Finny Meets a Boy
She started out life as Delphine, named by her father for the city where the Greek oracle was from, but she’d always had an independent mind about things like names, so she’d gone by Finny ever since she was old enough to choose. It sounded Irish, which went with her dashing red hair, and in any case Finny always liked everything Irish, for no reason she could say. She had an older brother named Sylvan, probably because her father, Stanley Short, wanted to carry on the tradition of the S.S. initials, which always gave Finny the expectation that the name of a ship was to follow. She thought it was dumb to let someone else decide what you’d be called for the rest of your life—what if they named you Pooh Bear or Dishrag?—so she went ahead and made that decision herself.
Finny was a tough, rascally kid, with a plucky assurance, hair as red as a ripe tomato, a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks like she’d been splashed with mud—cheeks that were puffed up like bread starting to rise, the kind of cheeks old aunties like to pinch. Sometimes when they did that, Finny pinched back. She wasn’t the type of kid to be ogled and fondled all day, to go oogly-googly when people told her how adorable she was. Once when she was four and her aunt Louise gave her a pinch on the cheek, Finny pinched the woman right back on the breast, so hard that Aunt Louise howled in pain and dropped Finny on the floor. It was a linoleum floor, and when Finny crashed down, everyone thought she was dead. Then Finny started to laugh. The reason she was laughing was that she’d plucked the button from Aunt Louise’s breast pocket clean off her blouse. She had it balled in her sweaty fist.
Finny’s mother, Laura, was a tall woman with a bony frame, a small mouth, a sharp little nose. She wouldn’t have been anything special to look at, but she put herself together in an appealing way. Hairpins and colorful sweaters and elegant black skirts. Laura had a warm smile, a shy, flirtatious way of speaking to you, and adults tended to talk to her the way they talked to Finny: in a slightly higher voice, with a practiced gentleness, a simple vocabulary. Finny saw the way her mother transformed herself for guests into a pleased, curious child—and Finny didn’t like it. All the posturing, the willed submission, the need to grab up people’s attention in greedy handfuls. As a girl Finny wore old soccer shirts and jeans cut off so the strings hung down over her knees. She always had a skinned elbow or a bruised calf muscle from roughhousing after school. She liked kick ball, and for a while could take down most of the boys in her class in a wrestling game they played at recess.
Laura was adamant about proper bathing and grooming, looking neat and tidy whenever you went out of the house. It is unfortunate but true that people judge you on your looks, Laura once told her. She had a way of imparting her own beliefs as if they were objective facts about the world.
So Finny responded, “How can I dress if I want to look like an orphan?”
Finny avoided baths, saying she’d bathed the day before and that was enough. Or else she’d get in the bath and neglect to use the soap. Or use it only on her legs but not her arms. Put the shampoo on her feet. Anything to throw her mother off, show her in what little regard Finny held all those careful preparations and disguisings. She came out of the tub sopping wet, dirt under her fingernails, mud on her cheeks, hair as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti. Finny was supposed to comb her hair after she got out of the bath, but for a while, when she was seven or eight, she stopped doing that. She would just comb the front, and then flip it in a way so that it looked neat when Laura saw it before bed, but the back got so knotted her brother, Sylvan, started calling it the rat’s nest.
Finny liked that. She modeled it in the mirror, in front of Sylvan, posing with her arms behind her head, or tilting her chin in an imitation of the coquettish poses she’d seen women striking in magazines. “My beautiful rat’s nest,” she’d say, stroking it like she was in an ad for shampoo. There was a thrill in this, in so brazenly tossing aside her mother’s notions. Like parading around with Laura’s underwear on her head. It made Sylvan nervous, Finny knew—he tried to do everything the right way—but he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it. Her brother wasn’t a snitch.
In the mornings and evenings Finny began to wear her hair up, just to hide it. One night she wore a hat—an old beret from a Halloween costume—when she couldn’t find a way to gather it up in any kind of decent shape. Laura asked her to take the hat off, and when she saw what was beneath it, she yelled at Finny and made her go to the Hair Cuttery and get it all combed out. It took four hours, and Finny’s mother had to pay triple because they needed three hairdressers working at the same time. Sylvan sat in the empty barber’s chair next to where the young women were grooming Finny like a prize poodle, and he told her how adorable she looked.
“Shut up,” Finny said. “Ouch.”
“You look like a strawberry shortcake,” he said.
That made her mad, the image of herself as a cute little dessert. “You look like something that gets flushed down the toilet when I’m sick!” Finny yelled in the middle of the hair salon. It was the most disgusting thing she could think of, and one of the young women dropped her comb.
“I’m sorry,” Laura said, shooting Finny a cautioning look.
Finny’s dad was a lawyer, the managing partner of a small firm in Baltimore, though the family lived far out in the suburbs. All her father ever talked about at the dinner table was “great men.” It was his favorite subject, and when they had dinner guests, he liked to sound people out on the issue. He even talked about writing a book one day if he could ever get his ideas in order. He loved to apply quotations by great men to whatever people were discussing. “Good artists borrow; great artists steal,” Stanley would offer during any discussion even mildly related to the subject of art. Then he would say, in a more sober tone, “Picasso.” Just the name. Never Picasso said that or That was Picasso’s idea. “God does not play dice,” was another of his favorites, and to Finny it sounded like a warning, as if God were telling you not to mess with Him. Then Stanley would say, “Einstein,” in the way other people say Amen at the end of prayers. The name was enough to command respect, dropped like a punctuation mark at the end of whatever point he was making.
Stanley was a shortish man, with red-brown hair, perfectly round wire-rimmed glasses, and a nose that looked slightly too large for his face. He had a finicky stomach, and he chewed Pepto-Bismol tablets like they were after-dinner mints. He didn’t like to announce trips to the bathroom, so when he had to get up from the table to attend to his stomach, he would always say he was going to brush his teeth, and then click his top and bottom teeth together, as if to illustrate what he meant. Sometimes he brushed his teeth three or four times over the course of an evening. Because of the Pepto, his breath had a milky, minty smell, like peppermint ice cream, which Finny would always remember waking to on Sunday mornings, when her dad got her out of bed.
Sylvan, who was a year older than Finny, seemed to gobble up everything Stanley said. Or at least he saw no reason to fight against it. When Stanley talked about his theories at the dinner table—about how and why these great men were such geniuses—Sylvan nodded, or asked little questions to spur his father on. He liked the show of it more than anything else, Finny thought later, the sight of his father so engaged, so dynamic. “Look at Jefferson,” Stanley would say. “Rousseau. Spinoza.” And when she was very young, Finny used to actually turn and look around the room, half-expecting these great men to be found crouching beneath the floral tablecloth, or beside the marble buffet where Finny’s mother kept the cracked teal candy plate, the birthday and holiday cards they’d received that season. “They all believed in the rational self-sufficiency of man, the potential of people to do good. Even if it’s rarely the case that they do.”
Sylvan nodded vigorously, then asked, “What’s ‘rash on all selfs’?”
Finny laughed. “It’s what you have,” she told Sylvan.
“Be serious,” Sylvan said.
“Be normal,” Finny shot back.
“Be quiet,” Laura said, “and let your father finish his point.”
Then Finny began to feed the dog, Raskal (after Raskolnikov; Crime and Punishment was the book that had turned Stanley on to Dostoyevsky), under the table. She liked to pinch little morsels of fish and potatoes off her plate, then slip them like secret messages into Raskal’s mouth. Like Stanley, Raskal had a sensitive stomach. He was a loafing, overweight golden retriever with asthma, and when he ate human food, he passed gas noticeably. As soon as Finny began to smell something funny, she heard her father say, “Fiiinnny,” his voice gradually rising through her name, like the volume being turned up on a stereo.
“What?” Finny said.
“Goddammit,” Stanley said. “Can’t you just sit still and listen?”
“I am listening.”
“Don’t feed the dog people food.”
“I don’t feed him people food. I feed him doggy food.”
“Food at the table is people food, and the doggy food is in the doggy room.”
“Sometimes people eat people food in the doggy room when the dog is eating doggy food,” Finny said.
“The point is, don’t feed him the food we’re eating, Finny.”
“How could I feed him what we’re already eating, Daddy?” Finny said, holding her palms up like it was the craziest question in the world. She knew it would get Stanley riled up. It was great men and mediocre men he wanted to make distinctions between, not people food and doggy food.
“Get up to your room,” he told her.
“I said get up there!” He was red, and he glared at her. It wasn’t that she liked teasing her father, getting him steamed; she just felt like he wasn’t speaking to her when he talked about his great men, like everything he said was offered with a wink in Sylvan’s direction.
One time, when Sylvan and Finny were much older and they were talking on the phone about their father, Sylvan said, “It’s the dinners I always remember. The way Dad held court.”
“The thing was,” Finny said, “he always seemed to be talking to you, don’t you think?”
“I think it’s only because I was listening. Really, you were a lot smarter than me. He knew you saw through it.”
It was like Sylvan to do this, jumble up all the pieces and rearrange them in a pleasing way, make everyone seem earnest and well-intentioned. She had never thought of the situation that way before, and she wasn’t sure if her brother was saying these things now only to make her feel better about what she couldn’t change.
“But that time I made fun of him?” she said, trying to pull their conversation back to surer ground, a silly story they could both laugh at.
That was the time her dad had yelled at her for feeding Raskal under the table, and from some perverse motivation, when he was done yelling, Finny had said, “Aristotle.” Just that one word, but in a voice that was clearly an imitation of the way Stanley quoted great men.
“What did you say?” Stanley asked.
“I heard you.”
“It wasn’t anything.”
“Don’t mock me, Finny.”
“I don’t mock,” she said, unable to resist the opening. “I steal.”
Stanley’s eyes lit up. “Get out!” he screamed, jostling the table so the plates clattered.
On the phone, Sylvan said to Finny, “I’d never seen him so angry before.”
“Me neither,” she said. “To tell the truth, I was a little frightened.”
“I don’t think you were ever frightened, Fin.”
“You’re wrong about that, Syl. I was more frightened than any of you ever knew.”
Finny grew up in northern Maryland, in the area of rolling farmland just west of Interstate 83, just south of the Pennsylvania line. The Shorts’ home sat on a hill, and from the back windows you could see the whole scoop of the valley where they lived: cornfields, clusters of trees, horse pastures, all threaded with fences and gravel driveways, dotted with big manorish houses. It looked to Finny, from her bedroom window, like a huge gaudy quilt. The air outside their house smelled like grass and dirt, honeysuckles in the late spring, horse manure when the farmers were planting. One lap around the block was eleven miles long, by the car’s odometer. (It had been Stanley who’d measured, on a Sunday, with Sylvan in the passenger seat: they’d reported their findings as soon as they’d walked in the door. “Eleven point two,” Stanley said. And Sylvan nodded.)
Finny’s childhood memories were a clutter of impressions: dried-out fence posts, the feeling of wet grass slapping her feet and the swishing sound it made when she walked in it, swampy summer air, dandelion dust, snow days where everything was bleached white, bright cool fall afternoons turning to silver evenings, hills like a great green sea rolling into the distance. Only at the farthest edge of her vision did the land appear to flatten out. At the horizon there was a kind of green-gray ribbon, which could have been trees or even mountains, some sort of border. It was too far away to tell. But when she was very young, Finny always imagined going there, and in her mind that far-off and magical place got mixed up with ideas she had about her future, about what lay beyond this house.
Another thing Finny remembered: Sunday mornings. It was the only day Stanley didn’t go into work at the law firm, and he spent it with the family. He was very adoring of Finny’s mother. It showed in his formality in social situations, holding doors and pulling out chairs. Then, at least one Sunday every month he made breakfast in bed for Laura. He was an awful cook, and managed to impart the flavor of five-alarm chili into any dish he prepared. Even when he made French toast, he was able through a combination of seasoning and cooking techniques to capture the essence of five-alarm chili. Some avant-garde New York restaurants would have appreciated his secrets.
Excerpted from Finny by Justin Kramon. Copyright © 2010 by Justin Kramon. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.