From the canoe, stilled on the still cove of the lake, the land was reflected in detail in the water: branches and leaves and pinecones, berry bushes, and the stone-and-timber house on the steep bank among trees. The house was abandoned. For all the ten years Gerard had been spending his summers on the other side of the lake in the house his wife, Peggy, had inherited from a rich uncle, the cove with the abandoned house overlooking it had been the end of every canoe ride. The cove, as calm and warm and peaceful as it was, instilled in them the calm and warmth and peace that they went out on the water for: Peggy at the front of the canoe, Gerard at the back, their dripping paddles resting lengthwise across the sides, and sitting on a cushion on the bottom halfway between them was their six-year-old son, Harry, who seemed to be in the same drifting state as the canoe, or so Gerard imagined.
For the first time, Gerard was struck by how Harry’s bones, which he had up until now seen as delicate, were beginning to enlarge, his vertebrae pronounced, his shoulder blades almost disproportionately large in the way they stuck out, and yet his shoulders were small and smooth. Harry was motionless, which meant he must have been thinking, drifting, Gerard again imagined, on his thinking. Gerard liked to drift on his thoughts, and his son, he was sure, took enough after him to like to too—that is, until Peggy, as Gerard always counted on her doing, stopped the drifting. She did so now by dipping her paddle into the water, a sign for Gerard to get to it and paddle. He did, and they continued in slow ripples deeper into the cove, towards the abandoned house, some of whose wide, many-paned windows on the second story were broken.
Raising his thin arm with a large elbow, Harry pointed to the house and asked, “Who lives there?”
Not turning, Peggy answered, “No one does.”
“Why doesn’t anyone live there?”
His high voice sounded in the silence like one of the natural sounds of the lake, a heat bug trilling or a bird flying overhead.
Gerard said, “Harry, here we go with your question why again. I’d like to answer, but I have to tell you I don’t know why.”
“Did the people who lived there die?”
Turning her head a little, so the thick bunch of her frizzy, tied-back hair swung against her bare shoulders, Peggy said, “No, they didn’t die.”
“How do you know?”
Amused, Gerard also wanted to ask how she knew.
“I just know.”
As a matter of simple fact, Harry said, “You just know a lot of things.”
“I wish I knew a lot of things.”
“You will, darling. You’ll know a whole lot of things.”
“I want to know everything.”
“That’s not possible,” his mother said. “You can know this and that, you can know a whole lot, but you can’t know everything. Everything is too much to know.”
“But that’s what I want.”
“Well, I hope you get what you want, darling. I do.”
Peggy again rested the paddle across the canoe, and Gerard did, and again the canoe drifted, now among water-lily pads that made a slurring sound along its thin bottom; and Harry, silent, seemed to Gerard to be once more drifting in his mind.
Below the abandoned house was a rotted dock, the remaining weathered boards tilting into the water.
Harry suddenly asked, “Can’t we go see the house?”
“No,” Peggy said abruptly.
“I’m not going to answer one more question of yours that begins with ‘why’!”
Harry was bemused, seriously so. “Why won’t you?”
Now Peggy did turn enough to look at Gerard and say to him, “You’ve got to help me answer Harry’s why this, why that, why everything.”
Smiling, Gerard said, “But that’s his way of learning.”
“If I had answers, he’d learn something, but I don’t. Maybe you do.”
A little petulantly now, Harry asked, “Why can’t we go see the house?”
“You tell him why not,” Peggy said to Gerard.
“I’m not sure why not,” he said. “To be straightforward, why not?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“For God’s sake, don’t be like Harry.”
The boy was deeply attentive to this bantering between his parents.
“Maybe I’m more like Harry than you think, and have a whole lot to learn—more than a whole lot, a whole everything,” Gerard bantered. “I want to know why not.”
The canoe was arrested among the thickness of the lily pads, with white lilies, swarming with small black flies, rising among them.
Peggy clearly didn’t want to banter. “In all the years we’ve been coming here, you never once said you’d like to see into that old, broken-down house. Let me ask you, why now?”
“I want to now because Harry wants to.”
Harry had his father on his side. He bounced on his butt. “I want to, I want to.”
His father said, “The boy’s at the age when he’s drawn to a little adventure.”
“I’m sure there’s nothing in that house, or if there is, it’ll be nothing but broken-down furniture and rubbish.”
“Then he’ll see that.”
Peggy turned away to look, Gerard saw, up at the house, in the shadows of trees, with small flashes of sunlight. He heard her say, “I really don’t want to.”
Harry chanted, “I want to, I want to, I want to.”
Without saying any more, Peggy stuck her paddle into the lily pads, and Gerard followed suit. At this, Harry knelt on the cushion and turned to his father and gave him a wide, bright smile, one that made Gerard place his paddle across his knees and lean forward and reach out and with both hands take his son’s head into his hands and hold it. With a sudden rush of love for his son—love for him because, for some reason he only glancingly wondered about, he realized his son was right now more his son than he had ever been before—he would have kissed Harry if the canoe hadn’t swerved because of Peggy’s continuing paddling. Gerard sat back and righted the canoe, so it slithered over the lily pads to the shore, where, with a soft bump, it was stopped by weeds and mud. Kneeling before him, Harry was still smiling at his father, with a look in his eyes as of his too seeing something in his father he hadn’t seen before, something that pleased him a lot.
In nothing but shorts, Gerard stepped out of the canoe into the muck that oozed in gray-green clouds about his feet and held the side steady for Peggy, in a bathing suit, to step out. Now Gerard could hold his son, his naked, narrow, flat chest against his own naked, rounded, and hairy chest, to heft him out of the canoe and place him on the shore, where the roots of pine trees were exposed among stones. That contact between his and his son’s body was, to Gerard, a contact he had never before noticed with his son, and once again he wondered, however glancingly, Why now? While Harry watched, Peggy helped Gerard beach the canoe up the slope beyond the shoreline.
There was a path up the slope, so covered with dry pine needles it was hardly distinguishable. Harry ran up it.
“Harry,” Peggy called. “I don’t want you out of our sight. You hear?”
The boy laughed and ran on more, but, in sight of his parents, stopped by the trunk of a massive pine tree on which was attached a verdigris-gray bell with a rope dangling from its clapper. Harry studied it.
Peggy said to Gerard, “Why I don’t want to go into that house is—well, because I’m sure all kinds of acts have been performed there that I wouldn’t want Harry to know about, not at his age.”
“How would he know?”
“There’ll be graffiti all over the walls, and, Harry being Harry, he’ll ask what they mean. I don’t want him to know. As long as he’s my baby, I don’t want him to know.”
“Is he still your baby? I think he’s beginning to know more than you think he does.”
“Not as long as I can stop him from knowing.”
Gerard laughed a little.
“Don’t laugh,” Peggy said.
Gerard pressed his lips together and shook his head, then said, “I’m not laughing.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Yes, I am.”
“I guess, thinking of everything Harry will learn.”
Peggy slapped Gerard lightly on his bare shoulder and she too laughed. “And what’s that?”
With a lilt to his voice, Gerard said, “Those strange acts performed in the house you’re apprehensive of Harry finding out about—he’ll find out sooner or later, and God bless him for what he finds out.”
“Did I say strange? You did. You are such an innocent, Gerard. Not being so innocent, I can think of some pretty sordid acts performed there.”
“I block those out, and so will Harry.” As they approached Harry, who was holding the rope and looking up at the bell, Gerard took Peggy’s arm and pulled her towards him for a moment and whispered, “The fact is, the house makes me think of an act I’d like to perform with you.” She smelled of fresh lake water, and all her clear, taut skin, exposed on her shoulders, the slopes of her breasts, her abdomen and her back and her thighs and legs, looked as if it had the sheen of water.
Laughing more, Peggy shoved him aside, saying, “Remember, this is Harry’s adventure, not yours.”
“That’s right, Harry’s adventure.”
And that moment, the boy jerked on the rope and rang the bell, and to the resonant clang throughout the woods birds flew out from everywhere. Laughing, Harry continued to ring the bell.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from ABC by David Plante. Copyright © 2007 by David Plante. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.