The goldfinch, p.8
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       The Goldfinch, p.8
 

          

  production the other day in the Science Times of pointing out that there are more potential games of chess than there are grains of sand in the entire world. It’s ridiculous that a science writer for a major newspaper would feel compelled to belabor a fact so obvious.”

  “Right,” I said, returning with effort from my thoughts.

  “Like who doesn’t know that grains of sand on the planet, however numerous, are finite? It’s absurd that someone would even comment on such a non-issue, you know, like, Breaking News Story! Just throwing it out there, you know, as a supposedly arcane fact.”

  Andy and I, in elementary school, had become friends under more or less traumatic circumstances: after we’d been skipped ahead a grade because of high test scores. Everyone now appeared to agree that this had been a mistake for both of us, though for different reasons. That year—bumbling around among boys all older and bigger than us, boys who tripped us and shoved us and slammed locker doors on our hands, who tore up our homework and spat in our milk, who called us maggot and faggot and dickhead (sadly, a natural for me, with a last name like Decker)—during that whole year (our Babylonian Captivity, Andy called it, in his faint glum voice) we’d struggled along side by side like a pair of weakling ants under a magnifying glass: shin-kicked, sucker-punched, ostracized, eating lunch huddled in the most out-of-the-way corner we could find in order to keep from getting ketchup packets and chicken nuggets thrown at us. For almost two years he had been my only friend, and vice versa. It depressed and embarrassed me to remember that time: our Autobot wars and Lego spaceships, the secret identities we’d assumed from classic Star Trek (I was Kirk, he was Spock) in an effort to make a game of our torments. Captain, it would appear that these aliens are holding us captive in some simulacrum of your schools for human children, on Earth.

  Before I’d been tossed in with a tight, competitive bunch of older boys, with a label reading “gifted” tied around my neck, I’d never been especially reviled or humiliated at school. But poor Andy—even before he was skipped ahead a grade—had always been a chronically picked-upon kid: scrawny, twitchy, lactose-intolerant, with skin so pale it was almost transparent, and a penchant for throwing out words like ‘noxious’ and ‘chthonic’ in casual conversation. As bright as he was, he was clumsy; his flat voice, his habit of breathing through his mouth due to a chronically blocked nose, gave him the appearance of being mildly stupid instead of excessively smart. Among the rest of his kittenish, sharp-toothed, athletic siblings—racing around between their friends and their sports teams and their rewarding after-school programs—he stood out like a random pastehead who had wandered out onto the lacrosse field by mistake.

  Whereas I’d managed to recover, somewhat, from the catastrophe of fifth grade, Andy had not. He stayed home on Friday and Saturday nights; he never got invited to parties or to hang out in the park. As far as I knew, I was still his only friend. And though thanks to his mother he had all the right clothes, and dressed like the popular kids—even wore contact lenses some of the time—no one was fooled: hostile jock types who remembered him from the bad old days still pushed him around and called him “Threepio” for his long-ago mistake of wearing a Star Wars shirt to school.

  Andy had never been overly talkative, even in childhood, except in occasional pressured bursts (much of our friendship had consisted of wordlessly passing comic books back and forth). Years of harassment at school had rendered him even more close-tongued and uncommunicative—less apt to employ Lovecraftian vocabulary words, more prone to entomb himself in advanced-placement math and science. Math had never interested me much—I was what they called a high verbal—but while I’d fallen short of my early academic promise, in every area, and had no interest in good grades if I had to work for them, Andy was in AP everything and at the very top of our class. (Certainly he would have been sent off to Groton like Platt—a prospect that had terrified him, as far back as third grade—had not his parents worried with some justification about sending away to school a son so persecuted by his classmates that he had once been nearly suffocated at recess by a plastic bag thrown over his head. And there were other worries as well; the reason I knew about Mr. Barbour’s time in the “ding farm” was that Andy had told me, in his matter-of-fact way, that his parents were afraid he might have inherited something of the same vulnerability, as he put it.)

  During his time home from school with me, Andy apologized for having to study, “but unfortunately it’s necessary,” he said, sniffling and wiping his nose on his sleeve. His course load was incredibly demanding (“AP Hell on wheels”) and he couldn’t afford to fall even a day behind. While he labored over what seemed endless amounts of schoolwork (Chem and Calculus, American History, English, Astronomy, Japanese) I sat on the floor with my back against the side of his dresser, counting silently to myself: this time only three days ago she was alive, this time four days, a week. In my mind, I went over all the meals we’d eaten in the days leading up to her death: our last visit to the Greek diner, our last visit to Shun Lee Palace, the last dinner she’d cooked for me (spaghetti carbonara) and the last dinner before that (a dish called chicken Indienne, which she’d learned to make from her mother back in Kansas). Sometimes, to look occupied, I turned through old volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist or an illustrated H. G. Wells he had in his room, but even the pictures were more than I could absorb. Mostly I stared out at the pigeons flapping on the window ledge as Andy filled out endless grids in his hiragana workbook, his knee bouncing under the desk as he worked.

  Andy’s room—originally one large bedroom that the Barbours had divided in half—faced Park Avenue. Horns cried in the crosswalk at rush hour and the light burned gold in the windows across the street, dying down around the same time as the traffic began to thin. As the night wore on (phosphorescent in the streetlamps, violet city midnights that never quite faded to black) I turned from side to side, the low ceiling over the bunk pressing down on me so heavily that sometimes I woke convinced I was lying underneath the bed instead of on top of it.

  How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater. Lying awake, I tried to recall all my best memories of her—to freeze her in my mind so I wouldn’t forget her—but instead of birthdays and happy times I kept remembering things like how a few days before she was killed she’d stopped me halfway out the door to pick a thread off my school jacket. For some reason, it was one of the clearest memories I had of her: her knitted eyebrows, the precise gesture of her reaching out to me, everything. Several times too—drifting uneasily between dreaming and sleep—I sat up suddenly in bed at the sound of her voice speaking clearly in my head, remarks she might conceivably have made at some point but that I didn’t actually remember, things like Throw me an apple, would you? and I wonder if this buttons up the front or the back? and This sofa is in a terrible state of disreputableness.

  Light from the street flew in black bands across the floor. Hopelessly, I thought of my bedroom standing empty only a few blocks away: my own narrow bed with the worn red quilt. Glow-in-the-dark stars from the planetarium, a picture postcard of James Whale’s Frankenstein. The birds were back in the park again, the daffodils were up; this time of year, when the weather got nice, sometimes we woke up extra early in the mornings and walked through the park together instead of taking the bus to the West Side. If only I could go back and change what had happened, keep it from happening somehow. Why hadn’t I insisted we get breakfast instead of going to the museum? Why hadn’t Mr. Beeman asked us to come in on Tuesday, or Thursday?

  Either the second night after my mother died or the third—some time at any rate after Mrs. Barbour took me to the doctor to get my headache seen to—the Barbours were throwing a big party at the apartment that it was too late for them to cancel. There was whispering, a flurry of activity that I could scarcely take in. “I think,” said Mrs. Barbour when she came back to Andy’s room, “you and T
heo might enjoy staying back here.” Despite her light tone, clearly it was not a suggestion but an order. “It’ll be such a bore, and I really don’t think you’ll enjoy yourselves at all. I’ll ask Etta to bring you a couple of plates from the kitchen.”

  Andy and I sat side by side on the lower bunk of his bed, eating cocktail shrimp and artichoke canapés from paper plates—or, rather, he ate, while I sat with the plate on my knees, untouched. He had on a DVD, some action movie with exploding robots, showers of metal and flame. From the living room: clinking glasses, smells of candle wax and perfume, every now and then a voice rising brilliantly in laughter. The pianist’s sparkling, up-tempo arrangement of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” seemed to be floating in from an alternate universe. Everything was lost, I had fallen off the map: the disorientation of being in the wrong apartment, with the wrong family, was wearing me down, so I felt groggy and punch-drunk, weepy almost, like an interrogated prisoner prevented from sleeping for days. Over and over, I kept thinking I’ve got to go home and then, for the millionth time, I can’t.

  iv.

  AFTER FOUR DAYS, OR maybe it was five, Andy loaded his books in his stretched-out backpack and returned to school. All that day, and the next, I sat in his room with his television turned to Turner Classic Movies, which was what my mother watched when she was home from work. They were showing movies adapted from Graham Greene: Ministry of Fear, The Human Factor, The Fallen Idol, This Gun for Hire. That second evening, while I was waiting for The Third Man to come on, Mrs. Barbour (all Valentino-ed up and on her way out the door to an event at the Frick) stopped by Andy’s room and announced that I was going back to school the next day. “Anybody would feel out of sorts,” she said. “Back here by yourself. It isn’t good for you.”

  I didn’t know what to say. Sitting around on my own watching movies was the only thing I’d done since my mother’s death that had felt even vaguely normal.

  “It’s high time for you to get back into some sort of a routine. Tomorrow. I know it doesn’t seem so, Theo,” she said when I didn’t answer, “but keeping busy is the only thing in the world that’ll make you feel better.”

  Resolutely I stared at the television. I hadn’t been at school since the day before my mother died and as long as I stayed away her death seemed unofficial somehow. But once I went back it would be a public fact. Worse: the thought of returning to any kind of normal routine seemed disloyal, wrong. It kept being a shock every time I remembered it, a fresh slap: she was gone. Every new event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.

  “Theo.”

  Startled, I looked up at her.

  “One foot after the other. There’s no other way to get through this.”

  The next day, they were having a World War II spy marathon (Cairo, The Hidden Enemy, Code Name: Emerald) that I really wanted to stay home and see. Instead, I dragged myself out of bed when Mr. Barbour stuck his head in to wake us (“Up and at ’em, hoplites!”) and walked to the bus stop with Andy. It was a rainy day, and cold enough that Mrs. Barbour had forced me into wearing an embarrassing old duffel coat of Platt’s over my clothes. Andy’s little sister, Kitsey, danced ahead of us in her pink raincoat, skipping through puddles and pretending she didn’t know us.

  I knew it was going to be horrible and it was, from the second I stepped into the bright hall and smelled the familiar old school smell: citrus disinfectant and something like old socks. Hand-lettered signs in the hallway: sign-up sheets for tennis lab and cooking classes, tryouts for The Odd Couple, field trip to Ellis Island and tickets still available for the Swing into Spring concert, hard to believe that the world had ended and yet somehow these ridiculous activities kept grinding on.

  The strange thing: the last day I’d been in the building, she was alive. I kept on thinking it, and every time it was new: last time I opened this locker, last time I touched this stupid fucking Insights in Biology book, last time I saw Lindy Maisel putting on lip gloss with that plastic wand. It seemed hardly credible that I couldn’t follow these moments back to a world where she wasn’t dead.

  “Sorry.” People I knew said it, and people who had never spoken to me in my life. Other people—laughing and talking in the hallways—fell silent when I walked by, throwing grave or quizzical looks my way. Others still ignored me completely, as playful dogs will ignore an ill or injured dog in their midst: by refusing to look at me, by romping and frolicking around me in the hallways as if I weren’t there.

  Tom Cable, in particular, avoided me as assiduously as if I were a girl he’d dumped. At lunch, he was nowhere to be found. In Spanish (he sauntered in well after class started, missing the awkward scene where everyone crowded somberly around my desk to say they were sorry) he didn’t sit by me as usual but up front, slouched down with his legs thrown out to the side. Rain drummed on the windowpanes as we translated our way through a series of bizarre sentences, sentences that would have done Salvador Dalí proud: about lobsters and beach umbrellas, and Marisol with the long eyelashes taking the lime-green taxi to school.

  After class, on the way out, I made a point of going up and saying hi as he was getting his books.

  “Oh, hey, how’s it going,” he said—distanced, leaning back with a smart-ass arch to the brow. “I heard an’ all.”

  “Yeah.” This was our routine: too cool for everyone else, always in on the same joke.

  “Tough luck. That really bites.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Hey—shoulda played sick. Told you! My mom blew up over all that shit too. Hit the fucking ceiling! Well, er,” he said, half-shrugging in the stunned moment that followed this, looking up, down, around, with a who, me? look, like he’d thrown a snowball with a rock in it.

  “Anyway. So,” he said in a moving-right-along voice. “What’s with the costume?”

  “What?”

  “Well”—ironic little back-step, eyeing the plaid duffel coat—“first place, definitely, in the Platt Barbour Look-Alike Contest.”

  And despite myself—it was a shock, after days of horror and numbness, an eruptive Tourette’s-like spasm—I laughed.

  “Excellent call, Cable,” I said, adopting Platt’s hateful drawl. We were good mimics, both of us, and often conducted entire conversations in other people’s voices: dumb newscasters, whiny girls, wheedling and fatuous teachers. “Tomorrow I’m coming dressed as you.”

  But Tom didn’t reply in kind or pick up the thread. He’d lost interest. “Errr—maybe not,” he said, with a half-shrug, a little smirk. “Later.”

  “Right, later.” I was annoyed—what the fuck was his problem? Yet it was part of our ongoing dark-comedy act, amusing only to us, to abuse and insult each other; and I was pretty sure he’d come find me after English or that he’d catch up with me on the way home, running up behind me and bopping me on the head with his algebra workbook. But he didn’t. The next morning before first period he didn’t even look at me when I said hi, and his blanked-out expression as he shouldered past stopped me cold. Lindy Maisel and Mandy Quaife turned at their lockers to stare at each other, giggling in a half-shocked way: oh my God! Next to me my lab partner, Sam Weingarten, was shaking his head. “What a dick,” he said, in a loud voice, so loud everybody in the hall turned. “You’re a real dick, Cable, you know that?”

  But I didn’t care—or, at least, I wasn’t hurt or depressed. Instead I was furious. My friendship with Tom had always had a wild, manic quality, something unhinged and hectic and a little perilous about it, and though all the same old high energy was still there, the current had reversed, voltage humming in the opposite direction so that now instead of horsing around with him in study hall I wanted to push his head in the urinal, yank his arm out of the socket, beat his face bloody on the sidewalk, make him eat dogshit and garbage off the curb. The more I thought about it, the more
enraged I grew, so mad sometimes that I walked back and forth in the bathroom muttering to myself. If Cable hadn’t fingered me to Mr. Beeman (“I know, now, Theo, those cigarettes weren’t yours”)… if Cable hadn’t got me suspended… if my mom hadn’t taken the day off… if we hadn’t been at the museum at exactly the wrong time… well, even Mr. Beeman had apologized for it, sort of. Because, sure, there were issues with my grades (and plenty of other stuff Mr. Beeman didn’t know about) but the inciting incident, the thing that had got me called in, the whole business with the cigarettes in the courtyard—whose fault was that? Cable’s. It wasn’t like I expected him to apologize. In fact it wasn’t like I would have said anything to him about it, ever. Only—now I was a pariah? Persona non grata? He wouldn’t even talk to me? I was smaller than Cable but not by a lot, and whenever he cracked wise in class, as he couldn’t prevent himself from doing, or ran past me in the hall with his new best friends Billy Wagner and Thad Randolph (the way we’d once raced around together, always in overdrive, that urge to danger and craziness)—all I could think was how much I wanted to beat the shit out of him, girls laughing as he cowered from me in tears: oooh, Tom! boo hoo hoo! are you crying? (Doing my best to provoke a fight, I cracked him in the nose accidentally on purpose by swinging the bathroom door in his face, and shoved him into the drinks dispenser so he dropped his disgusting cheese fries on the floor, but instead of jumping on me—as I longed for him to do—he only smirked and walked off without a word.)

  Not everyone avoided me, of course. Lots of people put notes and gifts in my locker (including Isabella Cushing and Martina Lichtblau, the most popular girls in my year) and my old enemy Win Temple from fifth grade surprised me by coming up and giving me a bear hug. But most people responded to me with a cautious, half-terrified politeness. It wasn’t as if I went around crying or even acting disturbed but still they’d stop in the middle of their conversations if I sat down with them at lunch.

  Grown-ups, on the other hand, paid me an uncomfortable amount of attention. I was advised to keep a journal, talk with my friends, make a “memory collage” (crackpot advice, as far as I was concerned; other kids were uneasy around me no matter how normally I acted, and the last thing I wanted was to call attention to myself by sharing my feelings with people or doing therapeutic crafts in the Arts room). I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time standing in empty classrooms and offices (staring at the floor, nodding my head senselessly) with concerned teachers who asked me to stay after class or pulled me aside to talk. My English teacher, Mr. Neuspeil, after sitting on the side of his desk and delivering a tense account of his own mother’s horrifying death at the hands of an incompetent surgeon, had patted me on the back and given me a blank notebook to write in; Mrs. Swanson, the school counselor, showed me a couple of breathing exercises and suggested that I might find it helpful to discharge my grief by going outside and throwing ice cubes against a tree; and even Mr. Borowsky (who taught math, and was considerably less bright-eyed than most of the other teachers) took me aside out in the hall and—talking very quietly, with his face about two inches away from mine—told me how guilty he’d felt after his brother had died in a car accident. (Guilt came up a lot in these talks. Did my teachers believe, as I did, that I was guilty of causing my mother’s death? Apparently so.) Mr. Borowsky had felt so guilty for letting his brother drive home drunk from the party that night that he’d even thought for a brief while about killing himself. Maybe I’d thought about suicide too. But suicide wasn’t the answer.

  I accepted all this counsel politely, with a glassy smile and a glaring sense of unreality. Many adults seemed to interpret this numbness as a positive sign; I remember particularly Mr. Beeman (an overly clipped Brit in a dumb tweed motoring cap, whom despite his solicitude I had come to hate, irrationally, as an agent of my mother’s death) complimenting me on my maturity and informing me that I seemed to be “coping awfully well.” And maybe I was coping awfully well, I don’t know. Certainly I wasn’t howling aloud or punching my fist through windows or doing any of the things I imagined people might do who felt as I did. But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.

  v.

  QUITE HONESTLY, MY DECKER grandparents were the last thing on my mind, which was just as well since Social Services was unable to run them down right away on the scanty information I had given them. Then Mrs. Barbour knocked at the door of Andy’s room and said, “Theo, may we speak for a moment, please?”

  Something in her manner spoke distinctly of bad news, though in my situation it was hard to imagine how things could possibly be worse. When we were seated in the living room—by a three foot tall arrangement of pussy willow and blossoming apple branches fresh from the florist—she crossed her legs and said: “I’ve had a call from the Social Services. They’ve contacted your grandparents. Unfortunately it seems that your grandmother is unwell.”

  For a moment I was confused. “Dorothy?”

  “If that’s what you call her, yes.”

  “Oh. She’s not really my grandmother.”

  “I see,” said Mrs. Barbour, as if she didn’t actually see and didn’t want to. “At any rate. It seems she’s not well—a back ailment, I believe—and your grandfather is looking after her. So the thing is, you see, I’m sure they’re very sorry, but they say it’s not practical for you to be down there right now. Not to stay with them in their home, anyway,” she added, when I didn’t say anything. “They’ve offered to pay for you to stay in a Holiday Inn near their house, for the time being, but that seems a bit impractical, doesn’t it?”

  There was an unpleasant buzzing in my ears. Sitting there under her level, ice-gray gaze, I felt for some reason terribly ashamed of myself. I had dreaded the thought of going to Grandpa Decker and Dorothy so much that I’d blocked them almost completely from my mind, but it was quite another thing to know they didn’t want me.

  A flicker of sympathy passed over her face. “You mustn’t feel bad about it,” she said. “And in any case you mustn’t worry. It’s been settled that you’ll stay with us for the next few weeks and at the very least, finish your year at school. Everyone agrees that’s best. By the way,” she said, leaning closer, “that’s a lovely ring. Is that a family thing?”

  “Um, yes,” I said. For reasons I would have found hard to explain, I had taken to carrying the old man’s ring with me almost everywhere I went. Mostly I toyed around with it while it was in my jacket pocket, but every now and then I slipped it on my middle finger and wore it, even though it was too big and slid around a bit.

  “Interesting. Your mother’s family, or your father’s?”

  “My mother’s,” I said, after a slight pause, not liking the way the conversation was going.

  “May I see it?”

  I took it off and dropped it in her palm. She held it up to the lamp. “Lovely,” she said, “carnelian. And this intaglio. Greco-Roman? Or a family crest?”

  “Um, crest. I think.”

  She examined the clawed, mythological beast. “It looks like a griffin. Or maybe a winged lion.” She turned it sideways into the light and looked inside of the ring. “And this engraving?”

  My expression of puzzlement made her frown. “Don’t tell me you never noticed it. Hang on.” She got up and went to the desk, which had lots of intricate drawers and cubbyholes, and returned with a magnifying glass.

  “This will be better than my reading glasses,” she said, peering through it. “Still this old copperplate is hard to see.” She brought the magnifying glass close, then farther away. “Blackwell. Does that ring a bell?”

  “Ah—” In fact it did, something beyond words, but the thought had blown away and vanished before it fully materialized.

  “I see some Greek letters, too. Very intere
sting.” She dropped the ring back in my hand. “It’s an old ring,” she said. “You can tell by the patina on the stone and by the way it’s worn down—see there? Americans used to pick up these classical intaglios in Europe, back in the Henry James days, and have them set as rings. Souvenirs of the Grand Tour.”

  “If they don’t want me, where am I going to go?”

  For a blink, Mrs. Barbour looked taken aback. Almost immediately she recovered herself and said: “Well, I wouldn’t worry about that now. It’s probably best anyway for you to stay here a bit longer and finish out your year at school, don’t you agree? Now”—she nodded—“be careful with that ring and mind that you don’t lose it. I can see how loose it is. You might want to put it someplace safe instead of wearing it around like that.”

  vi.

 
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