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Brass Railing

What we talk about when we look at boats.

He held the cold brass railing, watching boats arrive from the Atlantic, sailors incorporated into their hulls like parts of a cell, and, as seagulls drifted to the sand and ships cut lines in the flat green current, he could not make himself turn to look at the woman, even though she was speaking close to his ear, because, seconds ago, a voice had come to him out of the ocean and told him that he would leave the city, the woman, her son. It would all be discussed, negotiated, and worked through in crying, drinking and fighting, but the voice came from some inner locus immune to negotiation, some part of his mind that come out of the sea: “you are leaving here, and...” - there was no more signal.

Eva squinted. The sun was in her eyes. She said his name, Richard, and: “I want to put the chicken in with some rice, which means fresh garlic.”

“I'm hungry now,” he said. “Do you want to go get lunch and do that for dinner?”

“I want to sneak in on Christopher, make sure he's doing math. I know he's on the playstation.” Her eyes narrowed.

Sun reflecting from the water to his face, Richard smiled and said, “you know, the playstation is based on math. It's all polygons.”

“Playstation is slack-jawed staring at the screen. I bought that thing. He begged like he was starving. Please, God, he had to have it. Now he wants playstation two. Kill me before I buy it.”

Richard didn't want to go back to the apartment, to sit alone on the bed while Eva crept into the living room to find her son playing his game, unblinking. Minutes after turning the game off in the middle, she would come to Richard, stomping down the hall. In the background, her son would slam doors and swear. Eva would fall into a chair, fold herself over, put her hands on her face, and sob in the direction of the boy's room: “I'm trying to be a good, decent mother, to get him to do his math homework, so that he can go to college, and he calls me a mean, selfish bitch, how can I be called selfish when I bought him the thing in the first place.” At some level, Richard knew, she wants this. It will bring resolution and clarity to her weekend.

When young, Richard loved baseball, trash novels, and comic books, and his mother would tear the comics from his hands and beat him with them - lightly - while weeping about how she couldn't try any harder, how she was losing him, how he had left her bosom of love, how he was living in an annex to hell lined with comic books and spy novels.

He smelled tar coming up from the docks, heard a low boat's horn. After a moment, he said, “14-year-old boys, there's not much you can do for about two years. All the boyness is gone, and it's just stupidness left over, then they want respect like men. So it's ugly. Let's get some lunch.” Let the boy play his game and then try to finish his homework tonight, and suffer for procrastinating.

She sighed, watching tourists walk across a pier. “Last year, I read a book for single mothers about helping your boy become a man. I tried to talk about it. He won't listen to me. The book says he needs rituals to enter manhood, and it had a lot of ways to try to give him them, but he has to be ready to be a man before it can happen. It said it's nearly impossible without a steady father for him to have a straight path to manhood, and if I try to help him too much I'll just weaken him. So I have no idea what to do.”

“I know you have to worry. I know it isn't easy. But I turned out okay. No one smeared blood on my face, and I never met my Dad more than three times.” He knew she was not asking him to be the boy's father; that discussion was far removed from this one.

She grinned. “He's about one-sixty-fourth Sioux from his daddy. He needs to be hung on hooks from his chest for 48 hours. Brought into the tribe, and given his secret Indian name. and called Fighting Horse. But he's playing his Darth Vader game.”

“I don't see you grinding corn and weaving rugs.”

“No, in the book, it's not like that for women -- giving birth is the womanhood ritual. I put a baby through my hips, carried it for 8 and a half months, which makes me a full woman. It's different for men. They need to make their own manhood.” She paused, because she believed what she said, and had not wanted to say it out loud. She became worried that Richard would follow her chain of memory and realize that her son was not his - of course he knows - but somehow it felt as if she had given away a secret by talking about the book and the rituals. She waited for the punch.

No reaction. He simply said: “I agree. He does need to make a kind of manhood for himself.” He grabbed her waist, which was soft. “It will work out.” He is going to leave, she thought, standing with Richard's arm wrapped around her back. He was looking out at the boats. She saw a man throwing bread into the air for gulls to swoop and catch, nearly 100 gulls clustered in space, flapping their wings but not moving in space, and pointed to them for Richard to see.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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