My faded memory of this story was the subject of the first draft of this introduction. All I could recall was my revelation that this was how to write science fiction, and my soreness at placing only in the quarter-finals of the Writers of the Future Contest. I remembered the story convincing me that I didn't understand science fiction.
Re-reading the story in 2013, I saw why it didn't work—as genre science fiction. Barely any words were devoted to science. This was a story about people, people who just happened to live in the future. That had been my revelation. The future had finally felt real in my fiction because it was incidental. I had strayed right out of the genre into writing a human story about the life of a family.
Quiet stories like this may well contain my best futurism, but what surprised me, looking back, was the care taken to put feelings down on the page, the easy balance of thought and action, the light touches, fitting everything together. My concern when I finished was not whether I would ever understand science fiction but whether I would ever write like this again.
Quarter-finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest (summer 1997)
What it meant to be a Wright boy was clear. A Wright boy could hit hard. A Wright boy could run and throw the ball. Amis Wright had even played for the Razorbacks before returning to work in his father's hardware store. The men in the Wright family carried around their pride like a physical feature, like an extra weight in the bones. Though most of them were farm hands, postal workers, bartenders, or other odd things, they shared a broadness in the shoulders, an all-around thickness, and bulldog faces suited for both quiet endurance and sudden disgust or indignation.
The women, on the other hand, came in as many varieties as the flowers in the town square. They bloomed and became different things. Many followed their husbands out of town or even to different states. Some got jobs in the restaurants by the freeway. Others stayed home with the kids, coming out only to teach Sunday school or sing in the church choir. None of them grew up knowing what a Wright girl was supposed to be.
It took Lonna Wright until the age of 29 to realize that a Wright girl could be just about anything she wanted. By then, she had married a redneck boyfriend from high school to get away from her father, had a son, left her husband, and followed a second husband all the way to Denver. This awakening of possibility came the day she decided to leave the second husband.
"Your mother just needs time to develop on her own," she told Bobby. "Ever since me and Nelson got married I've been changing. I've been growing, and if he can't support that, then I've got no time for him."
"How long is it going to take you to grow, Mommy?"
"Oh, you never stop growing. Everybody needs some time that's just theirs, to do what they want with it. I really want to start reading again. I used to read all the time."
"When you were a kid."
Bobby made small circles with his thumbs on his mother's sore shoulder, watching how she chewed on the inside of her lip while facing away from him. He could follow her thoughts just by watching.
"I used to go to my grandma's farm every summer, " she said, "and I'd go out to the woods and read and read. . . . "
She turned to face him. "Of course, all I read were those trashy romances my grandma had. Oh, they were bad. Really, really bad." She laughed, revealing her white, slightly crooked teeth, perfect teeth to Bobby, his mother's perfect smile. "She had so many of them. I never ran out."
His mother laughed and laughed, as though it was the first time she had remembered how bad those books were. "I know," he said.
"I'll make sure you've got better books than those to read. You can bet on it, because that's how you learn. You're too smart to waste your time with trashy books."
"I know," he said.
He rubbed her shoulder some more. Those people at her new job shouldn't have made her carry such heavy trays if they hurt her arm. That just wasn't fair. All his mom wanted was to work a different schedule so that she could go to school like him. He wished she'd kept the job where she sat around all the time.
Fortunately, her arm got stronger. She quit complaining, and he stopped worrying so much. He started school—a new school, very tidy compared to the old one, full of kids like the kids in toy commercials, nice-looking, nice-smelling, always playing. Almost none of them wore old T-shirts or had holes in their jeans.
They didn't make fun of him on the first day. The kids waiting by the purple door of his 5th grade classroom gathered around him, shook his hand, and told him their names one by one. They were friendly for several days, but he always stood by himself by the wall until someone came to talk to him. Soon no one was making the effort. He didn't feel like talking to anyone, and in the end they didn't really want to talk to him.
Only later did they joke about the funny way he talked, his clothes, the zucchini-eggplant sandwiches his mom gave him in place of the cafeteria food, the lack of pills in his lunch sack: most of the kids here took little white "v-pills" to make their brains work better. Like the braces he needed for his overbite, they were something his mom couldn't pay for. So he sat there drinking his milk all by itself. One of the kids, Cordwainer, told him at recess one day that his head was filling with milk and that the milk would soon start dripping out his ears. A little later, Bobby made the mistake of answering Cordwainer's question about his mother's sandwiches, and then the boys were calling him "eggplant head," "scrambled brains," or simply "egg." When the class played round-the-world flashcards, hushed laughter and whispers would start whenever he faced off. His brains really were scrambled, because he couldn't think of a single thing besides the other kids while he was standing up. Some fraction problem would just hang there right in front of his face, and it didn't matter how long it took the other kid to answer, Bobby never got it. He just couldn't think. This school was much harder than his last one. The kids were smarter, and they were getting smarter every day, while he was stuck where he was.
Lonna knew nothing about Bobby's academic problems until his first report card. Moving in the middle of the school-year had been hard for him—as she had known it would be—but she had noticed nothing in his guarded "okays" and "fines" or in the shrugs of his little shoulders that suggested more than the loneliness that always came with a new place. The abrupt change had not been necessary: she could have stayed in South Denver, let Bobby finish out the school year, but they had to move somewhere, and the sooner she could get Bobby into a good school district, the better as far as she was concerned. Their yellow brick apartment complex in old-town Castle Rock shared the block with gas stations, a parking lot, and several convenience stores; the lovely ribbon of the Front Range snowcaps, blocked by hills and a cigarette billboard, was no part of their world anymore; but the elementary school was just up the hill, and crossing-guards were on duty in the mornings. She had found a good place for her and Bobby.
The report card was on the kitchen table. Since Bobby had forsaken the living room's TV for his bedroom, she guessed that something was wrong before even seeing the note from the teacher. Bobby had gotten D's in reading, writing, and vocabulary, C's in music and P.E., and an F in math, so his teacher was recommending a set of tests to determine his proper grade level. "Your son seems very uncertain of his abilities," she wrote. "Perhaps his background does not equate to the 5th grade expectations of Jackrabbit Elementary."
This Mrs. Wallace—who had so kindly offered "especial attention for Bobby" because he was new, who had been primly sweet and polite like a girl at a perfume counter—now sounded annoyed, detached, even dismissive. Bobby was a problem she had to "do something about." Hers was the first truly hostile voice Lonna had encountered in Castle Rock, aside from the usual stiffs at the restaurant. Mrs. Wallace became downright menacing in her mind, glaring down at her class with that thunderhead of gold hair and locked keyhole of a mouth. Poor Bobby.
The light was off in his room. The little clock radio emitted the low voices of interviewed pop stars. Bobby listened, wide-awake and holding a hard-bound volume of the "Chronicle of Narnia," her housewarming gift to him. In the blue evening light, she made her way to a kid-sized bean bag.
"Which book are you on?" She lifted the turquoise cover over his arm. "Ooooo, that's a good one. So you finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?"
Bobby nodded without lifting his head from the pillow.
"Can I turn this down?"
Bobby nodded again, and she adjusted the radio.
"You're a fast reader," she said. She said it nicely, perhaps too nicely. He seemed to doubt her sincerity right away.
"I know," he said.
"You're a very smart boy, Bobby. I'm not concerned about this report card. You're in a new school, and so it's going to be hard for a while. You're going to have to study. But you'll get the hang of it."
His chubby little face just lay there, smashed against his hand. "Hm," he said.
"Which, I know you can do it. I know you can. You don't get these kinds of grades, Bobby. You're an A student. You're better than an A student. You've just got to want to do well."
"Mrs. Wallace made me stay after school."
"I'm going to go see Mrs. Wallace tomorrow."
"She said maybe I should only be a fourth-grader."
"You don't listen to a thing she says. She and I are going to have a talk, and you're staying right where you are. But the thing is, you're going to have to speak up when you're having trouble. I know you. You'll just sit there and do nothing before you'll admit you can't do something."
"I don't think I'm as smart as everyone else."
"Now you're being silly." She had to chuckle, though it was one of the worst things Bobby could have said about himself. "No. Huh-uh. You came from another school, so you haven't done all of the same things as the other kids. But you're way smarter than them. I know."
He rolled over onto his back and folded his arms together. "They all take v-pills. I can't be as smart as them."
Vasopressin regulators. So that was it. She had figured Bobby would be jealous of the rich kids on some account. "Don't pay any mind to that. Those pills only give you a little boost. They don't make you educated."
"They make you smarter."
The simple statement stopped her. "Fifty percent higher intelligence," the two-year treatment was said to provide, however they measured that sort of thing. He was at a little disadvantage. "Oh, baby, I know those other kids have it a little easier, but you don't need those pills to learn. The school's for everyone. You just do your work and you can keep up. You can even get ahead, because you're more serious than they are."
He just stared at the ceiling with his arms crossed.
"Come on, I'll make supper." She put the Narnia book back in its gold cardboard case—the start of a library for Bobby, all hardbacks, to which she would add year by year.
If only confidence could have been bought as easily as books. That was the real threat to Bobby: people telling him he was no good. Her whole life had been one long recovery from the same thing: her father, mostly, a rangy unpredictable hick who could worry himself to death over her and call her a dumb cunt in the same afternoon, and her first husband, also a redneck, lazier than a dog in August—"Damn baby's bawlin' agin. Cain't you do nothin'?" Even Nelson, sweet little Nelson, driving his cab and making his paintings—even he put her down, her herbs, her candles, the meditation group she'd joined . . . It was all "dumb hippy shit" or "nonsense." Going back to school was a "waste" of their money if all she wanted to study was history. She cut and dyed her hair, and he said she looked like a prostitute, not a "whore" like the boys at home would have said, but a "prostitute"—an attempt at manners, she supposed. Part of life was learning not to listen to a damn thing anybody said. She knew she was smart, and she knew what to do with her life. Nothing else mattered. Bobby had to learn to think the same.
And Mrs. Wallace was going to help. Lonna talked to her the very next day, standing with one foot on an adult-sized chair beside the woman's desk, which presided over her son's classroom. Having dressed up in white slacks and the cream-colored blazer she'd worn at the bank, she was careful to talk proper and make her point clear. "We have to discuss my son."
"Yes, little Bobby." Mrs. Wallace slid open a drawer and removed a gradebook. "There are several issues."
"He is a very smart and motivated boy, but he's a little disoriented from being put in a new school. The curriculum's different, so he's missed some things, and some things maybe he's ahead on. We just have to catch him up. I'm counting on you, as his teacher, to identify those areas where he needs the most help."
"Let me see. . . ." Mrs. Wallace was running her finger down an edge of graph paper. "Yes, Mrs. Hayden, your—"
"Ms. Wright. I'm regaining my maiden name."
"Oh how about that. How nice. I'll make a note to myself." She wrote something in the book.
"We're going to have to watch Bobby very carefully," said Lonna. "He's already intimidated by the other kids. The work is harder than he's used to. He has to feel like he can do it."
"That's what I meant about those tests. Bobby might feel much more comfortable—"
"Bobby is in the fifth grade. He got mostly A's at his other school and he does not need to go backward. Plus—I'm sorry, Mrs. Wallace—but it's not up to you to make that decision. If Bobby doesn't do better, and he takes an aptitude test and fails, then come tell me he needs to go back. But not before you try to help him . . ."
"And under no circumstance will you tell my son he's not good enough for your class. That's between you, me, and the principal. You are his teacher." Lonna pointed a finger right between her small, snowy blue eyes. "You tell him he tries hard. You tell him he learns quick and can catch up. You tell him you know he can."
Mrs. Wallace jerked her hands along the borders of the grade book as though there were grasshoppers there which she wanted to cover. "I do intend to try my best, but—"
"You’ve got to try. A teacher is so important . . ." Lonna dropped her foot to the floor.
"But his performance really must improve. It has to, or I can't do anything for him."
Lonna sat down with Bobby every night to do the extra assignments Mrs. Wallace gave. Most of the time, Bobby just ran his fingernail up and down a crease between leaves of the table. She had to give a direct order to get him to do anything. He took his seat like he was about to be scolded and slunk away like he had just been grounded for a hundred years.
"Okay, now we just go in pieces, okay? You know how to do this. What's six times eight?"
On this, the third night, he was wholly occupied with picking dirt from his fingernails.
"Look at the problem, Bobby. What's six times eight?"
He looked at the worksheet. "I don't know."
"You do too."
"You did not forget. No," she said. "Huh-uh. You know how to do this. You just aren't trying. Which, if I'm going to help you, you've got to want to do better." She touched her breastbone. "I can't teach you this stuff on my own. You've got to want to learn it. Anyone can do these problems if they try. And you especially. You've always been good at math. Now watch what I'm doing. What's six times eight?"
"I'll never catch up."
"You'll catch up, and when you do, it'll be like school was before. It'll be easy and you'll just go right along with the other kids."
"No, I won't."
"Bobby, you've got to stop fussing over that smart-pill nonsense. We can't afford them, okay? You're going to have to do well on your own."
"You don't learn from taking some pill. You learn by doing your work. That's education. Brains don't come in a bottle, baby. You think if you take those pills you won't have to study?" She smiled to show him that she was being ridiculous. "I don't think so. Everybody—everybody—learns by studying. Now, look at this problem . . ."
"I give up."
Bobby kicked his chair back and shoved against the table to turn around. Then he stomped his feet all the way to his room like a little Napoleon.
The one thing Lonna learned after an hour of sitting on the edge of his bed was that this pill business totally captivated him. In his mind, the other kids were growing into angelic beings, rising so high that he could never follow. It was like he was being denied communion and told to avert his gaze from heaven.
Damn crazy nonsense. Most of those other kids were just starting the treatment, anyway. They weren't a bit smarter than Bobby. Probably, it was the other way around.
Part of her wished she'd waited to move until the end of the school-year, but it really was too late. She'd thrown him in with a bunch of rich kids, and he was going to have to cope.
A way to dispel her son's delusions came to her that night, but it made her afraid. It would mean that she would have to lie to him, like when she'd sneaked into the garage every week one spring to raise his training wheels inch by inch. He might have taken forever to learn to ride a bike if she hadn't enacted that little scheme, because he had absolutely, irrevocably, adamantly refused to ride without them. Yet this new scheme was maybe further than she wanted to go to get him learning on his own.
Once imagined, however, it remained as a possibility. The following week, when Bobby brought home a sealed note from Mrs. Wallace, it popped right back into her head.
Dear Ms. Wright,
I'm afraid your son Bobby still shows difficulty in many areas. He displays a lackluster indifference to my special attention. We really must have him take the special Jackrabbit Assessment Quiz and go from there. I'm terribly sorry, but this is my opinion as a professional teacher.
The prospect of Bobby going into the aptitude test with his present attitude—he'd probably just put "B" for every question—drove her past any inhibitions. Nelson's friend Casey, a drug dealer on the west side, put her in touch with a guy in Colorado Springs who ran what Casey fondly called a "dope laundering operation"—a dealing scheme whereby amounts of illegal drugs were put in falsely labeled gelatin capsules: Contac 24-hour Flu, Tylenol Cold; etc. The guy had some sort of machine that faked National Drug Code numbers and almost every manufacturer's imprint. She asked him if he could do v-pill casings.
"Shit yeah," he said. "Them's white ones. Mediums. Tylenol font. No sweat."
As much to show off, it seemed, as to do a favor for Casey, he sent her a one-month supply for free, even typing up a fake label for the bottle: more than enough, since she would tell Bobby the truth once he had regained some confidence. The pills were just little white training wheels.
They looked good to Lonna, though she had never seen a v-pill up close. The large ends came in one bag, the small ends in another. She assembled them in her bedroom on Wednesday night, the night of Mercury, to involve the energies of mind and learning. She found the task very difficult. She had to fill the ends with the right amount of sugar, lick the rim of the small end, then push the capsule together just right before the seal locked. The five yellow candles burned down to round blue beads before she was done. A dozen pills ended up in the trash, leaving behind only about three weeks' worth. Just enough, she hoped.
The next afternoon, she gave Bobby the pills. He twisted off the child-proof cap and stared inside like they were magic beans. "Wow," he said. "You got them."
"You were right. School is the absolute most important thing you can ever do, and you need every advantage."
He tilted the container, watching the pills fall over each other. The smile on his face was exultant, like his very life had been restored.
She had cooked up one monster of a dirty trick, she realized. In that first moment, she wondered if she would ever have the courage to undo the illusion once it had come into being. "These pills will make you just as smart as anyone," she said, the words coming with inevitable ease. "On the very first day, you'll notice your thoughts getting clearer. You'll learn more easily. Your mind will grow faster, understanding better. Homework will get easier. And since you're naturally smarter and harder-working than the other kids, in time you'll be the smartest boy in the whole school."
He stared into the plastic container, believing every word she said.
At dinner, he took the first pill. Then he did his homework, glaring at the math notebook like someone trying to bend spoons. "I think it's working," he said.
In the next five days, he did all of his homework and finished two Narnia books. The aptitude test, postponed for a week after she had talked to the principal, showed that he was at the eighth-grade level in most subjects, exactly what the last school district's tests showed. He stayed in Mrs. Wallace's class: "He displays child-like wonder and enthusiasm at all subjects. A scholar is born, Ms. Wright. Hooray! We did it!"
Trust was once again possible for him. The math grade was slow to improve, but he believed what she said about him being smart, about education making everything easier when he grew up; he believed the things Mrs. Wallace told him; he even asked for a birthday party and invited four kids from his class. They all sat around the TV playing different characters in an adventure game he liked. He believed in his little world again.
The day arrived to tell him the truth, and she just couldn't do it. Everything was going too well. He was on his feet: no way could she knock him back down. What would happen if he ever learned the truth, she did not want to imagine.
She called Casey's friend and ordered two years' worth of capsules, which she would pay for over the summer. She wanted the whole treatment in case the guy got shut down.
Now that Bobby's faith had returned, she replaced two of the yellow candles with royal purple ones—an expansionary force. The least she could do was make the pills do some good. From the herb store downtown she special-ordered a powdered preparation of ginkgo, which she mixed with the sugar. In one long Wednesday night, she made enough pills to get Bobby through the summer, burning the candles and reading a spell over each batch of nine. She felt better doing it this way, with blessings. Instead of placebos, the rest of the pills would be little doses of magic, which might just do more for him than any vasopressin treatment ever could.
Bobby never missed a pill. The other kids would leave their lunch-time pill at home once in a while, or forget the dinner-time pill if the family went out to eat, but Bobby knew that every one they missed put him a step ahead. He wasn't just catching up; he was pulling ahead. The graph he kept of his SRA scores showed exactly that: 85, 89, 92, 98 . . . The line shot right to the top of his CyberFriends folder: no scale could measure the voltage in his mind. Sometimes he suspected he had a carbon-crystal brain (part of a secret Army experiment for raising spies)—just like Noösphere of the CyberFriends.
His brain certainly processed faster than most everyone else's. That summer's trip to Arkansas convinced him of that much. The people there seemed slower than in previous years, deprived in a way he had not understood before. They were worse than TV country people. They were like videogame country people, Uncle Amis always working on the water pump in the front yard, saying "Impeller's stickin'" at intervals, like an idle animation, "Think it's the bearin's," with a shake of the head, a wipe of the nose, a tap of a big black wrench, "Impeller's stickin'," swatting at a horsefly, then a scowl at the manure pile across the road, the same speech repeated: "God damn Luke Warmant been dumpin' his pig shit there for twenty years. Don't give a fuck," then the wrench stabbed at the flickering blue face of Bobby's father—Sally there, too, sometimes—in the living room: "Don't look at him. He don't smell a goddamn thing. He should tell Warmant to go stick a pin up his ass, but he don't. He been settin' there so long he don't remember what fresh air is . . .," a concerned reappraisal of the pump, a placement of the wrench jaws, "Think the impeller's stickin' . . ." You needed the wrench from Amis to pry open the mud porch's screen door so that Pa could give you the mission, like a king in a fantasy game: "Go awn ou'ta coop an' see what them chickens got fer the skillet." Their brains seemed to operate on a few simple instructions. Only his own seemed awake at all, thanks to the Treatment.
There wasn't a multi-player mode. Instead, this kid Eddie Warmant would come across the road to lay some traps or go fishing. Eddie wasn't so bad, but it was tiring to hear him drawl, to answer his solemn, envious questions about the pills, to watch him study the ground, the woods, the water in the bayou—his little mind all bent and puzzled over the same old country stuff. He was fun only part of the time. The Narnia books were better, because each one was about a whole new world. They showed him much more than the stinky bayou by the hog ranch. In one book, a forest was filled with a thousand puddles, and each puddle led to a different world.
The last thing he wanted to do was waste time working on the ranch, but that was exactly what his dad made him do the summer after sixth grade. "It'll get you up in the mornin's," he said. The first morning, he scooped Bobby up with one arm and carried him all the way to the kitchen table, where eggs and sausages were waiting. Bobby squinted at the bright plate, dizzy from hanging upside down. "Do I have to go?"
A smile filled his dad's pepper-red face, pulling the nose into a point. "Time to see how yer pa makes his way in this world."
"I don't wanna work. It's vacation."
"Hogs ain't very purdy, but you'll get to likin' 'em. They each has a differnt personality."
The salt and onion smell from his plate made Bobby hungry despite himself. He sliced a sausage link with his fork. "This sucks," he said.
"An' workin'll put meat on yer bones. Right now them sausages go right down yer gullet an' out the other end. Swallow one whole, an' it'd come out just like that." He poked one of Bobby's sausages with his fork. "Start carryin' feed around, an' they'll go to yer muscles. Then all the girls'll be wantin' to squeeze yer arms." His dad laughed, curling his lower lip to keep the food in.
That was the way to shut Bobby up. He didn't have much to say about girls. Still, he didn't see how wading around with the pigs was going to make girls like him. As they went into the warm, sticky haze of morning, which smelled of manure and growing grass, he said nothing. This was just one of those things he had to do because some adult was making him.
"This'll be just in the mornin's," said his dad as they entered the Warmant's farrowing barn. "Then you go 'bout yer business."
The hot stench inside made his head ache. He had to struggle to breathe. His first thought was for the brain cells which might not be getting enough oxygen.
"That's piss 'n ammonia," said his dad. "You get used to it."
It smelled like poison to Bobby.
Turned out he was helping Eddie feed the sows. Eddie would saw off the corner of a Purina Pig Feed bag and together they would haul the bag around to fill several buckets. Then they would each take two buckets to the troughs, which ran down the middle of the barn. Bobby got the bucket with the bent handle. The first time he tried to dump it, the whole thing fell over the low fence and into the trough. His dad, who was inside the pen shoveling turds into a wheelbarrow, had to come push the pigs aside and get the bucket back.
"Keep ahold of it, now." His dad grinned and handed it back.
Eddie laughed so hard that he upset the empty buckets in his hands. "Not the whole thing. Goll'."
Eddie was convulsing in glee.
It happened a couple of times, and both times Eddie laughed and said something like, "Way to go, Smarty." Then one time Eddie picked up the feed bag too fast. It slipped out of Bobby's fingers and spilled feed all over his shoes.
Eddie let the whole bag go. He fell onto his back, laughing. "You're a hoot!" he screamed.
Bobby stood where he was, a cone of pellets cooling the tops of his feet. "I wasn't ready."
"Some Smarty-pants! Too fast! Ha-ha!"
Bobby picked up a fistful of pellets and threw them hard at Eddie's face.
Eddie just laughed with greater joy. He started throwing feed, too, standing to sprinkle some on Bobby's head. He jumped around shouting "Smarty-pants! Smarty- pants!" like he was taunting a little girl.
Eddie flicked a pellet into Bobby's face. "Smarty-pants," he said.
Bobby smashed Eddie's smile with his fist. "Shut up!" he shouted.
The stunned look on the lanky farm boy’s face hung there a moment. Bobby backed away, knowing that Eddie had been joking before and that this was the start of something entirely different. "I'm sorry," he said.
Eddie's mean rat-face came closer, followed by a wild series of rock-hard punches. Bobby blocked the first few, but they came too fast. One caught the side of his face, another his chin, another his ribs. He fell onto the ground and curled into a ball. "Sorry!" he cried.
With unexpected strength, Eddie turned him over, pinned him on his back, and knocked his head side-to-side with a series of blows. "Come on!" he yelled, flushed and dripping spit from his lip. "You pussy! Fight!"
Just when Bobby thought he might start crying, one of his arms broke free. His hand found the knife Eddie had been using to cut the feed bags. With a quick swipe, he cut Eddie across the cheek, then again across the knuckles of one hand, which Eddie had raised to block the second blow. Blood fell into Bobby's eyes and wet his face. Eddie held his hand up and shrieked in horror. He jumped to his feet. Bobby stood and prepared to make another stab, but he could not go through with it. His mouth was full of blood, as though he had cut his own tongue.
"Drop it, boy." His father's hand was like a steel cuff on his wrist. The knife fell to the ground. Several farm hands stood around, peering at the source of all the noise.
Bobby’s father gave him a sharp smack on the behind. "Git movin’, now. You ain't workin' today."
His dad took Eddie’s side right from the beginning. Somehow using the knife made Bobby guilty no matter what. His dad just frowned gravely when Bobby told how Eddie had pinned him down and called him a pussy. That evening they went to the Warmant house, where his father asked several cautious questions about the hospital visit, a baseball cap crumpled over his breast. When he was through, he moved the baseball cap to his side. "Bobby has somethin’ to say to y’all," he said. He looked down. "Go o-on."
Bobby just glared at the small-eyed Warmant parents, returning their mean looks. No way was he going to say he was sorry.
"Go on," repeated his father.
Bobby tightened his lips against any possibility of speaking. Mrs. Warmant must have tired of waiting because she spoke herself. "The doctor said he’ll have the scar for years, maybe for good."
Bobby’s father bowed his head. "Oh, Jane, I cain’t tell you how bad this makes me feel. Boys’ll fight. I guess this one just got outta hand. You have somethin’ to say, Bobby?"
Such a horrible thought entered Bobby’s head that he had to blurt it out, though every instinct told him to stay quiet. "I should have cut his throat," he said. He barely noticed the blow of his father’s hard knuckles against the back of his head.
"Bobby." His father spoke slowly. "You just took a knife to a friend a’ yours."
At that moment, eyed by Eddie’s parents, aware of Mrs. Warmant’s shaking mouth, the words "just go" toppling out in broken syllables, he feared and hated them all. What did they think—that he had enjoyed it? Was he the bully, then, and Eddie some helpless victim? No way. He hadn’t done it on purpose. He was just fighting back. "He deserved it," he said. "Eddie thinks he's so smart cuz he can feed a bunch of pigs."
"Just go! Go!" screamed Mrs. Warmant. "Get out of here!" She began sobbing horribly.
Mr. Warmant put a hand on her shoulder. "You better go," he told Bobby’s father.
Though his father had led him by the hand all the way to the Warmant house, he did not so much as brush against Bobby all the way home. The air was impossibly still and humid, the crickets few, far away. No sound could hide the crush of his father’s boots on the gravel driveway. Bobby ached to explain himself but could not speak.
His father halted with one foot on the porch step and looked at him for a long time. At last, he said very carefully, "I should whup yer ass."
The time to say something had come, but Bobby’s reasons didn’t seem so good anymore. He awaited the punishment, his father’s weight bent over him like a canyon wall.
" ‘Course, yer ma don’ want me doin’ that. I’m gonna have to call her, an’ we’ll see. ‘Till then, you’ll be settin’ inside. You done got that vacation you wanted."
So Bobby spent the last month of summer in his dad’s little house, sweating as he lay in bed beside a squeaky box-fan, out of books, having to read the same ones twice. He didn’t want to go outside, anyway. It was bad enough having to go to church on Sundays, where he knew just how people were looking at him, even if they thought he was unaware. They would look at him and then at poor Eddie, who wore a huge bandage on his face, then they would look back at Bobby, his father, and Sally. Everyone in the town hated him because he was from a city and different than they were. He could hardly wait for the summer to end.
One lucky thing was that his dad never called his mom or even mentioned the incident to her. In later years, he would realize how strange it was for a person to be so secretive. But at the time he saw in his dad no desire to ignore the fight, or forget his son’s words, or conceal the truth from his ex-wife. He saw only a favor that kept him out of Juvenile Hall and saved him trouble at home. He silently thanked his dad for this.
Only during the last week of the summer did he perceive more behind his dad’s behavior. Sally stayed over every night and cooked dinner. His dad made him shower in the afternoons, and all during supper his dad surveilled the table, coaxing both Bobby and Sally to talk about various things, as if the meal were always on the verge of falling to pieces.
After church that Sunday Bobby’s dad took him on a walk to the town square, while Sally talked to some friends inside. He brought Bobby to an old concrete picnic table. "Yer pa wants to talk 'bout somethin'," he said, settling stiffly onto the top of the table in his white shirt and slacks. "You know Sally?"
Bobby climbed onto the table. "Uh-huh."
"Yes, you know she's over at the house quiet a bit. She an' I—y'see, we're gonna tie the knot. We're gettin' married." He pulled a foot onto the scraped-up bench plank and watched his son.
"Wow," said Bobby. He sensed that his dad wanted approval. "That's okay," he said.
"I'll be a-movin', a-course, up to her uncle Trey's. They got a nice house for us up there—real nice, purdy, lots a' trees. I'll be helpin' on the farm."
"Hm." Bobby swung his feet, scuffing his soles on the bench.
"It'll be a heap better'n Warmant's place, that's for sure. You'll like it. Now, what I wanted to mention is . . ." His dad pulled the wet neckband of his undershirt away from his throat. Shiny sweat made his face look polished. He looked thirsty. "Yer pa loves you, Bobby. I know we don't see so much of one 'nother, but that's cuz you live with yer ma. That's how we settled it—yer ma 'n me—when we broke apart. You were little then, an' she knew best how to take care a' you. Now you're gettin' to be a young man, an', y'see, we always purdy much counted on you comin' to live with yer pa when you got older. Which, now that my home life's goin' to be more domesticated, you can come down and live here."
Bobby had stopped swinging his legs.
"Sally an' I really want to have you," said his dad, putting a heavy hand on his shoulder. "I know I been treatin’ you kinda hard since the fight, but you needed a reason to think ‘bout all that. You're a good boy, though you got some learnin’ to do. And I still want you ‘round."
Bobby was in a panic. Would his mom really send him to Arkansas for the rest of his life? Could something like that happen? Wouldn't the police intervene? "I want to stay in Colorado," he said hesitantly.
"All these years you been away, I been right here, missin' my boy ever day. I hope you want to come, but don't decide nothin' right now. Go on back to your ma's, keep on in school, take them pills a' yours, though I still say they're gonna give you neerosees in adult life. Saw a show on TV. Anyways, go on back, but think 'bout stickin' around after next summer. We're gonna fix up the house nice an'—you'll see—it'll be a right nice place to call home."
That winter was the coldest in twenty years, a good year to stay indoors, a good year for keeping secrets. The mere thought of the Warmant fight brought a stab of adrenaline and a panicky beating to his heart, but Bobby found ways to calm down, to forget being punched, to forget how it had felt to hold a knife; he would stare out the window from behind the desk in his room, filling his head with thoughts about the city or about a storm that was bearing down, the snow not melting between storms this year, simply rolling down and over the land in blankets, a soft white hush and a blankness. Lonna anticipated Bobby's refusal to leave Colorado—a choice she was leaving to him—but when Bobby refused to visit Arkansas at all, responding only with vague, guarded aspersions about country folk, she wondered if something unusual had happened that summer.
Her ex-husband reacted funny to the whole situation, which made her more suspicious. After many long conversations with Bobby, of which she heard only her son's primarily one-word responses, he decided to let Bobby "set the summer out." "Boy don't take well to country livin', I guess," he told her on the phone that spring. "Best not make 'im hate it more."
"Don't be silly. You just drive on up as usual, and he'll go. A boy should see his father."
"Lift a kid off'n the ground 'gainst his will an' he kicks and squirms 'til you put 'im down. No, I reckon it's best we just let him cool off. Next year'll be differnt. He'll miss his pa by then."
"What happened last year? This isn't like Bobby."
"Nothin' particular. Boy didn't much care for the hog farm. Cain't say I blame 'im."
Her ex-husband would say no more.
From other talks, she knew that he had painted his and Sally's farmhouse "yellow like a lemon birthday cake," put up a picket fence, and installed air-conditioning, but that summer the pretty yellow farmhouse stood quiet beneath its shade-trees, empty of children. The following summer, Bobby got accepted into a prestigious summer school for gifted English students, so he couldn't have gone to Arkansas if he had wanted to—which he still didn't. The summer after that, Sally had given birth to her first child, and the routine of phone calls between Bobby and his father was taken for granted.
This was how whatever space had opened between them widened, stabilized, and lasted nearly a lifetime. Bobby made Colorado his one and only home, taking the clear dry sunshine and mountain range as his companions the way she had taken the gray-bearded woods at her grandma's. Ultimately, he adopted her maiden name, Wright, a name she had taken more because it was her name than for any love of the distant Wrights, but which she let him have, honored, frightened somewhat by the quiet devotion that had led him to the decision, taking the gesture mostly as a mark of his seriousness about who he was and who he wanted to be.
Somehow she'd gone from nurturing and correcting his self-image to interpreting its signs, marveling at them sometimes. An absolute faith drove Bobby forward, an evolving belief in himself, far-sighted, self-reflective, yet always elusive. She kept a candle burning for him on late homework nights, but she wondered if he felt the magic at all, bent over the lit circle beneath his desk lamp, reading, solving, writing long essays. His idea of himself seemed contained in that little circle: words, symbols, thoughts, works of an intensely focused mind. How this young man could have ever doubted his mental powers, she could not imagine. The ritual of the pills had always been such a pointless deception.
The easy opportunities to tell him the truth had all passed, though maybe that was for the best. Whenever he accomplished something new—his first medal in a swim meet, class Secretary, the perfect grades, Employee of the Month at the local King Sooper's grocery store . . . or when she thought about the slow, determined way he saved his money, whether for upgrades to his computer, nice Polo shirts, or staggeringly expensive swim goggles . . . whenever he won something or made himself more like the well-groomed, prosperous-looking kids in this part of the city, she wanted to tell him how completely it was him who should be thanked. His will was pure like that of an excellent magician. He knew himself. That's what it was, what success was: mind over the material of life. The pill-taking took away from all of that.
However, once she had married Sean, a landscape contractor from Littleton, and convinced him to buy a house in the poor section of Castle Rock, Bobby's life became so settled and comfortable, so secure after all of the apartments and rotten temporary jobs his mother had held, that to tell him the truth would have served no purpose at all, except maybe to arouse distrust and doubt. How did you tell a child that you had diligently lied to him for two full years? She had blessed the pills, yes, enchanted them, but that would only increase the insult to his serious, literal mind.
Besides, almost every day she showed him by example just how much someone could do without v-pill treatment. She probably studied more than he did, in fact, now that Sean's income had let her drop down to three days a week at the restaurant. Bobby’d get home at midnight, and there she'd be, warming her feet under a pillow on the couch and reading. He looked over the bookshelves in her study sometimes, taking down one book and then another, reading a few pages, as though trying to ascertain just what kinds of knowledge existed in the world. Once he asked if she had read them all, surprised that such a thing was possible. Twenty hours from an honors degree, she was showing him that anything was possible—for Treated and Untreated alike. That much, at least, had sunk in since the fifth grade.
He did deserve to learn the truth, though—eventually. She almost told him at graduation, downright impressed at the salutatory speech he gave, amazed at the dignity of his bearing, how he looked like a Supreme Court justice in his dark gown, complete as any boy becoming a man could be. Unfortunately, the right time never came. When Bobby stuck around for dinner, Sean was always there, and then Bobby would go off to prepare for NAJAC (where he won a much-needed Junior Achievement scholarship), or he'd go to the restaurant where he worked, or out with his friends. Graduation Day passed into memory, and then the summer, and then Bobby left for Boston.
He never lived in Colorado again. From then on, he was like a bright celestial body which due to its constant movement required concentration to see, Venus showing up in the morning, the moon at high noon. Harvard, internships in New York, a weekend at Martha's Vineyard, heavy snow in the East—it all had the ghost-shimmer of the White House, or Rome, or other places she hadn't been. Gradually, news of his life joined the news of the world in its flatness and clarity. She sent home-made herbal teas to suit the mood of his most recent letters, while he always slipped a coin into the envelopes he mailed—a foreign coin, a very old coin, a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar . . . It was something he'd done since the gifted summer camp after eighth grade, when to him a Canadian penny had been like a nice piece of jewelry. The cold metal against her fingers was to the sensation of touch what she hoped the warm teas were to his comfort and health.
She made it to Boston only once during his college years—a weekend trip that made his life somewhat more tangible. Behind the red brick and immaculate white facing of the buildings were grimy staircases and very standard, downright ugly dormrooms. Bobby—the kids they passed all called him Robert—was in college. He lived in a dorm, ate in a cafeteria, and went to class. It was nice to finally understand this.
About that time, she was gathering material for her honors thesis, which she hoped would lead to a book on spell-casting, so she wanted to look at some books in the Harvard library. Bobby had described this place that was like a ten-story dungeon with books that were centuries old. Somewhere on a dusty shelf deep down in that dungeon were very old, uniquely authoritative books on magic, she hoped, which would reveal secrets about the original Celtic and Wiccan practices—techniques which she could integrate into her own modern approach to the art.
Unfortunately, she never got the chance to look for them. She just stood at the circulation desk for fifteen minutes while Bobby demanded to see one person after another, furious that they would not let his mother into "the Stacks." The chary, sympathetic looks of the librarians made her feel old and strange. She was wearing a blue scarf in her hair, the feathered earrings of the Pueblo Indians, and a green blouse with billowing sleeves—probably a strange sight in a Harvard library.
"You can't take anyone into the Stacks," the desk manager told Bobby, annoyed from being summoned out of the back room. He shrugged his shoulders and wrinkles piled up on his forehead. "I'm sorry."
Her son made fists inside the pockets of his slacks. "There must be a temporary pass or something. I got one last summer."
The desk manager smiled with perfunctory toleration. "You have to be associated with the University. I really am sorry."
"It's okay," said Lonna. "Let's go." With difficulty, she pulled Bobby away, back down the marble stairs.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I thought they'd at least let you see the books."
"It's no big deal. I have enough research."
"You could look up things on the computer, and I could go get them."
"No, it's okay. Really. Let's go find someplace to eat."
The apologies continued throughout the evening. Something about the incident stuck with him, kept surfacing. It made her realize how much he had come to resemble the Wright men back in Arkansas, how he hated being made to feel weak, how he maintained that proud, persecuted look, the eyes seeming caged in the crude contraption of his body: thick eyebrows, flattened nose, lumpy arms and shoulders, a faint overbite . . . Inside the somber blue sweater and collared shirt he was a Wright man all the same. When at dinner he launched into a description of his grades like the descriptions he would give her over the phone, she heard it in a new way. Beneath the determination and ambition was a lingering doubt, a weariness, some sort of worry that kept him shifting in his seat, adjusting his sweater as though it fit wrong. "I have to do better this term. No law school is going to look at me if I keep on like this."
He had gotten a B the previous semester.
"Oh, please," said Lonna.
A waiter seated a group of college kids at a table nearby. Bobby lowered his voice. "I can't keep getting B's."
"You're at a hard school. Come on. A B's really good."
Bobby sneered at the coaster he was pressing between his hands. "Anyone can get a B at this school. You skip class all term, turn in everything late, take a shit on the hood of your TF's car, and still you get a B. There's nothing lower."
"You're always so hard on yourself."
"But to get A's—all A's, I mean—you've got to kick some ass. The people here are so smart. You know that article in Newsweek . . . ?"
Lonna shook her head.
"It's just like that. Ninety percent of the people here were Treated as kids. Over a third had tailored DNA. It's like they said: a whole new class of people is evolving, a new race. I'm not competing against normal human beings. Thank God I got the treatment I did."
Bobby hadn't mentioned the pills in years. This trip had seemed like a good chance to finally talk about them. Maybe this was her chance.
"That's the best thing you ever did when I was growing up, you know. I don't know how you paid for it, but if you hadn't, there'd be a glass ceiling right here." He mimed a barrier above his head.
"Oh, Bobby." She looked into his watchful brown eyes, not knowing what he really wanted her to say. "It wasn't anything, really."
"You must have needed one hell of a loan. How'd you get it? Did Nelson help out?"
He stared at her. She pushed her bracelets down her arms. "You know, those pills . . . Do you really think they were all that important? You've done more for yourself than they ever did."
"I used to wish I'd had braces, but now I see how much foresight you had. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."
Now was the time to tell him. She was certain. "I always wanted you to do well in school."
"You did the absolute best thing you could with the money you had."
"I know. I know."
"I doubt I'll ever be able to repay you."
"You don't owe me. I'm your mother."
She let him thank her again, feeling like she was telling the same lie all over again, for the same reasons. The deception was ugly and wrong and contradicted every belief she had about the value of truth, yet the words just would not come. One chance after another passed, then a deep-dish pizza arrived, and Bobby began telling her why it was his favorite pizza in Boston.
She let the lie endure. On the plane back to Colorado, she accepted that it would be there for a long time. Somewhere a devil opened its eyes and laughed. A black candle was burning for her in Hell. She knew that no power of hers would ever touch it.
Robert Wright, who came to favor his full name, had to uncover the truth for himself. In the meantime, he held himself to be an individual of paramount genetic heritage and neurochemistry. His body ached and complained during this period like an old car driven by a teenaged boy. During college and law school, his work went late enough that he often caught the fresh Dunkin' Donuts at Christy's convenience store at 4:30, the only place to get food at that hour unless you had a car. He had five meals a day, got three to four hours of sleep, and lost weight like an ascetic. Swimming had to go very early to make room for work. His law-school girlfriend Gretchen got to see him only one day per week during the term—and never for more than fourteen consecutive hours. His life was like a religious devotion of some kind, an endless askesis, for it felt as though the person he wanted to be was always ten pounds thinner or ten miles down the road.
His suspicions about the Treatment did not begin until after he married Gretchen and started planning for a child. He was living in Memphis, working for a law firm founded by friends from school. His mother had begun fighting cervical cancer, so frequent trips to Colorado gave him even more reason to think about his childhood.
Preparing for a child made him examine the particulars of genome engineering and childhood hormone treatments. An educational video at the insemination clinic showed a hale young boy visiting a doctor to get the v-pills best suited to his biochemistry. Next the video showed a routine check-up, the results of which made everyone smile.
Robert knew it was strange that he had never seen a doctor to get the pills, but the importance of check-ups and of balancing the pill components had never registered, although the facts had crossed his path a number of times. The theory that his mother had convinced the family doctor in South Denver to let him skip the office visit to save money could not withstand this new information. It gave way to the idea that she had bought the pills on the black market. But that raised a number of troubling questions. How had she known which kind of pill to buy? How had she known the pills were working properly? An error could cause retardation and even death. Had she gambled his life for a few IQ points?
He asked her all of these questions while helping her walk through the huge garden she had planted in the back yard. (In addition to the chemotherapy, she had broken her foot on the concrete patio the week before.)
While he talked, she stared at the air-cast on her foot, lifting and setting it down with deliberation, her grip on his upper arm relaxing, tightening again as she walked on the cast. When he finished, she placed both feet together and pressed down on the cane. "The pills," she said. The therapy had not yet damaged her hair, but she looked dreadful, bruised around the eyes, small, creased and annealed like a Chinese peasant. Her lips were the only unblighted part of her face. They formed words with suppleness, exactitude, and force. "There's something about that treatment I never told you."
He waited, pleased not to have wasted her time with some unfounded paranoia.
"You'll have to forgive your mother. She meant to tell you, but she never did."
"Well, what is it?"
His mother looked down, grinding the cane into the dirt. She turned on her good foot, releasing his arm, swung the cast a few feet down the path, then hopped forward. She took another step and then leaned on the wooden support of a tomato plant. "I never intended to deceive you, Bobby. I just wanted you to believe in yourself."
"What are you talking about?"
His mother's speech slowed and she lifted her eyes to the dark blue morning sky, where a faint moon hung. "Belief is all there is, you know. It's what lets you control your energies. Without belief, you can't create, build, or do anything. You just evaporate. The universe is a maelstrom. It dissipates anything that doesn't preserve itself." She looked back to the tomato plant. "Bobby, those pills were sugar, sugar and ginkgo. I blessed each one and prayed for you, but they were fakes. You never got the Treatment."
He made a small, incredulous laugh. "What?"
"They were fakes," she said.
"I don't understand."
As she explained more carefully what had happened, he got the strangest picture of himself. He was a little boy taking those pills three times a day. Each pill reminded him that he was thinking more clearly, learning more quickly, becoming a top student. Each one promised that he would do great things with his life, and each one was a little white lie.
His reaction—completely involuntary—overwhelmed any urge he might have had to contain it. The full weight of his life was behind it, a bedrock of hard work and self-devotion, the very weight of his body, a weight present in one solid mass, though he perceived it in pieces: the brief he was working on, swimming laps before sunrise during high-school, nodding off on his feet at the restaurant, the ever-present pull of sleep and gravity, the way he had secretly counted the pills the other children were missing. All along he had been the underdog. He laughed so loud his mother must have thought he was having a mental breakdown. "You tricked me!" he shouted. He laughed like an emperor. Then he laughed like the ceramic Fat Lady atop the Funhouse at Lakeside Amusement Park. Gradually, his self-control returned and he noticed that his mother was crying. Long streaks ran from her silver-blue eyes. The unraveling black-dyed perm made her look like a condemned witch.
"You aren't . . . upset?" she said.
"Don't be ridiculous."
He laughed some more, feeling light as air. He gave his mother an arm to lean on.
"I never could give you all that much," she said, releasing her first audible sob, showing no sign of feeling better. "I wanted to, though. I wanted to do the right things." She looked up at him, her face wet, ugly, worn down. "And all I could do was pretend. I made you believe me."
"It was a long time ago. Come on. Forget it."
"I wrote some spells. The pills had magic in them, but they weren't what you wanted."
"They were exactly what I wanted. They were perfect. Shhhh. . . ."
He put an arm around her and took her inside.
She simply would not believe him. Supposedly, she had made him misunderstand himself, so that he was always bending himself toward some unattainable ideal. He thought it was wonderful. She had always resorted to tricks when he refused to do something she wanted. That was her way: craftiness, illusion, calculation, imagination. How perfect that his whole life had turned out to have been underlain with another one of his mother's strategic tricks.
She never quite forgave herself, though, not on that day, nor during the months that followed. The cancer ran its course, and she died still regretting the things she hadn't been able to do for him—but at peace, it seemed, because she had confessed. The confession of a saint—of someone determined to live up to some perfect, impossible vision. She had succeeded, in his mind; she just wouldn't believe him.
He could not imagine what words he could say at her funeral that would do justice to who she had been. The night before, he spent several hours in her study, just looking around before the task of going through her things began. The hundreds of books on the back wall were mostly hardback editions of popular fantasy novels, but there were textbooks and paperbacks from school, reference books on gems, herbs, religions, astrology, and various forms of magic, plus the few books he had given her: Alice Munro, Kafka, the Upanishads. It was the library she had always dreamed of having. She'd gotten it, though the university scholarship she'd hoped for never materialized, though the hard jobs that gave her migraines and aching bones lasted until just before the cancer, though no one ever really believed she would think or write anything valuable—not even Sean, as kind as he was to her. She had never stopped loving books. He stood for a long time in front of her bachelor's degree, which hung on the wall in a frame decorated with some of the coins he'd sent her over the years—and for the first time he thought he understood what this paper must have meant to her. Though he might have striven toward some ideal throughout his life, she had done so to a far greater degree. She had wanted nothing less than wisdom, whereas he had wanted only esteem, achievement, credentials.
In one of the filing cabinet drawers, he found several binders that contained copies of the book she had written: Spells for Our Time. Among them were rejection letters from Llewellyn Publications, the Carol Publishing Group, Newcastle Publishing, and many others. The world had paid her magic about as much attention as it had paid anything she had ever done.
The book itself was one long hopeful spell, a paean to the power of words, thoughts, correspondences. He read it late into the night at the desk where it had been written, wondering why he had never asked to see it before. It seemed terribly wrong that his mother had died thinking that no one would ever read more than a dozen pages of this book, which held those few insights she had seen most fit to be communicated.
During his speech at the church, he mentioned the book, saying how in the face of everything, even during the cancer, she had never lost hope. She continued to study ancient medicines, kept burning candles, never went a day without meditating. He asked her once about death, and she said it was to be welcomed, for it was merely a transformation of energies. She would live again in a different form. To close the ceremony, he read a few lines from one of her more general-purpose spells, saying that everyone there should close their eyes and take comfort from her words:
Deep living Faith, life force of the universe, I give honor to you, and call upon you in your ancient names, known and unknown. For you are the weaver of each life and each living thing. For you hold a record of ancient times, and a promise to all of what shall be. Bestow upon me your strength and patience, power and care, I do ask.
The mourners listened quietly, each taking what he or she would. They were a small group, just Sean, Gretchen, some relatives of Sean's, a few of his mother's friends. No one from Arkansas came, although he had called her brother Amis. Since childhood, he had hoped his mother would locate her natural mother, who had left home very early, but she never did. She had lived entirely apart from her family and home town, and that left an absence in the ceremony. Even after the burial, he felt that something in her life had never come to completion.
The absence of her mother showed him just how far apart a child could grow from her parents, and he thought about his father, with whom he had not spoken in almost ten years. The words "hick" and "redneck" came to mind, his mother's words partly, but also his own. He felt compelled to use them, for even as an adult he had pity for country people, an aversion—the old hatred, too, left over like a scar from childhood. He could still remember the wild loathing with which he had slashed Eddie Warmant—something which should have seemed stupid to him now but which actually made him tingle with a guilty thrill. He had broken with his father's world as irrevocably as his mother had, and that still made him proud. He had become a higher class of person. All the little paper battles he had waged over the years had a common core, a brutal decisiveness, a violence. He had forgotten until now where it had all started. He went back to his mother's study that night, where his whole childhood had been preserved, chronologically, on the old bookcase. He leafed through an old Narnia book, the one he had been reading that summer in Arkansas, and he felt again like he was locked in that oppressive little room with a box fan, obsessed with those little pills and imaginary worlds and making himself better than everything around him. His mother might have been right that she had set him on a path of self-deception—or maybe self-dissection, for what had he done but cut away the undesirable pieces of his life one by one, like a genetic chemist? He thought again of his father, a decent man whom he had completely abandoned, and decided that the time had come to resist the belief, formed in childhood, that Robert Wright had wings to lift him into the sky above all other men.
He wrote a letter, apologizing to his father for the time during which they had not spoken. After his father had done the same, he risked a phone call. Through his father, he got a note to Eddie Warmant, who had become a partner with his cousin at the hog farm, but no reply ever came. Ultimately, he saw his efforts to reverse the consequences of that summer, during which he had been 13, as rather naive. No complete restoration was really possible, but at least from then on he was in touch with his family.
When his daughter was born, he flew his father and Sally to Memphis and had them stay at the house. They came down both mornings dressed as though they were headed to church, Sally rolling up her sleeves to help in the kitchen, while his father had coffee in the dining room, lifting a delicate china cup with the chafed, red fingers of both hands. As awkward as their visit was, they were easy and natural with his newborn daughter, Colleen, and he loved having witnesses, proud as any daddy since the beginning of time—and just as delusional and spellbound. They insisted on spotting similarities between Colleen's puffy features and those of her parents, though his daughter's genome had been patched together from sample-binders at the insemination clinic. She was something almost entirely new, but his father and step-mother could not shake the urge to look for signs of the old. His father even claimed to see a similarity to his ex-wife. "Them's Lonnie's eyes," he said. "Blue like nothin' you ever seen."
"We picked those, actually, from . . ."
"Them's Lonnie's eyes," said his father. "They run all through the Wright clan."
Robert let his father have his way. The idea appealed to him, actually, his mother's eyes surviving through him, into the feedstock genome he and his wife had supplied the clinic, finally into Colleen. The possibility was there, a remote one. If not the eyes, then maybe something else.
This commonplace comment of his father's stuck with him for many nights. He liked to think that part of his mother was inside Colleen. If indeed his mother were to be reborn, she would like being someone like his daughter, endowed with limitless potential. Colleen would grow up to do many of the things his mother had only dreamed about, and this made him marvel all over again at what a great force his mother's imagination had been. It was still here, inside him and all around him, coming more fully into being.