As the town announced itself with quick clutter, Greg Mulraney downshifted the Taurus saying it was on its last legs. The floorboards were full of soft threats beneath his feet, metal edges outside and below catching air like a sword causes a draft, a whine, the engine hum hesitant as an offbeat tenor. He saw Pete Leon standing in front of the public house, drink in hand as usual, and thought, Pete looks the same, leathered, liquored, lean, handsome as the long day.
Two days since he had finished Pete’s last book, a 580-page look at the Civil War, a book raising slight green hackles on his neck, a book he couldn’t have written the way Pete had. It was a testament to the Fabulous Four, another credit line for them, and his own new book weeks from its finish, if he could knock off the revision to the publisher’s satisfaction. Oh, those desk-dwelling pushy bastards mouthing off all the way to old Greenstrong on the throne, turd-dropper, e Unum Unum for Christ’s sake.
Middletown, Ohio spread its welcome in front of him, launching itself from each side of the road, inked-line of pavement going due west as far as he could see. The sun played flickering games in trees’ five o’clock leaves, his eyes reacting first, strains of gray or silver light announcing moistness he’d count on every time out, all the way back to Korea and never gone unannounced on a drive of any length. He wiped at a tear, his old comrade Pete still visible in the glimmered eye, staunch Pete, brave Pete, Pete at the bottle again.
For the last twenty miles, occasional vegetable stands had promised the scent of harvested greens or newly cut grass being bundled, though none came to him, even with the windows open, air rushing late August along. As he looked at Pete, the memory of a steam train ride in Vermont, him a boy at his father’s side, windows open and soot leaping past his eyes and peppering his white shirt, his father’s hand brushing at the soot not really caring about the mess but knowing the boy would remember steam engines scents forever, no matter they’d soon be out of existence; something learned, something kept. The mark was valid and alive; he could smell train soot and engine smoke as if his nose was still in Vermont taking it all in, wind smacking at open windows, flush of leaves and greenery bundled like clouds, his father’s landmark beer breath never far away.
The pub where they had met every third year after Army separation, now four old soldiers and comrades, four writers with four incomes, had always been a stand-alone oasis weathering time as much as them; but this time it had been spruced up, melding into the backdrop of a field rising at a slight grade behind it. Quickly seeking a message there, he abruptly let it go the way he’d let work go these days; time for other matters. Black plastic rolls dotted the field like checkers on a board, a line of them as straight as a furrow running to the top of the incline and dropping off the other side.
Though Pete, tossing off another swallow, looked no different in the three-year lapse, the handsome son of a bitch, the small block of a building did; corners were sharper, lines straighter, paint catching an even spread of sunlight falling behind the trees. An image of Leggo blocks appeared behind his eyeballs, with sudden appreciation for a cold draught in a frozen mug.
There had been moments when the journey from his summer place in Franklin, Maine had nearly been abandoned, an idea floating in his mind with lily pad temerity. Something was missing about the ritual, about the reunion and its festive graces, the way they had tottered on latest visits. Not that he was getting tired of it, yet measurement kept rearing its head in steady assessment. Besides their watering down and telling not-too-intimate tales, what the hell had they done? If that was a yardstick to be addressed, they’d have to get at it this trip. Besides himself, one or two others might find following trips not so appetizing.
Perhaps it was the long drive, the Maine Turnpike particularly oppressive and dreary, the New York Thruway no better. The ride at times had been at boil, beset with questions; what was he doing here, what would they do here, why was he detracting from his own allotted time? They only had so much left; he only had so much left, the whole argument tumbling through his mind in repetitious hits. For the first time, outside of Archie’s by-pass, would one of them not show up? Hearts, kidneys, prostates, any number of ill-conceived dramas could drop the screen on the whole show. There was only so much and no more. Perhaps, he admitted, age was behind it, a director off-stage, an aside in the mix.
Still, he’d be pleased to see them, old soldiers, old comrades, the Fabulous Four as they’d been dubbed by a reporter here in Middletown a few years ago, to wade into the throng of them bottle-deep in the back room of the pub, though the cigarette smoke was long gone now, hugging each of them, knowing the keen odors each carried and dispersed, familiar with each frame, how a head could be held in question, how eyes asked other questions. They’d say, How’re ya feelin’? That old wound dead and buried after all this time? I’m sorry about your wife, man, but we’re all getting there. Shit, Greg, you don’t look so fuckin’ bad for an old soldier. Getting enough? Taking care of yourself? Can’t take care of anybody else unless you take care of Number One.
He’d shake a typewriter hand, a computer hand, a pencil hand only night allowed to work, Paulie Covell forever saying it was darkness allowed him space to write his fragile and edged chips of granite. The last time out Paulie had frozen him on the first page: I would have gone/ except for your/ saying at the last// moment how awful/ apart would be like/ discarding the apple// core Eve retrieved/ to see if there was/ one bite left.)
To a man, since mufti was donned, they had celebrated, comrades in book and script, not letting go what they had been and what they had become. Over three-hundred articles and stories, twenty-nine books, five best sellers, two plays making it to Broadway, the last volume of poetry Paulie had honed with a rasp and a chisel for nearly thirty years the pages felt like flint. Greg’s copy still sat in its dog-eared salute in the glove compartment of the Taurus, his love of old things expressed by what he touched and kept, like the Taurus itself. Paulie would be here if he had to thumb his way from Arizona. Paulie the poet. Paulie the flint-sharpener. Paulie the little man with the big “cullyonies.” “Big balls,” he had admonished to himself, as if in declaration.
Archie’d be in there, red in the face, after his fifth book, his third wife, his second hospital stay, counting his visits, keeping the tab at his elbow, paying it with no fanfare at all, embarrassed by his own quick acceptance of it, owing somebody, always owing somebody in this crazy life. Greg saw him again on the ridgeline, his pal Archie, squad leader Archie, drinking buddy Archie, history and nostalgia-plagued Archie, black against the morning sun, staggering, falling backwards, his weapon emptying itself at the coming tide, his curses revolving over and over as he rolled down the hill, helmet loose and skittering on edge, canteen bouncing, weapon finally dragged useless and empty into the earth. “Greg, don’t let them fuckin’ bastards get me! Fuckin’ hear me, Greg? Don’t let them get me!”
He had thrown the red panel on the ground when the first wing-swept Grumman came diving on the hill, dropping napalm in an end-over-end tumble like a field goal try, an agonizing slow roll to its arc, waiting to see if it hit on this side or the other side of the hill. Even before the flames blew up the incendiary cloud, before heat passed searingly over their heads, Archie had screamed again, not about the heat and fire, but about the small army of Chinese gathered on the other side, the lead charge then perched on the crest of the hill: “Don’t let them little fucks get me, Greg.”
Every day of his life, from that moment on, from the burst of the napalm, from the whine and roar of the next Grumman diving down on them like some clumsy bird diving on a seashore, from the repetition of small arms fire popping a Fourth of July morning, Greg had heard Archie’s voice. It was part of his continual terror, wakeful dream, sudden silence in pre-dawn darkness: What would have happened if he hadn’t leaped to get Archie, hadn’t brought him back to the bunker, hadn’t hauled him inside just as the whole hill exploded under cannon fire, salvo after salvo after salvo?
Two days under earth they were, four men who found a supply of air tunneling under a small ledge, keeping them alive. For two days they heard Chinese spoken but feet away from them, it too coming with the air supply under the ledge. The napalm hit had cleared the peak of the hill. They had survived the close napalm and the creeping barrage and fusillade of their own artillery raking the length of the hill. A few timbers of the bunker roof held the Chinese People’s Army at little more than arm’s length. Under the weakest looking timber Greg had wedged his rifle. They had slept fitfully, not daring to move, keeping their legs in place, their bowels inert, their voices down, whispers as bare as breath. When hunger came in its push, like the snake it was, as if it had burrowed down to get at them, they talked about favorite meals.
It came on Greg again, the breakfast they created for the Last Supper, lounging in the back of his head; not the way he remembered it, but the way it was: It was raining, it was 1951, it was Korea, and they lay barricaded behind dirt, loam, rock, shale, speckled hardpan, spent shrapnel, an unknown blood brown as a berry stain on a bleached wood. Stale gunpowder smell circulated in the mountain hole, saucer of war left over, battle’s cup spilleth, death’s meat and meal taking up the air.
They were wet, cold, hungry. Now and then, muffled by earth, spoken Chinese came as the enemy passed over the retreat. Once he had thought of Sub Gum Harkew, quickly forgot Chinatown, brought rifles back, the probe of bayonets in Chinese hands, the thrust a search would bring, invasive, calculated, steel surgeons at work, dread doctors at awe. They waited, they hungered, they whispered, and silence, like fungus in root cellars, like onions in a poem he vaguely remembered, grew around them, sopping, thickening, becoming moldy and wet, crypt stuff if there ever was, mad man’s mausoleum.
He remembered an old barn, probably still struggling to sit up on its haunches in Middleboro, Massachusetts, horse leftovers, mule stuff, leather traces, hay as old as Methuselah, fallen dust, mushrooms taking over corners, life piling up on the old planet; sectarian, degenerate, miniscule, winsome, archeological, stigmatized, sudden emptiness, oh wordless the day long.
Diaz’ beard was a mold he could only feel. He had trouble feeling his own feet, legs locked in place, thighs convulsed. His breath came outhouse ripe. He cursed without using words; magnificent curses flew from his soul. McCaffery, on his left, two days of blood on his forehead hard as plaster cast, mumbled about steak, onions, round breads his mother made atop her stove where blue haze climbed on mountains. McCaffery brought Kentucky across the parallel, pulled it into that dark retreat, as if it had seceded from the Union; Kentucky has odors that live forever; he whispered of turkey taken down, browned, wild rice, hickory up in smoke, ham air curling all the way down a valley’s run where the boar thought it was loose forever. Darkness did food proper. It dissipated the edge of death, carried off wounds, lingered in wet silence as if someone’d spilled next door’s olla podrida.
The pot is the great custodian for nosy things after blood, after pain, after resurrection of hope, after palate memory, after taste finds one breathing air foul as rotting flesh. On the second day of mold, damp, other liqueurs, Chinese spoken atop rarely now, but distinctly, Diaz said they ought to speak of urgent meals to make their mouths water, to salivate.
McCaffery’s Kentucky came succulent, wet, leaves taking on mist, mountains blue as far as one could see. He saw recalled deep-set stains working his mother’s apron all to pieces as she delivered turkey into meals that might last a week, the rice of them, a red jelly, steam-twisted green vegetables, bread thick as an anvil and justly memorable, its heel end so hard a dog could sharpen teeth on it.
Diaz, though, went Mexican haywire; enchiladas wild with chili, an almost Cajun burn in his mouth, desert burning under saucer sun. In the middle of Diaz’ meal, Greg had remembered a goat propped over buckets of coals in Gilsum, New Hampshire, on a farm cut into the side of another mountain, poets reading into and out of a night of loving and the disappearance of goat’s edible parts.
Now Diaz’ face refused to come back to him, just beard mold. He knew Diaz’ eyes were not blue, but could not pick out their color. His mouth, his mouth so close to him, was ripening yet. Back over the meals the stench came, live as an ache. Chinese lingered again, jabbered, passed on the way history eases itself forward in pages of a book.
McCaffery, in Earth’s bowels, said he cried because of sausages. He said they were “Pecker-thick, pecker-stiff.”
Greg whispered of Vermont morning mountain peaks sticking up through an ocean of cloth-clean clouds, dew-damp gracing every surface, as if lacquer’s sheen had been put in place to wait the sun, and his brother Jim, Earth’s early bird, dawn’s pot-rustler, spiller of coffee, drawing together pairs of eggs, near-burnt toast, noisy Canadian bacon slabs whose toes curled and echoed from mountain top to mountain top.
He told Diaz and McCaffery and Archie how his brother cooked, how he floats forever in holiest waters of Lake Erie drumming up meals for him. McCaffery cried again, bled again, became desert hot, cooled, said his back hurt in a new setting. Wept, tasted salty tears. The mountain rocked. And Kentucky rocked. If those sounds were in the Sonora Desert would they have been heard? What was tamale? Chili? What was that dank smell, that small explosion, old wet barns, mildew in the mows, eggs gone over the edge, moist blankets holding night in their twill, those brothers, those comrades, his brother, that wetness, drivel of four bodies as if they had been canned forever.
Silence. Wet silence. Hush. Boots. Beyond the barricade, above, a voice, a scrutable voice, a voice of brogans and steel pots slammed home on the head, “Jeezzus, Sarge!” it echoed. That voice was sweet as yams, maple syrup, the catch that’s caught up in Kentucky rice. Brought Mexico across the border. Made Vermont suddenly valid. Made morning’s meal, wet miracle, come in the latter part of that long-ago day, that impermanent burial. Like a friggin’ bugle born again.
Greg Mulraney broke from the horror of reverie, holocaust of napalm, the Taurus’ turn signal flashing, windshield wipers slapping across dry glass, Pete shaking his fist in the air for the third or fourth time, waiting on him as he always did, away from the others, not wanting to share the one moment of true joy.
Yet, Pete Leon, against the backdrop of the resurrected building, showed no signs of age. With a dramatic flip he tossed the empty beer bottle into a trash barrel, shrugged his shoulders when the bottle obviously smashed into pieces, and waved, his smile honest as the day, the nod saying, “It’s about time you got here, you old son of a bitch.”
The first time Pete Leon crossed in front of him, back at Fort Devens in 1950, he had seen the grace of carriage saying here in fatigue uniform’s floppy pockets and customized drabness of dull green was an athlete, saying he was cocky, saying he was countable in spite of the first two attributes he’d come away with.
Later, in Korea, they had crossed paths a number of times, Pete riding the gun carriage of a 155 Howitzer down the MSR near Chorwon, an hour later bringing him along to chow by going right to the head of the chow line; Pete busting their balls as he elbowed his way right up to the First Cook, saying, “Charlie, this is a pal of mine. He’s a writer too, so give him extras or he’ll make a numb-nuts out of you some day. You can never get away from the black and white, Charlie. Never. It can haunt you until you drop and there ain’t a hell of a lot you can do about it. The book on you will follow you to the grave, Charlie, every last line written about you. Every damned word, curse or not, plaudit be damned too. You think you got secrets, Charlie. Even your mother will find out what you’ve been hiding all these years.”
Pete’s laughter ran the length of the disarmed chow line, feet shuffling to an unknown tune of hurry up and wait, mess kits dangling in anticipation, metallic elements stretching out every sound, every note, and the quick laughter noted as out of place.
Charlie had waxed purple. Popovers Greg hadn’t seen since Anthony’s Restaurant back home fell on his mess kit, fried chicken he might never get again in-country, mashed potatoes thick and white as snow, Pete all the time cajoling each of the cooks and attendants in the serving line, drawing allusions, looking back at Charlie every now and then as if punctuation was being rendered, giving advice, smiling and nodding at him all the while.
“Hey, Zebra, old buddy, new corporal, this here’s the real new Hemingway, if he ever gets to cut back on his vocab. This is Zebra, Greg, whose letters are priceless, not his but the ones from his pappy back in Elizabethton, Tennessee, home of the angels of the written word. Ain’t that right, Zebra? Ain’t that old man of yours the new coming of Will Rogers or more like Rod Jankins of the 278th than old Rod himself, still at the still, still carrying the same load of bricks on the back of his truck, the stuff stuffed down inside the bricks and straw?”
Then, as now, Pete’s eyes were blue and lit up, his hair black and severe in its trim, his jaw with the merest sense of slack cut into it. Later, when Pete had written all about that one visit in his best-seller, Night before the Terror, on a visit to Pete’s home high on a hill in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, his wife Barbara put out the same spread for them, right down to the goddamn mess kits she scrounged at an Army-Navy store after reading one chapter for the tenth time.
It had been memorable. It was all memorable, and here was his old pal, still looking the youngest of the group, still imbibing more than his fare share, out in the flank of the evening waiting on him. Pete’s spirit leaped at him, the way it always had, the openness, the willingness, the pure brightness of his words, the edge of meaning always evident, like a leaf from a page of Paulie Covell’s last book of poetry, pure Gillette, razor sharp, cutting away the crud.
It was Pete’s way of greeting him, alone, saying in his way you are special and I greet you that way. From his back-pocket Pete brought out a bottle of beer for him and held it aloft so that the sun caught at it and fled away as quickly as a spear. The bottle waved in his hand, a semaphore, a signal light, a moment of truth, Bedloe’s Island replaced into the heart of Ohio, into a bottle of Duquesne. Pete was something special. They all were special, and it had begun to build again, he felt, the doubt moving out of the way, letting it, slowly but surely, come back into his being.
From the back seat of the Taurus it seemed to come, incising at first, sharp, edges to it, nicking at first and then flooding him, that sense of belonging, that acceptance, that camaraderie which for long spells on the road had been displaced by doubt, by a mission statement he felt to be incomplete, the core of love he hoped would be his forever; what were they up to in this life, what would bring meaning to the group beyond the backslapping and hugging and rushing into the past the way old teammates dreamed it might happen and never quite bringing it off. Not the way old Dogfaces could. The way they did it was special, never rehearsed, never reserved or fraught with embarrassment, always spontaneous, leg-breaking stuff, arms loose, hands reaching and talking, the heart finding suddenly a new home for a short span or a long run, a home of acceptance. Not a fucking phony bone in any bit of it.
Oh, Christ, he was coming out of his own back seat, out of his own being. At once it smothered him and exploded him, and this time, like all the times, it was as if they had not seen each other since their faces had been in the earth and the sounds and shells all about them. His pal Pete was a true representation of the group; they’d all be the same, and it smothered him again and caught at his chest and breath and balled him tightly in the new and old clutch of friendship and love and need and dependence.
He suddenly knew they needed each other. No matter they had been long apart, at great distances, sometimes not communicating for weeks on end, they needed each other. They would go on needing each other, no matter how many books, how many credit lines, how many Broadway connections or readings in St. John’s, how many stories and articles and unlikely commissions came their way, they would need each other.
Right out in front of him Greg saw what Pete looked like and knew what Archie most likely looked like after three years. Paulie, for a moment, he wondered about; Paulie was to be wondered about; a man that could scrape down to the bones every word he ever worked with, could shave and chip and hone a sentence, or a fragment of a sentence, so that all that remained were chips of stone as fine as those keen to the fingers and left at an old Indian campfire, left to be found in the middle of the night, a reader suddenly knowing his head is loose, that the back of his skull, out away from him, was looking back at him, that chips of words were cutting into his nightly soul.
Last time, Paulie had looked thinner, eyes yet in a tunnel, back down where a man can find two words together, he’d never seen together before. He knew Paulie’s story as well as he knew the others. It rushed back at him even as Pete unscrewed the bottle cap for him and stepped to the side of the tired Taurus, Pete shaking his head in wonder. Each felt the air shaking with wonderment, and it brought Greg, as if in the throes of final composition, racing to bring Paulie Covell fully to written life.
Paulie Covell hooked up with them in Osaka, on R&R, Rest and Recuperation, Rape and Rampage, the Occupation at its best or worse, Japan still dropping its head, Japan still bending over a straw mat, facing a quarter of a century of coital retribution for one Sunday morning in 1941.
Greg had seen the slim corporal from his own regiment walk into the huge cafeteria-style restaurant, steaks flopping on platter-size plates, beer smell hanging in the air along with the burnt edge of steer. The four of them at a table had been carousing the night long, and looking it; a day’s growth of beard, eyes shallow, uniforms so unpleasant looking they were a breath from an MP’s grasp.
The corporal came away from the serving line with another steak flopping over the edge of a plate on his tray, a quart of beer the only other bit of entrée. He looked around the crowded room for a single seat, turned back to see Greg wave him on. Thin and wiry he was, and dark-eyed as if he had seen his own piece of hell back in Korea. A livid remnant of scar or wound measured its way across the back of one hand, a watch on that wrist with the crystal cracked like an eggshell, and yet his fingers delicate, available for piano or violin thought Greg, swinging a chair out for him.
“Looks like that steak just might eat you up, Corporal. Have a seat. Greg Mulraney, that’s me. This one’s Archie Pillings. That handsome son of a bitch is Pete Leon and he’ll steal your girl if you give him half a chance. The silent one beside me here is a poet of some note. His name is Graff Sidleck.” Greg remembered patting Graff Sidleck on the back and feeling the slight body move as though it was being punished. Graff coughed a couple of times as he nodded at the newcomer.
“I’m Paul Covell, from the 17th.” His eyes fell on Graff Sidleck. “You the editor of that little magazine out of Peak’s Island in Maine, The Windhover?”
Graff Sidleck coughed once more, smiled and said, “You wrote that one about the ants eating away the maple tree, with the Redcap image and all the hailing along the way. I loved that poem. I wrote back and you never answered. I put it anyway and never changed a word, not a comma.”
Covell fingered his two thin stripes. “Yes, I know that. Been working on these, staying alive, and not much else.” He looked around the table at the other faces, perhaps making assessments and then obviously not caring about any decision and added, “I keep a journal, work on it when I can, keep it stuffed in my pack. I’ll send you some new stuff when we get back.”
A small shadow, with wings Greg saw, flew across the back of the poet’s eyes.
Archie Pillings put his hand across the table. “Glad to meet you, Paul. This has the makings of a new kind of club. Maybe the USO can get us a back room some place, with a few typewriters kicking around and we can spend the war waging composition. All of us take turns at it. Back home I bet there’s half a dozen novels in manuscript right about now being moved from the bedroom to the attic or, worse, to the cellar or the garage because the kid sister is moving in with her two kids while her husband is getting his ass shipped over here or the kid brother, just recently getting his first piece of ass in the back seat of the old man’s Ford, has demanded our old room.”
“That’s a book in itself,” Paul Covell said, as he washed the first bite of steak away with a healthy and deep swig of Tiger brand Japanese beer. The immediate feeling in the air was that Paul Covell would remember, with clarity, every word that was said at the table. Poets, they knew, did it that way.
Greg could smell the cafeteria-style restaurant all those years ago, heard the din of silverware and plate, the scraping of chairs across a half mile of linoleum, the rumble of voices that had survived another night, not in the land of the Morning Calm but in the Land of the Rising Sun, the dark alleys some of them had gotten into during the previous nights, against advice, the hidden or inner cities without noticeable walls that carried yet a vestige of danger, a darkness in parts of Osaka only yielding itself to time and economics. The soft ceiling lights he could see again as multiple moons and the walls framed with hundreds of small and delightful garden scenes all framed with a sudden urgency, as if trying to salvage something from the past, establishing the past in a new way.
The haste that had developed them came across all the years, the rush to adorn the face of war with another face, to hide it for a quick visit to sanity and true hungers. He and hundreds of comrades in that huge room, released temporarily from the war a few hundred miles away, reveled in the noise and clamor of a select kind of freedom; momentary at best, loose, not at attention, not at alert, hungers of various colors and degrees having been fed, animated, neutralized. He wondered how many of them would go back to death, taking with them the itinerant odor and sounds that small women left in a man’s mind thinking he might never pass this way again.
The mats of Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo had been depressed fully on another night, Japan on the bottom, straw and bamboo at its back, still coming back from that noisy world it had put itself into.
For a slight second, a fraction of a second, Greg Mulraney knew the clarity of an idea he had had at the table all those years ago looking at Paulie Covell and the shadows in his eyes, thinking where he himself had been two nights earlier, trying to bring back the full-blown idea of a story coming out of the back of his mind like an old Walter snowplow was pushing it out of the snowstorm of a mental darkness.
Resonance of a freedom rode with the rumble of those recalled voices, momentary as it was, a lull, a taken breath, an exhalation of sound saying in its way, I am here, noisy, the way you remember it.
Here he was all these later knowing each of them in the clutter of his mind, each one seeking out its own place, its solitude, its loneliness, its oneness, in the confines and tunnels of his thinking, in the heavens of his mind. Paulie Covell was as bright a star as Pete Leon, coursing across the darkness of matter, lighting up his own way, star of stars, saying and unfolding his name as he rushed across the literary heavens, trailing it out behind him.
Greg knew Paulie’s story as well as the others. In the clarity he sometimes owned up to a god-given attribute, acute and trembling with the smallest detail, the most lethal of insights, a whole panorama swelled with thought and made-decisions that backbone a life in its eternal ride, the learned aspects of Paulie Covell’s life all came back to him in a mighty rush.
Insular, an only child born at the edge of the sea in a small village of Martha’s Vineyard, salt cutting an edge in his mind, infiltrating in its stubborn way, the ocean at roar and slicing words into pieces one could learn to handle as one handles coins of minor value and size when one is poor.
Sometimes those words were known completely their length and breadth as one knows lint in the pocket, infinitesimally shaped, formed, twisted to one side of their meaning or the other, fingered gingerly or squeezed to make them sound themselves out, or left to fend for eternity, Paulie Covell grew by mouthing the words of adventure that reading had found for him. Now and then new words and phrases were like the birds caught in the offshore winds, catching light from the sun or clouds, silver and gold leaping off those wings grand as mirrors, stretching and reaching and tossing shine as shine could not otherwise be tossed. They came at him, verbs so sharp and glorious they ached to pass his lips, to carry his soul; now and then an adjective not before seen or heard, but sparse upon itself, knifing, an edge under a noun, lifting it, twisting it, now and then a rebirth of meaning or extension.
The common threads of beach and clam and sand and dune wandered endlessly through his mind seeking a place to light or to light up, disparate at once and yet coming together, marveling one upon the other. Such a mesh was his grail. His search always to find words never found together before by any man or the masters of tongues, somewhere waiting discovery. Why not, waiting for Paulie Covell?
From the celebration of his first year on this earth, his mother, Mari Tunyard Covell, a slim creature of enormous energy and appetites, eyes drawn back to share an inner light Paulie swore he could see only as she read, she had begun reading to him. And that light continued to gleam down at the backside of her eyes.
Often the volumes were as slim as she was. They had dark green covers or jackets almost wet with bright paints, and she would hold them in different lights or at odd angles to catch the sun or a lamp’s glow, thusly throwing herself into a lithe knot of sounds, and then there were the tomes with deep maroon covers sometimes too heavy for him to lift, but so rich with wonder and new sounds.
From the first he had always known he could see that light in his mother’s eyes. It had become for him the sole lighthouse of his hungry sea, the music of the words rushing on him, the bits of ship and dory riding on the peak of a tide, residues of her reading words he did not know the meaning of but which soon became his constant friends. That he best dwelled in that distant light he came early to know. It was haven from storm, and a place away from the tyranny of his father who, gone for months at a time to the sea, would come back with the most ferocious of appetites, taking Paulie away from his mother for days on end.
Alone, his mother locked up with his father, the sure light put away, doused, he wandered the rooms of the house, then, seven years of age, precocious beyond words, a favorite of his teachers, he wandered the acres of beaches and dunes, mumbling and mouthing the words and stretching them for every inch of their meaning, every route possible for them to take in that map of words growing in the back of his head, sounding themselves, making themselves known when he found them at the side of the sea, in a brackish pond, on the tip of a berry-brown cat’o’nine tail.
Paulie, after that first encounter in the restaurant at Osaka, had told him of the magic he had felt in mouthing words. Oh, they could be full of adventure or passion or loneliness or so mystical in approach they demanded some kind of abeyance even before they could be sounded.
Paulie would tip it that way. Oh, bounded and bonded, and one to be borne. That was yet to come: One to be borne.
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