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Leaving Rock Harbor, an excerpt


“A man can choose what he does with his own life,” Papa said to me just after it happened, when I was the only person he would speak to in the upstairs room of the Poughkeepsie house, where the shades remained drawn day after day, his wrists wrapped in bandages that were never removed in front of me. His engraving tools had been taken away from him, we all thought, for good.

“What should I tell him?” I had asked Mother when I came downstairs. She looked up at me dry-eyed and fierce. “No, he can’t. You tell him that he can’t choose anymore.”

I stood there, dazed, and looked past her at the pale yellow cross stuck on a nail above the door. I had made it in church the year before, folding the long reeds into crucifixes for Palm Sunday; they started out green and dried to yellow.

 “Go on,” Mother said.

I couldn’t imagine saying such a thing to my father. He told me what to do, I couldn’t tell him.

Papa wouldn’t talk to her. The doctor said to let him have his way if it kept him quiet. Rest was the most important thing for nerves, he said. Mother had found Papa in the bathtub of the third-floor bathroom four days earlier, and she had been punished for it ever since. Strange how people tell you that you’re lucky when what they mean is that both of your parents could be dead, instead of one recovering from the unspoken and the other from her husband. Skin of the wrists wide open, but still his fist to her face and her stumble and smack against the porcelain sink and the cool floor. The tiny hexagonal tiles had been wiped clean, but there was a permanent pinkish color in the grout. I checked every day. It could have been worse, my mother’s two older sisters kept saying to us over endless cups of tea, as if they were gloating over the possibility. We hadn’t left the house since it happened, and I thought we might never leave again. The rest of my life would be the aunts coming and going, bringing food and talking late in the kitchen with Mother, while I sat upstairs alone with Papa. It was early January, and the Hudson was frozen across to the other shore; the snow had been on the ground forever, and I already couldn’t remember Christmas. I was fourteen years old.

I kept imagining the warm red water of that bath, but I stopped short of picturing his nudity, which disturbed me more than I wanted to admit. If it had gone the way he wanted, coroners and other strangers would have seen him naked. Mother and I hadn’t slept much and were mostly past tears; her face was still discolored and swollen. Maybe he couldn’t speak to her because of her face. She changed his bandages and dosed him with laudanum, but he turned to the wall when she entered the room. Papa, who was always pulling her onto his lap and embarrassing her by reaching for her hand in public.

“Go on upstairs and tell him,” she said again.

“You tell him,” I said, surprised that I didn’t care anymore. I was usually the one who cared too much. I could never let things go, and Mother said that I worried everything to death, but I didn’t understand how everybody was supposed to stop asking questions all the time. It was hard to tell if it was early morning or late night; the only sound was the occasional crack of frozen branches from the trees outside the house. That was when Papa most wanted me there, to talk and talk and talk. I was supposed to report everything he said to Mother, and I tried hard to remember, but he talked so much and I got so sleepy.

Mother pushed herself up from the table hard, and I thought she was going to tell me off. But she nodded her head sharply at me instead and went straight upstairs. They were still talking when I finally fell asleep, and from then on Mother ignored the doctor’s orders.

“He needs to work,” she said to her sisters when they tried to talk her out of moving away. “He needs to work as an engraver.” He had been given a chance as a cotton broker working for my grandfather, but after Grandpa died, Papa ended as he had arrived from Manchester, England—an engraver for the patterns on print cloth, a mill hand. Papa always started strong, but now I was old enough to see that it didn’t sustain, to wonder if maybe it wasn’t everyone else that made bad things happen to Papa. Mother saw the notice for skilled workers needed in Rock Harbor, and two months later the three of us were standing at the railing of a boat carrying us up the Sakonnet River from Rhode Island Sound. We had taken the Fall River Line from New York, and then changed for a smaller ferry to Rock Harbor. There were so many mills along the waterfront that it looked as if we were entering a cloudbank, a horizon of smoke below a blue April sky.

The move had happened quickly, and the only thing Mother insisted upon was transplanting her roses at the very last minute, so that they would have the best chance of survival. The four squares of raw dirt in our yard mapped our departure that morning. She cradled those roses wrapped in rags and newspaper all the way to Rock Harbor, looking to me like a stricken immigrant with a stained bundle in her arms. When we got off the boat, I was embarrassed to walk down the gangplank with her and held Papa’s arm instead. Even after everything that had happened with Papa, it was Mother who embarrassed me, not him. Mother had always been elegant, tall enough to carry the weight she put on over the years; she had a square figure and a worried face. The heavy auburn hair that she brushed and pinned up every morning was the luxury she allowed herself, but nobody ever saw her with that rope released down her back except for me and Papa. I still had almost no figure at all, and when I squeezed lemon juice into my hair over the summer, trying for that red-gold color of hers, it dried to a stiff, pale brown. Still, the day we arrived in Rock Harbor was the first time I looked at my mother and wished she were a stranger.

She was thirty-four, the same age I am today. Now I can see how terrified she must have been, and how much she must have loved him. I’m a long way from Rock Harbor, so that’s a story I can tell, sitting out this humid afternoon with its unfamiliar light, writing letters and tearing them up. Miles from home. I want to say that I don’t know how any of it happened, but maybe that’s not true. It’s easy to see your life coming when every choice you make comes out of only two things: too much fear and too much luck.

I thought that Rock Harbor was the place to be in 1916, and I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was making money in the war years.

“This whole city is built on granite,” Papa told me when I walked him to his very first shift at the Flint Mill, on the way to my first day of school. He touched the gateposts gently. “It’s good stone. New England stone.” Papa had made his crossing in 1884, wearing all the clothes he owned and carrying the long metal box that held his engraving tools. He was ten years older than Mother, and it showed in his face and ropy arms. He had the dense build of a Welshman, and he was looking spick-and-span with a new haircut. He was making a good start of things, though he must have hated having his wife and daughter watching him every minute.

We were both so afraid we might lose him.

I walked home alone every day from Borden High School. I pretended not to care, but I felt ugly and untouchable. I had arrived in the middle of the year, and to make things worse, they had placed me in the tenth grade, a year ahead, since the schools were better in Poughkeepsie. I had turned fifteen in February, but I still looked younger than the rest. The Portuguese girls would never have thought of walking with me, and the Irish and French Canadians stuck together. I couldn’t make conversation with any of the girls.

In Poughkeepsie, I had so many cousins in school that I never needed to make new friends. I hadn’t cared that the girls in my class didn’t like me because I was a tomboy; my bad habits were protected by the boy cousins when the girl cousins disapproved. In Rock Harbor, kids came and went as quickly as their parents’ jobs lasted at the mill. You had to make a fast impression at Borden, and I couldn’t bear that I was so ordinary. I didn’t want to hide my new breasts under the smocking of my dress like I had back in Poughkeepsie, but these girls knew I was an impostor, and I felt erased by all of them into sudden silence. I learned to think of them as Corkies and Canucks, just like their neighborhoods, and realized that, despite the new houses built by the mill for recent arrivals like Papa, our neighborhood was the worst one. I never got the accent right, but I learned to say that I lived “up the Flint.” It was the Portuguese neighborhood, but everyone in Rock Harbor said “Pawtugee,” syllables strung together as clean as a whip.

I met Papa at the mill every day when his shift let out and brought him lunch on Saturday. Mama and I didn’t have to talk about it; we both liked making sure that he came right home. The shift didn’t end until five o’clock, so for two empty hours I walked around the Highlands, where the owners and cotton brokers lived, straight up the hill from Corky Row. I memorized the houses with graveled drives that looped semicircles before closed front doors. There were smooth lawns and rhododendron bushes bordered by dark blue vinca, but I never saw anyone gardening. There was a row of mansions along Highland Avenue, and I had a favorite, painted pale yellow with four white columns facing the avenue. A porch swing hung expectantly on one side of the wide plank stairs that led to the front door. That house looked exactly the way it was supposed to look, not like some of those other ones that were imitation gingerbread cottages or red-brick châteaus.

I was pretending to be someone who belonged on Highland Avenue when Joe Barros came spinning out from the side yard of “my house” on a bright red bicycle. It was the week after Easter, and the blossoms were already falling in drifts. Joe didn’t see me standing there as he shoved some bills into his front pocket with one hand and steered with the other.

He skidded when he saw me, one hand still in his pocket.

“Hello.” He looked nervous, not the way he did at school. I knew who he was. Joe Barros was captain of the basketball team and Winslow Curtis’s best friend, even though he was Portuguese. It was why he had that black hair, and skin almost the same color as his startling brown eyes, which were lighter than I expected them to be, though I was too shy to hold his gaze for long.

“Hello.” I didn’t know whether to pretend that I hadn’t seen the money.

“Frances, right? Frances Ross.” I didn’t think he would know my name and decided that I hadn’t seen anything after all.

“Frankie,” I said. Frances was for strangers or trouble.

He looked up and down the block. “What are you doing here?” Joe pulled his hand carefully out of his pocket.

“Just walking.”

“This is Winslow’s house,” Joe said, as if I had asked him. “He gave me his bicycle because he has a Model T now.”

“Winslow Curtis?” I was wondering where Winslow was at the moment, and about that money. I wasn’t surprised that my favorite house belonged to Winslow Curtis. Winslow’s father was president of the Massachusetts state senate. People in my neighborhood said that Winslow was going to Borden instead of Tabor Academy because his father wanted the Portuguese vote. They said his father had bought Winslow his own sailboat to make up for it.

I wondered if Joe was lying. People said a lot of things about Portuguese boys.

“Do you want a ride up the Flint?”

“With you?”

“Have you ever ridden on the back of a bicycle before?”

“No,” I said. “And I’m not starting today.”

He laughed and steered closer, showing off. “Girls aren’t supposed to. But you’re from Poughkeepsie, aren’t you?”

“How come you know that?”

He was rocking back and forth in front of the leather seat, the balls of his feet balancing him on the cobblestones.

“My sister rides on the seat and I pedal, like this. I’ll bet Poughkeepsie girls do it all the time.”

I tried not to smile at the idea of Poughkeepsie girls being tough.

“How about if we go somewhere else, just for you to learn?”

“I don’t need to learn.” I started walking again, hoping he would follow, and he did.

“I won’t let you fall, I promise.”

Something in his voice made me stop. He wasn’t teasing anymore, and the way he was staring made me look away.

“What was that money you put in your pocket?” I asked.

He stopped rocking on the seat, and everything became very still.

“I saw it, so I’m wondering,” I said.

“It’s Winslow’s money. We have an arrangement.”

“Why would he give you money?”

“Why do you want to know so much?”

“It looked funny, that’s all.”

“He gave it to me.”

He pushed off, and I expected him to bike away just like that, but he circled around again. I stayed right where I was. Why shouldn’t I know so much? Why should he look so nervous?

“I’m not a liar,” Joe said quietly. “Nobody knows about the money but Winslow and you, now.”

I wanted him to be telling the truth. “I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “There’s nobody I talk to.”

We looked past each other, and I hoped he would believe me. Joe slid his shoes back and forth against the sidewalk and looked back at Winslow’s house.

“If I can’t give you a ride, I can give your books a ride, can’t I? They won’t get hurt.”

He took my satchel so carefully that it made me want to trust him with everything, and for the first time since we moved to Rock Harbor I stopped worrying about Papa every ten minutes. Joe rode next to me all the way to the mill, turning the bike back around in big circles if he got too far ahead. He was telling me about working in the weave room.

“I’ve only got a Saturday shift right now. I need my education,” he said. “I’m not going to be a mill hand forever. I’ve got other plans.”

“What else can you do?”

“I can play basketball, I can swim, I can sail a boat and ride this bike and talk you into letting me carry your books.”

“Papa says mill jobs are the best work there is.”

“Your father’s an engraver, right? From England? My papi was a picker from São Miguel, Azores. He worked in the carding room. The air in that carding room is thick all day long.”

“I’d like to see it.” I kicked at the sidewalk. “My mother says I have to finish school so I can get a job in accounting. She says Papa’s going to work it so that I stay out of the big rooms.”

“She’s right.”

I gave him a look. He had no idea who I was. Nobody was going to treat me like a baby.

“You said yourself you’ve never been in there,” he said.

“Why don’t you take me?” I stopped walking. “I’ll go with you any Saturday.”

We were at the gates of the Flint Mill now, and Joe swung off the bike and handed me my books. The leather strap around them was warm from being tucked against his waist as he rode. Papa was waiting outside the dye shed, and he hurried toward us. I didn’t want Joe to meet him, to see him, to ask anything about him.  Joe saw my face and looked over at Papa.

“I can’t take you into the mill,” Joe said, turning his bicycle around quickly. “Your father wouldn’t like it, and then I couldn’t see you anymore.”

After that, Joe started showing up to walk me to school after I had turned the corner from our house in the morning. I never saw him after school, and I avoided the yellow house in the Highlands now that I knew it was the Curtises’. I wondered why someone like Joe would even want to talk to me. Maybe it was because I was from somewhere else, or maybe because I was so new to boys paying attention to me that I still told them what I was thinking. Even so, Joe Barros shouldn’t have been paying attention to me. He was the boy everybody loved. He was so good at basketball that even though he was Portuguese they had made him captain. The team had won State two weeks before we moved to town, and people crossed the street to talk to him. But basketball was only part of it. He was with Winslow all the time, and they both acted as if it didn’t matter that Joe was Portuguese. But it mattered to everyone else, even me. The way he walked me to school but never asked me to meet him after; the way he looked at me but never tried to kiss me. I knew the way we talked every morning was a secret. When we got in sight of Borden, he always pulled ahead, as if we hadn’t spent the last twelve blocks together. Maybe that was how Portuguese people were, I thought. Maybe I liked him more because he was Portuguese. I still didn’t know how pr

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