Skip to main content

Iggy Ugly


ISSUE:  Summer 1998

Half a rainbow climbed the late afternoon sky, its colors slowly emerging—first green and orange, then violet, then bitter yellow—to puzzle Andrew Rogacz. The way it broke off just before the arc began to turn. He braced for the pelting of unanswerable meteorological questions from Iggy; then, looking down, saw she was asleep. Her legs were tucked up so that her whole body (she was small for a six-year-old) fit into the old Porsche’s bucket seat; her face was wedged against the window. Andrew watched the moist cloud of her breath come and go on the glass. From this angle she looked normal, like any ordinary unhappy child.

The bray of a truck horn yanked his eyes back to the road. But he was already, instinctively, swerving to the right. The Porsche, old as it was, responded; the semi splashed by in a roar of spray with inches to spare.

The tachometer shot past the red line. Andrew fought the chattering in his skull that he refused to call fear and slowly eased up on the accelerator. On an impulse he swung off at the next exit. They were on their way home to Pittsburgh from Boston, and he’d planned to stop for the night in Scranton, the halfway point. But it was late—the neurosurgeons at Mass General had taken much longer than he’d expected to evaluate (their ugly word) his daughter. Providence’s meager skyline seemed to beckon, unthreatening. They might as well stop here.

Half a fucking rainbow, for Christ’s sake.

“Let. Go. And. Let— Let—” Iggy read the motel clerk’s T-shirt.

“Guys,” Andrew supplied automatically.

The clerk, a very young woman with a curly side-slung pony-tail and a rose tattooed on one cheek, said without looking up, “Cad?”

Probably he was, Andrew thought, confused—a jerk, anyway. But how would this girl, barely older than his eighth-grade students, know that? “Sorry,” he said. “What did you say?”

“Visa or Mastacad?”

“Cash.” His credit cards were maxed out, as usual.

There was a tiny portable TV on the counter and the clerk kept her eyes on it while her hands busied themselves with his money.

“Let go and let guys,” Iggy repeated happily. She like to reread a sentence whole and smooth, once she’d sounded out its parts. It reminded him of Clio, the way she’d print a photograph over and over until it satisfied her. Iggy had read aloud every billboard, road sign, T-shirt, and legible bit of graffiti they’d encountered since leaving Pittsburgh three days before. She never asked what any of it meant (a fortunate thing, in view of some of the graffiti); the pure act of deciphering was enough for her. Andrew hadn’t realized until this trip how the world badgered the literate.

The clerk held out a key and said “Two-twenty-six, around the back and—” She looked up for the first time, and saw Iggy.

Andrew, who’d neglected to brace himself as he usually did, felt the quick itch of anger, felt his face grow hot. He was the only 35-year-old he knew who still blushed.

As he opened his mouth to crush her with one of his prepared responses, the girl (no prize in the looks department herself) recovered. “—up the center stairs,” she finished, staring down at Iggy, whose small, sad-grumpy face did not change. Her root-beer-colored eyes—her one lovely feature—regarded the clerk with what only Andrew could recognize as hope.

Coaxingly the clerk said, “There’s an indoor pool downstairs. It’s open till eight. It’s wicked nice.”

Then, as Iggy failed to return her smile, she shrugged. “Swim at your own risk,” she said to Andrew, and thrust the key at him.

The old frustration seized him—Do something, you jerk—though he knew it was useless. He took the key and turned away without thanks, erasing the girl as he’d taught himself to do. She was what his favorite student, Julio, would have called dick-puke.

His daughter is beautiful when she swims. She is Grace then—her real name—and Iggy is cast aside, shed like a skin worn only on land. Her face is altered by the water’s mercy, its silver obscuring streamers, as her head turns, rhythmically, towards Andrew. Her body shines: the hard-working bliss of her long legs, opal gleam of elbows, flash of a freckled, cupped hand. The water, charged with her motion, admits her over and over. The smell of chlorine, the water’s light slap against her skin, reach Andrew like a telegram from happier times. Watching, he feels his anger slide away into the echoing air.

GIRL, 5, CHOKES TO DEATH ON SLIDE BOWLING BALL STRIKES 8-MONTH-OLD IN CAR WISCONSIN BOY DRAGGED 2 MILES BY SCHOOL BUS

For a while after Iggy’s diagnosis he had clipped such stories, a collector of misfortunes, as if this might lessen his pain.(I cry because I have not shoes, his grandmother used to say, and then I see a man which has not feet.) And for a while—he knew he should be ashamed of this, but fuck it—it had helped.

That night in their motel room, after a McDonald’s meal that Clio would never have allowed, Iggy slept with the AAA TripTik under her arm, as she had every night since they’d left Pittsburgh. She couldn’t read a map yet, not really; but Andrew had shown her in the atlas at home the route they would take—across Pennsylvania, up through New York and Connecticut, to Boston—to the Special Doctors. Their fingers, his and Iggy’s, had traveled farther, all the way up the long coast of Maine to Rogue Bluff Harbor. The brash, bright, rocky headland where he’d spent childhood summers with his grandmother while his pediatrician parents treated more deserving children in the high plains of Peru. Iggy had never seen Baba, who’d died a decade before she was born, or Maine, or the ocean. The Main Ocean, Iggy called it, and would accept no substitutes; so they had not stopped along the coast after they’d turned north outside New York City.

Andrew stripped to his boxers and got into his own too-wide bed next to Iggy’s with a bottle of Glenlivet and one of the motel’s plastic glasses. He jabbed the remote. The blowing up of a 13th-century bridge near Sarajevo was followed by an interview with various celebrities about AIDS, in which a French supermodel, eyes intermittent behind Lhasa Apso hair, declared, “Moi, je suis contre.” Andrew flicked it off and lay open-eyed in the dark. Sounds of other TVs, other transients, came to him dimly on the fruity, disinfected air.

Before the birth of Iggy, there had been, though they hadn’t realized it then, only small things. An accident on 1—76, but no one was hurt; periodic layoffs from the Youngstown Philharmonic, in which Andrew, third oboe, was usually the first to go; the Porsche’s first engine caught fire.(“Americans, schatz,” Baba said—she was still alive then—”Americans have always the mechanical problems. For them this is tragedy.”) After Iggy, everything changed. For the first few hours they had not seen: neither he nor Clio had been around babies much, and the newborn Grace slept all the time. The obstetrician and the pediatrician came to Clio’s hospital room together to break the news—two men who looked so much alike (round, youngish, thinning hair) that Andrew thought of them ever afterward as the Tweedles, Dum and Dee. The baby, they said, had been born without the nerve that controls smiling and frowning. Moebius Syndrome, it was called. An inherited disorder.

While they waited through Grace’s first year to see whether she was retarded—a frequent accompaniment of Moebius syndrome— Andrew did research. Shadyside Middle School, where he taught music, was on the bus line to the Carnegie-Mellon Library. In the waning winter afternoons he found his way to the Encyclopedia of Birth Defects and Jablonski’s Dictionary of Medical Syndromes, paging through horrors, his dreams at night filled with the cleft faces of babies that looked as if they’d been seized and twisted like taffy. And all the time he wondered, Had he been the one? Had he given this to his daughter? Clio—generously, he’d thought at the time— had refused genetic testing for either of them. “Let’s just not know,” she’d said. “That way neither of us can say, It’s your fault.”

Then came the battery—so well named, Andrew thought, counting the bruises on Grace’s small body—of tests. EMG, EEG, X-ray, biopsy (probes, electrodes, needles, knives): they became fluent, he and Clio, in the language of pain. Separated by the different ways in which this changed them, they took turns driving Iggy (she was Iggy by then, at three, the name she gave herself) to speech therapists, massage therapists, physical therapists, psychotherapists. Clio, who’d put herself through the Rhode Island School of Design by driving a cab (the way Andrew, arriving late at the airport for a gig in Providence, had met her), believed fiercely in all of these things—in any land of action. The neurologist mentioned “compassion fatigue.” By now, entering first grade, Iggy could speak fairly clearly (except for sibilants, which tripped her weakened tongue); but the corners of her mouth filled with drool and her lips, especially when she was tired, pursed oddly, turning downward. Her rosy, freckled face was blank, a doll’s face: only the eyes moved. Lips frozen not in a doll’s ingratiating smile but in an ugly downturn of disgust. Her lack of expression seemed to strike people as willful, a withholding—a failure not of her body but of her spirit.

The pre-dawn dimness rang with coughing, choking sounds. Andrew fumbled his way out of sleep. In the bathroom, Iggy knelt on the tile floor. She hadn’t turned on the light, and she’d missed the toilet.

“I’m shorey, Daddy,” she whispered.

“It’s okay, Sweetpea. It’s okay.”

His head beat like a gong from the Scotch. He turned on the small light over the mirror and found a flimsy motel washcloth. He wiped Iggy’s face, stroked the unmoving forehead, cheeks, lips. Her blue cotton nightgown sagged with vomit. He took it off and found a clean undershirt of his own to replace it. Iggy was silent, as she’d been all day, but kept one hand tight on his forearm and leaned into him. Tucking her back in bed, he restored the sweaty TripTik and she wedged it between one hand and her cheek and seemed to fall asleep instantly.

In the bathroom, wiping up vomit—the nutlike smell a reminder of times when Iggy was little—Andrew thought that, after all, she must be anxious about the operation. She hadn’t mentioned it once. All afternoon and evening, since leaving Mass General, she’d been uncharacteristically opaque to him. Clio, he thought bitterly, must have told her to be brave. But Iggy’s stomach, that delicate barometer, registered everything.

He threw the soiled towels and Iggy’s nightgown into the bathtub and yanked on the hot tap. Standing in the doorway while it filled, he watched his daughter sleep, undisturbed by the elephantine clanking of the pipes. The surgery, scheduled for just before Thanksgiving, less than two months away, would require a long recovery. She would not be able to walk or run—the muscle and nerve from one leg would be transplanted to her cheek. There had been talk of a body cast, to keep her immobilized, but Iggy had cried and promised, and the lead surgeon—a scrubbed, disturbingly young Israeli woman—had said briskly, “Very well. You shall be on your honor, Grace.” They would do the right side first, and then, if it worked, they’d do the left in the spring. If it worked. The risks—infection, damage to the leg from which muscle and nerve were taken, paralysis of the tongue—Dr. Zekai touched on lightly, briskly. No one suggested that, even in successful surgery, something is lost. That along with her differentness, now known as deformity, would go part of what made Iggy Iggy.

Andrew turned off the water and sat down in the chair beside Iggy’s bed. He stroked her fine, fair eyebrows with one finger. In sleep her face moved toward his hand, It was Clio who believed in perfectibility. Andrew had discovered long ago that wanting a thing to be perfect was a sign that he did not love it. That was how he knew he loved Iggy. I don’t want her different, he thought. But what does she want?

Light leaked slowly into the room, blue-grey and gracious. Andrew thought of dawn walks along the bluff with his grandmother. Leaving Boston that afternoon he’d been struck by a powerful, unreasoning urge to turn north instead of south—to drive 300 miles up the coast and walk along that bluff with his daughter.

From the time he was Iggy’s age, Baba had not made him hold her hand. Planting his feet in rubber boots on the stony ground; squinting out past the lone pine to where the water seemed motionless, a jellied gleam below the sunrise that stained the dark-blue sky; listening for the gulls’ austere cries. Baba knew their precise latitude, knew what was opposite if they could have seen three thousand miles to landfall. Andrew kept forgetting, preferring to imagine he looked across to Cornwall, caparisoned in sunrise colors, home of Merlin and King Arthur (he was reading already, greedily, as an only child reads).

At the end of one of those summers his parents, returning from Peru, had explained to him the Quechua idea of time. We see the future ahead, the past behind, his father said; they see the opposite. The past is ahead of them, and known; the unknown future is behind their backs.

Things he could show her:

  • Buba’s tide pool below the bluff: the tiny, delicate, nearly transparent ghost crabs that tickled your ankles

  • cormorants

  • the place under the blue Atlas cedar where he’d awakened one morning to the birth of a hundred minute blond spiders in the web that trembled by his head

  • snakelocks anemones

  • the cove notched into the rocky bluff where they could swim, the two of them, in the seaweedy sun-warmed water

  • The motel clerk was spraying the plants—some sinewy, yellowed palms and a costive-looking fern—with an atomizer bottle that made a malicious spitting sound. Iggy was with her. She perched on a wrought-iron railing that served no visible purpose, long legs dangling down, barefoot.

    “Daddy!” she cried joyfully.

    “Where have you been?” Relief made Andrew shout. He’d awakened in his chair in broad daylight to an empty room.

    Iggy regarded him with those rootbeer eyes, her mother’s eyes. “Right here, Daddy.” The quaver in her voice was like a reed gone soft.

    The clerk stopped pumping her atomizer to look at Andrew reproachfully. Except for the tattoo, she had a face like plain shiny crockery, with the broad, untroubled brow of the young Julie Nixon Eisenhower. Plump: Julio would have called her a jelly doughnut.

    Iggy had on the orange-and-yellow-flowered top of her bathing suit and an old red corduroy skirt that was too short for her. Clio had let her do her own packing.

    Andrew said, more gently, “Your feet are dirty, Ig.” Iggy’s shoulders loosened and her chin dropped: signs of relief.

    “I’ll cut them off,” she offered cheerfully. “There’ll be blood all over your carpet, Natalie. It’ll soak in, in big puddles. Blood and mud—”

    “Stop it!” cried Andrew. But Iggy was laughing and the clerk—it was Natalie now, was it?—laughed with her. She came over and gave Iggy a spritz from her bottle and they laughed harder. Natalie didn’t seem to notice how weird it was, laughter emerging from that frozen face, as if someone were playing the wrong soundtrack. Apparently, while Andrew slept, some accord had been reached.

    He sat down on one of several brown plastic chairs that resembled large crouching insects. The room smelled like burned toast. A canary sang in a cage by the door, C-sharp/D-sharp, drilling into the headache left by last night’s scotch. Jelly Doughnut’s reproach was well-deserved, Andrew thought. He drank too much, spent too much, drove too fast; but Iggy didn’t care about any of that. Andrew picked up the last crumbling Danish from a platter depicting Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

    “Iggy—want some breakfast?”

    “I ate already, Daddy.”

    “I gave her cereal and O. J. , Mr. Rogers. She ate it all, and a Bear Claw. She was wicked hungry.”

    “Rogacz. Like “catch”. Iggy threw up last night. She shouldn’t’ve had that stuff.”

    Natalie, plastic spray-bottle cradled in one arm like an Uzi, looked pointedly at the Danish in Andrew’s hand. Iggy jumped off the railing and began twirling, arms outstretched, in a patch of weak morning sunlight. Natalie said, “Hey—don’t bitch me out. I was trying to help, you know?”

    Andrew thought, My daughter does not need befriending, for Chrissake. Natalie the Interloper got busy brushing crumbs from the continental breakfast onto the floor. The back of her yellow T-shirt said, “Let the Bastards Fall.” He swallowed the last of his Danish and went in search of the men’s.

    Eat out at dick’s. The future of America is in your hands (at eye-level as he stood before the urinal, unzipping). No More Bush Shit.

    Why did he get angry each time as if it were the first, when by now he had it down to an algorithm? Surprise—hesitation—try again. Then (your choice) incomprehension/sympathy/ridicule. The kids at school had begun (it was only October) to call his daughter “Iggy Ugly.” But ridicule wasn’t necessarily the worst thing. One of the mothers in the support group he and Clio went to had been driven nearly out of her mind by well-meaning strangers running after her to say that her little boy had his arm caught in his sleeve. Convert your anger into action, the therapist said, think of yourself as a turbine. Dr. Chumley (Our Chum, Clio called him) had two healthy sons. What did he know? What action was Andrew supposed to take here—pepper half the butts in Saint Perpetua’s first grade with buckshot?

    The paper towel dispenser was empty. He punched it, hard.

    Back in their room—he’d left Iggy teasing the canary with Natalie’s feather-duster—Andrew stood over their open suitcases. He tucked Iggy’s copy of Lizards in Color into a side pocket, then pulled it out again. They should leave now, if they were to get back to Pittsburgh by Friday, as he’d promised Clio. He and Iggy were both bunking school to make this trip. A week before she was to take Iggy to Boston, Clio had broken her leg on a Sierra Club shoot in the Nittany mountains; when it became clear that Andrew would have to be the one to take Iggy to Mass General, he’d cashed in the plane tickets. He hated flying.

    Reaching for Iggy’s hair-clogged brush, he stopped. He pulled the Glenlivet from its nest of underwear and took a long swallow. The thought of getting in the car and going south, going home, made him feel leaden. He thought, we’ll take a few more days; we’ll go up to Maine. I’ll show Iggy Rogue Bluff and Baba’s grave and the ocean.

    The first time he dialed his own number, he got the recorder. He hung up without leaving a message and dialed again—their signal for when something was urgent. This time she picked up.

    Soft, at first. Reasonable. “Listen, A. We already thrashed this out. She needs the operation, and she needs it now. Before she gets too far in school, and the other kids—before she can’t get out from under the label.”

    Andrew thought of the soft slope of Clio’s belly under her green sweater, the weight she’d never lost after Iggy. Her voice had an almost unnoticeable tremolo, like the shimmer of extra flesh all over her body.

    “Clio, she doesn’t want it. If you’d seen her, with the surgeon. She wouldn’t talk to me all the way down from Boston.”

    “You always think you know what she’s feeling, A. But a lot of the time it’s just what you’re feeling.” Soft, soft; but underneath, iron. “You want to keep her tied to us forever?”

    Andrew was silent.

    “Did she cry?”

    “No.” Immediately he wished he had lied.

    “Well, is she upset now? How is she now?”

    “She threw up last night.” No need to mention dancing in the sunshine, laughing with the adhesive Natalie. “Clio—I think we should wait.”

    “We’ve been waiting. We could’ve had this operation when she was four. You said six. Now she’s six—you say eight. When she’s eight, you’ll say—”

    “Clio—”

    “No. I mean it, A. It must’ve been some 24-hour bug, if she’s okay now.” Clio voice cracked; he heard her take a breath. “Bring her straight back, A. She’s going to miss too much school as it is. I’ll see you Friday night.”

    Andrew sank down onto the bed, still holding the dead receiver. He felt a trilling along his spine, like cold fingers playing scales on his vertebrae. When Clio got like this, she never yielded. After they found out about the baby, during that awful year of tests, gristle had entered her soul bit by bit, until she became like the mala mujer his parents used to tell him about: the bad woman hard and impious and hermetic as any man. She had no problem turning feeling into action—Dr. Chumley’s advice had not been addressed to her. Over the years Andrew had seen her growing contempt for him, for his meek acceptance of Iggy. Yet she must have loved him once, they must have loved each other, because there was so much anger between them now.

    The phone began squawking. Andrew put it back in its cradle.

    Iggy burst into the room. Behind her, weakly backlit by the dwindling sun, he glimpsed Natalie the Ineluctable. For some reason, a reflex, he shot a quick look down at his fly. He opened his mouth to tell Iggy they were going to Maine; but she didn’t give him a chance.

    “Daddy! Natalie says she can take us! It’s her afternoon off.”

    “Take us? Take us where?”

    “To her secret place. It’s wicked nice, Dad.”

    Andrew hesitated, about to say No; but this was the old Iggy restored to him, flushed and voluble, yesterday’s silence forgotten.

    “Please, Daddy, please, please.” It came out pleezh. Iggy hopped on one foot, neatly, elegantly, the way she did when she knew she was going to get her wish, eyes alive in the still, small mask of her face.

    The two of them were squaring off: the girl Natalie and Andrew. It was hard to resist the familiar exhilaration, the relief of having a target. Natalie sat beside him in a yellow slicker like the kind school crossing guards used to wear. The stiff glazed oilcloth crackled when she moved. It was raining steadily. On Natalie’s lap Iggy made throaty little percussive clicks that sounded as if she were about to choke, a sound she’d learned as a baby would call her parents instantly to her crib.

    “You okay, hon?” Natalie’s honeyed concern rebuked Andrew. Why get so involved with a stranger’s kid? he wondered, not for the first time.

    Natalie cranked down her window and the smell of recently deceased skunk, amplified by the rain-wet air, flooded in. “Fresh ear,” she said to Iggy. “You think you’re gonna hurl?”

    Iggy shook her head.

    The road, Wampanoag Parkway, twisted and turned, continually surprising Andrew. It was slicker than he’d expected, and they skidded taking a curve at the Porsche’s usual speed. Natalie’s breath drew in sharply. One for you, Jelly Doughnut, Andrew thought. When they were out of the skid, he accelerated sharply, pleased to feel her flinch. He glanced at the tach. Redlining it.

    CAR PLUNGES INTO RIVER, KILLING 3
    4th Wampanoag Fatality This Year

    He slowed down.

    They passed a billboard advertising one of the candidates for governor and exhorting voters to call 1—800-RI-ANGRY. Iggy missed that one—she was too busy settling back, with a great crackling of oilcloth, into the curve of Natalie’s arm. But she read the next two out loud (FOXY LADY—THE BEST IN TOPLESS; TOM FLURKEY USED CARS), along with several road signs. Natalie had to help her with the bumper sticker on the Toyota pickup that cut in front of them, demanding, in red letters on black, EQUAL RIGHTS FOR UNBORN WOMEN.

    Rain streamed over the car’s dusty windows, giving the world outside a filmy, romantic cast, like when Clio smeared vaseline over her portrait lens. The procession of used-car lots, auto body shops, and cheap chain restaurants gave way to farm stands heaped with pumpkins and zucchini whose colors sang in the rain. Then birch and hemlock, blonde strands of pampas grass, a glimpse of the river. Here I am, Andrew thought, speeding down the fucking Wampanoag Parkway with Natalie the Ubiquitous. He kept his eyes on the road, his mouth tight shut.

    “Stringbean mouth,” Iggy teased, She and Natalie giggled.

    FACT: There are 18 different kinds of smiles. FACT: A smile is produced by the action of two main muscles, the Zygomaticus major and the Orbicularis oculi. FACT: An artificially induced smile produces the same changes in the brain as a spontaneous one. A false smile triggers feelings of joy.

    Raise your cheeks.
    Open your mouth.
    Push the corners of your lips up.

    Don’s Depot Diner was a squat brick structure with a view of abandoned railroad tracks. Natalie had assured Andrew that it was the last place to eat before their still-mysterious destination. At Iggy’s insistence, they sat at the counter. The only other customer was a young black policewoman at the other end reading The Complete Book of Abs. No sign of a waitress, much less of Don. Andrew tapped his menu on the countertop in brisk 6/8 time. Carved in the worn wood was the declaration, I ♥ Botto 4-evah.

    Iggy studied the boxes of breakfast cereal lined up along the counter. Natalie shrugged off her slicker, revealing a sleeveless blue cotton top that mercifully said nothing. She pulled the rubberband off her ponytail and shook it out. In the mirror behind the counter Andrew could see the dark-blonde hair under her arms, like tightly curled fiddlehead ferns. He saw how Iggy, between them, listed slightly toward Natalie. Iggy’s red-brown hair, he noticed for the first time, was neatly combed; someone—of course it had been Natalie— had pulled it into a side-slung ponytail fastened with a purple tie. In the mirror Iggy’s eyes met Natalie’s. Natalie smiled.

    It frightened Andrew to be so shut away from Iggy. Why had she attached herself to this Natalie? Why wouldn’t she talk to him? From the moment yesterday when Dr. Zekai had begun speaking, he’d seen his daughter receding down a long corridor of pain, dwindling, slowly but inexorably, into someone else. Someone he did not know. Embarrassed by the fear in his own mirrored eyes, Andrew looked quickly down at the counter. I ♥ Iggy 4-evah.

    Forever: the sound of the word was a breath held and released, a wave curling and then rushing forward onto the sand. We could do it, he thought; and his heart took up a crazy three-four time. We could go forever. Keep going north—Maine, Rogue Bluff, the ocean, Canada. That’s it, that’s what I want. But what does she want?

    Christ, what he wouldn’t give for a single-malt Scotch, straight up.

    Iggy said, “Life is great. Life is so good.”

    Andrew pulled a paper napkin out of the dispenser and wiped a pearl of drool from each corner of her mouth. “Well, Ig, that’s nice,” he said insincerely. “I’m glad you’re having a good time.”

    Iggy laughed. “No, Dad—I mean the cereal.”

    The three of them stood in the middle of a small, overgrown park overlooking the mouth of the river. Behind them was a dense half-circle of birch and hemlock and scrub pine. In front of them was an old abandoned carousel. Most of the animals, though worn and weathered, were still in place.

    Iggy turned to her father, bright with wonder, and stretched out her arms. The waist-high wooden platform looked strong enough—no boards missing that Andrew could see. He lifted Iggy up and set her on it. Then he clambered up himself. On his knees, he turned to give a hand to Natalie, but she was already hauling herself aboard. She and Iggy scrambled to their feet and began to explore, hand in hand. The rain had stopped. The carousel’s canopy trapped the mist rising from the river, and in the foggy afternoon light their figures quickly blended with the unearthly shapes of the animals.

    “Be careful!” Andrew called after them.

    The cool, misty air was fragrant with pine and rotting leaves and the salt smell of the ocean, invisible on the far side of the river mouth. He put a hand on the flank of a prancing horse and pulled himself upright to follow the girls, weaving in and out between the animals. They were set three abreast, in staggered rows: not only horses, but other creatures as well. An elephant, one tusk broken off; a tiger; a horned goat; a giraffe with a snake coiled around its neck; an ostrich. They tossed their heads, arched their necks, pawed and pranced and leapt. He was wandering through a forest of frozen motion. The colors of the intricately carved trappings, dulled by time and weather, evoked dim Arthurian echoes. White for innocence, he remembered; gold for nobility; blue for truth.

    Iggy and Natalie were sitting side by side on a wide-seated chariot borne by dragons. Iggy jumped to her feet and said, “Daddy! Up me!” A phrase from babyhood.

    Her face when he seated her on a rearing horse went pink with pleasure. She stroked the long skull with one hand while the other held tight to the metal pole. Her horse’s ears were laid back, its lip curled in a majestic snarl; where the glittering glass eyes would have been, there were only empty sockets. Iggy patted the carved curls of its mane. “You, too, Daddy!” she cried. “You get up!”

    Andrew shook his head, walked back and sat down in the dragon chariot next to Natalie. All he wanted, suddenly, was to be still. To sit surrounded by these marvelous beasts and look out across the river, as he and Baba used to look out across the ocean. To sit and think what he should do.

    Natalie’s oilcloth crackled. She said, “This whole pack useta belong to my family. Prospect Pack. This merry-go-round was wicked beautiful, back then. My great-grandpa useta repaint it every September. We’ve got pitchers of it at home.”

    Andrew leaned back in their chariot and looked around him. He imagined the bright, ingratiating colors the animals had once been— cobalt, magenta, vermilion, scarlet—colors with kingly names. He preferred them as they were now, truculent, wintry, with all their imperfections. Iggy, five or six yards ahead, leaned and whispered into her horse’s ear. The river was a glaucous, dull green. Gulls hung in the humid air level with the carousel, then glided away. Their cries were the sound of remembering.

    “That was before he got poor. In the Depression, you know? This pack—the bank, like, took it. It was wicked unfear.”

    Andrew’s headache had lifted. He felt a loosening, looking out over the river, the sounds and smells of this place so real after the series of astringent little spaces, the car, the motel rooms. A widening, an ease: as if it were he himself opening out. The feeling he used to have standing on the bluff with Baba.

    “People came on the train from all over. From Worcester, even. My family was, like, famous.”

    Why was she telling him all this? He just wanted to sit here quietly, in this place where anything seemed possible, and think. Massachusetts; Maine; the ocean; Canada. Wer jetzt kein Haus baut, Baba used to say. Who builds no house now, shall never have one. What he had in mind might be kidnapping.(Could you nap your own kid?) And what would they live on, he and Iggy?

    “Natalie. Hey, Nat! You get up!”

    “Not now, hon. In a minute. Mr. Rogue-Axe,” Natalie said carefully. “Look. I know what you’re doing.”

    Andrew turned to look at her then. Her white, plain face regarded him earnestly, the rose tattoo incongruous as a kiss. She could have been one of his older eighth-graders, the ones who’d been left back a couple of times—Julio’s age. Her feet in heavy, black Doc Martens scuffed at the wooden platform.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I know you and Iggy are, like, on the run. Iggy told me. She says you’re gonna excape, so she don’t have to have her operation.”

    On the run. It had a ring to it. It made his heart rise, like a conductor’s uplifted baton.

    “So what?” There was a pole growing out of the head of Andrew’s dragon. Exhilarated, he gripped the cold metal. “So what, Natalie?”

    “I wanna go with you.”

    “What? Are you crazy?”

    “Look, Mr. Rogue-Axe—”

    “Rogacz.”

    “—Mr. Rogacz. I gotta get away. They’re all bunbrains and mall doofs here. You see what I’m saying’?” Her voice speeded up, urgent, persuasive. “You can leave me off in New York City.”

    He looked up ahead at Iggy. She stopped digging her heels, in imaginary spurs, into the flanks of her horse. She was listening to him and Natalie.

    Massachusetts; Maine; the ocean; Canada.

    Natalie leaned toward him. “I’ve got money. I wouldn’t be a burden or anything. Take me with you.” Her tone shifted from plea to threat. “If you don’t—”

    “No,” Andrew said loudly. “We’re not going to New York.”

    Iggy turned to look at him, slinging one leg around so that she sat side-saddle, head tilted the way she did when she wasn’t sure what something meant. Her hands held each other firmly, comfortingly, by the wrist. Andrew knew that he was asking her to choose. That there would be other, harder choices later. For a terrifying moment he wondered who would be saving whom. Then he took a deep breath of piney, almost-ocean air.

    “We’re not going to New York. Are we, Sweetpea? We’re going to Maine. To the Main Ocean.”

    Iggy looked at him for a long second. Then her hands released each other. Her face, unmoving, tightened all over with delight.

    At last, at last, he had reached her.

    And then they were running, jumping down from the platform, skidding on a patch of moss, running, hand in hand, for the car. The wheels spun desperately in the slick mud. Then they took hold. In the rearview mirror a smeary yellow-slickered Natalie, arms waving, grew rapidly smaller as the Porsche burst out of the little park and sheered north.

    0 Comments

    By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

    Recommended Reading