” Diane said and smiled.
In her room, Eliza locked the door, took off her coat, turned on the stereo, and emptied her backpack on the bed—sweater, wallet, keys, books, makeup bag, which she also emptied, hands shaking as she dug through it, the lipstick and mascara and contacts case clicking as they fell, and the itty-bitty plastic bag dusted pink on the outside with a bit of stray rouge. She enclosed it in her hand and held it to her heart, which was racing. The security guard wouldn’t have looked through her makeup bag. He wouldn’t have found it. And what if he did? It wouldn’t have been the first time she was caught with drugs. Why had she let him scare her away?
She dumped the cocaine on the glass nightstand, cut it into four pretty lines, and then, kneeling on the carpet, staring at it with such concentration she felt she might have an aneurysm like her father, that her brain might burst from uncertainty, she swept the powder onto the floor and collapsed crying across it, a soundless crying that hurt.
Something to remember him by. She wondered if this was how her great-grandmother had felt, sailing across the Arctic to a strange country, suddenly alone. Eliza was pregnant by a dead boy, and whatever was growing inside her felt dead, too.
As a brother, Johnny had been unreliable, usually in and out of the house, like their mother, usually high on something. Perhaps because of this, his memories of Teddy were disturbingly few, and without pattern. Traveling with their mother from motel to motel. Climbing the yellow tree behind their trailer in Delaware, where someone else’s father had left a tree house. Locking him in the trunk of Delph’s car. Walking him to the emergency room when Queen Bea was off somewhere, Johnny’s T-shirt pressed to Teddy’s bloody forehead, when he fell off the porch banister trying to do a rail slide. Johnny had slept in Teddy’s bed with him that night, Teddy spooked and pretending not to miss their mom, the stitches through his brow bone as clumsy as shoelaces.
Most of his memories of Vermont did not have Teddy in them. Filling notebooks with band logos, supermen, marijuana leaves. Getting stoned before school in the Kramaro. Waking up hungover in the parking lot behind Birkenjacque’s. He had always been careful to exclude Teddy from his fun, even after Teddy was running around with Jude, stealing their mothers’ cigarettes—“Not yet, little man, get out of here”—but he, too, had huffed, he and Delph and Kram, from a gas can in Kram’s garage. He had once been stopped by a cop north of town, high on ludes, driving along the lake in Queen Bea’s Horizon without his lights on. “I’m practicing,” was all he could think to say, and the cop had let him off with a warning. That was how lucky Johnny was.
That was what he thought of, what had kept him on the morning of the funeral from strangling Jude Keffy-Horn.He’s just a kid. How many mornings, when Johnny was his age, could he have been the one to wake up dead?
A true sannyasi, he told himself, neither hates nor desires.
Johnny prided himself on his forbearance, his adaptability, on his skill in coexisting with all walks of life. In his neighborhood, it was a matter of survival. Before he had laid claim to it, or it to him, he had wandered into Tompkins Square Park one evening to get some sleep after his falling-down-drunk con of a father, whose couch he’d been sleeping on in Staten Island, had stolen all his money. That night in the park, his guitar case was stolen with all his clothes inside. The next day, he found the guy around the corner—the case still had the Bad Brains sticker on it—and Johnny picked it up and used it to break the guy’s jaw. Turned out the guy was blind. Robbed by a blind guy. After that, Johnny watched his back. But rather than making him enemies, the incident had made him allies. He’d broken Blind Jack’s jaw! Dude didn’t mess around. They were all scraping by together.
But there had been other rituals of neighborhood hazing. He’d been robbed again, chased, roughed up to the point of needing stitches, which he didn’t get, wearing the scars like tattoos. Compared to some, he was lucky. One night in Tompkins, he saw Rafael, one of the kids who turned tricks in the park, stumble out of the bathroom they called the comfort station soaked to the waist. Johnny kept walking, didn’t offer his help. You didn’t go in there, not if you weren’t looking for something. He’d thought that some guys had just dunked him in a toilet, but Blind Jack told him later that Rafael had been raped, that some ladies from St. Mark’s Church had taken him to the hospital to get stitched up. Johnny didn’t see him again.
Then one night Johnny ended up at a straight edge show at CBGB, alone and falling-down drunk, and met a hardcore drummer named Rooster DeLuca, the first straight edge kid he’d ever known. That was the beginning of the end for him. In no time, Johnny was staying at Rooster’s place, and Rooster had him hooked on the drug that was no drugs. Fuck the dealers, Rooster said, fuck the drunk drivers, fuck the frail-ass gutter punks with marks up their arms, fuck Robert Chambers and the prep school jocks with coke up their noses and their dicks in some crying girl.
At twenty-two, Rooster was hardly a kid. He lived on Avenue B, across the street from the park. He was built like a lumberjack—big, hammy shoulders, muscular legs—and he had a Brooklyn accent like a mouth full of chew. If he’d grown up in Lintonburg, he might have played football with Kram. But he’d grown up in Bensonhurst, and his only sport, other than skateboarding and stage diving, was running deliveries for his uncle’s deli, driving around salami sandwiches on his BMX. To the milk crate bungee-corded to the handlebars he’d attached a cardboard sign that spelled out, in black electrician’s tape,GO VEGAN. He’d gotten his name from the red Manic Panic Mohawk he’d sported back when CB’s was barely open. Now he was as bald as Johnny—it helped in their neighborhood to look like a skinhead, and the tattoos helped, too. Johnny’s earrings and Krishna beads did not, nor his new straight edge status. Dealers tried to bully him into buying and selling. “You too good for us, Mr. Clean?” Johnny winked and negotiated. When he got his own apartment, and then started tattooing, he offered them free work. When he and Rooster and a couple of other guys started a straight edge band called Army of One, and started getting good, and put out a record, people from the neighborhood came to their shows. Seeing those bums and drunks in the audience, wearing his band T-shirt, filled Johnny with a backward sort of pride.
Now when Johnny and Rooster walked the streets together, they got nods, they got waves. Johnny knew their names. Jerry the Peddler, Mary, Froggy. Jones, who was always jonesing. Blind Jack’s friend Vinnie, who was going to die of AIDS any day. Soon enough Johnny’s own nickname was spoken with as much affection as ridicule, and Johnny liked it. He liked the goulash of his neighborhood, the alphabet soup, the insults spoken in foreign tongues. He liked the steady comfort of the Missing Foundation—anarchists, guerrilla musicians, graffiti artists—and the territorial badges they sprayed across the Lower East Side, warning off the encroaching slumlords of the East Village.$1500 Rent, your home is mine, 1988=1933. It was said that the toppled martini glass meantThe party’s over,but Johnny liked to think of it as a symbol of sobriety, like the brave anomaly of the Temperance Fountain in the middle of Tent City. Faith, Hope, Charity, Temperance—like the lyrics to some straight edge song. He liked to think of his own role in the neighborhood as a force of benevolence. Not a missionary but a monk. He led by example.
So Jude Keffy-Horn? Johnny didn’t know if he could forgive him, but he could tolerate him.
Jude was on his mind a lot as he walked these streets. His brother’s best friend, the person who’d been with Teddy when he died. One February afternoon, Johnny hallucinated him. He was on his way to Astor Place to play laser tag on the subway when he spotted him, entranced by an arcade game in front of Gem Spa. Johnny stopped. Was it him? His head was shaved. He was taller. A frosty breeze shuttled down the block. A carousel of Oakley knockoffs spun. Across the street, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, yes, Jude was on a skateboard, but he was standing still.
They’d arrived just after dark, the Manhattan skyline a shadow through the van’s windshield. They might have made better time had Les not insisted on pulling over to the side of I-87, upon learning that Jude had never driven a car, to give him a lesson. For nearly an hour Jude had maneuvered the Purple People Eater ineptly down the emergency lane, the vehicle flying out in front of him, then jerking to a stop, a sequence for which Les had an odd patience, as though they had all the time in the world here in this dimly lit pod, until finally Jude got the van into gear and stayed in the driver’s seat until they had to stop for gas. It was a long drive, and both of them, exhausted, had gone to bed as soon as they were home.
Now, waking up from a deep sleep, Jude blinked his eyes at the ceiling, uncertain for several seconds where he was. He sat up and hung his legs over the ledge of the loft. From his point of view he could see the closet-size kitchen, the open door to the bathroom, and the living room, which consisted of a television on top of a barrel, a chest serving as a coffee table, and a futon, on which his father sat, packing the bowl of a glass bong. The place wasn’t big enough to turn a skateboard around in. Through the tall window was a row of storefronts across the street—one sign said simplyEAT—against a bright winter sky.
“This place is a shoe box,” said Jude.
Les looked up. “It is indeed, but it’s a rent-controlled shoe box. Got it years ago from a lady friend who went back to her husband. Left me the apartment and a cat. It died.”
“Was it the lady friend you got pregnant and left your family for?”
Les took a deep hit—he used a barbecue lighter to light the bowl—and savored the smoke for a moment. He was wearing a long, twill nightshirt, steel blue with white piping at the collar and sleeves, and a pair of ancient leather slippers. Also his Yankees cap. So long ago had his father confided in him, so silent was his family on the subject of Les’s betrayal, that Jude was no longer sure he hadn’t made it up. At some point he had learned, perhaps through osmosis, that Ingrid Donahoe, who had salvaged her own marriage, had ended up having an abortion.
“It was not. It was another lady friend, after. Before I met the lady friend I have now. Come down and join me.”
Jude climbed down from the loft, every muscle still sore. He took a seat beside his father on top of a knit blanket and pillow. “You slept here last night?” Gratefully he took the bong and, with the barbecue lighter, fired it up. It had been a few days. It hit him hard.
“You can see why Eliza’s mother doesn’t spend much time here. It’s my master plan. If you’re going to bring a woman home, make itherhome. That’s a good rule in general, but especially considering the size of this place. You okay?”
Jude was coughing like an amateur.
“Am I making you nervous with the girl talk? Listen, you’re going to see a lot more girls with that new haircut of yours.”
“You like it?” Jude rubbed his head, then his chin, a habit he’d picked up in the last thirty-six hours. He’d sprouted some bristle.
“No, I mean you’ll actually be able toseethem, without all that hair in your eyes. Do you see the positive influence I’m having on you already? I thought your mother was going to kiss my feet when she saw you.”
“It wasn’t you. My hair was all”—he coughed again—“knotty.”
“Take it easy, champ.” Les gave Jude’s back a few slaps. “You haven’t tried reefer till you’ve tried Uncle Lester’s reefer. Do you know what today is?”
Jude took another hit. “Saturday?”
“Monday. The fifteenth. Distribution day.” He looked at the clock on the wall. “In exactly five minutes, my first guy will be here for a pickup. They come one by one. Six guys in six hours, twice a month, in and out, clean as can be. Don’t even have to leave the apartment.” He lit a cigarette. “This business is a science, like anything else. You have to have a schedule. You have to have rules. So, like us.”
“This new arrangement. There’s some other matters to discuss.”
“Like I snore. I move my bowels from six-fifteen to six-thirty-five every morning. And I own a handgun.”
“Does it shoot?”
“That’s what they do, champ. It’s in a case under the kitchen sink. A thirty-eight special. I call it McQueen. Don’t touch it unless I tell you to, in which case it’s loaded, so watch out.”
“Why would you tell me to?”
Les gave an I-know-nothing shrug. “Also, there’s the matter of a curfew.”
“Great,” said Jude, but when he thought about it, his brain stretching the word, softening it—was his dad’s shit that good?—it seemed a shiny fragment of adult vocabulary, somehow alluring. He’d never had a curfew before. Delph and Kram did. “When is it?”
Outside the window, a bird flickered on a tree branch. A bird in New York. All his life Jude had seen the same birds, and this one—he’d never seen it before. It was an amazement. When he thought about walking downstairs and outside into the daylight it was difficult to control his nerves. “Well,” Les said, “if you can demonstrate that you’re in possession of your faculties, if you return eventually from wherever it is you’re going, which proves you can remember where you live, if you’re wearing the same clothes you went out in, if you can continue to convince me,Hey, Dad, I’m just a kid having fun, I drank a beer at the Centre Pub, or what have you, but I don’t have a knife sticking out of my stomach—then I’m willing to forgo a curfew.”
“Did Mom say that was okay?”
Les stood, put out his cigarette, picked up the blanket, and began sloppily to fold it. “It doesn’t matter what your mother thinks. Look, I know she has serious concerns about you staying here. I can’t blame her. Would you help me with this thing?” Jude stood up and took two corners of the blanket. “Put it this way. If you don’t get into trouble, your mother doesn’t have to know about it. Now, we happen to have different definitions of trouble. Your mom wants me to be a rehab clinic for you, man, but come on, you’ve got a liking for this stuff I can dig.” Jude matched one of his corners to the other. “But I happen to have a classy operation here that could get screwed up overnight if, you know, Officer Friendly started sniffing around. Which means if I catch you stealing a candy bar, you’re going straight back to the Green Mountain State. Understand?” Like dancers, they stepped toward each other, the blanket dipping between them. Les took it, folded it in half, and stuffed it and the pillow inside the coffee table/chest.
Then he led Jude through the closet under the loft—through coats and dry-cleaning bags, his old dashiki—to a padlocked door. Jude never would have known it was there. “Voilà,” Les said, spinning the combination, and opened it onto another closet, walk-in size. The smell hit Jude like whiplash. He hadn’t smelled marijuana like this since his father’s greenhouse, and the memory of that place, mixed with the heavenly bouquet of free-flowing drugs, produced in him a strange quickening. The walls of the closet were lined with shelves, which were lined with plants, which were green and farmy and rich, their leaves crawling with flowers like lavender caterpillars, the sodium bulbs beaming lovingly upon them.
From behind them, muffled through the closet, the buzzer rang. “What’d I tell you?” Les said. He picked up one of the five-gallon buckets, then closed the door and locked it, and they shoved through the hanging clothes back out into the apartment. Les pressed the intercom button by the front door, and a voice said, “Trick or treat. It’s Davis.” Les buzzed him in, and a moment later, someone could be heard clunking up the stairs and then panting into the apartment, in a ski cap and a red leather jacket, trailing frosty air. He called Jude’s fathermy manand flashed a gold tooth when Les introduced him. Jude could count the number of black people he’d had a conversation with on one hand. There were two black kids at his high school in Vermont, and both of their parents were professors.
“I didn’t know you had a kid, man. He’s a little man himself.” Davis asked Jude what was hanging and said he looked like his dad. Les winked at Jude and said thanks. He said that Jude had come to stay with him to experience some of his world-famous Purple Haze.
“I was just going to tell Jude that this is the only stuff on the market worth smoking.” Les sat down on a kitchen stool. “Would you agree, Davis?”
Davis nodded heartily, resting a foot on the bucket of pot. “Premium stuff.”
“Jude got in a little trouble up north. Too much of a good thing, if you know what I mean.”
“I hear you.”
“What my thinking is, is the key to enjoying reefer is moderation. You know what I’m saying, Davis—you’re a moderate fellow, aren’t you?”
“You know I am, man.”
“You’re a smart guy,” Les said, crossing his legs, ankle to knee. “You’ve got a day job. Have I ever seen you on the steps next door with a needle in your arm?”
Davis said he hadn’t been over there in years.
“Let’s be realistic,” said Les. “A fifteen-year-old kid in New York—”
“—he’s going to find some fruit if he wants it, no matter how much Mommy and Daddy say no. And when he does, you don’t want him getting shwag from some Joe in Tompkins.”
Davis admitted he used to buy from one of those guys. A guy who carried a grenade in the pocket of his trench coat.
“So I can’t tell my kid not to smoke reefer,” Les said. “But I can tell him not to smokeother people’sreefer.” One of his slippers was dangling from a white, veiny foot. “My stuff’s safe. It’s robust. It’s cut with nothing but love. And it won’t get you arrested or dead.”
“Is it free?” Jude asked, rubbing his head.
Davis laughed and started counting out his cash. “A smart-ass,” he said. “Like his pop.”
Before, when Jude had allowed himself to imagine the city of his birth, he’d pictured it the way he’d pictured faraway capitals like London or Berlin—wide gray sidewalks choked with adults in long coats, with leather briefcases and good haircuts, no children in sight. They might as well have spoken a foreign language. It was the New York he’d seen in the pages of a social studies textbook—a woman with a mild-mannered Afro waiting for a bus, smiling at her newspaper. In the caption was the wordcommute.
In the stories that had been passed from Johnny to Teddy to Jude, fun in New York came in pockets—an underground tattoo parlor, a bar fight with nunchucks. The hardware of Jude’s and Teddy’s fantasies all surrounded a shadowy, borderless colony called the Lower East Side, the graffitied place where kids zipped by on their skateboards, too fast to see. Jude had known he wanted to find that place.
So when he got there and found out thattherewas practically on his doorstep, that his father’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place was a Chinese-star throw from the Lower East Side, he was both elated and wary. He wasn’t used to this kind of luck. A day didn’t pass when Jude didn’t see a Mohawk. Mostly the Mohawks hung out in front of Sounds, the record store with the neon sign humming in the window. Jude knew this because, the first week he lived in New York, that was mostly where he hung out, too, burning through packs of cigarettes. When he wasn’t there, he was in front of Enz or Manic Panic, looking at all the leather in the windows. Once he saw Keith Richards or someone who looked very much like him walk his dog out of Trash and Vaudeville. Otherwise, he was at Gem Spa, buying lottery tickets or cigarettes or beer (all of which, to his astonishment, he could buy if he said they were for his dad), or playing one of their sidewalk arcade games (Paper Boy was his favorite—when you rode your bike too slow, you got attacked by bees) or drinking a delicious beverage called an egg cream. There were also games at the Greek place at the Third Avenue end of the street—they had Tetris, as well as hot, dripping gyros served so fast they smoked while you ate them. And the video games at the Smoke Shop, which Jude thought of as the Smoke Sho, since thepno longer lit up, were inside, which was good when it snowed. The Pakistani couple that owned the place gave him change for a dollar, smiling crookedly and calling himmy friend.
You couldn’t say it wasn’t a friendly street.
There was the woman standing outside the St. Marks Hotel. Dark-lashed, peroxide blond, in an acid-washed jean jacket, she placed one of her leg-warmered ankles in Jude’s path. “You need a smoke, honey?” He’d finished the first cigarette and had started the second, chatting amiably with her about Vermont, a place she’d never been—“It’s quiet,” he said, struggling for the right word, “and cold”—when she took a step toward him, so that the zippers of their jackets kissed. While studying her face from this proximity (his brain was slowed by pot, he couldn’t be blamed), he began to suspect that a woman like this did not talk to a boy like Jude for free. He thanked her for the cigarettes, called her “ma’am,” tripped on a shoelace as he turned to walk away.
There was the guy in the Coca-Cola sweatshirt, walking up and down the block, singing, “Whatchyou need? Whatchyou need?” He wore another sweatshirt underneath, hood up, and he took big, loping steps, as though about to bounce into a run at any time. He bounced directly into Jude, clapped him on the shoulder. “Whatchyou need, my man?”
“Nothing. I was just—”
The guy spun away, had a place to be. He walked backward down the street, pointing at Jude. “You know me, man. I’m here.”
After a few days, Jude learned to keep his head down. He bought a cone at the Korean ice cream shop downstairs, trying a new flavor each time, and then he walked back and forth, up one sidewalk and down the other, listening to the melody of Spanish and something like Russian floating on the cold air, over car horns and boom boxes and backing-up trucks. (Two or three times, at night in the loft, Jude thought he heard gunshots. “A truck backing up,” his father would say. “Go back to sleep.”) Jude walked past the punks, the bums, the Hare Krishnas, past the Italian restaurant where a body had been discovered in the Dumpster out back, past the rehab center next door, a beaten-up warehouse where people attended AA and NA meetings on the first floor and then spent the rest of the day shooting up on the stairs in front of the building. On each of the orange steps was a verse of the black stenciled warningNO DRINKING, NO SMOKING, NO POT SMOKING. He’d never seen anyone shoot up before. Often they fell asleep, their bare, mottled arms flung across the steps.
There were days when he thought this street might be his future. Getting high with his dad in the morning, chain-smoking, giggling at the news—the Supreme Court ruling against Jerry Falwell, Mayor Koch calling Reagan a wimp in the War on Drugs. A wimp! “You wimp!” they called each other for the rest of the day. Besides his father (and his mother, who had called to make sure he hadn’t run away), he talked only to strangers. When he had the energy, he did a few push-ups, trying to gain back his strength.
Some weekend, Les said, when Eliza was home from boarding school, they’d go up to Di’s for dinner. Les didn’t ask Jude about Teddy or Eliza or Johnny, or what had happened that night; he didn’t talk about school or a job; he didn’t ask Jude to do anything he didn’t want to do. Whether this was out of respect for Jude’s fragile state or because it didn’t occur to him to do so, Jude could not be sure.
Whatchyou need, my man?For days afterward, the question turned over in Jude’s baked brain. He imagined the hooker’s red mouth, the silk of her baby-doll hair, the sublime dilapidation of a room inside the St. Marks Hotel. He imagined the uncharted highs of some powder or serum or plant, the crinkle and weight of a plastic bag in the hand. Why the fuck had he said no? From his father, he already had a generous supply of marijuana, and money to buy whatever other vices he desired. He had only to decide what.
After a week in New York, bored and stoned and brave, he ventured eastward, toward the place he understood to be Alphabet City. Somewhere over here lived Johnny McNicholas. Wind whistled through empty windows. Bums lay mummified in doorways. When he paused to admire the two stone-faced buildings from the album cover ofPhysical Graffiti,two men across the street watched him from a set of steps. Jude kept walking, trying to keep his eyes down, noting the artifacts of the gutter. Cigarette butts. An island of snow impaled by a syringe. When he reached Tompkins Square Park, a square of land so unparklike, so like a cemetery of living dead, he turned immediately around. His dad’s block was scary enough.
“Where you going, amigo?”
The two men he’d passed before crossed the street toward him. One had his hands deep in the pockets of his coat, a posture that Jude was learning to fear. The other was sipping from a bottle in a brown bag and staring at Jude with a single, yellowy eye. The lid of the other was sealed like an envelope. Jude couldn’t help staring back. Before he could move, the first guy stepped up to him and patted him down. He dipped his hand into Jude’s jacket pocket, withdrew his Walkman, and, tugging at the wire, whipped the headphones off Jude’s head. From one of the back pockets of Jude’s jeans, he removed his wallet; from the other, a pack of cigarettes. The Misfits’Walk Among Uswas still playing distantly. The guy ejected the tape, glanced at it, and handed it back to Jude. “You can keep this,” he said and winked.
This little tango, from beginning to end, took no more than ten seconds, and the swift, shrewd incursion of another person’s body recalled the beery breath of Tory Ventura. But Tory wouldn’t have bothered to pat Jude down. Only later did it occur to him that the guy had been checking for a weapon.
He’d had the foresight to remove the picture of Teddy from his wallet, to hide it among his father’s books. Forty or fifty of his father’s dollars—money he would have blown on the temptations of St. Mark’s—was all that was stolen from him. Who did he have to tell about girls and drugs, anyway? Whatever Teddy could reply, from Les’s dusty shelf, would come with the narrow-eyed disapproval of the dead.
And Jude was glad for a reason to stay away from Alphabet City. What he wanted he couldn’t buy on the street, and even more than hookers and dealers and bad-ass, one-eyed Puerto Ricans, he feared Johnny McNicholas.
Keffy-Horn, you son of a bitch.”
Jude looked up from the screen, where he was pedaling diligently away from a swarm of bees. Johnny was standing at the edge of the sidewalk. A woman in a headscarf steered a shopping cart between them. When she passed, Jude’s mouth was hanging open, as though he should be the one surprised to find Johnny here, living and breathing on a street corner in New York. His cigarette fell to the street. He was high as the moon.
“Hey, Johnny, hey.”
Jude stepped off his skateboard and shielded his body with it. Johnny could see him taking in the tattoos through his thin white T-shirt. “What the fuck you doing here?” He put his hand on Jude’s shoulder and gave him an ambiguous little shake.
“I’m here. I’m here, I’m living with my dad now, yeah.”
“Across the street, yeah.” He pointed.
“I been there.” Johnny crossed his arms. “He was real good to me, your pop. He helped out.” Johnny was about to say Teddy’s name, but he stopped. Instead he said, “Did I say you could wear that jacket?”
Jude looked down at his body. The parka was reversible, army green on the outside, bright orange on the inside, fat and shiny as a sleeping bag. “It’s not . . . it’s mine. It’s not yours.”
Johnny had once bought an identical one at the Salvation Army in Lintonburg. The thought of that store, with the ceramic bowl of freebies at the counter—broaches and buttons and little bottles of half-used nail polish and eight tracks no one wanted—and the terrified look on the poor kid’s face, this kid from Teddy’s life who now wore Johnny’s uniform—made Johnny want to give him a bear hug. He did, slapping him several times on the back.
“I’m just fucking with you, man! Shit, you live in theVillage. We’re practically neighbors.”
When Johnny released Jude, Jude was smiling a large, uneasy smile. “I tried to find you yesterday, but I didn’t know where you lived.”
“I live, like, four blocks that way.”
“You doing anything right now?”
“Just, no, just nothing.”
“Can you drop your board at home? I’m meeting some guys at the subway, going to play some tag.”
Jude said he had not yet been on the subway.
“What color shirt you got on?”
Obediently, Jude unzipped his jacket. Under it was a Black Flag shirt, white.
At the cube sculpture on Astor Place, a dozen guys were selecting laser guns from a duffel bag, strapping targets to their chests. Half were in black T-shirts, half in white. Some wore sweatshirts underneath. Some hadXs drawn on their hands. Two hadXs shaved in the back of their heads.
“Mr. Clean!” one of them said.
“You got an extra?” Johnny asked. “I found this guy on St. Mark’s. Name of Jude.”
“Hey,” Jude said, tying his jacket around his waist. They chorused back.
“Gentlemen,” Johnny began. “Astor Place to Union Square. Use only number six trains. Anyone who gets arrested is on their own this time.” Over the St. Marks Hotel, the early moon was pale as a cloud in the ice blue sky. Jude took a gun and a target. “Stay off the third rail. And no pulling the emergency stop. Elliot.” They all glared at a kid in black, his laser gun resting sheepishly on his shoulder. “Black shirts first.” The black team filed down the uptown subway stairs, and a few minutes later, when the sound of a departing train rumbled beneath them, the white team, Jude and Johnny among them, descended behind them.
In the cold, dank dungeon of the station, the smell of urine took Jude’s breath away. Graffiti, as thick and indecipherable as the tattoos on Johnny’s arms, covered the walls. Garbage, decomposed beyond recognition, littered the floor, and it took Jude a moment to distinguish a body among the wreckage, bundled under a dust-coated blanket, alive, he hoped. Without a glance at the sleeping man or the attendant in the glass booth, each of Johnny’s crew jumped over the turnstiles. Jude did the same. When the next train arrived, a sluggish, green-eyed 6, they all stepped into different cars, except Johnny and Jude, who got in together. Then, when the train got going, Johnny led Jude to the back of the car. He yanked open the door, and they watched the black walls of the tunnel fly past. Jude’s legs felt as though they were made out of sand. He held tight to an overhead bar while Johnny dashed across the platform to the other car. “Come on!” He stood in the doorway, waiting.
Jude could feel his lungs heaving. It was freezing down here. He braced himself against the door frame to keep it open, clutching the stitch in his side.
“What’s wrong?” The door was still open, the train clacking.
Jude glanced over his shoulder. A few people were sprawled across the orange plastic seats, listening to headphones, sleeping, none of them aware of the plastic machine gun Jude held at his side. Three kids near the opposite end of the car were tagging one of the doors, two of them standing guard while the third sprayed. Jude closed his eyes. He kept them that way for a long time, or what seemed on his father’s pot to be a long time. His high had diminished only faintly, and Jude was aware of the flux of his thoughts, rocking roughly along with the engine, the open door roaring. The metallic rattle of a can of spray paint. The fumes, overwhelming. Even across the train car, they were as strong as if Jude were huffing them himself.
They’d played laser tag before, Jude and Teddy and Johnny and Delph and Delph’s cousin, who owned the set. Running barefoot on the pavement, in summer grass. Jude and Teddy hiding behind a parked car:shhh.
How to say how shitty he felt at that deafening threshold, how unworthy, nearly sick, so cowardly he couldn’t open his eyes, the guy whose brother he’d killed waiting for him on the other side? He shivered at the thought of Johnny finding out how low he’d sunk, stealing drugs for a free high, while all this time Johnny, sober and upright, had been hopping train cars. “Just don’t look down!” Johnny called helpfully, and it was suddenly so ridiculous, this fear of thesubway—he’d huffed freon!—“You wimp!” said his father, “you wimp!”—that Jude opened his eyes and, laser gun cradled across his chest, crossed the platform in one dexterous leap—Mario sailing from cliff to floating bridge, Pitfall Harry traversing tar pit—and when the train screeched to a halt (“Fourteenth Street, Union Square”), Jude kept going for one slow-mo second, hooking an arm around a pole to catch himself, laser gunch-ch-ch-ing to a stop.
Here he was. The noise was gone and he was inside again, in another, identical, freezing cold car.
“C’mon,” Johnny said, unfazed. He dragged Jude out through the doors just before they slid closed again. They raced down the platform, their laughter echoing against the Lego-yellow tiles, the aroma of wet garbage and hot exhaust and the cool iron earth, a man pissing in a corner, a woman shaking a can of change, Johnny winning by a good ten yards, until, halfway up a flight of stairs, he was shot. Jude heard the sound—keo, keo, keo,the fighter planes of Space Invaders—and saw the red light exploding from Johnny’s chest. Staggering backward two steps, Johnny clutched the target over his heart with one hand, grabbed the railing with the other, and groaned, “Go, man! Go on without me!” Jude did, but not before firing up at the top of the steps, illuminating the target of Johnny’s dark-shirted killer, who fell quickly, without ado, out of sight.
Jude turned around and ran in the other direction, up another set of stairs. He ran past a homeless mariachi band, a troupe of break-dancers, endless stretches of graffiti. He ran past a white-shirt and returned his salute as they crossed paths. He ran past a black-shirt and fired at him from the waist, but it was just a regular guy smoking a cigarette, his eyes filled with confusion and fright. At the end of the corridor, Jude followed the signs to the downtown platform and the sound of the arriving train, and slipped into the last car just as the doors sighed closed. He kept running, car to car, his legs throbbing, his breath inflating his smile. People looked at him, people looked away, some gasped or screamed, he could be arrested or chased or shot at for real, but he was too fast. Jude had not yet been told about Bernie Goetz, the Subway Vigilante, had not heard the Agnostic Front song “Shoot His Load”; he did not comprehend fully the fear of the woman he sent shrinking into her husband’s overcoat. In one car, he shot and killed an unsuspecting black-shirt who’d made the mistake of putting down his gun to tie a shoe. In another, he shot poor Elliot, whose gun, apparently broken, fired soundlessly back at Jude. At Astor Place, he ran off the train, outside, down the uptown stairs again, under the turnstile, and back on the 6. And back and forth, uptown, downtown, until he couldn’t find anyone anymore, until it seemed he was the only man left alive.
When he finally surfaced, it was dark. Aboveground, the air smelled as clean as New England, and the sky was like a deep blue sheet unfurled above him, like the sheet his mother would put on his bed, letting it hang in the air for a moment before it dropped. The stars were coming out above the newsstand on the corner, the magazines and candy bars lit up like prizes. For the first time in many weeks, he felt awake. He thought about lighting a cigarette but instead inhaled the evening tonic of the street as he walked up and down his block for a while, then home.
Johnny gave him a key, said “Mi casa es su casa.” Played him No for an Answer, Straight Ahead, Wide Awake, Project X. Took him to his friend’s half-pipe on Houston, to the Cyclone at Coney Island, the elm tree in Tompkins where the first Hare Krishna ceremony had taken place, with Swami Prabhupada and Allen Ginsberg, to all the places he would have taken Teddy if he’d been the one alive and living in New York. He showed him how to empty the coins from a pay phone, where to find lead slugs for video games, how to suck subway tokens. (First you slipped a matchbook into the slot. Then you waited for someone to get his token jammed. Then when he left you put your mouth to the slot and sucked it out. One of the few useful lessons Johnny’s father had shared with him during their brief association.) Jude ate up everything. “What are these?” he asked, stabbing a chickpea from his chana masala at one of the many Indian restaurants down Johnny’s street. “They look like little asses.”
Now that the scene was exploding in New York, everyone had started to look the same—kids from Westchester and Connecticut loitering on the sidewalk in front of CB’s, sporting the band T-shirts they’d bought the previous weekend, looking for drunk kids to beat up. Johnny had tattooed every inch of their bodies—SXEon the inside of their lips,Xs on their hands—and he was running dry. Even his own band, Army of One, which was as central to the scene as any other, which sported legions of fans who knew his lyrics by heart, who spit them back at him onstage, had begun to disenchant him. Not long ago, one of his customers, no older than Teddy, had asked him to tattooARMY OF ONEacross his chest. Johnny had declined. “You’re going to regret that one, kid,” he said, and he realized then how fleeting the scene was. He believed ardently in all the virtues his own body was tatted up with, but his brother was dead, and one day Johnny would be, too. Permanent ink only lasted so long.
But now, here was Jude, wide-eyed and green and full of gratitude, and every word that came out of Johnny’s mouth was a marvel. The kid was an empty canvas. So he lived with a drug dealer. That couldn’t be helped. “When you going to take me to the temple?” he’d ask. “When you going to take me to a show?”
Johnny gave straight edge a soft sell, combining good-natured ridicule with a casual dose of guilt tripping.
“How you like living with your dad, Jude?”
“It’s all right.”
“I hear his weed is out of this world.”
“It’s pretty good.”
“So, how long you plan on walking around like a zombie? Like, indefinitely?”
“Good plan, kid. Sounds like you got it all figured out.”
The band was practicing at Johnny’s place, waiting raptly in their positions. Nothing got them off more than watching the exhortation of a new kid, and they knew it had to be handled with care. They hadn’t objected when Jude had shown up smoking a cigarette; they’d even invited him to jam with them and agreed he wasn’t bad. “Taught him everything he knows,” Johnny said. He’d introduced Jude as an old friend, leaving out any mention of a brother. After they covered Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge,” the song that spawned the phrase, Johnny told Jude that Ian MacKaye had written it for a friend who died of an overdose, and that was the closest they got to talking about what happened to Teddy. Johnny could see it sinking in, though, the dots connecting before Jude’s frozen eyes, the straight edge constellation. Any day now, he’d be taking the plunge.
“You seen any of that girl Eliza?” he asked Jude after the band had left. “Your dad’s girlfriend’s . . . ?” Johnny’s cat Tarzan purred obscenely against Jude’s chest. Johnny reached over, picked up the cat, and placed him in his own lap.
“Just that once,” Jude said.
Ever since Johnny’s own father had ripped him off, he had been wary of anyone whose intentions appeared too pure. Eliza was no exception. She’d been with Teddy the night he died—surely she had been present for the cocaine, surely she could have done something to save him—but she’d sworn that they’d hardly spent any time together, that they had been split up at the party. The closest she’d been to him was when she’d helped him put in his contact lens. The idea of Teddy stumbling blindly through his last night on earth, and the intimacy, however brief, with which this girl had known him, had filled him with a loneliness that dispelled his suspicion.
The restaurant where Diane Urbanski had made a lunch reservation for four was a Japanese place on Amsterdam that Les called “schmancy.” Aside from the red floor pillows and the menu, the place had no pretense of authenticity—its single waitress was a blond woman dressed head to toe in black, and Prince streamed from the speakers. The building had an airy, industrial feel, with silver air ducts hanging from the high ceiling and walls cushioned with black leather, as if to protect diners from injuring themselves. Besides Jude and Les, however, the place was empty, a fact that didn’t prevent their waitress from seating them at the bar while they waited for the rest of their party. Diane and Eliza were late. They were always late, Les said. He took the opportunity to order another decanter of saki. It was a stormy March afternoon, and through the window, they watched the sky open up. They drank the saki from miniature cups that had the name of the restaurant printed in red on the side—Rapture. It looked as though it had been written in lipstick. “Crapture,” said Jude bitterly, which made Les chuckle.
By the time the woman entered the restaurant—shaking off her umbrella, high-heeled boots clicking on the tiles—Jude was full of a warm, heady fuel. Despite the umbrella, Di was soaked—her jeans dark at the thighs, black hair spilling from her braid—but her dark eyes were giant with relief, a nearly sensual pleasure from getting out of the rain. She was a petite, boyish woman, the size of Eliza, who was not there. Jude felt his own relief steam off of him. Di shook Jude’s hand vigorously and gave him a noisy kiss on each cheek. “I’m all wet,” she said, her British accent thick and throaty as she slipped out of her coat. “I’m so sorry.” Her perfume smelled like some sultry jungle flower.
They were seated at one of the low glass tables in the front window, Les and Di on one side, Jude on the other. Les made a show of getting down on the ground, exaggerating his drunkenness, saying his bones were too old to sit on the floor. “No Eliza today?” he asked.
Di shook her head somberly. “She’s not been feeling well. I fear it’s the flu. The flu frightens meso.”
Jude spread open his menu. Maybe Elizawasavoiding him. Maybe she was faking. Les recounted for Jude Di’s résumé, beginning with the flu that killed her grandfather. She was born in London, had moved to the States at eighteen to be a part of the New York City Ballet. Now she taught ballet to little girls at Lincoln Center. Les went on nervously, Di deflecting his praise.
“I don’t know why we couldn’t meet at Dojo,” Les said, frowning at the menu. “They have Oriental crap there.” It was becoming clear to Jude that, despite Les’s apparently bottomless pockets, his tastes were still those of a Lintonburg boy.
“They have better Oriental crap here,” said Di. She inserted her hand into the pocket of Les’s jeans, gemmed rings sparkling on her fingers, retrieved his cigarette lighter, and lit the two tea candles on the table. When the waitress came over, Di ordered without looking at the menu, then poured tea for all of them when it came.
“I’ve been dying to meet you, Jude, but you have to practically clobber this guy over the head to get your way.” With her black hair and powder white skin, Di looked almost Japanese herself. “Tell me how you like New York.”
“I like it,” Jude said. The tea tasted like dirt, but after the pissy aftertaste of the wine, he welcomed the warmth. Johnny drank tea. Herbal, no caffeine. “It’s a lot cooler than Vermont. There’s a lot more things to do. I like that there’s so much music everywhere.”
Di nodded appreciatively. “What sort of music do you enjoy, Jude?”
Jude put down his cup. “Lots of kinds, but mostly hardcore?”
“What does that sound like?”
“You know what punk is?”
“Darling, I’m from England. The Clash? The Sex Pistols?”
“Yeah, it’s like that,” Jude said, becoming excited, “but faster.”
“Faster?”Di said skeptically.
“Why does it have to be so fast?” Les wondered. “What’s wrong with slow?”
“Darling, there’s such a thing as being too slow.”
“I know what I’m talking about here. I recall escorting your daughter to five or six hundred punk concerts. I don’t understand the hurry.”
“Your father’s a tough critic. If it’s not Creedence Clearwater Revival . . .”
“And in New York,” Jude went on, “lots of the hardcore scene’s straight edge, which means no one does drugs.”
“Really?Is it religious or something?”
“Well, sort of. Like, my friend Johnny said Gandhi once took a vow to abstain from eating meat, and drinking, and, you know, being promiscuous. It’s kind of like that.”
Les gave a dismissive chuckle. “Straight edge? That’s what they’re called now? In my day, we called them squares.” He took out his cigarettes, lit one up, and scooted the pack across the table.
“It’s not like they’re too lame to do drugs,” Jude said, ignoring the cigarettes, suddenly defensive of Johnny and his friends. “Some of them are recovering addicts,” he said, using Johnny’s phrase. “Some just have parents who are addicts.”
“Well, I think that sounds like a wonderful organization,” said Di, waving away Les’s smoke and Jude’s remark as the waitress set down their food. Everything was cold and pink. Jude slipped out his retainers when Di wasn’t looking and hid them in a napkin under the table. “I wish Eliza would get involved in something like that. She never took to ballet. She’s not normally one for self-discipline.” She took a bite of something slippery-looking. “Salmon. It’s good. Try it.”
Jude captured a jiggly piece with his chopsticks.
“But, do you know, I believe she’s turned a corner? Knock on wood.” She knocked lightly on Les’s bald head. “She’s been positivelysober. Doesn’t take wine with dinner. And quitestudious. She barely even comes home anymore, stays at school all weekend to study.” She spewed a few grains of the rice she was chewing. “I wonder if she’s finally growing up,” she said. “Is it possible?”
Jude looked to his father, who was putting out his cigarette. Which of them was she asking? “Sure,” Jude finally said, with false enthusiasm. How did he know? He barely knew the girl.
“Or perhaps,” Di began. She stared dreamily into her plate, fiddling with her chopsticks.
“What?” said Les.
“Perhaps . . .” She looked directly at Jude. “I know she didn’t know your friend terribly well. But I do believe she was quite shaken by what happened to him. Having to speak to that detective. And having spent the evening with the two of you, just before it happened. That sort of brush with death can cause one to reexamine lifestyle choices. Don’t you think?”
Jude looked out the window at the rain-soaked street. Suddenly he was sure that Eliza had been with Teddy while Jude had searched the house for them, and there was nothing he could do about it then, and there was nothing he could do about it now.
“I’m sorry, darling. I certainly didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s okay,” Jude said.
“We’re so glad you’re here with us.” She gave Les a sideways smile and stole a roll of sushi from Jude’s barely touched plate. “Don’t you like your food?”
After lunch, they all took a taxi downtown. It was Jude’s first cab ride, and he studied the map of dick-shaped New York posted on the back of the driver’s seat. Here they were—Di showed him with a wine red pinky nail, leaning across his father’s lap—and here was where they were going. They were full of food and tea and wine, sleepy and dry. Out one window, Central Park sped past, and on the other side, blocks and blocks of gray. It was the sterile, efficient, adult New York Jude had figured didn’t exist, but somehow it was reassuring to him, the boundless span of this island. So many blocks between Upper and Lower—it made his stomach lurch with pleasure. They flew through the yellow traffic lights, rain blurring the bare trees, taxis kicking up puddles.
When the cab dropped them off in front of Les’s apartment, an ambulance was parked at the curb. One of the guys shooting up on the steps of the rehab center had OD’d, and the paramedics were sliding his stretcher into the back like a sheet of cookies into an oven.
Later, months later, when Jude thought back to the way it all went down—how did a burnout like him end up straight edge?—he’d remember that ambulance, just like the one he’d been unconscious inside. Its red cross, when viewed from the right angle, was anXon its side.
He didn’t follow his father into the apartment. Instead, he got on his skateboard and flew to Johnny.
“Don’t get too attached to these,” Johnny told Jude. “It’s just so you don’t get your ass kicked in the pit.” When he was finished with one hand, he started on the other, two Sharpie-blackXs, each leg an inch wide.
“Where’s theXcome from?” Jude wanted to know. The smell of the marker was making him dizzy.
Johnny told him. When Ian MacKaye’s first band, the Teen Idles, wanted to play all-ages shows in D.C., they proposed that the 9:30 Club mark kids’ hands with anX,the way they did on the West Coast, to show that they were underage. Before long, the straight edge scene had co-opted the symbol. “You don’t want us to drink? Fuck you, we don’t want to drink anyway!”
“How long’s this going to last?” Jude asked. He held up his hands, making two fists.
“Long as you want it to,” Johnny said.
In the fall, CBGB & OMFUG had banned Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, and Side By Side for stage diving, a legendary show according to Johnny, but Army of One was still allowed to play. The place was dark and small and packed with bodies and Johnny strolled onto the stage as though he were not a person who appeared in fanzines pasted up by fourteen-year-olds in their tighty whities in Albany, Cleveland, and L.A. He strolled out with Rooster and the rest of the guys and, midstride, without a word of introduction, began convulsing. There seemed to be a malfunction with the sound system, a tape in fast-forward, a ribbon of feedback. Then the guitar started up, and the nuclear explosion of drums, and Jude realized that the sound he’d heard was Johnny’s voice. He was not having a seizure but singing. Not singing but vomiting a ceaseless torrent of small, sharp objects—nails, needles, gears, batteries, Hot Wheels, pennies—which came clanking out as though they’d been swallowed.
The shrooms had been a bad idea.
They used to hunt for them, Teddy and Jude, on the farms along Dairy Road, leaving their bikes in the ditch and crawling on hands and knees through the dark. Maybe a cow pie would be flung, maybe a cow would be tipped. Maybe they’d eat a handful right there in the grass, like hunter-gatherers, and trip on the stars, and go or not go to class the next morning.
So when the guy approached Jude at the edge of Tompkins that afternoon, selling not some sidewalk-cooked chemical compound but Mother Earth’s gold-flecked mushrooms, Jude had bought a bag and eaten two right there, popping them like Twinkies. It was his exception to his father’s rule—an exercise in reminiscence. Still, Johnny had promised to take him to his show today, and then to the temple in Brooklyn. If he knew he was on something, he’d leave his ass at home. As they walked together to CB’s, Jude had tried hard to straighten the bending buildings, to calm the breathing trees. He was good at nothing if not faking sobriety.
But now, safe inside the club, there was no reason to fight the trip anymore. No one was looking at anyone but Johnny. The stage wasn’t a stage but a knee-high platform, and Jude was drawn to it, as if tied to a rope. Was it fame? The band was glowing. It was the yellow lights, the vibration of the speakers through the concrete floor, but it was also just the band, it was Johnny, the loops in his ears shining like real gold. It wasn’t fame. Famous people were untouchable, unknowable. Jude could see the pores glistening on Johnny’s scalp. It was unfame, the opposite of fame—he was touchable and entirely knowable, he was memorizable, like a sister or a dog. Jude fought through the field of bouncing bodies. A dance had started up in front of the stage, a boisterous, good-natured ritual that involved hurling one’s body, like a sack of flour, at other bodies. Arms windmilled, shoes flew. Everything within an inch of stage diving. Jude was close enough to the band to feel the radiance of their sweat, their spit.
He found himself in the middle of things. Or he put himself there. He jumped, and his body remained in the air for several hours before he landed on somebody’s shoulder. He was half helped up, half shoved away. He spun sideways into another wall of people, his chin smashing against someone’s tattooed head, his sweat-soaked T-shirt sealed to someone else’s back. Not one of them was a girl. One girl, or two. Some dude, passed above their heads, fell on him. The rubber heel of a sneaker came first. For a second, he stood on Jude’s arm, climbing down him like a ladder. Then there was Johnny—was the show over, or just his set?—helping them both to their feet.
“Steady!” Johnny called. Or had Jude only read his lips? He couldn’t hear him. Johnny mouthed something else, smiling sadly, and then was sucked back into the crowd. The words formed a silent space in Jude’s empty head.
He felt suddenly that he was in hell. It was wonderful. The room was black and close and singed with the forbidden, it felt miles underground, the perfect expression of testosterone and the structures of sound stimuli. The set wasn’t over; Johnny was still singing. He’d stepped down from the stage. Johnny drifted back toward him, his face appearing and disappearing like a strobe. Jude shoved him, without malice, only because that was physics, only because Johnny had a body and so did Jude. Between them, a pit opened, the size of a body that could have dropped from Earth but didn’t.
Then the train rocketed beneath the river, transporting him from one room to another. But the room he landed in was the same one he’d left: bodies, music, stage. Only here they left their sneakers at the door, and this room was bigger, big as a ballroom, and filled with an apricot light and incense so sweet Jude had the urge to wet himself. From each corner of the room, a voice wailed
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
It was the walls. It was God. God was singing. Then he saw the man sitting in the middle of the room. He was an ancient Indian man in a white robe, playing an organ and singing into a mike. Around him, men and women sat chanting with him, some on mats, some on the lacquered wooden floor. In front of him, gold curtains hid the stage; behind him was another man, also old, also Indian, propped in a throne, draped in orange, topped with what looked like an orange bathing cap. He sat very still. Men and women and children approached him with candles and incense and flowers, sprinkling the petals at his feet. They bowed down to him, kneeling and pressing their foreheads to the floor. Jude watched from the sidelines as Johnny did this, as naturally as if he were putting on a kettle for tea. It was only when Johnny returned to him that Jude saw that the man was a statue.
“That’s Krishna?” he whispered.
Johnny shook his head. “His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. Before we worship Krishna, we worship his devotees.”
A drum circle was forming around the organ player, boys and men joining him one by one. They wore robes or jeans, sherbet orange sweatshirt over sherbet orange skirt. Some wore beads like Johnny’s around their necks; some wore a smudge of white paint on their foreheads; some had bald heads with a tuft of hair at the back. The drums were grenade-shaped, two-headed; someone was playing hand cymbals; then someone else was, too. Jude had a rubbery memory of the gymnastics class he’d taken with Prudence as a kid, the two of them tumbling across the slippery floor in their socks.
Then the music stopped. Slowly, the gold curtains drew back. Bodies scattered, found an empty space, bowed to the floor. On the stage, nestled in an elaborate, canopied throne, adorned with a jeweled crown and a brightly colored lei, was Krishna. Krishna was smiling a beatific smile. Krishna’s face was milky blue. He was rosy-cheeked, bare-chested, no bigger than a fifteen-year-old boy. Krishna looked like a mannequin in the window of Macy’s, a queenless king riding a float in the homecoming parade.
The organ started up again, then the drums. People sprang up from prayer, started dancing. They sang,Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. They sang to the stage, swaying, as though watching Krishna perform. Jude would not have been surprised if they had raised their lighters. Bodies pressed in. Painted women danced by, raising carnations to his nose; he breathed them in. He closed his eyes for some time, floating, and when he opened them, Johnny was gone. Jude turned, blinded by the golden stage—therewerelighters, darting around the room like fireflies—and stumbled into a log. It was a soft log, damp and mossy. The log was Johnny! Johnny was still lying facedown on the floor, his arms spread out in front of him like Superman.
Heavily, Jude fell to his knees and cat-stretched out beside him. The floor was cold and smooth and smelled of a piney wax. Here were the parts of his body that touched the ground: his forehead, his armpits, his chest, his belly, his hips, his knees, his toes. His hands, each scored with anX. He had never lain like this before. A socked heel stepped apologetically on his pinky; a gauzy skirt tickled the nape of his neck. His eyelashes fluttered against the floor. He felt long, emptied, flattened.
A tide ripped through him, first a ripple, then a roar.
The train sped under him, rattling his ribs. Head still down, Jude slipped the bag of mushrooms from the pocket of his jacket and gobbled the rest of them up. Maybe because he feared his trip would wear thin, because he wanted, why not, for the night to go out with a bang. Maybe because he knew already it was the last night he’d be high. He felt himself peel away from the past, saw the hollow corpse of his former self, lying like a log, as he stood.
The room was on fire. Krishna was aglow on the stage, smiling at Jude through the flames. Arms windmilled, shoes flew. Bodies passed, hand over hand, above the crowd. They levitated above him. The wax dummy smiled his Mona Lisa smile at Jude. Half-boy, half-god. Half-Indian, half-white. Jude danced for the god boy, and the god boy let him dance.
The flames came up to greet him. Jude passed one of hisX’d hands through them, felt the white heat melt his fingertips, then his wrist, then catch his sleeve. Then he fell to the ground.
Les Keffy had just sat down on his futon, to the Yankees’ opening game, to a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and three hot dogs bedecked with mustard and relish, when the phone rang. It was April already, and the breeze floating through the open door to the fire escape carried the promise of reasonable temperatures, and the smell of fried food from the restaurants downstairs, and the voices of the fifty thousand fans 150 blocks north, his own not among them. He had scored two MVP tickets from a guy he knew who sold faux Rolexes in Chinatown, but Jude had turned him down to attend a show at the Ritz. Di was at a dance conference in Chicago, but he wouldn’t have asked her to go with him anyway, had stopped asking her years ago, and Eliza, who was usually reliable for that sort of thing, he hadn’t seen in weeks. He had sold the tickets to one of his distributors, lost twenty bucks.
With reluctance he stood and moved away from the TV, where Mattingly was walloping a double. Picking up the phone on its fifth or sixth ring, Les muttered, “Good boy.”
“What?” It was Eliza.
“I’m watching the game. Yanks and the Twins.” He stretched the cord as far as it would go, craning to see. Only when he was on the phone did his apartment seem large. Standing at the kitchen counter, he might as well have been watching the TV across the street. “How lovely to hear from you. I thought you were MIA. Were you sick or something?”
“I was. I’m better. Now I’m better.”
“I wish you’d called earlier. I could have used a date for this game.”
“Is . . . air?”
Di’s cordless phone, for which she had paid six hundred dollars, produced an irksome static; it sometimes captured the voices of her neighbors, or the line of her live-in housekeeper, who wandered in and out of the conversation, oblivious. Les called them the voices in his head.
“Stand still and say it again, honey.”
“IS JUDE THERE?”
Strikeout for Ward. A cordless phone would come in handy now. “He’s not. He bailed on me. It’s too much to ask that my one and only son show an interest in baseball. Or meat eating, or any other, you know, institution of male bonding. He’s not even smoking reefer with me anymore.”
“You think he’s maybe a queer?”
“I don’tknow.” Eliza sighed. “I don’t even know him. I met himonce! Where is he?”
“He’s at ashow. With his pal Johnny.”
“They’re thick as thieves. He’s brainwashing my boy. He quit smoking, quit drinking, quit eatingmeat. You want to come over and eat some wieners? Smoke some happy stuff?”
“Judequit all those things?”
“He saw the light. He had a conversion experience. An eight-hundred-dollar conversion experience. Stuck his hand in a plate of candles at the Krishna temple and got second-degree burns up his arm. Landed in the ER.”
“Oh, shit. A plate ofcandles? Is he okay?”
“Aside from having his arm all wrapped up. Johnny tackled him before the burn got too deep. It’s his left one, so he can still wipe his ass.”
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
Who was at bat? He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear. “What do you want with Jude, anyway?”
“I need to talk to both of them. I really want to talk to them.”
“You whine about meeting my kids, and then when one of them finally materializes, you disappear.”
“I’ve just been busy. Youtoldme to apply myself. I’ve had a lot going on!”
“Wait, what are you doing home on a weekday?”
“Who . . . home?”
“What? Say it again.”
“ALL RIGHT, FINE. I’m on my mom’s phone. I wasn’t feeling well, so I took the train home.”
“Aren’t you not supposed to do that?”
“You wrote a note, saying you were taking me on a trip.”
“That was nice of me.”
“Les,” said Eliza through a burst of static, “ . . . tell you anything, right?”
Then a kid’s voice, not Eliza’s, said, “ . . . not fair, it’s totally not fair.”
“Quit your whining, man,” said Les, eyeing the hot dogs across the room, surely gone cold, as the Twins performed a double play that was truly not fair, and Eliza’s voice danced inextricably with the ghost of a stranger’s, their words sometimes nearly making a sort of sense.
“JUST TELL HIM TO CALL ME,” said Eliza, and Les hung up.
The doorman was expecting them. They rose in the mirrored elevator, Jude’s stomach dropping through the floor. Inside the apartment, a vacuum cleaner was running, and they had to ring the bell several times before a small, dusky-skinned woman answered the door. She was wearing a sports bra and leggings, between which, bisecting a lumpy stomach, ran a scar the same purple as the polish on her fingers and toes. A red spot hovered just above her eyes. “Thank goodness,” she said. “She been cry and cry.” Through a living room that looked like a wing of the White House, down a hallway hung with the frowning visages of Eastern Europeans, the woman led them to Eliza’s room, opening the door without knocking. “Two boys in your room okay?” she said, but then left, closing the door behind her. A moment later the vacuum cleaner started up again.
Jude had never been in any girl’s room but his sister’s, but Eliza’s looked just as he would have expected one to. A Beastie Boys poster hung on the rose-papered wall, and a pair of ballet slippers was slung over the back of a rocking chair, in which sat a family of stuffed bears, one wearing a Yankees cap. On the dresser was a cluster of photographs: a man who was not Les with a dark-haired baby swathed in his arms; a long-locked Eliza aloft in a bat mitzvah chair. In the wicker wastebasket beside the bed were clouds of Kleenex and four or five empty Yoo-hoo bottles, and in the double bed, which was pink and ruffled and plump with pillows, Eliza lay with the covers pulled up to her chin. It was two o’clock in the afternoon.
He had known, as soon as his father had relayed the message, that it was about Teddy. There was no other reason for Eliza to summon them to her mother’s apartment. “Just come over,” she’d said, “and you’ll see.” On the silent train uptown, Jude felt a calm settle over him. Not because he looked forward to whatever revelation Eliza had in store, but because he welcomed the relief of pressure. It was as though Johnny and Jude had been engaged in a staring contest, each daring the other to speak Teddy’s name first, and even though it meant he would lose, Jude was desperate to blink.
“What happened to your hair?” Her voice was hoarse, her eyes and nose red.
Jude and Johnny both put a hand to their heads. “I cut it,” Jude said.
“Nice sling.” It wasn’t a cast, but Jude had never broken a bone before, so he had people sign it. Johnny, Les, Rooster, a nurse named LaCarol, the couple who owned the Smoke Sho. “There should be a marker in my desk drawer.” Johnny retrieved the marker and Jude sat on the edge of the bed while she found a blank space to print her name in capital letters. “Does it hurt?”
“Not really. When I change the bandages. Mostly it itches. This guy saved my life,” he said, slapping Johnny hard on the back.
“Stop, drop, and roll,” Johnny explained.
“What happened, exactly?”
Jude could sense she was stalling, but he didn’t mind stalling with her. “These women carry around these plates of candles. You’re supposed to wave your hands through the fire and over your head”—he imitated with his free hand, as though washing his hair—“but I held my hand in there too long and it got my sleeve. I was tripping on shrooms.”
He had confessed this to Johnny, who had not been surprised, as well as to the receptionist, the doctor, and LaCarol, who had swaddled him in ointment and bandages. No one arrested him, no one blinked. But it had felt good to come clean under those penetrating hospital lights.Last time I do that,he’d told the nurse, loud enough for Johnny to hear.
On a white television with a built-in VCR, a soap opera was unfolding. Jude and Johnny watched it for a moment. They looked at each other, then at Eliza.
“What’d you want to tell us?” Johnny finally asked.
Eliza muted the television, but she kept her eyes on the screen. “Well, two things. And the first is very bad. You’ll want to kill me, probably.”
Jude and Johnny did not dispute this. Johnny stood in the middle of the room; Jude sat on the bed.
“Damn, I’mstarving,” she said. “I don’t know when’s the last time I ate.”
When they said nothing, made no move to cajole her, she sighed. She looked as though she had been in this bed for a long time. Jude smelled the familiar sour-milk smell of body and bedsheet.
He said, “You’re the one who gave Teddy the coke.”
In the other room, something expensive collided with the floor. The vacuum cleaner squealed, purred, and died. Slowly, nearly undetectably, Eliza nodded. Jude looked at Johnny: his face registered nothing.
“I’ve stopped using it, though. Not right away, but I’ve stopped. As soon as I knew for sure. You don’t even have to say anything, because Iknow. I’m already being punished.” She was sniffling repeatedly. “I didn’t want to stop but I stopped! That must mean something, right?”
She reached for her bottle of Yoo-hoo and took a ravenous gulp, spilling the milk down her chin, down her throat, following the silver chain into her cleavage. It was a little girl’s nightgown, white, cotton; at the neckline was a bow with a pearl in the center. Maybe it was that pearl, maybe it was just seeing her again, maybe it was the consolation of having an accomplice, but even before she started to cry, Jude felt an empathetic loosening in his own chest. Johnny sat down beside Jude, and they dabbed her gingerly with tissues, mopping up chocolate milk and tears. She covered her face with her hands, talking into them as she cried.
“What are you saying?” Johnny said. “What’s she saying?” he asked Jude.
“All I want is Yoo-hoo!” she yelled, removing her hands. “Why does it have to be Yoo-hoo? Why can’t I crave something that won’t make me fat? And I don’t have anyfriends!”
“I don’t think it’ll make youfat,necessarily,” said Jude helplessly, inspecting the label.
“I feel enormous. I’m enormous.”
“You’re not enormous,” Jude said.
“I’ve beenstudying. I got a ninety-nine on my British Lit midterm!”
“Eliza, is there something else?” said Johnny. “Just tell us.”
“I didn’t think it would show this quickly,” she whispered, very still now, her eyes very wet. “It was practically overnight.” She pushed back the covers and lifted her nightgown enough to reveal her belly. She stared down at it, her hair veiling her face. It looked like his sister’s belly, only plumper. Eliza’s belly button was stretched wide.
“You can’t tell?” Eliza asked.
Jude and Johnny both began to stand. Then they lowered themselves again. Jude thought of Ingrid Donahoe. He thought of his birth mother.
“You’re not . . . ?” Johnny said.
Eliza covered her belly.
“Jeezum Crow,” Jude whispered.
Later, Jude and Johnny would admit that they’d thought the same thing. Jude had looked at Johnny, and Johnny had looked at Jude, and for a moment each was certain that the other was the father. And then as quickly as this thought had appeared, before Eliza could withdraw from her nightgown the subway token, dangling from her necklace among the other charms like a hypnotist’s watch, another thought, awful, miraculous, displaced it.
The furnace ticked, then hammered, then moaned, then ticked. From the street, the metallic thud of a Dumpster lid, a distant horn. Les, on the futon below, snored through it. Jude was so distracted by his thoughts that the sounds seemed to visit from someone else’s dream.
One-armed, he climbed down from the loft, wrestled on jeans and shoes and sling, gathered skateboard and watch and keys in the dark. By the glow of his father’s barbecue lighter, he found the slim black case under the kitchen sink. In it, blank-faced as a power drill, sleeping on its side on a bed of eggshell foam, lay McQueen. Jude slipped it into the pocket of his jacket and left his father alone with the furnace.
In the park, a boom box was blasting Warzone:
Don’t forget the struggle
Don’t forget the streets
He did not intend or wish to put the pistol to use as he coasted across St. Mark’s, along the lightless Avenues A, B, C, but he was glad for its leaden company. The shadowed figures he passed did not disturb him. No light showed at the bottom of Johnny’s door. Jude knocked anyway. No answer. He unlocked the padlock with the key Johnny had given him, hauled the door open, and turned on the light.
Blinking at the brightness, the three cats—Montezuma, Genghis, Tarzan—inspected him from their various perches. Jude smelled curry and the carbon whiff of cat litter. On a dish towel on the kitchenette counter, a single bowl and spoon lay drying. On the card table was a plastic laundry basket, and inside it, a block of bleached white T-shirts, crisp as a stack of paper.
Johnny’s skateboard was not by the door. He had told Jude he was going to bed early, that he had a headache, but Jude should not have been surprised that Johnny, too, had been unable to sleep. He was probably skating the city, trying to exhaust himself. “Well, that’s interesting,” he’d said on the train on the way downtown that afternoon.
Jude had said nothing.
“You didn’t know? About the two of them?”
Jude sat down on the couch. He propped a foot on each of the upturned record crates. Beside him, on top of a sketch pad, lay a well-thumbed paperback.The Laws of Manu. On the cover was a painting of a bejeweled god, not Krishna, four-armed, two-faced, like a conjoined pair of one-eyed jacks. Jude opened it to the place where a blank envelope marked a page.79. A twice-born man who (daily) repeats those three one thousand times outside (the village), will be freed after a month even from great guilt, as a snake from its slough.
“Those three what?” Jude asked Tarzan, who was polishing his whiskered cheek on Jude’s knee. He would like to find those three things so he could repeat them. He flipped through the book. In another chapter, several passages were underlined in blue ink:59. . . . let him restrain his senses, if they are attracted by sensual objects.60. By the restraint of his senses . . . by the abstention from injuring the creatures, he becomes fit for immortality. . . .62. On the separation from their dear ones, on their union with hated men. . . .63. On the departure of the individual soul from this body and its new birth in (another) womb, and on its wanderings through ten thousand millions of existences . . .
Jude closed the book and closed his eyes. It was the longest string of words he had read in a while, and their shapes swam behind his eyelids. When he opened his eyes, he looked down at his mummied arm, the mitt of his hand, the blue sling busy with signatures. ELIZA. He slipped off the sling and unwound the bandage. It had been a nightly ritual for the last three weeks, and he decided he was finished. Healed. A sickle-shaped scab sliced across his forearm, and his palm was rough with scar tissue. He held up his hand, wiggled his fingers. He was supposed to see an occupational therapist twice a week, but fuck it: the doctor said he’d play the guitar again.
Johnny had been surprised the following Sunday when Jude wanted to return to the temple, but they had accepted him back without question; most of the devotees hadn’t even noticed the fire that night. During the Vedic lecture, he believed he saw the priest nod at him. Devotion to Krishna—renouncing worldly possessions, abstaining from alcohol and drugs and meat, chanting the names of god, working only for him—was the way to end the cycle of death and birth, to cast off the guilt (this, likeThe Laws of Manu,was the word he’d used) of the material world. Jude wanted to be devoted. He had never been this clean before, and he only wanted to be cleaner.
Teddy’s body had been cremated; Jude didn’t even know where Johnny had scattered the ashes. But there was still something left of him. Eliza was pregnant, and Teddy was being reincarnated in this life.
He picked up Tarzan and settled him into his lap. Tarzan’s family jewels were the size of meatballs, but still, as Jude massaged the doughy, nippled Braille of his belly, he could not banish the wordwombfrom his mind. Generally, even when his coked-up best friend was not the seed bearer (had it been in a bedroom, another parked car?), Jude was uncomfortable with the idea of babies, of sex and pregnancy and bodies and birth. He’d been sprung from another woman’s womb. He’d drunk from her umbilical cord. Babies were like girls: they were breakable and entirely mysterious; they had nothing at all to do with him.
But look: Eliza, too, had once seemed unknowable, and now he and Johnny knew something about her that no one else did.
“I wouldn’t have gotten him fucked up,” she’d said, “if I knew you were going to.”
Jude had countered: “Well, neither would I.”
The full weight of the news descended upon them slowly, over moments and weeks, a package from a heaven-sent stork circling lazily down to earth. In the window of a stationery store near Union Square, alongside wedding invitations and business cards, Jude saw a birth announcement tied with baby blue ribbon:We welcome with love our gift from above!
Their secret had disarmed them; it had safely placed them all on Teddy’s team. They spoke of it with giddiness and gravity, or with panic, or with a sense of duty, but always with breathless disbelief at their unexpected fortune. (Science was so messed up! The friction of two bodies could make something that wasn’t there before. You could rub together two sticks and start a fire.) The conversations took place at Johnny’s, or walking down the street, or across the table at Dojo’s, or on the phone; it was one conversation, without beginning or end; it adopted its own code; it repeated itself; it spun around them, binding them like the silky threads of a web or a cocoon, an amniotic sac.JUDE: Shouldn’t we tell your mom?ELIZA: She’ll just make me get an abortion.JUDE: Why would she make you get an abortion?ELIZA: Because. She told me, “If you ever get pregnant, you’re getting an abortion.”JUDE: What about my dad?ELIZA: He’d just tell my mom.JOHNNY: It’s better if no one else knows. This way we can control it.ELIZA: Well, I can’t keep it a secret forever. People at school will start to notice. Someday the baby’s going to, you know, get born.JOHNNY: People will find out when they find out. But at least we can keep it under wraps for now. After a certain point, you can’t get an abortion.JUDE: But where will the baby live? Are you going to raise it with your mom? Are you going to go to school?JOHNNY: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.(Johnny was always saying, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”)JUDE: What about going to the doctor? Have you been to the doctor yet?ELIZA: I don’t know where togo. All I have is Dr. Betsy. She’s apediatrician.JOHNNY: What are they going to tell her? “Yes, you’re pregnant”?ELIZA: And don’t I have to go with an adult? My ID sucks.JUDE: Johnny’s an adult. He could say he’s your boyfriend.ELIZA: Yeah, but he’s not my guardian. You need a guardian to sign forms.JUDE: There aretestsand things. You can find out if the baby’s okay. She didcokewhile she was pregnant. Isn’t that bad?JOHNNY: Yes, it’s bad. It’s very, very bad. But what’s done is done. They put mothers in jail for that in some states. You want her to have the kid in jail?JUDE: No.ELIZA:No.JOHNNY: We don’t need a doctor yet. We can live without a doctor.
You could live without most things most people depended on, according to Johnny: a family, a phone, a furnace, a taxable income, a high school diploma. And he was sort of right. Here they were, three teenagers, planning for a baby, and the sky was still high above them, winter blue; it hadn’t fallen.
Jude’s mother called every Sunday.
“Do you meancompletely?”
“Completely.” He and Les had agreed not to tell her about the fire incident. There was no need to worry her.
There was no sound for a few seconds. Then Harriet said evenly, “Good for you.”
He could picture her standing in the kitchen with the bone-colored phone to her ear, the kinky, too-long cord wrapped around her, dragging on the floor. Jude’s heart, which had been sort of holding its breath, deflated.
“Whatever. Don’t believe me.”
“Honey, I believe you. I’m surprised, is all. I hardly know what to expect anymore. One day you’re the one getting into trouble, and now that you’re gone it’s your sister, and you’re the one—”
“What’s wrong with Pru?”
“Nothing. She’ll be fine. Of course I’ve been hoping this would happen for you, this was my distinct hope, but it just seems too good to be true. Living with your dad . . . I didn’t expect . . .”
“I gotta go, Mom. I’m going somewhere.”
“Wait. How’s school?”
“Fine.” He had generated a setting and cast of characters for this lie—East Side Community High School on Twelfth Street, where he had seen some sketchy-looking kids shooting hoops behind a chain-link fence; teachers named Mr. Prabhupada and Mr. Omfug. “I got a ninety-nine on my British Lit midterm.”
Harriet paused. He’d gone too far, he realized. “Jude. You telling me the truth?”
The fact that she didn’t believe him—that his recovery was so implausible, his soul so unsaveable—made him want to hang up. She was the fucking Glass Lady.
“True till death,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. It means you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Don’t be so hard on your mom,” Les said after Jude hung up. “She’s got reason to be worried.” One thing Jude knew about his father, had known about him since he turned nine years old, was that he couldn’t keep a secret. Still, he was caught off guard when Les spilled the beans. Some weeks back, Harriet’s studio had been vandalized. Smashed to shit. All the fish tanks full of all her glass pieces. Vases, bowls, bongs, pipes. A baseball bat, probably, but the only evidence left behind was a beer bottle, scattered among the broken glass.
“What? Who was it?”
Jude had been sitting on the floor in the kitchen, slumped against the refrigerator while he talked to his mother, his back still sticky with sweat from the matinee at CB’s. Now he sat up straight.
“She doesn’t know for sure. But she says the kid you ripped off came looking for you the day before with some other dude.”
Jude ran a frantic hand over his head. Hippie. Tory. He’d just spent hours slamming his body against a roomful of shirtless New York hardcore boys. The boys of Vermont seemed very far away.
He saw his mother standing over the shards of her studio, the glass twinkling around her. He saw her sweeping it into the dustpan, heard the heavy thud of the glass sliding into the trash.
“I’m going to kill those drunk fucks,” he said. “I’ll kill them.”
“Slow down now, champ.” Les was packing the bowl of Gertrude, his second favorite bong. “For one thing, your mom doesn’t want you to get upset. She thinks you’re not strong enough. But you got to know who you’re dealing with here.”
“Why didn’t they just steal everything? Why’d they go and smash it all?”
Les shrugged. “Maybe they just wanted to scare you. Sounds like the damage has been done.”
“My ass. It’s a threat!” Jude got to his feet, opened the refrigerator, and emptied a bottle of chartreuse Gatorade down his throat.
“They’re just hicks, these kids,” Les said. “Still, you don’t really want them using their baseball bats on you. It’s a good idea for you to stay here a while, don’t you think?”
“Fuck that,” Jude said, tossing his empty bottle in the sink. “We have to go back. You can bring McQueen.”
Les lowered his lips to Gertrude and, with his barbecue lighter, took an experimental hit. He liked to believe he was the kind of father who would teach his son to fight back, but his son’s extremes made him want to offer him the peace pipe instead. The kid had come to him in a coma, and now he was raging for combat. When Harriet had called him to Jude’s rescue, he had felt a startling kinship with the boy, a sense of molecular fulfillment that, despite Les’s absence in his life, Jude had become the idle, brooding pothead that Les had been as a teenager. Now he recognized none of himself in his son. Surely this turbulent little reverend with the military haircut was not Les’s flesh and blood. And then he remembered, with a slow, dismal shame—he was always forgetting—that he wasn’t.
“Jude,” said Les. “I know you feel guilty about dragging your mom into this mess. But I hardly think firearms are necessary.”
“So you’re just going to leave her alone up there? Like you did before?”
Les let the accusation hang in the air with his smoke. As exaggerated as his son’s logic was, he could not suppress the clammy grip of his own guilt.
“Forget it,” Jude said. “We’re going out again.”
“Me and Johnny and Eliza. They’re meeting over here.”
“Don’t tell me. You’re going to church.”
“It’s not a church.” Jude scrounged around in the kitchen drawer, through matchbooks, rolling papers, subway tokens, the collection of MoMA magnets that Di had once stuffed into Les’s Christmas stocking—The Starry Night,the Campbell’s soup can—until he found a couple of crumpled dollar bills. “It’s a temple.”
“I thought temple was Jewish.”
“It is. Or synagogue.”
Les shook his head sadly. “My son the saint. St. Jude. You know how you got that name, champ?”
“ ’Cause of that stupid song,” said Jude.
Les waved his hand. “Your mother liked the song. I liked the saint. He’s my favorite. Kind of overlooked, but a fellow to be reckoned with. Loyal, brutal, with that club of his, his head on fire. But you know what? They killed that son of a bitch with an ax.”
“Because he was a traitor?”
Johnny buzzed, and Jude buzzed back. He cracked open the door.
“That was Judah,” said Les, whose religious training was the sum of one semester of biblical literature and thirty years of crossword puzzles. “Jude was the loyal apostle, like yourself. But too much loyalty is dangerous, too. Your mom’s a tough cookie. She can take care of herself.”
Les remembered her as he’d last seen her, when he’d come to retrieve Jude—older, sharper, her face more deeply lined. But she was the same Harriet, the only woman who’d accepted him for the dreamer and schemer that he was. She was an artist, but she had never bought him a collection of MoMA magnets.
Just then, in compelling imitation of a tea leaf reader he’d once had a fling with in Lintonburg—all sequins and gold and spookiness—Di burst through the door. At her heels were Eliza and Johnny. As often as he saw the boy, he could not get used to the earrings, which reminded him, now that he thought about it, also of the tea leaf reader. (His fortune: you will leave your wife. Had she been baiting him, or had even the gods pegged him for a bastard?) Eliza was wearing her father’s extra-large Harvard sweatshirt, which always broke Les’s heart a little.
“I finally got to meet this Johnny,” said Di. “He held the door for us.”
“Hey there, John Boy,” said Les. He couldn’t help having a soft spot for him, too, ever since the day he’d learned about his brother and showed up at Les’s door looking like the walking dead. He, too, was an underground businessman, and in a neighborhood that made St. Mark’s look like Fifth Avenue. For that he’d earned Les’s respect. But behind the competent, tattooed facade was a kid who needed a swift kick in the ass.
“How you doing, Mr. Keffy,” Johnny said. The kitchen was as crammed as an elevator.
“How about a little sundress, honey?” said Les. “It’s spring.” These days Eliza was as hard as Jude to keep up with. Now she was back in the city on weekends, running around with Jude and Johnny, no longer Bookworm Betty. “I don’t get it. The boys are dressing like girls and the girls are dressing like boys.”
“See?” Di rapped Eliza on the elbow. “I say that and she takes my head off.”
“You ready to go?” said Jude, distracted, glum.
“Wait.” Di made a gun of her hands and aimed it at Jude. “We’re having a birthday dinner for Eliza. Not this Saturday but the next. You’re coming?” She swung the gun around at Johnny. “You come, too, Johnny.”
“I told you I don’t want a party.”
“Can’t you just get her some magnets?” Les suggested.
With excruciating slowness, Di lowered her hands. The look on her face could have cracked ice.
“I like the magnets,” he said gently.
“We’re going,” Eliza said and kissed her mother’s cheek.
“Now, where is this temple?”
“In Brooklyn,” said Eliza. This seemed to satisfy her mother.
“How come Eliza doesn’t go to the matinees with you?” Les wondered.
The three of them exchanged a distinct look.
“It’s a little rough for girls,” said Johnny, just as Eliza said, “I had to study.”
Les picked up the bong and held it under Jude’s nose. “A little Gertrude before you go? Offer it to Krishna. It’s godly stuff.”
Jude said nothing as he followed Johnny and Eliza out the door.
“It was great meeting you,” Johnny called to Di. “Thanks for the invite.”
“Not this Saturday,” said Di, “but the next!”
The door slammed shut, the children’s voices disappearing down the chamber of the stairwell. Di sighed. “We might as well go, Lester,” she said, clapping her hands soundlessly together.
According to the book Jude had given her, the fetus at eighteen weeks was the size of a bell pepper. Eliza couldn’t decide if that was incredibly big or incredibly small. She was still nowhere near certain she had made the right decision, but it was too late now, and that, at least, was some kind of relief. Too late. Oh, well. No turning back. The fetus, whom she’d named Annabel Lee, had fingerprints, eyelids, and nipples.
Eliza’s own nipples had gone tender with goose bumps, expanded and purpled; her breasts, scrawled with blue veins, were full. She had been fairly certain, before getting pregnant, that they had reached their full dimensions—she had not set her hopes above an A cup—and this sort of monstrous growth was not the final spurt of puberty. She wished she had someone to show them to. Wives had husbands to marvel with. Other women had boyfriends or doctors or sisters. Teddy had handled them in the dark, more timidly than the other boys, but just as vacantly. No one had studied them, like a painting or a car or a song. They were hers alone.
Night after night she’d climbed into the narrow bed across from Shelby Divine, listening to Shelby’s peaceful snores in the dark, more awake than she’d ever been on any drug, her body riveted with her secret. And morning after morning she’d woken up sicker than she’d been with any hangover, so sick she’d felt she was full of a poison. She threw up only once. Mostly her sickness just simmered inside her, suffocating her from the inside out.
Thankfully, the nausea had subsided, and in its place, just as persistent, were Johnny and Jude, bringing her prenatal vitamins, bringing her anIT’S OK NOT TO DRINKbutton from a Pyramid show, calling her on the hall phone to remind her to eat breakfast (“Neitherof them’s your boyfriend?” asked Shelby), waiting for her at Penn Station on Friday afternoon to fight over carrying her backpack, bearing Yoo-hoos and bags of sugared peanuts they’d bought from the street vendor outside. Throughout the week she craved those peanuts, the sweet, salty beginning of the weekend, Jude and Johnny standing at the end of the corridor like two dopey grooms.
On the following Friday afternoon, Johnny surprised Eliza by meeting her at the train station in Jersey instead of picking her up in New York. He wanted to hang out, he said, just the two of them; he wanted to see the town where she went to school, and she was so pleased to see him that she didn’t object to being away from the city for a few more hours. They walked from the train station to the movie theater, down the sidewalk lined with patches of gray ice, and sawFriday the 13th Part VII,sharing a bag of Twizzlers. When they emerged from the theater, it was dark outside. Two guys skating down the middle of the street cut over to the curb when they saw Johnny, calling, “Mr. Clean!” Turned out they’d met in the city, at a show at the Ritz. They talked for a few minutes, comparing tattoos, while Eliza watched the traffic pass by. One of them wantedDRUG FREEacross his knuckles. Or maybeSTR8 EDGE? Johnny told him to stop by.
“Must be nice,” Eliza said after they’d ordered at the Italian restaurant next door, “to be known by everyone.”
Anyone who needed a tattoo, or a double tape deck, or space to practice, went to Johnny. He would have made a fine drug dealer. Last fall he had organized a benefit show in Tompkins Square Park, with eleven bands and food donated by the Krishna temple. And last weekend, some band from California he’d met through the mail—themail—had crashed at his apartment, four guys and another four roadies. Eliza had knocked on the door early the next morning to find them sprawled out over every surface, tangled in and out of blankets, in boxers of every imaginable pattern and color. She had never felt so full of desire and so undesirable, pregnant in a gray Harvard T-shirt big enough to be a dress, standing before ten half-naked boys.
“I might as well have been invisible to those guys out there,” she said. “Do I really look pregnant?”
Johnny unwrapped his silverware and pressed his paper napkin neatly to his lap. “Don’t take it personally. They’re probably not into girls.”
Eliza studied the tablecloth. She aligned her fingers in the red and white squares, as though she were playing piano. “What about you, though?” she asked.
“What about me?”
She looked up. He was leaning on the edge of the table, his chin cupped in his hand, scoring her with his watery blue eyes. She was staring back so hard, hunting for a fragment of Teddy, that she had to drop her eyes again. “I mean, we know howIgot here.” She patted her stomach.
“I don’t need to know the details.”
“Well,Ido. Come on, Johnny. We’re friends?”
Johnny cleared his throat. “We are.”
She leaned across the table. Dean Martin was singing “That’s Amore.” A white-haired couple was seated two tables down, each poring over a paperback. “So are you really going to wait till you’re married,” she whispered, “or what?”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, I’m a walking advertisement for abstinence. I just mean—”
“What makes you think I haven’t . . . ?” Johnny showed his empty palms, then turned them over on the table. Through the ink on his bony hands grew the finest blades of gold hair.
“Just because . . .”
“Oh. Wow, Mr. Clean. You’re full of surprises. I just figured, you know . . .”
“I mean, I’m not a freak,” Johnny said, avoiding her eyes. “I’m, you know, as red-blooded as the next guy.”
“Sorry. It’s none of my business.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I mean, Teddy—I can see why he liked you.” He managed a smile, and now it was Eliza who couldn’t look him in the eye. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, okay? You look great.”
They were walking back to the train station to catch the nine-forty-five to New York when he said, as though he’d just remembered to mention it, “So when your mom finds out you’re pregnant, I think we should tell her I’m the father.”
He was carrying her backpack over one shoulder, like a schoolboy walking her home. She stopped, and he turned to face her. She was about to spout something smart-ass, but she stopped herself.
Johnny shoved his hands in his pockets. “People are going to notice soon. They’ll want to know who the father is. There’s no way your mom is going to let you keep the baby if she knows the situation.” Eliza said nothing. She nodded. “So this is the best way. This way we’ll be twice as strong. We’ll tell her webothwant to keep the baby.” His voice was soft, apologetic, but he was sure of himself.
“But will we?”
The old couple from the restaurant tottered slowly down the sidewalk, propping each other up. Eliza and Johnny stepped aside until they passed by.
“What we’ll do is we’ll say”—he put his hands on her shoulders—“we’ll say we’re together. A couple.”
“Well, maybe we should be.” Johnny shrugged, glancing out at the traffic, as if suggesting maybe they should get dessert. “I want to help raise this kid. Why not do it together?”
Eliza stared into the blank screen of his white T-shirt. When she didn’t answer, he placed his finger under her chin and tilted her head slowly, slowly up until her eyes met his, the way a parent will prepare a child for a reprimand, or the way a man will prepare a woman for a kiss. It had been a long time since anyone had touched her so intently, and a hot little hummingbird quivered in her chest.
“Okay,” she whispered. But he didn’t kiss her.
By the time they took their seats on the train, she was so exhausted, so thoroughly confused, that she fell asleep against Johnny’s shoulder, and although Jude had been in and out of her thoughts all evening, it wasn’t until the next morning, when he called her at her mom’s, more than a note of panic in his voice, that it occurred to her he might have been waiting for her the day before, at Penn Station, a bag of sugared peanuts in his hand.
“Johnny didn’t tell you? He picked me up in Jersey.”
“He didn’t tell me anything. I went to his place and he wasn’t there. I went to the station and you weren’t there.”
Eliza sat up in bed. She slipped her hand under her nightgown and over her stomach. She said she was sorry. She said she didn’t know. She told him about Johnny’s idea, relating the details as they came back to her, aware of the stony silence accruing on the other end of the line. “It’s the best thing,” she said, “don’t you think?”
Jude skipped temple the next day. He told Johnny he had a headache. Instead he went to Johnny’s, sat down on the couch, and picked upThe Laws of Manu. A new set of passages was marked by the envelope and underlined in blue ink.59. On failure of issue (by her husband) a woman who has been authorised, may obtain, (in the) proper (manner prescribed), the desired offspring by (cohabitation with) a brother-in-law or (with some other) Sapinda (of the husband).60. He (who is) appointed to (cohabit with) the widow shall (approach her) at night anointed with clarified butter and silent, (and) beget one son, by no means a second. . . .63. If those two (being thus) appointed deviate from the rule and act from carnal desire, they will both become outcasts, (as men) who defile the bed of a daughter-in-law or of a Guru.
“What’s with this voodoo shit?” he asked when Johnny came home, a full three hours after the ceremony had ended. Jude had been dozing on the couch, and now he did have a headache. He held up the book. “Fucking clarified butter?”
Johnny dropped his tattoo case and placed a styrofoam container of leftovers on the record crate in front of Jude. “It’s all that was left.”
“You got it for me?”
Johnny crossed to the kitchen and brought back a fork. “You can have it.”
Jude, in fact, had not had dinner. He removed his retainers, opened the box, and began efficiently to eat, unhappy with himself for being hungry. Johnny returned to the kitchen sink, the single sink in the apartment, and dispensed a caterpillar of toothpaste on a toothbrush.
“Did Eliza go with you?” Jude asked, his mouth full of naan.
“She did. She likes that voodoo shit.” Johnny jammed the toothbrush in his mouth. “She’s a spiritual person.” He cleaned his teeth with a ritual fervor that involved both arms, his eyebrows, and his hips. A yeasty lather of Colgate drooled down his chin.
“Where have you been, though? It’s like midnight.”
Johnny turned to the sink, spat, and rinsed his mouth. When he faced Jude again, a spot of toothpaste had blossomed over the heart of his T-shirt, white on white. Jude pointed it out.
“I had a house call.” Johnny peeled off the shirt and tossed it into the empty laundry basket. Across the rather pale, rather hairless plain between his nipples, Krishna was playing his flute. This among rubies and sapphires, ocean and fire, sinuous Sanskrit dictums the meaning of which Jude did not know,Xs and moreXs,TRUE TILL DEATHhanging from his clavicle like the iron plates of a necklace, none of which Jude had glimpsed but through the tissue of Johnny’s T-shirt, though he wondered now if Eliza had.
“You just did a tattoo?”
“I can’t even see straight. I’m taking a shower, and then I’m going to bed.”
“When you going to tattoo me, man? You said.”
“You don’t want to start, man. I’m telling you. You won’t stop. Good night. Or stay if you want, since you’ve made yourself so comfortable.”
“What if I pay you?”
“Maybe,” he said, pausing in the doorway to the bathroom. “Any more questions?”
Jude stared at the inside of the wax container, the oily, electric orange residue of his meal. When he’d told Johnny about what Hippie and Tory had done to his mother’s studio, Johnny had been sympathetic, then suspicious. Why had those guys targeted her? Jude finally told him the truth—he might have stolen a little pot from Hippie—and Johnny just shook his head, disappointed.
Still, Johnny had seen no reason for Jude to dive back into trouble in Vermont. “Don’t we have enough on our hands?”
He had a point. Sitting in Johnny’s apartment, Jude felt the mass of that responsibility. He was tired. But maybe Johnny was taking it into his own hands now. “Eliza told me you’re going to pretend you’re the father.”
Johnny was tugging at his bottom lip. The tattoo on the inside, below his gums, said, simply,NO. “It’s the only way, man.”
“But are you guys just friends, or . . . ?”
Blood beat in Jude’s ears. He wasn’t sure which answer he wanted to hear.
“Justfriends?” Johnny said. “None of us are just friends anymore.”
Les was on the toilet four mornings later, hitting Gertrude and doing theTimescrossword, when the phone bleated in the insistent, lonely way it does at sunrise, when the news is rarely good. Les allowed it to ring. Just as the sound became insufferable he heard his son’s descent from his bed, the gargle of his voice, and after several more moments, an ambivalent knock on the door.
Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, Les released a billow of smoke to the ceiling. “Son.”
“We got a problem. Can you hear me?”
Les wondered if the “we” referred to Jude and himself, or to Jude and the person on the phone.
“Can it wait a sec? I’m only about one-third done here.”
“Can you just hurry up?”
“Go on and tell me. I can hear you.”
Nothing for a few seconds but the wobbling of the mirror on the back of the door.
“Eliza’s on the phone. She’s at school. You won’t get mad, right?”
Les balanced the crossword on the edge of the sink and the bong on the crossword. The prospect of helping Eliza—the prospect of helping Eliza without getting mad, as Di would—gave him satisfying pause. “I won’t get mad.”
“And you won’t tell her mom?”
“Unless she’s dying. Or she’s killed someone.”
On the doorjamb, painted over but still legible, were the pocketknife scars that recorded the stature of some other tenant’s children. Les had penciled in Eliza when she was little enough for that sort of thing—Di wouldn’t allow it at her place—but the graphite had long ago been smudged away.
“What sort of bleeding?”
“You know, woman bleeding.”
Les scratched at his beard with his pencil. “Uh-huh?”
“The thing is, she’s pregnant, though.”
The pencil slipped from his grasp. As he bent to retrieve it, his forehead collided with the bong, which clattered into the sink, spilling its contents onto the newspaper.
Les put his hand to his forehead. He pressed hard, thinking.
“What should we do?” his son asked.
From the sink, Les retrieved Gertrude’s glass slide, which had snapped off at the base. It lay helplessly in Les’s palm, an amputated finger, dainty as an icicle, dumb as a dick.
“For God’s sake, kid, haven’t you heard of a rubber?”
The waiting room at the Mount Sinai Emergency Room, where Eliza had met them with her backpack and a look of being lost and not lost, as though she had a standing appointment for lunch there each week and was scanning the room for her date, was upholstered in a maroon a little too much like the color of blood. There were the usual amenities: issues ofPreventionandReader’s Digestthat looked as though they’d survived a flood, the floor toy that involved sliding colored beads on shoots of wire, theTodayshow murmuring on the television in the corner, broadcasting from several sunnier blocks away news of the presidential race. It was early for emergencies, 8:20 according to the clock on the wall. The only other patients to make an entrance were a febrile toddler over her mother’s shoulder, and a construction worker, who on the site of the hospital addition had nailed his hand to a two-by-four.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” said Les when they were alone, feeding himself a jelly doughnut he’d had the foresight to purchase, with a twenty-ounce cup of coffee, between the subway station and the hospital. “She’s young. She’s not ready to be a mom. It’s nature’s way of taking care of things.”
Jude sat with his elbows on his knees, speaking to the hemoglobin-colored carpet. “How does it happen, exactly? Is it . . . is it just blood?”
Eliza had insisted on going into the examination room alone, had remained around long enough only for Les to whisper, “You keeping anything else from me? Are you a Mets fan, too?”
“I don’t know, champ,” he said to Jude. “You know who should be here is Johnny. If he’s the father, he’d want to know. Why don’t you call him.”
“He doesn’t have a phone. He’s going to be mad,” Jude let out.
“Not mad. Just—sad.”
“Sad,” Les agreed. He slurped his coffee. “But it’s a relief you’re not the father. You get tied up in it, the lady’s grieving, distraught, she’s guilty, you’re guilty, everyone’s feeling lousy. Be glad you’re not involved. Babies,” he said. He nudged Jude’s arm and indicated the walls around them. “You know you were born here?”
Jude looked at his father and shook his head.
“It’s true.” Les leaned back and crossed one hairy leg over the other. He was wearing his gray suede Birkenstocks with the broken clasp, one of the straps flapping like a tongue. His calves were the size of cantaloupes; they bore no resemblance to Jude’s. “You were tiny as a rabbit. And you had this shock of red, red hair.” He hovered his hand over his Yankees cap, indicating. “Your mom and I were sitting in the nursery in rocking chairs, in scrubs, with these shower caps on our heads, like they were afraid we were going to give you the plague. Just waiting for you.” He wasn’t watching the television now but the empty space in the room. “We waited there forever, just rocking back and forth. Your mom was terrified they’d changed their minds, that there was a problem. She wanted a cigarette so bad and all she had was this king-size bag of M&M’S. She ate the entire bag of M&M’S, waiting for you.”
Jude had not heard this story before, and it was only after hearing it that he realized he’d had a picture of his first meeting with his parents, and this was not it. He now understood why his father had chosen this inconveniently located emergency room, ninety blocks away: it belonged, in his mind, to a baby hospital. Second-degree burn: Beth Israel. Miscarriage: Mount Sinai. If Jude’s heart were not already preoccupied, it might have been warmed by his father’s lumbering logic.
“She prefers Snickers now,” Jude answered, not looking at him. Then, “Did she tell you I might have FAS?”
Les nodded. “Yes, she did.”
“Retard disease,” said Jude after a moment, because his father was cruelly silent.
“Not retard disease. It’s a disability.”
“It’s why I’m always in trouble and fuck my numbers up so bad.”
“Fuck your numbers up how?”
“Mix them up. Turn them around. Letters, too. You didn’t know that?”
“I guess not,” Les said. “Look, who cares? It’s just a fancy name for your birth mom indulged a little too much. So did half my generation, okay? We didn’t know any better. Your mom smoked like a chimney when she was knocked up with your sister. Not to mention a little wacky tobacky now and then.”
“She did? While she was pregnant?”
“She said it helped with morning sickness,” Les said, shrugging dubiously. This piece of trivia made Jude feel better and worse at the same time, but Les looked pleased with himself, as though he’d wrapped up a nice father-son conversation. The fact that his father had tossed off the story of his birth in a waiting room while watching theTodayshow, might just have easily not shared it with him (as his mother surely would not have shared it with him), was enjoying the memory like he was enjoying his jelly doughnut and the prospect of pulling one over on his girlfriend, left Jude with nothing else to say.
The sliding doors to the street blew open then. Through them came three young black men, two propping up the third, whose jacket pocket was soaked with blood. The boy’s head was rolled back on his neck, and the yellow whites of his eyes were still. He made a sound as though he were choking on his tongue. A bubble of blood came up and sat poised on his open mouth for a moment before breaking.
It wasn’t until nearly an hour later, when Eliza returned to the waiting room, pale and smiling and still pregnant, that Jude could drain that blood from his mind. She was spotting—it wasn’t a miscarriage, but an infection—and Jude was so relieved that he clutched her arm and whispered, “Bacterial vaginosis!” as though they were the loveliest words on earth.
“I saw her on the monitor,” Eliza told them on the subway ride home. “They did an ultrasound. She’s jumping around like a jumping bean! Do beans jump?”
“She?” said Les.
“Annabel Lee,” Jude explained. The doctors said they could determine the sex of the baby, but Eliza didn’t want to know.
They begged Les not to tell Di, and Les, after enjoying their pleas for a while, agreed. “A baby,” he said, looking worried for the first time in his life. Jude told Eliza about the man who’d come in bleeding. Had he been shot? they wondered. Stabbed? Had he lived or died? Jude wanted to put his hand on Eliza’s belly, but he didn’t. He hadn’t known, before that morning, how badly he wanted Teddy’s baby to be born.
Johnny was not pleased that Eliza and Jude had confided in Les, but he did not complain that they hadn’t consulted him first, because, as it happened, Johnny had been indisposed at the time. The morning Eliza was admitted to the ER, he wasn’t in his apartment but in Rooster DeLuca’s, a scrappy little studio near Charlie Parker’s old building, making a house call for an eight-headed dragon he’d been working on for months. The first several appointments had taken place at Johnny’s, but lately he’d insisted on a new arrangement. It was risky to sneak his equipment through the street, but it was riskier to have customers visit his apartment at all hours. Most of Johnny’s tattoos were done by his friend Gomez, whose whole studio not long ago had been raided and fined by the Health Department. And last week the artist they called Picasso had quit after one of his customers fell over and died of AIDS. The city had banned tattooing in the sixties because of hepatitis B, and AIDS made hepatitis look like a cold sore. “Too dicey these days,” said Picasso, but now Johnny had a new crop of customers. He was terrified of the virus—he sterilized every needle—but he was too broke to be picky. He would tattoo anyone.
It was the most extensive single tattoo Johnny had performed: the entire expanse of Rooster’s broad back, armpit to armpit, skull to ass. It was the one empty canvas left on his generously inked body. He had a hairy fucking back, Rooster, each black hair as long as the time since their last session, since the tattoo had healed enough to allow more work. On the Murphy bed that took up most of the room, Rooster lay on his stomach. On the nightstand, Johnny’s kit, plastered with band stickers, splattered with ink, lay openmouthed. Johnny sat on a stool, spreading a sheet of shaving cream on Rooster’s back. He worked the razor down the slope of his spine, rinsing it after each stroke in a cloudy mug of water. When he was done, he mopped up the cream with his cloth, took the Vaseline Rooster kept in the nightstand, and applied a dollop to the right shoulder blade.
“How’s it lookin’?”
“I thought you fell asleep.” They spoke loudly now over the sound of the needle.
“I did for a minute,” Rooster said. “I was dreamin’ about pancakes. I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry.”
“You work up my appetite, baby.”
Johnny worked the foot pedal, filling in the seventh head. He was getting close to the end. “One more visit,” he said, “and I think I’ll be done.”
“Then I’ll have to come up with somethin’ else for you to do.”
The needle was riding the dune of Rooster’s back, veining the thirteenth eyeball of the dragon, and Johnny found himself picturing what Eliza’s narrow back would look like.
“You’ve been with girls, right?”
“It’s been a long time.”
Johnny wondered if he could bring himself to do it. It couldn’t be so different. A body was a body. “What was it like?” He’d tattooed a few girls before, and had felt a kind of awe at the smoothness of their skin under his hands.
“Where’s this comin’ from?”
“You thinkin’ about that girl?”
Johnny didn’t say anything. The needle throbbed in his hand.
“Well, you wouldn’t have to worry about knockin’ her up.” Rooster laughed, bumping the needle.
“Don’t laugh, man!” Johnny let up on the pedal and withdrew the needle. “You fucked up the eyeball!” He wiped at it with his cloth. The needle had scratched the dragon’s cornea, tracing a red tail through it. “It looks like he’s crying blood!”
“Can you fix it?”
Johnny snapped off his gloves. Rooster sat up. His chest was dark with the same stubborn, wiry hairs, and imprinted with the texture of the tousled sheets. He wasn’t laughing anymore. For months, before Johnny had gotten his own apartment, this was the bed he’d slept in. He’d never quite been able to bring himself to leave it.
“Why don’t you sleep in my bed?” Rooster had asked him that first night he’d rescued him from Tompkins, almost two years ago.
“No, man,” Johnny had said. “It’s your bed. You take it.”
Rooster had looked at him, placing the big, calloused palm of his hand on Johnny’s neck, and said, “That’s not what I meant.”
Rooster did the same thing now, stroking Johnny’s Adam’s apple with his thumb. He was gentle, always gentle, but Johnny felt his breath stop, choked with indecision.
“You want to know what it feels like? Bein’ with a girl?” Rooster dropped his hand. “It feels like bein’ a fuckin’ coward.”
In the kitchen, Neena was butterflying a leg of lamb, an indelicate procedure that recalled neither lamb nor butterfly, but a bloody approximation of log splitting, diapering, and liposuction. She had learned the method from her grandmother, a billy goat of a woman four and a half feet tall, in the kitchen of the hotel where she worked in Chandigarh. Until she came to America, it was the biggest kitchen Neena had ever seen. This kitchen, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, thirteen stories in the air (it had taken some time to explain to her family back home why the address was the fourteenth floor), had a six-burner gas range, a refrigerator that dispensed ice crushed or cubed, and a wine rack so full that taking a bottle home now and then was like taking a pin from a pin- cushion. The boyfriend (he was not a boy, but he was dressed like one, in sandals and cutoff jeans and an untucked Hawaiian shirt) was opening the second bottle of the evening. He refilled his glass and then Neena’s, spilling a puddle of wine on the counter. “Looking good, girl,” he said with a whistle, at either Neena or the lamb, and, taking the bottle, drunkenly exited the room.
Stepping into the air-conditioned parlor, away from the aromatic, ovened kitchen, Les saw that the guests had arrived and were arranging themselves on various pieces of furniture. Eliza sat on the ottoman beside a pyramid of gifts, Johnny and Jude in the pair of wingback chairs. “Wow,” said Johnny, who was wearing, of all things, a linen sport coat, “your home is really beautiful, Ms. Urbanski.” He took in the claw-foot coffee table, the baby grand posed like an open-jawed shark. He was eyeing the painting hanging over the piano, the backside of a reclining male nude.
“That’s Pierre,” Les explained.
“Thank you, Johnny.” Di draped herself over the divan. She was wearing jeans and ballet slippers and an indigo-colored leotard, which swept low on her very fine back, and she was balancing a wineglass in her many-ringed fingers. This left Les standing at the margin of the room, but he was glad to keep his distance. Di hadn’t looked at him since earlier that afternoon, when she’d sent him out to pick up her order at the bakery.
He was content being her errand boy: that was how he atoned, how he returned to her good graces. He had done his best this afternoon, and now the living room was festooned with the pink wishes of the Upper East Side’s finest merchants—bouquets of balloons; crimped streamers; sixteen frosted cupcakes from Payard, plated in wedding cake tiers and bedecked with silver bullets.It looks like a baby shower,Di had remarked to Eliza.Doesn’t it?
Eliza was shaking one of the gift boxes now. For her birthday dinner, she had belatedly taken Les’s advice and chosen a dress, a strapless, coral-colored dress with a ruffled skirt and pumps to match. Full, but not full enough. She looked as though she’d swallowed one of those big, curvaceous autumn squashes. “Gucci,” she guessed.
“Nope. Go ahead and open it,” said Di. Eliza did, not taking her time. Inside was a silver watch, slender as a bracelet.
Eliza was a thrift store hound; she was not one to exclaim over costly gifts. Di wasn’t really one to give them, either. They were putting on a sick sort of show, bending over backward to please each other. Eliza leaned over and placed her wrist on Johnny’s knee, and Johnny fastened the watch for her. Then she trotted over to kiss her mother’s cheek. It was unbearable, watching a person who was in the dark, especially when it was you who had put her there.
“Going to check on that lamb,” Les said, mostly to himself, and returned to the kitchen.
Eliza balled up the wrapping paper, tossed it at Jude, and tied the ribbon around Johnny’s thigh. “Thanks,” he said.
“It’s a garter,” she explained.
“Would you boys care for wine?” Di asked, picking up the open bottle that Les had left on the table.
Jude and Johnny declined. “They’restraight edge,” said Eliza in a mock whisper.
“Of course. I forgot. Eliza?” She lifted the bottle. Eliza shook her head, crossed her legs, and stared at her shoes.
“I’m feeling kind of yucky,” she said and patted her belly heartily. At this, Jude could not help but direct a desperate glance at Johnny. What was that about? And what was with the getup? She was nearly five months pregnant.
Di stood up, walked over to her daughter, and held the back of her hand to her forehead. “You don’t have a fever, darling.”
“Something smells good,” Jude said loudly.
“It really does,” Johnny agreed.
“Neena’s doing a lamb,” Di said.
“Mother, you know they’re vegetarian. They don’t eat lamb.”
“Of course.Vegan,isn’t it?”
“Vee-gan,” said Jude helpfully. “Vay-gans are from the planet Vega.”
Di returned to the divan, turned sideways so she could stare into the picture window behind her. The sun was sinking over New Jersey. “Listen to you three, with your secret codes.” She sipped her wine. “You’re all very busy together, aren’t you?”
“We’ve been going to the temple a lot,” said Jude.
“When I was sixteen, I was dancing seven days a week. I didn’t have time to run around the city with a couple of boys.”
“Johnny’s eighteen,” Eliza pointed out.
“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows, impressed. “An adult. What do you do, Johnny?”
“I’m a musician.”
“And a tattoo artist,” Eliza added. Jude looked at her with concern, but she waved her hand. “What’s she going to do—call the police? She’s practically married to a drug dealer.”
“We arenotmarried, practically or even remotely,” said Di. “Do you make a decent living with tattoos, Johnny?”
“Getting there,” Johnny said. He was sitting comfortably, legs crossed, nibbling macadamia nuts from a glass bowl he cupped in his hand. “I save money by working out of my apartment.”
“And where is this apartment?”
“Mother, what does it matter?”
“What about college? You don’t live with anyone? Your family?”
“Mother,don’t be rude!”
“I don’t have any family, ma’am.” Every pair of eyes in the room dropped to the floor. Johnny shifted his to the painting above the piano. The man’s back was as smooth and as rippled as a conch.
Di sipped her wine thoughtfully. “I’m awfully sorry about that.”
“I bet this one’s Burberry,” said Eliza, ripping the paper from one of the larger gifts. This time she was right. Inside was a checked wool scarf, feathered at the ends and wide as a shawl. “Oh, I love it!” She whipped it extravagantly around her neck and crossed the room again to Di. This time, she sat down square on her mother’s lap, startling the wine from her glass. “I love it, I love it, I love it!” she said, kissing her mother’s cheek each time. Di went with it, kissing her back. They cuddled; they cooed. Eliza wrapped them both in the scarf. Di buried a hand in Eliza’s side, tickling her. Eliza shrieked, leaning back luxuriously, her shoe balanced precariously on her foot.
At this point, Les returned from the kitchen, balancing three glasses of soda water. In the pocket of his shorts were the two letters, now freckled with red wine: the bill from Mount Sinai Hospital for the balance of services rendered (he’d thought he’d paid the whole thing), and the notice of expulsion from Eliza’s school (We regret to inform you . . . unanswered phone calls . . . take truancy very seriously . . . out-of-town permissions . . . disregard for disciplinary probation . . .). Both had arrived in Di’s mailbox that afternoon, and by the time Les arrived to help with the party, Di had burned through half a pack of cigarettes. For once he’d managed to keep a secret, but after Di confronted him with those letters, he broke down, spilled all the details—the ER, the baby, the father.
“Jeezum Crow,” he said now, clanging the glasses down on the table. “Just tell her.”
Di stopped tickling. Eliza stopped giggling. No one seemed sure which one he was talking to. Les withdrew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, then tossed the pack and lighter on the table. Jude sat frozen. Johnny worked a macadamia nut in his cheek.
“You give me hell about keeping it from you, but now you’re just torturing the girl! Andshe’sso desperate to tell you, to get an ounce of support from you, she’s got it written on her dress! I didn’t tell her, Eliza, but she found out. And by the way, you’re kicked out of school.”
“I know,” Eliza mumbled, sliding off her mother’s lap.
“You girls are two of a kind.” He looked at Di. “Why do you think she doesn’t tell you anything? Because you control the shit out of any situation you get your hands on! And why do you think she does that, Eliza? Because you’re so goddamn out of control!Threeschools you’ve been kicked out of? It’s a good thing your mother’s sending you to one of those Florence Crittenton homes, because at this point no other school would take you.”
Les stopped for a breath. His hands shook as he held the cigarette to his lips. He had never felt entirely at home here, in this apartment bought with Wall Street money. Les was everything Daniel Urbanski was not. He was all the long-haired men Di had given up for marriage. Her downtown man. Mother Nature’s Son. Her joker, her smoker, her midnight toker. “Blessed are the pot sellers, illusion dwellers!” So many nights they’d spent adrift on her waterbed, smoking joints with the windows open, Simon and Garfunkel anointing their unlikely union. But it seemed that the illusion had been his.
“Florence who?” Eliza asked.
“I’msorry, Lester,” said Di coolly, leaning over to snatch up the cigarettes. “I didn’t know you were so concerned about education.I’mthe irresponsible parent.Ididn’t notice that my fifteen-year-old daughter is pregnant because she wasenrolled in school. I suppose I could have kept better tabs on her if I let her drop out and smokereeferall day. Maybe I could build a special room for her to have sex in, with a heart-shaped bed and a big mirror on the ceiling.” She lit a cigarette and drew on it forcefully.
“Mom, you don’t smoke anymore.” Eliza crossed her arms over her stomach, gripping her elbows.
“I don’t smoke pot anymore,” pointed out Jude.
“She’s not fifteen anymore,” pointed out Johnny.
“I’m sorry—sixteen.” Di spoke slowly, without anger, clipping each word. “Fully prepared to raise a child.”
“You don’t have to talk about me like I’m not here! I’ve got resources. I’ve got money, a lot more money than a lot of mothers have. When I turn eighteen, I’ll have enough money—”
“Enough money for what, Eliza? What will you do until then? I’ve already got a room set up for you at a facility upstate. I called this afternoon.”
“I’m not going to any fucking facility!”
“They take your baby,” Jude said, pitching forward. “That’s what a ‘facility’ is.”
“They don’ttakeit,” Di said. “They don’t sell it into slave labor. They give it to parents that can take care of it properly.”
“Like my dad?” Jude said.
Through the picture window, Manhattan was now curdled a pale twilight blue. No one had moved to turn on a light, and Jude could feel the darkness sifting through the room. He was glad his father’s face was shadowed by his Yankees cap.
“You’re angry that Di found out, but I didn’t tell her,” Les said. “I chose to cover foryou.”
“Ofcourseyou chose him. Anything to makeJudelike you. Anything to be apal. Leave the fathering to someone who has the time.”
“Has it occurred to you,” said Di, “that Eliza might not be in this situation if she weren’t desperate for a little attention from a father figure?” Raising his wineglass to his lips, Les momentarily lost his grip. He fumbled it like a football, a red tide rising to find the lapel of his shirt, before he caught it again. No one moved to get a cloth from the kitchen; no one offered the soda water that sat, untouched, on the table.
“You can blame me for fucking up my own kids,” said Les. “But don’t blame me for fucking up yours.” He put down his glass, gouged out his cigarette in the ashtray, plucked up a cupcake, and kissed the crown of Eliza’s head. “You’re not fucked up. I’m just saying.” Eliza sat with her elbows on her knees, hands covering her face. “Happy birthday, sweetheart. I tie-dyed you a Yankees shirt—it’s around here somewhere. You can call me.” His sandals slapped the marble floor as he crossed the room. The door closed noisily behind him.
From behind her hands, Eliza smelled ginger and garlic and cooking meat. She kicked off her shoes. In her bare feet, she stood up and wandered in the direction of the window. She said, “I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you, Mother, but I—”
“Darling, no.” Di put down her glass. “I’m notdisappointedthat you’re pregnant. I’m disappointed that you didn’ttellme. If you’d come to me, we could havedonesomething about it.”
Eliza rested her hands over her belly. “Well, that’s why I didn’t tell you.” Typical of her mother, she thought—who cared whether the problem was school or drugs or boys or a baby, as long as she got to choose the solution?
But Les was right: they were two of a kind. Eliza was as stubborn as her mother. She was halfway through this solution of hers, and yet standing there she was not at all sure whether she’d chosen it because it was what she wanted or because it was what her mother wouldn’t.
Or because it was what Jude and Johnny wanted. She looked at them, two pairs of blue eyes watching her as though she were an afterschool special.
“What are you looking at?” she demanded of them. “Don’t just sit there. I’m doing this foryou.”
“What do you mean?” asked Di.
“She means,” said Johnny, standing up, “that I want this baby as much as she does.” He crossed the room, sneakers squeaking against the floor, and pressed a palm to Eliza’s belly. “Right?”
Her stomach fluttered. She could feel each of his fingertips through the layers of taffeta. No one but the ER doctor had touched her pregnant belly, and now, as if the baby had been awoken, she felt a tiny quiver again, like a goldfish swimming against the fishbowl of her belly.
But Johnny didn’t feel it. He was digging in his pocket for something, dropping to his knee, saying, “I’ve got a present for you, too.”
“Oh, mercy,” said her mother.
Annabel Lee was telling her something, but she didn’t know what it was.
“You can’t marry her. She’s sixteen years old! Not without parental consent.”
A tail-stroke, a wing-beat, a slither through the grass.
“I can in New Jersey,” said Johnny, opening the box.
The boyfriend’s boxer shorts were gone, his toothbrush, the glass pipe he kept cinched in a chamois sack at the bottom of the hamper, where he thought no one would look. His crossword puzzles were not in the basket in the master bath; his bottles of beer did not roll in the crisper. Whether these things had been fetched or discarded Neena did not know. She was not particularly sorry to see them go.
The morning after her birthday party, zipping an enormous cowhide suitcase on her bed, Eliza announced that she was leaving. “Don’t let her out of your sight,” her mother had instructed Neena before leaving the apartment herself an hour earlier, but when Eliza threw her arms, quite abruptly, around Neena’s neck, the woman did not feel she could hold her captive. Neena was not confident she could construct a sentence in English adequate to express her confusion, embarrassment, worry, and joy. With gratitude she had several times accepted the girl’s cocaine, which her son had traded a friend for a VCR, an interview suit, and a 1972 Dodge Coronet, but she did not know how to accept a good-bye hug.
Downtown Les was chasing a fly with a flyswatter when the buzzer buzzed. When he opened the door in his undershirt, Eliza was sitting on her suitcase, breathing heavily. “What are you doing, crazy woman? You carry that up the stairs?” Les dragged it through the kitchen and into the living room, where Eliza collapsed on the futon. Then he brought her a glass of water.
“Where’s Jude?” She gulped from her glass.
Les, standing, swatted at the drone that swept by his ear, his hangover indistinguishable from the insect that orbited his head. “Gone somewhere on his skateboard.” With his flyswatter, he indicated the suitcase. “What, are you moving in?”
“Not with you. I’m on my way to Johnny’s. I don’t think he’s home yet.” She placed her glass on the coffee table, lifted her necklace out of her collar, and gently bounced the charms in her hand. “I had to get out of there before my mom came back.”
Les turned the flyswatter on Eliza, fanning her. “Just so you know, it’s a terrible idea.”
“Moving in with Johnny?”
“Marrying him. Jude told me.”
A sticky strand of Eliza’s hair batted in the draft of the fan. “Papa, don’t preach,” she said. “You have any better ideas?”
“You can stay here with me. Sleep in the loft. Jude can sleep in the bathtub. When the baby’s born, we’ll sell it on the black market. I know a guy in Jersey City who can get ten thousand bucks for a white kid.”
“What if it’s not white?”
“Five,” said Les.
Eliza unzipped one side of the suitcase, slipped her hand in, and withdrew a chamois bag, which she tossed to Les. Les caught it against his chest. “She must have junked everything else last night. When I woke up this morning, she was gone.”
Les opened the drawstring and slid out the glass pipe. It was baby-shit brown marbled with streaks of green, squat as a mushroom and smooth as a stone. Not the prettiest thing, but she was reliable. Inside the bowl was an ancient bud, which he dug out like a booger and dropped on the carpet. “Harriet!” he said. “This old girl must be twenty-five years old. My ex’s earliest work. You meet my old lady when you were in Vermont?”
“I didn’t have the pleasure.”
“She’s a piece of work.”
He thought about her while he stroked her namesake, the curve of the woman’s thickened hips not unlike those of the pipe. He thought about the way, back in February, he’d approached her bedroom door—theirbedroom door—the five musical knocks he’d played on it. He had intended only to say good night. Instead he’d found himself smelling the patchouli and cigarettes in her hair, the warm mama scent in the crook of her neck, like borax and breast milk and the sawdust of their bygone household, and as he walked her backward to their bed, she had smelled him back.
Now he went instinctively for the cookie jar on the kitchen counter, took out a thimbleful of pot, and packed it in the pipe. They’d been like a couple of teenagers, pawing at each other, up all night, like the teenagers they’d actually been when they’d first smelled the crooks of each other’s necks. He was back on the couch by the time their children, now teenagers, had woken the next morning. And now Eliza was pregnant and her suitcase was packed and out of it snaked the black lace of some undergarment he preferred not to identify.
“What do I call you now? My ex-almost-stepdaughter?”
“Don’t get sappy on me, Lester.”
“Will you still come visit me?”
“I’ll be down the street.”
Les sat down beside her and took a hit on the pipe. It settled him, loosened his bones. It tasted, somehow, like Vermont. “When’s the wedding?”
“Sunday, I hope. Johnny’s out taking care of the details now. It’s going to be at the temple.”
“I’m guessing you don’t mean Emanu-El.”
“Are you coming?”
Les took her hand in his and examined the ring. The stone was no bigger than a lentil, and almost certainly not a diamond; he knew a guy who sold these on Fourteenth Street. “You really love this kid? This Hare Rama with all the jewelry?”
Eliza withdrew her hand sharply. She took up her necklace again, jogged the charms.
“He appears to be noble,” Les went on. “A stand-up guy. But why marry him? You’re already knocked up. Why not cohabit for a while, play it by ear?”
“That’s what you’d do, isn’t it. Play it by ear.”
“I find it’s the best organ to play by.” He swatted at the fly. “Although I’ve been accused of playing by others.”
Eliza was scrunched down on the futon, her body practically horizontal, her hand absently rubbing the T-shirt stretched over her belly. “What if it was Jude’s kid? Would you and my mom still want me to give it away?”
“If it was Jude’s kid, well, we’d all get married and live in one big incestuous duplex.”
“It would have been better, wouldn’t it,” said Eliza, gazing into space.
Les tried to picture it: a new age sitcom family, the four of them taking turns with the nighttime feedings. A grandfather at the age of forty-three. It was no more outrageous than the idea he’d had, in the early hours of St. Valentine’s Day, his ex-wife catching her breath beside him, of returning to his old life. Not taking any vows—just staying there in that bed. Just playing it by ear. But in the morning Harriet had wordlessly deposited a plate of scrambled eggs in front of him, and then he’d whisked his son away. And now neither of these options was available to him, his old family or his new. The phone rang, and Les got up and went eagerly to it. He found himself hoping it was Jude, the thread that now held his families together.
Instead, he heard the familiar static of a cordless phone.
Les listened to the voice crack through the noise, to the voice and the static and the fly and the door-buzzer peal of his headache. The voices in his head. Had he seen Eliza? He had better tell her if he’d seen Eliza, he had better tell her where that punk lived, if he didn’t want the cops involved, if he didn’t want a drug-sniffing dog at his door, if he knew what was good for him.
Les was not entirely sure that he did.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t hear you very well.” And he placed the phone in its cradle.
“Oh, God. Is she coming over?”
“She’s coming to find me, isn’t she?”
“Holdon,girl. I’m thinking.” It was over, he was thinking. It was not the first time he had hung up on Di, or she on him. There had been other fights, accusations, betrayals, the obvious incompatibilities, but now he had crossed a line. He had stepped between Di and her child.
“I wish there was a place we couldgo. Someplace safe where she won’t find me.” Eliza was sitting up now, leaning over her belly, her face in her hands. “We can’t stay at Johnny’s! He doesn’t even have AC!”
Les picked up the phone and dialed the number that, the dozen or so times he’d dialed it in the last seven years, he was always surprised to remember.
“What are you doing?”
He listened to the dial tone, fanning himself with the flyswatter now, fanning himself as though putting out a fire. He had a wild idea as he waited: that his ex-wife was pregnant with his child, that this child would be the one he wouldn’t screw up, that he could have his old family and his new one under one roof.Honey,he’d say,I’m coming home.
“Is Jude okay?” Harriet asked when they’d said their hellos. She sounded impatient, or maybe just anxious, out of breath, the way she had when he’d admitted to her that yes, he’d told Jude about the kids who’d broken into her studio. She had just run inside from the garden, or upstairs from the basement, where she was doing a load of laundry. She was not a woman longing for her husband to come home. Their children were the players in a business arrangement, and what had happened in their marriage bed was an olfactory fluke.What did you do to him now?said her voice, which might as well have been the voice of the woman he’d just hung up on, the other woman he’d deceived and failed, whose faith he’d neglected to earn.