[Read by Marguerite Gavin]
Meet Pirio Kasparov, an acerbic Boston-bred girl with a moral compass that points due north. When the fishing boat Pirio is on is rammed by a freighter, she finds herself abandoned in the North Atlantic. Somehow she survives nearly four hours in the water before being rescued by the Coast Guard, but her fisherman friend Ned, the boat's owner, is not so lucky. Compelled to look after Noah, the son of the late Ned and her alcoholic prep school friend, Pirio can't shake the suspicion that the boat's sinking--and Ned's death--was no accident. Before long Pirio begins unraveling a lethal plot involving the glacial whaling grounds off Baffin Island. In a narrow inlet in the arctic tundra, Pirio confronts her ultimate challenge: to trust herself.
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Elisabeth Elo studied literature at Brown University. She has worked as an editor, a high-tech marketing director, and an advertising copywriter. Her essays and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among other publications, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches writing at Boston College and lives with her family in Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Elisabeth Elo
He was a loser,” Thomasina says, head lolling. “But he was a good loser.” A fifth of Stolichnaya has put her in a nasty, forgiving mood. I’m tempted to take a few shots myself to medicate my grief and survivor’s guilt. But someone has to stay sober for Noah.
Thomasina paws something she sees in the air—maybe nothing, a spark of hallucination, or a particle of dust—and her tone goes flat. “I never loved him. I just wanted sperm.” She pushes the bottle half- way across the kitchen table and lays her head down on folded arms. Her shoulders heave a few times. Sorrow? Nausea? In her state it could be either, or even a hiccup of indifference. But when she picks up her face, it’s tear-stained. “But I must have loved him some, ’cause right now I feel wicked bad.”
Noah pokes his head around the corner. He doesn’t have the heavy, square look of Ned or what was formerly the haunting, big- eyed beauty of Thomasina. He’s small, thin, pale. Dark eye rings give him a monkish quality. He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t have friends. Maybe that’s why we get along.
“Noah, baby. Let mama get you something to eat.” Thomasina lurches to her feet and staggers to the refrigerator. When she opens the door, Noah and I look inside. Lime Gatorade, half a tomato, mold- speckled hamburger buns. “You want a tomato sandwich, baby?”
“No, thank you,” Noah says. He’s always been polite. He wanders back to the living room to continue whatever intricate activity he was engaged in. I’ve seen him build entire futuristic cities out of tongue depressors, popsicle sticks, and toothpicks.
Thomasina sways in a widening arc, her eyes start to roll back in her head, and her eyelids flutter and close. She slides down the refrigerator and collapses. I get one of her arms around my neck and haul her up, drag her across the scuffed linoleum to the dank bedroom at the back of the apartment. Clothes and shoes litter the floor. I recognize the lizard-skin cowboy boots she wears out at night. I let her fall across the king-size bed and push her legs onto the mattress.
The fall brings her back to consciousness. She mumbles, “You have to tell him how it happened, Pirio. He trusts you. He loves you. And you know better than anyone what to say—you were there.” She turns her face toward the closed window shade and says mournfully, “Remember, long time ago, when we were just little girls no one cared about? So we cared about each other. It was sweet, but we were so sad. Weren’t we, Pirio?”
“We were OK,” I say firmly, trying to steer her away from the rabbit hole of old pain.
“Can you believe it, Pirio? I can’t. Ned dead. Hey, it rhymes! Now Noah has no father. My baby’s half an orphan. Poor little kid.”
I don’t say anything. I can’t believe it either. I’d do anything to make it different. I keep asking myself what I could have done, but I keep coming up empty. No one could have saved him. Except the cowards on the ship.
“Want to know who I dreamed about the other night?” Thomasina asks musingly. Sometimes I’m jealous of the way booze gives her mind permission to wander up every alley and side street it sees. “Biggest asshole ever. You know who it is. You and me, we’re like peas and carrots, peas in a pod. Whatever. Insert your vegetable.” She puts two fingers over her lips in self-censorship. “Oops. Didn’t mean it that way.” Her hand flops away from her mouth, and her eyelids begin another rapid-fire fluttering. “Guess, Pirio. You’ll get it on the first try, I bet. Biggest asshole ever was . . . It was . . .” Her voice becomes a whisper. “It was . . .” Her eyes close.
“It was Dickhead Bates,” I say softly.
I push some pillows under her head and shoulders to prop her up so she won’t choke if she vomits, and pull a blanket over her. I take a minute to collect myself, then go into the living room.
Noah looks up from his project. “How’s my mom?”
He nods. With his limited life experience, he has no idea how worried to be. He knows his mom’s been trying hard not to drink so much. Sometimes he comes to my apartment in the evenings so she can go to meetings; then for days she doesn’t go out at all. He’s used to her taking naps at odd times.
I get a whiff of indoles and uric acid. Translation: shit and piss. There’s a small plastic cage on a table in the corner. I slide back the cover, reach inside, curl my hand around a quivering little body huddled in a pile of sawdust, and place the hamster in Noah’s cupped hands. He starts cooing to it, rubs his cheek against the rodent’s fur. Hi, Jerry. Are you OK, Jerry? It takes me a little while to clean the cage. When Noah places Jerry back inside, he makes his body round and hunkers down into the fresh sawdust, which smells confusingly of sweetened pine and searing ammonia. I try to imagine how the cheap chemical additives affect his tiny olfactory glands and decide he probably preferred the smell of his own waste. I hate the whole idea of keeping animals in pens. If he weren’t Noah’s pet, I’d let him go.
“Come on, Noah. I’ll buy you a hamburger,” I say.
Thomasina and I went to boarding school together. I’d been at the Gaston School since seventh grade; it was one of the only schools my father, Milosa, could find that warehoused kids that young. It was located in Boothbay, Maine, but to me it felt like Tomsk, Siberia, which is where I’d been told the Russian government lost track of my maternal grandparents around 1944. My mother died when I was ten, Noah’s age. Never an angel, I became increasingly defiant, noncommunicative. I pretty much just stopped answering adults’ nosy questions and heeding their hysterical warnings. Several of Milosa’s girlfriends tried hard to figure out what was wrong with me but came up clueless. Then he remarried, and my stepmother, Maureen, wasted no time pronouncing me a true, definitive problem child. She had stacks of books to prove herself right and got a doctor at Children’s Hospital to agree. A boarding school with lots of “structure” just made sense. In fact, Headmaster Richard (Dickhead) Bates was not even close to being the biggest asshole at the Gaston School. There were others more sadistic than he.
Thomasina arrived at Gaston in ninth grade, the detritus of a bitter divorce that left neither parent wanting permanent custody. She was eating-disorder thin, deeply tanned from a vacation with her mother in the Azores, bedecked in silver hoop earrings and bracelets that rose halfway up her left arm. And because she still wore braces, top and bottom, on her big square teeth, she gave the impression of being a starving small brown animal trapped in a metal cage. Her eyes looked wet, as if a tear were poised to spill, only it never did. She was too deeply, everlastingly skeptical to cry about anything.
We sized each other up, saw ourselves for what we were, and accepted what we believed to be our dismal fates. We skipped class; drank Boone’s Farm, Budweiser, and Lancers Vin Rosé; climbed over the high stone wall surrounding the school’s eighteen acres and jumped down onto the tarry shoulder of Route 27; hitchhiked into town. Wherever we went, we gloried in pissing off as many people as we could. After two years of being alienated in isolation, it felt good to have someone to get in trouble with.
Neither of us was interested in college, so after graduation I came home to Boston, and Thomasina joined me. We rented apartments a few blocks from each other in Brookline, a mostly ritzy, part-run-down urbanish neighborhood, and settled into independent lives. I joined the family business, a perfume company named after my mother, Inessa Mark. Thomasina’s parents—one in France, one on the West Coast—have scads of money and bottomless guilt, which essentially means she’s never had to work.
For the first few years, Thomasina and I caroused aimlessly. The nicer bars soon bored us; all those guys in Brooks Brothers suits took themselves too seriously. We gravitated toward the seedier taverns, especially down at the waterfront. Dockworkers and fishermen would literally follow us around. We enjoyed the power we had, flattering ourselves that we were breaking hearts wherever we went.
Then Thomasina met Ned, and the two of them fell away from the bar scene to snuggle into their supposed love nest. I boozed and dated a little longer, until I got tired of hearing lame pick-up lines from belching idiots, and eventually put down the bottle to fold myself into the heavy woolen blanket of the Russian novel. I guess it was some kind of roots thing—my attempt to understand the Russian character, to be connected to my Russian past. It didn’t work; I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when I didn’t find it. But I did encounter suffering more brutal and prolonged than anything my poor-little-rich-girl story could offer, and that bit of historical perspective nudged me to start growing up.
It came as no surprise when Thomasina and Ned’s relationship disintegrated. He was working-class Irish-Italian from South Boston. She’s a brilliant, privileged, slothful iconoclast. At first they seemed to transcend all that. They smiled at each other like angels lit from the inside with megawatt bulbs. That phase lasted, by my amazed reckoning, almost three months. Then, probably figuring he’d gone far enough in the conversation department, he started in with the blank stares and inopportune groin scratches, and she began to display the full power of her underused intellect with put-downs so brilliantly satiric he didn’t even understand them. Alcohol brought them to the brink of violence—dinners ruined, plates smashed, neighbors yelling out the windows to shut up. She just couldn’t forgive him for being dull. By the time Noah came along, they’d already split.
They never married, and Ned’s parents and sister refuse to accept that Noah is related to them at all. They prefer to think that Thomasina bewitched Ned into providing for another guy’s brat. I confess that I’ve wondered about Noah’s paternity myself, and I know Ned occasionally felt baffled at having spawned a genius kid who didn’t look like him or act like anyone he knew. But Ned was always a good father, at least as good as anyone could be under the circumstances. He insisted on paying child support, although no court required it and Thomasina didn’t need it. He got tickets to the Bruins, Red Sox, Patriots. Winter, summer, fall—Ned and Noah always had their outing. He visited Noah every other weekend—lunch and a trip to the park or library, depending on the weather. If Thomasina asked, he would even pick up Noah after school. Sometimes Thomasina let Ned stay overnight, and when he did, he seemed glad for it. I imagine him trying to curb his Southie manners, trying not to be stupid. People will do just about anything to get one tender caress.
But even with Ned doing his part, Thomasina was overwhelmed by single motherhood. The parents who hadn’t had time for their only daughter were even less interested in a grandchild, and she didn’t exactly fit in at PTA. But none of that really explains why what used to be a fairly standard type of admittedly ugly but relatively contained debauchery has morphed over the last year into a fierce, pathetic addiction.
She knows she’s in trouble. She’s tried it all. Not just A A, but also Rational Recovery, Tarot cards, the Enneagram, therapy, spas, meditation, confession, reading to the blind, and drinking only wine. Nothing’s worked. She gets a few days of sobriety here, enjoys a clearheaded week or two there, but eventually her shaking hand rewraps itself around the neck of a bottle. Looking at Thomasina today, you’d never guess what she used to be like—that at sixteen she learned flawless French in a few months, knew every character in Shakespeare, and could recite most of the Gettysburg Address backward, collapsing in gales of laughter when she was done. But you’d probably have no trouble guessing that the bulges in her handbag are little pops of airplane gin.
You stand by helplessly; you start getting truly scared. You sense something desperate inside, something far darker than what you thought was there. I’d like nothing better than to turn away from the spectacle of Thomasina’s relentless, incremental self-destruction. But then I remember Noah, and pick up the phone. Hear myself saying, How are you? How’s Noah? What’s up?
I’m Noah’s godmother. Seriously. It’s a Catholic thing. When he was two months old, I stood with Thomasina and Ned at the side altar of a big church, holding him in my arms. The baptismal font was cool white marble; a priest hovered at my shoulder, his pastoral vestments smelling of rich, rotting medieval leather flattened by a dry cleaner’s press. He asked me a question: Do you renounce Satan and all his ways? I blinked, taken aback. Satan? But Ned and Thomasina were watching and Noah was in my arms, so I thought about it seriously and replied, “If I ever met him, I’d know what to do.”
This answer must have been good enough, because the priest gestured for me to hold Noah over the font. He tipped the cup he’d been holding, and water flowed across Noah’s forehead into the marble bowl. Noah screwed up his wrinkled face but only cried a little. Even as a baby he kept his emotions in check, as if he knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of space for his feelings in this world. To my surprise, my eyes were wet with all the godmother blessings I wanted to bestow, but all I had to give him was a kiss. I saw Thomasina and Ned squeeze hands, and we looked at one another with a bit of shy nakedness, knowing we had stumbled across a perfect moment in our lives. A moment as fleeting as any other, already gone.
Now, at Taffy’s, a restaurant on the corner, Noah squares off in front of a hamburger and fries. He gets his fingers around the bun, lifts it to his mouth, and takes an enormous bite. He chews like a lion, gulps it down. He admitted he was hungry when I asked. It’s possible he’s actually starving.
It’s been three days since his father drowned. I have no idea how much he knows about the accident. The story was on the news in a slightly-more-than-sound-bite form. A picture of Ned’s regular-guy mug hovered in a small box next to the news announcer’s perfect cover-girl face, then expanded to fill the entire screen. When his face was in the box, he looked like a nice guy you knew in high school who forgot to comb his hair. When it bloomed to fill the screen, you could see the brown discolorations on the side of his face from years of being outside. His tea-green eyes looked bloodshot, wary, possibly dishonest. Or maybe he only looked that way because, on the news, everyone tends to look like a criminal. In any case, it would have felt drastically wrong to Noah to see his deceased father on a television screen.
“You want to know how it happened, Noah?”
“OK.” He’s learned to be accommodating.
“It was a crash, like the kind on highways, only this one was on the ocean.”
“I know that already.” He dips a French fry in a little paper bucket ...
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