The three old friends arrived on the island in reverse order, from farthest to nearest: Lincoln, a commercial real estate broker, practically cross-country from Las Vegas; Teddy, a small-press publisher, from Syracuse; Mickey, a musician and sound engineer, from nearby Cape Cod. All were sixty-six years old and had attended the same small liberal arts college in Connecticut where they’d slung hash at a campus sorority. The other hashers, mostly frat boys, claimed to be there by choice, because so many of the Thetas were hot, whereas Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were scholarship students doing the job out of varying degrees of economic necessity. Lincoln, as good-looking as any of the frat boys, was immediately made a “face man,” which meant donning a scratchy white waist-length jacket to serve the girls in the sorority’s large dining room. Teddy, who’d worked at a restaurant during his junior and senior years of high school, became a cook’s helper, making salads, stirring sauces, plating entrées and desserts. Mickey? They took one look and escorted him over to the sink where a mountain of dirty pots sat piled alongside a large cardboard box of off-brand steel scrubbers. Such was their freshman year. By the time they were seniors, Lincoln had been made head hasher and could offer both his friends positions in the dining room. Teddy, who’d had enough of the kitchen, promptly accepted, but Mickey said he doubted there was a serving jacket big enough to fit him. Anyway, he preferred remaining a kitchen slave to making nice with the fancy girls out front, since at least the galley was his own.
Converging on the island forty-four years later, all three were grateful for the educations they’d received at Minerva, where classes had been small, their professors available and attentive. To the naked eye, it had looked like most other colleges did in the late sixties and early seventies. The boys had long hair and wore faded jeans and psychedelic T-shirts. In dorm rooms kids smoked dope, covered the smell with incense, listened to the Doors and Buffalo Springfield. But these were mere matters of style. To most of their classmates, the war seemed a long way off, something that was going on in Southeast Asia and Berkeley and on TV, not coastal Connecticut. Editorials in the Minerva Echo were forever lamenting the lack of any real activism. “Nothin’s happenin’ here,” one said, riffing on the famous song lyrics. “Why that is ain’t exactly clear.”
No place on campus was less rebellious than the Theta house. A few of the girls smoked weed and went braless, but otherwise the sorority was a protective bubble. Yet it was here, far more than in their classes, that the real world began to reveal itself conspicuously enough that even nineteen-year-olds like Lincoln and Teddy and Mickey couldn’t ignore it. The cars parked out back of the Theta house were not only nicer than those in the regular student lots but also the faculty’s. Stranger still, at least to young men who didn’t come from wealth, the owners of the vehicles in the Theta lot didn’t feel particularly lucky to be at Minerva, or even to have parents who could afford the staggering tuition. Where they came from, Minerva was the natural extension of the first eighteen years of their lives. Indeed, for many, this had been a safety school, and they spent their freshman year getting over the disappointment of not getting into Wesleyan or Williams or one of the Ivies. Though they’d known the statistics on the grades and SATs required to get into such elite institutions, they were used to having other factors count, too, things you could neither talk about nor quantify but that still caused doors to magically open. Anyway, Minerva was fine. At least they’d gotten into the Theta house was how they looked at it. Otherwise, they might as well have gone to UConn.
On December 1, 1969, the evening of the nation’s first draft lottery, Lincoln convinced the house mother to let the hashers serve dinner half an hour early so they could all crowd around a tiny black-and-white TV in the back room where they ate their meals. Given that their fates hung in the balance, the mood was strangely buoyant, at least at the beginning. Of the eight hashers’ birthdays, Mickey’s came up first, 9th out of 366 possibilities, causing the others to break into a chorus of “O, Canada,” which might’ve gone over better if they’d known more than the first two words of the song. Of the three friends Lincoln’s came next at 189; better, but not safe enough, and impossible to make plans around.
As the lottery continued, a relentless drumbeat of birthdays— April 1st, September 23rd, September 21st—the mood in the room grew more somber. Earlier, while serving the girls’ dinner, they’d all been in the same boat, but now their birthdays made individuals of them, people with singular destinies, and one by one they drifted away, back to their dorm rooms and apartments, where they would call their parents and girlfriends and discuss the fact that their lives had just changed, some for the better, others for the worse, their grades and SATs and popularity suddenly beside the point. By the time Teddy’s birthday finally came up, he and Lincoln and Mickey were the only guys left in the hasher room. Passionately opposed to the war, Teddy had told his friends earlier in the day that he would go to Canada or jail rather than get drafted, so to him the lottery was meaningless. But of course that wasn’t really true. He didn’t want to go to Canada and wasn’t sure that when push came to shove he’d have the necessary courage of his convictions to actually go to jail in protest. Distracted by these thoughts, by the time only twenty-odd unannounced birthdays remained, he was convinced that his had already been read out and he’d somehow missed it, maybe when they were adjusting the TV’s rabbit ears. But then there it was, 322nd out of 366. He was beyond safe. Reaching to turn off the TV, he realized his hand was shaking.
There were a dozen or so Thetas they counted as friends, but only Jacy Calloway, with whom all three were in love, was waiting outside the sorority’s back entrance when they finally emerged into the frigid dark. Once Mickey told her—with that big, goofy grin plastered on his face—that it looked like he was headed for Southeast Asia, she slid down off the hood of the car she’d been sitting on, buried her face in his chest, hugged him close and said, into his shirt, “Those fuckers.” Lincoln and Teddy, both luckier on a night when that—not smart, not rich—was what you wanted desperately to be, managed nevertheless to feel intense jealousy when they saw the girl of their collective dreams in Mickey’s arms, never mind the uncomfortable truth that she was already engaged to another young man entirely. As if Mickey’s good fortune in this brief moment somehow mattered more than the short straw he’d drawn an hour earlier. Then, as his birthday was announced, both Lincoln and Teddy had the same sickening reaction: that two years ago the people in charge had taken one look at Mickey and assigned him the shittiest hasher duty in the Theta house, and when he reported for duty, he would again be sized up at a glance and sent straight to the front lines, a target no sniper could miss.
Right this minute, though, with Jacy nestled in his arms, they couldn’t believe his incredible good fortune. This is called youth.
Lincoln hailed from Arizona, where his father was minority owner of a small, mostly played-out copper mine. His mother was from Wellesley, the only child of a once well-to-do family, though, unbeknownst to her, not much of that wealth remained when her parents were killed in a car accident while she was a senior at Minerva College. Another daughter might’ve resented how little was left of the family fortune after their debts were squared, but Trudy was too devastated by sheer grief for anything else to really register. A quiet, solitary girl who didn’t make friends easily, she was suddenly all alone in the world, untethered from love and hope, and terrified that tragedy might befall her as suddenly as it had her parents. How else to explain her decision to marry Wolfgang Amadeus (W. A.) Moser, a small, domineering man who had little to recommend him besides his absolute conviction that he was right about anything and everything.
Not that she was the only one he managed to bamboozle. Until his sixteenth birthday, Lincoln actually believed his father, whose outsize personality was in stark contrast to his diminutive stature, had done his mother a favor by marrying her. Neither attractive nor unattractive, she seemed to disappear so completely in large gatherings that people afterward couldn’t remember whether or not she’d been present. She seldom objected, even gently, to anything her husband said or did, not even after they returned from their honeymoon and he informed her that of course she would forsake her Roman Catholic faith and join the fundamentalist Christian sect to which he belonged. When she accepted his proposal of marriage, she’d taken for granted they would live in the small desert town of Dunbar, where the Moser mine was; but she’d also assumed they’d take vacations from time to time, if not in New England—which her husband confessed to loathing—then maybe California, except it turned out he had no use for that coast, either. He was a firm believer—as he explained it to her—in “learning to love what you have,” by which he seemed to mean Dunbar and himself.
To Trudy, everything about Dunbar and the man she’d married felt foreign, at least at first. The town itself, hot and flat and dusty, was unapologetically segregated, whites on one side of literal railroad tracks and “Mexicans,” as they were called, even those who’d resided there legally for over a century, on the other. Though it was, to her way of thinking, a nothing town, Dunbar seemed to have everything W. A. (Dub-Yay, to his friends) Moser required: the house they lived in, the church they attended, the shabby little country club where he played golf. At home he ruled the roost, his word law. Her parents had discussed things, so she was surprised to learn that her own marriage would operate on a different model altogether. They’d been married for several years before Lincoln came along, so it was possible they had argued occasionally about how things would play out—his father gradually bending Trudy to his will—but Lincoln’s impression was that while his mother might’ve been surprised by her new life, she accepted it from the moment she set foot in Dunbar. The first time he remembered her digging in her heels was when it came time for him to apply to colleges. Dub-Yay meant for him to attend the University of Arizona, his own alma mater, but Trudy, who’d gone to live in Tucson with a maiden aunt after her parents died and finished her degree there as well, was determined that their son would be educated back East. And not at a big state university, either, but a small liberal arts college like Minerva, the school she’d dropped out of a semester shy of her degree.They couldn’t believe his incredible good fortune. This is called youth.
The argument began at the dinner table with his father proclaiming in his high, whiny voice, “You know, do you not, that for any such thing to happen, I would have to be dead?” A statement that was clearly designed to end this conversation, so Lincoln was surprised to see on his mother’s face an unfamiliar expression that suggested she’d contemplated her husband’s mortality with equanimity and was undeterred. “Nevertheless,” she said, and this in fact did end the discussion, at least for the time being. It resumed later in his parents’ bedroom. Though they kept their voices down, Lincoln heard them going at it in there through the thin wall that separated his room from theirs, and it continued long after his father, who always went to the mine early, was usually asleep. It was still ongoing when Lincoln himself finally drifted off.
The next morning, after his father, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and unaccustomed domestic discord, headed off to work, Lincoln lay in bed mulling things over. What on earth had come over his mother? Why was she waging this particular battle? As far as he was concerned, the University of Arizona was perfectly fine. His father had gone there and several of his classmates were heading there, too, so he’d know people. After tiny Dunbar he was looking forward to life in Tucson, a big city. And if he got homesick, he could easily make the short journey back to Dunbar for the weekend. A couple other classmates would attend colleges in California, but nobody he knew was moving to the East. Did his mother imagine he wanted to be on the other side of the country, where he didn’t know anybody? And going to classes with kids who’d all graduated from fancy prep schools? Well, what did it matter? At some point after Lincoln fell asleep, his mother had no doubt come to her senses and realized the futility of openly opposing his father on this or any related subject of significance. Order, by now, had surely been restored.
So he was surprised again to find her in the kitchen humming a jaunty tune and not at all sheepish about what had transpired the night before. She was still in her robe and slippers, like most mornings, but also seemed to be in unusually high spirits, as if she were about to go on a long-anticipated vacation to an exotic port of call. It was all extremely disconcerting.
“I think Dad’s right,” Lincoln told her, pouring himself a bowl of cereal.
She stopped humming and looked him in the eye. “What else is new?”
Which brought him up short. After all, it wasn’t like she and his father argued all the time and he always took his father’s part. Last night’s was, in fact, the first real argument he could remember. Now here she was spoiling for yet another fight, this time with him. “Why spend all that money?” he continued, trying to sound reasonable and unbiased as he poured milk on his cereal and grabbed a spoon from the drawer. It was his intention to eat standing up as usual, leaning against the counter.
“Sit,” she told him. “There are things you don’t understand, and it’s high time you did.”
Grabbing the step stool from between the fridge and the kitchen counter, his mother climbed up onto the highest step. What she was after was on the top shelf of the cupboard, and far in the back. Lincoln watched, amazed and, yes, a little frightened. Had she hidden something up there where his father wouldn’t find it? What? A ledger of some sort, or maybe a book of photographs, something secret that would shed light on these things he supposedly didn’t understand? But no. She was reaching for a bottle of whiskey. Since he hadn’t moved away from the counter, she handed it down to him. “Mom?” he said, because it was seven in the morning and, really, who was this strange woman? What had she done with his mother? “Sit,” she repeated, and this time he was glad to obey, because his knees had jellied. He watched as she poured a slug of amber liquid into her coffee. Taking a seat across from him, she set the bottle on the table, as if to suggest she wasn’t done with it. He half expected her to offer him some. Instead she just sat there staring at him until, for some reason, he felt guilty and looked down at his cereal, which was getting soggy.
The gist of it was this. There were several facts about their lives of which he was ignorant, starting with the mine. Sure, he’d known that it was slipping, and that over the last several years the price of copper had tanked. Each year there were more layoffs, and the workers had again threatened to unionize, as if that would ever happen in Arizona. Eventually the mine would close, and the lives of all these men would be shaken. None of this was news. No, the news was that their lives might be shaken. Indeed, they already had been. Many of the extras—things they had that many of their neighbors didn’t, the inground pool, the groundskeeper, membership in the country club, a new car every other year—were thanks to her, she explained, to the money she’d brought to the marriage.
“But I thought—” he began.
“I know you did,” she told him. “You’ll just have to learn to think differently. Starting now.”
The night before, his father had attempted, as usual, to lay down the law. He refused to pay for any son of his to get educated in a part of the country he scorned for its snobbery and elitism; he’d come back a damn Democrat or, worse, as one of those long-haired Vietnam protesters who were on the TV every night. A private, liberal arts education back East would cost them five times what a “perfectly good” education could be had for right here in Arizona. To which his mother had replied that he was wrong—imagine her actually telling him any such thing!—because it would cost ten times more. She’d telephoned the admissions office at Minerva College and knew whereof she spoke. Not that cost was any concern of his, since she meant to pay for it. Furthermore, she continued—imagine, continuing!—she hoped their son would protest against a war that was stupid and immoral and, finally, that if Lincoln voted Democratic he wouldn’t be the only one in their tiny family to do so. So there.The solid earth beneath his feet had turned to sand, and his parents, the two most familiar people in his life, into strangers.
Though Lincoln loved his mother, he was reluctant to accept these new economic claims as factual, mostly because they cast his father in such an unfavorable light. If she, not he, was responsible for the “extras” they’d so long enjoyed, why had his father allowed him to believe that W. A. Moser alone was the source of their relative comfort? Nor did this new maternal narrative align with what he’d been told since he was a child—that, yes, once upon a time his mother’s family had been wealthy, but that her parents’ death had exposed an economic house of cards: bad investments, covered up by improvident loans, dwindling assets leveraged again and again. That even once the money ran out, they’d continued living the high life, summering on the Cape, taking expensive midwinter vacations in the Caribbean, bundling off to Europe whenever the mood was upon them. Partygoers and heavy drinkers, they had probably been drinking the night of the accident. They were . . . yes, don’t deny it . . . like the Kennedys. To his father’s way of thinking it was a morality tale about foolish, decadent people who hailed from an arrogant, snobby corner of the country, people who didn’t know the meaning of hard work and had finally got their long-overdue comeuppance. He’d stopped short of claiming he’d rescued Lincoln’s mother from a dissolute life, but the inference was there for the taking. Was his mother now insisting this familiar narrative, so long unchallenged, was a lie?
Not entirely, she conceded, but neither was it the whole truth. Yes, her parents had been improvident and, when the financial dust settled, the family fortune had been all but wiped out, but a small house in Chilmark, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, had somehow been saved from creditors and placed in a trust for her until she turned twenty-one. Why had Lincoln never heard about the place? Because when his father learned of its existence shortly after they were married, he’d wanted to sell it—out of spite, according to his mother, to further cut her off from her past and thereby keep her tethered more securely to himself. For the first time in their marriage, she’d refused to meet his demand, and her intransigence in the matter had surprised and perturbed W. A. Moser so profoundly that he’d refused, again out of spite, to ever visit the damn place. His obstinacy was why, year after year, the house had been rented during the summer season, the rates going up each year as the island became increasingly fashionable; and this money was placed in an interest-earning account they dipped into from time to time for all those extras. She now meant to use what remained on Lincoln’s education.
Ah, the Chilmark house. When she was a girl, she told him, her eyes moist at the memory, there was no place in the world she’d loved more. They arrived on the island on Memorial Day and didn’t return to Wellesley until Labor Day, she and her mother in residence all week, her father joining them on weekends, when there would be parties—Yes, Lincoln, there was drinking and laughter and fun—people crowding onto the tiny deck that from a distant hill overlooked the Atlantic. Her parents’ friends always made a great fuss over her, and she didn’t mind that there were few other children around because for three long months she had her mother’s full attention. All summer long they went barefoot, their lives full of salt air and clean-smelling sheets and gulls circling overhead. The floors got sandy and nobody minded. Not once all summer did they go to church, and no one suggested that this was a sin, because it wasn’t. Summer was what it was.
She hoped Lincoln would one day come to feel the same way about the Chilmark house, and to that end she’d already made the necessary arrangements for him, not his father, to inherit it. She just wanted him to promise that he wouldn’t sell the property except out of some grave necessity, and promise, too, that if he did have to sell it, he wouldn’t share the proceeds with his father, who would hand over the money to his church. It was one thing, she said, for her to give up her sole true faith, but she had no intention of allowing Dub-Yay to permanently endow a bunch of damn snake handlers, not with her money.
It took his mother most of the morning and several whiskey-laced coffees to impart all this new information to her slack-jawed son, who listened with a sinking heart, his entire reality having been violently altered. When her voice finally fell, she rose to her feet, wobbled, said “Whoa!” and grabbed the table for support before ferrying his cereal bowl and her coffee mug over to the drainboard and announcing that she thought she’d take a nap. She was still napping when his father returned from the mine that evening, and when Dub-Yay roused her to inquire about dinner, she told him to cook it himself. Lincoln had rehidden the whiskey bottle in the cupboard, but his father seemed to intuit what had transpired in his absence. Returning to the kitchen, he regarded his son, sighed deeply and said, “Mexican?” There were only four restaurants in Dunbar, three of them Mexican. At their favorite they ate chile rellenos in profound silence that was interrupted only once, when his father said, “Your mother is a fine woman,” as if he wanted that entered into the official record.
Gradually things returned to normal, or what had been normal for the Mosers. Lincoln’s mother, having momentarily located her voice, went back to being quiet and submissive, for which Lincoln was grateful. He had friends who lived in houses ruled by discord. When all was said and done, he supposed he had every reason to feel fortunate. For one thing, he’d just come into property. For another, though it would be a financial strain on his parents, he’d apparently be heading off to an elite East Coast liberal arts college next year, something nobody from Dunbar had ever done before. He would think of it as an adventure. But listening to his mother explain the facts of their existence had shaken him profoundly. The solid earth beneath his feet had turned to sand, and his parents, the two most familiar people in his life, into strangers. In time he would regain his footing, but he would never again entirely trust it.Was his mother now insisting this familiar narrative, so long unchallenged, was a lie?
Teddy Novak, also an only child, grew up in the Midwest, the son of two harried high-school English teachers. He knew his parents loved him because they told him so whenever he asked, but sometimes he got the impression that their lives had already been chock-full of kids before he came along, and suddenly here he was, quite possibly the kid that would break their spirits. They were forever grading papers and preparing lessons, and when he interrupted these pursuits, their expressions conveyed unspoken questions like Why do you always ask me and not your father? and Isn’t it your mother’s turn? I did the last one.
As a boy Teddy had been small, fine boned and unathletic. He liked the idea of sports, but when he tried to play baseball or football or even dodgeball he invariably limped home bruised and battered, his fingers bent at odd angles. He came by this naturally. His father was tall but skeletal, all elbows and knees and thin skin. His Adam’s apple looked like it had been borrowed from another, much-larger man, and his clothes never seemed to fit. When his shirtsleeves were the right length, there was enough room in the collar for a second neck; if the collar was snug, his cuffs ended midway between elbow and wrist. His waist was twenty-eight inches, his inseam thirty-four, so pants had to be ordered special. In the middle of his forehead there grew a luxuriant tuft of coarse hair that was surrounded by a wide moat of pale, mottled skin. No surprise, his students called him Ichabod, though no one could say for certain whether the nickname derived from his appearance or from his special fondness for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the first text students encountered in The American Character, his signature senior lit course. What Teddy’s father liked best about the story was that his students could be depended on to miss its point, which he would then clarify for them. They enjoyed the supernatural element of the Headless Horseman, and when he turned out not to be supernatural at all, they were disappointed. Still, they found the story’s ending—in which the all-American Brom Bones triumphed and the pretentious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane was made a fool of and run out of town—deeply satisfying. It took some heavy lifting to convince them that the story was actually an indictment of American anti-intellectualism, which Washington Irving had recognized as central to the American character. By arriving at precisely the wrong conclusion about the story’s purpose and meaning, they had unwittingly made themselves the butt of the joke, or so Teddy’s father maintained. Particularly hard to convince were the school’s athletes, who naturally identified with Brom Bones, who was strong and good-looking, cocky and cunning and dim-witted, and he ended up with the prettiest girl in town, just as they themselves did with the cheerleaders. Where was the satire in that? To them, the story was about natural selection. Even if it had been satirical, Teddy’s father—ridiculous-looking man that he was—was the wrong messenger. He deserved, the jocks believed, a fate not unlike Ichabod Crane’s.
Teddy’s mother was also tall and loose limbed and bony, and when she and her husband stood together, they were often mistaken for brother and sister, sometimes for twins. Her most pronounced feature was an exaggerated sternum that she was forever tapping, as if heartburn were her constant, chronic companion. Witnessing this, people often leaned away from her, lest whatever she was attempting to tamp down suddenly erupt. Worse than any of this, for Teddy, was that his parents appeared to see each other much as the world did, though Teddy’s very existence hinted that there must’ve been a time when this was not true. All too aware they were physically ungifted, they seemed to take whatever solace they could from their superior sensibilities, their ability to articulate with wonderful disdain their various strong opinions, alas the exact talent that had doomed poor Ichabod Crane.
From an early age Teddy sensed how different he was from other kids and accepted his lonely lot in life without complaint. “They don’t like you because you’re smart,” his parents explained, though he hadn’t told them that he was disliked, only that he felt odd, as if some kind of instructional handbook on boyhood had been distributed to all the other boys. Because he so often ended up getting hurt when he tried to act like one of them, he mostly stayed safely at home and read books, which pleased his parents, who were disinclined to chase after him or even to wonder where he might be. “He loves to read,” they always remarked to other parents, who marveled at Teddy’s straight A’s. Did he love to read? Teddy wasn’t sure. His parents were proud not to own a television, so in the absence of companions, what else was there to do? Sure, he preferred reading to spraining his ankles and breaking his fingers, but that hardly made reading a passion. His mother and father looked forward to the day when they could retire from teaching and grading papers and do nothing except read, whereas Teddy kept hoping that some new activity would present itself that would be enjoyable without resulting in injury. Until then, sure, he’d read.
His freshman year of high school, a strange thing happened: an unexpected growth spurt by which he shot up several inches and put on thirty pounds. Overnight, he was half a head taller, with far-broader shoulders, than his father. Even more astonishing, he discovered himself to be a fluid, graceful basketball player. By junior year he could dunk the ball—the only boy on the team who could—and he had a fadeaway jumper that at his height was virtually impossible to block. He made the varsity squad and was the leading scorer until word got around that he didn’t like to mix it up. When shoved, Teddy would back off, and a well-placed elbow to the ribs discouraged him from entering the paint, where, as a forward, he was told he belonged. All of this made his coach so livid he even derided as cowardly Teddy’s fadeaway jumper, which the team depended on for anywhere from twelve to fifteen points a game. “You have to bang with them,” he’d yell when Teddy hung around at the top of the key, waiting patiently for his shot. “Be a man, you damn sissy.” When Teddy still showed little inclination to bang, the coach tasked one of Teddy’s teammates to play him aggressively in practice in the hopes of toughening him up. Nelson was a head shorter but built like a tank, and he derived great satisfaction from sending Teddy sprawling when he knifed through the lane on designed plays. When Teddy complained that Nelson was fouling him, the coach snapped, “Foul him back!” Of course Teddy refused.
Indeed, Nelson so enjoyed his hardball duties that he also took to putting a shoulder into Teddy’s ribs in the corridors between classes, knocking him into the lockers and scattering his books. “Brom Bones!” his father said, recognizing life from literature, when Teddy described what was going on. The remedy, as his old man saw it, was obvious: quit the team and thereby reject the stereotype of the American male as a brainless jock. Teddy didn’t see it like that. He loved basketball and wanted to play it as the non-contact sport he felt it truly was. He wanted to receive the ball at the top of the key, give any defender a shoulder fake, spin and take his fadeaway jumper. The sound the ball made when it went through the net without touching the rim was as perfect as anything he’d experienced in his young life.
His varsity career ended predictably, though had Teddy predicted it, he probably would’ve taken his father’s advice and just quit. One afternoon in practice, when he went up for a rebound, Nelson undercut him, sending Teddy crashing to the floor on his tailbone. The result was a hairline fracture of a vertebra that according to doctors could’ve been much more serious. Even so, it sidelined him for the rest of the season. Among the dozens of books he plowed through during his convalescence that spring and summer was Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, which for some reason gave him the same feeling as swishing his jumper. When he finished the book, he asked his parents, neither of whom was religious, if he could attend church. Their characteristic response was that they had no objection unless he expected them to go with him. Sunday morning was when they read the New York Times.
Because Merton was a Trappist monk, Teddy tried the Catholic church first, but the priest there was what his father would’ve instantly identified as an anti-intellectual, a moron, really, as far removed from the monastic ideal as you could imagine, so next Teddy tried the Unitarian church a block farther away. There the minister was a Princeton-educated woman. In many respects she reminded Teddy of his parents, except that she seemed genuinely interested in him. She was pretty and not at all bony, so of course he fell in love with her. Still under Merton’s spell, he tried to keep that love pure, but most nights he fell asleep imagining what she might look like under her robe and stole, something he doubted Merton would’ve done. He was both heartbroken and relieved when she was transferred to another parish.
Senior year he was cleared to return to basketball, but he didn’t turn out, which compelled the coach to mutter sissy under his breath every time they passed in the hall. Either that or pussy, Teddy couldn’t be sure which. To his surprise, he discovered that he didn’t much care what Coach thought of him, though he must’ve cared a little, because that summer, just before Teddy headed off to Minerva, the coach, attempting to free a stick that had become wedged between the blade and the frame of his lawnmower without first turning the motor off, managed to slice off the top joint of what he always referred to as his pussy finger. Teddy, when he heard about it, couldn’t help smiling, though he felt guilty, too. He’d written his college entrance essay on Merton and doubted the monk would’ve taken pleasure in the suffering of another human being any more than he would’ve spent long nights, as Teddy recently had, imagining what a pretty Unitarian minister looked like under her vestments. On the other hand, Merton never met the minister in question and had apparently been a bit of a rake before his conversion. Also, Teddy thought, there was no reason to suppose that God lacked a sense of humor. He didn’t meddle in the affairs of men, Teddy had been told, or cause them to behave in a certain way, but so far as Teddy was concerned, Coach losing the tip of his pussy finger like that had to have tickled Him.
Mickey Girardi was from a rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties. His parents were Irish and Italian, his old man a construction worker, his mother a secretary at an insurance agency, both deeply committed to assimilation. They flew the flag and not just on the Fourth. A veteran of the Second World War, his father could’ve taken advantage of the G.I. Bill but knew a guy who could get him into the pipe-fitters union, which he figured was better. Mickey was the youngest of eight, the other seven all girls, and he was spoiled rotten in so many respects—clothes bought especially for him, his own room right from the start. Okay, it was about the size of a closet, but so what? The family’s house was large, as it needed to be, but modest, only three blocks from the beach, great in the summer when cool breezes came in off the water. When the wind changed direction, though, you felt like you were living under the nearby interstate, the traffic noise was so loud. Sunday dinners, you were home and no excuses. Spaghetti with sausage and meatballs and pork shoulder braising in tomato sauce. Michael Sr.’s mother’s recipe, handed down reluctantly to her Irish daughter-in-law, with one or two key ingredients left out for the sake of contrast. Family first, America second—or maybe vice versa these days, with so many grubby longhairs always flashing their imbecilic peace signs—everything else a distant third.
For Mickey, music came first. His first job was sweeping up the mall music store where he’d seen a Fender Stratocaster in the window and fallen in love. After the guitar came an amp. In a band at age thirteen. By sixteen, sneaking into raunchy New Haven bars and sitting in with older guys whose girlfriends didn’t wear bras and seemed to enjoy revealing this fact by bending over in front of Mickey, who would later joke with Lincoln and Teddy that he had a hard-on for all of 1965. “I catch you doing drugs with those guys,” his father warned, “you’re gonna be the first kid in America ever beaten to death with a Fenson guitar.”
“Fender,” Mickey corrected him.
“Bring it here then, smart-ass. We’ll do it right now. Save time.”
About the last thing in the world Mickey wanted to do was go to college. In school he’d always hovered between mediocre and piss-poor, but all his sisters had gone or were going, and college was what his mother wanted. Community college, live at home, was the plan. Mr. Easy, his mother called him. Always the path of least resistance. Mickey supposed she was right. He wasn’t terribly ambitious. But he failed to see what was so wrong with staying in West Haven. With his sisters gone, there was plenty of room, except on Sundays and holidays.
Unfortunately, even to go to the community college, you had to take the SAT, so one Saturday morning Mickey did. Not wanting to disappoint his mother by being the only kid ever rejected by a community college because of his SATs, he’d declined a gig the night before and actually gotten a good night’s sleep. He figured it wouldn’t kill him to try for once. Tuition was cheap, and if he did well enough to snag a few bucks to help with books and expenses, it’d put him in good with the old man.
When the results came back, his mother met his father at the door. “Have a look at this,” she said, pointing to their son’s score, which was in the top two percent. “The kid’s brilliant.”
Since Mickey was the only kid in the room, his father looked around to make sure another wasn’t hiding somewhere. “Which kid?”
“This one,” his mother said. “Your son.”
His father scratched his head. “This one right here?” “Yes. Our Michael.”
His father studied the SAT results, then his wife, then Mickey, then his wife again. “Okay,” he said finally. “Who’s the father? I’ve always wondered.”
The next day, Michael Sr. was still trying to work it out. “Take a walk with me,” he said, grabbing Mickey’s shoulder with a meaty paw. When they were down the block and out of earshot, he said, “All right, come clean and I promise I won’t be mad. Who’d you get to take that test for you?”
Mickey felt his left eye twitch. “You know what, Pop?” he began. “Don’t say it,” his father warned.
“Fuck you,” Mickey said, completing his thought.
Senior stopped walking and threw up his hands. “You said it.” Then he cuffed his son on the back of the head, hard enough to make his eyes water. “Help me out here, because I want to understand. You’re saying this test is on the up-and-up?”
“You’re telling me you’re smart.”
“I’m not telling you anything,” Mickey said.
“You’re telling me that all this time you could’ve done good in school and made your mother proud?”
Mickey felt that seeing things in this light took some of the luster off the near-perfect SAT. He shrugged.
“What were we thinking?” his father said, more to himself than his son. “We were doing so good with girls.”
“Sorry,” Mickey said.
“Okay, listen up, ’cause this is what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna go to college and you’re gonna do good. No discussion. You either make your mother proud or you don’t come home.”
Mickey started to object, only to discover he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He himself was still processing the remarkable SAT results and had begun thinking beyond community college. At West Haven High, when word got around about his SATs, several of his former teachers stopped him in the hall. “Hey, what’ve we been telling you?” was what they all wanted to know. So instead of objecting to his old man’s command, he said, “Can I major in music?”
His father looked at the sky, then at him. “Why do you always have to push your luck?”
“So I can major in music?”
“Fine,” Senior said. “Major in Fenson guitars for all I care.”
Mickey thought about correcting him, but his father did have a point. He was always pushing his luck.
Excerpted from Chances Are . . . by Richard Russo. Just published by Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Russo.
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