Susan Perabo The Broken Places

ISBN 13: 9780684862347

The Broken Places

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9780684862347: The Broken Places
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When his father, the captain of the local fire squad, rescues a teenager from underneath a collapsed home, he is hailed as a hero, but when the media coverage wanes, the parades fade, and the TV movie is finished, twelve-year-old Paul Tucker finds that his father and his life have been forever altered, in a richly textured novel of family, honor, and duty. 30,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Susan Perabo is the writer in residence and an associate professor of En-glish at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Glimmer Train, Story, TriQuarterly, and The Missouri Review, and in the anthologies Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South. She is the author of a novel, The Broken Places.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The wind was at his back. Heart pounding, Paul Tucker pedaled furiously through downtown Casey, soared past the firehouse, the barbershop, the drugstore, the post office. It was October, not cold, but plenty cool to chill his knuckles around the handlebars as he sped toward the Neidermeyer farm. An explosion! So far that was all he knew, but the word alone was enough to set his mind racing. Gas leak? Pesticides? Gunpowder? A gaping crater in the ground where the Neidermeyer home had stood for a hundred and thirty years? He hoped he wasn't too late. What if he'd missed all the good stuff? What if his father and the rest of the crew were already packing up their equipment, starting the engines, heading back to the station? He shifted gears, pedaled harder.

Paul had lied to his mother, claimed he was biking downtown to pick up a pack of gum at Dewey Drugs. He lied to his mother frequently these days, often for no other reason than to assert his independence from her, to prove to himself that he was his own man with his own life, a life full of rich adventures she had no cause to know about. He'd turned twelve at the end of August, and twelve had shifted something in him, something unnameable but unmistakable. Twelve was solid, just the sound of it. At ten you were still in elementary school, still prone to tantrums and tears. Then eleven, an unsettling and unsteady age, like you had one foot on the dock and one on the boat and you did everything you could just to keep your balance.

Then, at twelve, you got on the boat.

So here he was on his boat, a sturdy, well-made vessel that promised to sail him through adolescence with relative ease. He was well liked, athletic, bright enough for others to cheat off but not cerebral enough to be regarded as a nerd. His parents -- especially his father -- were respected and admired by everyone in town. And if they were a little tightly wound, if their brows furrowed even over matters of little consequence, it was nothing that could not be overcome, or at least dodged, with jokes and charm and innocent lies.

This particular lie -- biking downtown for Bubble Yum -- had been absolutely necessary; his mother did not believe in gawking, not at fights or car accidents or exploded houses or even funny looking dogs. Among the citizens of Casey she was pretty much alone in this distaste. Crossing from the final cluster of Main Street row house apartments and into the sprawling farmland, Paul ran smack into a traffic jam the magnitude of which the town usually saw only once a year -- second week of August, for the county fair. Casey was a town of nine thousand; tucked in a valley between the Kittatinny and Tuscarora mountains, the town was surrounded by innumerable miles of swaying corn and the sweeping tails of dairy cows. Pittsburgh was two hours northwest on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Harrisburg an hour east. Excitement was in short supply. And so it was that a quarter mile away from the Neidermeyer farm, cars and pickups were rumbling off the road and into the tall grass, entire families -- many still clad in church clothes -- piling out and heading west along the wide gravelly shoulder. Paul deftly wove his way through the pedestrians (some carried picnic baskets; most had cameras swinging from their necks) and stopped his bike at the foot of the long sloping dirt drive that led to the Neidermeyer house, which sat alone in the middle of six acres of unkempt brush. He had seen the house before, of course. It was hard to miss, a white clapboard two-story nineteenth-century farmhouse with a huge front porch, each weathered board of it a testament to simpler and sturdier days. Years before, Claude Neidermeyer and his wife had raised dairy cows -- for chocolate made in nearby Hershey -- in the vast pasture that was now nothing but uninhibited weeds. Three empty silos, their only silage the ashes of grain, towered over a ramshackle barn that had housed its last cow long before Paul was born. It was the kind of house people expected to see in the middle of Pennsylvania farm country, the kind of house that graced a thousand postcards, the kind of house tourists stopped to snap pictures of at sunset.

But what lay before Paul now was a photo opportunity of a different sort. An hour before, in the church courtyard after worship, word had spread of an explosion at the Neidermeyer farm and Paul had imagined the house would be totally destroyed, a massive pile of rubble that his father and the other firemen would pick through for clues to its demise. Instead, what he saw now was that the center of the Neidermeyer house had simply vanished. In its place, between the still-standing east and west walls, lay an enormous heap of debris -- concrete, wood, furniture, pipes, wires...

"Shit," Paul muttered, steadying himself on his bike. A hot lump rose in his stomach and he swallowed hard, let his bike roll back a few inches. Well, okay then, he'd seen it. He'd taken a good long look at the thing and not broken into a cold sweat, so there was really no need to get any closer. Maybe his mother was right about the whole gawking thing, anyway. Maybe the cool thing to do was to go home. Maybe --

But no. He would not be a chicken. Not today.

Two years before, on a sticky August night, the tire factory on Route 11 had gone up in flames. He'd been ten that year -- only ten! -- practically still a baby if you thought about it. He'd been sleeping over at his friend Carson's house, camping out in the backyard, and moments after the second swell of sirens rose (and Paul had managed to still the shudder in his knees) Carson's dad had appeared out back in his bathrobe and sneakers, car keys in hand. In Mr. Diehl's stuffy Lincoln they'd followed the wail of sirens, then the swirling cloud of gray smoke, then the slow procession of other cars down the winding factory drive.

At first it had been impossible to distinguish among the firefighters; there were dozens of them rushing around the perimeter of the factory, laying long lines from the pumper and the hydrants. Flames rolled from the roof; windows exploded. Then Carson had shouted "There's your dad!" and Paul had followed Carson's pointing finger to a man (a man shorter than any of the others, a man who moved with skillful speed) fitting a SCBA mask over his face. Briefly, for a brilliant split second, Paul was thrilled; he'd never seen his father in action like this before. He'd seen only the aftermath of his father's work -- scrapes, deep bruises, sometimes a broken finger -- but never the work itself. Standing on the factory grounds, his cheeks warm and his eyes tearing from smoke, he felt what he thought was pride swell in his belly. But then suddenly, unexpectedly, the pride stung inside him, burned his gut like the flames that licked toward his father as he approached the factory doors. Paul stumbled behind the Diehls' car and threw up.

Had that been the end of it, it wouldn't have been so bad. He could have blamed it on the Dr Pepper and Doritos he'd consumed at Carson's earlier, maybe even convinced himself he'd been sickened by the flat, thick smell of melting tires. But following the fire he'd had night sweats for two weeks straight, woken up chilled to the bone, drenched in perspiration and one unforgettable night in his own pee. The night he wet his pajama pants he curled naked at the end of the bed, away from the spreading stain, crying quietly and aching from head to toe with shame. Here he was, the only son of the bravest man in town, who himself was the only son of the previous bravest man in town, and he'd peed himself like a baby. Imagine if word got out! Imagine if somehow his secret was revealed (it could happen...gossip in Casey swirled from lips to ears like funnel clouds) and everyone would know the best quarterback in Pony football, one of the coolest kids at school, was a chickenshit bed wetter. He'd played sick the next morning, then laundered his sheets while his mother was at the grocery store, flung them back on his bed, still damp, when he heard her car in the driveway.

He took a deep breath, gripped his handlebars with sweaty palms. Not today, he told himself. He'd toted around his shame long enough. Then his feet were on the dusty ground, his legs were moving, and he found himself walking slowly up the driveway pushing his bike. Surprisingly, there was something almost pleasurable about the sensation he was feeling, a kind of mad rush that came with the wooziness. It was a little like when his friend Joe Bower had shown him a grainy picture of the Elephant Man in a thick book from the study shelf in the science room. It had made him queasy, the giant, mangled head atop the twisted body, but in the days that followed he found himself returning to the dusty book again and again and opening to that page, willing himself to keep his eyes on the hideous man a little longer each time.

There were about three hundred people on the Neidermeyer property. Most of them were obviously townspeople, some of whom had portable video cameras (normally reserved for birthday parties and school plays) trained on the crumbling house. In addition to the town gawkers there were also several news vans, half a dozen fire trucks from neighboring communities, and more cop cruisers than Paul had ever seen in one place. Yellow police tape was wound around the ancient oaks bordering the lawn, so no one in the crowd could get closer than a hundred yards or so to the wrecked house. Men and women stood along the edge of the tape, talking chipperly with neighbors and snapping pictures. Beyond the lawn, in shin-high pasture weeds, a large group of boys and a few girls were playing Frisbee in the long shadows of the silos. Paul scanned the lawn for his father, then spotted Black Phil at the edge of the yellow tape, talking to a newswoman.

Black Phil had been Kittatinny County fire captain for six years, and was one of the few men remaining in the department who had worked alongside Paul's grandfather, the legendary Captain Sam. Phil had earned his nickname when another Phil -- a white man -- joined the department sometime in the mid-seventies, and Sam took to calling them Black Phil and White Phil to avoid confusion. White Phil was long gone, but Black Phil continued to go by his nickname even when identifying himself to strangers, half out of habit and half to get on the nerves of sensitive people -- black and white -- who thought the nickname was just a tiny bit in bad taste. He was a burly guy with a thick gray mustache and hands large enough to palm a basketball. He lived in the black section of Casey, four square blocks just east of downtown, with his wife and three teenage girls; sometimes in the summer Paul and his parents went to their place for barbecues and Black Phil would tell long and -- after the third or fourth beer -- extremely loud stories about Captain Sam's quarter of a century on the force. To hear Phil tell it -- really, to hear most any of the firemen tell it -- Sam fell somewhere between Jesus and Superman in the order of heroes.

A familiar hand clapped down firmly on his shoulder.

"Busted," Sonny said, when Paul turned.

Paul feigned confusion. "Busted for what?"

Sonny grinned. "You gonna try to tell me your mom knows you're out here? Next thing you'll be tellin' me she's out here herself."

"Don't rat, okay?" Paul recognized he needed to play up the team aspect of this particular lie, get his father to choose a side. In a family of three, alliances were weighty, crucial matters. "I'm just here for a minute."

Sonny raised his eyebrows. "Okay, but you owe me."

He was a small man, Sonny Tucker, only five feet eight inches tall, but a hundred and seventy pounds of just about pure muscle. In a suit and tie he looked unassuming, unthreatening, a man unaccustomed to danger. But in jeans and a T-shirt, or in his turnout gear, Paul thought his father looked like a first-rate ass kicker, the kind of guy other men would cross the street to avoid after dark. Sonny still pumped iron at the station four days a week and could make it up the eight-flight training staircase at the fire academy in Pittsburgh faster than any other man in the department, even the rookies who were now ten years younger than he. Sometimes he bench-pressed Paul in the middle of the living room, one hand set between the shoulders and the other at the small of the back. He did this, Paul had noticed, only when his mom was around, sitting on the couch pretending to be unimpressed as Paul counted off his father's reps -- 28, 29, 30, 31...

Now Sonny gestured to the house. "It's something, huh?"

"What happened? Gas leak?"

Sonny shook his head. "Good guess, but no. Gas was shut off months ago, after the fire."

Six months before, eighty-six-year-old Claude Neidermeyer had fallen into a deep sleep in his recliner while heating tomato soup on his stovetop; by the time the firemen were able to drag him to safety and extinguish the blaze, the entire first floor of the house was gutted. Mr. Neidermeyer (an accident just waiting to happen, according to the town grapevine, left to teeter around that old house all by himself) had been sentenced to the local nursing home by his two grown sons. The house had been condemned by the fire department, but the Neidermeyer boys -- perhaps lazy, perhaps nostalgic, most likely a little of both -- had yet to clean out what items were salvageable, and so the house had sat there on the outskirts of town, empty -- so everyone thought -- of any life but carpenter ants and feral cats.

"So what was it?" Paul asked.

Sonny took off his sunglasses and wiped them with his T-shirt. "Water and fire damage, probably termites on top of that." He shrugged, ran his fingers through his hair. "Or maybe the old girl just decided she'd had enough, wanted to go out with a bang, give us all something to do on a Sunday afternoon."

"So what do you do?"

Sonny humphed. "Nothing but stand here. The whole place'll probably be down by nightfall...don't expect there's much holding it up anymore. So we're just gonna watch it crumble."

"You're not gonna try to save it?"

"Look at it," Sonny said. "What's there to save?"

"I don't know," Paul said. "I just thought -- "

His father's buddy Ben Griffin appeared in his typical manner -- out of nowhere -- and smacked Paul sharply on the back of the head with an open palm. This was his usual greeting, one that occasionally brought tears to Paul's eyes that he'd quickly blink away. Ben was tall and broad-shouldered, had a square chin and a thick brown mustache that he was fond of combing. Unlike Sonny, Ben could wear just about anything and still look like a firefighter.

"That as hard as you can hit?" Paul taunted, squinting up at him.

Ben took a drag off his cigarette, raised his right eyebrow. "Want me to give it another try? Then we can add your head to that pile of crap over there." He flipped his cigarette to the ground; smoke wafted lazily through blades of dead grass. "Fire," Ben said, pointing. "Fire, fire...for Christ's sake somebody call a fireman."

Sonny stepped on the cigarette, ground it snugly into the dry earth with his boo...

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