Cover image for The boy in the lake
The boy in the lake
Swanson, Eric.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
197 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Shifting back and forth between the past and the present, this novel follows two friends who have long since lost touch as they come back together and relive a shattering betrayal from their childhood.

Author Notes

Eric Swanson grew up in Rochester, New York, and was educated at Yale University. Swanson's life story inspired the hit play As Bees in Honey Drown . He is the author of one previous novel, The Greenhouse Effect , and lives in New York.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Haunted by the memory of his willing participation in a brutally violent boyhood ambush, Christian Fowler, a middle-aged therapist in search of forgiveness and redemption, returns to the rural midwestern town of his youth. While revisiting his childhood haunts and searching for the friend he betrayed in order to conceal his burgeoning homosexuality, Christian mentally recounts his recent professional failure to help an anguished teenager come to terms with his own sexual orientation. After he finally tracks down his former friend, the two parallel narratives intersect when Christian belatedly realizes that his inability to be completely honest with himself and others has caused past and present to merge in a most painful fashion. Underscored by a subtle sense of foreboding, this deceptively simple tale eventually explodes in a violent rush of emotion. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

New York social worker/psychotherapist Christian Fowler returns to his Ohio hometown after three decades, seeking absolution from a friend he betrayed, in Swanson's accomplished, beautifully paced tale of self-discovery and forgiveness. Though the ostensible cause of his return is his grandmother's death, Chris is driven to track down boyhood companion Reis Paley, a troubled Alabama-born delinquent with whom Chris had a secret homosexual relationship at age 12. When homophobic classmates brutally beat Reis, Chris (who had led the thugs to Reis) begged them to stop, butÄhelpless and outnumberedÄhe ran away, eager to conceal his own, only dimly acknowledged sexual identity. In a poignant narrative, at once lyrical and precise, the adult Chris shuttles between his jealous anxieties over Richard, his live-in companion of 10 years who's been sleeping around, and therapy sessions with a mocking patient named Stephen, a self-hating, closeted high-school dropout who becomes a prostitute. Shadowing his present-day life are intensely vivid memories of his own painful Ohio boyhood with a laconic Czech-American coalminer father and a constantly drunken mother who fancies herself a descendant of a long line of Irish royalty. Swanson's second novel (after The Greenhouse Effect) resonates with haunting metaphors: the lake where Chris first meets Reis and where Chris's father accidentally drowns is where Chris scatters the ashes of his grandmother. Emotionally weighted with suspense, this story will appeal to straight and gay readers, and seems especially timely given the recent visibility of hate crimes and anti-gay violence. (June) FYI: Swanson's involvement with a woman who introduced him to life in the fast lane is the subject of Douglas Carter Beane's recent New York play, As Bees in Honey Drown; rights have been sold to Universal Pictures. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The product of a dysfunctional family, Christian Fowler returns 30 years later to his deceased grandmother's house in the Ohio coal-mining town where he grew up. He now plans to dispose of her possessions, reconnect with his cousin Judith, and try to right a major wrong that occurred after his unintentional betrayal of a boyhood friend. The author's minimalist detail and stark descriptions complement the bare landscape and the major characters' wintry relationships. Christian, a therapist with a master's in social work, confronts issues of honesty, maturity, and forgiveness in his own life as well as a parallel situation involving a young patient, while the action switches constantly (but gracefully) from past to present events. The disturbing conclusion of Swanson's second novel (after The Greenhouse Effect, o.p.) will leave readers with food for thought.ÄEllen R. Cohen, Rockville, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One When I was small, my grandmother told me stories. One of my favorites was about the medallion she wore around her neck: a wafer of thin gold with a picture of a saint on one side and a circle of strange-looking letters engraved on the other. She told me that her mother had put the medallion around her neck the day she left Poland to come to America. The letters, she explained, were Polish. They formed a prayer that she promised to teach me when I was old enough to need it. Until then, I didn't have to worry because God looked after little children.     I was ten years old when I learned that the story behind the medallion wasn't necessarily true. Another version existed, which I heard one night at the Polish Club, where my grandmother went to play rummy on Saturdays. The players--several cadaverous men and two old women--met in the club's basement. I waited in the upstairs lounge. The wooden folding chairs were apt to snap shut if you weren't careful, but ginger ale was only five cents a glass and I liked seeing the adults get weepy and red-faced as they sang mournful folk songs to each other across the rickety tables in a language I didn't understand.     One Saturday, an old woman sat down across from me and offered me a cookie. Though she introduced herself as an old friend of my grandmother's, I declined her offer--in part because she had a hairy patch the size of my hand on her cheek, and in part because the cookie was the round kind with a clot of poisonously red jelly in the center. These two things together gave me a bad feeling.     After asking me a few questions about myself--my age, my height, my favorite foods, and, inexplicably, whether I was interested in rocket ships--she told me my grandmother was one of the bravest women she knew, and that she didn't think she'd have been able to do the same things if she'd been in her shoes. When I asked her what shoes she meant--imagining her trying to stuff her fat feet into my grandmother's tiny orthopedic slippers--she laughed, which made the hairy patch on her cheek quiver like some sort of terrified small animal.     She went on to explain that the Germans had attacked my grandmother's village back at the beginning of World War II. My grandmother had hidden in the woods and watched her family and friends picked off one by one, like squirrels. Women raped while they bled to death, men strung up in trees with their bellies slit open, their guts spilling to the ground. When the soldiers left, she slipped back into the village and gathered up whatever food and bits of money the Germans had left behind, then traveled alone across the border into Czechoslovakia, on foot.     The medallion engraved with the picture of a saint had come from a neighbor's corpse.     Though some of what the old woman told me sailed over my head, the bloodier images made a deep and rather terrifying impression, like the gruesome bits of old fairy tales. I made a conscious decision to believe that she'd invented the story of the attack on my grandmother's village and her subsequent theft of the medallion. Perhaps, I reasoned, she'd wanted to punish me for not taking the cookie she'd offered. Perhaps she'd seen through my politeness and knew I thought she was ugly.     For a long time afterward, I remained proud of my decision. I felt as though I had earned my place in the ranks of adulthood. Obviously, if two stories contradicted each other, one had to be true and the other false.     Now, of course, I can juggle several variations of a single story without confusion. It's a professional skill, a habit derived from listening to people who come to me for therapeutic help. They tell their stories over and over again, trying to will order upon the myriad hurts, large and small, that form the texture of their lives. Details left out of one version almost always show up in another. Slowly, over time, a gap almost always reveals itself, a null space where different versions of the same story fail to overlap.     I believe this is where the truth lives. Not in any particular telling, but in the gaps, the silences between. * * * Stephen Porter, a patient of mine for a little over six months, had had a gift for silence.     He'd been referred to me by M. J. Sweeney, one of my colleagues at a teaching hospital where I'd worked when I first came to New York. M. J. had a fairly direct way of speaking-- blunt I suppose, is probably the better word--and when she called to talk to me about Stephen, she said straight out that I was right for him because of my history. It didn't occur to me until after I'd hung up the phone that she'd probably used the word in its clinical, rather than its social, sense.     Stephen was late for our first session, which didn't seem the most auspicious of beginnings. When he finally came slouching through the door to my office, I thought immediately of a starved rabbit. He was extremely thin, with nearly white eyebrows and eyelashes, common enough among people with red hair. He was tall, though, and broad around the shoulders, and I guessed that in a few years he'd probably fill out. A faint red stubble defined his chin and upper lip. He was sixteen years old.     He sat down without saying hello, curling his body against one arm of the couch. I was distracted for the first few minutes, wondering whether to tell him it wasn't the best of all places for him to put his weight. The couch had begun to creak whenever someone sat down too hard in certain spots. When I finally mentioned it however, he didn't move. In fact, he didn't acknowledge me at all.     "Feel free to say anything you want," I continued, trying to avoid sounding too hearty.     He sat silently, his expression halfway between petulant and stony. I felt almost grateful when the radiator started clanging. Every time I'd call about it, the superintendent would tell me that the problem wasn't the radiator but the boiler. It's old , he'd say, an old building . If I mentioned that the rent miraculously managed to keep pace with the times, he suddenly lost his command of English and conveniently reverted to some sort of incomprehensible pidgin tongue. I'd thought about moving, but my office is only four blocks from my apartment: east-west blocks, which are longer than north-south ones, but it's still a convenient walk.     Stephen glanced at the radiator and then went back to staring at his knees.     "I'm trying to get that fixed," I explained. "I'm sorry. Do you have any questions?"     He mumbled something.     "I didn't catch that."     "They usually ask me the questions," he said, louder.     "Well we can do things differently."     "They say that, too. The other doctors."     "Well I'm not a doctor, for starters."     He peeled a piece of skin off his thumb with his fingernail.     "What are you then?"     "Technically, I'm an MSW. Master of Social Work."     "What's the difference?"     "I can't prescribe medication, for one thing."     He looked up then, the first sign of feeling he'd shown. "What if I need more pills?"     "You can always see Dr. Sweeney at the hospital."     After a minute, he looked back down in his lap and methodically picked a scab off the back of his hand. There wasn't any blood, but he wiped his hand on the couch cushion anyway. Then he looked across the room at me and smiled briefly, a saint in agony.     "Guess I don't rate the big guns no more," he said.     I couldn't say for sure whether he meant the remark as an insult. In fact, I never learned as much about him as I hoped I would. After six months, he simply stopped coming. The last I heard of him was in a news item that appeared recently in the back of the Metro section of the New York Times .     The article was a single paragraph long. Apart from Stephen's name and age, it mentioned only that the cuts on his wrists had been self-inflicted and that the bar behind which he'd been found was a known meeting place for gay men. * * * About a week after Stephen's suicide, my grandmother died, so unobtrusively that her exit from this world went unremarked for nearly a week before a concerned neighbor discovered the body. To die at home, under clean sheets and dressed in a nearly new nightgown, was perfectly consistent with my grandmother's entire approach to life: she couldn't tolerate messes. Unfortunately, the neighbor who found her was unable to appreciate such niceties. Even in the middle of winter, in a barely heated bedroom, a certain amount of physical decomposition had taken place.     I don't like to think about this.     The county coroner determined that my grandmother had died of a heart attack; a quick, fairly tidy way to die. He placed the time of her death somewhere between nine and eleven in the evening on Valentine's Day, thus squaring my grandmother's habitual neatness with an unsuspected gift for irony.     These two deaths, my grandmother's and Stephen's, have made me uncomfortably aware of the fragility of the human vessel. They have also called attention to the fact that no matter how tidy people may be, they always leave something of a mess behind when they die. There are houses to clean out and worldly goods to give away, to say nothing of all the sentiments left dangling like so many snapped clotheslines.     A certain snobbishness had kept me away from home for more than twenty-five years. If my grandmother alone had died, I'm not sure I'd have returned. I'm indebted to Stephen, actually, for making up my mind to return to Ohio and clean up all the loose ends that had gathered in my absence.     There's probably no way to entirely escape regret at the moment of death. Still, when my time comes I'd at least like to know that I'd left as little mess as possible behind. * * * Amity is hardly the sunny, flat farmland people typically imagine when they think of Ohio. Situated more or less diagonally across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia, it's a town in name only: There aren't enough residents to actually merit a charter. Its public institutions consist of a Catholic church, a post office, a two-pump filling station, and a bar.     There are also two schools, a public one and a Catholic one. I went to the public school first, then to the Catholic school. After my parents died, I left Amity altogether to live with an aunt and uncle in Columbus--which seemed to me, at thirteen, a far more sophisticated place, replete with sidewalks, strip malls, and movie theaters.     Amity is mining country, a twisted landscape, spotted with rickety houses still standing a hundred years after the mining companies had thrown them up for all the men who thought digging coal would make them rich.     My grandfather had been one of those men. He'd emigrated from Eastern Europe with my grandmother at the beginning of the Second World War. He died in a mine collapse a few years before I was born. My father, their only child, also worked in the mines; but by the late 1950s the seams had started going dry and steady jobs were growing scarce. So even after he got married, he and my mother lived in my grandmother's house, ostensibly to save money until they could afford a place of their own.     My father skulked around the house like someone whose dearest wish was to become invisible. My mother actually succeeded in vanishing, dissolving herself nightly in a bottle of scotch or bourbon or, failing more palatable solutions, Listerine. She disappeared piece by piece, like the Cheshire Cat; except in her case the last piece to go wasn't her smile but her eyes--also like a cat's, wily and full of secrets.     Memories of my parents laughing together or smiling flutter by too quickly, like dry leaves. A picnic where they lean together under an enormous tree. A party where a man on the radio has just announced that someone young and Irish like my mother is now president. On a beach, my mother's long fingers rubbing suntan oil on the ropy muscles of my father's back. One day, my father came home with jugs of water, which he carried down to the basement. My mother and grandmother carried down boxes of instant milk and cans of green beans, corn, and carrots. This urgent accumulation of imperishables had something to do with pigs and an island near Florida, which in 1962 I knew principally as the state shaped like a lady's leg. A few days later, my parents brought the cans and the boxes back upstairs and my father hoisted me in his arms high up in the air. My mother, laughing, told him to watch out or I'd get sick all over.     Around my fourth birthday, my mother swelled up like an egg. My father would lay his hand on the print cotton blouse stretched tight against her stomach, and my little brother or sister who was making her swell would suddenly kick from inside her stomach, making my father's hand jump. Sometimes when it kicked I thought I could see the outline of a tiny foot. Then one day, it kicked too hard and blood seeped out onto the kitchen floor, pooling under the chair where my mother sat trying to hold the baby inside until my father came back with the truck to take her across the river to the Wheeling hospital. Her face turned the color of old paper and her lips were white, pressed tightly together. Blood oozed past her fingers.     She stayed in the hospital for several days, and when she came back, pale and quiet, she went immediately to her bedroom at the end of the hall. She didn't bring home a little brother or sister as she was supposed to, and I was instructed very carefully not to ask any questions. I was told, in fact, to act as if the whole thing had never happened: the swelling, the kicking, the blood on the kitchen floor.     For a while, a lot of the women in the neighborhood came by to visit. They spent hours in the bedroom where my mother lay propped up by pillows, and when the bedroom door opened I could hear her voice murmuring, You're so kind .     When at last she emerged from the bedroom, we had a new president, an older one who wasn't Irish. There were dark circles under my mother's eyes, and her hair stuck to her temples. Though she often had a highball before and after dinner, she rarely laughed or smiled. Those parts of her had already begun to disappear. * * * While my mother was recovering from her miscarriage, my grandmother and I started taking long walks together. Her house sat at the bottom of a tall hill, at the top of which stood an old farmhouse and a dilapidated barn surroundted by rail fence. A few thin, scabby cows grazed in the field around the barn.     The farmer who owned them was an old man with deep cuts in his face, under his eyes, and along his cheeks. One of the cuts was his mouth. Whenever we saw him out in the yard, my grandmother and I would pass by quickly, looking neither right nor left. If he wasn't there, we'd stop at the rail fence to say hello to the cows.     "We had cows," my grandmother told me one morning. "Back in Poland." I thought that's what she said, at any rate. Her English wasn't always clear. For the sake of clarity I asked her if she brought her cows with her.     "Good grief," she replied, "what a question."     I insisted though, because the whole matter of possessions had recently begun to assume great importance to me. I'd started to collect things in a copper tin under my bed. So far, I'd assembled a green and yellow marble found in the church parking lot, some feathers, and three gold stars my cousin Judith had given me. I hadn't formulated a specific plan for these items; I kept them just in case. They were my things.     "No," my grandmother said finally, after a few moments. "I didn't."     "Why not?"     "The war."     When I asked her what war was, she turned away to stare across the old farmer's weedy field. I listened for a while to a distant sound like the rattling of tin cans. After a few minutes, one of the cows wandered up to the fence.     "Don't get too close," my grandmother warned. "Cow'll bite your fingers right off."     Past the barn, on the other side of the hill, was a meadow, where giant stalks of goldenrod grew, and countless daisies, and tiger lilies broad as my hand. On hot, summer days, the acrid smell of parched weeds clung to our arms and legs, and the dry grass rang with the hollow shrill of crickets. Some of the paths through the meadow led to a shallow creek, some to the road across from the school I would attend in the not-so-distant future. Others led to secret rooms of flat grass, hidden behind walls of weeds.     My grandmother and I usually took the same path down to the creek--the way, she told me, that my grandfather used to walk before he passed . That's the word she used, which made me think he'd simply gotten lost while out walking one day, and passed right out of town. I liked the open-endedness of this image, the sense of people going on and on, their paths sometimes crossing, sometimes not. It came as a shock later on, therefore, when my mother told me he'd been crushed in a mine collapse.     On nice days, my grandmother and I spent an hour or so sitting by the creek that ran through the meadow. She sat on a pair of stones along the bank while I looked for things to put in my copper box. Pine cones, leaves, pieces of colored glass I thought were jewels. Once, I discovered a broken bird's egg. The shell was soft, like warm leather, and coated with brown slime. My grandmother made me throw it in the water, and for an entire week afterward I made plans to go back at night and find it again. For several nights running, I dreamed I was a bird.     When I was finished exploring, I would sit beside my grandmother and she would tell me stories. Sometimes it was obvious these stories were about herself, when she was a little girl. Other times, I had to figure it out on my own.     "There were two boys," she began one day, "and three girls. Eva, Sophie, and Julka. The three girls all slept in the same bed, and the two boys in another. In the winters, it was so cold they put the mattresses by the potbellied stove and slept there, the whole family, even their mother and father. They were rich, because they had a potbellied stove."     She told how this girl, Julka, had taken a steamer across the ocean to America. At five years old, of course, I had no idea what a steamer was and I'd yet to see the ocean--though I had ridden in a boat around the Lake Erie, which made me sick. Apprehensively, I asked if the girl named Julka ever thought about going back across the ocean. I was enormously relieved when my grandmother told me no.     "Not even to see her brothers and sisters?"     "They passed," my grandmother replied. "In the war." * * * The airport closest to my grandmother's house is more than 100 miles away in Columbus. As soon as I collect my luggage, I head over to the Avis rental desk where the girl behind the counter scrutinizes my driver's license as though it might be fake. I wonder if I've aged that much since the photo was taken. The girl at the Avis counter seems vastly younger than I am, a category that includes far too many people nowadays. She wears her greenish-blond hair teased out along the back and the sides, and appears to have expended a good deal of time applying blue eye shadow to each lid and the surrounding area.     "Christian Fowler," she says, handing back my license. "Is that a German name?"     "Czechoslovakian," I reply.     "Don't sound like that to me."     I'm not sure if she's making conversation or looking for something suspicious. I put on my charming face, the one I use for bank tellers and cashiers.     "The way I heard it," I tell her, "the fellow at immigration couldn't understand my grandfather's name, so he spelled it the best way he could."     "Well, that don't seem right to me," the girl says somewhat petulantly. "Seems to me," she adds, "a person should at least be able to keep their own name ." She squints down at her terminal screen. "You'll be taking the car two weeks?"     "That's right."     She types more information into her terminal. The printer spits out a piece of paper, which she passes across the counter for me to sign where she's circled.     "Business or pleasure?" she asks.     "Beg pardon?"     "I just wondered you come to Columbus for business or pleasure."     "Ah. Neither, actually."     She presses her hands together on the counter in something like a prayer position, and arranges her face in an attitude of engaged interest. I hand her back the contract.     "Really, I'm just visiting."     " Oh-h-h ," she replies, lowering her voice. "You wouldn't be a private detective or something?"     To my left, a pair of automated glass doors slides open and shut, admitting a rush of preternaturally freezing air that feels almost solid, like a piece of the night sky. I tell the girl she must be an excellent judge of character.     "It weren't but a guess," she says.     "Some people are better at guessing than others."     "Oh, I don't know."     "No, truly. You have a gift. You should appreciate it."     The girl blushes, and hands me the keys and my copy of the rental agreement in such a way that our fingers touch. I pull back quickly and ask if she has a map.     "You'll be okay driving at night won't you?" she asks.     "Hope so."     "Supposed to snow again."     "I'd better get going then."     "You take care."     As I turn away, she calls out. "Say!" Now she's leaning almost all the way over her counter, hissing at me in a stage whisper. "What kind of case is it?"     I stare blankly until I remember the white lie I told, then shake my head. "I can't really tell you now, can I?"     "Confidential, huh?"     I hope it looks like I'm weighing my response as I try to come up with a plausible reply.     "Something like that."     Which is close enough to the truth that I don't feel bad walking away. I'm not sure if the person I'm looking for is still alive, after all, or living in the place I think he might be.     The flat, hopeful voice of the girl behind the rental counter follows me, thanking me for choosing Avis.     It sounds like an accusation. * * * My rental car is easy enough to find in the parking lot. I let it idle a few minutes before heading onto the interstate. Already the snow has begun to fall rather heavily and traffic moves at a crawl. Thick, damp flakes swarm across my windshield, as the wipers trace twin fans across the glass, producing a weirdly bifurcated view of the nighttime scenery. The small cities of Zanesville and Cambridge appear one after another, two bright islands shining in a sprawling dark broken occasionally by the fluorescent gleam of a truck stop.     Along the way, I pass an old red pickup truck with four people sitting tightly together in the cab: my father, my mother, my grandmother, and myself. We're on our way back from Columbus after visiting my mother's brother, Uncle Ames. My mother has two brothers, Uncle Patrick and Uncle Ames. Uncle Patrick lives in town, and teaches English at the local high school. Uncle Ames lives in Columbus, where he owns a funeral parlor. We visit him once a month, or sometimes every other month.     Before each trip, my mother spreads a blanket on the seat to keep the packing off our good clothes. I sit next to my father, and when I'm tired of watching the road I study his hands, which are huge and heavy, like blocks of stone. In fact, everything about my father is outsized. He's well over six feet tall, so that when he drives the steering wheel grazes his knees. His wide bony forehead slopes down over his eyes. He rumbles, rather than speaks.     Sometimes, when he shifts gears, he drops a hand on my knee and gives a surprise squeeze. Taking her cue from him, my grandmother--sitting on the other side of me--squeezes my other knee. I wriggle between them, laughing and squealing, arching against the back of the seat.     "Judas priest!" my mother hisses, tense and miserable, pressed against the passenger side door. "Will you stop that caterwauling ?"     She uses words that nobody else would use, culled from the vocabulary exercises in the Reader's Digest magazines that she steals from the Wheeling Public Library. Though she insists she's not stealing, but only pinching them. She smiles at the puzzled look my father sometimes gives whenever she throws out more obscure terms, like cerebrate or preponderance .     "Life among the Neanderthals is so charming," she murmurs in response to his perplexity, sipping her highball, which isn't really a highball but a palliative . My father rarely answers her taunts. He rarely responds to her at all, in fact. He doesn't have to, since the atmosphere between them speaks volumes. Tensed and charged, like the air before a thunderstorm.     My mother fusses the whole way to Columbus, squinting in the side mirror, fixing her skirt, fiddling with the radio stations. Now a report on the Gemini astronauts, now something about the troops in Hanoi. If my father complains about her switching stations so often, she tells him, "It's terribly important to keep up with current events," pronouncing the word as if describing potential damage: tear-ably .     The drive takes nearly two hours. Uncle Ames and Aunt Jane live in a four-bedroom house in a suburb where all the streets look like rows of polished teeth. Every room is immaculate, and carefully planned. In the living room, for instance, the pale yellow sofa and cream-colored chairs match the colors on the walls and curtains, and the pastel drawings of flowers in round frames. We never sit in the living room when we visit, though. We sit in the den instead, a smaller room with paneled walls and a dark carpet. Uncle Ames mixes drinks in a silver shaker behind the bar, then carries them on a tray to my mother and Aunt Jane, who sit together on a love seat. They sit like the ladies in the Sears catalogue, with their legs crossed at the knees and faces smiling like they've just chewed aspirin. When they lean toward each other to say hello or good-bye, they kiss the air.     Sometimes we sit in the kitchen, which doesn't smell of onions or cabbage, as my grandmother's kitchen does. Aunt Jane's kitchen is permeated by a vaguely chemical odor, a residue apparently left by her woman . At first, I think the term refers to some sort of female homunculus. Or perhaps a ghost. Only gradually, after listening to adult conversations, am I able to put together that her woman is someone who comes once a week to clean the house. Which gives Aunt Jane all the time she needs to take care of her wigs. My mother once observed in private that Aunt Jane has more wigs than any woman east of the Mississippi.     Nobody comes to help my grandmother clean her house. There aren't as many rooms, of course, and they're all small, crammed with furniture that doesn't match. In my grandmother's bedroom, you have to walk sideways between the dresser and the bed. The sun has bleached spots on the parlor rug. The kitchen cupboards are spotted and streaked with white where water has ruined the wood. * * * On our way back from Columbus, we'd sometimes pull into a truck stop for dinner. My father and I ordered hamburgers, which were served dripping with grease, and french fries so bloated they fell apart in our mouths. My mother usually ordered Jell-O salad. My grandmother had either tuna fish on a bun or fish sticks.     As soon as we ordered, I would excuse myself to the bathroom, where I'd while away a quarter of an hour flushing small objects down the toilets: pennies, packs of Heinz catsup or Domino sugar, stones from the parking lot. The roar and swish of the water as it swallowed my humble offerings seemed to satisfy some basic need. I was never allowed to flush the toilet over and over like that at home.     From time to time, truck drivers would shuffle in from the dining room and belly up to the urinals. The tattoos on their arms transfixed me: green snakes, women's breasts, Jesus with his heart exposed. I'd stare at the tattoos until the drivers caught me looking, at which point I felt I could ask them where they got their marks, and why, and if it had hurt when the needles pierced their skin.     Once, when I was five years old, a driver younger than most hoisted me up on the edge of one of the sinks so I could see his tattoo better. He had blue-black curly hair and an enormous set of straight white teeth. His skin was darker than mine, and slightly oily. He reminded me a of a comic book pirate. A blue bolt of lightning had been inked on his bicep, and when he flexed his arm the lightning bolt jumped a little.     Boldly, I asked if I could touch the tattoo.     "Sure, Spike," he replied, in a voice just above a whisper.     At first, I only tapped the bolt of lightning with my fingernail.     "My name's not Spike," I informed him.     "What is it then?"     I told him, Christian.     "You can do better than that, Chris," he said.     Using just my fingertip I traced the lightning bolt on his arm, and when I reached the sharp end he suddenly flexed his bicep and made the tattoo jump. We both laughed at that, and he moved an inch or two closer to me. He brought both his hands down to rest delicately on my knees, and tiny bumps appeared on his arms: gooseflesh.     "You're a little monkey," he said.     Just then, the bathroom door swung open and my father entered the room, calling my name. He stopped moving as soon as he saw what was going on, and the door swung back and forth behind him in a diminishing arc, until finally it stopped swinging altogether. My father held his ground, staring, as the truck driver straightened and stepped away in one slow, fluid movement, like a cat.     "He has a tattoo," I announced brightly.     Neither my father nor the driver said anything. My father simply stepped forward and swung me down from the sink, his eyes glazed and sad, his mouth pressed shut. He propelled me out of the bathroom, gripping my arm too tightly as we headed back through the dining room to our table.     "Don't ever, ever do that again," he said, in a choked, ragged voice that sounded like tires on gravel.     For several months after this incident, I would practice making tattoos on my arm; first using a pencil and then a pin from the tomato-shaped cushion in my grandmother's mending basket. Only once did I actually manage to stick myself hard enough to draw blood: a tiny crimson pearl I smeared with my finger and then tasted, which went a long way toward satisfying my curiosity. My interest was more practical than mystical, after all. I simply wanted to know what pins felt like, and how blood tasted, whether having lightning on one's arm would hurt. (Continues...)