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You’ve seen me. I’m the guy opposite you on the subway or the bus, I’ve passed you on the street a million times, I’ve stood behind you or in front of you in line. I look familiar, though you can’t quite place me — I look like a lot of people you know, or used to know. Average height, average weight, wavy red hair cut close, khakis, intelligent expression, but something — there’s something about me. Slyness, maybe, or sadness; hard to say which. An indeterminacy just beneath my ordinariness. Lines at my eyes: forty, forty-two? Graying temples. I carry a surprisingly nice briefcase, leather, initialed G.J.C. When I put on my glasses and open the briefcase on the subway, you see that there are lists of names inside, highlighted in different colors. Who are those people? You try not to be obvious, not to stare. Next to each name, a date, most of them recent, though as I page through the list, the dates recede, back into the last century, the 1930s, the 1920s, even.
I close the briefcase. Probably, I smile at you in a distracted way. My eyes behind my glasses look large. I hold the briefcase on my knees awkwardly, possessively. Tattooed in the triangle of skin between my left thumb and index finger there is a small, dark blue bird in flight. It heads toward my pinky and, presumably, away, off my hand. Though, of course, it doesn’t fly off; it is fixed there, wings open. You notice that I am looking at myself in the dark subway window, watching my face change from invisible to visible, dark to light, younger to older, and back again, as the train moves and stops and moves again. Like an image on a loop of film, or in water, I hold, blur, hold, blur, over and over, swaying slightly with the motion of the train. You look at yourself, then at me. Our eyes meet in the window, hold for a moment, before we look away. Later, you can’t quite remember my face. You remember instead the bird, fixed, flying.
When did I first stumble into the wrong grove?
My mother’s house was beautiful.
I mean before. We lived on a cul-de-sac called Tinker’s Way, in Bishop, Massachusetts, and behind our house were woods that were wet, or dry, or icy, or soft, depending on the season. I was a small, dreamy, very nervous boy. From the outside, our house looked as if it had been pinched out of clay. The roof tilted. The windows sat uneasily in their frames. The brick walkway to our house curved, sort of unnecessarily. It would have been easier, and a shorter walk for the walkway to have been laid straight. It was missing a brick here and there in a pattern that looked as if a tune was being picked out. At the back of the house, another brick walkway curved in the opposite direction, leading into the woods until it dissolved in leaves and dirt. There was a gate, standing on its own, connected to nothing but the ground, at the very end of that walkway. My mother put the gate there; she trained a vine with blue flowers on it to grow around the gate. One of my earliest memories is of sitting at that gate, staring steadfastly at the woods, where I was not allowed to play alone, with a tremendous sense of anticipation. I was waiting for something or someone to materialize, a monster or a ghost or a wild boar or a band of dirty, magical children who would spirit me away. I was sure that they were coming. I listened hard for them.
Inside, the bare wood floors continually rang with the sound of the three of us — my mother; my older sister, Caroline; and me — running over them, being kings and queens and tarantulas and creatures from outer space and nameless beings with one or two or three cardboard horns. We spun around the living room, knocking things over. The furniture was draped in different, lush fabrics, the endless beginnings of projects to make it all over. Paisleys, brocades, and brilliant colors of velvet. Ghostly muslin at the windows. Shells and important rocks and leaves of particular specialness in the corners of the room. Everything could be moved in an instant for a game or a show or a pageant. My mother flitted between us, her long, loose, wavy red hair like a flag we followed. Both of her parents, my grandparents, had been high school teachers; she had wanted to be a modern dancer. She had spent some time in Boston after college going on auditions, but it was our house that became her stage.
I had a sad brown bear of a father who ran a small contracting business. In Bishop, the contracting work to be had was building additions on the backs of houses, maybe an extra bathroom. I never saw my father in a suit; there was often dust in his eyebrows. He had a beard like a man from the Civil War; his jeans sagged. His hands were big. In the evenings, particularly in the winter when contracting was slow, he’d go out to the garage where he was teaching himself to make guitars. He stayed there for hours, in silence except for the barely audible, scratchy sound of his transistor radio. We didn’t include him in our games, and on the rare occasion when he joined in, he was awkward; he broke things with his big hands. He couldn’t thread a needle, couldn’t manage yarn, couldn’t glue. Eggshells were a catastrophe for him. He brought me a football, a set of little green soldiers, a magnifying glass. I put them all on my bookshelf and left them there. I did, though, like the shape of the magnifying glass, and the way it made the book spines behind it look strange and dreamy if you propped it on its side.
I didn’t like war or footballs or magnifying glasses or the half-built additions he took me in the drafty truck to see. I liked to make beautiful things with my mother. When I was very small, my mother would fill the sink with ice and then, together, we’d pour food coloring onto the ice, and the blue and red and yellow would swirl, making purple and green in some places, while in other places the blue or the red tendriled down on its own, cutting a long blue path, a river or a ribbon, over the frozen hummocks heaped up in our ordinary sink. I thought it was a miracle. It seemed that she did, too, leaning on her elbows on the counter. We could do that for hours, not getting hungry or tired, staring at the treasure in the kitchen sink, pouring in the red, pouring in the blue. "Gabriel," she said, "be a maestro," and I was a maestro with my bottles of food coloring, conducting our symphony in the kitchen sink.
Gabriel, my mother used to say. My angel. When she said it, I really thought it was true. That’s the kind of kid I was. I believed everything. In Massachusetts, Caroline was always outside, running around the yard finding things or digging holes for archaeological digs or, later, making up songs on the back porch with those two weird guys, the two Davids — we never knew which one was her boyfriend, and they looked just the same, anyway. My mother and I would be inside making things, or using little paintbrushes to paint the things we had made. She could make four dots of paint look exactly like a dog, or a dragonfly, or a bunch of grapes. I was desperate to know how she did that. I gripped my little paintbrush in my sweaty hand, trying to make my dots look like hers. My mother draped raspberry-colored silk over my bed like…