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Read by Jason Culp
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1. related by blood
2. similar in character
An old man packing his bags.
Hard not to read the situation metaphorically, Joan commented in his head.
Noah corrected her: not old. He was only seventy-nine, till next Monday. When he’d been young, your seventies had counted as old, but not these days. Say, youngish up to sixty; then middle-aged, or young-old, through the sixties and seventies. Ancient Romans used to distinguish between senectus (still lively) and decrepitus (done for). Sharp as ever, hale, hearty—surely Noah could still count himself in the senectus camp?
And these were only literal bags he was packing—well, one slim carry-on and his leather satchel. Also, his destination was neither heaven nor hell. Though the mention of Nice, or the French Riviera, or the South of France generally, did make people roll their eyes in envy, especially in a New York February.
Noah was going to Nice for his eightieth. He hadn’t been since he was four. There’d been nothing pulling him back to his hometown; after all, he didn’t know anyone in that part of the world, not since his grandfather had died in 1944. That had freed his mother (Margot) to join his father (Marc) and little Noah in the States. (He’d still been Noé, then.)
Noah folded another shirt. He wasn’t flying out for another three days, but he liked to get his packing done early, to leave time for last-minute chores. Meticulous, he found each balled pair of socks its nook.
He’d never been a keen traveler—because of his rather yanked-about childhood, he supposed. Going to American Chemical Society meetings, all he’d cared about was whether he’d find himself stuck with the graveyard shift (8 a.m. on Sunday) for his paper on, say, polyvinyl-chloride fibers. He’d accompanied Joan on most of her work trips, though as the decades went by she’d started turning down all the invitations she could, everything but the most prestigious keynotes; she recoiled from the prospect of extra nights in hotels. She and Noah had never vacationed much, either. When Joan wasn’t in the lab or on the road, she liked to be at home, buried in a novel, Miles Davis on the record player. Or dropping into sleep in their bed (double; queen was too wide). Back to back, her leathery soles touching Noah’s.
I miss that too, Joan said.
Which was nonsense, of course, because there was no Joan to miss anything anymore: no soles, no souls. These remarks of hers were generated by Noah’s brain, using their not-quite-forty years of marriage as an algorithm. A neurological tic.
Was that five pairs of socks or six? He counted them again.
For the past nine years, on his own, Noah had kept himself too busy for vacations. There’d been hints that he should retire, of course; barbed remarks from colleagues, cost-cutting ones from the dean, benevolent ones from women friends, to the effect that Noah should learn to kick back, live a little, join a choir or take up tai chi in Central Park. His little sister, Fernande, was the only one who’d never suggested it, even though she’d retired from her receptionist job with relief at sixty-five. She must have guessed that her widowed brother needed to stay tethered to the surface of the earth. Having classes to teach—the hard slog of preparation and performance and marking—had reassured him of that much.
Noah supposed what had finally nudged him over the line was his imminent birthday. Professor in his late seventies sounded rather admirable, but professor in his eighties? He’d had no intention of carrying on long enough to end up a laughingstock. Students were harder to impress since the turn of the millennium; they sat there with their external brains, their little screens, ready to fact-check you if you fumbled a formula.
No, it was better to call a halt before the first time Noah’s wits deserted him at a podium. Retired, though; the moribund ring of the word. But then, it had been only a month. Of course he’d have plenty to do. Who could be bored in New York City? It was just a matter of picking how to spend his days. He’d declined the title of professor emeritus; pottering around campus doing a little independent research struck him as pathetic. If Noah was going to study, it would be some quite new subject. Or a hobby; he was sure he’d come across something of interest. He just had to find his feet. His first venture was this trip.
Once he’d zipped up his case, he went to fetch the recycling tub from the kitchen and carried it into the spare room. This had been his and Joan’s home office, but after her death the sight of it had weighed on him, and really he’d preferred to work on campus, so he’d turned it into a guest room. Though now Noah couldn’t remember who his last guest had been. The double bed was always made up, as if ready for a visitor; tidier that way. Several times Joan’s friend Vivienne had suggested he invite a refugee to move in, but Noah couldn’t face housing some stranger.
He knelt to tug Fernande’s boxes from under the bed. Only three left to deal with; just personal papers. (He found objects more troubling.) The Swedes had a word for when you spared your family by tidying up your own stuff in advance—Noah couldn’t call up the syllables, but it meant “death cleaning.” It had been Margot who’d sorted Marc’s effects. (Did you have to be dead for your belongings to be called that, he wondered?) Fernande had done it in turn for Margot, and then for her own husband, Dan, and she’d helped her brother after he’d lost Joan, too, though Joan had been so ruthless about clutter (tossing Christmas cards on the first of January) that there hadn’t been much to do. So Fernande’s death last year was the first time Noah had been given this task to do alone. He was nearly done, he promised himself as he sat on the edge of the bed.
Hospital invoices, her powers of attorney, Living Will and DNR—irrelevant now. Recipes, postcards, photos, appeals from charities, offers from The Great Courses—recycle them all. It was odd to be disposing of the remnants of a younger sister’s life, when logically Noah should have gone before her. Deciding what to keep for sentimental reasons was tricky because there was no one left but Noah. The knack, he’d found over the past year, was to keep sentimentality at bay; to ask, about each item, Does anyone need or want this? until at rare intervals a real feeling flooded over the levee.
This afternoon he found himself saying yes to just three items: the wedding menu from 1982 (Prawn Cocktail, Chicken Vol-au-Vents, Profiteroles); a photo of Fernande in 1990, wild-eyed with bliss after her home birth, a newborn Victor on her chest (those eyelashes!); and a curling sheaf of comic haiku she’d made up for everyone at the Thanksgiving table in 2002. A postwar baby with chipmunk cheeks, Fernande had always had a warmth and lightsomeness foreign to Noah, eight years her senior.
Clippings from magazines, straight into the recycling. Letters in handwriting Noah couldn’t make out, Get Well Soon cards…let it all go. What did a life add up to—Fernande’s, anyone’s? The papers were almost overflowing the tub. Like leaves, he told himself grimly; grow, shed, rot, repeat.
The minute Noah was done, he was going to treat himself to a cognac as well as a cigarette. (The third of his never-more-than-seven a day.)
Just as he tossed a copy of Marie Claire from August 1992, his fingers sensed an odd stiffness. He leaned over to pick it out of the tub. Tucked in the middle, a rigid mailer with nothing written on it—cardboard on one side, brown paper (softened by years) on the other. August 1992: that was the month after Margot’s death. The envelope felt empty till Noah slid his fingers in. He recognized the sharp edges. Photographs.
He tugged them out, pulse thumping just in case they were Père Sonne’s. Half a dozen or so, black and white, clearly old from the format (two and a half inches by three and a half, he’d guess). From the clothes, hair, and general aesthetic they looked 1930s, ’40s maybe. Mostly taken in the street; the setting plausibly though not definitively Nice. Noah polished his fingerprints off the top one (a dandyish man with a cane, caught in profile). But as he leafed through the photos—nine in total—disappointment came fast. None of these bore Père Sonne’s stamp. Besides, they were no good.
Slipshod, unilluminating. A Belle Époque building, for instance, cropped at the fourth floor. An awkward close-up of a box, rectangular, inscribed with a circle, a dash on each side. This stock scene of a middle-aged couple on a bench, seen from behind. A woman with coiled hair, again from the rear—was that angle in vogue at the time, he wondered, the equivalent of pursed-lip selfies today? A shot of children’s feet trotting by was cute in a generic way. Tree roots, not even particularly well framed. None of the subjects was looking at the camera apart from one smiling boy with neatly combed dark hair who had to be small Noé, though Noah didn’t quite recognize himself.
He had to assume it was his mother who’d taken all these. But she must have known better, after decades working with—for—under—her mighty father. Surely she would have borrowed Père Sonne’s superb Contax, or even one of his little portable Leicas. This shot of an empty street, for instance—had she meant to press the shutter just then?
No commercial studio’s stamp on the backs, only jotted letters in two cases: MZ for the woman seen from behind, RJ for little Noah. (Unless it was R.J., a pair of initials? In which case the boy wasn’t Noah at all.) That meant Margot must have printed them herself, in the reeking darkroom in their apartment near the Cours Saleya.
He couldn’t think of anyone else’s brain to pick about this but Vivienne’s. Besides, he’d owed her a call for months.
“Excited for your big trip?”
“I suppose.” Noah often caught a faint whiff of the patronizing in Vivienne’s tone; a hint of the kindergarten teacher. She wouldn’t have been his choice, as a friend—nor vice versa, he supposed. They’d inherited each other from Joan, who’d been Vivienne’s best friend ever since they’d seized on each other as the two Jews in first grade in their tony New York girls’ school in 1942. “How are your people?”
“The kids and so forth?” she asked.
Noah knew that Vivienne’s great-granddaughter in Texas was starting ballet, her grandchildren there and in Oregon were doing postgraduate degrees, and her grown kids in New Jersey and Tel Aviv were going through the minor health indignities of their fifties. “No, actually I was thinking of the Sudanese in your spare room.”
“Oh, the Abdullahs are Yemenis. They’re fine, more than fine—they’re pregnant.”
Noah rolled his eyes. If the couple raised a child in Vivienne’s apartment, would that give them squatters’ rights? Well, let the bank worry about that; she’d reverse-mortgaged the place and was spending the proceeds on her pet causes. (She’d always been a do-gooder—the polar opposite of Joan, whose research was of such clear importance that she’d felt entitled to be selfish in her time off.) Noah occasionally warned Vivienne to keep enough for paying strangers to wipe her butt in the end, but she insisted, on the basis of extensive genealogical research, that no one in her gene pool made it past eighty-five.
He remembered what he was calling about. “The thing is, I’ve found these old photos in the last box of Fernande’s stuff—”
Even if Vivienne had been right here in the hall with Noah, he’d have had to describe them, as she was legally blind. (She’d announced it last year, in an email so perky as to sound proud.) Losing her sight in her early eighties had barely slowed the woman down. She used software that read aloud whatever was on her screen; she’d had the tech guy set it to “Male Australian” to remind her of Frank.
Noah did his best to summarize the images, leafing through them awkwardly with one hand.
“Doesn’t everyone have some crappy photos—lots of them?”
“But why would my mother have bothered taking these—early ’40s, I’m guessing, when she was still in Nice, without me and my father—and printing them, and holding on to them till the end of her days? Then she gave them to my sister, or more likely just left them in a drawer. And why didn’t Fernande mention them to me?”
“No names at all?” Vivienne asked.
“Just what look like initials on the backs of two.”
“Well, you might spot some of the locations when you’re in Nice. As for the human subjects, maybe try the public library. They’ll have some kind of local history collection. If you find any names, give me a shout.”
Vivienne was in touch with distant cousins all over the world, having subscribed to various databases and sent off a saliva swab to a lab. Noah supposed a sense of tribe was crucial if you’d lost your parents. (Her father in the Holocaust, her mother in its long aftermath.) Just when Vivienne’s sight had started really failing, she’d gone off to stay with a family in Spain who’d turned out not to be related to her at all, but she had no regrets; said it was very jolly.
Some kind of beeper went off at her end now. “I must hang up, my group’s phone-bombing Congress about the Muslim ban.”
“OK,” Noah said, “enjoy.”
He knew Vivienne would rise to that. “It’s not about enjoyment, it’s tikkun olam.”
Repairing the world, the Jewish obligation. “I know. I’m only ribbing you.”
Noah was eating his usual poached egg on an English muffin in the kitchen when the phone rang. Vivienne again, with further tips?
Jangle jangle. She can leave a message, Joan advised, though she’d always answered, herself. (Before personalized ringtones, the two friends had used a signal to identify themselves: call once, hang up, then call back.)
Not many people but fundraisers and telemarketers bothered Noah at home these days. If it wasn’t Vivienne, this call would probably turn out to be a recording or a robot. Fernande had been in the habit of calling her brother for chats at random intervals—to cheer him up, he suspected. But now, why was he still paying monthly fees on the thing? (A landline, that was the modern word—like a skinny root anchoring a tree to the earth.) That was how the corporations made their money: our mindless, lifelong habits.
Jangle jangle. He hurried down the narrow hall to stop the clamor.
“Noah Selvaggio?” The woman pronounced it uncertainly but more or less accurately.
“That’s me. But if you’re selling something—”
“You’re the uncle of Victor Pierre Young?”
That familiar dread. What was it this time, old debts? Crimes, unpunishable now? “My nephew died more than a year ago.” It hurt Noah’s throat to say it.
“I’m aware of that, sir. This is Rosa Figueroa from the Administration for Children’s Services. I’m contacting you in connection with Michael Young.”
“I just said Oh,” Noah told her foolishly. What must the child be now—nine, ten? He reckoned the years: eleven, actually. How word of the pregnancy had appalled Fernande and Dan: Victor making such a blunder, when he was still an angel-faced teenage boy. The woman was still talking, but none of it was making sense to Noah. “I’m sorry, Ms.—” Her name would come back to Noah in a moment, once he stopped grasping for it.
“Figueroa. Rosa Figueroa,” she repeated in the too-clear enunciation middle-aged people used with those who were past middle age.
“Could you back up for a moment?”
“I’m exploring Michael’s kinship resources,” she told him.
Had Noah misunderstood—was this some kind of genealogy project, then?
“He’s been living with Ella Davis, his grandmother, but she’s just passed.”
For a moment he thought she meant something like an exam, and then he got it. “I’m very sorry to hear that.” To fill the silence: “What was it that…”
“Complications of diabetes. She was only sixty-three.”
That made seventy-nine sound like the height of luck to Noah.
“And her husband died back in the ’90s,” Rosa Figueroa added. “So now we’re looking for somewhere for Michael.”
Noah was at a loss as to how he came into this. “Why is he not with, ah,”—Angela? Amanda?—“Amber?”
“She’s currently incarcerated.”
He groaned inwardly. “For what?”
“I wonder, could we focus on the child’s immediate needs, Mr. Selvaggio?”
Noah cleared his throat. “I’m just racking my brains as to how I can be of any assistance to you. I’ve never met any of these people, myself. My sister died soon after Victor, and her husband, ah, a long time before that.” Dan had lasted long enough to have a pretty good idea of what kind of son he’d raised—incorrigible, that was the word people used to throw around. But too early to know that Victor would soon follow him, which was a small mercy, and one not granted to Fernande.
“Yes, sir, that’s exactly why I’m getting in touch. You appear to be the last of Michael’s kin here in New York City.”
That old-fashioned word again. Kith and kin, kinsfolk, kindred; like something out of J. R. R. Tolkien. Did she mean legally or genetically? In what sense could you really be kin to someone you’d never met?
This social worker couldn’t be thinking of bringing the child here, to Noah’s apartment.
No. It struck him that, like so many other seniors, he was the target of a phone scam. The woman had gotten hold of the names of relatives of his, for some equivalent of the Spanish Prisoner trick—the Nigerian fortune constantly being offered in illiterate emails.
Put down the phone, Joan told him.
“Sorry not to be of more use, Ms. Figueroa”—no trouble remembering the name the crook had given, now, if he took a split second to get the vowels in the correct sequence—“but I’ve got to go now.”
It wasn’t the word but Rosa Figueroa’s tone that made Noah pause, receiver halfway to the cradle. She did sound like a real person, and so weary. “It’s just that I don’t see how I can be of any practical help,” he told her. “Certainly not in the immediate…I’m off to France next week, as it happens. Maybe after I get back we could speak again.”
“This can’t wait. I met Michael for the first time myself this morning. There’s nobody at all to look after him.”
It wasn’t subtle, how she was playing on Noah’s sympathies. He wanted a cigarette.
“Could you come and meet his mother with me, tomorrow morning?”
“Let’s all just sit down and put our heads together, all right, to see what can be done for this child?”
Noah smoked as he leaned out the kitchen window—a waste of heat, yes, but these apartment buildings stayed so baking from October to April you couldn’t survive without opening a window once in a while.
Incarcerated. Was Amber Davis just as much of a fuckup as his nephew had been? Possibly more so. Hadn’t she been a grown woman (though not quite old enough for it to have counted as statutory rape) when she’d gotten the lanky, lovely fifteen-year-old into her bed and conceived this unfortunate Michael?
Noah was trying to get the sequence straight. Victor’s adolescence had had such a disastrous domino effect it was hard to remember the order and duration of each awful event. He was pretty sure that word of the baby had come after Victor’s truncated stay in that so-called therapeutic school upstate (which had almost bankrupted Fernande and Dan before getting shut down) and after he’d run away from their house in Brooklyn for the second time, with Fernande’s jewelry and a checkbook. She’d gotten her gold back, but it had been melted into a lump. The judge had placed Victor in a group home, then, but he’d run away from that too. Always minor-league stuff, but it added up: possession of marijuana, Ritalin, loitering, trespass, disorderly conduct…
What Noah couldn’t remember was, had Michael been born before or after the Limited Secure Placement? Fernande and Dan had been encouraged to call that his group home too, though the fence was of razor wire this time. (Orwellian, the dialect of the justice system.) Noah had visited twice, on his own; Joan had always been busy. The place was just two subway stops from the elegant brownstone where Victor had grown up, but a world away.
Then when he’d been let out after ten months, the boy had “crashed with friends.” Noah had never gotten the impression his nephew was actually living with the young woman and their son. Fernande—more than Dan—had badgered Victor to let them meet their grandchild, but he’d been elusive. When she’d asked if they could send baby clothes, he’d asked for money instead. And then at seventeen, for something petty—violating parole by skipping school?—Victor had been sent off to juvie, a hellhole of a residential center up near Albany. That fence had been sixteen feet high, Noah remembered from his single visit. Victor had come back with kidney damage from a beating.
From that point on, all Noah had heard about his nephew’s doings had come via Fernande. She and Dan had managed to meet the mother and child a couple of times; she’d reported that Victor was “quite involved,” though Noah didn’t know what that meant: changing diapers? Paying support? Noah had seen a few photos and nodded dutifully. He couldn’t remember what the little boy had looked like, now, except that he hadn’t inherited Victor’s looks.
He stood up, stubbed out his cigarette, and tugged the old window shut. He could have made more of an effort with his nephew, he supposed. But it had all felt like such a goddamn waste of breath.
- One of Audiofile's Best Audiobooks of the Year
- "We are never too old, Donoghue reminds us, to emerge from our childish dusks. What begins as a larky story of unlikely male bonding turns into an off-center but far richer novel about the unheralded, imperfect heroism of two women -- Michael's incarcerated mother and Noah's long deceased one -- and the way we preserve the past and prepare for the future."—New York Times
- "Soul stirring."—O Magazine
- "A subtle, entertaining portrait of the relationship--and friction--between age and youth."—The Economist
- "Continuously charming."—Washington Post Book World
- On Sale
- Sep 10, 2019
- Hachette Audio