The backyard was silent. I remember my father's pale-blue eyes, how he gazed at something just beyond the birdbath. "Well," he said, then stopped and carefully folded his hands. "Sorry, Tommy. Best I could do." Then he turned and went into the house.
Afterward, I stood studying Toby. I poked at him with my foot. "Hey, you," I murmured, but it was a very stupid turtle, more object than animal. It showed no interest in my foot, or my voice, or anything else in the physical universe. Turtle, I kept thinking, and even now, in my middle age, those twin syllables still claw at me. The quick t's on my tongue: turtle. Even after four decades I cannot encounter that word without a gate creaking open inside me. Turtle for the world--turtle for you--will never be turtle for me.
Nor this: corn.
Nor this: Pontiac.
Have you ever loved a man, then lost him, then learned he lives on Fiji with a new lover? Is Fiji still Fiji? Coconuts and palm trees?
At sixteen, in a windy autumn cornfield, I made first love on the hood of my father's green Pontiac. I remember the steel against my skin. I remember darkness, too, and a sharp wind, and rustlings in the corn. I was terrified. Pontiac means: Will this improve? And that Indian-head ornament on the hood--did the bastard bite my feet? Did I hear a chuckle? Peeping Tom, ogler, eyewitness, sly critic: the word Indian embraces all of these meanings and many more.
The world shrieks and sinks talons into our hearts. This we call memory.
In the backyard that afternoon, alone with Toby, I felt a helplessness that went beyond engines or turtles. It had to do with treachery. Even back then, in a dark, preknowledge way, I understood that language was involved, its frailties and mutabilities, its potential for betrayal. My airplane, after all, was not an airplane. No engine on earth would make it fly. And over the years I have come to realize that Herbie and I had willfully deceived ourselves, renaming things, reinventing the world, which was both pretending and a kind of lying.
But there were also the words my father had used: "One airplane engine, coming up."
His intent, I know, was benign. To encourage. To engage. And yet for me, as a seven-year-old, the language he had chosen took on the power of a binding commitment, one I kept pestering him to honor, and through July and August, as summer heated up, my father must have felt trapped by a promise he neither had intended nor could possibly keep.
"Right. I'm working on it," he'd say, whenever I brought up the subject.
He'd say, "Pretty soon, partner." He'd say, "No sweat." He'd say, "Be patient. I've placed the order."
But a turtle?
Why not broccoli?
* * *
The next morning was a Sunday. Maybe an hour after Mass, Herbie walked into my backyard.
"Your dad's a liar," he said.
"Yeah, sort of," I told him, "but not usually," then I tried to mount a defense. I talked about Toby, what a fine turtle he was, how I could get him to stick his head out from under the shell by putting a pan of water in front of him. I talked about using Toby as a bomb. "It'll be neat," I said. "Drop him on the mailman."
Herbie looked at me hard. "Except your dad's still a liar, Tommy. They all are. They just lie and lie. They can't even help it. That's what fathers are for. Nothing else. They lie."
I stood silent. Arguments, I knew, were useless. All I could do was wait--which I did--and after a few moments Herbie strolled over to our plywood airplane, picked it up, and carried it across the lawn. He placed it tail down against the garage.
"It's not a plane anymore," he said. "It's a cross."
"Cross how?" I asked.
"Like in the Bible," said Herbie. "A cross. Let's go get my sister. Lorna Sue--we'll nail her to it."
"Okay," I said.
We walked the half block to Herbie's yellow house. The place was enormous, especially to a child, and it took a long while to find Lorna Sue, who sat playing with her dollhouse up in the attic. She was seven years old. Very pretty: black hair, summer-brown skin. I liked her a lot, and Lorna Sue liked me too, which was obvious, and a decade later we would find ourselves in a cornfield along Highway 16, completely in love, very cold, testing our courage on the hood of my father's Pontiac.
Excerpted from Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien. Copyright © 1998 by Tim O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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