Evan's deepest secret is that he had gotten his high school sweetheart pregnant. Now, 14 years later, he experiences unplanned parenthood when he undertakes to raise the resentful teenage son he's never known. Offbeat and disarming, this work portrays a contemporary American family with unfailing honesty.
By the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain.
Maybe a little reflection at this point in Evan’s life isn’t a bad thing. A gathering of mourners on a hill at a cemetery outside Walla Walla, a good five-hour drive from Seattle. A hot morning under an intense and brilliant sky. A dead girl in a box, suspended over a hole dug in the fertile soil. And Evan, watching from a distance like a father gazing through a nursery window at his newly born son, whose cries go unheard, untended, a helpless flail of tiny arms and legs and a little mouth that is open in silent scream, all of it safe from Evan’s unsanitary touch.
He hikes up the hill and takes his place among the circle of attendees. They are all the same: pale complexions, downcast eyes; a wash of chalky faces. There are fewer than he’d hoped. Twenty at most. He’d been warned that the burial service would be small, reserved for family and the closest of friends. Still, he’d envisioned a pack into which he could fade. After all, Mormons tend to stick together; they like to travel in groups.
He shifts uncomfortably. He has nowhere to hide. They are looking at him. Not directly, not staring. They are sneaking peeks, stealing sideways glances from behind flapping paper fans. They have no idea who he is; they don’t seem to care. A man speaks a few elegiac words that are swallowed by the breeze, tossed around and thrown over his shoulder for no one to hear.
Evan recognizes Tracy’s mother and father. He remembers her brother, Brad, one of those high school peers who fell somewhere between friend and acquaintance. Around them stand several of Tracy’s older siblings. He doesn’t know them, couldn’t recall their names if called upon to do so. Three or four or five brothers and sisters who were already grown and were never around when Tracy was a teenager; shards of a fractured family. And there is another important family member present: Tracy’s son.
Evan doesn’t recognize Dean, but he knows well enough who he is. A young man, fourteen-years-old, who, like Evan, stands out from the crowd, his dark hair hacked short, his face alert and defensive.
Dean looks up and meets Evan’s eyes. He looks at Evan without suspicion. But why would he suspect? What could he think, other than that Evan was another from Grandpa’s congregation, come late for the passing of Tracy Smith? But he is curious about something, for he doesn’t look away.
Tracy’s father places his arm around Dean’s shoulders, a gesture of comfort. Dean shifts slightly, stiffens a little bit, not dramatically, but enough to indicate that the gesture is not welcome. Enough so that Tracy’s father withdraws his arm.
And in an instant, Evan knows Dean. He knows what is going on. For Dean to have to witness his mother’s burial is bad enough, but for him to be so uncomfortable with his fellow grievers that he cannot grieve himself is crushing. Evan remembers his own grandfather’s funeral, watching the people cry. He felt so separate from them. They may have been friends with his grandfather for a long time, but they didn’t really know him. Not like Evan did. And so he couldn’t join them. He could only get through it and then grieve later, when he was alone, when it really mattered, as, he knows, Dean will grieve for his mother later. Until then, Dean stands, stoically, guarded, comforting no one, allowing no one to comfort him.
Evan’s mind drifts from the scene; the tentacles of his attention are caught by the breeze and gently sway toward the land around him. He hears the combines grinding away in the distance, whirling their razor-sharp blades as fast as they can, slicing at the dry stalks of winter wheat. It is mid-July and the harvest season is upon Walla Walla. He can feel the trucks, heavy on the highway; he can envision the people in town walking with a bounce to their step. He knows that this is what they wait for every year, to gather up the fruit of the earth and revel in its bounty. We are in the days of plenty. The fruits and vegetables and grains allow us to grow and prosper. All partake of the cornucopia. Save for Tracy Smith, whose body, now released from its earthly commitment, is being returned to the soil from which it sprang.
Evan snaps himself back into the frame; he attends to what is before him, the burial of his ex-girlfriend. He scrapes his teeth against his lower lip, scratching an itch that is not really there but somewhere in his brain. A seizure? Is one coming? No, no. The heat, the long drive. It’s fatigue, not a seizure. It had better not be a seizure. Not here. It would be too ironic for him to come down with a case of the falling sickness at Tracy’s funeral when he was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. It would be almost funny to have twenty or more Mormons stand over his convulsing limbs, questioning in breathless voices: Who is he? What is he doing? Why is he here?
The service ends. Mourners amble back to their cars. Evan wonders what is next for him. He has seen the remains of Tracy properly attended to, and he has seen Dean, his child, now grown. What else is there to do but to return to his car and make the fivehour drive back to Seattle, take his place again in his life and wonder, as he always has, what was to become of Dean, the Boy Wonder, whom Evan has never met.
“You came. I’m shocked.”
Evan turns. Tracy’s brother, Brad, stands directly in front of him, not more than two feet away.
“You’re the one who—” Evan starts.
“Called you,” Brad finishes for him. “I know I did. My father would kill me if he knew. Don’t tell him.”
“You must feel guilty as hell,” Brad says, and as he says it, he sticks out a long finger and tries to jab Evan in the chest; Evan, quickness being one of his assets, takes a step back and out of range.
“Where’s Dean’s father?” Evan asks.
“I’m looking at him, stupid,” Brad replies.
“His stepfather,” Evan clarifies.
Brad laughs a quick snort. “How have you been, Evan?”
Evan shrugs. He was kind of hoping for a real answer.
“I heard that song of yours on the radio,” Brad continues. “About ten years ago.”
“I never could find the album, though. It must not have been that big.”
“It was big enough,” Evan says, an edge creeping into his voice.
“Really? Ever think of sharing any of the money you made with Tracy and Dean?”
But she was the one who abandoned him, remember. He had wanted to keep the baby. She was the one who left Seattle. She was the one who stole away in the middle of the night.
“I gotta go, man,” Brad says, “my diplomatic immunity is about to wear off.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means what it means. What do you think it means. I’ll see you, man. Good luck.”
Brad starts to leave.
“Give me your number,” Evan says quickly. “I’ll give you a call. I want to know what’s going on with you.”
“Nah,” Brad grins, “you know everything you need to know about me, Evan. I’m just like you, man, still fighting the good fight, you know?”
And he’s gone. All around, black-clad bodies murmur down the hill toward their cars.
Evan spies Tracy’s mother, Ellen, who is being consoled by another woman. His first impression is that she looks old. When Evan first met her, he was only fourteen and she—but a child herself when Tracy was born—was thirty-six. That was seventeen years ago. Evan is now thirty-one, Ellen fifty-three. And while the seventeen years has hardly changed Evan—he is still boyish and almost beardless—those same years have taken a different toll on Ellen Smith. Her face is etched with deep wrinkles. Her hair is dull brown with streaks of gray. Her blue eyes are pale.
“Hello, Mrs. Smith,” he calls out, approaching the women. Ellen’s friend excuses herself; Ellen looks toward Evan blankly. “It’s Evan,” he says. “Wallace.”
She doesn’t respond. Why would she? She hated him, back when he and Tracy were high school sweethearts. She and her thickly muscled husband, Frank. They both hated him. So what should he say to her now? Should he accuse her, and by accusing her make it clear that he feels the magnitude of her actions?
“Evan?” she asks, the mist clearing.
“I’m so sorry about Tracy.”
“How is Dean?” he asks.
“Oh! Dean’s fine.”
Evan nods. “He looks good. Healthy.”
“He is,” Ellen smiles painfully. “What are you doing here?”
Evan shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
“I’d like to meet him,” he says.
Ellen looks quickly over her shoulder and down the hill to where people are climbing into their hot cars and driving off. A small group lingers near two black limousines. Frank is among them.
“I don’t believe that would be in his best interest. Not now, anyway.”
Evan cocks his head, unsure how to take her response. But it doesn’t matter. Before he can think about it long, his request is granted. Without warning, Dean is standing beside Ellen as if Evan had made a wish.
Dean. The Boy Wonder. So close now, so near, Evan feels his pulse quicken. What is it about Dean? His presence is almost intoxicating. His long, thin limbs draped in a black suit, his collar too large for his neck, his navy-blue tie knotted in an old-fashioned style quite beyond Evan’s sartorial expertise. So casually he hangs his arm around Ellen’s neck and rests his head on her shoulder, turning slightly toward Evan, his green eyes blaring out from their sockets, screaming at Evan that I am yours, yes, I am of you, yes I am.
“I’m hot, Grandma,” the young man complains.
“This is an old friend of your mother’s,” Ellen says deliberately, almost forcing herself to say it, pushing through her misgivings. “He’s come from Seattle to pay his respects.”
Dean unhooks his arm and offers his hand to Evan, which Evan takes, awed, in a way, by such self-control, such a display of courtesy in the face of such real grief.
“I’m terribly sorry about your mother,” Evan mumbles. He’s caught off guard. The new sensation of Dean’s hand in his own, the feelings rushing through his body, his nerves sending confused signals to his brain, that not only is he holding a hand, shaking a hand, but that it is a hand that belongs to his own flesh and blood, his own son.
“Thank you,” Dean responds evenly.
Evan doesn’t let go; he holds on and they stay like that, hand-in-hand, for several moments.
“We have to go, Evan,” Ellen breaks in. “The reception.”
Again she looks down toward Frank, who is in the parking lot staring up at them with piercing eyes. Evan has always been afraid of Frank Smith, a stocky man who wears his gray hair tightly shorn. His neck is thick with ropes of muscles that disappear into the collar of his shirt. His nose was flattened—Tracy once told Evan—from years of boxing while in the Marines. He has little hands that he clenches into fists of calloused and scarred flesh that appear to be made of clay. He speaks not like an average man, but like a little Moses, a man of God, a man who carries lightning in his arms and breathes the flames of Righteousness. He is not one to be challenged.
Evan releases Dean’s hand; Ellen nudges Dean to start down the hill, which he does. She does not immediately follow.
“Please don’t interfere,” she whispers at Evan. “Not after all this time.”
“Please, Evan. I don’t know why you’re here. But please don’t interfere. Not after all this time.”
She turns and hurries after Dean, catches him, and then ushers him to the bottom of the hill. When they arrive, Frank directs them into one of the limousines, waves his arm to those still standing by, who obediently climb into their vehicles, and they all drive off, leaving Evan alone at Tracy’s grave.
Evan cannot move. He stands silent for several minutes, long after the last black car has left. What happened? He was so young when it all occurred. A sperm and an egg met, cells began to multiply and divide, and a child was born. But then what? What
became of Evan? What became of his son? It’s all so murky, the circumstances so obscure that he doesn’t even remember how the story goes, or whose story he really believes. The truth belongs to he who tells it, so what good is it, anyway?
He starts back down the hill toward his car. His steps fall heavily against the hard-packed dirt path, and he raises his eyes to the surrounding land; the harvesting machines continue to work over the amber hills, threshing the wheat that has grown all spring, plowing an ever-widening swath of brown through the endless golden fields.