Schroder: A Novel - Excerpt


What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.

My lawyer says I should tell the whole story. Where we went, what we did, who we met, etc. As you know, Laura, I’m not a reticent person. I’m talkative—you could even say chatty—for a man. But I haven’t spoken a word for days. It’s a vow I’ve taken. My mouth tastes old and damp, like a cave. It turns out I’m not very good at being silent. There are castles of things I want to tell you. Which might explain the enthusiasm of this document, despite what you could call its sad story.

My lawyer also says that this document could someday help me in court. So it’s hard not to also think of this as a sort of plea, not just for your mercy, but also for that of a theoretical jury, should we go to trial. And in case the word jury sounds exciting to you (it did to me, for a second), I’ve since learned that a jury gets all kinds of things wrong, cleaving as it does to initial impressions, and in the end rarely offers the ringing exonerations or punishments that we deserve, but mostly functions as a bellwether for how the case is going to skew in the papers. It’s hard not to think about them anyway, my potential listeners. Lawyers. Juries. Fairy-tale mobs. Historians. But most of all you. You—my whip, my nation, my wife.

Dear Laura. If it were just the two of us again, sitting together at the kitchen table late at night, I would probably just call this document an apology.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Once upon a time, in 1984, I created another fateful document. On the surface, it was an application to a boys’ camp on Ossipee Lake in New Hampshire. I was fourteen and had been living in the United States for only five years. During those five years, my father and I had occupied the same top-floor apartment of a tenement in Dorchester, Mass., which if you’ve never been there is a crowded multiracial neighborhood in Boston’s southern hinterlands. Even

though I had quieted my accent and cloaked myself in a Bruins hockey shirt, and tried to appear as tough and sulky as my Irish American counterparts who formed Dorchester’s racial minority, I was still mentally fresh off the boat and was still discovering, on a daily basis, the phenomena of my new homeland. I remember the electronic swallowing sound of a quarter by the slot of my first video-game machine, as well as the sight of a vibrating electronic toothbrush, and how, one day while I was waiting for the bus, a boy not much older than me drove up to the curb in a Corvette convertible and hopped out without use of the door. I remember seeing many sights like this and more, because the feelings they brought up were confusing. At first I’d feel a pop of childish wonder, but this wonder was followed by the urge to stuff it back, because if I were a real American I would not have been in the least impressed with any of it. Self-consciousness was my escort, a certain doubleness of mind that I relied upon to keep myself from asking stupid questions, such as when Dad and I drove across the border of Rhode Island one day on an errand, and I resisted asking why there was no checkpoint between state lines, for I had—if you can believe it—brought my German passport with me.

I first saw the brochure for Camp Ossipee in my pediatrician’s office. I studied it every time I was sick until I slipped it in my jacket and took it home. I stared at this brochure for weeks—in bed, in the bath, hanging from my pull-up bar—until its pages started to stick together. The American boys in the photographs hung suspended in the air between cliffside and lake water. They walked in threes portaging canoes. I started to envision myself swimming with them. I imagined myself crawling through the wheat or whatever, learning to track and to mushroom. I would be the go-to man, the boy out in front, not so much the hero but an outrider. I was particularly interested in the Ossipeean rite of passage available only to the oldest boys in their final year—a solo overnight camping trip on a remote island in the middle of the lake. And here is where my future self was really born to me, in this image: myself, Erik Schroder, man alive, stoking a fire in the night, solo, self-sufficient, freed from the astrictions of society. I would fall asleep as one boy and wake up the next day a totally different one.

All I had to do to apply to the camp was to fill out a form and write a personal statement. What sort of statement were they looking for? I wondered. What sort of boy? I sat at my father’s card table, gazing out the window at the corner of Sagamore and Savin Hill Ave., where two classmates of mine were fighting over a broken hockey stick. I slipped a piece of paper into my father’s typewriter. I began to write.

Mine was a tale that, by certain lights, was the truest thing I had ever written. It involved the burdens of history, an early loss of the mother, a baseless sense of personal responsibility, and dauntless hope for the future. Of course, by other lights—the lights that everyone else uses, including courts of law—my story was pure canard. A fraudulent, distorted, spurious, crooked, desperate fiction, which, when I met you, I lay bound at your feet. But this was 1984. I hadn’t met you yet. I wasn’t lying to you—I was just a child, sitting at my father’s typewriter, my legs trussed to the knee in white athletic socks, my hair still rabbit blond, not dark at the roots like it is now. I addressed the envelope. I filched a stamp. When it came time to sign the bottom of that crowded page, it was with some flair that I first signed the name by which you came to know me. The surname wasn’t hard to choose. I wanted a hero’s name, and there was only one man I’d ever heard called a hero in Dorchester. A local boy, a persecuted Irishman, a demigod. He was also a man who’d spoken to cheering throngs of depressed West Berliners circa 1963, leaving them with a shimmering feeling of self-regard that lasted long beyond his assassination, his hero status still in place when my father and I finally got there much later. In fact, you might say John F. Kennedy is the reason we showed up in this country at all.

I spent months intercepting the mail looking for my acceptance letter from Ossipee. The letter would offer me full acceptance to camp on scholarship, as well as sympathies for my troubles. I dreamt of this letter so often that I had a hard time believing it when it actually arrived. We at Ossipee believe that every boy deserves a summertime… We are dedicated to supporting boys from all circumstances… Come join us by the shores of our beloved lake… Ossipee, where good boys become better men. Yes, yes, I thought. I accept! I’ve got plenty of circumstances! My excitement was tempered only by the sound of Dad’s key in the downstairs foyer, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to show him the letter itself, which was addressed to a different boy. Instead, I showed him the disintegrated brochure. I told him of the man-to-man phone call from the camp director. I even made the scholarship merit based, rounding out the fantasy for both of us. We trotted around the apartment all evening. It was as close as my father ever got to joyful abandon.

No one ever checked my story. When the time came, I took a bus two hours north from Boston to a bus stop called Moultonville, where a camp representative was to greet me and another scholarship boy we picked up in Nashua. When we got off the bus, a stout woman in canvas pants came toward us. This was Ida, the camp cook and its only female. The other boy mumbled an introduction. Ida looked at me. “Then you must be Eric Kennedy.”

Why did they believe me? God knows. All I can say is it was 1984. You could apply for a social security number through the mail. There were no databases. You had to be rich to get a credit card. You kept your will in a safety deposit box and your money in a big wad. There were no technologies for omniscience. Nobody wanted them. You were whoever you said you were. And I was Eric Kennedy.

For the next three summers, that’s who I was. Steady-handed Eric Kennedy. Iron Forge Eric Kennedy. Eric Kennedy of the surprisingly tuneful singing voice. My transformation was amazing. The first summer I spoke in a quavering voice that only I knew was meant to prevent any trace of an accent. I harbored a fear that some real German would come up to me and ask me, “Wo geht’s zum Bahnhof Zoo?” and I would answer. But this never happened, and besides, nobody distrusted me or scrutinized me or seemed to wish me harm; at Ossipee, the boys were taught that trusting other people was something you did for yourself, for your own ennoblement, and this old-fashioned lesson, however perversely I received it, is a debt I still hold to the place. Over time, I left the periphery of the group and moved toward the center of things. I took off my shirt and joined in dances around the campfire. I led the chanting for food in the dining hall. By the end of my first summer, they couldn’t shut me up. After that, I never really stopped talking.

The time eventually came for my solo camping trip. It was my third and final summer at Ossipee, a strikingly clement one. A steady wind swabbed the surface of the lake, forming darkly iridescent wavelets that tapped the bottom of the camp Chris-Craft. All the boys I’d lionized in previous summers were gone. The younger arrivals, their hair still bearing the ruts of combing, hung around on the dock watching me set off, and I realized that I had become the older boy, the one they’d remember once I was gone. The boathouse counselor motored me toward distant coordinates and left me there on a hard beach wearing a crown of gnats. The night was endless, but that isn’t the point of my story. The part I want to tell you about is the morning, how when I heard the sound of the Chris-Craft approaching through the fog, I zipped out of my nylon tent as from a skin and knew that I had achieved something truly monumental: I had chosen my own childhood. I had found a past that matched my present. And so, with the help of enthusiastic recommendations from the folks at Ossipee, as well as a series of forgeries I hesitate to detail here despite the fact that Xeroxes of them have been pushed across tables at me quite recently, I was accepted—as Eric Kennedy— to Mune College in Troy, New York. I was a workstudy student at Mune, operating the tollbooth at a multistory parking garage, and the rest of my tuition was furnished via Pell Grant (which I paid back, by the way). I majored in communications. I was a B student. Smart in class, you know, but inconsistent when actual work on my own was required. My secret bilingualism led me to excel in the study of other languages—Spanish, even conversational Japanese. When I graduated, I got a job nearby as a medical translator at Albany’s Center for Medical Research, and there I stayed for six uneventful years, as free as a bird.

Of course, birds aren’t free. Birds do almost nothing freely. Birds are some of nature’s most industrious creatures, spending every available hour searching and hoarding and avoiding competitive disadvantage, busy just having to be birds. Like a bird, I was constantly at work being Eric Kennedy, and like a bird, I did not think of it as work. I thought of it as being. The earliest and cruelest deceptions had already happened—meaning, my deceptions of my father. Whenever I was Eric Kennedy, I’d made myself hard for Dad to contact. Even at Ossipee, I had told him there were no telephones in the wilderness of New Hampshire, but that if he wanted me to call him, I would happily set out on foot to the nearest town, and of course he said Nein, nein, Erik. Then, in measured English, I will see you when I see you.

Right. He would see me when he saw me, which was seldom. During college, I was like any other young man, busy trying to appear more interesting than I was—you know, amassing a music collection, composing mental manifestos, once or twice appearing in a piece of student theater. I drove down to Dorchester only when absolutely necessary. I commenced alone, in my black gown and mortarboard, and then waited until July to bring Dad up for a campus tour, when the place was desolate except for the students at an adult tennis camp. I had befriended a childless professor during my time at Mune, and it was this man, not my father, who cosigned my lease on my first apartment, a sunny one-bedroom kitty-corner from Washington Park.

I was happy in Albany and rarely left it. I liked its protected horizons, its belligerent small-time politicians. And there was always a girl—some girl or another—and laughing, and making fun of tourists in the South Mall. These relationships were easy and promise-free. I had a talent for choosing women who were already temperamentally predisposed toward happiness and therefore wouldn’t use me as a catchall for their disappointments. In my free time, I worked erratically on my research (see page 15) and played soccer with a bunch of foreign transplants on a hill we borrowed from the College of Saint Rose. And the thing after that, I supposed, would be the thing after that.

I did not know the thing after that would be you.

You. The first time I saw you, you were strapping a splint onto a child who had just fallen out of a tree. About a dozen other children were standing in a loose circle watching you. By then the boy was screaming so loud that no one but you could get near him. It was my lunch hour, and the noise annoyed me, and so I stood to leave. But my gaze caught on you, and I paused.1 What caused this snag? What was it about you, or about the moment in which you came to my attention? Was it the way you continued to wrap the boy’s wrist so coolly, despite the fact that he was hysterical, kicking and screaming? It was August. Late, hot, rotten summer. I would later learn that you had been charged with leading twenty of Albany’s neglected children through the poison ivy since July. You looked in need of a shower. But my attention snagged on you. My mind cleaned you off and put you in a sundress and placed a glass of Chardonnay in your hand and turned your face to mine. So I stood up and walked toward you, offering my help, wondering if the feeling would last, wondering if I could string together two or three more moments of this rapturous attention that was commanding me. Who knows why, Laura? Who knows why so-and-so falls in love with you-know-who instead of what’s-his-name? Reams of poetry have languished in the guessing. I mean, I’m sorry for you, that I chose you. But I guess part of my motivation here, with this document, is to remind you that it wasn’t entirely a waste. Listen:

Were we compatible? I believe yes, we were, very compatible, for a while. Although you made a pretty brittle first impression, you turned into one big marshmallow as soon as you decided I was a decent guy. You couldn’t stop yourself. Soon you were bringing me books, loose tea, candied apricots. Your flirtations were sweet, a little fussy. It was as if you’d been sequestered from men your entire life and therefore could only seduce me as if I myself were a young girl.

Although you were the real American, I was by far more Americanish. I was more spontaneous. I was more relaxed. I was still, in many ways, Eric Kennedy of Camp Ossipee, a persona for which I’d been richly rewarded at Mune College, but who, as I climbed toward thirty, was in need of an update. With you, Eric Kennedy matured. You were four years his junior, but no one would have guessed. You were prompt. You were responsible. You were deliberate. You were health conscious. You often traveled with your own baggies of gorp. You were easily offended. There was a whole list of social issues over which you took quick offense (e.g., the lack of handicap accessibility in public buildings). The mere mention of such issues made your cheeks red. You were always ready for polite but tense debate. It was as if throughout the course of your life, you had been traumatized by chronic misunderstandings.

How quickly I dropped all other commitments, all other friendships, clubs, and interests. I had a sense of loving you, despite your youth, as if I were your student, and therefore whatever you did—however obscure, however specific—was, to me, the right thing. You had such a careful way with the truth. You wanted everything you said to be true on several different levels. It took you a long time to fill out simple forms in a doctor’s office, tapping the pen to your lips. Did you exercise daily or weekly? Well, you exercised several days a week but not daily. I leaned over your shoulder to help you scrutinize whatever bit of inconsequentia was capturing your attention. I was happy to study bar codes and ingredients and all genres of fine print with you. The grocery store, the DMV. In America, the opportunities to be accurate are endless. And nothing escaped your eye. Nothing, of course, except me.

Marriage. The clashing of expectations produces a new chord. We had a small civil ceremony. A honeymoon in Virginia Beach. And after these rituals, there was the renting of the apartment, and the rearranging of furniture, and then an idleness descended upon us, and we were like any newly married pair, nervously wondering, OK , what next? How should we go forward? For a while, there seemed to be someone missing—someone else, like a leader, or a chief. An urgently needed third party whose role it was to direct traffic between us, to negotiate conflicting plans, forge compromises, translate cultural or religious differences. Or were we really supposed to go it alone? Us? The bride—you—struggling to outstretch her parochial upbringing, born as she was to slightly ignorant but good-hearted Catholics from Delmar, New York. And the groom—me—raised in a (completely fictional) town on Cape Cod he called Twelve Hills, a “stone’s throw from Hyannis Port,” a treasured only child, endowed with a last name that could only be uttered in rapture.

[1] What is a pause? For the purposes of this document I will restrict my answer to conversational interaction only, in which a pause is a cessation of speech between two or more participants (not, for example, a moment of counterargument during one’s solitary existential inner monologue in the bathtub). Compared to a silence, a pause is briefer, a kind of baby silence—the sort of hesitation that occurs while one is fishing for the proper way to put a thing, for example. Or when one is reflecting upon what one just said with a measure of criticism or regret. Or when one is distracted by a second subject or a loud noise but wants to appear thoughtful. Nobody asked me, but I would personally time a pause at two to three seconds in duration. It may be true that pauses are, at least historically, second-rate silences, whereas silences—those yawning spans of time in which the heart sinks, the mouth dries, the truth dawns—are infinitely more consequential and worthy of study. However, this writer maintains that both pauses and silences may be what the theorist and mother of pausology Zofia Dudek calls functionally deficient (i.e., a nothing that is a something). Both are worthy of study and attention.

From the book SCHRODER. Copyright (c) 2013 by Amity Gaige. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.