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Authors: Eric Goodman

Child of My Right Hand

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Copyright © 2004 by Eric Goodman

Cover and internal design © 2004 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover photo of road © ejcarr 2004

Cover photo of boy © nonstock

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks, Inc.

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(630) 961-3900

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Goodman, Eric K.

Child of my right hand : a novel / by Eric Goodman.

p. cm.

1. Coming out (Sexual orientation)--Fiction. 2. Parent and child--Fiction. 3. College teachers--Fiction. 4. Teenage boys--Fiction. 5. Hate crimes--Fiction. 6. Gay youth--Fiction. 7. Ohio--Fiction. I. Title.

PS3557.O583C47 2004

813'.54--dc22

2004013215

For my brave son Ethan

acknowledgments

I would like to thank Miami University and the Ohio Arts Council for their generous financial support that facilitated the writing of this novel. Special thanks to my colleagues in the Miami Creative Writing Program, and to Kate Ronald and Lamar Herrin for their astute editorial suggestions. To my editor, Hillel Black, for his. To Susan Morga, for her love and support. To my daughter, Seneca, who has become one of my first and favorite readers. I would also like to thank fellow writers whom, for one reason or another, I have failed to mention by name, was well as old friends Jay Harris and Richard Kolesnick, for their continued faith and interest in the process. Dean Hamer, who was generous with his time and insights, as well as Robert Alan Brookey, whose fine book,
Reinventing the Male Homosexual: The Rhetoric and Power of the Gay Gene
, proved invaluable in the background research for this book. Finally, I would like to thanks three wonderful institutions in very different parts of the country for their gifts of time and beautiful spaces: The MacDowell Colony, The Ragdale Foundation, and The Headlands Center for the Arts.

I owe a very special debt of gratitude to my agents Michael Carlisle and Michelle Tessler, who showed me nothing but kindness and optimism during the lean years, when others might have shown me the door.

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now.

From “On My First Son” (1603)

By Ben Jonson

PART ONE:

Tipton Levy and the Fry Guy

prologue

Simon could sing before he could talk, a little boy soprano, louder and more resonant than children twice his age. It sounds odd, but even at twelve and fourteen months he was barrel-chested and big-muscled, especially his calves and thighs. Middle linebacker, I'd think, or a tight end like my brother, as I watched Simon toddle after his rubber ball with the joy he had for the enterprise then, the blond Little Lord What's-His-Name curls we didn't cut until he was two, the way he'd put the ball to his mouth and suck on it as if to taste its secrets or perhaps to tell it his, before he chucked it back at me, left-handed.

He was prone to ear infections and slow to speak. Until he was five, my boy lived on amoxycillin like a honeybee on nectar. Ten day runs of the bubble-gum-flavored antibiotic, three teaspoons a day. Then he'd finish, and the ear infection would return, his little hand to his ear, Simon standing in his crib, screaming, and let me tell you, you could hear him down the hall. What lungs! Our first-born, and we were trying to be perfect parents, not pick him up for every little thing. He'd shake the bars, screaming, and you could hear every word, though from twelve to eighteen months, when his first set of ear tubes was inserted, his vocabulary diminished. Imagine trying to hear under water, an ear-eye-and-throat doc later explained. Or listening through gauze. Mommy, Daddy! Mommy! Man, you could hear him down the hall.

Not perfect pitch, he'd say, years later, but almost. I remember him at two and a half, after we'd returned from Genna's sabbatical in Strasbourg, belting out, “Fre-re Jac-ques, fre-re Jac-ques, dormez-vous, dormez-vous!” the sustained note in the second
vous
, pure and distant as the light of a new moon, Simon smiling his cherubic grin when he finished, glad to be the center of attention, even then. I remember him at three in the college preschool, singing, “Row, row, row your boat,” so loudly the other kids stopped singing. And I remember the looks on their parents' faces, not the last such looks we'd see, explaining, with a sniff, that some little boys were louder than others.

Genna and I used to wonder where this prodigious sound came from because neither of us were musical. Physically, Simon resembled us both: my chest and seventeen-inch neck, Genna's coloring and dusky blond hair, which in Simon darkened through adolescence until he began dying it. But the voice? We speculated it was the legacy of Genna's biological father, and not just because my field is the history of science and I'm predisposed to think that way. We assumed a genetic link, a biological explanation, if you will, for complex instinctive and performative behavior because Simon's gift was always present, hard-wired, the little boy who could sing before he could pronounce the words.

“Mommy,” he said one night when he was four, sitting up in bed while Genna sang a lullaby. Simon with this amazing voice, and our second child, Lizzie, not quite one, but already beginning to talk.

“Mommy,” he said and pressed his hands to his ears. “Don't sing!”

We laughed about that for years, even Genna, who was family-famous for being unable to carry a tune. Mommy, don't sing, as if her voice hurt his ears, which it probably did. Mommy, don't sing!

That's how I remember Simon, a sweet little boy of three and four, with this astonishing sound coming out of him—his instrument as we later learned to call it—before all the rest, although there were signs even then. That's my training, to order the unknown, to create a coherent narrative from available fact. Is that science? Of a personal sort. Is there speculation? You bet. As soon as a child is old enough to leave your sight, there are things a parent can't know, influences beyond parental control. What we might have done differently, could have or should have, if only we'd been paying close enough attention.

What I want to remember—and I do, can you hear him, listen—is Simon singing at two and a half, Are you sleeping, Are you sleeping?
Dormez-vous
, his French and English jumbled together, but there's no mistaking that high, perfect note. Like the sun, my son, like first light.

For he is sleeping.
Il dort
.

And this is Simon's song, in three voices: Simon, Genna and Jack's. Jack Barish, impartial researcher. This arrangement is intended to reveal the harmonies and discordances inherent in family life. More importantly, it's the only way I can bear to tell our story. Listen.

chapter 1

On the first morning of his junior year in high school, Simon Barish stood at the bus stop, which was nothing more than a turnaround in one of his new neighbors' driveways. Lizzie waited with him. Two or three other kids, none of whom he knew, hung around looking stupid. At six-forty the sky, through its border of trees, remained dark except for an embarrassed eastern blush. Simon was seventeen, old enough to drive, but there had been trouble last year with his grades. When wasn't there trouble with his grades? And his parents—both of whom, to hear them, had never gotten anything except A's their entire lives and missed no chance to point it out, especially Dad—wouldn't sign for his permit until he achieved a 2.5, which had taken until the end of fourth quarter. Then it was six months to a road test, so here he stood, with younger kids at the bus stop, in the dark, which he was still secretly afraid of. His parents had no idea what it was like to be him, no idea at all.

Lizzie, or Liz, which she now wanted to be called (by next year, he was pretty sure she'd call herself Elizabeth, she was that kind of girl), was in eighth grade, but her body—by which he meant her breasts—had started developing when she was in fifth, so that everyone, especially guys, believed she was older than her age. For two years, while she pretended that what was happening to her body was happening in another state, Mississippi, or even Montana, Lizzie hid inside his double-X sweatshirts. Then, last year, boom, she emerged from under all that fleece like a swan from under pin feathers, swimming graceful circles through the middle school in tight cotton tops from Old Navy over 34B bras. (He dug through her top drawer when he was alone in the house, Mom and Dad at work, Lizzie at soccer practice. Once, he tried one on. He looked ridiculous, but damn, what a boner.)

So now she stood in her tight top and jeans, looking like the prep he always knew she'd turn out to be, fielding glances from the boys waiting with them as the sky brightened behind the trees of Forest Glen, the development they'd just moved into. Ever since they'd moved to Ohio eight years earlier, they'd lived in Cincinnati, forty miles away. Last spring, his parents, who were always fighting about one thing or another, agreed to move to Tipton, the college town where they taught. They said it was to cut down on commuting and to get out of the city where his mom had never been happy, but he knew the move was mostly about getting him out of the performing arts high school where things hadn't gone well from the start, where they'd never appreciated how great his voice really was.

The school bus ground into view. Red lights above the windshield burned like the eyes of a small frightened animal. Simon hefted his waist pack and stood behind Lizzie, waiting to board.

***

The first days sailed by. Get up at quarter to six, shower, make sure Lizzie was with him to walk up the dark driveway. Boxes everywhere, unhung paintings stacked in the dining room, and his parents' attention, especially his mom's, which was usually on him, focused elsewhere, which was A-OK with Simon. School was a breeze. Simon was signed up for only four academic classes, and considering dropping down to three. American history was the same bell as art, where the teacher, Mrs. Campbell, was really awesome. Floppy hats, hippie dresses, like Mom used to wear. The only problem, since Simon didn't give two craps about his classes, was that instead of being assigned to chamber singers, as he'd been told last spring, he was stuck in concert choir. Only four guys had auditioned for chamber singers, so they'd made it all girls.

Just showed, Simon thought, as he walked down the hall towards second bell, the first Friday of the year, what an ignorant, country-ass school Tipton really was. Concert choir was the worst on planet Earth. The entire bass section, except for Simon, sang flat. Not sometimes, every frigging note. Most of the guys were jerks and didn't pay attention to anything Mister Dolan said. Mister Dolan was short, young, and fat; he had a really bad haircut. The kids called him Donut. Simon felt bad for him, but he felt worse for himself, because there was no set-design class like there was in Cincinnati, which he'd known, okay? But he was certain there would be singing and there wasn't, not really. Just yesterday, Peter, he was pretty sure the kid's name was Peter—tall, thin, kind of cute, with straight brown hair streaked henna—came up to him.

“Hey, Simon. Know what they call this class?”

“No, what?”

“Animal Chorus.”

Then he'd grinned and yipped like a coyote, like a wild loon, and Simon grinned too, thinking, This guy likes me.

***

They'd moved into the new house two weeks before school opened, full of hope. The previous four years, Jack didn't know. First he turned forty, then Genna did. His research leaves were denied, not once, but two years in a row. And maybe Genna had an affair and maybe she didn't after he did. But by the time they moved to Tipton where Jack had never thought they'd live because everyone said the schools were no damn good, he felt half-defeated. On his knees looking up, and no, he wasn't talking sexual matters, more like peering up a long garbage chute and marveling at how far away the light seemed.

All summer they packed. The neighbors threw a goodbye party; Jack and Genna explained how sorry they were to go and blamed the commute. The neighbors, mostly good-natured and Midwestern, said they understood. They wouldn't drive fifty minutes each morning, by golly, and they wished the Barishes well. The Cohens, probably their best friends on the street, and the only other Jews, said they'd be sure to stay in touch, and Jack hoped they would.

But it wasn't about the commute. It wasn't about the affair Genna may or may not have had. It was partly about the affair Jack had been having until he broke it off last winter and thought he'd die of it, both the affair and the giving up. It was mostly about Simon, their big troubled boy, as so much of their life was. Simon's weight, Simon's worries, Simon's troubles in school. Simon's gift and what he should do about it. Simon's sexuality and when he'd admit to himself, if not to his parents, what had been apparent or at least intimated since he was five or six and wouldn't give up his Barbies no matter how hard they tried to coax him or what they promised in return.

When he was eleven and down to one Barbie, when even Simon—who'd always been remarkably immune to what other kids thought or wanted—understood he couldn't ask boys to play Barbies anymore, when even the girls he played with had given them up, Genna persuaded Simon to give his last doll to a friend's six-year-old daughter.

Imagine Simon's expression as he handed over his Barbie. Embarrassed, resentful, a proud half smile (Genna had convinced him giving away Barbie meant he was finally a big boy), but oh, the pain as he demonstrated how Barbie liked her hair brushed, and which of her outfits went with which pair of shoes.

So what were Jack and Genna doing moving Simon from the performing arts school in Cincinnati, where everyone agreed the student body was creative, to Tipton High, where only ten years or so ago the Klan had marched? Where the biggest event each week was Friday night football? Where the townie, farm, and trailer kids butted heads for social dominance, but there wasn't much difference except for how much money they had to spend at the mall?

They needed a new beginning, and Simon did, too. Needed out of that house where Jack had confessed the affair and where for most of last winter Genna was gone in the evenings and sometimes most of the night, but always back in the morning before the kids woke up. And Simon? Last fall, he'd nearly flunked out of the performing arts school. He'd alienated teachers. Gotten himself bounced from acting class. And late last winter, right about the time Genna was whirring out of control, Simon was suspended for eight days. The girl who'd loved him the previous six months and whom he'd loved (but not in the same way; he'd refused to have sex with her) lost what little sense she'd ever had and scrawled, Kike faggot! on his locker. He'd written, Nazi bitch! on hers. Although she'd started, they were to be punished equally.

Jack sat in the assistant principal's office, Ms. Moore, a black woman maybe thirty-five, having been summoned from his office in Tipton.

“He shouldn't have retaliated,” she said. “He should have come to me.”

“Of course, but he's sixteen.”

“Janet is fifteen.”

Jack didn't like Ms. Moore. The hard angles of her jaw. “I understand Simon has to be punished. But surely you see the difference…”

“Not really. He used profanity. He defaced school property.”

“Ms. Moore.” Jack was an old hand at massaging school officials. Willing to prevaricate, cajole, bare his large throat, if necessary, for his son. “Simon's been working really hard to bring his grades up.”

“He should have considered that.”

He hated this bitch's close-cropped hair. The way she looked at him, the kike faggot's father. He'd had to stop work and drive down from Tipton because Simon had to be hauled away immediately, like something dead and rotten. Remember, too, he hadn't slept much the night before waiting up for Genna. “Ms. Moore, you understand how seriously we take the word kike. Kikes ended up in Nazi ovens. Their theory of eugenics…”

“I understand, Mister Barish.”

“Kike, it's our N-word.”

“Mister Barish.” Her eyes gleamed. “I understand.”

“But you're going to punish them equally.”

“I am.”

“Is there anyone I can appeal to?”

“Appeal to anyone you want.” She showed her very large teeth, the better to eat him with. “One, he used profanity. Two, he defaced school property. District rules say eight days minimum. If I wanted, I could expel him.”

Why don't you, he wanted to say, but Jack exited Ms. Asshole's office without another word. Simon waited, staring numbly ahead, two seats from Janet and her fat mother. To make it even worse, for a time, Simon really did love her.

“Perhaps I could arrange a meeting next week for all of us,” offered assistant principal Ms. Asshole Moore. “To clear the air.”

Jack glanced at Simon, who shook his head. For once they agreed.

They left, and that was that. It was also the end of Simon being able to do much about his grades. After missing eight days he had to struggle to get up to a C plus for the fourth quarter. And so, the dirty secret. Simon's grades had motivated the move. Tipton High might not be much. It might be filled with ignorami. But the university's primary, and some would say only, concession to town/gown relations was the following: Any Tipton High graduate was automatically admitted. Tipton might not be Harvard, but it was pretty damn good, and because they were faculty, Simon could attend tuition-free. Simon's grades worked out to less than a C for his first two years; Jack and Genna had concluded it was move to Tipton or tell Simon to set his sights on community college.

They put their house on the market. Genna stopped staying out. And two weeks before the new semester, bitching and sweating in the August heat, Simon, Genna, Lizzie and Jack loaded everything onto a U-Haul and moved themselves to Forest Glen, full of crazy hope.

***

Genna loved the new house. Five minutes from her office, it was hidden in the woods. If she had to live in Ohio, and after eight years it appeared she did, at least she could live in a house she adored. Simon and Lizzie had liked the Cincinnati house. Friends invited to dinner parties marveled at its high ceilings. But she'd felt trapped and miserable, turning around and around and around again, like their dog Sam searching for the perfect spot to lie down, without ever finding it.

Now she woke each morning and didn't know what to do, she felt so good. She was jogging three days a week in the nature preserve half a mile from their front door. She was puffing there now, new Nikes biting into a trail that wound between a mix of new and old growth trees and a corn field. Of course there was corn in Nowheresburg, Ohio. But through the trees—and Genna loved the ancient giants, some eight feet around, oaks and sycamores—Six Mile meandered, not much faster than she jogged, twenty-five yards or so behind their golden retriever. Sam loved to lead, another Barish alpha male; she was a bit tired of all that. But the sun winked through the leaves, a summer Romeo. Genna oozed the sweat of honest exertion. She'd only been running two weeks, but God, she felt great, and believed this time she'd be able to stick to the routine. And with running would come a diet, beginning Monday. Protein and grapefruit, a meal of hope. Boiled eggs breakfast. Sliced meat and cottage cheese lunch. Meat and more meat for dinner. Shrimp, raw tuna, roast chicken. Difficult to maintain, and not just because it was so radical, forcing her body to metabolize the fat stored for years around the pillowed contours of her ass. Lord, she thought, jogging to the rhythm of her invocation. Help me with my bottom. Let me not lie down with the pillow-butts, the lard-asses, the double-wides of the Buckeye State. The last time she'd dieted successfully, five years ago, before things began to go wrong with Jack, it was the protein diet that had worked. Trying protein again required hope; for with the diet, Jack might return from whatever marital border he'd fled or been banished to. Big Jack Barish, her own true love.

Genna looked up. Fifty feet further along, Sam gazed back with the insistent good nature that was a retriever's paramount virtue. Since puppydom, Sam had been more Jack's dog than hers, but with the move and her jogging, Sam's allegiance had begun to shift and he waited each morning near the door.

“Go ahead, Sam,” she called. “Get going.”

He bowed over his paws, a big happy oaf, then raced off, tail bouncing, angling for Six Mile, where he'd lie down in the stirring water as if it were the Ganges to feel his spirit lift. Or was that the Nile? Summer kisses blew through the treetops. The bright leaves sparkled. Another fine day in Tipton, Ohio.

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