Sons from Afar
James Tillerman watched his brother, Sammy, who was bailing two inches of rain water from their boat. It had rained all the previous night—a cold slanting March rain—and most of the morning, too. Then, Marchlike, the wind had shifted in the afternoon to the southwest, blowing the heavy clouds away, blowing warm. In the twilight, the boys had come down to bail the boat.
Sammy sat on the narrow gunwales, using his weight to tilt the boat and bring the water within it into easy reach. He bent and straightened, rhythmically, bailing the boat. The bailer was an empty bleach jug with the top cut off; it poured water into the bay with a wet, rushing sound. Sammy, whatever he did, moved as if he would never get tired. James, sitting cross-legged on the dock, his arms resting on his thighs, his fingers laced together, watched his brother.
“Do you ever wonder—?” James started.
“No.” Sammy bent, straightened, poured water out into water.
Irritated, James looked at his own hands, jealous, too. He moved the fourth finger of his right hand beneath the fingers of his left hand, then moved over the little finger to conceal the gap. In the growing darkness, you could fool someone, they might not notice that one finger was apparently missing. Things were so simple for Sammy, clear and simple. But he had wanted
to ask Sammy. He didn’t like being just cut off like that, didn’t like it one bit.
Sammy broke the rhythm of bailing to look at his brother, sitting there on the dock above, just sitting there looking at his own hands. He could have asked James to help out. If he asked James, James would probably get down into the boat and help. But it seemed to Sammy that James shouldn’t be waiting around to be asked, shouldn’t just sit there, a pale blob in the dim air. There was another bailer. The job wouldn’t take so long if James helped, and Sammy wouldn’t have minded getting his hands into the cold water only half as many times. The air was warm enough, but the water held a winter chill longer than the air, long into spring, just the way it held summer’s warmth long into fall.
Sammy bent to work again, enjoying it actually. It was good to feel the muscles along his back and shoulders, the way they worked. It was good to feel the balance of his body, the way his legs kept his own weight and the water’s weight and the boat’s buoyant weight all in the right balance. His body knew how to do that, without any thinking. James would have to think it out, and he’d probably have gotten both of them wet before he figured out how to sit right. James was always thinking about something, wondering about something; it was almost as if he was always trying to make Sammy feel stupid, showing off a busier, smarter brain. Sammy smiled to himself, remembering how long it had taken him to figure out that there was no way he’d ever catch up the three years between him and James. But he was catching up in height—at five five he was only an inch shorter, and he weighed more, too, because of his muscular build. Sammy looked, he knew, older than twelve, while James looked younger than fifteen-almost-sixteen. Sammy didn’t mind that, not one bit.
“Seriously,” James said. “Wonder about our father. Do you ever?”
“Cripes, no.” When Sammy emptied the bailer, the water splashed up from the dark bay. “Why would I wonder about him? He never even saw me.”
“Not even once.”
“He did me, I guess. I don’t remember. Dicey remembers—but even Dicey was just a little kid the last time she probably saw him. I might as well never have had a father.”
“Considering that he blew the scene before I was born, I’d say I didn’t have one. So, why worry about him?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of genes and chromosomes? Heredity?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.”
“Look,” James began, leaning forward.
“I can’t look. I’m working,” Sammy pointed out. “It’s too dark to see anyway.”
“We all have the same eyes,” James went on, ignoring what Sammy said, because it wasn’t to the point. The point was heredity. “The particular tones and colors vary, but they’re all hazel, because of dominant genes. We’ve got Tillerman eyes, that’s the way genetics work. Have you heard of Mendel’s laws of heredity?”
James didn’t think Sammy would have, but he waited a minute, anyway, before going on, in case his brother had anything to say.
“Mendel discovered genetics. He worked with beans. To discover what laws inherited characteristics are governed by.”
“What kind of beans? Green beans or pole beans? Lima beans?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What does it matter what kind of beans?”
“I don’t know what any of it matters.”
“Because of the law of dominance,” James explained patiently. “Because you get one gene—for eye color, for example—from
each one of your parents. So there are two genes for eye color. If they’re different, one of them will be dominant, and that’s the color eyes you’ll have.”
“Very educational.” Sammy shifted his position, sliding into the boat and hunkering down low next to the backseat, careful to not clunk his shoulder on the motor. The bottom of the bailer scraped along the wooden floor of the boat. Sammy was almost done, which was lucky because it was almost full dark. James continued explaining genetics to his brother.
“So all of our physical characteristics are inherited, according to Mendel’s laws. But it’s not just physical characteristics. Maybe. That’s one thing I’m wondering about. It’s like—mental characteristics, too. You know, intelligence, right or left brain dominance, maybe even aptitudes.”
Sammy was looking at him, but he wasn’t really listening.
“Integrity, aggression, whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, whether you’re psychologically stable or have a tendency to mental disease, like schizophrenia, maybe that kind of thing too,” James went on. “Nobody knows for sure just how much is encoded in DNA, they keep finding out more about it, so it could be that character traits as well are inherited.”
“So what?” Sammy stood up. He dropped the bailer into the bottom of the boat. Reaching up, because the boat sat low on a low tide, he hauled himself onto the dock.
James gave up trying to explain to Sammy, who didn’t care about anything that wasn’t right under his nose. Intellectual curiosity, that was what Sammy didn’t have.
“Thanks for all the help,” Sammy said, sarcastic. He stood next to James, but looking out to where the dark bay moved under the dark sky.
James kept his mind on the important thing. “I mean, we don’t even know what color his eyes were. Or are.”
“What does the color of his eyes matter?”
“We don’t know anything. We might even be orphans.”
“Come on, James,” Sammy turned to him. “How can we be orphans? We had Momma. And—cripes—we’ve got mothers coming out our ears, between Gram and Dicey and even Maybeth.” That idea made him laugh and James had to smile, too, in the darkness.
“Yeah, I know, but—”
“Why are you getting hung up on that now?” Sammy asked.
“I don’t know,” James said truthfully. “I’ve just been wondering about him.”
“Seems to me the last thing we need is a father.” Sammy sat down. His legs hung over the edge of the dock. “Besides, I thought you had a big algebra test tomorrow, and a history report to work on.”
James didn’t answer. Sammy didn’t mind. He lay back and looked at the sky. The stars were coming out, little pale pinpricks of light. He knew they weren’t really coming out, that they’d been burning away out in the darkness of space all day long; but it looked like they were coming out, like flowers coming into bloom. Sammy had his head against the stiff splintery boards of the dock, and he was looking out into space so deep it might as well be endless. He thought it would be great to explore space: sailing out among the stars, discovering . . . you couldn’t even begin to imagine what you might discover. If there were huge winds that blew across the vast empty reaches, and your ship had a big metal sail . . . but he didn’t think there were space winds. He could ask James, but he didn’t want to. “I’m good at math and science, I could be an astronaut,” he said to the stars.
“I thought you were going to play tennis,” James answered.
“I’ll do both,” Sammy said. The sky turned darker, and darker still. The stars burned white, making the sky look crowded. You could put a tennis court in a spaceship; the ship would have to be large, anyway, and people would have to have something to do, to fill in the vast stretches of time, and to keep in shape. “Why shouldn’t I do both?”
“Because they’re both careers for young men—too short-lived,” James’s voice informed him. “Be practical.”
That was pretty funny, coming from James, Sammy thought. Now James was getting going on being a lawyer and Sammy was letting his brother’s words blow away on the wind. He’d heard it all before, about a 4.0 average so you could get a scholarship to a good college; about the right major, something to do with history or political science, to prepare you for the three-year course in law school; about the best schools and the scholarships they offered to the best students. After that, the voice went on—Sammy had heard it all before—you just chose how you wanted to make your money. Government work was secure but paid the least. If you did corporate law, working for a big corporation, you earned big bucks but the job wasn’t that secure. Or you could work for a law firm, criminal law or property law, or handling wills and estates. You could do whatever you wanted, whatever you were good at, in a law firm, as you worked your way up to being a partner and taking a percentage of the firm’s earnings. With a law degree you could even go into politics—although Sammy couldn’t see anybody voting for James. He didn’t think he would.
“International law, international banking law,” James’s voice said. “I think I’d be good at that.”
“I wouldn’t,” Sammy said. “I wouldn’t like something where you didn’t do anything.”
James sputtered and Sammy was afraid he’d start explaining about how important banking was, but he didn’t.
James had heard the boredom in Sammy’s voice and reminded himself that Sammy was still young, still just a kid, only twelve. “What about your homework?” he asked.
“What I don’t get done tonight I can finish on the bus.” James shrugged: Sammy just didn’t care about grades. He just didn’t know how important they were; he didn’t care about knowing things either.
“You know,” Sammy’s voice said, “it always looks like the stars are coming out, even though they aren’t.”
“They’re really suns,” James told him. He looked up at the sky then. It was black, silky black, with no moon yet so the suns burned clear out there. James picked out the constellations he knew: Orion, by his belt, he could always always find Orion; the big dipper, like a geometric figure, like a rhomboid; the little dipper, a smaller rhomboid, his eyes searched it out. Then the North Star, Polaris. The Pleiades, the sisters, crowded together, the seventh sister burning faintly. “Every one of them is a sun, a mass of burning gases. Do you know how hot the sun burns?”
“So what,” Sammy’s uninterested voice said.
“Neither do I,” James admitted. He used to know, but he’d forgotten. Sammy’s laugh sounded friendly. “Tell you a story,” James offered. “You want to hear a story?” Sammy always liked being told stories.
James identified the story’s source, first. “This is from Greek mythology. There was an inventor, named Daedalus, a famous inventor. Everybody knew about him. So when King Minos of Crete wanted a labyrinth built—a maze—where he’d keep his son, the Minotaur, in the middle—”
“I remember the Minotaur,” Sammy interrupted. “It was in my book of monsters. It was half man, half bull.”
“Yeah. So Minos hired Daedalus to design and build this
labyrinth. Daedalus took his son Icarus with him to Crete. But when the job was finished, Minos kept them prisoners in a high tower.”
“Because they knew how to get out of the maze and Minos wanted that to be a secret. In the tower, they had to haul their food up in baskets, and they had candles for light. The only things that could get into the tower were birds. They were prisoners there for a long time. There was no way to escape, but Daedalus figured out a way. See, when the birds flew in they’d shed their feathers. So he and Icarus collected the feathers. They stuck them together with wax, to make huge wings. When they had enough—it must have taken years—they were ready to fly out, away, to fly free. Before they left, Daedalus warned Icarus that he shouldn’t fly too close to the sun, because the heat of it would melt the wax that was holding the wings together. But Icarus didn’t pay attention. Or he forgot, maybe. Because when they were out and flying, he went up, and up, until the heat was too great. His wings fell apart and he fell—he fell out of the sky into the ocean. He drowned.” James never could tell a story the way it should be told; when he told it, he could hear it sound like a series of facts, like a history book, not like a story.
“I can see why he did that,” Sammy said. “If you could really fly, you’d always want to go higher, once you started flying. Wouldn’t you?”
Not if he’d been warned against it he wouldn’t, James thought, and explained why. “He should have listened to his father. His father knew.”
“That’s an interesting story, even if the air actually gets colder as you go higher, even if they’d need more than wax. Even if—” Sammy sat up suddenly. “Okay, James, what is it? You figure that if we had a father he could tell us what we should do?”
“We have a father,” James said. Now that Sammy was willing to talk about it, and they were facing one another, James wasn’t sure he really wanted to talk. He looked over Sammy’s shoulder to the night sky.
“You know what I mean,” Sammy said. James guessed he did. “What would a father do, anyway?”
“Fathers are—like a constant,” James tried to explain. “They’re always there, they don’t change, they know how things go, they have experience, or knowledge, anyway, they’re pretty wise—so they can help you decide.”
“Not ours. Not our father.”
“You sound angry.” James thought maybe he shouldn’t have brought the subject up.
“When I think about him, I am,” Sammy said. “I mean, you don’t go around just starting babies and—ignoring them. Abandoning them. Or their mother, either.”
“That’s what our father did,” James pointed out. “We don’t know anything about him. Not anything. We should know about him.”
“We do,” Sammy’s voice insisted.
“No, we don’t. We don’t know—although, if fathers take responsibility—you know, keep you safe?—because they’re bigger and stronger like ‘my-daddy-can-beat-up-your-daddy’—and help you out of trouble.” James made himself draw the logical conclusion: “If that’s what fathers do, ours is pretty much of a bust.”
“You can say that again.”
“But maybe he didn’t have a chance, or something. We don’t know.”
“You mean maybe he died?”
“He could have. We don’t know anything about him. Nobody would even know to tell us if he was dead and couldn’t have taken care of us anyway.”
“But what difference would that make?” Sammy asked. James waited while Sammy worked it out. “Do you mean a father would be on your side? Like the Professor and Jeff, like the Professor is on Jeff’s side? Like, the way the Professor knows what Jeff means, or what he wants.”
“Or what you needed, and he’d want you to have that.”
“Do you think Momma might not have died, if we’d had one?” That thought got Sammy up onto his feet.
“I dunno about that, Sammy.” James kept emotion out of his voice. The trouble with Sammy was, when he did care, he never stopped. He cared too much. “It doesn’t do any good to think about that. You can’t change what’s happened.”
They didn’t say anything then, for a while. Sammy lay down on his back again. James moved down the dock, lifting his backside carefully to be sure not to get splinters, and tried his brother’s position. His calves dangled down over the water and the boards were uncomfortable against the shoulder bones in his back. That was the place where wings would be attached, if you had a pair of huge wings attached to you, if your father had designed a pair of wings made out of feathers and wax so you could escape. The wind flowed over the water, over the two of them, over the marsh grasses and into the pine trees. The noises of the wind rippling the water and echoing in James’s ears, the wind running along the tops of the grass and then tangling itself up in the thick-growing pines—sometimes, what really scared James was the sense that he was being blown along on some wind, and he couldn’t do anything about it.
“I thought, maybe we could try to find him. Or find out something about him,” James said.
“Aren’t you even curious? I mean, especially if they’re right about how much we inherit from our parents, what Mendel discovered
about dominant and recessive genes—don’t you want to know?”
“No,” said Sammy.
“I do.” He wasn’t about to try to explain to Sammy how true that was.
“Well, if you do find out, don’t come telling me about it.”
James guessed he wouldn’t. He guessed he was sorry he’d even asked Sammy about it. He guessed—it was a pretty stupid thing, anyway, and impossible anyway, since none of them knew anything about their father, except Gram, who had actually met him. And he couldn’t ask Gram about his father because—she wouldn’t understand. James didn’t know what it was his grandmother wouldn’t understand, but he knew she wouldn’t understand it. Not because she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t. Because she wasn’t a teenage boy who needed to have a father. Or, if he couldn’t have one, at least needed to know about the one he didn’t have. Even Sammy didn’t understand.
James sat up. He guessed the whole idea was pretty useless, so he thought he’d go take a look at the three chapters they were going to be tested on in algebra. He didn’t think there was anything he didn’t understand, but it never hurt to review. It was better to forget about his father and concentrate on his grades.
“There’s only one reason I’d ever want to find him,” Sammy said.
“Yeah? What?” James stood by his brother’s head, waiting.
“To hurt him.”
“That’s weird.” Sometimes, James just didn’t know about Sammy.
“Well, it’s true,” Sammy said.
James left Sammy to the wind-filled silence of earth and space and went alone up the path to the house. The long path from the dock to the farmhouse wound like a black ribbon. The marsh grasses spread dark and restless on both sides. The pines that
grew in a mass between the marsh and the garden waited ahead, in deeper darkness. The night lay around James as dark and uneasy as his own life. James wasn’t used to dreading the school days, but because they ended in baseball practice, he did. He’d been dreading them ever since baseball practice began, in late February.
James knew why he’d gone out for baseball, but he didn’t know whether he was right in his analysis of the problem. He hated making himself run laps and do exercises; he did it, of course, but really because he was afraid of the coach noticing him and making him an object of scorn for everybody to enjoy. He knew he’d just sit on the bench all season long. In fact, he was pretty much counting on that. When he was in the outfield, playing, all he could think about was how much he hoped nothing would come his way. He didn’t like playing, or even drills; he spent all his time afraid of messing up. James had gone out for baseball because he wasn’t about to try lacrosse—and get his teeth knocked out or his bones broken, or something. He went out for baseball because he really wanted to sing with the chorus. Because only dorks sang in chorus.
That was the problem. James thought people thought he was one of the dorks—a wimp, a nerd—whatever—a jerk. A lot of the things he liked were dorky things to like—math and Shakespeare, thinking, and singing stuff like Handel’s Messiah the way the chorus did at the Christmas assembly. And he was so afraid—name it and he’d get anxious about it, war, any disease, death, people seeing how dorky he really was. He did his best, he did what he could, but what could you do when you were weak and skinny and didn’t look cool, and couldn’t ever say what you were thinking because people would think you were showing off. He’d learned how to get A’s without people minding, or labeling him a brain, without being the kind of student
teachers paid special attention to. Teacher’s pet, there was the kiss of death. He knew how to say just so much, and no more, of what he was thinking. A real dork wouldn’t figure out how to do that, would he?
James had tried to think things out, figure out why, what there was about him. He knew he didn’t fit in. He was wrong, somehow, and he wanted to be all right, but it was almost as if there was some secret nobody would tell him, so he was always going to be stuck outside. For a second, the image of Celie Anderson’s face floated in front of him, but it was too painful and he pushed her away; but if he could just once, just for one second, get her to look at him as if he were a human being . . . not the way she did and had done for the two years she’d lived in town, looking through him as if he were invisible, or not even there, the way people looked at dorks. Didn’t look at them, that was more accurate.
In the denser air of the belt of pines, James admitted to himself that they might be right about him; if that was true, it wouldn’t do much good to try to change their minds. He stopped walking and let the darkness come up over him like water. He was so embarrassed about himself, so ashamed. When he thought about it, there wasn’t much he was proud of in his life. One thing was the way he’d always helped Maybeth with school, first reading and then math, too, whatever she needed. He did a good job of helping his younger sister, he knew that. He should probably be a teacher, or something, some no-money job where it didn’t matter if you were a wimp. Also, he sometimes had good ideas, like when he suggested to Gram that she rent out the acreage of the farm, so the land would earn them some money. Now the fields were planted every spring, with soybeans, and Gram and James had negotiated a deal with Mr. Hitchins, the farmer, to take some of the
rent in cash in the spring, and the rest in a percentage of the net profit. So James wasn’t a total loss. He thought.
But he really didn’t understand—they’d been here for five years, now, five and a half, and all the rest of them had done all right. Even Dicey, who was the most different of all the Tillermans, had a couple of friends; Dicey didn’t care much about people, what they thought, but she had Jeff who probably wanted to marry her, and Mina, who was popular with everyone because she was such a terrific person. James figured that Dicey was probably out there at college right now, finding one or two really good friends. Maybeth, for all that she was so slow at school, which usually guaranteed unpopularity, was always getting phone calls, getting invited to parties or to do things. People liked Maybeth. She was like their Momma had been, just a good person, and when you heard her singing around the house it made the whole day better. That was another reason James couldn’t sign up for chorus, because Maybeth was in it, and nobody was as good as Maybeth. Then Sammy, who was—if anybody thought about it—almost as stubborn and cranky as Dicey; everybody thought Sammy was cool, a cool dude. He was a natural athlete, and good-looking, and he didn’t care about people so people cared about him.
Which left James. A real lunch-pail. Maybe, he thought, making his feet start moving again, knowing it did no good to hang around in the darkness thinking about himself, maybe he’d end up like Gram, the way she lived before they all dropped down on her, all the Tillermans. Maybe that was the way he’d end up living—everybody thinking he was crazy and leaving him alone—except he would go to law school and get a good job, and make money. He wasn’t the kind of person who got physical work done, he knew that, but he’d get his scholarships and his education, he’d make good money.
His father had been the kind of man who just—had these children and then disappeared, not even giving them his name, not even marrying Momma. And his grandfather, on his mother’s side, had read all of the books on the shelves in the living room, read Aristotle and Gibbon and just about everything and he’d just—stayed there on the farm, maybe trapped, but to hear Gram talk it sounded like he’d choked to death on his own life, or his own brains, or something. Gram might be weird, but she was nobody’s fool, and she had courage. James almost wished he’d gotten his grandmother’s courage instead of his grandfather’s brains.
James heard running footsteps and waited in the middle of the garden for Sammy to catch up with him. The house, a black square with light the color of melted butter pouring out of its windows, lay ahead of him. Sammy was running fast, but easily—How did the kid get the energy, James wondered.
“Good, you waited,” Sammy said. He wasn’t even breathing heavily. “I figured, we should go in together, because we went out together. Or Gram might worry.”
James hadn’t even thought of that, and he was supposed to be so smart.
“With Dicey away,” Sammy explained, “Gram does the worrying for both of them. I liked it better when they split it up, didn’t you? Sometimes they overlooked things that way.”
They walked together back to the house. Sometimes, James really liked the way Sammy saw things.
“I wish Dicey was here,” Sammy said.
“I kind of like not having her telling me how to run my life,” James admitted.
Sammy ignored that. “Anyway, how would you go about finding him, tracking him down?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” James said, as if he wasn’t interested.
“Yes you do. You always have ideas. And some of them are even good ones.” Sammy seemed to catch on that James didn’t think his teasing was any too funny. He ran ahead, up the steps and into the kitchen.
James came more slowly, watching. Maybeth sat at the wooden table, reading something, a textbook, her lips moving the way they still did when the material was confusing to her, her finger pointing under the words. She looked up at Sammy, and smiled. “Hi. Where’s James?” Pretty, she was pretty, as pretty as Momma, James thought, stepping into the doorway.
“Hey,” Sammy said. “Is there anything to eat?”
“Cookies,” Maybeth told him, her voice soft and low; even when she was just talking, Maybeth sounded like she was singing. “There was a phone call for you, a girl. She didn’t leave her name. She said she’ll call back later maybe.”
“I hope she doesn’t,” Sammy answered, taking the top off the glass jar where they kept cookies. “Girls are a pain.”
James stood by the door. Those two, they’d gotten their Momma’s good looks, her golden good looks, and he’d gotten—he didn’t know what he’d gotten. He’d gotten lost and helpless and confused. He’d gotten the bad differences. No wonder he was such a dork. But maybe he would do it, anyway, maybe he would try to trace their father and find out something about him. Maybe he’d just go ahead and do it.