cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Augusten Burroughs

Praise

Title Page

Dedication

Author’s Note

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Book

First there was Running with Scissors, then Dry and now the most famous memoirist of our time returns with his earliest childhood memories. In A Wolf at the Table, Burroughs makes a quantum leap forward into unmapped emotional terrain: the pendulum swing between love and hate within the terrifying relationship he endured with his tormented and sadistic father. By turns harrowing and heartbreaking, A Wolf at the Table is ultimately a redemptive story about love, longing and letting go.

About the Author

Augusten Burroughs is the no.1 bestselling author of Running with Scissors, Dry, Magical Thinking and Possible Side Effects. His memoir, Running with Scissors, was a worldwide publishing phenomenon and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over four consecutive years. A film version of the book was released in 2006 starring Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brian Cox. Burroughs writes regularly for newspapers and magazines including the Guardian and Independent on Sunday. He lives in New York City and New England. Visit his website at www.augusten.com

Also by Augusten Burroughs:

Possible Side Effects

Magical Thinking

Dry

Running With Scissors

Sellevision

Praise

‘A moving depiction of fear and powerlessness from a child’s point of view.’

USA Today

‘Harrowing . . . Given the abundance of bad dads, many readers will flock to A Wolf at the Table to compare and commiserate (they are likely to lose).’

Star Tribune

‘“Where’s the book about the dad who didn’t sit around with a Red Sox cap on, cheering with you?” That book is here, and it’s an infinitely darker work than the author’s previous takes on family dysfunction.’

People Magazine

‘The best-selling author bravely lays bare his deepest yearnings and most frightening memories. Even fans of his previous work will be shocked by this story, the first chapter of a remarkable life.’

Parade

‘A searing, emotional portrait of a son who wants nothing more than the love his father will not grant him, Burroughs’s latest memoir (after 2004’s Dry) is indeed powerful.’

Publisher’s Weekly

‘As the pre-eminent writer of family dysfunction, Burroughs makes a convincing new case for the common heartbreak of distance between fathers and sons.’

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

‘Burroughs is doing something new here: ripping the scabs off emotional wounds without his usual acidic humour to deaden the pain.’

The Washington Post

A WOLF AT THE TABLE

A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER

AUGUSTEN
BURROUGHS

image

 

For Christopher Schelling, who is short and mean and saved my life and gave me every star that I pointed to. This book belongs to you. Because I never could have written it without your brutish and relentless love. I know I never say it, but I cherish you and love you with all my heart.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Some names have been changed.

 

IF MY FATHER caught me he would cut my neck, so I just kept going. Broken sticks and sharp stones gouged my bare feet, but I didn’t consider the sensation. A branch whipped across my face; I felt the sting and for an instant I was fully blind, but I didn’t stop.

His flashlight sliced into the woods on either side of me. The beam was like a knife, and I didn’t want it on my back. He was out there, behind me somewhere in these woods.

I dashed to the right through a clutch of young silver birch trees and ran up the embankment, crouching to maintain speed. With his bad knee, he would have trouble with the hill. Lumbering forward, he would need to pause and massage the swollen, throbbing kneecap, catch his breath.

When I realized the jabbing slash from his flashlight was gone, I worried that he had cut around and was one step ahead of me. That he was already on the hill, climbing it from the other side. What if I reached the top and he was there waiting?

I veered back to the path, then crossed it. I wanted to pause and listen, but I couldn’t. Fear pressed me forward. My breathing roared in my head as though my ears were beside a gigantic heaving machine, a bellows stoking some hellish fire.

Even though I was wearing only pajamas and had no shoes, I wasn’t cold. I wasn’t anything at all. I was only a blur.

When I stepped on a branch, the rough bark cut deep into my arch, but I just kept going. The pain exploded in my foot and shot out the top of my head, and then was left behind in my wake.

I paused finally and watched the trees for slashes of light but saw none. As my heart settled and my ears became less occupied, I listened and heard nothing but the thready pulse of the night. And I sensed that the hunt was over. Prey knows when it has escaped.

ONE

SITTING IN MY high chair, I held a saltine cracker up to my eye and peered through one of the tiny holes, astonished that I could see so much through such a small opening. Everything on the other side of the kitchen seemed nearer when viewed through this little window.

The cracker was huge, larger than my hand. And through this pinprick hole I could see the world.

I brought the cracker to my lips, nibbled off the corners, and mashed the rest into a dry, salty dust. I clapped, enchanted.

THE HEM OF my mother’s skirt. A wicker lantern that hangs from the ceiling, painting the walls with sliding, breathing shadows. A wooden spoon and the hollow knock as it strikes the interior of a simmering pot. My high chair’s cool metal tray and the backs of my legs stuck to the seat. My mother twisting the telephone cord around her fingers, my mouth on the cord, the deeply satisfying sensation of biting the tight, springy loops.

I was one and a half years old.

THESE FRAGMENTS ARE all that remain of my early childhood. There are no words, just sounds: my mother’s breathy humming in my ear, her voice the most familiar thing to me, more known than my own hand. My hand still surprises me at all times; the lines and creases, the way the webbing between my fingers glows red if I hold up my hand to block the sun. My mother’s voice is my home and when I am surrounded by her sounds, I sleep.

The thickly slippery feel of my bottle’s rubber nipple inside my mouth. The shocking, sudden emptiness that fills me when it’s pulled away.

My first whole memory is this: I am on the floor. I am in a room. High above me is my crib, my homebox, my goodcage, but it’s up, up, up. High in the air, resting upon stilts. There is a door with a knob like a faceted glass jewel. I have never touched it but I reach for it every time I am lifted.

Above my head is a fist of brightness that stings my eyes. The brightness hangs from a black line.

I am wet-faced and shrieking. I am alone in the awake-pit with the terrible bright above my head. I need: my mother, my silky yellow blanket, to be lifted, to be placed back in my box. I am crying but my mother doesn’t come to pick me up and this makes me mad and afraid and mad again, so I cry harder.

On the other side of the door, he is laughing. He is my brother. He’s like me but he’s not me. We’re linked somehow and he’s home but he’s not home, like my mother and her voice.

Opposite this door against the wall, there is a dresser with drawers that my mother can open but I cannot, no matter how hard I pull. The scent of baby powder and Desitin stains the air near the dresser. These smells make me want to pee. I don’t want to be wet so I stand far away from the dresser.

This is my first whole memory—locked alone in my room with my brother on the other side of the door, laughing.

There is another memory, later. I am in the basement sitting on a mountain of clothing. The washer and dryer are living pets; friendly with rumbling bellies. My mother feeds them clothing. She is lifting away pieces of my mountain, placing them into the mouth of the washer. Gradually, my mountain becomes smaller until I can feel the cool of the cellar floor beneath me.

A form on the wooden stairs. The steps themselves smell sweet and I like to lick them but they are coarse and salty; they don’t taste as they smell and this always puzzles me and I lick again, to make sure. The thing on the stairs has no face, no voice. It descends, passes before me. I am silent, curious. I don’t know what it is but it lives here, too. It is like a shadow, but thick, somehow important. Sometimes it makes a loud noise and I cover my ears. And sometimes it goes away.

“DID MY FATHER live with us at the farmhouse in Hadley?”

I was in my twenties when I called my mother and asked this question. The farmhouse—white clapboard with black shutters and a slate roof—sat in a brief grassy pasture at the foot of a low mountain range. I could remember looking at it from the car, reaching my fingers out the window to pluck it from the field because it appeared so tiny. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t grab it, because it was just right there.

“Well, of course your father lived with us at the farmhouse. He was teaching at the university. Why would you ask that?”

“Because I can remember you, and I can remember my brother. And I can remember crawling around under the bushes at the red house next door.”

“You remember Mrs. Barstow’s bushes?” my mother asked in surprise. “But you weren’t even two years old.”

“I can remember. And the way the bushes felt, how they were very sharp. And there was a little path behind them, against the house. I could crawl under the branches and the dirt was so firm, it was like a floor.”

“I’m amazed that you can remember that far back,” she said. “Though, I myself can also remember certain things from when I was very little. Sometimes, I just stare at the wall and I’ll see Daddy strolling through his pecan orchard before he had to sell it. The way he would crack a nut in his bare hands, then toss those shells over his shoulder and wink like he was Cary Grant.”

“So he was there?” I pressed her.

“Was who where?” she said, distracted now. And I could picture her sitting at her small kitchen table, eyes trained on the river and the bridge above it that were just outside her window, the phone all but forgotten in her hand, the mouthpiece drifting away from her lips. “Yes, he was there.” And then her voice was clear and bright, as though she’d blinked and realized she was speaking on the phone. “So, you don’t remember your father there at all?”

“Just . . . no, not really. Just a little bit of something on the stairs leading to the basement with the washer and dryer and then this vague sense of him that kind of permeated everything.”

“Well, he was there,” she assured me.

I tried to recall something of him from that time; his face, his hands, his memorable flesh. But there was nothing. Trying to remember was like plowing snow, packing it into a bank. Dense whiteness.

I could remember the pasture in front of the house and standing among rows of corn as tall as trees. I could remember the smell of the sun on my arms and squatting down to select pebbles from the driveway.

I could remember how it felt to rise and rise and rise, higher than I’d ever gone before as my trembling legs continued to unfold and suddenly, I was standing and this astounded me and I burst out laughing from the pure joy of it. Just as I threatened to fall on my face, my leg swung forward and landed, and so fast it seemed to happen automatically, my other leg swung forward and I did it again—my first step!—before tumbling forward onto my outstretched hands.

But I could remember nothing of my father.

Until years later, and then I could not forget him no matter how hard I tried.

TWO

BENEATH THE SUN I watched the steps pass quickly between my legs, one after the other after the other. The singularity of the motion hypnotized me as I climbed higher, higher up the Pyramid of the Moon in Mexico.

On the steps below me my mother shouted, “Stop, Augusten! Stop right now!” But with my legs scrambling, my hands gripping the step ahead and then pushing it down to meet my feet, the sun so burning white that it filled the entire sky, I’d entered a kind of a trance where nothing existed but the next step. Finally, she was able to catch up and grab me by the ankle.

Breathless, she cried, “My God, why didn’t you listen? I was just terrified that you’d trip and fall all the way down.”

It was the first time in my life I’d experienced a feeling close to achievement.

I saw that if I continued this strange land-swimming, this intoxicating crawling, climbing, clinging, I would make it to the very top of the world.

I didn’t know what a pyramid was. Not once did I consider the consecrated land upon which it was built, or the powerful ancient society that created it. I knew only that it was overwhelming, magnificent, and must be climbed.

My mother waited until I turned five before taking me to Mexico. We’d come with her best friend, Hyacinthe, and Hyacinthe’s son, Peter, who was also five. The weeks leading up to the trip had been painful, with repeated visits to the doctor for inoculations.

My mother packed our blue hard plastic American Tourister suitcase with Vienna sausages, which we ate from the can with plastic forks. We drank only bottled Cokes.

During the day we walked through the city, paying for pastries with coins. Clusters of street musicians seemed to follow us. I saw a monkey walking on a leash and thought it was an ugly foreign child. Flags quivered on thin wooden sticks outside cafés, rose petals were strewn on the sidewalk; there were straw sombreros, peeling plaster, and tiny green glass bowls handed out as souvenirs at all the restaurants. Mexico was a swirling blur of color and blast, screaming confusion, and vibrant aromas. Peter and I held hands tightly and charged down the sidewalk, ahead of our bare-legged mothers. We dashed into every store, giggling as we shouted, “¿Habla usted inglés? ¿Habla usted inglés?”

In an instant Peter was gone. He’d broken away from me and run ahead on his plump little legs and now his mother cried, “But where did he go? Did you see? Where is my Peter?” We all three turned around and around on the sidewalk, like ballerinas from three different music boxes, looking everywhere but seeing nothing, calling his name and hearing only the sounds of the city in return.

I clung to my mother as we entered stores and asked if they’d seen a little boy, about my height, my age but with dark hair instead of blond. It was strange, his sudden disappearance, but I accepted it. I expected never to see him again; the hungry city had eaten him. But suddenly his mother spotted him standing beside a policía and she ran, screaming, weeping, and waving her arms crazily above her head. I was mystified. In the room that night I’d asked my mother, “But how did she find him? How?” The feeling was like seeing someone step up into the air and fly away. How?

My mother held my hand tighter after this, her fingernails biting into my wrist. But she could not protect me.

We visited deep, slick-walled caves, our guide a local man who warned, “People have been lost in these tunnels. Unless you know them very well, it’s easy to mistake one passage for another.” He wore white and looked like light itself and I followed him faithfully, utterly trusting him.

The tunnels were dark and cool. Somewhere in the center of the cave, he cupped his hands into a black, still body of water and held them out for me to drink, drops falling from his fingers. The water was sweet, so cold it numbed my throat.

Outside, he pulled the needle from a cactus and showed me how, with the fibrous thread still attached, you could stitch a wound if you had to. My mother called me away from him. “Come now,” she warned me in a whisper. “We don’t really know this man.” But he adored me and I knew it. This was a new, euphoric sensation. My first taste of a drug. I wanted more.

Reaching out for his hand, I twisted the silver ring on his thick, hairy finger. He smiled and slipped off the ring, dropped it into my palm. He closed my fingers around it and with his other hand gently stroked my cheek. “I had a boy just your age,” he said to me softly as my mother pulled me into step beside her. “Wave good-bye,” she said, and I did, turning back to watch him as she led me away. I waved and waved and waved.

In a restaurant, I sat on the chair with my feet tucked beneath me. I wiggled and swung my arms, shrieking, laughing, telling her all I had noticed.

The man had given me his ring and I was happy. It was much too large for my fingers, so my mother kept it in her purse. I continuously watched her bag, as though it might suddenly glow with my ring in its belly.

I was drunk. I was silly and sloppy with joy because the man, who said he’d had a boy my age, loved me and I knew it and felt it and I wanted to go back to him.

The chair tipped. I fell and silently impaled myself through the back on an ornate decorative iron spike attached to the radiator beside me.

Pinned like a butterfly to a setting board, I could not move. I began to cry, growing more afraid as the grown-ups left their tables to gather around me, frantically motioning and shouting in Spanish.

My mother quickly pulled me off the spike and held me against her chest, blood staining her fingers. The manager rushed to the table. He spoke Spanish, she spoke English; language bounced between them, landing nowhere. At last, he drew a map on a napkin and she carried me to the hospital in her arms.

She was relieved, so relieved, to have an American doctor. He told her, “Another inch to the left and he’d have been paralyzed for life.”

This memory is vaporous to me now. Dissolved by the medication I was given at the time, it has eroded to almost nothing but her recounting of the story so many years later. “I was just terrified to be in a foreign country, to be in a Mexican hospital. I looked around and felt frantic by how dirty it was.”

IN MEXICO MY mother wore thin-soled sandals and looked over her shoulder. She watched me through large, dark sunglasses and said, “We had to get away from your father. He’s not safe to be around right now.”

This is my first clear memory of my father: I am in Mexico, I am five, and he is not safe to be around.

I could not fathom what this meant. The things I knew that weren’t safe included furious dogs, putting a fork in a toaster, rushing water. How was he like these things?

Everywhere we went, an awareness followed us: we were fleeing. The feeling tainted even the food we hastily ate out of the cans stacked in her suitcase, a measure of economy. I was not allowed to have ice because it, too, was unsafe.

WHEN WE RETURNED, we did not go home to the new red house in the woods of Shutesbury. We’d moved into the new red house when I was three. I remember seeing it when it was only wood bones, like the skeleton of a whale. Instead, we went to an apartment in the center of the town of Amherst that I had never seen before. It was on the second floor of a house and had a bay window in the living room, a small kitchen with a cold tile floor. The bathroom had a tub with claw feet and I had my own bedroom. It was just the two of us. My mother sat me on her lap as she explained that my brother was down south with our grandparents, Jack and Carolyn.

But where was my father?

My mother said, “We have to stay here for a while. We can’t see your father right now.”

Fear wafted from her skin like a fragrance.

“But Mom, why not?”

“Because he’s dangerous,” she said.

Her words lingered in the room like a third person standing in the corner watching us.

WHEN MY UNCLE Mercer, her brother, came to visit from Cairo, Georgia, he brought me a cardboard box in the shape of a space rocket. He assembled it for me on the living room floor and I crawled inside. But I didn’t play with the rocket, I only sat inside and stared at him through the porthole. He had been the first person to hold me after I was born.

At night, he walked me outside to the parking lot so that we could look up. I liked to stare at the night sky. I didn’t understand the stars. They looked to me like sparkling lakes, seen from a great distance.

My mother sat on the sofa smoking and whispering urgently to her brother. I didn’t listen to her words. But, like a dog, I heard the anxiety and fear in her voice. I sat on the floor and held Mercer’s large hand, pulled at his fingers, which were stained yellow and smelled of nicotine. But being in the living room with my wide-eyed and whispering mother made me anxious so I filled the tub with warm water and then climbed inside. I bathed with my new brown plastic Noah’s ark, dozens of small animals floating in the water all around me. There were so many new toys that I worried I had traded my father for them. So, except for the Noah’s ark, I didn’t play with them. The price for having the ark, I reasoned, was not seeing my father for a while. But to play with all the other toys would be to drive him away for good.

I saw Peter almost every day because my mother spent many afternoons at Hyacinthe’s home, an L-shaped one-level ranch just outside town. Peter and I played in the backyard among the skunk cabbage plants that grew in the wetlands behind the house. There were so many cabbages we were compelled to pick them and invent games. One of us would be the shopkeeper, the other the customer. A cabbage cost five round flat stones. We had a wealth of something we didn’t want, but the wealth itself was intoxicating and we invented games just so we could experience the sensation of having too much of something.

We watched Sesame Street in his basement and we learned to count. We both shrieked with joy when five was the number of the day. We placed olives on each finger and then ate them off, one by one.

Hyacinthe spoke French with her son and I was so jealous of him for being able to talk to his mother in this exotic secret language.

My mother would sit on the sofa and weep while Hyacinthe tried to soothe her, massaging her neck and shoulders and reassuring her in that beautiful, melodious voice. That my mother needed the comfort so frequently, that she wept so constantly, scared me. I felt like we weren’t walking on solid ground but on a quivering net suspended in the air, and at any moment our feet could plunge through the holes.

I learned to ride a bike in the parking lot of our new apartment house. Now six years old, I was enrolled in Wildwood Elementary School. Because my mother had told me our living situation was “temporary” and that eventually we would be reunited with my father and move back into our red Shutesbury house, I found that I could not concentrate in school. I avoided making friends because I would just have to give them up eventually. But my reluctance was misinterpreted by the other children and I became the object of bullying. The defining moment occurred on the playground one afternoon when my class divided into two groups, the boys and the girls, with each group chanting at the other, “boys are better than girls,” and “girls are better than boys.” I stood between the two groups, trying to remain neutral. “Come on,” one of the boys shouted at me. “Come over here.” But I joined the girls instead, since they seemed less hateful and were certainly much cleaner than the boys. “Girls are better than boys,” I sang out, the only one on my side of the playground without a barrette or a hair band.

From then on I was despised by the girls and the boys. The boys hated me for siding with the girls, for virtually becoming one before their eyes. And the girls plain mistrusted me.

I became the sickly kid. Some mornings I ran a high temperature or displayed a rash of raised, red bumps. Other days my malady was more amorphous; I just didn’t feel good. I saw the doctor more frequently than my mother could afford. She worried about money, standing in front of the phone, biting her lip, knowing she had to call my father to ask for more but unable to do it. I missed a lot of school. Some mornings, just imagining the blue metal doors of the building caused my stomach to clench miserably. I only wanted to stay home in bed; home with my mother, grilled cheese sandwiches, and Fanta orange soda.

My mother drove a brand-new, 1971 red Chevy Vega, which she named Rosie. It had a black interior and a manual transmission, and the small car smelled new inside. Each day when I saw it pull into the parking lot, I nearly wept with relief. Opening the heavy passenger door, I climbed inside and slid onto the vinyl seat.

“How was school?” my mother asked.

“I just want to go home.”

Some days, my mother was bright and hopeful, her hair washed and her spirits high. “Would you like to drive to Northampton and go to the Farm Shop for a Golden Abigail?” The cheeseburger with crinkle-cut french fries, served in a red plastic basket, was a favorite meal.

But other days she arrived disheveled, with creases from the pillow etched into the soft skin along the side of her face, like a tree bare of leaves. Her hair was oily and unkempt and she was despondent, her eyes ringed with red. On these days, she worried out loud, “I’m just afraid that if we go back home to your father that something terrible will happen but I don’t know how much longer we can survive on our own.” Her hands trembled, even as she gripped the steering wheel.

But I missed his presence, the fact of him in the house. And I didn’t understand what had happened. Why, suddenly, was she afraid? Why was he dangerous? Why hadn’t he come with us to Mexico? And why were we living in this strange, small apartment when we had a brand-new home?

So much had happened since I last saw my father that I wasn’t even the same person anymore. At night when I was supposed to be sleeping, I’d lie awake and wonder if he would like the new me. And I was new, wasn’t I? Didn’t every new thing you did become a part of you, one of your bricks? I was part Mexico now, and part new school, and part bicycle with no training wheels.

My mother said he was sick. I asked, “Is he in the hospital?” Standing at the dingy, chipped porcelain sink in the small kitchen and arranging wildflowers in a rinsed-out jelly jar she said, “Not that kind of sick.” She wouldn’t look at me.

I wanted to bring him my hot water bottle. It always made my stomach feel better. I knew I might need it myself, but I would give it up for him, I really would. She kissed the top of my head and said, “We’ll see.”

AT NIGHT MY mother locked the door and checked the windows. She picked up the telephone to check for a dial tone. She made sure we had candles and matches, as if we were preparing for a huge storm, the certain failure of our electricity. Her fear leeched into me, became mine. My father, already a mysterious man I used to see mostly at night when he came home from work, became a larger and more ominous presence in my life. Though I could no longer form an image of his face in my mind, I felt him under my bed, behind the closed door to my closet, lurking in the shadowed corners of our small, temporary home. I started to fear him instead of miss him. If he’d suddenly appeared at the front door, I might have shrieked and run in the opposite direction.

I BEGAN VIOLIN lessons with a private instructor. Once a week, I was taught how to tuck the instrument under my chin, curling my thumb against the underside of the neck. Over and over, I raked the bow across the strings, trying to achieve a sound and not a screech. I learned the names of its various components: the frog, the bridge, the tailpiece, and the pegs. And while I was proud to be able to name the parts of its anatomy, it was the smell of wood, rosin, and velvet that I loved. The best part of every lesson was opening the violin case and lowering my face to inhale. Also, it seemed almost a miracle to me that this hollow figure eight, as light and elegant as a lady, as my aunt Curtis, was made from wood, from a tree, like the trees out back behind our house in Shutesbury. I just could not see how this was even possible. And that wood— wood—could make a sound so ethereal you were tempted to look over your shoulder and see if somebody transparent were standing right behind you, watching and smiling. It gave me that looking-at-the-night-sky feeling. It made me think of the word God.

I longed for my father to see me holding such a beautiful thing so properly; it seemed impossible that so massive an addition to my life could occur without his knowledge. And then I felt guilty for thinking of him and betraying my mother. By longing for him, it was like I was inviting him back into our lives. And if I was inviting him back when my mother was so afraid of him, I was responsible for scaring her. And her trembling and weeping—it was my fault.

I destroyed the violin by winding the strings so tight the neck snapped.

My mother wasn’t angry with me. She sat me down and told me it was natural to feel upset and angry with my father. I hadn’t known I was angry with him, but because she said I was I began to wonder if it was true.

Soon, I couldn’t remember why I’d ruined the violin and could no longer play it. I’d only wanted to see him without hurting my mother, but she’d said I was angry with him, and I had broken my instrument’s neck, so maybe it was true.

Nothing made sense to me anymore. I knew I was young, I knew I was small. But I was worried that I might already be ruined.

• • •

IN TIME, I began to feel I had no father. When I made friends with a girl my own age, it was our mutual fatherless status that bonded us. Tina’s father lived in China, which was so far away I could not conceive of it, as incomprehensible as if he lived in the year 1600. For her birthday, Tina’s mother baked a red velvet cake and although I declined a slice, feeling too anxious to eat in front of strangers, I would think about that cake for years. I’d never seen red cake before. What was wrong with me that I would decline it? All the other kids had accepted a slice. Why hadn’t I? Why had my stomach been wrenched into an impossible knot? Why was I filled with dread at the prospect of being seen consuming it? When I thought about this some more, I realized it was not the cake that upset me, but the community surrounding the cake. It was the other kids. I knew they’d end up teasing me and I didn’t want to have a mouth full of cake when one of them finally reached out and punched me in the stomach, which I was sure would happen. Better to refuse the cake and be allowed to sit alone, apart from the table. Better, always, to be self-contained.

Shortly after this party my mother announced that we were moving back home to live with my father. There was no transition, because the house was packed and the boxes were moved while I was at school. One day, we were simply home again.

My father greeted us without any fanfare. He patted me on the head three times and stiffly hugged my mother but she pulled away. Then he sat in the living room and watched TV. He didn’t even notice that I was taller and bigger on the inside. And it was as if none of it had happened: the violin and that strange school where I never fit in, my friend with a father in China, the red velvet cake.

Back home, I rode my new bike down the driveway but tumbled off and scraped my knee. My father bolted the training wheels back onto the bike, which made my face turn deep red with shame. “You just weren’t ready,” he explained.

Except I had been ready. I’d been riding for weeks without training wheels, and if only he’d seen me he would know this. “I don’t need them, really!” I cried, but he installed them anyway, wrenching the bolts on hopelessly tight.

I was desperate to show him what I could do on my own. But my father, because he hadn’t been there, simply didn’t believe what I was actually capable of accomplishing.

THREE

THE COLD WOOD floor in my bedroom was always a bit of a shock in the morning, a spank to the soles of my feet that made me hop onto the square of carpet in the center of my room. There, I sat down and put on my socks, remembering my aunt Curtis had taught me how to get my heel in the right place. She’d flown up from Georgia the winter my mother and I had moved back into the Shutesbury house and even though I was pretty old now, seven, I still saw her showing me how to line up the heel of the sock with my foot. I also remained convinced that she peed through her panty hose, because I’d seen her sit on the toilet and pee and it didn’t look like she pulled down her hose at all. She insisted that she most certainly did and merely hadn’t pulled her hose down all the way, because I was standing right there watching her.

After my socks, I put on my green jeans, which I insisted on wearing because of Mr. Green Jeans, who was Captain Kangaroo’s sidekick. Green jeans, I was almost certain, possessed some sort of rare power. And while I wasn’t yet sure what this power was and what it would enable me to do, I knew I would eventually find out. I suspected I might be able to fly when wearing them, but hadn’t had the opportunity yet to test this theory. I slipped on a turtleneck, laughing when my head became stuck in the turtle part. If they weren’t called turtlenecks, I wouldn’t have worn them.

Skidding into the hallway, I clutched the door frame and looped around to the door right next to mine and opened it. In the dark, I saw a hulking form beneath the covers. And then there was the stench that accompanied it. I didn’t much like him but he was mine so I turned on the light. “Get up, get up, get up.”

Eight years older, John Elder, named for the “Elder” side of the family, was my Big Brother. Big and awful is more like it. Big and stinky, big and greasy, big and dumb. One time he tricked me into looking inside this big hole he’d dug in the yard, and then he knocked me over into it headfirst and started to bury me with only my legs sticking out. My hatred for him nearly caused my skin to steam, and I was constantly plotting revenge for one thing or another.

The other thing was that I’d experienced some confusion about him, because first we went to Mexico without him, and then my mother and I lived in the little Amherst apartment without him. So was he temporary, on loan from some other family? But my mother said, “Of course he’s your big brother. He always has been, he always will be. John Elder used to hold you when you were a baby.”

“He did?” I was horrified that she would let him hold a baby, prone as he was to either dropping or throwing things, if not plugging them into electrical outlets just to see what would happen.

But now we were back in the same house together, I guessed, forever.

“Quit it, varmint,” he hollered. “Turn off the light.”

“But it snowed,” I told him. “Come on, it snowed.”

He liked the snow as much as I did. It created an immediate truce to any and all ongoing wars. He threw off the covers, grabbed his thick glasses and shoved them onto his greasy face, then followed me down the hall to the closet.