"The Sneak" is a chapter from my new novel in progress, I Was Born Tomorrow
Because Tom’s mother didn’t want to make the same mistake with Linda that her adoptive parents had made with her, she told Tom and Linda when they were young that Linda was adopted. Why was it a mistake they didn’t tell you? he asked her. Because I couldn’t figure out why they treated me so mean! They treated me like a servant. I had to do all the chores. Pluck the chicken, mop the floor, beat the carpet, boil the clothes, darn the socks, serve the food, wash the dishes and pour lime down the hole. Oh sure, I’ll lick the floors! I was too obliging, Rosie said. They wouldn’t of treated me in such a manner if I’d been their real daughter, you can be sure of that. Thank God your father got me out of there. Your father’s a good man, he saved my life. And to Linda, she said, See, honey? We wanted to do it right with you. Rosie also found out that Horace and Mary, her adoptive parents, after answering an ad in the Worcester Telegram offering a child up for adoption to an Irish couple – had to be Irish – and after keeping that eighteen-month-old child for as long as they could stand her, two weeks, brought her back to her birth mother. Then, weeks later, they went and got her again not because they missed her so much – fat chance, said Rosie – but because they needed a servant. Learning that his sister was adopted gave Tom a dose of sibling envy, maybe he was adopted too, but the problem with this theory was the inconvenient fact that they’d hadn’t told him. There could have been special reasons, he thought, like maybe he’d been stolen by Irish tinkers, or maybe his real mother died at a railroad crossing and Al Capone just happened to drive past the wreck on his way to a massacre and delivered him mewling from her cold and lifeless body then decided to bring him to an orphanage. Unfortunately, the cold and lifeless body Tom pictured in that wreck looked exactly like the mother he had now. If I were adopted it would explain a lot of things, he thought, like my feelings of being different, but doesn’t everyone feel different? – or maybe it’s only those who feel different who think everyone feels different – or more likely it’s because of his childhood’s blissful stupor, the fact that he had no sense of a future, and at the age of twelve didn’t need one, while at the same time he couldn’t help but cast a shadow across the past that prevented him from seeing it. Suppose they did adopt me, he thought – then Linda would not be my cousin let alone my sister, and I could marry her, an intention he’d announced at the supper table when he was four. There was a solution to this mystery, and in pursuit of it, when he was home by himself one day, he squeezed into the narrow space between his parents’ bed and dresser and opened the top drawer. He tried not to see himself in the large mirror on the back of the dresser. Before that mirror, his mother’s health and beauty aids were strewn, her hand creams, colognes, hair curlers, brushes, rouge in little tin containers, lipstick, hair nets, Bayer aspirin, Alka-Seltzer. He tried not to see himself because his eyes would self-accuse him of being a sneak, but then he couldn’t help it, he looked at his face: Brylcream propping up a blond tuft of hair at the peak of the brow, the rest of his head a buzz cut. In the fifties they called such haircuts a wiffle. A too-large nose, eyebrows slanting toward the nose, diagonal furrows just below the eyes that continued the lines begun by the eyebrows, thus creating a decided X across his face, as though he’d been cancelled. Pimples, as well. A barely detectable fuzz on his chin. He forced his gaze down to the drawer. Dad’s socks and underwear, handkerchiefs, a deck of cards, Mom’s Butterick patterns, and beneath a jockey short the target of his investigations: the tackle box where Dad stored family records. He opened it, thumbed through insurance policies, Elijah Burns’s honorable discharge from the army, photos of his mother, Dad’s title to the Chevy, and other impedimenta, and at last found an envelope on which Mom had written, “Tommy’s Papers.” He let out his breath, looked around the room. At least being adopted gives you a sense of power. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, you’re an adolescence factory, no one in the world can tell you what to do, not if you’re adopted.
The Commonwealth4 of Massachusetts UNITED STATES OF AMERICA CERTIFICATE OF BIRTH FROM THE RECORDS OF BIRTH IN THE CITY OF CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS, U.S.A.
1. Date of Birth.........................February 24, 1947 2. Full Name of Child..............Thomas Edward Burns 3. Full Names of Parents..........Elijah James Burns - Rose June Burns 4. Mother’s Maiden Name.......Gallagher 5. Sex, Color............................Male - White 6. Place of Birth.......................Cambridge City Hospital 7. Date of Record.....................February 27, 1947 (Chronologically Filed)
His heart sank. Other documents in the envelope, certificates of baptism, vaccination records, only confirmed it. Of all the boring things, he hadn’t been stolen by Irish tinkers or left at a crossroads. He must have known this all along, must have known that Rosie was his real mother because he loved her so much. He put aside “Tommy’s Papers,” rummaged through the tackle box, found a snapshot of Linda seated on a porch with a baby in her lap and two tall men on either side of her smiling at the camera. They looked familiar. But she couldn’t be Linda, she was older than Linda, and the man on the right, he saw when his features clicked into place, was Dad as a handsome and skinny young man. The other, he realized, was Uncle Tommy. His ears were larger, brow wider, chin more prominent than the Uncle Tommy in the picture on his dresser, but it was him, unmistakably – Linda’s dead father. Between the two men the woman’s eyes seemed faintly crossed and the rest of her features looked young, unfinished, the baby-fat cheeks and whirlpool of black hair exactly like Linda’s. She, too, smiled, and in her lap the baby smiled, the whole world was smiling. He turned the picture over. Sophia, said a pencil scrawl. And below that, Elm Street porch. Sophia, Uncle Tommy’s wife. She’d come to America and met Uncle Tommy and they got married. Elm Street runs along the border between Cambridge and Somerville, it’s where Uncle Tommy and his Italian wife lived, Tom was working this out, and they and his parents socialized before the war, but where was his mother? Of course – she took the picture. Below this photo was a newspaper article, Death an Apparent Suicide, said the lead. He scanned the text, feeling apprehensive, as though he knew what he’d learn. “Police identified the woman as Sophia Burns of Elm Street in Somerville. Her oven was on and the burners unlit. Neighbors say that Mrs. Burns, whose maiden name was Falcone, had come to this country to search for her family. She was distraught about the death of her husband in the Coral Sea. She leaves an infant child she brought with her from Italy, Rosalinda.” Tom looked up at the mirror and probed his own eyes, understanding he’d discovered something important while unwilling to reproach himself for being a sneak. Not a sneak, he thought, but a private investigator, a sleuth, a gumshoe. He bravely met his own gaze. Aunt Sophia killed herself. He felt the warmth rise. She’d come to this country to look for her parents, but why had they left her behind in the first place? The names swirled around and strands of thought weakened, pulled away when he tugged. Rosalinda. Of course. When Uncle Tommy died in the war and Sophia killed herself and Mom and Dad adopted their daughter, they shortened it to Linda, and she was the baby in the picture. But she’d been born in Italy, she wasn’t Uncle Tommy’s daughter, she wasn’t even Tom’s cousin let alone his sister, and he wondered if she knew this. Does she know she was not my uncle’s daughter and I’m not her cousin, does she know her mother killed herself, does she know who her father was? He put the clipping back, slipped the picture in his pocket, and closed the tackle box. He found himself already describing this to Linda while knowing all the time he couldn’t very well do so because how to explain how he’d learned it? He’d expose himself as a creeper who’d rummaged through his parents’ drawer, thus confirming his sister’s suspicions about his character. Still, maybe he could. Tell Linda everything. Uncle Tommy wasn’t your father, Lin. Then who was? she’d say. Your mother killed herself, and I’m telling you this because I believe you have a right to know these things. Talking to Linda in his mind yet at the same time describing what he’d learned to himself, and the doubleness of this, the way he was monitoring his own behavior, felt like he’d become some sort of telescope sliding itself open. He was knowing what he was knowing, he knew, learning what he was learning, aiming his understanding not at the things he was doing but at his explanations for doing them. I could just show her the picture. But wouldn’t this information damage her psychologically? Or maybe she already knew. Sometimes your brain’s like the overhead bin in a jetliner – contents may shift during flight. Beneath some socks he spotted another, smaller box that looked familiar. So that’s where he put it. You’d think this flat white box would hold stationary or maybe handkerchiefs but he knew what was in it and stood there and looked down, debating whether to pull the cover off. When he was six or seven and Linda almost nine one day Dad called them into his bedroom and a gun was on his bed beside the same white box. “Do you know what this is?” he’d asked. Of course they did, every boy in their neighborhood owned a cap gun. As though he could read his callow son’s mind, he said, “It’s not a toy, Tommy, it’s real.” His face was a bludgeon, high brow, strong nose, big ears, angry eyes, and his voice was iron. Elijah Burns. He picked up the gun and opened the chamber, turning the cylinder, examining each hole. He closed it, held it pointing away, and restored it to its box and fit the cover on. “Some damn fool kid thinks it’s a toy and starts fooling around and pretty soon he’s dead. Did you think it was a toy?” “No.” “Guns kill,” said Elijah. “They kill little boys who think they’re toys and pick them up and play with them. It happens all the time. Never,” he said. “Never touch this gun. Promise me you won’t.” Now he looked at Linda too. “I promise you I won’t,” she said. “I promise you I won’t,” said Linda’s brother, who walked out of the bedroom like a robot needing oiling. Now, before that dresser, despite being frightened, he found himself doubting that what Dad said was true. He knew plenty of little boys and not a single one of them had been killed. Ten or twelve bullets rolled around in the box, and a slip of paper said, Colt Detective Special. He was so tense, so loopy, from this discovery coming on top of the news about Linda that he gingerly, slowly, without precisely knowing why, removed the gun from the box and aimed it at his own reflection in the mirror. “Bang.” So close to the mirror that his elbows were bent lest the barrel tap the glass and possibly break it. The space in which he stood between the bed and dresser was a very narrow trough, and there was no space at all on the bed’s other side between it and the window because small, small, everything in their house was small! The landlords lived downstairs, the Burns family up, and there wasn’t enough room to swing a cat, as Mom said. He lowered the gun, raised it again, crossed his arms with the barrel pointing at the ceiling and tried a stone-faced stare, like his father’s. Yes, like my father, I’m rehearsing being my father, he thought, while inwardly the hairs bristled in his soul, inwardly he was terrified that his actual father would jump out of the closet dressed in his army uniform and grab him by the neck. The clock on the dresser said 3:47. So half an hour had passed already? Linda or Mom could come home any minute but Dad not until around 5:30. With its numbers on wheels that rolled into place like cherries on a slot machine, this clock made the faintest whirring noise, the only sound in the room. As he was watching it, the seven rolled down and the eight replaced it, suggesting the future was written on the wheels inside that clock, actually written. He seldom thought about the future except when he grew afraid that someone might catch him, which was the case now, or not so much afraid as hyper self-conscious, or both. The weight of the gun in his hand focused his attention, which in turn, like a sniper, picked off invading anxieties, but not all of them. Take the picture hanging on the wall above the bed, a portrayal of Jesus pulling his robes aside and exposing the Sacred Heart in the center of his chest. It had been there since he was a toddler, the splendiferous heart shining outside the Lord’s pale chest like a red light bulb made from actual flesh, and his sorrowful eyes looked down at poor Tom with a censorious yet loving gaze. In that tiny bedroom, he looked askance at Jesus, watched his savior’s reflection in the mirror, then watched himself, attentive and sneaky, place the gun in the box and put the cover back on. He spotted a deck of cards in the drawer, and, for no reason, picked them up and turned them over. Oh. On the bottom card’s face was a black and white photo inside a border that displayed the card’s suit and number, four of diamonds. The photo wasn’t sharp, it was grainy and blurred, and careful as a nurse Tom thumbed slowly through the cards, growing more excited with each new picture. Burly men wore what looked like ski masks, not the women, however, and the goings on occurred in some sort of basement with a disheveled bed. A man raised a whip above a naked woman on her hands and knees. A woman lay on the bed beneath a man whose pecker seemed the size of a fire hose. When he saw the next picture Tom understood why certain boys in seventh grade snickered if the number sixty-nine happened to appear on the blackboard, and indeed, several of the photos made him think of the way his classmates and he gobbled down popsicles. They aroused his arousal, he couldn’t help himself, and he tried to memorize the best ones, even though they made him, what? – a little sad – but what was sadness, he thought, in the face of education, and he rehearsed in his mind what he’d tell the boys in his class tomorrow at recess. Meanwhile, bubbling below those thoughts was the question of where you bought a deck of cards like this, and what about Mom, did she know about it? How could she not? And who knew there were so many ways to use the bodily parts we go to the bathroom with, or so many instruments and tools to supplement their use? Tom didn’t have words for what he was seeing, even though words had long ago colonized his mind. Instead, he calmly stood there and forensically thumbed through the deck, impressed by the alarming diversity of desire, and careful not to drop a card, as well to preserve their exact same order, and, glancing at the drawer, to remember to place it beside a certain pair of socks when he was finished. Like a scholar, he studied each picture before turning over the next, and marveled at the many and twisted ways to love and be loved, but was it really love? Why the grimy basement, why the tangled sheets, why the blurry colorless photos, which contravened the hotbed jungle they displayed, the mutant insects devouring and skewering each other? There was one more thing in that treasure chest full of revelations on that memorable day. After carefully returning the deck of cards to the drawer – it felt like tucking a baby in a cradle – he spotted the corner of what appeared to be a large photograph under some of Dad’s undershirts, and pulled it out. By now it didn’t surprise him that it was a naked woman reclining full length upon a couch, one arm behind her head in the pose he much later learned was called an odalisque. She was young, girlish-looking, at least in the face, but full in breasts and hips, the breasts spread across her ribs. Her massive thatch of pubic hair looked out of proportion to her slightly plump youth, but what did he know, he was hardly a genius when it came to pubic hair. After gazing at the body he inspected the face and it looked familiar. It was his mother. His young mother, he thought. He wasn’t sure what to feel, he’d already had too many things to process that afternoon, he felt like a stuffed turkey. The split-second moment of recognition, of course – that kicked him in the chest. But subsequently his instinct was to insulate himself and to check the mirror. There, he saw Thomas Burns gravely gazing at Thomas Burns. Then he glanced down at the photograph again and tried his best to hold it at arm’s length, morally, that is, a struggle that proved difficult, considering it had already burrowed deeply into his brain’s intestinal folds. The brain isn’t bullet proof. If she isn’t who I thought she was then who am I? And what am I feeling? Shame? Fear? These seemed to be emotions he was just about to feel. He thought of his mother standing before her mother’s dresser and looking for a bra, and, according to the story, discovering the letter that said she was adopted. The photo in his hand was old – clearly it was taken before he was born – and it had nothing to do with him, that’s what he decided, and, another thing, he couldn’t see beyond its surface to the place, the occasion. His mother smiled at the camera like someone posing for a snapshot, which of course was the case, except she was naked. I’ll remember this, he thought, for the rest of my life, yet it’s none of my business. Probably all married couple take such pictures. He slipped it back beneath the undershirts, closed the drawer, walked out of the room. The same mother who still, even though he’d recently turned thirteen, brought him milk and cake at night when he went to bed . . . That evening at supper he watched his mother, wondering who she was. She wore a blue checkered blouse stretched across her bosom, the buttons like halyards holding tight against a gale, and, at the stove, presiding over their meal, she noticed he was staring. In their small house there was no dining room, just a kitchen table and stove, the stove with a green cord stretched over it on which Mom pinned her undies on Saturday mornings. “What’s with you, mister?” she asked. “Mister,” her usual epithet for a young son whom she wished to teasingly indulge. “Nothing,” he mumbled. The fetching smile on her face was etched on his soul and had been there ever since his foggy dawn of awareness. Her eyes in the morning were usually clear but in the evening dark shadows often ringed them because she frequently had migraines and after supper would recline on the couch with a damp washcloth on her brow and the light turned off. Sometimes Tom wrung out a new washcloth with cold water in the bathroom and laid it across her brow. Then he would observe her like that, wishing there was more he could do to help – observe the brown hair that cradled her ears, its tendrils wet around the washcloth, observe her Roman nose, her warm and ample neck. She was the touchy-feely one in their family, the central exchange of embraces and kisses, and her doughy body bore the imprint of them all because, of course, she loved them to distraction. She was insecure, though, and punished herself with the imagined judgments of her neighbors even though in reality everyone adored her. It may have been at this time, after his discoveries in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, that Tom began to convert excitement and enthusiasm into a willed tranquility held tightly inside, this in the undoubtedly mistaken belief that it was superior to vulgar displays of emotion. Maybe he was becoming more like his father. The unreflective joy of childhood was over, and was it really ever what it’s cranked up to be? Too often for Tom it got poisoned by the fear that it wouldn’t last, which made it not last. And after this day, at football games or parties, or during trips to Revere Beach, he allowed his excitement to quietly spread through him like water in a sponge, and to be held there in suspension until it dried up. It was better to be happy if no one could tell you were happy, or miserable for that matter, it was better because no one could tell. He knew some things now he’d never known before, yet he felt okay, he wasn’t sure why. What new things, mister? He bravely tried not to picture it but couldn’t help seeing in his mind’s eye that photograph of his mother. Still, nothing had changed, surely only the way he saw her had changed, and now, standing at the stove, she became Mary Kate in The Quiet Man (her favorite movie) throwing the money into the furnace. Which meant (like Maureen O’Hara) that she loved Elijah Burns more than money, she being a person, because she was adopted, whom no one had ever wanted, not even her adoptive parents. No one but Dad, he loved her, loved little Rosie Gallagher with the child-like body and bobbed hair and flapper eyes, which was how he still saw her in his middle age, despite the added weight in her fanny and bosom. He stared at her now in the kitchen while chewing his food, a somewhat difficult process for Tom’s father, due to lack of teeth. Working his mouth from side to side, he crushed his food with hardened gums and when he couldn’t crush swallowed. Hence, his bad stomach. The family was used to it, there was nothing unusual or unique about his lack of teeth. Or were there, Tom wondered, little fragments of teeth still embedded in those gums like broken glass in cement, baby shark’s teeth that assisted his efforts? He should never have thrown out his rattletrap army dentures, uncomfortable as they were. Every now and then he extracted a piece of gristle from his mouth and carefully placed it on the edge of his plate. Abruptly, as though to alert Tom, but this wasn’t about Tom, or maybe it was, maybe somehow she knew what he’d seen in that drawer because mothers know everything – abruptly, Mom leaned across the table and cleared the dishes, and, on her little feet, in her hard-heeled Mary Janes, ticked and tocked back and forth between kitchen and sink room, singing and humming, clearing the plates, then back at the stove pulled the cake from the oven, triggering Tom’s memory of that ancient dream in which the objects on a pan she pulled from an oven were her own breasts. She set the cake on the table, cut it and balanced the wedges on the knife and tipped them on their sides onto the saucers, passing them out, then turned back to the stove and lit the fire beneath the kettle for Dad’s tea, and, squeezing behind him, her buttocks resting on the stove, lifted his shirt and scratched his pale back – “Up a little,” he said. “To the right,” he said, Rosie complying with each command, Elijah’s face betraying no pleasure, but enjoying it, Tom knew – then suddenly declared she was sweating like a trooper, and threw the window open, her brisk movements exhausting everyone but herself, then paused and stood there like Betty Crocker on a cake box, and surveyed her happy family with the happy face that supposedly belongs to every happy housewife. Elijah, too – at last he faintly smiled. He knowingly smiled. Sperate miseri cavete felices. Hope, you unhappy ones; you happy ones, fear. Now that Tom thought of it, why didn’t he clear the table – Linda and him? Why didn’t they clean the house? Sometimes he vacuumed but most of the time Mom left the vacuum cleaner out after she’d done it, left the Old Dutch cleanser and sponge on a sink she’d just scrubbed, left the broom in the corner of a floor she’d just swept, because she was sending them a message, he believed, like Linda and he could have very well helped but they required these reminders even if they never heeded them, being selfish and lazy. Whereas Mom now happily did the chores she was once ordered to do like an indentured servant by her adoptive parents, Horace and Mary, did them now because she loved her real family, and – this was more likely – she really didn’t want him and Linda to help. Did clothes wash themselves, did food cook itself, did admonitions speak themselves, did shit wipe itself? Whatever it came down to, Tom’s mother did it. When did she sleep? As for Dad – what was he thinking? Silent and still, his jaw locked and teeth clenched, Dad looked at Tom as though, like Mom, he knew what he’d discovered in his dresser drawer, and something inside the boy became so tightly and deeply screwed in that it hurt. Elijah looked at Linda too, serenely eating her cake and spilling crumbs on the floor, which he wouldn’t sweep up. In a surprisingly softened voice he turned to Tommy and said, “What’jou do today?” Tom panicked, and the blood attacked his face. Watching his father, he searched his memory, wondering if he’d left a sock out of place, or failed to put the deck of cards back in their proper order, or laid the gun down on its wrong side. Dad smiled, and his father so seldom smiled that he thought it was sarcastic, a warning flag, maybe, like a prelude to anger. Suddenly, Tom started talking, sending up flak. He said he what he did today was lay on his bed and read some of his old Boy’s Lifes, and in one of them he found a story about a brave boy who saved his father’s life. Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout magazine, contained mostly tales of the Wild West and of noble, stoic Indians, of family camping follies, of unbroken horses, of grizzlies and of baseball games that went on forever, but there were also accounts of personal courage, of the stalwart Boy Scout who seizes the moment and takes charge, of the lifeguard whose bravery and decisiveness, despite the danger to himself, makes the crucial difference to a toddler sinking underneath the waves, her little pink fingers waving in the air, and this was one of those stories. He didn’t tell his father that he hadn’t actually read it that afternoon because, drawn to it by the natural allure of horrible things, and by its lesson in heroics, he’d read it so often he practically had the whole thing memorized. Eating his cake at the table, he took a deep breath and quoted the opening sentences in a stentorian voice, as though reciting the Gettysburg Address: “ ‘A wise man once said that adventure, not variety, is the spice of life. But often an adventure that a boy undergoes is only exciting after it’s over. And there are those who point out that some adventures are deadly serious. They don’t occur for the sake of excitement or of amusement but as tests of a fellow’s bravery and grit. One such adventure happened to a Sea Scout I know, who saved his father’s life. Here is his story.’ ” They all stared at him. He felt like an eight-year-old again, when he performed magic shows in his magic robe, with his crystal ball and the wand he waved everywhere, over glasses of water he changed into wine, over decks of cards he’d cut to the Ace of Spades. “This better be good,” said Dad. “That’s a long introduction.” Elijah’s place at the table beside the window made the light from outside cast his face in shadow, but Tom felt his eyes upon him. His father sugared his tea, stirred it with his spoon, clinking the cup. “It’s a true story, Dad. There’s this Sea Scout, and him and his father are taking a group of second-grade children on a cruise through Boston Harbor. Whoever wrote it must of lived in Boston.” This nearby location made the story all the more true. “His father’s like a chaperone, he’s an adult volunteer for the Sea Scouts. It’s a service project, they’re showing the little kids how a Coast Guard Cutter works. And they’re standing in the engine room, I mean the father’s standing there while his son’s on, like, a catwalk above him holding a little girl’s hand, and a pipe bursts below and steam and scalding water shoots out and the father screams for help but no one can help him ’cause they’d be scalded too. He screams, ‘Help me! Help! My skin’s coming off!’ ” This line in the story always terrified Tom, and he paused and looked around. He’d been listening to himself declaim but in his befuddled state, both excited and afraid, he hardly realized what he’d been saying, and he noticed Linda watching him with a knowing smirk on her face. Did everyone know he’d been snooping around? And this part about the skin. His mother was still standing at the stove but at that moment, when he came to the skin, she pulled her chair out and sat at the table, Tom now imagining the father in the story with wrinkled red skin and soft white blotches, and trembling to think of its filmy consistency, of how it could just slide off at a touch, which had to be the most dreadful thing of all because skin should stay on you. Next to Mom, Dad watched him. “So the boy, Eddie,” he continued, “he sees a slicker hanging on a door on one of those wheels they have on ships instead of doorknobs, and he grabs it and throws it over his head and runs down there and drags his father out of danger, and now he’s a hero. He burned his hands but they healed. The children all clapped and later on the captain gives him a medal and praises his courage, and the Sea Scouts honor him at a banquet.” They all looked at him. “It’s a true story,” he said. Mom said, “Really?” Linda said, “Sure,” and, sotto voce to her brother: “Moron.” “That’s a shining example of family loyalty,” said Dad, looking significantly at his son, as though to say how come you never did something like that? “He’d do anything for his father,” he said. “What happened to him?” “Which one?” “The father.” His tone made it sound like he liked Tom’s story but his massive brow, his face like a Mack truck, his looming presence said something else. I could tell you things, it said, things you ought to know about the world that would make your story sound like the unrealistic humbug it is, and suddenly Tom felt condemned for his childishness. Like with all of his authority Dad was ready to pounce but instead held back to within an inch of his son’s thirst for approval. Meanwhile, Tom heard himself answer his father’s question after sitting there for, how long? at a loss to respond. “They took him to a hospital and put him inside, like, this big plastic tent and covered him with a lot of medicine. He had to have skin grafts.” That night in bed, Linda whispered, “Where’d you get that bullshit story, Tommy?” “It’s in Boy’s Life. It’s true!” “It brought a tear to my eye. Would you save me if my skin was coming off?” “Shut up, Lin.” “My hero.” They were talking through the blanket Dad had hung on a wire between their two beds to give his daughter some privacy. Tom had known that his sister, who wasn’t really his sister, would derogate his story, but still he often wondered what he would have done if he were in Eddie’s shoes. Sometimes he thought that he’d be singled out for something similar, that it would test him, dare him, and he’d have to face it like a man, and how would he respond? It was in the stars, he felt, he was fated to experience this adventure or crisis as the one great trial of his life, and who knew when it would come? As for the picture of Linda he found in the dresser drawer, the next day he stuffed it in the trash, thrust it way down where no one would see it.