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Authors: Andre Dubus III

Townie

BOOK: Townie
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TOWNIE
ALSO BY ANDRE DUBUS III

The Garden of Last Days

House of Sand and Fog

Bluesman

The Cage Keeper and Other Stories

TOWNIE

·
a memoir
·

Andre Dubus III

W. W. NORTON & COMPANY

NEW YORK • LONDON

Copyright © 2011 by Andre Dubus

All rights reserved

I have tried to protect the privacy of real people here, living and dead, by changing the names of everyone except those in my immediate family and those who are already known to the public. I have also, when necessary, altered the physical descriptions of a few men and women.

Townie
draws on material from three previously published essays by Andre Dubus III: “Tracks and Ties,” originally published in 1993 in
Epoch
, reprinted in the
Pushcart Prize Anthology XIX
and
The Best American Essays of 1994
(New York: Houghton Mifflin); the foreword to
Andre Dubus: Tributes
(New Orleans: Xavier Press, 2001); and “Home,” from
Death by Pad Thai
(New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006).

Lyrics from “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. Copyright © 1975 Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP). Reprinted by permission. International copyright secured.
All rights reserved.

Lyrics from “Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words),” Words and Music by Bart Howard, TRO-© Copyright 1954 (Renewed) Hampshire House Publishing Corp., New York, NY. Used by Permission.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Dubus, Andre, 1959–
Townie: a memoir / Andre Dubus III.—1st ed.
p. cm.
ISBN: 978-0-393-08173-2
1. Dubus, Andre, 1959–2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. I.
Title.
PS3554.U2652Z46 2011
813'.54—dc22
[B]

2010038029

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
www.wwnorton.com

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

For Austin, Ariadne, and Elias

And the boys try to look so hard

“Born to Run,” by Bruce Springsteen

TOWNIE
PART I
QUEEN SLIPPER CITY OF THE WORLD
1

I
DID NOT LOOK
into the mirror, not yet, not in the morning. My body was still so small and I only looked at it right after the weights when my muscles were filled with blood. There came the tap of my father’s horn outside. We were going running together, but what about shoes? All I owned were a pair of Dingo boots, the square-toed kind with the brass ring cinched in at the ankle. The horn tapped again.

I stepped into my younger brother’s room. Jeb was sitting shirtless in a chair, playing chords on his guitar in time to the metronome his teacher had bought him. His hair was wild and there was brown fuzz across his chin and cheeks.

“Jeb, you have any sneakers?”

He shook his head, kept playing, the metronome ticking, ticking, ticking. I ran into Suzanne’s room. My older sister was just about to turn seventeen, and she was curled asleep, her back to me. Her room smelled like dope and cigarette smoke. There were album covers spread on the floor at the foot of the bed: Robin Trower, Ten Years After, the Rolling Stones. In a swath of sunlight her blue sneakers lay side by side next to balled-up hip-huggers.

“Suzanne, can I borrow your sneakers? I’m running with
Dad
.”

She mumbled something, and I knew she wouldn’t be up for another hour or two anyway. I grabbed her shoes, stole some white socks from her drawer, and ran outside.

It was a Monday in August, the sun almost directly above us in a deep blue sky. We only saw Pop on the occasional Wednesday when he saw each of us alone and on Sundays when he would drive to our house and take all of us to a movie or out to eat, but the day before, at the Carriage House just over the Merrimack line, he’d studied me over the table, his oldest son with his newly hard body I wanted to be so much bigger than it was. He looked curious about something, proud too. “You should come run with me sometime.” Then he said he’d come pick me up the next day, his thirty-ninth birthday, and we’d go running together.

I waved at him behind the wheel of his old Lancer. He waved back and I stuffed my feet into Suzanne’s sneakers and ran to the car and climbed in.

“Hey, man.”

“Happy Birthday.”

“Gracias.” He pulled away from the curb. He wore running shoes, shorts, a tank top, and he’d tied a blue bandanna around his forehead. He didn’t have much muscle, but he was trim. His chest and arms were covered with dark hair. He kept glancing at me as I leaned over and tied the worn laces of Suzanne’s blue sneakers.

“You sure you want to do this?”

“Yep.”

“It’s gonna be long and hot.”

I shrugged.

“Okay, man.”

I sat back in my seat. I was hungry and wished I’d eaten something first, or at least drunk a glass of water. But what bothered me more were my feet. Suzanne’s sneakers felt two sizes too small, my toes squeezed together, too much pressure on my heels. A few minutes later, when he pulled into the gravel parking lot and I got out and shut the door, I could feel each stone through the soles of my sister’s shoes.

Pop and I were walking toward the woods and the five-and-a-half mile trail. Already there was an ache in both feet.
I should tell him. I should tell him these aren’t my sneakers. They’re Suzanne’s and they’re too small.
But when I looked over at him, the sun on his face, his trimmed beard looking brown and red in that light, he smiled at me and I smiled back and we started running.

My father had been a runner longer than he’d been my father. When he was still living with us, he’d finish his morning writing, change into sneakers and shorts and a T-shirt, and go running. He’d be gone for an hour, sometimes longer, and when he walked back in, his shirt dark and wet, his cheeks flushed, it was the most relaxed and content he’d ever look. This was the sixties and early seventies. Nobody jogged then. It was a habit he’d formed in the Marine Corps, and when he ran down the road, people would shout from their lawns and ask if he needed any help. Where was he going?

I had run with him once before when I was eight years old. It was at our old house in the woods in New Hampshire, one with land to play on, a clear brook in the trees. It was a summer day, when Mom and Pop were still married, and Pop had asked me and Jeb if we wanted to go with him. We said yes, though Jeb lost interest pretty quickly and walked back down the country road Pop and I kept running on. I lagged a few feet behind him, the sun on my face, sweat burning my eyes. At the one-mile mark, he turned around and I followed him home where he left me and set back out on a longer run. But I’d run two miles and when I stepped inside our cool, dark house, I yelled up the stairs to Mom, “I ran two miles with Daddy, Mom! I’m strong! I’m
strong
!” And I punched the wall and could feel the plaster and lath behind the wallpaper, though I had no words for them.

Now I was twice that age and hadn’t run since, and even though my feet hurt with each stride, it felt good to be running outside with Pop on his birthday, spending time with him that wasn’t in a restaurant he couldn’t afford on a Sunday, that wasn’t in his small apartment every fourth Wednesday. It was easier not having to look directly at him across a table, to have him sometimes look directly at
me.
And this was a part of town I didn’t even know about. For a while it was hard to believe it was the same town as the one I spent all my time in; we were running on a wide dirt trail under a canopy of leafy branches. To our left, the trees grew on a slope and leaned over the water. To our right was a steep wooded hill, the ground a bed of pine needles and moss-covered rock, deep green ferns growing up around fallen logs and bare branches. I was in weight-training shape, not running shape, and fifteen minutes into it I could hear myself breathing harder than he was, but I didn’t let myself fall behind him and I found if I relaxed my toes each time I lifted a foot, then tensed them just before it hit the ground again, the pain wasn’t quite as sharp. I figured I’d have to do this another thirty minutes, maybe forty-five, just two or three times what we’d already done. I could do that, right?

The trail dropped closer to the water and for a quarter mile or so we were running on flat ground, water on both sides of us, marsh grass and lily pads and waterlogged trees that’d been there for years. Then the hills came. They were short and steep, and Pop told me to run up them hard, that it was easier that way. I did, my heart punching my ribs, my breathing coming too shallow when I was inhaling as deeply as I could. Pop was eight or ten feet ahead of me now, and I put my head down, pumped my arms and legs and tried to ignore the stabs in my soles, the vise on my toes, the metal grater on my heels.

The hill leveled off in the shade, then dropped mercifully before another rose up like a rock-strewn wave, and now my eyes were stinging from the sweat and I closed them and ran as hard as I could, my thighs burning, the air in my lungs gone for good.

There were five or six more like this, and with each one we rose higher from the water down to our left. To our right was the rise of another densely wooded hill, so shaded it looked cool, and Pop was breathing much easier than I was, his bandanna dark with sweat. He seemed to slow himself so I could pull up beside him.

“The big one’s coming up.”

“Big one?”

“You’ll see.” He laughed, and soon enough the trail cut hard to the east, and he ran ahead of me. I followed, but this was the steepest hill yet, and when I looked ahead I saw only that it kept rising and rising before it curved into more trees where it rose again.

My mouth and throat were thick and tasted like salt, my thighs hurt almost as much as my feet, and even though I was pumping my arms and legs as fast as I could I seemed to be barely moving. I couldn’t see my father anymore. I closed my eyes and kept running.

 

POP WAS
waiting for me at the top, running in place, his beard glistening in the dappled light. He was smiling at me. When I got to where he was, we ran side by side down a long winding trail in the shade.

It wasn’t until we were on flat ground again, water on both sides of us, maybe a mile and a half before we were through, that he said, “You up for the second lap?”

“Yeah.” I assumed the second lap meant the homestretch we were running, the same trail we’d used on the way in. I didn’t know then that on his birthday every year he would double or triple his normal running distance, that the second lap meant
another
five and a half miles after I somehow got through these.

The pains in my feet felt like some territory they now lived in. Way up ahead was the clearing in the trees, green grass under the sun, the short trail back to the parking lot and Pop’s car and cool water, later a shower, a chair, more cool water. But when we reached the sunlit grass, Pop turned around and ran past me back into the woods. For a moment or two, I ran in place and stared at the parking lot, the glare of the sun on the windshields, the smack and bounce of a tennis ball in the public court there, the glint of the sun off the chrome handle of the water fountain. I hadn’t run even one mile since the two I’d run with Pop half my lifetime ago, and I’d just done five and a half. My own feet had become two weapons turned against me: How could I do it again? Shouldn’t I just tell him about these shoes? That they were way too small, and I just couldn’t do it anymore?

But my father was already disappearing into the shadows of the trail, the back of his shirt a dark V of sweat, his running shoes moving white balls. I lowered my head and I followed.

 

IT WAS
in the ninth or tenth mile that I’d begun to hobble, pulling my feet along, pumping my arms harder to keep up any momentum. Pop kept asking if I was all right. Did I want to stop? I shook my head no, I couldn’t imagine giving up after so much pain. If I did, every bruising step behind me would be wasted, right?

Three days later, it seemed, the trail came to an end and I lay down in the sunlit field of grass, my lungs raw, my feet pulsing, sweat pooling in my eye sockets. I sat up and wiped my face on my forearms and untied Suzanne’s shoes. My feet were swollen and it was hard pulling them off, the skin of my heels scraping, both socks wet and red. I peeled them away to see all ten toes had split open at the sides like sausages over a fire.

Pop squatted beside me. “Jesus.”

“These are Suzanne’s. I think they’re too small.”

“Where’re
your
shoes?”

I shrugged, didn’t want Mom to get in trouble. I knew he gave her a lot of his monthly pay, expected her to clothe us and feed us and house us properly, three things she’d said many times she just didn’t have enough money to do.

I don’t know how we got to the car. I probably leaned on Pop’s shoulder and tried to walk as flat-footed as I could over the gravel. But first we stopped at the water fountain and drank. It was warm and tasted vaguely like concrete and metal, but it was a liquid angel come to bless us, and even though my entire body hurt from my lungs to my feet, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so good. About life. About me. About what else might lie ahead if you were just willing to take some pain, some punishment.

 

THREE YEARS
earlier, when Suzanne was thirteen and I was twelve, when our younger brother Jeb was eleven and Nicole was eight, our mother had moved us to Haverhill, Massachusetts, a milltown along the Merrimack River. Before this, the five of us had lived in two other towns on the same river. The Merrimack originated one hundred miles north in the mountains of New Hampshire, and I imagined it was clean up there, not like where we lived where the wide, fast-moving water was rust-colored and smelled like sewage and diesel and something I couldn’t name. Later, I would learn this was tanning dye from the shoe mills, that all fish died here, vegetation too. Posted down near the littered banks were signs that said
NO SWIMMING OR FISHING
, not just because of the current—the yellow industrial-waste foam of it rising off in the wind—but because the water itself was toxic.

Decades earlier, Haverhill had been named “the Queen Slipper City of the World” because the town’s Irish and Italian immigrants worked endless shifts in the mills along the Merrimack churning out a lot of the country’s shoes. But in the early 1900s Italy started exporting cheaper shoes and one by one the mills closed and ships stopped sailing up the river from the Atlantic. By the time we moved there in the early seventies, it was a town of boarded-up buildings, the parking lots overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash. Most of the shops downtown were closed too, their window displays empty and layered with dust and dead flies. It seemed there were barrooms on every block—the Chit Chat Lounge, the Lido, Ray and Arlene’s—and they were always full, the doors open in the summertime, the cackle of a woman spilling out of the darkness, the low bass beat of the jukebox, the phlegmy cough of an old man born here when things were good.

Mom had gotten us a cheap one-story rental at the base of a hill on a street which curved around to Hale Hospital. Behind the hospital was a graveyard and there was a joke that the Hale was so bad you didn’t even want to go there for a broken bone because in no time they’d put you in the cemetery out back. Our house used to be a doctor’s office, and now he rented it to us. The two bedrooms and kitchen had been examination rooms, the dining room the doctor’s office, and our living room was where patients sat and waited. We lived there two years. Once a month or so, in the middle of the afternoon, we four kids would be watching TV and a man or woman would open the door and walk in and sit down. One man in a trench coat and tie picked up a newspaper off the floor and sat in the chair in the corner and began reading. Suzanne was out with the friends she was making in the projects, and Jeb and Nicole and I looked at each other a while, the canned laughter of
Gilligan’s Island
or
The Partridge Family
on the TV. The man was deep into his reading and we weren’t sure what to do. Everyone else who’d walked in had seen right away this wasn’t the doctor’s office anymore—the scant furniture, the dusty carpet, no more receptionist or plastic plants, and there were these kids lying on the floor in front of a TV. I was the oldest. It was up to me, wasn’t it? To tell this man to leave?

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