Chapter OneApril 25, 1930
We are each the love of someone's life.
I wanted to put that down in case I am discovered and unable to complete these pages, in case you become so disturbed by the facts of my confession that you throw it into the fire before I get to tell you of great love and murder. I would not blame you. So many things stand in the way of anyone ever heating my story. There is a dead body to explain. A woman three times loved. A friend betrayed. And a boy long sought for. So I will get to the end first and tell you we are each the love of someone's life.
I sit here on a lovely April day. It keeps changing all around me; the sun alternates between throwing deep shadows behind the children and trees and then sweeping them back up again the moment a cloud crosses the sky. The grass fills with gold, then falls to nothing. The whole school yard is being inked with sun and blotted, glowing and reaching a point of great beauty, and I am breathless to be in the audience. No one else notices. The little girls sit in a circle, dresses crackling with starch and conspiracy, and the boys are on the baseball field or in the trees, hanging upside down. Above, an airplane astounds me with its roar and schoolmarm line of chalk. An airplane; it's not the sky I once knew.
And I sit in a sandbox, a man of almost sixty. The chill air has made the sand a bit too tough for the smaller kids to dig; besides, the field's changing sunlight is too tempting, so everyone else is out there charging at shadows, and I'm left to myself.
We begin with apologies:
For the soft notebook pages you hold in your hands, a sad reliquary for my story and apt to rip, but the best I could steal. For stealing, both the notebooks and the beautiful lever-fed pen I'm writing with, which I have admired for so many months on my teacher's desk and simply had to take. For the sand stuck between the pages, something I could not avoid. There are more serious sins, of course, a lost family, a betrayal, and all the lies that have brought me to this sandbox, but I ask you to forgive me one last thing: my childish handwriting.
We all hate what we become. I'm not the only one; I have seen women staring at themselves in restaurant mirrors while their husbands are away, women under their own spell as they see someone they do not recognize. I have seen men back from war, squinting at themselves in shopwindows as they feel their skull beneath their skin. They thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes. Mine is a very different story, but it all turns out the same.
One of the reasons I sit here in the sand, hating what I've become, is the boy. Such a long time, such a long search, lying to clerks and parish priests to get the names of children living in the town and suburbs, making up ridiculous aliases, then crying in a motel room and wondering if I would ever find you. You were so well hidden. The way the young prince in fairy tales is hidden from the ogre: in a trunk, in a thorny grove, in a dull place of meager enchantment. Little hidden Sammy. But the ogre always finds the child, doesn't he? For here you are.
If you are reading this, dear Sammy, don't despise me. I am a poor old man; I never meant you any harm. Don't remember me just as a childhood demon, though I have been that. I have lain in your room at night and heard your breathing roughen the air. I have whispered in your ear when you were dreaming. I am what my father always said I was-I am a freak, a monster-and even as I write this (forgive me) I am watching you.
You are the one playing baseball with your friends as the sunlight comes and goes through your golden hair. The sunburned one, clearly the boss, the one the other boys resent but love; it's good to see how much they love you. You are up to bat but hold out your hand because something has annoyed you; an itch, perhaps, as just now your hand scratches wildly at the base of your blond skull, and after this sudden dervish, you shout and return to the game. Boys, you don't mean to be wonders, but you are.
You haven't noticed me. Why would you? To you I am just the friend in the sandbox, scribbling away. Let's try an experiment: I'll wave my hand to you. There, see, you just put down your bat to wave back at me, a smile cocked across your freckled face, arrogant but innocent of everything around you. All the years and trouble it took for me to be here. You know nothing, fear nothing. When you look at me, you see another little boy like you.
A boy, yes, that's me. I have so much to explain, but first you must believe:
Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outside-in every part of me but my mind and soul-I grow young.
* * *
There is no name for what I am. Doctors do not understand me; my very ceils wriggle the wrong way in the slides, divide and echo back their ignorance. But I think of myself as having an ancient curse. The one that Hamlet put upon Polonius before he punctured the old man like a balloon:
That, like a crab, I go backwards.
For even now as I write, I look to be a boy of twelve. At nearly sixty, there is sand in my knickers and mud across the brim of my cap. I have a smile like the core of an apple. Yet once I seemed a handsome man of twenty-two with a gun and a gas mask. And before that, a man in his thirties, trying to find his lover in an earthquake. And a hardworking forty, and a terrified fifty, and older and older as we approach my birth.
"Anyone can grow old," my father always said through the bouquet of his cigar smoke. But I burst into the world as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles around my eyes, darkening the white and then the gray in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession.
A mooncalf, a changeling; a thing so out of joint with the human race that I have stood in the street and hated every man in love, every widow in her long weeds, every child dragged along by a loving dog. Drunk on gin, I have sworn and spat at passing strangers who took me for the opposite of what I was inside-an adult when I was a child, a boy now that I am an old man. I have learned compassion since then, and pity passersby a little, as I, more than anyone, know what they have yet to live through.
* * *
I was born in San Francisco in September 1871. My mother was from a wealthy Carolina family, raised in the genteel area of South Park, originally planned for Southern gentry, but, with the loss of the war, open to anyone with enough wealth to throw an oyster supper. By then, the distinction among people in my city was no longer money-the blue silver clay of the Comstock had made too many beggars into fat, rich men-so society became divided into two classes: the chivalry and the shovelry. My mother was of the first, my father of the wretched second.
No surprise that when they met in the swimming pool of the Del Monte hotel, staring at each other through the fine net that separated the sexes, they fell in love. They met again that very night, on the balcony, away from her chaperones, and I am told my mother wore the latest Paris fashion: a live beetle, iridescently winged, attached to her dress with a golden chain. "I'll kiss you," my father whispered to her, shivering with love. The beetle, green and metal, scampered on her bare shoulder, then tried to take flight. "I'll do it, I'll kiss you this moment," he insisted, but did nothing, so she took him by the handles of his muttonchops and brought his lips to hers. The beetle tugged at its leash and landed in her hair. Her heart exploded.
Throughout the autumn of 1870, the Dane and the debutante met on the sly, finding secluded spots in the new Golden Gate Park to kiss and grope, the nearby bison grumbling in their corrals. But like a clambering vine, lust must lead somewhere or wither, and so it led to this: the detonation of Blossom Rock. It was a city celebration, and Mother somehow slipped away from Grandmother and South Park to meet her Danish lover, her Asgar, and watch the great event. It was to be the greatest explosion yet in the city's history-the dynamiting of Blossom Rock, a shoal in the Golden Gate that had been shattering hulls for a century-and while optimistic fishermen prepared for what they assumed would be the best catch of the century, pessimistic scientists warned of a great "earth wave" that would roll across the continent, wreaking havoc on every standing structure; the populace should flee. Did they flee? Only to the highest hills, for the best view of the end of the world.
So my parents found themselves among the thousands on Telegraph Hill, and afraid of being recognized, they rushed inside the old heliograph station for privacy. I imagine my mother sitting in her pink silk dress in the old operator's chair, pressing her finger against the window and clearing an oval from the window's dust. There, she saw the crowds in their black wool looking out to sea. Even as she felt my father's fingers upon her lace she saw the young boys chucking oyster shells at the tallest of the stovepipe hats. "My love," her lover whispered, undoing her rows of buttons. She did not turn to take his kisses but shivered at the sensation of her skin. She had rarely been naked since the day she was born, not even in the bath, having always worn a long white nightgown into the warm water. As my father-to-be shucked her like a rare oyster, she wriggled like one, too, chilled and weeping now not just with love-" mine dyr, mine dyr," he whispered-but with relief at what she was about to lose.
At 1:28 a warning shot came from Alcatraz and that is the exact moment that my mother's technical girlhood ended. A little gasp in the cold air, a glare from the heliographic plates across the room, and my father was shuddering into her ear, whispering things he could not possibly mean and that no one but an angry parent would ever hold him to. Mother was calm, watching the cheering boys outside the grimed window. The crowd was restless but excited. And Mother-who knows what mothers feel when fathers first possess them?
And then-at 2:05 exactly (well endured, my young and eager father)-her lover cried out in ecstasy as a great rumbling seized the air. To her right, through the window, she witnessed the most extraordinary sight of her lost girlhood: a column of water two hundred feet in diameter, black as jet, rising into the crisp air of the Golden Gate. At the top floated great hunks of the dissipated Blossom Rock, and it looked for all the world like the conquering fist of a Titan punching at the clouds. So huge, so menacing. The world around her shouted so loudly she could barely hear her young man's cries. Steamers whistled; guns fired by the hundreds into the skies. The dark column fell back into the water and then, to her gasping surprise, another column heaved into the air-just as her lover's moans were rising once again-and fell back in boiling blackness into great circular wells of bay water that lashed at every fishing boat at sea.
The young man calmed at last, mumbled something foreign and ecstatic into her collarbone. "Yes, my love," she replied, and for the first time looked back upon her lover. He mewled like a child on her breast. She touched the hot gold of his hair and he whimpered, his strong hands moving spastically in the froth of her ripped lacework. Like the shining beetle on the night of their first kiss, he lay chained and happy on her shoulder. In that moment, she panicked a little, remembering the girls who had made mistakes in her neighborhood and had disappeared. She could hear in her lover's sighs how little he was thinking of the future.
And somewhere in the postcoital pawing and fussing, somewhere in the softening swells of the blackened Golden Gate, as bits of rock fell through the sooty waters to rest forever on the deep bottom, somewhere in the weeping sorrow of the glaziers and fishermen who found none of the booty they had hoped for, somewhere in the cheers and gun salutes and steam-whistling of the hysterical hat-tossing crowds, somewhere in that chivaree, I came into being.
But the question is: Was the crazed explosion of Blossom Rock enough to jolt my cells into a backwards growth? Was my mother so shocked by the sound, or so saddened by herself, that she distorted what little existed of me? It seems ludicrous, but my mother fretted until her death over the price she paid for love.
* * *
On the morning I was born, according to my mother, the midwife handed me down in my flannel wrap and whispered, You should probably let him go, the doctor says he's a little wrong. I was not much to look at. Wrinkled, palsied, opening my blind, clouded eyes as I wailed into the room, I'm sure my mother was horrified. I believe she might even have screamed. But in the corner stood my father; arms crossed, smoking his ever-present Sweet Caporals, he looked at me and expressed no horror. Father came close, squinting through his pince-nez, and saw a mythical creature from his Danish boyhood:
"Aha!" he cried aloud, laughing, smoking again as my terrified mother looked on, as the midwife held me away. "He is a Nisse!"
"He is a Nisse! He is lucky, darling." He leaned down to kiss her forehead and then my own, which was falsely lined with decades of worry. He smiled at his wife and then spoke sternly to the midwife: "He is ours, we will not let him go."
It was untrue; I was not lucky. But what he meant was that I looked like those little old men who lived beneath the Danish countryside. I looked like a gnome. A monster. And aren't I?
* * *
I didn't smell like a baby. My mother said she noticed this as I suckled at her breast, and though she could never be brought to speak unkindly of me and always bathed my liver-spotted arms as if they were the tenderest baby's skin, she admitted that my scent was wonderful but not like any infant she'd ever held. Something more like a book, musty and lovely but wrong. And my proportions were unusual: skinny torso and small head, long arms and legs, and a surprisingly sharp nose that must have been the cause of at least one chloroformed cry from the birthing room. Babies have no noses-anybody will tell you this-but I had one. And a chin. And a face reupholstered in elephant's skin, buttoned with the clouded, sad blue eyes of the blind.
"What's wrong with him, suh?" Grandmother whispered in
her Carolina accent. She was dressed in the black bombazine and
veils that encrust her in my memory.