It was an old river city on the St. Lawrence at the northeast edge of Lake Ontario. It looked to be about the size of the city of his earliest memory on the barge canal. On the far side of the river which was the widest river he’d ever seen was a foreign country: Canada. To the east were the Adirondack Mountains. Canada, Adirondack were new words to him, exotic and musical.
Observers would have assumed she’d traveled south with the child. Instead she’d changed buses at Binghamton, traveled impulsively north to Syracuse, and to Watertown, and now beyond to the northernmost boundary of the state.
“To throw them off. Just in case.”
That shrewdness that had become instinctive in her. In no immediate or discernible relationship with available logic or even probability. It was keeping-going, the child knew. He’d become addicted to keeping-going, too.
“Come on come on! God damn it hurry.”
Gripping his hand. Pulling him along. If he’d run ahead on the cracked and potholed pavement impatient after the long bus ride she’d have scolded him for she always worried he might fall, hurt himself. He felt the injustice of her whims.
She walked swiftly, her long legs like scythes. At such times she seemed to know exactly where she was going, to what purpose. There was a two-hour layover at the Greyhound station. In several lockers she’d stored their bulky possessions. The keys were safe in her pocket wrapped in tissue. She’d zipped up his jacket in haste. She’d tied a scarf around her head. They’d left the Greyhound station by a rear exit opening onto a back street.
He was out of breath. Damn he couldn’t keep up with her!
He’d forgotten the name of this place. Maybe she hadn’t told him. He’d lost the map on the bus. Much-folded, much-wrinkled map of New York state.
Keeping-going was the map. Staying in one place for so long as they’d done back there (already he was forgetting the name Horseheads, in another few days he would have forgotten it entirely) was the aberration.
“See, there’s been a sign. There might be more.”
He had no idea what she meant. The excited glitter of her eyes, the set of her jaws. She walked so quickly and so without hesitation people glanced at her in passing, curious.
Mostly men. There were mostly men here, at the river’s edge.
He was thinking again he’d never seen such a wide river. She’d told him there were a thousand islands in that river. He shielded his eyes against splotches of sunshine like fiery explosions on the choppy water.
Drowsing on the bus his head knocking against the smeared window and he’d seen through half-shut eyes long featureless stretches of countryside. At last farmland, human habitations. A cluster of mobile homes, tar paper shanties, auto graveyard, railway crossing and granary, Jefferson Co. Farm Bureau, banners wind-whipping at a Sunoco gas station, a railway crossing. Wherever they were traveling was less green than wherever they’d been hundreds of miles to the south.
Backward in time? There was a wintry glare to the sun here.
The countryside ended abruptly. The road descended between three-storey brick buildings steep-gabled and gaunt looking like elderly men. There was a jarring ascension to a hump-backed old iron bridge above a railroad yard. Quickly he told himself We are safe, it won’t fall in. He knew this was so because his mother showed no alarm, not the slightest interest or even much awareness of the old nightmare bridge across which the massive Greyhound was moving at less than ten miles an hour.
“See! Over there.”
She was leaning eagerly across him to look out the window. Always when they entered any town, any city, whether they were going to disembark or remain on the bus, his mother became alert, excited. In such close quarters she gave off a damp sweetish odor comforting to him as the odor of his own body in slept-in clothes, underwear. And there was the harsher smell of her hair in those days just after she’d had to dye it, not wanting Hazel Jones’s hair to be black but dark brown with “russet-red highlights.”
She was pointing at something outside the window. Below was a vast lot of freight cars BALTIMORE & OHIO, BUFFALO, CHAUTAUQUA & NEW YORK CENTRAL, ERIE & ORISKANY, SANTA FE. Words he’d long ago learned to recognize having seen so often though he could not have said what they meant. Exotic and musical such names seemed to him, the province of adult logic.
His mother was saying, “Almost I’d think we have been here before except I know we have not.”
She didn’t seem to mean the freight cars. She was pointing at a billboard erected above a giant oil drum. sealtest ice cream. A curly-haired little girl lifted a spoon heaped with chocolate ice cream to her smiling mouth. A flash came to him Ike’s FOOD STORE glimmering like a surfacing fish for the briefest of moments before sinking away again into oblivion.
She was saying people had been good to them. All through her life when she’d needed them, people had been good to her. She was grateful. She would not forget. She wished that she could believe in God, she would pray to God to reward these people.
“Not in heaven but here on earth. That’s where we need it.”
He had no idea what she meant but he liked it that she was happy. Entering a town or a city she was always edgy but the little curly-haired girl in the Sealtest billboard had made her smile.
“We’re actual people now, Zack. We can prove who we are like everybody else.”
She meant the birth certificates. On the long journey from Binghamton she’d shown him these official-looking documents several times as if unable to believe that they existed.
Zacharias August Jones born 1956. Hazel Esther Judd born 1936. He liked it that both birthdates ended in 6. He had not known that his middle name was August, that seemed strange to him, the name of a month like June, July. He had not known that his mother’s last name was Judd and wondered if this was so. And his father-William Jones?
Drawing his thumb slowly over the stamp of the State of New York that was slightly raised, whorled like a thumbprint the size of a silver dollar.
“That’s who we are?” He sounded so doubtful, Mommy had to laugh at him.
She’d begun to complain he was getting so damned independent-minded, and not yet six years old! And not yet in first grade! Her little billy goat he was. Sprouting horns she’d have to saw off, that was what you did with billy goat horns growing out of a naughty boy’s forehead.
Where was that, he’d asked. And Mommy had poked his forehead with two blunt fingers.
Though she’d relented, seeing his face. She’d relented and kissed him for Hazel Jones never scolded her child or scared him without a ticklish wet kiss or two to make everything well again.
“Yes. That’s who we are.”
By the time they filed off the bus, she had replaced the birth certificates carefully inside the zippered compartment of her suitcase, between pieces of stiff cardboard to keep them from tearing.
On the wharf was a weatherworn sign creaking in the wind.
MALIN HEAD BAY
He supposed that was the name of this town. He shaped the words silently malin head bay noting the rhythmic stresses.
“What is a ”bay,“ Mommy?”
She was distracted, not listening. He would look up bay in the dictionary, later.
She was walking more slowly now. She’d released his hand. She seemed to be sniffing the air, alert and apprehensive. On the massive river were fishing boats, barges. The water was very choppy. The barges were much larger than he’d ever seen on the canal. In the water fiery sun-splotches came and went like detonations. In the wind it was chilly but if you stood sheltered in the sun it was warm.
In front of a tavern men stood drinking. There were men fishing from a pier. There were run-down hotels rooms day week month and on the crumbling steps of these hotels sickly-looking men sprawled in the sun. He saw his mother hesitate, staring at a man on crutches fumbling to light a cigarette. He saw her staring at several men of whom one was shirtless, basking in sunshine drinking from brown bottles. They walked on. She reached for his hand again, but he eluded her. He kept pace with her, however. Wanting to return to the bus station but knowing that they would not, could not until she wished it. For her will was all: vast as a net encompassing the very sky.
Ma lin Head Bay. His fingers played the keys, the chords.
All that he could make music of was a consolation to him. And there was nothing however ugly he could not make music of.
His mother stopped suddenly. He nearly collided with her. He saw that she was staring at a grotesquely obese old man who sat sprawled in the sunshine, only a few feet away. He’d lowered his bulk onto an overturned wooden crate. His skin was white as flour, strangely whorled and striated, like reptile skin. His shirt was missing several buttons, you could see the scaly folds and creases of his flesh, warm-looking in the sun. In his fatty face his eyes were deep set and appeared to be without focus and when Hazel Jones passed before the man at a distance of no more than ten feet he gave no sign of seeing her only just lifted his bottle to his sucking hole of a mouth, and drank.
“He’s blind. He can’t see us.”
The child understood this to mean He can’t hurt us.
Which was how Zack knew they would stay in Malin Head Bay, for a while at least.