For his fifth birthday Henry got two presents that would come to shape his soul. From Dad, a bean-stuffed cow that went moo when squeezed. Henry called it Moo. From Mom he got an inner voice, a grand and booming yes man for each of his stooped shoulders. Gift-wrapped in silver, Great Ovations was a forty-five-minute record filled with nothing but applause from “major moments” of the twentieth century. There was no context for the claps—it could have been a Puccini encore, Willie Mays on the fly in center field, hails for the Führer in Berlin. What difference did it make? The message never muddled, and while Dad thought it was coddling and hollow and bad for a growing boy’s spine, Henry fell asleep to it every night for three years. He even carried a dubbed cassette in his knapsack just in case he needed exaltation on the go.
Dad found this out just before Henry’s funeral, when he was first presented with the ledger his son had secretly kept since he was ten on over 2,600 sheets of loose-leaf graph paper. (Only girls kept diaries, Henry had been told.) Colorcoded to reflect the author’s changing moods, it was a catalog of life’s wee tics and pangs, a tally of passed-down preferences for mustard, painkillers, snow blowers; how-to notes on taming a cowlick, skinning a deer, snapping a headlock, cleaning a toboggan. There were threadbare confessionals, overheard dialogue transcriptions, stabs at investigative journalism, and finally, on the last page, three maxims under the acronym AMFAS (As My Father Always Said).
1. Hit ’em back twice, three times as hard.
2. Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.
3. Don’t wear red trousers to battle.
Why? thought Henry’s father, his fifteen-year-old son in a box before him. He hadn’t heard from Henry since he ran away four months ago, but it was becoming clear that the boy took little pleasure in his father’s principles. Dad felt the pulse beats quicken in his wrists, a vein rippled up in his forehead. The mourners sat as he stood still and sweaty, the ledger on the lectern. He opened to a random page and started reading.
Page 2018: color-coded pink for “facts, ma’am” 9/9/88 My father’s name is Harlan. He’s very photogenic. A terrific winker. People say he has movie star teeth. On his fortieth birthday he had them whitened. “Like a picket fence,” said Mom. He was coaxed into becoming a dermatologist in his late twenties. Truth is, he never had any real interest in medicine or humanity, but out of respect for community status he agreed to let his parents put him through medical school. Now he’s pretty rich, but cheap. Loves to get the display model. Hates to valet the car.
Harlan couldn’t stop reading. On page 2450, color-coded red for “world-changing,” he first saw the name of Benna.
At Canal Street I think of Benna. How she’d crouch up in a ball and face the white-brick wall of our bedroom, my fingers between her teeth. How, one time, she opened up the window and pointed to a star: “That’s how far away I feel from you right now.” She liked to pee at the same time as me, that is, with her sitting on the toilet and me standing up, facing her, aiming carefully at the small triangle of water between her legs. Sometimes she’d lick my stomach and try to make me miss.She called me “Roo” (as in kanga-), and I called her “Joey” because she said she liked to be carried around in my pouch. “Roo, I miss your pouch,” she sometimes said over the phone.
Harlan wiped his forehead with his tie, the pale blue silk turning navy from the sweat. The crowd cramped up, uneasy. He had forgotten all about them. He flipped quickly through the ledger in search of an exit quote— anything to get off that stage. He paused on page 2610, color-coded white for “?,” logged on March 20, 1989, the day before a shell painter found the soggy body washed up on the shore of Tenean Beach. Harlan spoke softly, trancelike, as if he didn’t understand English.
Telling the truth is so much easier. Every lie requires a lifetime of maintenance.
The old man froze. He looked toward the ceiling, suspicious, as if about to get spit on. The guests turned pink. It was as if they’d been pulled into a private war, violent and loom- ing. You could hear the heartbeats and then finally a sigh. Mom cued the record. The needle hit home, the temple filling with a century of reverence. Those goddamn clapping hands, thought Harlan. I should’ve cracked them long ago.
He did, in fact, one Scotchy day when Henry was at school. He took the record out back and launched it like a skeet. It shattered on the third shot from a bolt-action rifle, but the guilt came quick and heavy, and Henry’s father found hhimself driving in and out of lanes to the record store. He even roughed up the jacket, scratched the vinyl where it had been scratched before so Henry wouldddddn’t get any ideas.
But over the next few weeks, alone in the house with the ledger, the old man learned that Henry knew all along. About that and everything else.
Copyright © 2005 by Dana Adam Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.