To Carly León, her twelve-year-old son, Jimmy, was like a best friend from childhood on Halloween night, walking with her from house to house in their neighborhood to harvest and fill their pillow sacks with candy. Their Halloween jaunt, however, never brought them home. It existed only in Carly’s mind like a ghost that haunted a familiar setting, restless in its search for the resolution of a previous life that met an unfair, unexpected end. The previous life was life before she had to acknowledge that something was wrong, very wrong, with her young son and only child. And Jimmy’s Halloween costume was his depression—his invisible suit of armor against the strange and alien world. This metal suit was hot and smelly inside, and Jimmy only understood his discomfort in it as his way of relating to the world. It was just the way he was. The invisible weight slumping his shoulders, the inescapable fatigue in even having to consider whether he should come out of his shell of computer game play to do something outdoors. The waking up grumpy in the morning. The inevitable subdued response to someone’s question. It was just his nature, not a condition that his mother said he needed to “work through” with a shrink.
His ignorance of his depression was not surprising. No one else saw what Carly first observed in her child and the therapist identified. Everyone else was blinded by his shining armor, which, though invisible, gleamed and flashed through his good looks, his devilish laughter, his ever-ready ironic humor. He’s so clever, her friends would say, when he made up a parody on the spot of John McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, as a drunken privileged Naval Academy prankster giving a speech on integrity, hockey moms, and a fierce devotion to working class values. Beneath the flashes of his brilliant personality, however, her friends did not witness, they did not feel the weight of his burden in his somber demeanor, in the frown that always lingered at the corner of his lips.
Like her husband, Will, Carly too had been reluctant to consider that her child needed therapy. Yet unlike Will, she spent too much time with her son day after day to ignore his crying need, his actual whimpering at times for no apparent cause. She was still unwilling to have him try the new children’s version of Prozac, that skinny green bullet of a pill which more and more adults were popping in their mouths like daily vitamin tablets to take all their cares away.
Every day was Halloween night with Jimmy, and every morning Carly awoke with the hope that this would be the day when he would feel free enough to start heading home, where he could take off the armor and share his treats with her, especially the delight of just enjoying himself. So each day she made a point of just sitting with him and sharing his company—no matter how boring or disagreeable any time with Jimmy could prove to be.
She welcomed the chances to be with him for an hour-or-so between house closings that she attended as an agent for her mother’s Westchester real estate firm. Especially now at what seemed a crest in the wave of housing market appreciation in August, 2008. The market was still strong; she was attending two, sometimes three closings per week. Yet there was an uneasiness creeping in along the edge of it all. Last month a deal feel through when a Morgan Stanley mortgage trader suddenly told his wife they had to keep their cash levels high. And last week, while quite the opposite occurred—-her buyer went into contract the two days after the house was listed—-the velocity was due to the fact that the seller, a Lehman Brothers investment banker, had just lost his job and dropped the price to an unheard-of 30% below the original asking quote.
Sitting with Jimmy was one of her self-made get-aways from having to think about any of that, from having to make the money for those practical luxuries—like top-of-the-line software developer camp for him—that Will’s unpredictable earnings as a cult deprogrammer/part-time auto mechanic could not afford. It was one of her escapes from having to smile and exchange pleasantries in a commercial bank conference room as her parents’ lawyer or doctor or investment banker friends’ children signed seven-figure contracts and she waited for what had once been the five- or six- and was now the four-percent broker’s fee check to be slid across the mahogany table to her.
Today she and Jimmy sat next to each other on the deck overlooking the marshland behind their house. It was early afternoon. The sun had just passed behind the massive foliage of the oak that towered over Blind Creek, the brown ribbon of tidal waterway forming the back boundary of their yard before it meandered down the marshland to empty into Long Island Sound. The tree cast a blessed shade over the deck so that the faint breeze from the Sound was just enough to lift the weight of the late summer heat off Carly’s throbbing temples.
Jimmy sat hugging his knees to his chest as he followed a New York Yankee game on the laptop computer perched at the foot of his chaise. The hood of a gray cotton jacket covered his head and, enclosing the sides of his face, formed a private space that Carly had always known adolescents to crave. The jacket hood created a cave in which Jimmy could tolerate the hour-or-so that his mother would demand he spend in the “fresh air” on a “nice day.” Letting him watch a televised Yankee game on the deck was the only way Carly knew to have him agree to stay outside for a prolonged period of time.
She sat on a deck chair whose white tubular arm touched that of Jimmy’s chaise, enabling her to share his view of the television screen. She watched the images of tiny players in bright uniforms who manned their positions against a backdrop of the rich green outfield grass and the red-white-and-blue confetti of stadium fans roaring in the bleachers.
Carly did not care much for baseball, a sport so lacking in continuous movement, its players waiting, waiting, repeatedly waiting for something to happen. But she watched game after game to be with her son. And these 2008 Yankees had actually engaged her interest as tragic heroes. Endowed with storied talent, but having aged far more than their die-hard fans would ever acknowledge. A perennial championship team now seemed headed for its first failure to reach the play-offs in over a decade. She found herself reading the sports section of The New York Times, preoccupied with wondering about how off-the-field these career athletes dealt with no longer being on a team in its prime. Joe Torre, the iconic manager who had guided them through World Series after World Series, was gone. Mariano Rivera, the seemingly ever-unperturbed Panamanian relief pitching star with a ballet turn of a wind-up, still threw that infamously unpredictable “cutter” pitch, but it was no longer unhittable. Jorge Posada, the stalwart power-hitting catcher, on the disabled list for the first time in his career, maybe for the rest of the season. And of course, Alex Rodriguez, whose strong batting average and slugging percentage now seemed of questionable value as more and more he could not be counted on to deliver a clutch hit.
Carly squinted at the tiny image of a player who swung a bundle of bats one last time, discarded all but one of them in the on-deck circle, and strode toward the batter’s box.
“Is that Alex coming to the plate?” she asked. Alex. As if she knew him on a first-name basis.
Jimmy nodded. “He’s probably going to strike out.”
“How can you say that? He’s their best hitter.”
“Slugger,” Jimmy corrected. “Derek Jeter—now there’s a hitter. Rodriguez is O for four. He’s grounded into two double plays, one of them with the bases loaded.” Jimmy shook his head. “Worthless.”
“But he’s had so many clutch home runs. You’re not even giving him a chance. Sometimes, Jimmy,” she said, “you’ve just gotta believe.”
“Mom,” he said, with the lack of spark of someone five times his age, “you read too many Yankee billboards.” He gestured toward the television. “But hey,” he added, “for your sake, let’s give him a chance.”
After fouling away several pitches and not swinging at two outside the strike zone, he swung and missed for the strike out.
“Pitiful,” Jimmy said. “Especially the way people like you are waiting for the next big thing to save the day.”
Why? Carly wondered as she had often asked herself about Jimmy. Why was this boy born so angry? When would she be granted another glimpse of the gleeful little boy he once was and the thoughtful, considerate man she hoped he would grow to be?
She hated the way he made her feel impatient with him. Maybe, as it seemed the psychoanalysts would have one believe, it was indeed her fault, the mother’s fault. But what had she done to deserve a child like this? Or was it something lurking in Will’s family—as her mother suspected—that Will had not yet revealed to her? After all, what kind of father would spend most of his time evading the police to abduct and counsel frightened overgrown children into leaving a religious cult? Would she have had such a child if she had married any of those good Jewish boys either her mother fixed her up with in high school or she could have met at Boston University if she had not dropped out in her sophomore year—the lawyers-, doctors-, investment bankers-to-be who would have children when they were thirty-something and established in their careers, two children (a boy and a girl, of course) spaced at least four years apart so that there would not be two college tuitions to pay at the same time? What might have happened if she had not met Will, the long-haired auto mechanic just having gotten back from migrating around the country once again in another fruitless attempt to get away this Westchester hometown of Donne, NY? The guy who was not afraid to admit he didn’t know what he was doing and thereby succeeded in enabling her to realize in her own deprogramming at his father’s auto body shop that she did not have to cling to being part of a cult for fear of not having a purpose to her life, of not being part of something that was everlasting and so much larger than her little fears and her little life.
Carly gazed out over the marshland. A flock of black birds rose from the deep green grasses like a beaded magic carpet that swirled and then descended back into the grasses.
“Jimmy,” she called softly, “are those red-winged blackbirds?” Birds were one of the few things outdoors that continued to hold his interest.
Jimmy glanced at the marshland and returned to watching television. “What birds?”
“Watch with me a while, and you’ll see them. A black wave of them rose and descended back into the grasses.”
“Don’t have to watch,” he stated, his unblinking brown eyes trained upon the baseball game. “They’re starlings. They get sucked into jet engines and destroy them.”
“Jesus,” Carly said. She rose from her seat. “Do you always have to be such a downer?”
His expression darkened to a scowl, and he folded his arms across his chest as he glared at the television screen.
For a moment Carly wanted to apologize for what she had said, but then she thought, Let him stew a bit. It would be good for him not to take her companionship for granted.
It was time to choose between the black Armani or the black Linda Allard, the kind of suits that impressed the wealthiest buyers and their wives and other clients repulsed by the bright red lipstick and the relentlessly cheery outfits of her cohorts at the real estate agency. Then she would head to a closing. There was also a phone call to return to the wife of some big Goldman Sachs bond trader interested in “something on Peningo Point” with a price range “approaching two million.” Just the anticipation of closing a deal like that would certainly be a thrill for the day. It was one of the few things that could keep her mind off Jimmy for a few hours.
As she turned to go inside the house, she glanced up at the sky one last time, as if to bid farewell to the world of fresh air, sunshine, and bird twitter before having to spend the rest of the day in an office or a car. That was when it caught her eye. Way, way up there, silhouetted against a bank of white clouds was a tiny black cross of a bird tracing slow elliptical orbits. Its long broad wings extended flat out to the sides as it sailed upon the warm updrafts of mid-day air from the land.
She squinted at it. “That’s pretty big for a gull, don’t you think, Jimmy?”
He followed her gaze. Then he bolted up from the chaise, ran inside the house, and, returning with binoculars in hand, leapt to stand upon the deck railing.
“That’s no gull,” he said, training his binoculars upon the silhouette of this creature. It now descended toward the marshland and the creek. White streaks marked the undersides of its dark wings toward the tips. “That’s an eagle!” Jimmy cried. “Maybe a golden because of the dark head. Look at the size of that fucker!”
Her first impulse was to scold him about his language, as Will would have done—and to be careful on that railing overlooking a forty-foot drop into the back yard. Yet there was only one thing to command their attention right now. The eagle suddenly sharpened its descent and within moments swooped to glide over the creek within a foot of the water’s surface. It plunged its legs into the water, and after a brief silver splash, rose with a slow broad beating of its wings and a shiny fish wriggling in its talons. Those wings nearly spanned the creek bed, seeming massive enough, in Carly’s eye, to bear all the hopes she bore for her family.
Jimmy lowered his binoculars and kept feasting his eyes on the departing raptor. “Do you realize how amazing that was, Mom?”
Seeing that smile upon his face, a smile and a shine in his eyes as bright as the sunlight illuminating the whole marshland, Carly nodded as a tear rolled down her cheek.
* * *