What We Lost: A Story of My Father's Childhood

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9781862076419: What We Lost: A Story of My Father's Childhood

Dale Peck, Sr. grew up extremely poor in rural Long Island in the 1950s, sharing a one-room house with seven brothers and sisters, an abusive mother and an alcoholic father haunted by his past. At 14, he was essentially kidnapped by his father and take to his uncle's farm in upstate New York, where his life changed dramatically. Dale grew strong and healthy from the strenuous work on the farm, and developed a loving relationship with his uncle Wallace. For the first time, he knew contentment. But when Dale's mother demanded that he return, he was forced to choose between his broken family and his uncle and land he had come to love. It was a decision that would determine his future and the legacy he would pass on to his own son. In "What We Lost", a story that startles in its immediacy and lack of sentimentality, Dale Peck refracts his father's past through the prism of his own vivid imagination, forging a bridge between generations and revealing the dark secrets at the heart of family.

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About the Author:

Dale Peck was born on Long Island and is the author of the novels Fucking Martin, The Law of Enclosures and Now It's Time to Say Goodbye. His short fiction has appeared in Artforum, BOMB, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. Peck also teaches writing and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

The old man has an odor like a force field. He wakes the boy before dawn.
Quiet, he says, and underneath his black coat his kitchen whites reek of
cabbage, stewed meat, spoiled milk. We don"t want to get your mother up.
The old man"s clothes stink of institutional food but it is his
breath, wet and sickly sweet, that leaves a weight on the boy"s cheek like his
sisters" hairspray when they shoo him from the bathroom. Reluctantly he
edges out of bed. Like the old man, he wears his work clothes, jeans,
undershirt, brown corduroy jacket—everything but shoes. He shivers in his
socks and watches in the half light as the pillowcase is stripped from his
pillow and filled with clothes from the dresser, trying to warm his thin chest
with thin arms and the thinner sleeves of his jacket.
That"s Jimmy"s shirt.
The old man claps him in the stomach with a pair of boots.
You shut up and put these on.
The boots are cold and damp and pinch the boy"s feet as he
squeezes into them, and as he knots the laces he watches Lance"s drawers
and Jimmy"s football jersey disappear into the pillowcase.
But Dad.
Sshh!
The old man stuffs a pair of jeans into the sack.
But Dad. Those are Duke"s.
The old man looks at the shock of blond hair on the far side of the
bed, and when he turns to the boy the empty bottles in his pockets rattle and
the boy can smell what was in them too.
You won"t have to worry about that bastard no more, the old man
says, breath lighting up the air like sparked acetylene. Not where you"re
going.
If any of the boys has awakened he gives no sign. Already Lance
is hugging the extra inches of blanket where the boy had lain, and Jimmy,
slotted into the crease between the pushed-together mattresses, seems
folded along his spine like a blade of grass. At the far end of the bed Duke
lies with his back to his dark-haired brothers, the stiff collar of his
houndstooth coat sticking out beyond the blanket. A few inches beyond
Duke"s nose the rope-hung sheet dividing the boys" bed from their sisters"
puckers in a draft, but Duke never goes to sleep without making sure the
holes on the girls" half of the curtain are covered by solid patches on the
boys", and so the boy can catch no glimpse of Lois or Edi or Joanie as he is
surfed out of the room by the old man"s frozen spittle. All he glimpses in the
gap between curtain and floor is a banana peel and two apple cores, and his
stomach rumbles and he wants to check his jacket to see if his siblings have
left him any food. But the old man is nudging him, Faster, faster, and the boy
has to use both hands to descend the ladder"s steep rungs. Down below, the
quilts fencing off his parents" bed are drawn tight as tent flaps, and although
his mother"s snores vibrate through tattered layers of cotton batting both she
and the baby, Gregory, tucked in his crib beside her, remain invisible.
The boy pauses at the stovepipe and its single coal of heat in the
hopes of warming his stiff boots, but the old man steps on his heels.
Hurry it up, he whispers, clouting him on the back of the head with
the sack. Unless you feel the need for a goodbye kiss from your ma.
Outside the air is cold and wet and, low down—down around his
knees—gauzy with dawn vapors, and underneath the vapors the frozen grass
breaks beneath the boy"s boots with a sound like ice chewed behind closed
lips. His ice-cold boots mash his toes, but it"s not until they"ve walked
through their yard and the Slovak"s that a space opens up between two
ribbons of mist and the boy sees that the boots are pinching his feet not
because they"re cold or wet but because the old man has handed him
Jimmy"s instead of his own. They had been the boy"s, up until about three
months ago, but even though Jimmy is two years older and two inches taller
than the boy, his feet have been a size smaller than the boy"s since he was
eight years old, and just before Thanksgiving the boy had traded Jimmy his
shoes for the pants he"s wearing now. The pants are a little long on him, a
little loose in the waist, the outgrown boots squeeze his feet like a huckster"s
handshake. But when he turns back toward the house there is the old man,
hissing,
C"mon, c"mon, hurry it up. It"s late enough already.
All around them the dark round shapes of their neighbors" cars
loom out of the fog like low-tide boulders, and down at the end of the block
the cab of the old man"s flatbed truck rises above them, a breaching whale.
The cab is white, or was white; it"s barnacled with flecked rust now, a lacy
caul of condensation veils the windscreen. The boy stares at the soft-skull
shape of it as he minces down the block, not quite understanding why the
sight is confusing, unsettling even. Then:
Hey Dad. Why"d you park all the way—
The old man cuts him off with another Sshh! and then, when the
driver"s side door breaks open from the cab with the same sound the shade
tree made when it fell in front of the garage three winters ago, the boy
suddenly realizes how quiet their street is, and the streets beyond theirs.
Seat springs creak and whine like the grade school orchestra as the old man
settles into the cab, the pillowcase rustles audibly as the boy takes it from
him and drops it to his lap. Then glass clinks as the old man opens his coat
and pulls what looks like an empty bottle from a pocket in the lining, and
when he arches his head back to suck whatever imagined vapor lingers in the
brown glass the sound that comes from his loose dentures is the same
sound that Gregory makes when his mother puts a bottle to his toothless
lips. And all of these noises are as familiar to the boy as the thinning strands
of the old man"s hair, his winter-burned scalp, the globe of bone beneath the
skin, but just as the half light shadows the old man"s features, deepening and
obscuring them, the morning hush seems to amplify the noises in the cab,
giving them the ominous sharpness of a movie soundtrack. And there is a
hardness to the old man"s eyes as well, slitted into the ravines of his slack
stubbled cheeks, a glint Duke once said always came about nine months
before another baby. The boy can"t remember if Duke had said that before or
after the old man whipped him.
The old man throws the empty bottle with the others at the boy"s
feet and straightens behind the wheel. His left and right hands work choke
and key with the resigned rhythm of a chain gang, and after three rounds the
engine turns over once, twice, then chugs into life with a lifelong smoker"s
cough, and the boy remembers something else Duke had said about the old
man. The old man, Duke said, used to smoke like everyone else, but he gave
it up when one time his breath was so strong his burps caught fire, and he
pointed to the charred leather above the driver"s seat as proof. Sitting in the
cab now, it is easy to believe Duke"s story. Everything about the truck is
animated as a carnival, from the trampolining seat to the pneumatic sigh of
the clutch to the spindly stick of the gearshift, which the old man
manipulates as though it were a cross between a magic wand and a knob-
headed cane. Down around the boy"s throbbing feet the glass bottles tinkle
their accompaniment and up above are the old man"s fiercely focused eyes,
and the boy is so distracted by all this drama that he nearly forgets to take a
last look at his house. By the time he turns all he sees are the empty panes
of glass in the garage door that the shade tree smashed when it fell. The
black rectangles gape like lost teeth amid the frosted white panes, like pages
ripped from a book or tombstones stolen from a graveyard, and for some
reason the sight of them fills the boy with a sense of loss and dread. Then
there is just the shade tree, dead now, leafless and twigless but otherwise
intact, and still blocking the garage door as it has for the past three years.
Brentwood, Long Island, 1956. The most important local industry
might not be the Entenmann"s factory but it is to a boy of twelve, almost
thirteen, and as the truck rattles down Fifth Avenue the boy cracks open the
triangular front window in his door and presses his nose to it as he always
does. It is too cold and the factory is six blocks away and the boy can smell
little more than a ghost of sugar on the wet air, but in his mind the street is
doughy as a country kitchen, and as he inhales he pretends he can sort the
different odors of crumb and glazed and chocolate-covered donuts from an
imaginary baker"s hash of heat and wheat and yeast. The sharp vanilla edge
of angel food cake or the cherry tinge of frosted Danish or his favorite, the soft
almost wet odor of all-butter French loaf. He likes it for the name even more
than the taste—a loaf they call it, like bread, when it is sweeter than any
cake. In fact he has eaten it so few times the taste is a memory trapped in
his head in a space apart from his tongue, but whenever he stocks the
pastries section of Slaussen"s Market his nostrils .are as if they can smell
the brick-sized loaves through waxed cardboard and cellophane.
It"s when they pass Slaussen"s that the boy realizes they"re
headed for the Southern State. Big white signs fill the store"s dark windows.
PORK CHOPS 19¢/LB! IDAHO POTATOES, PERFECT FOR BAKING!
ORDER YOUR XMAS TURKEY NOW! The boy turns his head to stare at this
last notice as they drive by. It"s the second week of January and the
disjunction tickles his mind, but only faintly, like the flavor of all-butter French
loaf. But then he remembers something else.
Will I be back for work?
The way the old man operates the truck reminds the boy of a
puppet show. He is all elbows and knees, jerks and lunges and rapid glances
to left and right, and he doesn"t spare an eye for the boy when he answers
him.
Close your window, he says. And then: What time do you clock
in?
I go in after school.
The old man turns right onto Spur Drive North without slowing,
drops the truck into second in an attempt to maintain speed up the on-ramp.
The tires squeal around the corner and the truck bucks as though running
over a body when the old man downshifts, and then the ancient engine hauls
the truck up the incline like a man pulling a sled by a rope.
What time do you clock in?
The boy doesn"t answer. Instead he watches the road, not afraid,
only mildly curious, as the truck slides across both lanes of the parkway and
drops two tires into the center median before the old man steadies its
course. The old man has gone into the median so many times that the older
boys refer to the strip of grass as the Lloyd Parkway, and one time,
according to Duke, the old man went all the way over to the eastbound lane
and was halfway to work before he realized it. Now he continues half-on and
half-off the road for another quarter mile before jerking the truck back into the
left lane.
Did you close your window?
The boy looks up. The old man is using the end of his sleeve to
rub something, dust or frost, off a gauge on the dash, and when he"s finished
he squints at the gauge and then he says, You won"t be going into
Slaussen"s tonight. He looks down at the boy and lets the big wheel go slack
in his hands. Where you"re going you"ll wish sacks of potatoes was all you
had to haul around. Shit, boy, he says, that"s what you"ll be carting soon.
Wheelbarrels full of—
The crunch of median gravel under the left front tire brings his
attention back to the road. The steering wheel is as big as a pizza and twirls
like one too, as the old man wrestles the truck onto the roadway.
Did you close your window?
The boy ignores him. The truck"s heater has been broken since
before he can remember and it will make no difference if the vent window is
open or closed. If they drive long enough the engine"s heat might pulse
through the dash and if it does he will close the window, but at this point,
despite the sack of clothes he has buried his hands in for warmth, he doesn"t
believe they will be on the road very long. And besides, the pillowcase is tiny,
almost empty. Only one change of clothes, even if none of them fit him. But
at least they won"t hurt him, like Jimmy"s shoes.
Already the fog has thinned, skulking in the median as if afraid of
the big truck, but no other cars are on the road; and as they drive the pain in
the boy"s feet changes. The sharp pinching in his toes dissipates slightly,
becomes a general ache he feels throughout his feet, less strong but more
pervasive, and he is trying to decide if this is more or less bearable than the
initial pinching when the old man veers toward the exit for Dix Hills.
The boy relaxes then. Even though he doesn"t know the names of
these streets he knows the rhythms of the starts and stops and turns
through them, can feel the rightness or wrongness of the truck"s movement in
his belly—indeed, he"s been feeling it since his time in his mother"s. Both his
parents are employed at Pilgrim State Mental Hospital, and before the boy
started school he stayed at the enormous hospital"s daycare facility, which
he remembers as a place of lights so bright he could never find Jimmy and
his sisters—Duke was already in school by then, and Lance wasn"t born until
after the boy started going to Brentwood Elementary. Then, not long after he
left daycare, the boy"s mother began sending him with the old man when he
went to pick up his paycheck Friday afternoons, because most of the bars
the old man frequents won"t let him bring the boy in with him and, during the
winter at least, the old man doesn"t make the boy sit out in the truck for more
than a half hour or two. And even though it is Saturday morning and the old
man should have collected his paycheck yesterday, the boy isn"t all that
troubled. He simply assumes they"re en route to another of the old man"s
errands: helping the hospital"s dairyman unload crates of eggs onto the back
of their truck, or taking out the kitchen trash, which just happens to contain a
couple gunnysacks of potatoes or waxed cardboard boxes of broccoli still
tightly packed in ice. He ignores the pillowcase in his hands, the glint in the
old man"s eyes. The old man is twitchy but repetitive, he reminds himself—a
broken record, Duke calls him, stuck in a groove. If his actions sometimes
appear random, it is only the contained chaos of one marble clicking off
another in the schoolyard, willy-nilly inside the tiny chalk circle but easily
predictable within the broad scheme of things. Eventually everything will
become clear, if not immediately then at some not-too-distant point.
The looming crooked edifice of the hospital is just visible in the
distance when the old man eases the truck down a dark narrow alleyway,
seemingly forgetting to brake until the nose of the truck is inches from the
sooty bricks of the alley"s terminal wall. Now the boy understands what"s
going on. This is the Jew"s back door, and the old man comes here with
almost the same regularity as he goes to the payroll office at the hospital a
mile down the road. The boy only takes the time to loosen the laces on his
boots before pressing his ear to the open window—his left ear, so he can turn
and face the scene taking pl...

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Dale Peck
Verlag: Granta Books (2004)
ISBN 10: 1862076413 ISBN 13: 9781862076419
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Buchbeschreibung Granta Books, 2004. Paperback. Buchzustand: Very Good. | C Format (8½" x 5¼"). 229pp. | First in this, paperback, edition.<br For more photos or information, use the «Ask Bookseller» button and I'll be pleased to help. The book is in stock and ships from the rustic nirvana of Peasedown St. John, near Bath, England from a long-established bookseller - guaranteed by my reputation and the UK Distance Selling Act. Remember! BUYING THIS BOOK means my Jack Russells get their supper! Condition :: Artikel-Nr. 171369

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