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Authors: Luanne Rice

How We Started

BOOK: How We Started
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VIKING

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published in 2012 by Viking Penguin,

a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

Copyright © Luanne Rice, 2012

All rights reserved

 

Publisher's Note

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

ISBN 978-1-101-57975-6

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Contents

How We Started

Paul and Clare

Up in a Tree

When I look back from here, I dream of the beginning. If I think about that, about him, I'll forget where I am. Paul and I were very young when we became “us.” You couldn't have pried me off him with a crowbar, and my parents tried.

I had an older sister, and he was an only child. Sometimes I want to blame the distance between us on that: for as well as he knows Anne, he can't fully appreciate what it's like to have a sibling, or understand what I did for her. Our families had things in common—we were Irish Catholic, from the same New York neighborhood, went to the same school and church. We each had father trouble, but it's different when you're a girl.

That explains a lot about Anne, but I don't want to think of her now. I want Paul. I dream of these bars dissolving, of him standing outside and catching me, taking me away from here. I can almost smell the woods—earth, tree bark, pine needles, new leaves—and hear the birds. Paul taught me hiding places back when we first began.

We were native New Yorkers. Born and raised in Chelsea—back then a frontier on Manhattan's wild West Side—we grew up riding the subway, playing stickball in the streets, walking down the shady side of Tenth Avenue in the sweltering summers and the sunny side in the winters—five times more frigid than anywhere else in the city because of the wind howling off the Hudson River two avenues away.

Our house was built on land that in the 1800s had been a farm belonging to Clement Clarke Moore, reputed to have written “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” My mother used that history to anoint our lives with the spirit of “'Twas the night before Christmas,” casting a sort of magical holiday happiness over the truth: our father was a player who'd rather be out with his lady friends than home with us.

Paul lived in an apartment building on West Nineteenth Street between Ninth and Tenth aAvenues, and I grew up in a brownstone on West Twenty-second Street and Tenth: four blocks and a world apart. Paul's block was rugged, next to the Fulton Houses project, and his building was one of those places the
Daily News
wrote about, full of domestic violence calls, tenants complaining about the landlord not fixing broken pipes, drug deals going down in the lobby.

Our family owned our private five-story town house. My father, Francis Burke, had bought it at auction when it was an abandoned shell, before Anne and I were born. He was a commercial real estate agent with dreamy blue eyes and a silver tongue, who could sell anybody anything. He also had a black heart and cheated on my mother every chance he got. I guess she traded her self-respect for what she told herself was the sake of family, and also for the creature comforts his excellent salesmanship provided us.

We weren't rich but we were comfortable, and my parents possessed a pride that is the very definition of “lace curtain Irish.” We really did have lace curtains at the floor-to-ceiling windows and balcony doors, the better behind which my older sister Anne could get undressed, giving passersby a little show, artfully obscured by Battenburg panels.

There was a little park across the street. Really small, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, with trees and a playground, it had pavement instead of grass. When we were little, our mother would take us there, set us up on the swing set while she'd sit on one of the benches and get lost in a book. She wasn't much for talking to the other mothers. Like Anne and me, she was a keeper of family secrets, and she stayed to herself.

The habit of going to the park, the three of us, continued even when my sister and I got to middle school. Anne was already wild—she loved sneaking out to see Harrison Thaxter, a Boston boy she'd met at a spring dance. He was so smitten with her he was bailing on school each Thursday night and sleeping at a friend's Park Avenue apartment till Monday morning. He was a freshman, boarding at Groton, and it hurt to my core to know that Anne was probably going to get him kicked out. Harrison was in love, but my sister was in control.

That's really all it was—control over boys because she had none over our father. Having so much power scared her—she'd never admit it, but I knew my sister—and I think those hours in the park helped her feel safe. One May day when I was eleven, she pushed me on the swing, trying to get me to go so high I'd loop over the bar at the top. We were a little old for the playground, but the danger quotient on the swings made it seem cool enough.

My legs pumping and toes pointed at the sky, I was half-terrified, half-ready to meet her challenge. The swing set was big and heavy, planted in the concrete, but even so, I got going so high the metal frame creaked like hiccups, the chains clanking on the downswing, and I heard Anne cheering me on.

“You can do it! Come on, higher!” she'd say. I loved that moment, plummeting on the downward arc, then feeling her hand on the small of my back, shoving me up for another try.

Our mother ignored us. I'm not sure that getting her attention wasn't half the point, but regardless, it didn't work. Now, when I look back, maybe it was strange that she barely glanced up from her book while one daughter tried to push the other into a death-defying loop-de-loop over the top of the swing set.

The stray cats of Chelsea, of which there were hundreds, roamed the gardens behind the brownstones and inhabited corners of that little park. Swinging high above the ground, I spotted a long, skinny black-and-white cat inching down a leafed-out ginkgo branch toward a bird's nest poking from the topmost tubular cross-support of the jungle gym.

A baby sparrow perched on the nest while its mother flew in mad circles trying to chase off the cat creeping down the low-hanging bough. That tiny sparrow mother, the kind you see all over New York, was dive-bombing the marauder. The cat hissed and swatted. The baby bird flapped its wings, the cat's paw connected, and both feline and sparrow fell to earth.

I yelled for Anne to stop pushing me, and I jumped off the swing and skinned my knees. Anne helped me up, but I barely noticed the sting or the blood. The cat had run away, but the sparrow lay on the cement. I knelt beside the fledgling—a young male, with his black mask and chestnut cap just starting to show—while Anne looked over my shoulder and said, “It's dead.”

“No, he's not,” I said.

He didn't move; somehow I knew the fall had merely stunned him, that if I could protect him for a little while, he would regain his strength. I reached for him but hesitated, not wanting my human scent to drive his mother away.

“Don't touch that bird!” my mother called, finally setting her book aside.

“We have to save him,” I said.

“Sweetheart, you can't,” she said, coming over to check him out. “He's hurt too badly. Besides, what do you think you're going to do? Bring him home? What will Esmerelda think about that?” Our big indoor cat, formerly a Chelsea stray, sat in the window for hours, just dreaming of the chance to get at the neighborhood wildlife. I stared at the young sparrow, wondering how, even if he did wake up, he would get back to the nest.

“I'll put him in the basement till he learns how to fly,” I said.

“You will not. They spread all kinds of terrible diseases; they're just like rats with wings. Now come on. Look at your knees. Let's go home and clean them up.”

I saw the sparrow's feathers ripple, a little tremor of life. I instinctively reached for him, and my mother grabbed my hand. In the distance I heard a siren, then the music of the ice cream truck. It came every day around this time, playing a jingly version of “La Cucaracha,” and parked at the corner across from the Empire Diner. Boys on their bikes converged; I heard playing cards flapping in the spokes. It was the Chelsea Gang, kids from our school, led by Paul Traynor.

“Mom, can we?” Anne asked, pointing toward the truck.

“Let me get my pocketbook,” she said. “Clare, come with me.”

“Can I stay if I promise not to touch the bird?” I asked, seriously pleading. My heart was beating so fast; I truly believed it was life or death that I stay with the sparrow until he was well enough to fly.

“Okay,” my mother said. Anne followed her across the street to our house. Neither of them looked back. My mother had conditioned herself to believe what she needed to, to trust the untrustworthy. As soon as she walked up our stoop and through the front door, without being able to stop myself, I cupped the sparrow in my hands and held him to my chest.

The bird felt tiny. His wings fluttered, and he turned his head from side to side. I had the feeling I was healing him: that he knew I loved him. I looked down, studied his black eyes, his sturdy bill, his white cheeks. His feathers were bright—he was too young to be covered with New York City soot—and I admired the russet-and-black pattern on his back.

“His mother won't take him back in the nest now,” Paul said.

I glanced up. Tall for his age, lanky with long brown hair falling across his green eyes, he'd ridden his bike through the gate, ignoring the sign prohibiting bicycles, skateboards, and roller skates. He had one hand on the handlebars, held a Choco-nut cone in the other.

“Maybe she will,” I said.

Paul's heel jammed down the kickstand, and he jumped off his bike and crouched beside me. I saw ice cream dripping down his fist, and when he reached over to touch the bird, his hand brushed mine and felt sticky. The bird's tiny claws scrabbled at his finger, took hold. The fluffy wings twitched, and the baby squawked, mouth wide open.

“Where's the nest?” Paul asked.

“Up there,” I said, pointing at the jungle gym.

I saw him squint, examining the situation. Thinking back, I see his eyes, sea-green in the sunlight. Is that a memory, or just what I know to be true? Did I shiver at the way his gaze slid over me, or was my throat dry because something about being that close to Paul Traynor made me ache? We were only eleven. He was considered cool, and a month earlier had given his ID bracelet to Lynn Grady. I was gawky with freckles, and even though I had blue eyes, my hair was almost black, and I hated it. I would have given anything to be blond like Lynn.

“Let's do it,” he said, still staring up at the nest.

He didn't even have to tell me what he had in mind. He chomped down the rest of his ice cream cone, wiped his hand on his pants, and we walked together to the monkey bars. My skinned knees were stiff and sore, but I kept pace with him as we climbed two rungs at a time. He cradled the baby bird in one hand, pulling himself upward with the other.

The mother flew in upside-down rainbows over our heads, swinging up and down and up and down, in a panic to chase us away. When we reached the top bars, she disappeared. My heart was racing. Had we driven her off? This next part was impossible. The nest was crunched into the round opening at the end of the metal tube perpendicular to our perch, with no human way to see it.

Paul slung his free arm around the outer frame, leaned out as far as he could go, holding the fledgling in a loose fist, easing it toward where he thought the nest must be.

“Am I close?” he asked.

“I can't tell,” I said, doing my best to crane my neck and see around the tube's end, into the hollow part.

“We get one try,” he said.

It was a long way down—twelve feet, at least. If the bird fell again, there'd be no way he'd survive. The ginkgo branch was close enough to grab. If I could get onto that tree, I could direct Paul.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Looking down at the concrete didn't scare me at all. I grabbed the gym's top bar with both hands, as if I were going to do a chin-up, then struck out with one hand Tarzan-style, fingers clasping the leafy twigs, then the small branch, and hauled myself onto the main bough, right where the black-and-white cat had been.

“Whoa!” he said with more admiration than I'd dreamed of getting, although I can't be sure that wasn't part of the goal.

“Okay,” I said. Now I had a great view of the nest. The fledgling was starting to beat its wings again, confined in Paul's hand, and I knew we didn't have much time. “You can do it, easy,” I said. “Stick your arm out . . . there, now a little left, a little farther.” My nerves were screaming.

“Here?” he asked, his hand hovering three inches in front of the nest.

“Forward a little,” I said. “More. Even more . . . there!”

He must have felt the rough twig weave with his knuckles because suddenly he opened his hand and placed the baby sparrow directly into its nest. I watched carefully to make sure the bird was safe and didn't topple out. I nodded, and Paul gave me a big grin. With his feet on the uppermost rung, he spread his arms, squatted, and leapt, and a second later he was in the tree with me.

“Wow, you flew,” I said.

“Ha, yeah.”

“See?” I said, pointing.

We gazed at the nest. The mother bird had already landed and was feeding the returned fledgling and his two siblings. Paul and I were half hidden in the pale green leaves. I stayed as still as possible, watching the mother shove caterpillars into her babies' open mouths. I remembered the sensation of holding the bird in my hands, and I looked at Paul wondering if he felt the same way: that we'd just done something amazing.

“You're a pretty good climber,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“This isn't a real park, though.”

“We're in a real tree,” I said.

“Central Park's cooler.”

“Yeah, the zoo,” I said. “And sledding in the winter.”

“Anyone can go to the zoo with their parents,” he said. “I go alone.”

“Great way to get mugged,” I said, half laughing. It was the late '70s, and most of the park was a no-man's-land.

“No one would get you if I were with you,” he said. “I go there all the time.”

“What for?” I asked. He was eleven. The idea of him heading uptown by himself to that haven for—according to my father—junkies, dealers, and muggers who'd kill you as soon as look at you, gave me a knot in my stomach. It was a combination of my eleven-year- old's infatuation and wanting him to be a good boy, to be safe and not get hurt.

BOOK: How We Started
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