Moon Over Quabbin

by Michael Coffey

The woman is in Iowa now, I hear. She moved there with her husband shortly after, and now she sees. She has my eyes—a cobalt blue, opaque as marbles. She blinks them fine in my sight.

When I see the woman in Iowa, I see those eyes. They aren’t mine literally; they are the eyes of my boy. I saw myself reflected in them for so many hours, thousands, could it be? My face blued, my hair orbing back gray and wild, deeper into Matthew’s irises. What would I see in those eyes in her face? I’ll never know. I’ll never know her.

I think of those eyes now in Iowa, in that Iowa woman’s head, looking keenly over morning fields, perhaps the steam of her coffee wetting her lashes.

She has children of her own, I like to think, this woman, and of course there are problems, I can only imagine, and must. There are always problems with children, with her boy.

Not everyone has such problems as I have had, but still there are problems enough for us all, and she’ll have hers even if now she can see and doesn’t have that problem anymore. Most of these troubles she and her husband will surmount—the bad falls, the whooping cough scare, the man who almost talks her boy into a Greyhound bus but for the actions of the driver, the rolled car from which he is safely thrown, a fistfight in which he breaks a jaw and has an ear boxed purple. And then his jailing for possible arson, which’ll bring his mother from Iowa back home here to Amherst, where her boy has gone to school, at Deerfield, her blue eyes now wavering toward middle age, paler now, giving a little light, as if ice had melted in a blue drink. She will look at her shoes, waiting to see her son. And I might see him too. His name will be Mark.

A man will come through and call her name—Mrs. White. The man is a counselor, he says, attached from the college to the sheriff’s office. He tells Mrs. White he feels her boy is innocent of any involvement in the fire. As he talks, she can only stare. He is a warm man with large features and hands. The woman bets that all his attachments are large, and she flushes with shame at such a thought at such a time. As do I.

He tells her it was a political thing—“everything’s political,” she blurts out. He tells her that some kids are “after burning Amherst Hall,” and she wonders at this Irish grammar, her husband would know: he’s a Finnegan.

“Jeffrey Amherst,” says the counselor, by way of reminding her. “The thing about the small pox blankets?” She knows, she remembers it: the decimated Indians. He thinks to introduce himself: “I am Mr. Green.”

Mrs. White can sense muscles shifting in Mr. Green’s chest as he thinks and breathes and speaks. And as he listens for her.

“A political thing” is all she can say, touching again the words he has given her. A silence rings on the cold cement floor of the waiting room. The sharp clock ticks: life getting shorter.

Finally, she hugs Mr. Green. He himself has nothing more to say. Against his wide chest she can hear the deep soundings of his heart, thudding like drums in a cavern filled with water and stones. Behind it she can hear the coursing of his blood. She wants to sleep there, right there in his blood.

Before moving to Iowa, Mrs. White—Vera—lived in a town that is now under water—the town of Dana, east of where I am now, maybe five miles. The state bought up four towns altogether, offering so-called market prices for homes and businesses, razing as much as they saw fit of what was left after a decent interval of looting and removal before the damming of the Quabbin River. In a year’s time, the stopped river would fill the valley with water destined for the suburbs of Boston.

 

Mrs. White, out there in Iowa, west of Dubuque, would often imagine their basement back home, the one now solid with sludge, a small, packed room at the bottom of a vast lake; at other times it would suit her to think of their old family rec room, which her husband had built, its paneled walls and dry bar and slate pool table sitting unchanged in a cube of clear lake water—though they sold the table, that’s how I see it. Along the walls the ends of large pipes visible through fractured cinderblocks like little portholes onto solid subterranean black, this the rare, strange lake with a bed of sunken sewer systems and leech fields. Often, Mrs. White would think, this is an image of her mind.

Sewage and sewers and undergrounds, plumbing hidden, pipeworks, many of them, going to a river bottom that’s no longer a river, it’s in a bigger body now. Mrs. White would be reminded of her son, who whiled away so much of his childhood in that basement, puttering alone amidst his unfathomable fantasies, scheming with his friends, sneaking cigarettes and his father’s girlie magazines, his mysterious, inevitable passage from bright, sweet boy to the dark station of teenagehood transpiring there, beneath ground, and now, in her memory, under two hundred feet of reservoir water.

Her boy, Mark, had a bladder. And his mother recalled this, embarrassingly (it was in the papers), to the mother of the son—the donor—in a chance meeting at the candle factory. That is, to me. “My boy could hold an entire vat of juice before he would gush and gush for so long his little penis would burn and the bladder itself would ache from how much it had spent,” she told me. She was so devastated by the loss, the notion of parts of him carrying on as disorienting to her as if she were in the early stages of a poisoning. She didn’t know what she was saying. I had to cut her off and sit her down.

You see, I think of myself as “her” sometimes, and this is my problem. I find myself speaking of the Iowa woman as if she were myself, and vice versa. I make her come back to my town, the one under water. I make her from here. It’s all confused and dizzying. I find the third person more comfortable; it’s easier for me to say, “Often she would think, This is an image of her mind” than to say, “Often I would think, This is an image of my mind,” even though it is the same thing. Perhaps it has to do with upbringing. I was always able to tell my son that he was as good as anyone else, that he could be anything he wanted, whereas I could not say the same to myself, or say that of myself to others. Or even complain.

But it is I who thinks often of the Quabbin Reservoir, since we lost Matthew—our vacation in Italy, roadside bandits, a gun shot, his forehead. I see myself walking along the reservoir bottom, what we returned to, and there meeting the ghosts of the four communities, walking—more like wading—from town to town, up the long hill to Enfield, now a dark, weedy mound alive with bubbles and spiked with stalking muskellunge, or whatever, maybe pike—my husband would know; over to Greenwich where the Jackson barn still wavers erect, and on to Prescott, where I wrecked our car on a culvert I still don’t see. It’s lonely down here, but somehow peaceful. Of course there’s an absence of life, but then again, proof that there has been life. Between the towns of Enfield and Dana, on my way home, near an old wagon upended and headed for the water’s surface but for the wagon tongue sunk in silt, I see that woman whose eyes are my son’s, are mine. “What are you doing underwater?” I ask, and she rises, out of sight in a shaft of captured air and light, to the surface.

I have tried to make something, anything at all, of my boy’s passing. I have told his life story to myself, over and over, starting from his conception on Pequod Hill one gorgeous May dawn, through his early troubles with his feet, to his Little League triumphs and his father’s pride and the first girlfriend—and his father’s fears!—and all the rest, those teenage years, right up to the shooting, and nothing coheres. But it’s not only my boy’s story that doesn’t come together but everything else as well—my own story, my life as a mother, my parents’ or my sister’s lives, or the life as I know it of June, my neighbor, and of anyone else I know who is not famous (their lives always seem to come together, don’t they?).

What I can grasp is what is left of him—his eyes in the Iowa woman’s head, his heart in the chest of the man from Amherst, his kidneys in that boy from the valley, whose name I know. I imagine they’ll all meet sometime. I imagine I’ll meet them all myself, too, in time, but as I say, I just imagine it. But when the moon is full and bright in the sky, that one moon that is everyone’s moon, I know it tugs on the tides of my boy, his humors, wherever they are. And as they lean together, in one direction to its pull, like the weeds under Quabbin, leaning, I know that each is aware of the other, of itself, of their original self. And as they move toward the light, wherever they are, at times like this I know the moon, and the water, and what it all means.

—Michael Coffey is the former co-editorial director at Publishers Weekly. “Moon Over Quabbin” is from his collection of stories, The Business of Naming Things, forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in February 2015.

Tags:
Short stories
Mortality
Grief
Excerpt
BOMB 128
Summer 2014
The cover of BOMB 128
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