PROLOGUE: ONE PERFECT DAY
Deacon Thorpe is thirteen years old and still more a boy than a man when his father, Jack, tells Deacon they’re taking a day trip out of the city, just the two of them.
Deacon is intrigued by the idea of a day trip out of the city. They rarely have money for anything other than minute-to-minute survival. Jack works as a line chef at Sardi’s in Times Square, and he gets only three days off per month.
Deacon is even more excited about the phrase “just the two of us.” Jack is the king of Deacon’s world, primarily because he is rarely available. Deacon anticipates time with Jack the way astronomers anticipate a comet or an eclipse.
Jack wakes Deacon at four in the morning. They leave Deacon’s mother and his sister, Stephanie, asleep in the apartment. At Jack’s instruction, Deacon is wearing his swimming trunks, and Jack is wearing a bright-yellow collared shirt that Deacon has never seen before.
Jack plucks at the shirt with a smile of pride. “Bought it specially for today,” he says.
For the trip, Jack has rented an Oldsmobile Cutlass. Deacon didn’t even realize his father knew how to drive. They live in Stuy Town, and if they need to go somewhere—work, school, the park—they take the subway or the bus.
“Now this,” Jack says, “is one classy vehicle.”
His father is suddenly full of surprises.
Deacon naps for much of the drive, waking up only as they cross a bridge that looks as though it has been made from a giant erector set. Elton John is on the radio, singing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Jack sings along, “Oh, honey, if I get restless…”
“Where are we?” Deacon asks.
“Cape Cod,” Jack says. Then he sings, “Whoa-ho, I gave you my heart!”
Cape Cod. It has a mythical ring to it, like Shangri-La.
Jack turns down the radio and says, “I want one perfect day with my son. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
By nine o’clock, they are sitting on the top deck of a ferry, drinking coffee. Deacon has never been allowed to drink coffee before; his mother believes it will stunt his growth. Jack doesn’t seem to think twice about ordering a cup for Deacon. He says, “You may want to add some cream and sugar to that, mellow it a little.” But Deacon chooses to take it black, like his father. Some of his Jewish friends at school have had their bar mitzvahs, and that’s how Deacon is viewing this day trip—as a rite of passage, in which he will learn some things about becoming a man.
The ferry delivers Deacon and Jack to a place called Nantucket Island. Jack insists they stand at the railing as soon as land comes into view. They pass a stone jetty where seals are sunbathing. Real seals! These are the first wild animals Deacon has seen outside a zoo. The ferry cruises into a harbor filled with sleek, elegant power yachts and sailboats with tall masts and elaborate rigging. Gulls circle overhead. Deacon sees two church steeples, one a white spire, one a gold dome, and clusters of gray-shingled buildings.
Jack says, “Today we are going to live the life on Nantucket.”
On the wharf, Jack rents another car—an army-drab Willys jeep, which is like nothing Deacon has ever seen in the city. It has no top, no windows, no doors, even. It is basically two seats and a gearshift, four tires and a motor. This is not a classy vehicle—it’s as far from the Cutlass as you can get—but Jack looks happier than Deacon has ever seen him.
“Hop in!” Jack says. “I’ll give you the grand tour.”
They drive over cobblestone streets, past a general store called Hardy’s, which has a charcoal grill and a lawn mower in the plate glass window with a male mannequin wearing a collared shirt just like Jack’s, standing between the two. He’ll cut the grass first, Deacon thinks, then grill up some burgers outside. It’s like a scene from The Brady Bunch.
They pass a pizza parlor, then a restaurant called the Opera House.
Jack points at the restaurant. “My old stomping ground,” he says. “There’s a real British phone booth in the dining room, where I used to kiss my French girlfriend, Claire.”
Deacon feels himself redden. He can’t imagine Jack Thorpe kissing anyone, not even Deacon’s mother.
They drive out a long road that twists and turns. They pass gray-shingled cottages draped with roses, they pass fields with horses grazing alongside split-rail fences. To the left, Deacon catches glimpses of the blue harbor. The sun is starting to get very hot, and Deacon’s stomach rumbles. All he has had to drink so far today is the coffee and there’s been nothing in the way of food.
A lighthouse comes into view. It’s white with a fat, red stripe in the middle. They pass a wide pond; on the other side of the pond, Deacon can see the ocean. Jack takes a left at a sign that says HOICKS HOLLOW.
“Good old Hoicks Hollow Road,” Jack says. “Used to be my home away from home.”
“It did?” Deacon says.
“Funny name for a road, isn’t it?” Jack says.
Deacon doesn’t know how to respond.
“Funnier than East Twenty-Eighth Street, anyway,” Jack says.
They wind around until they reach a place called the Sankaty Head Beach Club. PRIVATE, the sign says. The air smells deliciously of French fries, and Deacon wants to believe they will eat lunch here, but the word “private” makes him ill at ease. The Thorpes aren’t a family that belongs anywhere private. Not at all. Deacon figures that in another thirty seconds or so they will be told they are trespassing and will be asked to leave.
But surprisingly, Jack Thorpe is not only welcomed at the door, he is celebrated—by a heavyset, red-faced man wearing a name tag that says Ray Jay Jr., Manager.
“Jack Thorpe!” Ray Jay Jr. says. “God, you’re a sight for sore eyes. How long has it been?”
“Too long,” Jack says. He introduces Deacon to Ray Jay Jr. “I told Deacon I just want one perfect day with my son. That’s not too much to ask, is it? How about some lunch, for old times’ sake?”
“You got it, Jack,” Ray Jay Jr. says. He ushers Jack and Deacon into the club. They pass signs that say LADIES’ LOCKERS and GENTLEMEN’S LOCKERS. Through a swinging set of Dutch doors with thick, white paint, they emerge outside. Ray Jay Jr. seats them at a table overlooking the swimming pool, which is an alluring lozenge of deep, turquoise water. Along both sides of the pool are cabanas with chaise longues where beautiful women in bikinis work on their suntans and towheaded children lie on navy and white striped towels. Waiters deliver iced teas with wedges of lemon, beers, and fruity cocktails to the chaise longues. At the far end of the pool is a wooden fence draped with red, white, and blue bunting, probably left over from the bicentennial celebration.
Over the loudspeaker, that song, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” is playing again.
Jack holds an imaginary microphone under his chin as he sings along in falsetto. Then, to Deacon, Jack says, “You can go ahead and jump in. I’ll order for you.”
Deacon understands that this was the reason for the swim trunks; he shucks off his T-shirt. He approaches the edge of the pool. A few kids are splashing around in the shallow end while an older gentleman does freestyle laps. The only other swimming pool Deacon has been to is at the community center on Avenue A, where the water is too warm and stinks of chlorine and is always jam packed with shrieking kids and bullies who dunk Deacon, keeping his head under water long enough for him to panic. By comparison, this pool is cool and serene, like a pool in paradise.
One perfect day with my son. The phrase makes Deacon’s heart soar. For the first time in his life, he feels as if he matters.
Deacon jumps in.
Lunch is a double bacon cheeseburger with French fries, a frosty Coke, and soft-serve ice cream. Ray Jay Jr. checks in to see how their food is and to offer Jack a beer, but Jack declines.
“I have my boy here,” Jack says.
Deacon has never seen his father turn down an offer of a beer, and certainly not a free beer. Jack has an alcohol problem, Deacon’s mother says. She calls it an occupational hazard, because he works in a restaurant, where alcohol is an ever-present temptation. When Jack drinks, bad things happen. He flies into rages for no reason, he throws things and breaks things, he screams profanities at Deacon, Stephanie, and their mother—and then, always, he cries until he passes out. But today, Jack seems to be a different man. In his yellow collared shirt, he fits right in with the members of this private club. The radio plays “Afternoon Delight.”
“You know what this song is about, don’t you?” Jack asks with a wink.
Deacon lowers his eyes to the scattering of salt across his plate. “Yeah,” he says.
Jack slaps him conspiratorially on the back. “Okay then. Gotta make sure you’re up to speed.”
Deacon thinks they might stay at the pool all afternoon, lounging next to the women in bikinis, but Jack says, “We’re off to the beach. Can’t come to Nantucket and not go to the beach.”
They get back into the open jeep with a couple of the navy and white striped towels that Ray Jay Jr. slips them on the way out.
As Jack pulls away he says, “I worked there fifteen years ago. I was the fry boy, and Ray the grill master. I should have done what he did. I should have stayed and lived the life on Nantucket.”
Deacon nods in agreement, although he suspects that if Jack had stayed and lived the life on Nantucket, then he, Deacon, might not exist. This unsettling thought evaporates once Deacon sees the beach. It is a long stretch of golden sand. The ocean is bottle green, with rolling, white-crested waves. Jack and Deacon set out their towels. Jack goes charging into the water, and Deacon follows.
They bodysurf in the waves for well over an hour, then they collapse on their towels and nap in the sun. When they wake up, the light has mellowed, and the water sparkles.
“Here it is,” Jack says. “The golden hour.”
They sit in silence for a few minutes. Deacon has never experienced a golden hour before, but he has been to church once, with his friend Emilio’s family, and this feels sort of the same, peaceful and holy. In his life in the city, he watches too much TV, and he and Emilio and Hector set off bottle rockets in the alleys behind Stuy Town. Jack walks off down the beach, and Deacon senses that he wants to be alone, so Deacon goes to the water’s edge and finds a perfectly formed clamshell with a swirl of marbleized blue on the inside. He’ll take it home, he decides. He will keep it forever.
He throws rocks into the ocean until Jack returns with a dreamy, faraway look on his face. Deacon wonders if he is thinking about his French girlfriend, Claire.
“What do you say we start heading back?” Jack says. “I have to return the jeep by six.”
Deacon nods, but his heart is heavy. He doesn’t want to leave. The remainder of the day is shadowed by melancholy. They drive back into town, roll the jeep over the cobblestone streets, return it to the rental place. It has cost Jack forty dollars, which seems like a fortune.
On the wharf, Jack buys an order of fried clams, two lobster rolls, and two chocolate milk shakes. Deacon and his father eat their feast on the top deck of the ferry as the sun sets, dappling the water pink and gold. Jack hums some amalgam of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Afternoon Delight.”
“Now, that was a perfect day with my son,” Jack says. “What do you say we go downstairs so you can get some rest?”
Deacon nearly protests. He wants to stay outside and watch the lights of Nantucket fade until they disappear, but the breeze picks up, and Deacon shivers. He follows his father downstairs, where they secure a section of bench. Jack rolls up the two striped towels—there was never a doubt in Deacon’s mind that Jack would keep them; he’s thrifty that way—and places them on one end of the bench for Deacon as a pillow.
“Thank you,” Deacon whispers.
He tries with all his might to stay awake, but the gentle rocking of the boat is like that of a cradle, and he feels himself succumbing. His eyelids grow heavy and eventually drop like anchors. Deacon knows somehow that more than just one perfect day with his father is ending. It’s as though he can see the future: a week later, Jack will leave his family for good, taking the last scraps of Deacon’s childhood with him. There is nothing either of them can do to stop it.