Authors: Dale Peck
Books by Dale Peck
Martin and John
The Law of Enclosures
Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye
The Garden of Lost and Found
Visions and Revisions
Children’s and Young Adult Fiction
The Lost Cities
Copyright © 2003, 2015 by Dale Peck
Originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company
All rights reserved.
Published in 2015 by Soho Press
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
[What we lost]
Greenville / Dale Peck.
Originally published under the title,
What we lost
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
1. Boys—Fiction. 2. Dysfunctional families—Fiction. 3. Poor families—Fiction. I. Title.
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
This book is for my father and Gloria Hull,
and for Paul Hamann,
who set me on the road that led to them.
And for M.S., and a loss I could never render in words.
It is not just
that a man be given what he throws away.
The old man has an odor like a force field. He wakes the boy before dawn. Quiet, he says, and underneath his black coat his kitchen whites reek of cabbage, stewed meat, spoiled milk. We don’t want to get your mother up.
The old man’s clothes stink of institutional food but it is his breath, wet and sickly sweet, that leaves a weight on the boy’s cheek like his sisters’ hairspray when they shoo him from the bathroom. Reluctantly he edges out of bed. Like the old man, he wears his work clothes, jeans, undershirt, brown corduroy jacket—everything but shoes. He shivers in his socks and watches in the half light as the pillowcase is stripped from his pillow and filled with clothes from the dresser, trying to warm his thin chest with thin arms and the thinner sleeves of his jacket.
That’s Jimmy’s shirt.
The old man claps him in the stomach with a pair of boots.
You shut up and put these on.
The boots are cold and damp and pinch the boy’s feet as he squeezes into them, and as he knots the laces he watches Lance’s
drawers and Jimmy’s football jersey disappear into the pillowcase.
The old man stuffs a pair of jeans into the sack.
But Dad. Those are Duke’s.
The old man looks at the shock of blond hair on the far side of the bed, and when he turns to the boy the empty bottles in his pockets rattle and the boy can smell what was in them too.
You won’t have to worry about that bastard no more, the old man says, breath lighting up the air like sparked acetylene. Not where you’re going.
If any of the boys has awakened he gives no sign. Already Lance is hugging the extra inches of blanket where the boy had lain, and Jimmy, slotted into the crease between the pushed-together mattresses, seems folded along his spine like a blade of grass. At the far end of the bed Duke lies with his back to his dark-haired brothers, the stiff collar of his houndstooth coat sticking out beyond the blanket. A few inches beyond Duke’s nose the rope-hung sheet dividing the boys’ bed from their sisters’ puckers in a draft, but Duke never goes to sleep without making sure the holes on the girls’ half of the curtain are covered by solid patches on the boys’, and so the boy can catch no glimpse of Lois or Edi or Joanie as he is surfed out of the room by the old man’s frozen spittle. All he glimpses in the gap between curtain and floor is a banana peel and two apple cores, and his stomach rumbles and he wants to check his jacket to see if his siblings have left him any food. But the old man is nudging him, Faster, faster, and the boy has to use both hands to descend
the ladder’s steep rungs. Down below, the quilts fencing off his parents’ bed are drawn tight as tent flaps, and although his mother’s snores vibrate through tattered layers of cotton batting both she and the baby, Gregory, tucked in his crib beside her, remain invisible.
The boy pauses at the stovepipe and its single coal of heat in the hopes of warming his stiff boots, but the old man steps on his heels.
Hurry it up, he whispers, clouting him on the back of the head with the sack. Unless you feel the need for a goodbye kiss from your ma.
Outside the air is cold and wet and, low down—down around his knees—gauzy with dawn vapors, and underneath the vapors the frozen grass breaks beneath the boy’s boots with a sound like ice chewed behind closed lips. His ice-cold boots mash his toes, but it’s not until they’ve walked through their yard and the Slovak’s that a space opens up between two ribbons of mist and the boy sees that the boots are pinching his feet not because they’re cold or wet but because the old man has handed him Jimmy’s instead of his own. They
been the boy’s, up until about three months ago, but even though Jimmy is two years older and two inches taller than the boy, his feet have been a size smaller than the boy’s since he was eight years old, and just before Thanksgiving the boy had traded Jimmy his shoes for the pants he’s wearing now. The pants are a little long on him, a little loose in the waist, the outgrown boots squeeze his feet like a huckster’s handshake. But when he turns back toward the house there is the old man, hissing,
C’mon, c’mon, hurry it up. It’s late enough already.
All around them the dark round shapes of their neighbors’ cars loom out of the fog like low-tide boulders, and down at the end of the block the cab of the old man’s flatbed truck rises above them, a breaching whale. The cab is white, or was white; it’s barnacled with flecked rust now, a lacy caul of condensation veils the windscreen. The boy stares at the soft-skull shape of it as he minces down the block, not quite understanding why the sight is confusing, unsettling even. Then:
Hey Dad. Why’d you park all the way—
The old man cuts him off with another Sshh! and then, when the driver’s side door breaks open from the cab with the same sound the shade tree made when it fell in front of the garage three winters ago, the boy suddenly realizes how quiet their street is, and the streets beyond theirs. Seatsprings creak and whine like the grade school orchestra as the old man settles into the cab, the pillowcase rustles audibly as the boy takes it from him and drops it to his lap. Then glass clinks as the old man opens his coat and pulls what looks like an empty bottle from a pocket in the lining, and when he arches his head back to suck whatever imagined vapor lingers in the brown glass the sound that comes from his loose dentures is the same sound that Gregory makes when his mother puts a bottle to his toothless lips. And all of these noises are as familiar to the boy as the thinning strands of the old man’s hair, his winter-burned scalp, the globe of bone beneath the skin, but just as the half light shadows the old man’s features, deepening and obscuring them, the morning hush seems to amplify the noises in the cab, giving them the ominous sharpness of a movie soundtrack. And there is a hardness to the old man’s eyes as well, slitted into the ravines of his slack stubbled
cheeks, a glint Duke once said always came about nine months before another baby. The boy can’t remember if Duke had said that before or after the old man whipped him.
The old man throws the empty bottle with the others at the boy’s feet and straightens behind the wheel. His left and right hands work choke and key with the resigned rhythm of a chain gang, and after three rounds the engine turns over once, twice, then chugs into life with a lifelong smoker’s cough, and the boy remembers something else Duke had said about the old man. The old man, Duke said, used to smoke like everyone else, but he gave it up when one time his breath was so strong his burps caught fire, and he pointed to the charred leather above the driver’s seat as proof. Sitting in the cab now, it is easy to believe Duke’s story. Everything about the truck is animated as a carnival, from the trampolining seat to the pneumatic sigh of the clutch to the spindly stick of the gearshift, which the old man manipulates as though it were a cross between a magic wand and a knob-headed cane. Down around the boy’s throbbing feet the glass bottles tinkle their accompaniment and up above are the old man’s fiercely focused eyes, and the boy is so distracted by all this drama that he nearly forgets to take a last look at his house. By the time he turns all he sees are the empty panes of glass in the garage door that the shade tree smashed when it fell. The black rectangles gape like lost teeth amid the frosted white panes, like pages ripped from a book or tombstones stolen from a graveyard, and for some reason the sight of them fills the boy with a sense of loss and dread. Then there is just the shade tree, dead now, leafless and twigless but otherwise intact, and still blocking the garage door as it has for the past three years.
Brentwood, Long Island, 1956. The most important local industry might not be the Entenmann’s factory but it is to a boy of twelve, almost thirteen, and as the truck rattles down Fifth Avenue the boy cracks open the triangular front window in his door and presses his nose to it as he always does. It is too cold and the factory is six blocks away and the boy can smell little more than a ghost of sugar on the wet air, but in his mind the street is doughy as a country kitchen, and as he inhales he pretends he can sort the different odors of crumb and glazed and chocolate-covered donuts from an imaginary baker’s hash of heat and wheat and yeast. The sharp vanilla edge of angel food cake or the cherry tinge of frosted Danish or his favorite, the soft almost wet odor of all-butter French loaf. He likes it for the name even more than the taste—a loaf they call it, like bread, when it is sweeter than any cake. In fact he has eaten it so few times the taste is a memory trapped in his head in a space apart from his tongue, but whenever he stocks the pastries section of Slaussen’s Market his nostrils flare as if they can smell the brick-sized loaves through waxed cardboard and cellophane.
It’s when they pass Slaussen’s that the boy realizes they’re headed for the Southern State. Big white signs fill the store’s dark windows.
PORK CHOPS 19ȼ
LB! IDAHO POTATOES, PERFECT FOR BAKING! ORDER YOUR XMAS TURKEY NOW!
The boy turns his head to stare at this last notice as they drive by. It’s the second week of January and the disjunction tickles his mind, but only faintly, like the flavor of all-butter French loaf. But then he remembers something else.
Will I be back for work?
The way the old man operates the truck reminds the boy of a
puppet show. He is all elbows and knees, jerks and lunges and rapid glances to left and right, and he doesn’t spare an eye for the boy when he answers him.
Close your window, he says. And then: What time do you clock in?
I go in after school.
The old man turns right onto Spur Drive North without slowing, drops the truck into second in an attempt to maintain speed up the on-ramp. The tires squeal around the corner and the truck bucks as though running over a body when the old man downshifts, and then the ancient engine hauls the truck up the incline like a man pulling a sled by a rope.
What time do you clock in?
The boy doesn’t answer. Instead he watches the road, not afraid, only mildly curious, as the truck slides across both lanes of the parkway and drops two tires into the center median before the old man steadies its course. The old man has gone into the median so many times that the older boys refer to the strip of grass as the Lloyd Parkway, and one time, according to Duke, the old man went all the way over to the eastbound lane and was halfway to work before he realized it. Now he continues half-on and half-off the road for another quarter mile before jerking the truck back into the left lane.