Townie: A Memoir
By Andre Dubus III
Hardcover, 400 pages
W. W. Norton & Co.
List Price: $25.95
Summer came and now windows were open and there was Larry's yelling, there was a woman yelling back at him or somebody else in another house, there was the canned laughter and commercial jingles of six or seven TVs, there was a bottle breaking, a drunk singing, a motorcycle or lowrider revving its engine, then peeling away from the curb, there were the smells of hot asphalt, the dusty concrete of broken sidewalks, cat shit and dog shit and gasoline, there was the wood baking in the lumberyard near the Merrimack, again the faint smell of sewage and motor oil and mud, and when the wind blew in from the east you could smell the ocean, dead seaweed and open seashell and wet sand, and it was a Saturday and Jeb and I were running from Clay Whelan and George Labelle and two others I didn't even know; they'd come walking down the middle of Lime Street under the sun and seen us sitting on our stoop doing nothing.
And we were up and running down Lime and across Water Street. We climbed a rusted chain-link fence and came down on a pallet of plywood and jumped off it to the ground. We ran past a forklift, its driver watching us under his cap, a cigarette between his lips, and my chest hurt and the air was too hot but we couldn't stop and we ran past stacks of naked two- by-fours and two-by-sixes and two-by-eights, and we climbed onto this last stack and leapt over the fence into high weeds and chunks of broken cinderblock, and we kept running.
We ended up under a pier on the river. It was cool and shaded under there. We crouched beneath heavy planks and cross timbers, their posts black with creosote, the lower ones near the water covered with white and green barnacles. Half sunk in the mud were broken glass and a couple of tires, and we could see beyond this to the sun glinting off the river. It felt safe.
Jeb, eleven and thin but taller than I was, started gathering up pieces of colored glass. Even then he was making things: little sculptures made from junk, pictures he drew, watercolors, and he was always taking things apart—fan engines, radios, once the back of our TV just to see how it worked. He needed to know how things worked.
I was happy to stay down here forever. Go steal some plywood and some nails and tools and build a floor and walls under the pier, make it a place only Jeb and I would know about. It was going to be hard to get back to the house without being seen. We'd have to wait till dark.
I heard the helicopter before I saw it, the thock-thock-thock of its massive blades, the way the water spread out smooth and rippling as it hovered over the middle of the river. Then there was an orange and white boat there too, the letters coast guard painted on its bow, two men in black wet suits and scuba gear jumping into the Merrimack.
We knew what they were looking for. People drowned in that river. It had one of the most dangerous currents in the country, especially here, at its mouth, and I wished we'd left then before the divers brought up the body. It was bloated to three times a man's normal size, the round head matted with blond hair, the face a pale pumpkin, his mouth open, dark, and bottomless.
We didn't know how we'd get back home without being found, but Jeb dropped his pieces of glass and we both crawled fast out from under that pier and ran under the sun.
The house was almost always dirty. Whatever chores Mom would give us, we just did not do. But some days, cooped up in that small hot house, one or two of us would finally leave the TV, grab the broom, and start sweeping the floorboards, the narrow wooden stairs and hallway. We might wash the backed-up dishes in the kitchen, find the mop and scrub the floor. We'd go up to our rooms and make our beds, pick dirty clothes out of the corners, and stuff them into a garbage bag for when we went to the laundromat. Sometimes I'd go out to our tiny enclosed yard and sweep the concrete stoop. In the corner of the fence was a rusty rake and I'd use it on our dirt yard. I made straight even lines parallel to the fence. It was still a dirt yard, but standing on the concrete stoop after, looking down at it, our home seemed somehow more orderly, our lives within it more comprehensible.
None of Mom's cars ever worked for long, but she was able to drive home the Head Start van and at least two Friday nights a month, she would load the four of us into it and take us on a Mystery Ride. If we asked where we were going, she'd say, "Who knows? It's a mystery."
Suzanne, at thirteen, wearing hip-huggers and smoking Kools in her room, acted like she was too old for this game, but I think she secretly liked it as much as Jeb, Nicole, and I did, each of us sitting on our own seat, the windows open, the radio playing rock and roll, the warm air blowing in as we drove out of the South End and the abandoned buildings of downtown. Sometimes we'd get on the highway and go fast and leave it all behind. Or else Mom would stay on the back roads near the Merrimack, winding through groves of hardwood and pines where people with enough money lived in houses you could barely see from the road.
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III. Copyright 2011 by Andre Dubus III. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. Inc.