After St. Louis had become too domesticated in the mid-1800s, the gateway to the American west jumped to Omaha, outfitting point for settlers taking the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Winter Quarters, a major depot for Union Pacific, and eventually, the end of cattle drives coming from the other direction. The livestock was sold in the Stockyards on the south side of town, which covered 250 acres at one point. That's bigger than some small towns in Nebraska. Once, the meat packing plant there had employed poor Irish, Italian and Czech immigrants who built their Catholic cathedrals in the city. Later, the plant had employed equally Catholic, equally poor Mexican immigrants whose descendants still live in that area of town. If you want good Spanish cuisine, travel L Street east from 72nd. I hear they're planning to tear the Stockyards down soon, build a mall in its place to a serve two-footed cattle instead. Progress, you know. We're all seeking to move ahead. Even me, however haltingly.
The city of Omaha is hilly, which often surprises newcomers. They think "plains -- flat." Yet we're still prairie here, and the city sits on the Missouri River with its bluffs and greenery and wind. Chicago has nothing on us. From some points west of town, one can look down into the river valley, lit up by urban brilliance like a Christmas ornament. Very pretty. It's a nice town, if a bit Midwestern white-skin bland after living in the colorful ethnic riot that makes up New York. But it's got more history than most American towns out here, and I prefer the smaller size. It's big enough to be interesting, with a zoo, museums, airport, malls, the air force base, the College World Series, and more damn restaurants per capita than anyplace in the US except New York -- or at least, that's what the natives claim. (I have my doubts.) Yet it's small enough that I can drive from the river on the east to the western ridge in forty-five minutes, unless traffic's bad.
I still do not like the city.
That's why I'm here. I need to make peace with the Big O.
Right now, I'm sitting behind the wheel of my Corvette in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center, staring across 132nd street and the corn fields beyond that at the bunched buildings that make up the little village of Boys and Girls Town, separate and set off from the city sprawl all around. It even has it's own water tower, blue, with the name on the side.
I find I can't -- physically can't -- make myself get any closer than this.
And it took me three weeks to get this close.
My aversion to the place probably gives a wrong impression of it. It's a good program, and group homes around the country for at-risk youth have based their own programs on this one. But no matter how effective and enlightened overall, every program has glitches. I fell victim to one of those glitches.
I wonder, sometimes, what might have happened if I'd trusted someone there enough to report what was going on in our home? Henry has his 'what ifs' and I have mine, a whole string of them, not even counting 'what if the plane hadn't crashed?' I wonder what might have happened if the family in Kearney hadn't lost their farm and I'd stayed there. I wonder what might have been if someone had listened and believed when I'd said that bastard in my fourth home was molesting one of the girls. I even wonder what might have happened if I hadn't tried to con Jack Winters at pool down in Washington Heights in the City. Would I still have ended up where I did, just under someone else's thumb?
But I wasn't on the streets now, and I wasn't in Omaha at the mercy of the state. I had a little efficiency apartment off Underwood in Dundee that I was subletting for the summer, and a delivery job at Nebraska Furniture Mart (dressed in obnoxious green) to pay for it. I'd decided that there might be something to Xavier's suggestion, back in February, that I try living on my own for a while. Jean's fierce irritation over not being trusted to do so had convinced me, so at the end of May, I'd received my diploma from Xavier, and a week later, had climbed into my overstuffed Corvette and headed west on Interstate 80 in a reverse trek of the one I'd made three and a half years before. I'm not sure if I'm trying to find peace, or make it, or if there's any effective difference -- but here I am.
Starting the car, I pulled out of the community center parking lot. At summer solstice, the sun was still well above the horizon in a blue-quartz sky at 7:30, and I just drove around for a while, zipping from lane to lane past cars on the main thoroughfares -- Dodge, Blondo, Pacific, Cass -- and earning dirty looks from other drivers. I was torn between anger at myself, and frustration. An hour later, I was sitting on the manicured, viridescent grass of Memorial Park north of Dodge and the university, watching joggers pass me in the growing twilight, or retiree couples walking dogs. Near the white marble arc of the World War II memorial, the brittle shrieks of children playing Frisbee pierced the air. One little brown-haired girl was bossing the rest like a drill sergeant but only half her playmates paid any attention. This made her angry and she stamped her foot, hands on hips. It reminded me of Jean, and that pierced me.
I'd been here three weeks, yet knew no one. Met people, yes, but knew them? Not at all. Omaha may not be New York, but it's still big enough to be comfortably anonymous. I went into work and did my job, but ate lunch in the company of a book. The other guys tolerated me because I didn't shirk and I could read a furniture assembly chart. Some of them are hopeless. On my first day out, the guy in charge of our truck had managed to get the mirror screwed upside-down on a dresser and I'd had to bite my hand to keep from laughing -- all the more so because he was majoring in information technology at the local college. I'd hate to see a computer when he's done with it. But I didn't interact much with those guys; we had little in common.
Apparently, they'd decided I was gay, and let their assumptions slide into little comments offered sideways with sly innuendo. I dressed neatly and kept my nails clean. I read too much, and didn't share in their off-color jokes, or their complaints about girlfriends and wives. I didn't look twice at women, and I didn't discuss sex.
But I thought about it. Sex. I thought about it in the abstract, and sometimes in the specific. I could be arrested in all movement by a Victoria Secret commercial on the TV, or unexpectedly aroused by a black-and-white photograph of a woman's naked outline in an art gallery off the Old Market. In defiance, or an attempt at appreciation, I'd bought a pair of Vargas prints for my walls. One of them depicted a fair-skinned redhead with a bouquet of lilies, draped in white (pink to me) from the waist down, titled "Jeanne." My subconscious must have been working overtime.
Certainly my unconscious was. Wet dreams became common, as if my body were thawing, but the first time I touched myself, it was indirect, with two layers of cloth between, still half asleep in the dim light of morning. I'd woken lying on my stomach, erection pressed against the mattress, and I'd pushed down. It had felt good, so I'd rocked my hips a bit, and when I'd needed more pressure, rolled onto my side, gripping my cock through the cotton sheet and cotton briefs, mouth open, eyes still closed, hand moving up and down, creating a hot tingle all through my groin and at the base of my spine. No thought, just sensation.
I hadn't come. Conditioning is a hell of a thing, and even half-conscious was too conscious to let go that completely. Yet I must have lain there half an hour, masturbating, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, but never touching my own skin and never opening my eyes. Finally, I'd gotten up to take a cold shower.
Now as I left Memorial Park, I thought about that morning and a few since as I drove back to my apartment, a small place minimally furnished with kitchen necessities, a two-chair dinette, a daybed, a desk, a TV, and a chest of drawers. The rest had been up to me, but I hadn't added much beyond a VCR and stereo, plus a computer and a cheap pasteboard bookshelf. I don't think I could live anywhere for long without a bookshelf. The one odd piece -- my sole self-indulgent investment -- was an indoor fountain. Its waterfall soothed me at night.
Now, when I got home, I didn't bother to turn on a light. The setting sun through the blinds was enough for me to find my way. I did turn on the TV as I passed and then plugged in my fountain, which made a barely audible burble in the background beneath the sound of that new show, The X-Files. Bored on Friday nights -- bored on most nights -- I'd started watching summer reruns, but had forgotten all about it today, and it was half over. Giving up, I switched channels to MTV. I could vegetate as late as I wanted. Tomorrow was Saturday.
But a full-time job at hard labor left me rarely able to stay awake past midnight, and I dropped off to sleep in front of the blue glow sometime around eleven, woke again about two in the morning. At that hour, the timbre of the videos had changed, become more openly sexual and provocative, or violent and angry, and sometimes both at once. These weren't the videos they dared to run for the after-school crowd. They bothered me and I shut off the TV, then lay there in the dark and tried to go back to sleep. There was only the sound of falling water from the fountain, and behind my eyelids, a flash of erotic video images. Red light and black leather and rain-slick alleys. I had a hard-on. Pulling off my glasses, I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking about my red-headed Vargas girl in white, and my hand found my crotch, palm rubbing over the front of the jeans I still wore as my hips lifted off the daybed mattress. I felt a low, tight coiling, the banked frustration of earlier combined with hot arousal and the heaviness between my legs, plus simple body exhaustion at the end of another work week. What the hell was I doing here spinning wheels? I wanted some victory to show for these weeks. I wanted to drive down Flanagan Boulevard in Boys Town, right past Father Flanagan's statue, the chapel, and the field house. I wanted to drive by my old group home on Maher Drive and not shake. I wanted to head down to the air force base south of Bellevue and find the house we'd lived in. I wanted to look out across the tarmac and remember crossing it with my father.
Yet I'd done none of those things. Not a one. Maybe I could do this. I could unzip my jeans and reach inside the waistband of my briefs to touch bare skin.
Warm as blood, warmer than the rest of me, even in the humid heat of June. The calluses on my palms from my summer of moving furniture rubbed rough on sensitized flesh, so I gripped the shaft and moved loose skin a while, then let my thumb pass over the slick head, spreading pre-ejaculate and pressing down over the slit. The shocking intensity of it made me gasp. None of this was new, but the freedom of it was. I did this for me and no one else -- my pleasure. It had been a long time since I'd touched myself, skin on skin, because I'd wanted to.
The jeans and briefs were in the way, and I let go long enough to lift my ass off the daybed and shove them down my thighs to bunch around my ankles. Kicking them off, I pulled my t-shirt over my head and stretched out on the mattress. It was too warm for a throw, the sheet damp beneath me. The overhead fan moved torpid air and cast a light breeze on my bare skin, and the water in the fountain sounded cool. I licked my fingers, running them over my chest and abdomen, exploring my own smooth skin. My guilt was a tangible thing, but I was allowed to feel this, wasn't I? Hadn't Hank said this was normal? Hadn't he said it was good? God knew, most men thought so.
My eyelids flinched. I didn't want to think about other men. I just wanted to listen to the water and think about the red headed girl in white hanging above my bed. Jeanne. Jean. My hands moved down again, seeking heat and weight. Bloated. I rolled my balls in one hand and stroked my cock with the other, a regular rhythm that increased with my breath. I thought of the slickness of the hot night, and how all my muscles were clenching. I thought of fine clavicles like birds' wings, and thin arms, shallow breasts. I thought of the fire in my belly and between my legs. My hand moved fast now, up and down, up and down, while the other cupped a palm over the head of my dick, thumb teasing along the sensitive, flared edge. So good. I was allowed this. I was allowed this, heat pooling between my legs, pressure rising, friction hard and quick, hips bucking, mouth open because it was good.
The end came fast, a lightning strike of intense sensation that startled a cry out of me and curled my head and shoulders off the mattress while my cock spit semen all over my chest and belly. Even in the throes of orgasm, I had sense enough not to open my eyes.
Then I just lay there, right hand still on my cock, the left draped off the side of the daybed. I breathed. Was this a victory? Was I normal now, beating off to random images in my head like any other guy? I didn't feel like dancing. Mostly, I felt like sleeping, though my stomach was sticky, and inside, I felt slightly ill. After a while, I rose to clean up, then came back and, still nude, crashed for the night. I had dreams of being chased, and woke late on Saturday with the top sheet twisted about my legs and ankles and ass. Getting up, I made coffee and read the newspaper.
But it was another week before I managed to pull my car onto Flanagan Boulevard and drive past Father Flanagan's stained marble statue sitting amid equally stained marble children, and I made no attempt to drive by the house I'd fled from. It was two weeks before I managed that.
The sky didn't fall in. In fact, it was rather anticlimactic. The real demons were in my head, not here in this cream-and-brown, two-story home with its box hedges, so little different from the ones sitting to either side. To see it again, see it real, loosened the hooks of my past a bit, and when I drove away, I was finally able to leave it behind.
"The sun never sets on the fighting Fifty-Fifth," I said as I hit the blinker and the brakes both, easing my Corvette into a backed-up line of cars on the exit ramp off Highway 75 south approaching Offutt Air Force Base. The annual air show was a popular event.
"Huh?" was the intelligent comment from my companion in the passenger seat. Warren. He'd flown out to Omaha to spend a week with me at the end of August, before the semester began for him at Yale. I'd been absurdly glad to see him and had dragged him all over town -- hell, all over the state -- though his only request had been to see a buffalo. "Never have," he'd explained.
"Not even in a zoo?" I'd been flabbergasted.
"Not that I remember."
So I'd taken some days off and we'd spent more time out of Omaha than in it, which had suited Warren surprisingly well. We'd driven west along 92, car top down, sun blazing in a big, blue sky above the utterly flat, boring desolation that is Nebraska beyond Columbus. Yet he'd stared out at the monotonous landscape, grinning, as if he'd thought it the most interesting thing under the sun. I'd taken him almost to the state's western edge to climb Scott's Bluff, and then back east to see Chimney Rock (which the more earthy natives had dubbed 'Elk Penis'), and to Homestead National Monument -- just a one-room log cabin, sitting on one of the first quarter-sections of land claimed under the 1862 Homestead Act. We'd traveled down to Mahoney State Park on the Platte River to camp out; Warren Worthington III had never spent the night in a two-man tent with no electricity or climate control. We'd cooked hotdogs and marshmallows over the fire and talked about the future. That night, I'd slept under the softness of white wings. He hadn't been coming on to me. The wings just hadn't fit in the tent very well, took up the whole space. When I'd woken the next morning, it had been to brilliant, sun-filtered white that had made me smile for no good reason. We'd gotten dressed, cleaned up camp, then driven through a nearby preserve for native Nebraskan fauna. Warren had seen his first buffalo, and some Sandhill cranes, too.
That had been yesterday. Today, to round out his trip and the real reason he'd come to Nebraska in the sweltering heat of a Midwest August, we were headed to the annual air show. It was the first time I'd driven this way since I'd come back to Omaha, and maybe I'd needed the cover of a very public event and the company of a friend to do it.
Now, I explained my earlier remark. "'The sun never sets on the fighting Fifty-Fifth' is the motto for the airbase."
"Airbases have mottos?"
I laughed. "Yes, Warren. Airbases have mottos."
"Do they have mascots, too?"
I just looked at him. He was grinning and not looking at me. The car top was down again, his right arm resting on the door and wind blowing his blond hair. It was a mess from the drive and he was sweaty already though his jacket was loose linen, and it struck me what a gesture of friendship this was, that he'd come. It was the worst possible time of year for him, in terms of the weather -- ungodly hot, with temperatures rumored to hit 97 degrees today, and on the tarmac, they'd be ten more than that. This whole week had been the same, and with his mutation, Warren could only go out in public if he wore a suit jacket. The leather harness that concealed his wings was simply too bulky to be hidden under anything less. Like my glasses, a jacket was a fixture on his person, one his social station usually managed to explain and excuse. But not on this day. Yet here he was, because when he'd asked me about Offutt, I'd said I hadn't yet been there, and two days later, he'd called back to inquire about the air show and would I take him to see it if he came out? I'd explained the heat. He'd insisted. So here we were, and he was already sweating, and I had four bottles of water packed in my backpack because I wasn't going to have him fainting on me from dehydration.
We talked about nothing much as the line of cars wound off the highway and down the road approaching the air base entrance. The closer we came, the warmer I felt and the more difficult it was to breathe. I wasn't sure if Warren was aware, but he was watching me with concern and finally interrupted himself to ask, "You okay?"
"Scott, you've gone white --"
"I'm okay." But I could see the entrance gate in the distance now, looking the same as it had the last time I'd seen it nine years ago and my belly felt as if someone had drop-kicked it. This was harder, much harder, than going to Boys Town. I hadn't been happy there. Here, I had been, and it was the last time (until recently) I could say I'd been happy. God knew, it was the last time I'd felt safe and the car was swerving because I couldn't steer and Warren was calling my name, holding me to the present, reaching across to grab the wheel. "Stay with me, Scott -- stay with me."
"I can't do this."
"Yes, you can. Pull the car to the side of the road. I'm going to help steer, just push the gas a little. That's right. Okay, stop. Put the car in park."
I did what he said as cars inched past us and heads swiveled to watch with idle curiosity. I just sat there and tried to regulate my breathing as Warren got out and walked around to the driver's side. "Move over," he said gently. Unstrapping myself, I lifted my body over the stick shift and he slid in, adjusting the seat for his longer legs and buckling up. "Put your seatbelt on." His voice was soft but firm and I obeyed. Then he turned on the signal light and eased us back into the line of cars. "If you start feeling shocky, put your head down between your legs. I don't want you passing out on me."
And that made me laugh, since I'd been the one initially concerned about him doing that to me, yet he was fine and I was the one who wasn't. "Okay," I said, feeling supremely stupid. "I'm okay."
Warren just glanced at me, eyebrows hiked, but he had the good grace not to say anything. We'd reached the gate and the guys on duty looked over the car, then waved us though.
And after nine years, I was back on Offut Air Force base. I blinked around me in a kind of dim surprise as bored soldiers in fatigues directed us to a parking area. The place had changed surprisingly little. I could remember the rows of white satellite dishes, the round weather tower, the expanse of hangars, the missile monuments, and even the maple trees lining the roadway. Warren kept his own counsel as he followed the snaking line of cars, giving me space to get a grip on myself, and I was grateful it was Warren here and not Jean, as she'd have tried to press me into 'talking about it.' There wasn't anything to say, really.
We parked and hauled out the cheap plastic lawn chairs we'd bought for this very purpose, or that Warren had bought. "I'm not standing for four or five hours," he'd said. Then we'd followed the line of tourists up towards the airfield. I was a stranger here, yet not, and I didn't know quite how to handle that. One part of me enjoyed the anonymity while another wanted someone -- anyone -- to recognize me, recognize my right to be here more than the rest. My father had been a goddamn test pilot. The elite of the elite. Yet I found myself backed up in line with everyone else at gate security, just another civvie, and I felt vaguely insulted by that, and amused at my own arrogance.
The airfield itself looked very different with planes and choppers parked everywhere, some roped off, some not. There were labeled food stalls in rows, information tables, souvenir stations, and Port-O-Potties. People stood in line or milled about, pushing strollers, carrying food or bottled water, chairs or fliers, bags or (occasionally) screaming children. The drone of the master of ceremonies came over a loudspeaker, surprisingly clear, and the sun beat down from a brilliant sky. Not a cloud anywhere. Heat swam up off black asphalt, blurring distances.
"The schedule says there's an F-16 demo at twelve-twenty," Warren said, reading from the little newsprint schedule that we'd been handed as we entered. "Which one's the F-16 anyway?"
"The little one."
"Yeah, the F-15 and F-18 are bigger planes."
"Oh. Which one did your dad fly?"
"All of them." I wasn't exaggerating. "That was his job -- be prepared to fly anything at need for Special Operations in 'Nam. 'Any time, any place.' He even flew the Blackbird for a while when he came back -- the SR-71."
Warren consulted the schedule. "I don't see that on here."
I smiled ruefully. "You wouldn't. It's been retired." My eyes had been flicking over the grounds while we walked. Most of the military personnel I saw peppered among civilians were young, like those directing traffic -- no one likely to have been at Offutt when my father was, and I wondered if I really wanted to run into someone who'd known him.
Seeing what I'd been looking for off in the distance, I grabbed the sleeve of Warren's jacket and hauled him towards the line of fighters in the distance. "Come on." Startled, he stumbled in my wake. "There's a Falcon, an F-16, over there -- see the size difference?" I pointed to the aircraft. "The one beside it with the double tail is an Eagle, an F-15. And the one beyond that is the Hornet, the F-18. The Navy uses those to land on aircraft carriers and the Blue Angels fly them. And that -- that's an A-10 Warthog, ugly as sin but its guns fire incredibly fast . . ." And on I went. I wasn't sure where I was pulling this stuff from since I hadn't been around fighters in years and hadn't bothered to keep up, but it rattled right off my tongue with an almost frightening ease. A couple guys even turned to look as they passed, expressions impressed. It wasn't until the third did a double take that I recognized him as someone I worked with, a guy named Jeff Pratt. Ironic that in a crowd of a couple hundred thousand, and a city of half a million where I knew but a handful of people, I'd run into one of them here.
"Summers?" he asked, turning back with his girlfriend on his arm and giving Warren a once-over. I could see his brain making connections I didn't like. "Where'd you learn about planes?" It was clear from his tone that it wasn't a knowledge he'd ever have attributed to me.
"His father was an air force pilot," Warren said before I could, shifting his schedule and offering a freed hand to Pratt. "I'm Warren. Scott and I went to school together, in New York."
Pratt shook the hand and I wondered if he'd try to wipe it on the back of his jeans when he let go. But he didn't, just said, "I'm Jeff. Scott and I work at Nebraska Furniture Mart." He gave a sideways nod of the head to his girl -- "That's Tracy" -- as if she were an accessory instead of a person. She didn't object. I tried smiling at her, but she just blinked at me. Dim bulb. "Pilot's brat, huh?" Pratt asked me. "So why aren't you in the air force?"
I just touched the glasses. The guys knew I had an 'eye problem,' but I didn't discuss it and they didn't push. Now, Pratt actually colored a little. "Oh." Then, in an awkward attempt to change the subject, he shoved his hands in his back pockets (and did that constitute wiping them?) and asked, "So you know planes, huh?"
"Sounded like a lot."
"Not compared to a pilot."
Warren had shot me a glance, probably wondering at the terse tone of voice, but I had no desire to stand around talking to Pratt. His idea of culture was a Husker's party on Game Saturday. "Your dad around here then?" Pratt continued.
"My dad's dead," I replied. "Plane crash." I didn't explain it hadn't been in the line of duty.
"Oh. Uh -- sorry."
I shrugged and Warren wasn't just looking at me now, he was frowning. "Come on, Scott," he said, "We'll miss the F-16." He smiled genially at Pratt and his girl. "Nice to meet you."
"Yeah," Pratt replied as we walked off.
"You can be a real son of a bitch sometimes," Warren said conversationally.
"I don't like him."
"That doesn't mean you have to show it quite so obviously."
"Scott -- " He sighed. "I don't get you sometimes. You were saying, when I first got out here, that you barely knew anyone even after almost three months, and now I can see why! The guy was just being friendly."
"He was being nosey. He thinks I'm gay and now he assumes you're my lover."
Warren coughed and turned beet red. "Drink some water," I told him, fishing a bottle from my backpack. "I don't want you passing out from heat stroke." Then my eye caught on flat-black metal skin and I stopped dead. "A Nighthawk! Come on," and I was hauling him off again towards a roped off area where an F-117 sat on display, its crew talking to clustered observers. "This was the plane my dad really wanted to take up, but never got a chance. On radar, it looks no bigger than a bird. Takes a computer to fly it because of its shape." A very distinctive V-shape with a small double-tail and an angled cockpit. She looked sleek and built for stealth.
Warren let me direct him towards the plane. "You're practically salivating," he said, laughing.
"I am not."
"Yes, you are." We were walking along the line of yellow restraining rope, my eyes on the plane beyond. "Have you thought about taking some flying lessons, Scott?"
I stopped dead and swung around to look at him. "What?"
"Your dad was a pilot. You might be good at it."
"Warren -- I can barely get in a plane that's going to get off the ground. What makes you think I could fly one?"
"There's a difference," he pointed out, "between getting in a plane that someone else is flying and flying it yourself." I just blinked. He had a point, one I'd never before considered. "You don't like letting other people drive, either, now that you can. You're a control freak."
That last bit had been offered in humor, but it was true enough. I didn't reply, yet I thought about what he'd said for the rest of the air show. We took our lawn chairs to the edge of the airfield and found places to sit, and Warren fanned himself with the schedule. Once he was seated, with the chair back to conceal the wing rack, I talked him into taking off his jacket. "Just stay leaning back in the chair and no one will notice," I said, and took it upon myself to make food runs. With the jacket off, he looked less flushed, and we enjoyed the afternoon, though by the end of it, and even under sunblock, the fair skin of his cheeks and nose were lobster red. My own body felt pellucid, full of sunlight. I was high on it, and like a shy-proofed horse, no longer skittish of this place. Yet on the drive home, I didn't make any detour by base family housing. I wasn't ready for that.
When we arrived back at my small apartment, we freed Warren from the jacket and rack and he unfurled his wings in relief. There was barely space enough for him to spread them to their fullest extent, and he had to stand exactly in the room's center. The tip of one touched my refrigerator door and the tip of the other hit the closet, but the look on his face while he shook them out and fluttered pinions was just short of ecstatic. I wondered, again, how he could stand it, having them folded back on themselves and bound tightly for hours on end. Then again, he'd told me once that he couldn't imagine having to wear dark glasses twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We all adjust to the things we have to.
I let Warren shower first since he was dripping wet with sweat, then took my own turn, dressing fully before exiting. I'd never before shared sleeping space with Warren, never had a reason to in the big mansion, and I'd realized that I wasn't comfortable in a state of undress, or even near-undress, in front of him. Warren had never behaved with anything less than graciousness, yet my unease remained. He didn't look at my body neutrally and I was all too aware of that fact. I'd like to say I acted out of consideration for him, but it wouldn't be true. My reasons sprang from my own disquiet.
When I came out, I found him examining the near-naked, red headed girl above my daybed. If he were jealous of or hurt by my choice of decor, it didn't show. "Pretty," he said, looking at his nails, and I was unsure how to reply, so I said nothing, hoping he didn't intend to press. Apparently sensing my embarrassment, he straightened and clapped his hands together. "So, where are we going for dinner?"
We wound up down the street at the Dundee Dell mostly because we were too tired to get dressed up again and drive anywhere. The place is half bar, half restaurant, decorated in wood paneling and Scottish whisky posters. I'd never realized that there were so many different brands of whisky, and it turned out that Warren knew something about whisky just as he knew something about golf. "You sure you weren't Scottish in a former life?" I asked him, and he managed to look offended, though I think he was more amused; he ordered fish-and-chips to prove his authentic English ancestry. Despite the discussion of whisky, neither of us attempted to order anything stronger than Coke. Even Warren was still underage.
While we waited for dinner, Warren finally brought up the topic I'd been waiting all week for him to raise. "So. What are you going to do this fall, Scott?" I was due to vacate my sublet apartment inside a week when the owners returned to town, and Warren was taking back with him the few items I planned to keep -- my fountain, some books, the VCR and my two Vargas girls. But I wasn't going back to New York with them.
"I'll drive north," I replied now. "To Anchorage."
He blinked twice before he could find enough voice to reply. "You're driving to Alaska? Do you have any idea how far away Alaska is? And what time of year it is?"
"Yes, I do," I told him. "It's not that bad yet -- doesn't even usually snow in Anchorage until late October."
"The southern coast of Alaska, and the Japan Current keeps it warm. It's really not that cold," I told him.
He eyed me. "You've been looking into this."
"Yeah. I have maps already. I figure it'll take about a week and a half to get there."
"Why?" He seemed very puzzled.
"I want to see the city I was born in." I also wanted to see the place my parents were buried, but didn't explain that.
"That's not what I meant. Why drive there instead of going back to New York and taking a plane? Especially if you're just staying a few days?"
I eyed him. "I'd rather drive a hundred hours one way than take a plane, War."
Sighing out in a gust, he sat back in his seat and looked off through the doorway of the little anteroom where we'd been seated. There was a pool table in the room beyond, and some videogames. "Would you fly if I took you?"
My eyebrows went up and I took a sip of lemonade. "If you took me, where would we store the luggage?"
It took him a minute to get that, then he laughed. "I meant in my plane, jackass. I flew it out here."
"No," I said simply and set down my glass. "I want to drive. Alone. It's nothing personal." Or rather, it was very personal, and I didn't want to share it.
"What if Jean went with you?"
There was just an edge to the question and my eyes flashed up behind the glasses, though he couldn't see. "Jean's in med school. And even if she weren't, the answer would still be 'no.'"
He relaxed, minutely. "Sorry." And I wasn't sure what he was apologizing for -- pressing me or being jealous of Jean. For a minute, I wondered if he'd say more, but he didn't. "When are you coming back?" he asked instead.
"When I run out of money, I guess."
"Scott, you know -- "
"Don't." I held up my hand. "The professor said the same thing. I'm not wasting my savings. It's why I worked this summer."
"To drive to Anchorage?"
"Sort of." To live in Omaha and drive to Anchorage. To be independent -- just me, myself and I.
He sighed and played with the ring of condensed water made by his tea glass. The waitress had arrived with our meal and we ate in silence for a while. Finally, he said, "What are you going to do when you get back to New York? You are coming back?"
"Yes, I'm coming back. And I don't know what I'm doing."
"Look -- I know I bug you about applying to Yale, but even if you don't want to go there, God, Scott, you can't . . . You made a 740 in math, dammit! You can't waste that!"
Ah, yes, we were back around to college. Warren couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to go to college if he had the opportunity, but I still wasn't sure that I did. (Even while another part of me recognized that it was probably inevitable.) When my SAT scores had come back last spring, Xavier had looked them over and told me -- with a little smile -- that between my totals and my ability to write, not to mention my orphan status (and his money), I could attend any college in the country that I wished. I'd shrugged and gone for a long walk, and when I'd come back, I'd announced I was going to Omaha for the summer. A week later, I'd been on the road. Xavier had questioned none of it, giving me as much -- or as little -- help as I'd requested. Mostly as little. He knew that however far I flew, I'd come back to Westchester to roost. Just as I knew I was flying with a safety net this time. Funny, how that knowledge made me stronger, not weaker. Being alone in the world is a crushing thing, and not to be confused with simple solitude.
Now, to Warren, I said, "I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. Don't ride me about it."
The line of his mouth pressed down thin and angry, but he said nothing more, and the rest of the meal was threaded with uncomfortable tension. I resented and regretted it at once. Until tonight, his visit had gone well, yet it seemed as if every time we saw each other, he had to bring up college eventually.
By the time we'd left the restaurant, we'd managed to return to less awkward interaction, but the matter still lay between us, the rock in the lake that sent out ripples. At least he'd saved tossing it until the end of his trip, instead of at the beginning. But it was still a rock.
The following Saturday, a couple of suitcases, a box of books, a bag of pistachios, and I headed west out of Omaha and then north. If I'd ever traveled this route before, I didn't remember it. I stopped for a few days in Puget Sound to see the orcas, taking a boat trip out to the islands. It wasn't peak season, and it was drizzly, but I didn't care. This wasn't SeaWorld. The whales were free, their dorsal fins straight up as they raced off the port bow, splitting the gray water and watching us watch them.
I got lucky and a pair of young adult males swam up quite closely on my side of the boat, breaching. Eight thousand pounds of whale arcing out of the water and slamming back is unbelievably impressive when he's less than thirty feet away. He soaked me, and all I could do afterward was stand in dripping clothes and laugh. They were the most beautiful, powerful things I'd ever seen.
The very next day, I was back on the road. The Alaskan Highway has some fantastic scenery with high mountains and green meadows, and the seven-mile expanse of Muncho Lake. But other parts are just as boring as Western Nebraska, and driving from Seattle to Anchorage covered almost as many miles as driving from LA to New York. It took me five days, and I arrived on the second-year anniversary of my arrival at Xavier's. I thought that portentous.
There was snow on the peaks of the Chugach Mountains southeast of the city by the time I reached Anchorage, and I booked a room in an Econo Lodge on the north side of town near the rail yard and air force base. I couldn't afford the nice hotels even if Xavier could, and this was my trip. Once I'd checked in, I sat on the double bed with its garish maroon spread and stared at myself in the mirror, wondering what to do next. Unlike Omaha, I had no real memories of this place, and aside from idle curiosity about the city in which I'd been born, I'd come here primarily to visit my parents' graves -- morbid as that sounds. Yet I had no idea where to start looking. All I knew was that their bodies had been flown back to Anchorage to be buried beside my father's parents. Who'd actually seen to the internment, I couldn't say, nor did I know why they'd wanted to be buried here.
My grandfather had been a World War II vet who'd settled in Anchorage during the boom years following the war. He'd bought a little floatplane freight company on Lake Hood near the airport, and my father had learned to fly when he was younger than I am now. That's not as extraordinary as it sounds. There are six times as many pilots in Alaska as anywhere else in the United States, because there are so many fewer roads. But, apparently, he and my grandfather hadn't seen eye to eye on much that didn't have wings (and even on some things that did), and the air force had been happy to recruit him at eighteen. I think it purest irony I was born at Elmendorf, since he'd traveled as far away as Vietnam in between. He'd never made much effort to stay in contact with his family, as far as I knew.
Now, on impulse, I picked up the Anchorage phone book and flipped through it, found fifteen Summers listed but none with names I knew -- not that I'd expected to recognize anyone, much less intended to call random strangers just in case they were related to me. Next, I checked out cemeteries, but there were so many, I couldn't guess where to start, so, at a loss, I looked for Catholic churches. There were several, but some I could eliminate, such as the Korean parish. That left a reasonable number, and it was still afternoon, so I picked up the phone and dialed the parish office of what looked like the biggest in the diocese. A pleasant female voice answered, "Holy Family Cathedral. How may I help you?" I opened my mouth to reply . . . but nothing came out. What was I supposed to say? "Hello?" the woman asked. "Is anyone there?"
"Um . . . this is probably going to sound crazy, but I'm trying to find out if a family used to go to church there. Do you, like, have records?" Only after I asked did I realize how silly the question sounded and I put a hand over my face. Of course they had records. "Um -- I want to know if a Summers family used to be members there. Chris and Kate Summers. They had a son named Scott. Michael Scott."
There was a pause, then she asked, "Do you know what years they might have attended? And can I inquire as to who's asking, and why?"
"I'm their son. I would have been baptized there in late '77. I don't remember when we left. The next summer maybe? Or the year after that?"
"Ah," she said. Another brief pause and I could hear the clack-clack of fingers on a computer keyboard, then she asked, "Do you have a number where someone could call you back?"
"Yeah." And I read off the number for the motel and my room, and she hung up.
Nervous, I fixed a pipe to calm down and thought about where to go for supper while I waited. And waited. I wasn't sure what was taking so long. Didn't churches have computerized records these days? Almost two hours later, the phone rang, but this time, it was a male voice. "I'm Father Ackerson from Holy Cross."
I blinked in surprise; it was an entirely different parish. No wonder it had taken a while. The secretary at Holy Family must have called the diocese's main office, looking for our membership records, and I was surprised she'd gone to the trouble. "I understand you're looking for information about the Summers family?" the priest asked.
"Yeah, I am the Summers family." What was left of it. "Scott Summers." I took a breath, then just blurted, "I'm trying to find out where my parents are buried. They died when I was eight and they were buried up here, next to my grandparents. But I don't know where. I was hoping somebody at their church could help me."
Three beats of silence followed that and I could just imagine the guy's expression. Mine was probably the weirdest request he'd had all month . . . maybe all year. "You're at the Econo Lodge?" he asked.
"How long have you been in town?"
"I just got here. I live in New York -- City. I drove up here to find my parents' graves."
"You drove to Anchorage from New York?" The voice was just short of astonished.
"Well, sort of. I spent the summer working in Omaha, Nebraska. Then I, uh, drove north."
There was an even longer pause. "How old are you, Scott? Do your stepparents know where you are?"
"I'm seventeen, almost eighteen. And yes, my guardian knows where I am." I gripped the earpiece more tightly, then asked, "Did you know my parents? Did they go to church there?"
"They attended Holy Cross some years back, but I'm afraid I was appointed after they left. There are people in the church who would've known them, though, including both the vicar and the priest who was here before me. He retired in town and lives at the rectory. Would you like to meet him?"
Suddenly unsure, I ran a hand through my hair. I'd come up here to find my parents' graves, yet presented with the concrete possibility of talking to someone who'd known them when they were alive, I shied away. "I don't know," I said. "I mean . . . Hell, I don't know." I must have sounded like an indecisive idiot.
But I forgot I was talking to someone used to dealing with uncertain people. "I tell you what," the priest said, "how about if we meet somewhere and visit? If you just arrived in Anchorage, the least I could do is give you some sight-seeing advice."
That was less threatening, so I agreed. "You like pizza?" he asked, and twenty minutes later, we were walking into Jamico's, a local pizzeria in Mountain View, after he'd picked me up from the motel. It was probably foolish for me to have gotten into a stranger's car in a city where I knew no one, but considering where else I'd been in my life, letting a priest take me to supper was the least of it. He was a square-built man in his late thirties with thinning hair and dark eyes, dressed in the collar of his profession and blue jeans. When he'd first seen me in the motel lobby, he'd held out a hand. "I'm Father Ackerson, but everyone around here just calls me Father Keith."
In retrospect, I realize that he'd feared I was a runaway -- which I found amusing, considering -- but he turned out to be a genuinely nice guy and reminded me of my caseworker, Carol, the kind of person who cares about others for no better reason than because it's the right thing to do. He was shrewd, too, and with a few well-placed questions over dinner, elicited more about my past than I'd meant to tell. And what I didn't tell, I suspected he could guess.
At the end of the meal, he shook his head, smiling a little, dark eyes crinkled. He had a friendly face. "Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. If you'll come by the rectory tomorrow, I'm sure Father Oberlin would love to meet you -- but that's up to you. He's the one who baptized you. And the one who buried your parents."
"They had a funeral then?"
"Yes, they had a funeral." He tipped his head. "There's someone else you might like to meet while you're here. Did you know your grandmother is still alive, Scott? Your father's mother?"
I think I'd have been less surprised if he'd announced the Second Coming of Christ. My mouth opened and shut, opened and shut like a mute fish. Then I leapt to my feet. "Where? I mean, how? I mean -- Shit!" Realizing what I'd just said, I slapped a hand over my mouth.
Father Keith waved a hand. "It's okay." Then he tapped the table in front of me and I sat back down. "I can't say for sure why your grandmother wasn't given custody of you and your brother, but I have a few ideas. Father Oberlin is probably in a better position to say. As for 'where' -- she lives in a nursing home here in town. She's not in particularly good health."
"Do you . . . do you visit her?"
"Father Oberlin does, every month. He's retired, but he continues to do visitation for the parish. I have met her, though."
He waited while I chewed over this news. Finally, I asked, "What's wrong with her?"
"She has advanced diabetes." A pause, then he added, "And she's a recovering alcoholic."
"Oh." And that probably explained right there why Alex and I hadn't been placed in her custody. So many things were dancing around in my head that I wasn't sure what I wanted to say first, but a question popped out: "Do you think she wants to see me?"
"I don't know. Do you want to see her?"
"I . . . " The answer seemed obvious -- except it wasn't -- and how he'd known that, I had no idea. He wasn't the professor to read my mind.
And had Xavier known all this? Had he kept the knowledge that my grandmother was still living from me?
"I mean, yeah, of course I want to meet her," I said now. "She's the only family I've got, but -- I don't know."
"It's scary," the priest said -- a statement, not a question, which made it easier for me to nod in agreement. We talked a little more and I said I'd drive out to the church the next day. He drew a map to it on a napkin for me -- it was near a big mall -- then took me back to my motel. "Get some sleep," he advised. But as soon as I got inside my room, I called Westchester.
"My grandmother's alive," I said without preamble when the professor answered.
"Your grandmother?" And the genuine surprise in Xavier's voice told me that he hadn't known. "Scott, that's . . . wonderful news." Except his tone said he wasn't sure it was, and I wondered how this must feel to him? For that matter, I wasn't sure how it felt to me, and realized that I'd called him in the hopes he could help me figure it out as much as I'd called to discover if he'd known all along.
"I don't know if I want to see her," I said.
He didn't reply immediately, then asked, "Why not?" And, "If you haven't seen her already, how do you know she's alive?"
So I told him about calling the church and meeting the priest, ending with, "I'm, well, kinda wondering now if maybe I shouldn't, like, get her address and write to her first -- see how she answers."
"That's a possibility," Xavier said, neutrally.
"Do you think I should see her? If she's in a nursing home, and was an alcoholic, she's not going to be the kind of grandma who bakes you cookies, y'know?" Then again, I wasn't the kind of grandson such a grandmother would bake cookies for, so perhaps we suited each other.
"Why don't you visit the priest tomorrow, Scott, and find out what he has to say? But don't let him pressure you into something you don't feel ready to do. After all, you don't have to make a decision this trip. You can go back later."
True enough, though Father Keith had said her health wasn't good. I didn't repeat that. There was something subtle in Xavier's tone that worried me and I focused on it instead. "This won't make any difference," I told him. "I owe you everything, sir. I'm coming back to New York. You don't have to worry about that."
A startled pause greeted my words. "Now who is the psychic one?" But his tone was amused, then he said, more seriously, "And thank you. Call me tomorrow, son."
The size of a thing isn't always immediately obvious when first glimpsed. It can lie partly submerged and obscured under the surface. Then suddenly, like a whale breaching, it rises up and up, and you think it's never going to stop. The next two weeks were like that.
I arrived at the parish by mid-morning the next day, and Father Keith had a thin manila folder ready for me. Inside was a copy of my parents' funeral service bulletin. I was surprised the church had kept one. There was also a photocopy of my baptismal record. "If you should ever need it for anything," the priest said. Along with both these was the address for the Catholic cemetery where my parents were buried and even the plot numbers, plus a little map of how to get there. Father Keith seemed to like drawing maps. There was also an address for my grandmother's nursing home. "We weren't sure if you'd prefer to go alone, or if you'd like company," he said.
And I wasn't sure myself. My grandmother wasn't something I'd expected, and I'd given no real thought to it before last night. "I think," I began, "I think maybe someone who knows her already should go with me, to talk to her first. You know, um, it's not everyday your grandson shows up out of the blue with no warning."
Father Keith smiled. "I think we can manage that. Would you like to meet Father Oberlin now?"
So I met Father Oberlin, a wizened little man who nonetheless seemed like a tough nut. It turned out that he hadn't known my parents well -- Dad had been at Elmendorf only fifteen months -- but he'd known my grandparents a bit better, so we talked about their floatplane business, and my father as a boy. It seemed I wasn't the only one who'd had a wild adolescence, though the old guy did his best to avoid saying anything too incriminating. Nonetheless, he said enough for me to know there was a lot he wasn't saying, and my curiosity kicked in. But I didn't ask questions. He wasn't the one I wanted to ask questions of.
He and I left after lunch -- they fed me BLT sandwiches in their rectory kitchen -- to drive to the nursing home. It was on the edge of town in the opposite direction, out near the airport. Father Oberlin led and I followed in my own car, my whole body flashing hot and cold by turns and once or twice, my sight tunneled. I had to force myself not to take a sharp right at a traffic light and run away. Anxiety was near-equal to excitement and my belly roiled with the conflicting emotions. What if she didn't want to see me?
At the nursing home, I asked him to visit first, to tell her I was there. Nodding, he laid a hand on my head in an antiquated gesture of benediction that nonetheless felt surprisingly comforting. "Find a seat somewhere, son, and I'll come back to get you."
There wasn't a formal waiting room, but there was a common area where several of the residents were watching TV, playing cards or otherwise passing time. This nursing home fell into the 'institutional' category more than the high-priced 'assisted living' category, so amenities and decor were simple and cheap. I couldn't tell the colors. One of the card-players asked who I'd come to see, but when I said, "Deborah Summers," he just shook his head. I didn't know if that meant he didn't know her, or that he did and wished he didn't, and I wasn't inclined to ask.
I watched television, a rerun of Gunsmoke, until the priest returned. It had taken a good half hour, and anxiously, I stood up to approach, rubbing my palms down the sides of my pants; I'd put on nice khakis that morning, and a light sweater, instead of jeans. His expression seemed wry. "I'm not sure which of you is more nervous about the other," he said, which helped. "But she does want to see you." And a weight lifted off my chest, even while a different kind of weight settled on it.
My grandmother's room was near the end of a long hallway, little better than a hospital bed surrounded by hints of permanence and individuality. Her bedside table and the small dresser both had nicknacks on it, and a red-and-black (colors I could see) quilt lay on the bed, some native design pieced into it. There was a crucifix hanging above her pillow, and a picture of (I assumed) my grandfather beside a plane on the far wall, but other decor was generic and cheap, as were the drapes, and the whole place stank of disinfectant over chronic illness and imperfect hygiene. The room was a double, the bed beside hers occupied by another resident who appeared to be delirious. One of my sharpest memories of my first conversation with my grandmother was the occasional, punctuating grunts or moans from the other bed. Damn disconcerting.
Physically, she was a wreck, bedridden with one of her lower legs amputated -- the result of the diabetes, apparently. But the moment I saw her, I could tell that whatever the mental state of her roommate, she didn't share it. She was very much there, and I stopped in the doorway to stare while she stared back, dark eyes measuring. Yet what startled me more than her physical state (which I'd partly expected), was what she was -- an Alaskan native. I must have known that at some point, as my surprise felt dulled at the edges, more a reminder than a shock, but it was still a surprise. "Hi," I said, feeling stupid, but I had no idea what else to say. The priest occupied a corner, patient, watching, offering his presence as ballast, but ready to depart once it was clear he wasn't needed.
She didn't return my greeting, though she did stretch out her hand to me and the piercing clarity of her eyes grew obscured by a wet shimmer. She was a stranger, but she wasn't, and the eagle-sharp features of her face reminded me of my father. I approached the bed to take her hand with its hard palm and knuckles distorted by arthritis. "Sit," she said. I did so. Then she said, "No, stand up. I want to look at you." So I did that. She didn't let go of my hand, but clung with enough strength to bruise my fingers. Her voice was raspy, as if she didn't speak much, or it had been ruined by cigarettes and alcohol, or both.
Then she asked me a shocking thing. "Where's your brother?"
And I could only stand there and blink. My brother? Maybe she wasn't as mentally together as I'd thought. "I don't know what happened to Alex, Grandma."
Her mouth dropped open a little, and she let go of my hand, struggling to sit up in the bed. "But they told me you were adopted. They told me you'd both been placed."
"We were, but not together." I sat down in the chair again and bent over to rest my elbows on my knees, hands folded beneath my chin, and we both took to staring at each other again, mute in the face of so much to say. The woman in the other bed muttered incomprehensible, disjointed phrases under her breath.
"Take those glasses off," my grandmother ordered finally. "I want to see your eyes."
Taking a breath, I glanced behind me but the priest was already gone. "I don't guess he told you, but I'm a mutant. Have you heard about them?"
Apparently not. So I tried to explain. She listened, but seemed more concerned by the fact that the glasses never came off than by the fact I could blow her to kingdom come if they ever should. Funny, the things that bother people. "Tell me what happened nine summers ago," I said finally.
She took my hand again. "This is how I heard it," she began. "I got a phone call in late June from the base, asking if I could come down there, there'd been an accident." She looked away, and didn't continue for a moment. "Your grandfather, he'd died two years before and I wasn't in the best health -- had sold the business and didn't have much money, couldn't even get somebody to fly me there and that's a mighty fine irony." She kept her head turned away. "I tried to hitch, but got no further than Dawson Creek and had to come back." I wasn't sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry at the image of an old woman trying to hitchhike from Alaska to Nebraska. "By then, the Nebraska child protective services had called to say they thought the two of you would be better off in these placements they'd found." There was bitterness in that, and anger. "I thought you'd been adopted together." She looked back at me. "How could they split you up and tell me that was better?"
I thought about the probable reasons she'd been passed over, and wondered whether I would have been better off here, living with an alcoholic, diabetic grandmother, but still my family? "Alex was adopted," I told her. "That's really all I know. I was in a coma for months. By the time I woke up, he'd been adopted. Records are sealed. I have no idea where he is now."
"What about you?"
"I had brain damage," I said, as if that explained everything. "I did the foster home thing." But I didn't want to talk about me. "You were the one who saw them buried? My parents?" She nodded. "Can you tell me what happened to the plane? Does anyone even know? I was too young. No one ever explained it to me."
She sighed. "Flying in mountains is tricky business -- full of updrafts. You hit one wrong, it'll spin a small plane out of control even with an experienced pilot like Chris. It's amazing Kate got you two boys out in time." She looked at me. "The plane was found, or parts of it, but not the bodies. I marked where it happened on a map. I'll give it to you, in case you want to go there. I always meant to, but never managed."
Her revelation hit like a dull blow. How ironic. I'd come all this way to visit a pair of graves that, as fate would have it, were empty. The real graves lay in a Rocky Mountain valley of Colorado, probably not more than a long day's drive from the city in which I'd spent my entire summer.
"What happened to you, after the accident?" she asked, and I gave her a much-censored version. She wasn't buying it; I could tell that within the first few minutes. When I was done, she reached out again to take my hand. "Maybe someday you'll tell me the rest, eh? But you survived." It was an unexpected echo of Jean's own words to me almost a year ago.
"Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger?"
"If you let it." And looking at her lined face, a bit fragile around the eyes with the brown skin of cheeks and nose rosy from broken capillaries (a tell-tale sign of too close and too long a tango with alcohol), I thought that maybe she ought to know. She'd lost a husband, her health, her son, her grandsons, and a leg, but never her senses. I'd lost parents, a brother, my innocence and my way, then I'd found it again. Maybe we'd be good for each other. I grinned at her and she smiled back. I'd inherited her smile, I noticed.
"So what was my dad like, as a kid? Father Oberlin didn't say much, but I could tell there was plenty he wasn't saying."
That made her laugh. "Chris was a regular little hellion, contrary as a blizzard . . ." And in this question-and-answer fashion, we talked for the rest of that afternoon, and the one after, and the one after that. I took her out of the nursing home several times, the first she'd been able to leave in years, and she showed me the city. She liked my car, and to my shock, I discovered she knew a thing or three about engines -- plane engines, car engines, it didn't matter. My grandfather had been chief pilot for their floatplane business, but my grandmother had been chief mechanic; she'd learned from her own brothers, and however peculiar such an arrangement was, especially for their generation, the Alaskan frontier had many peculiar personalities, people who didn't fit well into the mainstream of American life. An ex-WWII-fighter pilot and his grease-monkey girlfriend hadn't been the most unusual, even in 1947. So she asked me a lot of questions about how I'd rebuilt the Corvette, and I took her out on a back road where I dropped the pedal, making her squeal like a schoolgirl as the speedometer passed a hundred and twenty miles an hour. She just shouted for me to go faster. My father, I thought, had come by his wild and contrary nature honestly. My own was more like my mother's -- sober and responsible to a fault. I was the one who returned the car to a normal speed after a couple of miles, worried about getting caught by the cops. "What's the use," she told me, "in having a car like this if you don't enjoy it?" But I'd had to take care of myself for so long, so young, that I found it hard to risk. We were an inverse of the usual family equations. She might have been seventy-three years old and confined to a wheelchair, but there was a spirit in her like a hawk -- hooded and jessed by circumstance, but still wild. "You can't tame a wolf, a whale, or an Indian," she told me.
We visited my parent's graves together, and she wept, but it didn't hurt like I'd expected, maybe because I knew their bones weren't really there. I got down on my hands and knees and cleaned away the overgrown grass from the gravestone edges while she watched from her chair. Mary Katherine Summers and Major Christopher Scott Summers. There was a picture of the Madonna on her side and the air force symbol on his. I cleaned off my grandfather's grave as well, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Scott Summers. I hadn't realized my name had belonged to them both.
We put some flowers on the graves, and she scattered tobacco while she sang something I couldn't understand. Her English was easy and colloquial with little or no accent, but every once in a while, she'd lapse into her native tongue, which I'd discovered was Tlingit. And if a crucifix hung above her bed and a statue of the Blessed Virgin stood on her dresser, there were also native wood carvings and other small signs of her heritage scattered about her room. She didn't discuss it much, but she hadn't abandoned it, either. My father had been a different story; I hadn't even known what tribe he was -- a fact that seemed to sadden, but not surprise her. "He hated being Tlingit," she said. "The white boys made fun of him for his native face, and the brown boys were worse for his pale skin. It was bad back then. He learned to throw a solid punch."
That, I thought, might have explained a lot.
The blood ran thin in me. Not only did I have my mother's temperament, but I looked more like her, as well, pretty in the same porcelain-doll way (however damning for a boy), with an Irish nose and a touch of auburn in my hair, eyes that had been bright blue once and pale skin, though with a bronzy-yellow tinge that I'd never understood until now. I didn't look Indian, not really, but the hints were there in the shape of my mouth and chin, and in cheekbones that jutted sharp across a broad face. Some of my ancestors had fled from the potato blight in Ireland, some from political turmoil in Germany, but some had sailed the Pacific in small cedar canoes, hunting whales. How ironic, that I'd gone whale hunting myself (after a fashion) on my way up here. My grandmother found that portentous, and tapped me on the chest. "Your heart knows who you are. Don't be afraid to listen to it, Scott. The whales called to you." I resisted rolling my eyes.
So I dallied in Anchorage through the end of September, getting to know my grandmother. The more I discovered, though, and the more she talked, the more I began to understand what wasn't said. Her initial explanation of why she'd not been given custody of Alex and me had been only partial. Apparently, my parents' wills had specified that she shouldn't be, and alcoholism was only part of it. I suspected that, if I'd been sent to live with her all those years ago, I'd have wound up raising myself anyway, and watching out for her and Alex, too.
I kept in contact with Xavier regularly, calling every few evenings. I knew this wasn't easy for him. He feared losing me to a rediscovered family, and the psychologist in him warred with the man, wanting me to know them, but understanding that I'd lost some of my dependance on him. "She may be my grandmother," I told him at one point, to reassure, "but sometimes I feel more like her parent. She can tell me all this stuff about my dad's family, and about my mother's, too, for that matter, but, well, honestly, sir, I think she's a bit of a flake. Am I allowed to say that?"
Chuckling, he responded, "Yes, Scott, you're allowed to say that."
We made a few arrangements for her care. I couldn't stand seeing her in that cheap nursing home, sharing a room with a delirious woman. I was embarrassed to ask Xavier for help, but he offered, and I wasn't too proud to accept for my grandmother's sake. I even considered taking her back to New York with me, but met with unusual resistance. "This is my home. This is where I grew up. I don't want to move to New York. I don't know New York." So we moved her into a Catholic nursing home instead, a nicer place, closer to the parish. She had her own room, and it was possible for her to attend occasional functions, picked up by the church bus. That settled, I felt better about leaving, and made arrangements of my own to head back east around the first of October. My home wasn't here any more than hers was there.
On the Saturday before I was to depart, she asked me to take her down the coast to the Tlingit reservation north of Juneau, where she'd been born. She said she needed to go back to visit her family just once more, but it was a long drive -- Alaska was a huge state -- and I wasn't sure what they'd think of me anyway. My grandmother was a member of the Dakl'aweidi clan of the Eagle band -- the clan of the Killer Whale. "I told you the whales called you to me," she said, grinning. "Nothing happens by chance." And if the cynical, hyper-rational part of my mind was inclined to disregard that, another part wanted to believe, wanted to belong. Trouble was, clan descent passed through the mother. So my father had belonged to the clan, but I didn't. The most she could give me were use-rights to the totem.
Yet I agreed to take her, and discovered that she had no intention of driving. "We're boat people, Scott." Well, boat people or not, it was a bit late in the year for impromptu canoe trips; we took the ferry from Seward down the Inside Passage to Alaska's southeast region and I spent most of the trip at the rail, gaping at the scenery and enjoying the water. I couldn't get enough of the sea, and maybe there was something to her mumbo-jumbo about my heart knowing who I was. Her youngest brother picked us up at Juneau's port and took us back to his small house north of the city. We arrived in late afternoon before dinner, the sun still well up. It wouldn't set until after seven; this was Alaska. The street and front yard looked like a parking lot, and despite the chill in the air, the back was full of tables covered by cheap plastic tablecloths, paper plates, pots of food, and people gathered in clumps while children dashed to and fro, shouting. "What the hell is going on?" I asked. My grandmother had an impish grin on her face.
"It's time to meet your family," she told me.
She'd been the middle child of nine, seven boys and two girls, in a family who'd taken the French name LaRue along with French Catholicism. All had married and had children (my grandmother alone producing fewer than four), and all those children had had children, who'd had children. Thus, I found myself facing a veritable army of relatives. There must have been over a hundred people there of varying ages, sizes, skin tone, hair color, and clans, but all related to me by blood or marriage. They greeted their seldom-seen sister with enthusiasm -- she was the reason for this gathering -- but when she said, "This is my grandson, Scott," they included me as well with little fanfare, filling my plate and ushering me to a place of my own at the tables. A place of my own.
It wasn't how much one had, but how much one gave that mattered. Giving made us rich, and with all that I'd received in the last two years, I understood at last that the best return I could ever make was to serve others with the same generosity -- not because I owed them, but because I didn't. Mercy didn't keep tabs, and it never sang a capella.
Notes: Security measures, obviously, reflect pre-9/11 days. There is a Holy Cross parish in Anchorage, but neither Father Ackerson nor Father Oberlin are the priests. Thanks to sterling for some city detail corrections; all errors are my own. The bit about planes in the Rockies is true; I lost a cousin, a very experienced pilot, to that very same phenomenon, and his body was never found either.
Summers Family Details: In the comics, both Scott's paternal grandparents turned out to still be living. I've modified this to suit myself and tried to produce a reason more believable than Mr. Sinister for why he wound up in foster care. A big nod to Lelia Burke, et al., for background information on both Chris and Phil Summers. Almost nothing is known of either Scott's mother's family, or his paternal grandmother's, but because in at least one place, his mother is called 'Mary Kate' (not just 'Kate'), and that's such an Irish name, I conjectured she's at least partly Irish. Deb Summers is simply a blank who one could fill in however one wished.
As I've said before, the Indian blood in Scott's family is not my invention; I simply like to play it up for obvious reasons -- write what you know -- and Marsden's face makes it easy. In any case, no tribe was ever specified, or even what side of Chris' family it came from, perhaps both. Paul Smith always drew Chris looking very Indian (imo). There may be Cheyenne on Phil Summers' side (an ancestor knew Black Kettle). As for Deb Summers ... humor me. A number of single, pioneering men who arrived in Alaska, post-WWII hooked up with Alaskan natives, just as French fur trappers had done 300 years before in the US and Canadian east. But the children of those unions were displaced, welcome in neither world and often resenting by both, an attitude unconsciously bolstered by their mothers' mixed memories of res life. Shame is a terrible thing.
Story XIII is "Green Eggs and Ham"
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Title: A capella (Special 12)
Series Name: SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 69k | 10/15/04
Characters: Scott, Warren, Deb Summers
Summary: A roadtrip of unaccompanied discovery.
Notes: Series is ADULT, some frank autoerotic description.
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