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Shadowplay

This morning I found an extraordinary thing. It is part of a love letter—there is nothing else to call it—addressed to a woman named Jessica. It has no date. Its handwriting, I am all but certain, is Adam’s, or a version of Adam’s in which the awkwardness has been somewhat worn away. I’m trying to think how long it has been since I saw something he wrote by hand. I think this letter could be written by someone Adam’s age, which is twenty-two, but twenty-five would be even more believable. Which makes me picture him sitting in this cabin a few years from now, this place where we used to come, his mother and I, eons ago, before. Where he came when he was a little boy, and I had no idea that the happiness of those years was still the exception and not, as I imagined, the new rule of my life.

I picture Adam, a man in his twenties now, sitting here at the one table writing the letter, stopping between sentences to dream of his Jessica—I want her to be his, at least for a time. The writer of this letter certainly is sufficiently in love to deserve her. Or perhaps they came here, or will come here, together, as a consequence of the letter, living the kind of magical time Carol and I shared here once. Perhaps she brings the letter with her as a talisman, a visible evidence of being loved—but then why would she leave it here? It’s not the sort of thing one forgets to pack. And that’s the least of the things I don’t understand here. This cabin is full of unanswerable questions.


Finding the letter has given me a reckless idea—to write to Adam everything I never told him, everything he needs to know, and leave it here, for him to discover when he and his Jessica arrive, whenever that may be. If that is to happen three, or five, or seven years from now, so be it. To do it at all is dangerous, to say the unsaid, to blurt it all as I have never dared do, for fear of losing the people I cared about most. It’s the notion of his being in love that makes me want to; the idea of him on the threshold, now or later, about to start playing his life for keeps. Don’t I owe it to him—this gift that parents are afraid to give? Doesn’t he need all the truth he can get?

I should write what I can, and leave it in something tightly sealed, so mice won’t chew it for nests when no one is here, so rain won’t drip on it even if the roof should leak, and put it where he can’t miss seeing it. And then at the end I’ll ask him to call me, and I’ll wait. As I have been doing already for a long time. Except I can’t very well tell him to call me if I don’t know where I’m going after I leave.

I could stay here; it’s still my cabin, even if I haven’t used it much in the last six or seven years. If Adam is using it, or is going to someday, that seems to justify my paying the taxes on it; though in truth, I would do that in any case, just because I couldn’t let anyone else own it. It wouldn’t sell for much anyway, though I’d get more for it than I paid Arne Lerstein thirty years ago. It was cheap then, and it would still be cheap now. There are plenty of cabins on plenty of ponds in New Hampshire; it isn’t like this is the only one, and it’s remote, the pond is smallish and the mosquitoes are extra large.

I didn’t expect I’d be able to drive in here; the road was never much more than two tracks worn by the wheels of cars in the spruce-needled floor of the woods, even when we came here regularly. It took me a while to find the road at all; branches scratched their nails on the sides of the car, and bushes scraped the bottom of it, but by stopping to cut away brush and saplings with the hand saw from my tool box, I was able to drive all the way in to the cabin. Just like in the old days, I was worried that if I got here and then it started to rain I’d be stuck in here until the ground dried out. I used to get Phil Bouchard to come with his bush hog and clear the road and put a load of gravel on it, but to tell the truth I don’t even know if Phil is alive anymore.

Staying here isn’t a real possibility anyway. I’d never make it through the winter. If I were going to try, I should have already started patching the cracks, figuring ways to insulate, cutting firewood; and if I were a farmer like Arne, I’d have a vegetable garden and a root cellar. But it’s too late for all that, and there are other things I must do before I leave.


I spent the night worrying that I might be handing Adam an unnecessary burden, and one that he could never be rid of, if I tell him everything. But about five a.m., when the sky began to lighten, I decided that was only an excuse, like all the other rationalizations I’ve used throughout my life to justify lying by omission. Then I finally went to sleep, and when I woke up I hadn’t changed my mind. So let me begin, before I do. Adam, this is for you. Now that you’re older, now that you’re ready to hear it all, these are the things I perhaps should have told you from the start, though I think you’ll see why I did not. I’ll try to keep it short, if I can, and stick to the important parts, and although some of this might sound like advice, it won’t be. You’ll see that I am the last person who should give it, and most advice is futile anyhow. Your life is yours; I want to tell you, at last, what mine has actually been. Surely I owe you a confirmation of what I imagine you must always have unknowingly known. Some of what I have to tell you may not seem to make sense, and it isn’t a tale for children with an easy moral. But it is the life I have actually lived—the secret life, the truth. Anomalous beads on the string of the ordinary.


That means I have to start, and it isn’t easy. I have to start right away before I have time to imagine what you’ll think of me. Once I had a brother.

You never knew him, of course. He wasn’t the average brother, who would have played ball and learned to drive and gone on dates and later on would have gotten his master’s degree in whatever. He was what they called, when I was young, an imbecile. Or a moron. One of those. I don’t say this to be deliberately brutal; there used to be—it’s hard to believe now—an official ranking of those terms, in medical parlance. I can’t remember if a moron was smarter than an imbecile, or the other way around. But my brother, anyway, wasn’t like other people. He was retarded, feeble-minded. He never learned to read or write—never could have, even if he’d been taught the way you might teach such a person today. And no one did try to teach him for long, though someone, some time, managed to get him to learn how to print his name: Aaron. That was the one word he knew on paper. It wasn’t too easy to read, when he printed it, but you could. Aaron was older than me by six years—which tells you, I guess, how long it took my parents to get their courage up to try again after they had him. I’m surprised now that they ever had another child, when I imagine how hard it must have been for them to have Aaron. I wish I knew how much you remember, Adam, of what I told you about my father. I don’t want to bore you. But it’s been a long time since you asked me what your grandfather was like; it’s been a long time since we had the kind of conversation where you might ask such a thing. I remember you used to ask me how come we got this name, Kaiulani, when we weren’t Hawaiians. Even my father wasn’t, really—his parents came to Idaho when he was a little kid. His mother was Chinese, and there was Portuguese and Polynesian and English in there somewhere too. By the time I was born he lived in Springfield, Illinois, which you must remember, from visits to your grandmother much later on. The home of Abe Lincoln. My father looked different from other people’s fathers, but people didn’t say much about that. There was only one of him in Springfield—not enough to constitute a threat to anybody, but I’m sure he knew he was an outsider. I looked a little different from the average kid, myself, in grade school, and they teased me because they thought my face was too flat; but they teased Richie Flynn too, because he was fat and shy. It’s impossible to get through your childhood without being teased about something. My mother wasn’t always the white-haired old woman you knew, who used to offer you treats and then scold you for taking too many. I know you didn’t like her; I didn’t like her much either, by the time you were born. But she was different when I was a child. She was a redhead—pretty, I think. One never knows if one’s own mother is pretty or not. I wonder how you think of yours, what image of her you carry inside. I remember that as a kid I saw some old pictures of my mother, taken around the time she and my father got married, where I hardly recognized the young woman on his arm, whose calves were round like doves. None of those pictures exist anymore. She got skinny after Aaron was born, and that is how I remember her. When you were born, Adam—one of the unforgettable days of my life—the only thing she wanted to know was if you were normal or not. I told her you were better than normal, and she made a scornful or impatient sort of noise—we were on the phone, but I could see her lips tighten—and said, “I want to know if he’s like Aaron. You can tell immediately.” That name had not been mentioned in years. “He’s not like Aaron,” I said, with some difficulty. “That’s all that matters,” she replied. “I’m sure you have to get back to Carol. I’ll say goodbye.” It isn’t all that matters to me, I wanted to say, but her tone didn’t allow me to say anything but “goodbye” in return. If I had gone on talking any longer, I would have been remiss in my duty to my wife. That was the message. Whenever I talked with my mother, some opportunity to fall short of my duties was usually ready to hand. So she must have known from the first moment that Aaron wasn’t right. I don’t know how she dealt with that knowledge, the first week, or month, or year—a great deal must have happened that I don’t know about. I remember being surprised to hear that Aaron lived with my grandmother for a couple of years, before I was born and a while after; in my memory he was always there. Hanging over me, you might say, the way a thundercloud hangs, or a cliff, or something that might fall. In childhood Aaron was more like an old man. It wasn’t just his mind that came out different; his bones seemed too big for his skin, his teeth too big for his mouth, his nose too much nose for a child to have. He looked chronically uncomfortable in his own body, he stumbled into the furniture and dropped half the things he tried to pick up; he grimaced a lot, muttered to himself, pouted darkly and then burst out swearing at someone or something: “You goddamn goddamn!” My mother would reprimand him, every time. When he was more under control he’d mutter “You old D.O.D.,” which I guess was his version of “S.O.B.” His speech wasn’t easy to understand, even for us; it was slurred and nasal, the inflection didn’t necessarily go with the words, and sometimes if you made out what he said, it still didn’t make any sense. He would be telling you something about his endless day that was always the same, and you’d be following it—uh-huh, Aaron, uh-huh, yeah, go on—and then suddenly he’d be talking about something that never happened and never could. How the mayor called him up and said get the police and the fire truck and go downtown and…then you stopped listening. He had no conception of time; it was no use asking him when anything happened, and if you said Christmas was coming in a week it was no more interesting to him than if you said it would come in a year. I always thought he resented us all for being normal, for having it so much easier than he did, for being able to read, to play with something without breaking it, to get through the day without a hundred frustrations and failures, without being reprimanded, without making other people look away. No one ever liked eating with Aaron; no one could ever enjoy a meal who had to look up and see him chew. The smell of him, which I have never been able to bear in later life except when you were a baby, was the smell of half-dried saliva. I have a feeling that he resented me the most, because, after all, I started off as an infant: probably the only time in his life he was more capable than someone else. And then I had the nerve to grow up, right under his nose, and be better than he was at everything. To say that I was the favored child doesn’t even come close; I was the compensation, the consolation, the replacement for him, and by the time I can remember him clearly, when I was five, he must have known exactly how it was and always would be—because in a way that I can’t explain, he was retarded, but he wasn’t dumb. Nothing I say explains Aaron—possibly nothing even gives you the right idea. He wasn’t a regular person trapped in a peculiar situation, like someone with cerebral palsy. If you knew Aaron, you realized you couldn’t imagine being him, no matter how hard you tried. Of course, I didn’t want to try; I fell a long way short of compassion where Aaron was concerned. What I mostly wanted was for him to go away. At least I had the excuse of being a child and a younger brother. My parents had nothing to shelter them from the judgments they must have passed on themselves when they couldn’t bear him, but nobody could have lived with Aaron without wishing once in a while that he would just disappear. I know it ate at them; I knew it even then, and now that I’ve been a parent myself I can make a better guess at the hell that it must have been to live with love and hate in one heart. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word. I hated him at times; I don’t know what they did, but I can remember how hard it was for my father to look at him sometimes, and the way my mother clamped down on her impatience. She had to clamp down her whole self, some days. There’s no knowing what they might have been without him. They might even have been happily married—but they weren’t. That is the fact. And I would like to deal in facts, few as those are, whenever I can.


As I write this, Adam, I’m sitting on the screen porch, and whenever I stop the pond is always there, waiting for me to give it my attention. I was going to say it never changes, but it does, of course. I can watch puffs of wind travel across its surface, watch the sky change in it. Somehow, no matter how bright the sky that is reflected in them, its waters remain dark beneath the brightness, both dark and bright at once, no color I can name. Painters must spend years learning how to paint something like that. I know there’s a point of land across from us, but the darkness of its trees melts into the trees on the shore behind it, and sitting here you’d never know that behind that point is another arm of the pond, ending in a marsh choked with water lilies and reeds. The rocks that I know are halfway out to the point cannot be seen, unless perhaps certain ripples I notice are caused by their presence just breaking the surface. I remember you standing on those rocks with nothing visibly holding you up, waving your arms to me on shore and yelling, “It’s a miracle!” “Be careful!” I yelled back. I knew how slippery they were, I was afraid you’d slide off and hit your head. When I came here, I was thinking the shore might have gotten built up, but if anything it’s less populated than it was years ago. Maybe it’s too small and ordinary to qualify as a vacation spot nowadays. Only once since I have been here have I seen another person, a fisherman in an old metal boat, chugging steadily along in a northerly direction. But I never saw him come back. The herons and loons have all the fishing to themselves. Bug sounds come in waves, night and day; cicadas send out their loud rasping in all directions, and when the sun is hot at midday I can smell the tall weeds baking in it, along with the dark, greenish scent of the pond’s margin. Since I first came here years ago those things have never changed, which makes me feel, sometimes, as though life were still able to begin.


Perhaps we could have endured living with him despite everything, if Aaron hadn’t started to grow…