Now That He Had Stolen It

It was an antique brass telescope. Nicholas extended it, put it to his eye, and looked east to the open sea. He saw whitecaps, parading clouds, and the horizon line, where one limitless blue met the other.

He scanned westward, toward Ipswich Bay, and saw two fishing boats returning to the salt river. In an hour they would pass through the canal and reach harbor. Seagulls dove for scraps on the decks and in the wakes. They fretted on the cabin roofs and on the net booms. There was a flapping of wings and flying up and coming down again to the fracas.

He scanned further west and saw the sun and had to turn away from the light. It hadn’t yet met the treetops, but soon it would, and the captains were timing their return so they would tie up as evening came and unload beneath the lights on the docks. And some of the crew would walk to the tavern and drink and others would go home to shower and eat with their families, and the captains would write in the logs. Then it would be night and the harbor quiet except for the lapping of water and the creaking of floats.

“It’s not yours.”

Nicholas lowered the telescope and turned to his left. He recognized the girl but couldn’t identify her. Nicholas was old enough to be old. The girl was young, with nothing womanly about her yet. She squinted and pursed her small mouth. He didn’t like her.

“How would you know that?” he said.

“It’s from the display at the village hall.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not mine, does it?”

She hesitated at his logic trick, although she knew she was right.

“I saw you take it on Saturday.”

“That still doesn’t mean it’s not mine.”

“You hid it under your coat. If it was yours you wouldn’t hide it.”

She hated the way he sat on the rock, one knee up and the other leg flat, a forearm on the upright knee, a condescending expression on his face, as if he thought he owned the rock, too. When he spoke a gold tooth showed on the left side of his mouth, and because of this she didn’t trust him.

“I’m telling.” She turned and pushed through the field scrub, then strode up the sand path, her hands in fists. She turned at the bottom of the lawn of a shingled house with a long view. It was the summer house of a large family that had come for generations. Nicholas knew some of them, but most not well. Most were younger now.

He stood and looked east again. He collapsed the telescope and walked to the house. He started toward the back door, set in the porch that ran the back length of the house, then turned and walked to the front. After he knocked he straightened his jacket and brushed twigs from his pants. A small insect had discovered the back of his neck. He put a hand back to brush it away, but it had gone beneath his collar.

A woman of about 40 opened the door. She appraised him. She smiled slightly and removed a pair of work gloves.

“I’m . . .”

“Mr. Drury. I know. We’ve met. I’m Alexandra.”

“I believe your daughter . . .”


“. . . may have just delivered some exciting news.”

Alexandra smiled and cocked her head, so that Nicholas knew the news had been delivered. He lifted a hand and gestured with the telescope. He didn’t know what to say. She waited. The weather was unhurried. There was the sound of a car passing, hidden by the trees behind Nicholas, and the sound of something being pulled across a floor behind Alexandra.

“Did you know her?” he asked.

She raised her brow. Then she leaned against the open door frame.


She looked down at the gloves and shifted them from one hand to the other. “I met her once or twice years ago, but in passing. Heard all about her, of course.”

Nicholas nodded. He wanted to say, “The Hell with it,” and wander away. She would lean against the door frame and watch. He would wander down the drive and wave the telescope behind him. He could feel the bug just inside his collar. He didn’t want to reach back for it while he talked to her.

“Who’s that?” called a voice from inside.

“Mr. Drury,” Alexandra called back.

“Nicholas Drury?”

“Yes. Come say hello.”

In a moment an older woman came to the door. Nicholas recognized her. He nodded. “Elizabeth.”

She looked at him for a moment. Then she turned to the younger woman and said, “For God’s sake what are we doing standing here?” She turned back to Nicholas and said “Come in, come in.”

Alexandra held the door aside so he could pass her. She still wore the slight smile, now somewhat Giaconda, knowing something was afoot.

“We’re just packing up,” Elizabeth said. “Excuse the mess.”

Packing boxes, old sheets with which to cover furniture, bags of objects to be discarded, and other flotsam and jetsam lay about. “Let’s go to the porch,” she said.

She opened the screen door and held it for him. “Coffee?” She turned and looked toward Alexandra, who stood among the work in progress. “Is there any left?”

Alexandra had put her gloves on. Now she began to take them off again.

“No no. Sorry. I’ll make some. You keep working.” She turned to Nicholas and gestured to the Adirondack chairs still on the porch, facing the sea. “Make yourself at home. Sorry to abandon you. It’s packing day, and I need another cup.”

He nodded and said, “Don’t go to any trouble on my account.”

He had been there sporadically over the decades, with friends on endless summer evenings when he was a boy, with Ingrid for the annual parties as a man. He sat in the deep chair and stretched an arm behind him to find the bug, but it had stopped moving and he didn’t locate it. He lay the telescope beside him on the wooden floor. He watched the distant water move and the distant sky fade until they were almost the same color. By the tone of the distant voices inside he knew Alexandra and perhaps the girl were telling Elizabeth about the telescope. No matter.

Elizabeth came to the porch and set a plate of butter cookies and paper napkins on a low table. “All we’ve got, I’m afraid.” She sat in the chair beside him.

“Much appreciated,” he said.

She tilted her head so that she appeared to be looking up at him conspiratorially and murmured low, “Alexandra insists on grinding the beans to make fresh coffee.” She raised her head then and asked, “John and Sarah?”

His children. “Well beyond expectations. I am lucky and grateful. Truly.”

“And the grandchildren?”

“The same. Don’t start me. I don’t bring them up unless asked, don’t want to be a bore, but once you push that button it’s hard to stop me.”


“I never carry any with me. For the same reason.”

She reached for a cookie and ate it. She then listed her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews and provided a digest of events and milestones.

Alexandra came through the doorway with a tray holding all the equipment for coffee. She had boiled water in the electric kettle and put the coffee in French presses. It needed to steep. She set the tray on a low table and lingered for a moment. Nicholas said, “Stay. I may as well entertain you both.”

She pulled up a chair. They busied themselves with looking at the sea and eating the butter cookies, then with pressing and preparing their coffee, and then they settled. Nicholas reached down and picked up the telescope, looked at it, then looked at them.

“I gave it to her,” he said. “We were in college.”

He set it in his lap. “A few years ago she wrote, out of the blue, to say she wanted me to have it. She was, I gathered, moving from one place to another and, I think, knew that her illness was serious. She thought she was putting things in order.” He stopped, looked away, and pondered the idea.

Elizabeth finished his thought. “And then it turns up in a display in the village hall. The artifacts of the astounding Lydia Johansson, at least those not under lock and key in the collection of one museum or another. And for us, local girl made good.”

Nicholas nodded and looked away. Yes, he thought, that about sums it up.

“She really broke your heart, didn’t she?” A light smile ran across Elizabeth’s lips. This family was good with their light, knowing smiles.

“She did that,” he said.

“Well, she left a lot of damage in her wake,” Elizabeth went on, in her knowing way. “What was it, four husbands?”

“Three. One she married twice.”

“And a couple of estranged children. It was a wonder she had time to write grants and conduct research and win awards and write books and circle the earth and paddle up the Amazon and sled across Antarctica and so forth.”

Nicholas spread his hands. Yes, it was a wonder.

“Sorry,” said Elizabeth. Then, “No, not sorry. At this age we can say what we want.” She looked to Alexandra for confirmation, then turned to Nicholas and whispered, “You may gather I didn’t like her.”

Alexandra said to Nicholas, “I still miss Ingrid.”

“Ah,” he managed. Ingrid. Yes, she was a wonder. He wondered what she’d ever seen in him. He owed her a good life. And here he was with Lydia’s telescope.

“So,” he said, “What now?” to the others only inasmuch as they were part of the land- and seascape before him.

They sat quietly for a moment. Then he felt a touch on the back of the neck. He turned abruptly. The sour-faced girl had come in quietly and stood behind him, and she was holding a hand up, rubbing the fingertips together. “A bug,” she said.

A single bark of a laugh burst from him, startling both the women and himself.

“Well,” he said when he’d recovered. “What now?”

It was decided that they would walk to the village hall and return the telescope. As evening had arrived, they wouldn’t be doing it in bright daylight. It would be closed now. Alexandra had a key, because she was in charge of the props and paraphernalia for the upstairs amateur summer theater. The weather was balanced between September’s daylight warmth and the cool of night. It was a good time for a walk. Walking was a traditional evening ritual here, but the season had ended. Few other people would be out.

“Let me get a jacket,” Elizabeth said. And when she had her jacket the four of them set forth.

It was dark beneath the village trees but still gray in the sky. The only people they encountered were a group of boys with a football. The field beside the lighthouse was a good place for games, and boys always took pleasure in playing until they couldn’t see.

Alexandra led the way to the side entrance of the clapboard village hall and unlocked the door. Inside, they turned right and entered the display room, which generally displayed the same village artifacts year after year but occasionally  gave way to special exhibits, sometimes accompanied by talks or films in the auditorium.

“I’m going to duck upstairs,” said Alexandra. She turned, and Nicholas heard her tread on the oak steps.

The girl—Nicholas had now silently nicknamed her the Bug—wandered among the display cases, no doubt looking for other missing objects and wrongs to right, Nicholas thought.

Elizabeth meandered, enjoying the not-quite-illicit visit to the room. She said, “I hope nobody sees the lights and calls the police.”

“A thief wouldn’t turn on the lights,” countered the Bug from across the room.

Elizabeth nodded her head from one side to the other to acknowledge the truth.

Nicholas walked to the far corner, where a table displayed old navigation tools. Lydia had once famously crossed the North Atlantic using only a sextant to guide her. There was a long bare space for the telescope. The absence looked obvious if you knew it was gone but otherwise unnoticeable. Nicholas set the telescope in its place. He was glad to be rid of it.

Then came a loud outcry from upstairs and a sound as if something had fallen and then more than one voice.

The three of them hurried to the stairs, Nicholas and Elizabeth not as quickly as the girl, and then up the stairs and into the auditorium and in the dim houselights saw Alexandra and a man facing each other below the stage. The man turned and looked at them, but Alexandra did not turn away. Then all five of them stood still and waited, and after a period of stillness Alexandra said over her shoulder to the others, “Lucien.”

Lydia had given both her children exotic names, at least exotic to the ears of those who lived on the cape.

Then Alexandra made introductions: “My aunt Elizabeth, my niece Eliza, and our neighbor Mr. Drury.”

Lucien, about the same age at Alexandra, nodded. Then they waited again. Finally, Elizabeth said, “I’m sure there’s a good story here.”

Relieved that she had not said she was about to call the police, Lucien nodded again. He stepped backward to the edge of the stage and leaned against it. The three at the doorway moved forward so that they formed a group with Alexandra, who remained where she was. It was clear she knew him and thought of him as an oddity. Nicholas saw this in her cocked head and slight smile. Nicholas had never met Lucien; he must have accompanied his mother on one or more of her rare returns to the cape, the summer or two when Nicholas and Ingrid decided not to attend the annual party at the large, shingled house where he’d been a half hour ago.

Alexandra raised a brow.

Lucien said, “I came for this.” He walked to one end of the stage, reached across the elevated floor, and lifted a book, large enough that one would assume it was filled with art photographs. “It’s mine.”

Nicholas thought it would now be fair if the women asked themselves, “What is it men want?”

Lucien brought the book to them and opened it to the title page, and there was an inscription “To Lucien” from the author, his father.

“You stole it from the lectern in the display,” accused the Bug suddenly.

“It’s mine. Look.” He pushed the open book toward her face.

“Were you going to hide here all night?” the girl accused.

“Yeah, well, I came up here to read it—my book—and got locked in. OK?”

“Enough,” said Elizabeth. “It’s time to go.”

“I’m taking it with me,” Lucien said.

“We’re not going to tackle you,” she replied.

“What are you going to do?”

“When the exhibit closes and the owners reclaim the materials we’ll tell them you have the book. You can duke it out with them.”

Lucien sucked on his upper lip, then nodded.

“Well then, go ahead,” Elizabeth said, and Lucien looked at them, tucked the book under his arm, and left the room. They heard his tread on the stairs and then the door open and close. The four of them looked at each other.

“Quite an exciting late afternoon,” Nicholas offered.

“We’ll be telling this one for years,” Elizabeth said. Then she patted his arm, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave you out of it.”

“I think I’d rather be remembered. Maybe you could have me tackle him.”

She let a clap of laughter burst. The girl, he knew without looking, shook her head at him.

“Time to close up,” said Alexandra.

They turned out the houselights, descended the stairs, and looked a final time at the telescope in its place across the room. Then they locked the door behind them.

They parted at a turn in the road. The three women turned up the hill toward the house. He asked if they would like him to see them to it, and Elizabeth said, “Such a gentleman,” but they assured him that they were capable of returning to their home, which they would close for the season the next day. If he accompanied them, he would face a longer walk home alone.

After they had gone he felt the lack of company as a kind of nostalgia, in which he indulged as he walked alone. When he came to his lane he walked past his house and came to the dark sea at the end. There was no beach here, and the water came against the rocks. He stood for a while before turning back.

In his house he made a cup of herbal tea but drank only half of it. He turned on music then turned it off. He walked among the rooms and looked at the things that remained. Then he went to bed with a book, but he awoke in two hours with the light on and the book open on his chest. For a moment he couldn’t remember having undressed and gone to bed.

He picked up the phone from the night table. Elizabeth’s number was in it with the thousand other numbers that lived there. Probably he had called it no more than five times over many years, and usually at Ingrid’s request to inquire if they should bring a dish to a party, to which the answer was invariably no, bring only yourselves.

She answered at the first ring, meaning that she too was awake.




He wasn’t sure what came next. Finally he said, “It’s late.”

She said, “I know, I know.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


From chapter 12.

March. The funeral was held the first Thursday of the month. Almost all of the sixth form attended. The B had announced after dinner the week before that we must make a good showing.

Mr. Hewitt rode on the bus with us. Other masters drove their cars. I’d never had a class with Mr. Hewitt, and now, in the spring semester of my final year, I never would. We hardly knew each other, but we had the kind of bond that, in my naiveté, I guessed men form in war, and he was young enough that maybe he hadn’t faced anymore death than I had. I knew he hadn’t been in Vietnam. I don’t know why not, although we all knew more didn’t go than did, and that there were plenty of ways to avoid service. Founders wasn’t the kind of place that hired you if you avoided service, however. I sat with Will, and midway through the ride Mr. Hewitt sat in the empty bench across the aisle and told us, as if we’d asked, that the reason the funeral was being held so long after Hector’s death was that the family had requested an autopsy. I realized they wanted to know how he’d died, but I knew an autopsy wouldn’t answer the “how” they were seeking.

I said nothing. I simply nodded when Mr. Hewitt told us. I knew everything, or as much as anyone could know, and I could say nothing. I had promised Hector, and my job was always to protect Lew. Mr. Hewitt understood that I knew more than I was saying. Everyone did. Everyone was just waiting for me to break.

When Mr. Hewitt left us, Will punched me lightly in the arm to let me know I could count on him, and when we stepped into the dark, stone church in Newton he said, “Better stay close to me.” At first I thought he said this on general principle, but then I looked up and saw what he saw. Hector’s father and two brothers stood before their pew at the front left of the nave. They watched as we streamed in. They radiated intelligence and anger. Hector’s father’s face was chronically red, his brow pointed down in anger toward the deep crease above the ridge of nose, and I knew that behind his closed lips his teeth were clenched. It was paranoid of me to think that he found me in the murder of black-suited boys, but I felt that he did. Given the chance, he would ring the truth from me, then squash me like a bug. I hardly noticed Hector’s mother, sitting in the front pew on the right-hand side with, I guessed, her present husband. I recognized Hector’s sister with her. She too looked capable of chewing me up and spitting me out, blond, athletic, and radiant in her anger. Except for the mother, this family didn’t bother with sorrow. These people believed in winning. Worst of all, they had a right to know what I knew, to ring it from me, and race with it toward whatever goal line would satisfy them. Who was I to keep it from them? When we were seated and the Episcopal priest led us in the first payers of the service, I talked to Hector instead. What do you want me to do? All that I could hang onto was the promise he’d made me take. If I said anything, his death would have been for nothing.

After the church service, at the gravesite in the sharp cold wind of early March, I was sure Hector’s father and brothers looked at me: he’s the one. We were surrounded by large tombstones in a well-tended section of the cemetery. Thick ancient shrubs divided the boundaries between plots. Family mausoleums were scattered across the landscape like small Greek temples. The sun shone with that kind of aching light you sometimes get in winter, the kind that doesn’t produce much heat. Hector’s family sat in folding chairs beneath the blue funeral home shelter, and they were all restless. There seemed to be plenty of cousins and aunts and uncles. They all sat athletically in their chairs. No one, except for the mother, who sat in the front row with her husband but seemed disconnected from the rest of the gathering, cried or expressed sorrow. Even when the women tapped each other on the arm or brushed their cheeks together, they seemed to be saying, “We’ll get this straightened out.” All of them, men and women, glanced around them purposefully with sharp eyes. They looked like a Northern European tribe ready to draw swords as soon as the burying was done. All fifty boys from Founders stood behind the shelter, our hair blowing about in the wind, young tribesmen in our apprenticeship.

When the graveside service ended, as the first to leave made their way toward their cars, I saw the B and Mr. Kingswood approach Hector’s father, who didn’t seem glad to see them. His lips came back and his clenched teeth were now clear to see. He actually pointed a finger at the B, although I could tell somehow that he was controlling himself, managing to maintain a veneer of civility with his words but unable to manage the finger completely. I realized for the first time that Hector, Lew, and I may have put the school in jeopardy. Hector’s family could probably sue Founders out of existence for not keeping a better eye on their boy. After all, what were they paying a private school to do but educate their son and keep an eye on him?

No reception line had formed. A reception would be held at the church, followed by a second reception at the family home, but we weren’t going, and so I was spared the torment of shaking hands with Hector’s family as they looked me in the face: he’s the one. The school had made a good showing. There was little sense in having fifty boys mill about with the relatives. At least, that’s how I thought about it initially, before I remembered Mrs. Evans and wondered if Hector’s mother would have liked  just to hear the voices and see the faces of fifty boys who knew her son. She wouldn’t know that Ackerly was actually one of God’s great mistakes and one of the biggest jerks in the world. She would know only that he’d known her son and had come to his funeral. But I think she probably didn’t get her way in Hector’s funeral anymore than she’d gotten her way in marriage to his father. You could tell she was a kind of beaten down person, and had been before Hector’s death. I thought about introducing myself to her—she’d probably heard about me from Hector over the years. We’d met once a few years ago when she’d come to the school. But while I was thinking of how to get to her, Hector’s brother Michael approached us and made it moot.

I had the feeling he’d taken it upon himself to find me because his father was distracted by the B, and then it seemed to me that the B was purposely distracting Hector’s father just to keep him from finding me. I knew I was developing a bad case of thinking the world revolved around me, but it was hard to kick.

Will and three boys standing near me had been conversing about the Boston Celtics. (They pronounced it with a soft “C,” which Lew had once explained was flat wrong for two reasons: first, it should have been pronounced with a hard “C,” like a “K,” hard like the members of the tribe itself, and second, “Celtic” was an adjective—the noun was “Celt,” you were a Celt not a Celtic—but for all that, he admitted they were a pretty good basketball team. He knew this because the Welsh were Celts, or anyway had become Celts. “We were probably a Pictish people to begin with,” he said. Lew lived in several worlds, only one of which was the one the rest of us lived in.). I had been staring off, thinking about what I knew, thinking about Hector’s and Lew’s mothers, and when I saw with peripheral vision the approach of Michael I turned as nonchalantly as I could toward the boys, edged closer to them, and insinuated myself into their conversation. They didn’t mind. As far as they were concerned we were all standing around in the cold doing nothing. This didn’t deter Michael, of course. He made his way through the clusters of boys and called to me. I could pretend not to hear the first couple of calls, but not the third. All the boys in our little circle turned toward him when he grew close to us. Michael had been a Founders student, and although he was too old to have shared any years there with us, all of the boys had figured out who he was, and he was recognizable to some of them, having brought Hector to school or picked him up on several occasions.

“Hi guys,” he said. Two of the boys shook hands with him. “Have you got a minute Mac?”

“Sure Michael.”

He would have put a hand on my shoulder if he’d been ten years older, but he knew he couldn’t yet pull off the gesture, so instead he put his hands in his pant pockets and turned to walk beyond the circumference of boys, knowing that I’d follow. I was self-aware enough to tell myself I didn’t have to follow him like a little dog, but I followed him obediently nonetheless. It was his brother who had died, after all.

After we had broken from the pack, he turned his head and looked at me, still walking. “You doing OK Mac?”

Everyone wanted to know how I was doing.

“Yeah. I’m sorry Michael. You?”

He looked forward and shook his head. “No. Freaked out. Pissed. Screaming at the sky.”

Michael was not a person who would scream at the sky. He wore round wire-rimmed glasses, like the B, not like someone living in a commune. He’d always seemed monotonously even keeled to me, brilliant at science and boring.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“Yeah. Me too.”

We wandered outside the circumference of the pack, Michael with his hands in his pant pockets, his long wool coat pulled back. I tagged along.

“How’s your friend Lew?” he asked.


“Yeah. How’s Lew?”

“Well, he’s in a psychiatric hospital, or some kind of facility. I haven’t spoken to him.”

“You went after him that night?”


He looked at me like I should know what he was looking for. And I did. I just couldn’t give it to him, or let him know I had it.

“What was going on?”

“Have you talked to the police?” I asked him.


“Then you probably know everything I know. Lew came into my room late, distressed, asking where Hector was, saying I knew where he was. I didn’t, although if I had to guess, the mill would have been one of the places I’d guess. Did you ever go to the mill?”

“Couple of times. I know about sneaking off to the mill.”

“Then Lew went running off. I almost just let him go, but I worried about him, so I ran after him.”

“And he went to the mill?”


“What did you see?”

“Nothing. It was dark. I could hear Lew running through the woods and sometimes he talked to himself. Do you know Lew?”

“Never met him. He’s got some problems, doesn’t he?”

I couldn’t let him get away with that, but I couldn’t put him in his place either.

“Hector and I looked after him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since we met at Founders we sort of adopted Lew, tried to help him stay on an even keel. He’s actually an interesting guy.”

“I’ll bet. So you didn’t see Hector at the mill?”

I had to lie. “No.” All I’d seen were dark forms, anyway.

“What about shots? Did you hear shots?”

Christ, it was like being on trial. Everybody wanted to know everything. Who could blame them? But I’d made a promise, and I was keeping it with lies. Some of the information didn’t matter. Hector hadn’t been shot.

“You know, I followed Lew way out onto the lake, and when I found him he did a lot of mumbling, and he mentioned shots, but I was there when he was there. He thought Hector had been shot, I think, but Hector wasn’t. And you know, Lew often got things mixed up. I can’t explain it. The police also asked me about shots, I guess because Lew told them about shots, but I don’t know what it’s all about, Michael. I’m sorry about Hector. He was my closest friend at school.”


I knew he could tell he wasn’t going to get any more from me right then. He looked at me sideways before he walked off, and I could tell what he was thinking: he had time; eventually he’d win.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Back Then, the Moon Was Closer

Chapter 1

The moon used to be bigger and closer to the earth. That’s what they say. Sometimes people exaggerate, but we can’t go back in time and check, so who knows? Maybe it was. And they tell this story about Great Grandpa and Great Grandma.

They lived in a small white house with green shutters in a small town. And one evening in spring, when the weather had just started to turn warm, they noticed that the moon seemed unusually large and close.

“I’ll bet I could reach it with the ladder,” said Great Grandpa.

“Maybe,” Great Grandma replied. Then she added, “I wonder if it’s true.”


“What they say.”

“What who says?” asked Great Grandpa.

“People,” answered Great Grandma.

“What people?”

“Oh, I don’t know, just people,” said Great Grandma. “But they say the moon is made of cheese.”

“Hmmm,” said Great Grandpa. “I like cheese.”

They stood on the front lawn of their little house and stared at the moon for a while, wondering if it was true.

And after a few minutes, Great Grandpa said, “There’s one way to find out.”

He walked to the garage and rummaged around for a while. When he came out, he was carrying the long ladder, the one he used every autumn when he cleaned the leaves from the gutters.

“I think we’ll have to climb from the roof,” he said. “Help me carry the ladder up there.”

They got the ladder through the front door pf the house, but when they tried to turn a corner into the living room and another to the stairway, the ladder wouldn’t fit. They tried hard. Great Grandpa lifted his end toward the ceiling and Great Grandma held her end close to the floor and turned slowly. It didn’t work. Then they tried it the opposite way, but that didn’t work either. Then they accidentally knocked a picture off the wall.

“Oops,” muttered Great Grandpa.

“It’s OK. It didn’t break,” said Great Grandma. “I have an idea.”

They backed the ladder out through the front door and stood in the yard again.

“Now,” said Great Grandma, “you go up to the dormer window and crawl out to the roof. I’ll lean the ladder against the gutter, and you can pull it up.”

And that’s what they did. And once Great Grandpa had the ladder on the roof, Great Grandma climbed out through the window and joined him. Then they stood the ladder on the highest part of the roof and leaned it forward–and it touched the big moon!

Chapter 2

Great Grandpa got ready to climb. He went inside and put on his best sneakers so he would have a good grip on the moon. He put on a jacket in case it was cold. And he took his pocketknife with him. If the moon really was made of cheese, he wanted to taste it.

When he was ready, Great Grandpa started to climb the ladder. Great Grandma held it steady.

Great Grandpa looked down at her and smiled and called, “Look at me! I’m climbing to the moon!”

“Use both hands,” she called back.

Then, he stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the moon. He wondered if anybody else had ever been there before. He wondered if he was the first person on the moon. And one of the first things he noticed was that the ground on the moon was very soft and springy. He jumped up and came down and bounced. He began to bounce like a little boy all around the part of the moon near the ladder.

“So,” called Great Grandma, “besides bouncy, what’s it like?”

Great Grandpa then took out his pocketknife, cut a little piece out of the moon, and tasted it.

“Good gracious!” he exclaimed. “It is made of cheese. Delicious cheese. You have to taste this.”

He tossed a piece down to her. Great Grandma took a small bite from the edge and then happily ate the rest.

“We have to have more of this,” she called up to him. “Wait there for a minute.”

Then she crawled back through the window, ran down the stairs, went to the garage, rummaged until she found two buckets, ran back upstairs, crawled out the window, scurried to the ladder, and called, “Here. Fill these up.”

She made great circles with her arm and threw the buckets up to him one at a time.

Great Grandpa caught the buckets and then began to fill them with cheese. While he worked, Great Grandma crawled back through the window, ran down the stairs again, skipped to the garage, rummaged until she found two long pieces of rope, climbed back upstairs, crawled out the window, scurried to the ladder, and called, “Here. Catch these ropes. Tie them to the buckets so you can lower them without spilling any moon cheese.”

“Hmmm,” answered Great Grandpa. His mouth was so full of delicious cheese that he couldn’t answer her.

He dug and dug with his pocketknife until he had filled both buckets. Then he tied lengths of rope to each and lowered them to Great Grandma. When he was finished, he walked to the ladder leaning against the moon so he could climb down. But the moon had been rising slowly as he’d worked. The ladder wobbled. It no longer touched the moon. Great Grandma caught it before it fell and lay it down on the roof.

“What are we going to do?” she called.

“I’ll just have to ride the moon around the world and see you again tomorrow night,” he called back.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I wore my jacket.”

“Well,” called Great Grandma, “OK. See you tomorrow night.”

“Be careful with that moon cheese,” he called down to her. “Don’t spill any when you’re going through the window.”

“And you be careful on the moon,” she answered. “Don’t fall off.”

The moon rose slowly over their house and over their small town and over the countryside. Great Grandma stayed on the roof for a long time so she and Great Grandpa could call back and forth to each other. But finally the moon rose so high she could no longer see or hear him. She crawled back through the window—very carefully, so she wouldn’t spill any cheese. And Great Grandpa sailed up and up into the night sky on the great full moon.

Chapter 3

Great Grandpa could look down at the earth as he crossed the sky. He saw all the world’s beautiful mountains and seas. He saw storm clouds from above and knew it was raining below. He saw lightning flash like great fireworks in clouds. And all the while he snacked on delicious moon cheese.

The next night the big moon brought him low over the house and he saw Great Grandma on the roof with the ladder, ready to raise it into the sky. When he came near enough to hear she called, “Just send me a few more buckets of cheese, and then climb down. The moon will be getting smaller, and you don’t want to fall off.”

So Great Grandpa filled one bucket after another with delicious moon cheese and lowered them to the roof. Great Grandma added the cheese to the great collection inside. By now they had filled every bucket and bowl and pail and bathtub and sink in the house. Probably no one had ever before collected so much of the moon.

Finally, she called up to him, “OK. We’ve got all we’ll ever want. I’m going to stand the ladder up.”

And so she stood, balancing it on the highest part of the roof. But when she tried to lean the ladder against the moon, it . . . didn’t . . . quite . . . reach.

“Uh oh,” said Great Grandma.

“Uh oh,” said Great Grandpa.

The moon is full only one night of each cycle, and this night it was not quite as full or near to the earth as it had been the night before. And maybe Great Grandpa had made the moon just a little bit smaller by collecting so much moon cheese.

“What should we do?” he called down.

“Tomorrow night we’ll set the ladder up as soon as you get close,” called Great Grandma. “We don’t need any more moon cheese.”

“OK,” called Great Grandpa. Then he sat down and watched again as the moon slowly began to rise. Great Grandma stayed on the roof, and they talked quietly together in the warm weather while the moon was still near. This was before they had children, and they often talked about the names they would give children once they arrived. And now they knew that one day they would be telling their children and maybe their grandchildren and maybe their great-grandchildren about the time they harvested moon cheese. Then the moon drifted further away. They said goodnight to each other, and once again Great Grandpa drifted above the earth, where he could see great rivers run through the land, wide plains of white where snow and ice lay, and the sparkles of city lights at nighttime.

Chapter 4

It’s not hard to guess what happened next. When the moon came close to the house the next night, the ladder still wouldn’t reach. The moon was just a little smaller and a little farther away, and every night the moon would grow smaller and farther, until it became a new moon and disappear for a night, before it started to grow again.

“What will we do?” called Great Grandpa.

“You’ll just have to ride until we think of something,” Great Grandma called back.

And so he rode the moon through the sky every night, looking down with wonder on the beautiful earth. When he was hungry he ate moon cheese, and when he was thirsty he drank moon milk from a little well he dug. Soon the moon was so small that had to lie in the curve of it. Now it stayed so far from the earth that he couldn’t call to Great Grandma. And at last the moon became just a thin sliver of silver and he hung to it with one hand. The next night, it would disappear.

All this time, Great Grandma had been thinking and planning and working hard. She knew the day would come when Great Grandpa fell from the sky, when the moon disappeared.

That day came at last. Great Grandpa held to the last slender bit of the moon until it disappeared. And then he began to fall to the earth, down toward the tops of the clouds. He fell right through them, and they were soft like cotton. He fell faster and faster toward his little town and his home, wondering what would happen to him. At last the house was near. He saw Great Grandma standing in the front yard. She was waving her arms and pointing to a white patch before her. Great Grandpa spread his arms wide like wings and steered toward her, flying faster every second, until at last he crashed into the mound of incredible softness in front of Great Grandma. Pieces flew everywhere as the mound burst, and then Great Grandpa fell gently to the ground.

He looked up and saw Great Grandma smiling. She had been wise. She knew that the only thing soft enough to save someone from a fall from the moon was moon cheese itself. She had piled all their moon cheese into a soft hill, and Great Grandpa had landed in it.

He stood up and looked around him. There was no more moon cheese. His landing had sent a million tiny pieces of it flying in a frenzy to far-away places.

“Well,” said Great Grandma, “that’s the end of our moon cheese. But we will have a great tale to tell our grandchildren one day.”

“That we will,” replied Great Grandpa.

The moon never again came so close to the earth that you could raise a ladder to it. Maybe that’s because Great Grandpa had made it lighter by taking so much moon cheese.

Or maybe the moon still does come close sometimes when it’s full, but nobody’s looking.

Maybe one day we’ll go there, after a good night’s sleep.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In the Ground

A snippet from In the Ground, which follows Body in the Pond, and is in the works.

When Martha knocked I was in the midst of grading essays on the Peace of Westphalia, which no one remembers but which is responsible for everything in the West. It’s not unusual for someone to appear at my door in the evening, but I didn’t expect it to be Martha. She’d said she was going to call, but there she stood, wanting to talk about bones.

Martha enjoyed the freedom to be abrupt that age gave her. “It’s a bit late,” she said, both an apology and its dismissal. I liked Martha.


“I didn’t know you kept any.” She observed our habits and rituals at St. Max from a step removed, and remembered everything.

“Just for you.”

It’s almost always safe, if sometimes too cute, to be flirtatious with a woman in her seventies. She was good enough to smile rather than shake her head and mutter.

“In that case,” she said, took off her jacket, and folded it over the back of a chair.

I went to the tiny kitchen area in the backroom—it was the size of the small snack corner for a small office—and began brewing with my seldom used machine while she examined my bookshelves.

“I didn’t see Smitty today,” I called. Smitty, being unique, existed outside our usual naming rituals.

“I haven’t either. He had a meeting in Cambridge. I worked today and left the house early. He was asleep last time I saw him.”

“What was his meeting?”

“The usual. Making the world a better place.”

When I’d set things to brewing I found her examining the two shelves of vinyl records I keep. I collect them for their covers. Like the rest of the human hoard I can find anything I want to hear in nonphysical form, floating in the digital ether. It frightens me, but fear doesn’t stop me from scouring the invisible world for revelations like old tracks from Manu Dibango with the Cuarteto Patria Cubafrica. In the end we all embrace our particle beings and become less solid.

The coffee aroma seeped into the room from the kitchen. I love the smell of coffee, just don’t like the accompanying scour of acid when I drink it. Martha pulled an album of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s work from the shelf and looked at me with her brow raised. She pulled the record from the sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and turned the system on.

“I like the pops and scratches,” she said. “And this version of Greensleeves. They bring me back.”

The coffee maker made a sound like a small electronic mouse, and I poured her coffee. She sipped from the cup gratefully, thanked me, set it on the side table I’d found in the school’s collection of lost furniture, and said, sitting, “So.”

I waited. She shifted in her seat, sat back, draped a leg—gathered herself. She now looked as if this room was hers; she’d taken possession.

“Last spring,” she said, “as you were looking into the death of Adelaide Simpson’s father, you conducted a little field research. Into encampments of homeless people in the area, if I understand correctly.”

I nodded and sat on the arm of my small sofa.

“Joan told me about the excursions.”

I nodded again. “Actually, it was a more narrow, um, study. I visited drinkers’ camps.”

She looked at me steadily. After a few moments it became unnerving. She was assessing me. Finally she said, “Would you take me to one?”

I felt I should take my time answering, just as she’d taken her time asking. I let my consideration hang in the space between us. She didn’t mind.

“Any one?” I asked. “Or one in particular?”

She sipped her coffee. I wondered if it would keep her awake, or if she was one of those people who it relaxed.

“One in particular,” she said, and I saw that she was gathering the thought behind her request.

I waited again. It wasn’t a game. I offered patience as a gesture of respect. I would listen. The evening had both slowed and lengthened. The music had meandered outside the channel of its folk routes. It has always been a wistful song, and in Williams’s fantasia it’s more so. Martha was anchoring me in my own rooms as it flowed around us. The table lamps simmered with that light that’s seen through windows on autumn evenings.

“Tell me,” I said.

She nurtured her hands with the warm cup, looked off into the music, and settled into her knowledge that, after all, telling me is what she’d come to do. I was humbled. Martha has a reputation at St. Max as a curious creature who has embraced her place as the diminutive wife of our chaplain as a base from which to conduct excursions and undertake missions in the wider world. She muted evidence of the depth of her life in order to live it less noticed.

“The body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave near one of these encampments.”

I remembered seeing the article in the Townsman, and remembered avoiding it. She looked at me, again, assessing me, again, trying to determine if I was, in fact, the person with whom to partner on whatever quest she was about to embark on. There was sorrow in her face. I bowed my head.

“I know her,” she released at last. Then, after several slow moments, “knew her.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Air through which we cleave. The spell of distant carillons. We survive.

The scent of fallen apples. The cold touch. We remember breathing. There is even joy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


How hot is it?

Bloody hot. Awfully hot. Terrifically  hot. Hot enough to melt butter. Too hot by eight in the morning for dogs on asphalt. The fake leather on the car seat burns your thighs. Don’t touch the table-top outside the café. Train rails buckle and warp. Children cry all night.

What can you do in such heat?

Flee to Finland. Fly to Tierra del Fuego. Crawl into a dark place. Talk to the heat people.

The who?

The heat people. The Wavering Ones. Right there in front of you. Keep you company on a day like today.

What do they say?

They don’t talk, compañero.

What do they do?

They remind you what it’s like to live in this kind of heat.

You’re here—why do you need to be reminded?

You’re funny. You’re not here. We’re not here. In this heat, none of us is here. We hallucinate ourselves. We recall ourselves. We are a step away from ourselves. We try to re-member ourselves because we are not able to member ourselves. But we don’t try very hard. We try between shallow breaths without lifting a finger. We are incorporeal. We live in a languid Hell. No flames, only shimmers. No nightmares but a plethora of dreams. There is no such thing as sin here, and if there were we would be too slow to commit it.

Could you commit a sin of omission?

We are the sin of omission. We are dissolving even before we die. That’s a sin, probably. But we disinvent sin. It rolls away like a bead of sweat. No one thinks they’re getting away with anything. We fluctuate. Heat and light.

Do questions matter in this season?

Everything has already been asked. Everything has been answered. The Wavering Ones keep us company. They don’t judge, or ask, or answer. You ask if questions matter. Everything matters, nothing matters. I watch the Wavering Ones. They’re good company. They don’t ask questions.

Can I quench your thirst? Make you a drink?

The fresh squeezed juice of sugar cane. It smells like freshly cut grass.

Will it save you?

There’s nothing from which I need to be saved, and nothing to save myself for.

Do you think this conversation might be more lively in autumn?

You know the answer to that, my friend. In spring we thought summer would be sin. In autumn we will decide if it was. For now I can tell you only what I’ve told you. It is hot enough for rain to evaporate before it hits the ground. Hot enough to forget who you are.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Winter Birthday

Nick’s birthday. Rachael, Jeffrey, and their families are en route. We’d all vowed to celebrate the sibling birthdays together even after a celebrant is gone.

I stand at the glass kitchen door and look down to the cove. It’s winter. It’s no wonder I’m thinking about the ice.

I live alone in the old family house. I am free to wander.

To the west is the cove and to the east, across the road, is the forest.

One day Nick and I decided to jump from block to block as high tide broke the cove ice. The blocks were large and thick. We weren’t balancing on dinner plates. But not all the blocks could bear the sudden weight. Pieces broke away and we had to jump to others. The water was seven feet deep and cold. We did this for the afternoon. Nick was four years younger than me.

In spring, tides helped by flush streams broke over the seawall and left debris to investigate. Monkfish beached themselves on the low-tide mud flats in summer. Every fall we cleared the yard of apples by throwing them in the water, where they bobbed by the hundreds. In winter, there was the ice.

The forest ran for miles. We discovered the rock ponds and the granite beards and the cedar thickets that etch you like brambles do if you try to wade through. Sometimes I would lose myself for the joy of finding my way out. There was the time I went too far and darkness came. But I stumbled ahead, saw a light blink through the branches, and came to a road. It was a long walk home.

One winter day Tony and I came home late from high school. He was a friend. We liked to go downtown after school, get a sandwich, then take the cape bus out here. Tony wasn’t his real name. Nick named him that. To annoy him. Nick was always making things up and getting under your skin. We picked him up, one of us on each arm, and carried him down to the cove.

Tony and I were still in our coats. Nick wasn’t. He didn’t have shoes on, just socks. It was a bright day, but cold. We lowered him onto a block of ice. He didn’t want to look scared or defeated or chastised so he taunted us with Tony’s made-up name. He knew we wouldn’t leave him there. We waited for him to stop. He didn’t stop. Tony and I looked at each other. Tony shrugged. We looked at Nick. He didn’t stop. We left.

In the kitchen, something smelled good. I forget what it was, but I remember Tony saying how good it smelled. Some soup or stew had been simmering all day. We figured we weren’t allowed to eat any yet, but it made us hungry, so we made our second sandwiches of the afternoon.

I can’t see where we left Nick from here. The backyard goes down to a little neck at the end of the cove, where a stream runs into it. There’s an asparagus bed on each side of the stream. The shoots start coming up in March. I don’t have to do anything to maintain them. They’re good to eat when they’re fresh and small, but I like best to watch the feathery summer plants in a breeze. Nick liked them in summer too.

To see where we launched him you have to walk around a corner to the long side yard and to the steps that lead to the water where you can tie a boat in summer and where we would step down to the ice. I don’t know how we survived being young.

Nick died last year. The first to go. Made me mad. Wish I could haul him down to the cove and set him adrift. Instead I have to watch him wave from the ice in the evenings before I turn on the lights.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Far Flung, at the Moment

À plus tard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


I’m experimenting with vignettes. Narrative homage to Spoon River Anthology tentatively titled Boy in the Trees (homage, in turn, to Calvino). The first handful feels good in the hand.


“A championship-worthy sneeze.

“I overheard a woman saying a few days ago, ‘Thank goodness that allergy season is finally over.’ But it’s never over. I am living proof. There’s always something to be allergic to and someone who’s allergic to it. Just ask me! Although, honestly, I have no idea if that was an allergic sneeze or just a sneeze because something got up my nose, like pollen. Which brings me to a very scientific question, Bob. Oh, Bob’s stepped out of my imagination for a moment. But the question remains! If some pollen gets up my nose and I sneeze, is it because I have an allergy or simply because if something gets up your nose and starts tickling you, you’ll sneeze?! Is that all an allergy is? Tickling?

“Ah well, we’ll set that fascinating question aside for the moment in this blow-by-blow account of life, the world, my day, and the nature of reality.

“I’m fully aware that other people don’t do this. Well are you now? Why yes I am. I am one of the few, I think, who conduct a running commentary in my head about whatever’s running in my head.

“Crazy? No. Daft maybe.

“Daft. Who uses words like daft? Somebody in a droll BBC domestic sitcom. Somebody who would also use the word droll. I suppose I am a bit daft and a bit like a character in a droll BBC sitcom. The neighbors probably think I’m daft. So I bought a pair of earbuds. Everybody has them, and some people look quite hep and tuned in and well put together as they stroll about listening to someone else’s words or music inside their heads. Listening to podcasts. Hello, Pod here, and I’m about to cast. Ooh, ooh, got a bite, set the hook, reel it in, it’s a big one, look, why, it’s a Freshwater Speckled Listener! Catch and release, but take a picture.

“Do other people think like this? And if they don’t, who’s better off, me or them? Are they entertaining themselves as much as I entertain myself?

“Now, I’m perfectly aware that I’m eccentric. Which as the daft star of a droll BBC sitcom, I must be. It’s in my contract. Even though I’m an American and living in a pleasant suburb that would be perfectly ordinary except that we have a boy who lives in the trees in the neighboring woods.

“What?! Stop the presses! What did you say?

“Yes, it’s true. And perhaps the oddest thing about it is that we’re all quite used to it. It’s not a big deal. It’s about as important as having a historical marker beside the street. ‘Here in some distant past General Beauregard Shenanigans had his famous breakfast.’ And ‘Here lived a boy in the trees.’ And ‘For a while a daft man lived nearby and walked about talking to himself, but only in his head. He wasn’t crazy, just eccentric.’

“And if I was sneezing my way through a barely funny BBC sitcom, who would be my wife? I’d have to have one. And she would think I was daft, but in a good way. She would roll her eyes at me often, but in a fond sort of way. I would be a ‘look-what-the-cat-dragged-in’ sort of husband, the kind about whom she would say, ‘Now what am I going to do with him?’”


Randall was spot on in his self-analysis. He was indeed thought of by most as harmlessly daft. Few wanted to or made the effort to get to know him, few being a euphemism for no one. On those rare occasions when someone would engage him, he often offered astute observations about local or world affairs, being well read and quite articulate. He would even listen quietly to another’s observations. But who needs a daft friend? Life’s complicated enough. So the neighbors got on with their divorces or drinking or affairs or depressions or failures—and good things, too—and thought of him as a character, and having thus characterized him they felt free to give him very little thought, of which they had little to spare. There were some that found him somewhat alarming. Someone to avoid on the sidewalk, someone not to let the children too near. He, on the other hand, observed them as one observes birds and houses and clouds and brightly painted cars and people involved in their personal dramas, which is to say, not intrusively.


“Would I have a family in my program? Well, that’s a question. I’d be an odd dad. Not a bad one. I’d try not to interfere with junior’s or missy’s life. I’d be away at work doing something boring, like endlessly checking inventory, which, in fact, is what I do, and I don’t find it boring at all! But the rest of the world does, and that’s quite all right. So I would work at a somewhat dull but stable job and I’d bring home a decent salary and I’d watch the news on television when I got home. The family would eat in front of the television every evening. We would be the kind of family lamented by the intelligentsia, but we’d actually be quite content and stable, and my wife would do the actual raising of the children while I did chores around the house, putting in new light switches, painting rooms, that sort of thing. And always managing to make a mess of things; it is a dramedy after all! They’d all roll their eyes at me. If I wasn’t me, I would too.

“But now that I think about it, in the show the children would be young adults who’d moved out of the house. We’d be empty nesters. My wife would do lots of volunteer work. I’d do things like, well, fix the toaster while she was out. And we’d have odd neighbors.

“Well, it’s a good life, isn’t it? Take that, boy in the trees. You’re not the only successful oddity hereabouts!”


One day, on his rounds, as he liked to call them, he spied two young mothers with their four children ahead on the sidewalk. He noticed how they gestured with their hands and communicated with smiles, occasional conspiratorial facial expressions, eyebrows raised and heads nodded in mutual agreement over the true reasons behind errant deeds. So involved were they in their engagement that they didn’t see him approach, and he, knowing what was what, stepped off the sidewalk so that he wouldn’t scare them with his surprise proximity, and it was a good thing he did, for a perfectly ordinary thing happened. A three-year-old girl who had been turning in bored half circles beside and just behind her mother wandered into the street as the two women engaged in enthusiastic engagement. He heard, “Can you believe it!” in the tone that conveyed that they had seen right through whoever had done whatever had transpired. And a young person in a car was tapping on a cell phone and paying no attention to the street, so important was the communication that would soon take place through the phone.

It was a partially sunny day, or a partially cloudy day. He’d always been amused by the distinction. In fact, he’d become increasingly amused by the weather industry. In his childhood, only hurricanes had received names. Now any storm of consequence, and many of no consequence, were christened. The practice would make for excellent dialog in a droll BBC television program.

“I’m going out dear.”

“Be sure to take an umbrella. Slight Drizzle Camille is supposed to arrive today.”

“Oh dear.”

When the car driver did not see the child and the child did not see the car, Randall ran forward, picked up the child, and was able to throw her clear as he was hit. She skinned her hands and knees on the pavement and let out a piercing wail. The mothers turned. The young driver crushed the brake with a foot, stared ahead, stunned, open mouthed, and then had the presence of mind to turn off the phone and stow it in a compartment.

If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound? The police came, of course, and an ambulance, although there was no hope. The driver professed to be too shaken to remember much beyond “he came out of nowhere.”

The mothers were inclined to think that he had attempted to abduct the girl. It was difficult to fathom how this could be the case, in the middle of a partly cloudy or partly sunny day on a well-traveled street. But how else could the events be explained? He had always been odd, they all agreed, as did others later. No one knew him well. No one knew what he’d done. And it might not have dissatisfied him to have his life end this way. So much is unknown.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Post-“Body” Round 3, Now What?

The third round of international serialization of Body in the Pond is complete. Several countries were added (finally got to South America). A reader very kindly broke the no-feedback rule over porchetta at Convivio a few days ago. I would really like to send the book to Italy.

Working on:

The familial history at Pawleys Island dating to the 1920s. (The banner picture, if this is still the top post, is of a former rice field on the Waccamaw, across the peninsula from the island, on a favorite walk, but watch for cotton mouths. Did I ever tell you . . .)

A history for small people of the moon and its cheese.

Continued futile efforts to learn to play like Eliades Ochoa.

Continued work on St. Max volume three, In the Ground.

Lazy compilation of a list for round four of the serialization of Body (next year).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized