The fifth child of Jorge Primavera and Deolinda Oliveira Primavera was born with a hole in his heart. The doctors said: There is nothing we can do.
His father worries about his newborn boy being afraid of darkness.
For breakfast, crack an egg into a glass of milk and add rock sugar. Take your dying son into the garden. Trees got a better thinking-through from God. So did waterfalls, and whales.
I’ll be robbed of his voice. He’ll never speak with me.
George picks an ear of corn, because his wife craves starchy food at strange hours. The other children tiptoe.
The kernels look like tiny yellow baby blocks that should have letters.
Blackberries. Each with a saber of hair. The darkest ones are the sweetest and fall most easily into the hand.
In the house is a print of Mary of the Immaculate Heart. The Immaculate Heart is swollen to twice normal size and glows visibly on her chest. A sword is lodged. A heart is not immaculate because it is pure, but because it is injured.
What should the boy be named? Jorge was astonished, upon arriving in America, to realize his name is exactly the same in English. George! The Portuguese “J” pronounced like the American one, not the Spanish; everyone got that wrong. His surname means “spring,” but he worships summer, so he changed his name to the hottest season. His wife became Linda Summers. She cleans houses. She makes necklaces of sea glass to sell at the farmers’ market.
George doesn’t work in the dairies like the other men from the Azores; the veins of udders make him ill. He is a waiter in the Caravela Restaurant.
When George brings his child to the restaurant on his day off, the owner, August Dias, wonders about giving the boy a full life somehow.
An evening of hiding chocolate coins: Quickly now, give him his Years of Childhood Discovery. Finding Treasure. Linda and their children join the others yelling with delight, racing around Caravela. Karin, August’s wife, asks to hold the little boy, and she looks thoughtful while saying, “They scream all the time to get our attention, don’t they?” She rocks him as David, George’s eldest son, finds a gold-wrapped coin and yells, “Dad, look—I’m rich!”
The nickname in the Azores for August’s father’s family had been The Little Birds. George decides his dying boy is an owl, fearless about the night. Birds are the descendants, his son Gabriel’s storybook claims, of dinosaurs.
What comes next in a full life? Days of Youth. Linda craves bread. George takes his newborn to a bakery. A child in the line asks to see him, and George lowers his son toward this friendly boy. The baby gurgles. Schoolkid Years: Phase of Finding Others.
George buys blueberry scones. At home, Lisa has done a school experiment. She slit a calla lily’s stem into two legs and placed them in a vase with red dye. Overnight, the lily’s face got mottled like a blush, and Lisa insists her new brother greet the lily.
Fast Youth, Complete Youth: Time of First Studies in Art and Science. George holds his child up to the split-legged flower. Lisa claps. The baby’s head is heavy on its own stem.
First Alertness to Danger: A Hells Angel lives near the grocery store where George buys frozen pies for Linda. Amidst stacks of tires, a rabble group of dogs howls, and the man with a braided beard throws his helmet at them.
Linda’s sugar days. Mallomars, pink marshmallow cookies, mint ice cream, coconut tarts; David, Lisa, George Junior, and Gabriel bringing trays of sweets to their mother. When she comes home from mopping and dusting houses, she smells of lemon oil. George accepts food from August and Karin at the restaurant for the children. For Linda.
There’s a poster of Lisbon at Caravela. While serving fish stew, he hears the whine of the wires of the trolley car in the photo; vanilla lights shaped as bells hang over the street because it must be Christmas, when King’s Cakes glisten in windows. It is the famous streetcar called Prazeres—Pleasures—heading for the Cemetery of Pleasures. A graveyard named Pleasures! A Streetcar Named Pleasures! He shows the poster to his baby; isn’t Young Adulthood a time of travel, seeking enchantment?
A salt day for Linda. Potato chips with barbecue flavoring. French fries. Buttered tortillas.
At the Hells Angel’s house with the fur-matted dogs, the smallest one gallops to the cyclone fencing and sticks its nose through a honeycombed opening for George to touch. “Hey, little guy,” he says. A gash in his back, an ear torn. Cocker spaniel, maybe with border collie. An unhealed wound in his flank.
The Hells Angel lumbers out. A leather vest and no shirt, and jeans with a chain, as George feeds the spaniel a lint-spackled cherry lifesaver.
“Feed your animals!” George yells. He’s driving to work but stopped to visit the dogs. Linda is home from her housecleaning jobs, watching the vampire soap, Dark Shadows. That morning, George handed off their newborn, his eyes are slits. His damaged heart beats still. It haunts George that the baby’s nails are perfectly formed, one on each tiny finger. What is the point of that?
The biker looks like a big version of Yosemite Sam, from the cartoons his children watch on Saturday while Linda eats waffles with whipped cream, and their dying boy gets passed from arm-hold to arm-hold, the children cooing that he’ll be all right. The spaniel nuzzles George’s hand.
“Fuck off, amigo,” shouts the biker, striding over to kick the spaniel’s stomach so hard the animal flies and screeches.
George is ashamed that he obeys. He fucks off. The dogs yowl at his desertion.
He cradles his dying boy. What are the things I so want to give you? The frying of an egg, a schoolbook. A parent’s terrible advice about love. I tie a mean bowtie, which I wear at my job. I have to pretend you’re the grandson you’ve given me.
There’s a saltwater aquarium at the Golden Tee Mini-Golf Course, managed by his friend Frank Ferreira-Smith, and his unnamed child meets the seahorses. Adulthood, Fatherhood. The Ponder Years: The males are generous; they’re the ones pregnant. They teach the young to entwine their tails as they roam. His son blinks.
He urges Linda to bring new glass necklaces and earrings to sell at the farmers’ market. Her table is often near the one where Cristina Flores flirts with men who buy her jewelry and trinkets, what the Portuguese call bugigangas, the word’s sound reveling in the gaudiness. Years of Business. George buys sugar cookies painted with frosting for the children, keeps the sleeping infant—my sweet one, you’re no trouble at all—while Linda slumps on a folding chair, now and then rising to hand over a prism-catching necklace, putting dollars into her cash box with its decals of cats, stuck there by Lisa.
As they pack up the station wagon with Linda’s folded-up table and ten-dollar profits, Gabriel points at an oak and screams. An owl twitches in the dirt. George and Linda can’t keep their children from running there, asking, Mom, Daddy, what should we do? He hands the baby to Linda, kneels. The owl has been shot several times with a BB gun. It is dying. Lisa wants to take it home. David grabs its wing and cries. The owl’s beak opens and shuts. Hating daylight. There’s nothing to do. He herds his children to the car, as the owl heads toward everlasting darkness; he doesn’t want his children to witness that, but Lisa shrieks, “We should give it a funeral! Dad!” and sobs the whole way home. George Junior yells that his parents should have fixed the owl.
The reception at Caravela after the wedding of Bobby Vasco and his schoolteacher bride, Catherine Sullivan, is lively; Karin and her little girl, Isabel, twisted blue and green streamers from the ceiling and taped the ends to tables pushed to the room’s sides. Paper algae. Isabel’s job is to hand a rose to every guest. When she reaches George holding the baby, Isabel says solemnly—she is a big-eyed, overly serious child—“Mr. Summers, no, take two, one for—” and she pauses because she doesn’t know what to call the boy.
“Would you like to name him, Isabel?” he asks. Sometimes she sits in the kitchen of the restaurant with her mother or father, doing her homework, reading books.
“He’s Wilbur,” Isabel says. She has a golden sash and shoes that he knows, from Lisa, are called Mary Janes. “I need to kiss him.”
He lowers the child for Isabel Dias to plant a kiss on his forehead. George will find out from Linda that Wilbur is the pig in Charlotte’s Web.
George has the day off; being served by others is a reversal of his existence. He holds his baby while Connie Borges comforts Linda. The restaurant is a substitute for the dinner gatherings everyone’s grandparents and parents set up upon coming to this country because people must feed one another, they must take turns fussing over children, or the sick, the frightened, the hungry, the lonely, and if someone is dying, they will pray for a miracle. George’s children, and many others, twirl on the floor with the Vasco clan as music churns. As Linda and he watch the dancing, he tells her that their baby is sleeping, but George knows he has died in his arms.
But George holds the baby tighter for full minutes more, because in those minutes Linda can still pretend that every promise will be possible for their child.
Into George’s own old age, past the Old Age he dreamt up for his son today, a Time of Marriage, the word “radiant” will pierce him. It is the final expression that Charlotte spelled into the web. He considers it an Isabel term—he’ll love her for it, for baptizing his child as a squiggly friend, infant Wilbur. Always she’ll be the last person to speak to his child. The one to name him, in the warm restaurant, the day of the wedding.
The earth has billions of mouths to receive bodies. The earth eats its fill.
A month after the death of their child, the pipes under the kitchen sink start to drip. Linda calls a plumber, and he comes to repair it. It’s a pasta day, Alfredo sauce. Two days later, the pipes drip again, and Lisa helps her sad mommy line the dank under-sink cupboard with towels. The plumber returns. He makes the repair. The shower is dripping, the faucet in the bathroom. He fixes those too. Or tries to.
The kitchen pipe breaks again.
Linda gathers up the soaked towels. One is a beach towel from Pismo Beach, aka the Portuguese Riviera, with a cheap print of the otters that float on their backs while washing clams in their little paws. Lisa reports that Mommy was petting the terry-cloth otters, her bawling so loud George froze while hearing it in the garage.
Linda grabs the mildewing towels and roars off in the station wagon to dump them in the plumber’s yard. She rings the doorbell and screams at him, and she leaves the towels, drives off, drives back for the otter one, leaves, drives back to get them all—the plumber still stands slack-jawed on his porch—because towels cost money.
George asks Bill Flores if he can borrow his van. Bill is a salesman of Excelsior Chocolates, traveling the West. George must endure a photograph, extracted from Bill’s wallet, of a young woman he visits when his route takes him to Seattle, because Bill wonders if he should break up with her, though his wife, Cristina, honest-to-God, is no angel herself; or should he move to Seattle and start over? George thinks: No one gets to “start over”—what does that even mean? He replies that he can’t answer Bill’s questions. Bill seems anguished, truly puzzled, almost like a decent guy as he plies indecency. George wants to punch him hard enough to lay him out, but he needs the van. How do men find the time for secret lives? It took George two hours last night to make macaroni and cheese for his sorrowing family.
The odds are slender that the Hells Angel biker took a BB gun and shot that owl near the farmers’ market, but he lives in that world; the crimes are close enough. George backs the van up to the cyclone fencing, grabs his bolt cutter, and starts snapping links. The dogs leap and yap, and he urges them to be quiet, but they’re starving. He puts his strength into his task. His dad was an ironworker. Snap; a minor hole that the spaniel mutt tries to wriggle through. Wait, little baby. Almost home. A setter, great mats of mud in its red hair, cuts its footpad on a wire. There are eight dogs.
One by one, he grabs the scruffs of their necks and pulls them out of the yard, funneling them into the empty van, where Bill Flores normally stacks boxes of truffles and buttercreams. The dogs roll around, drugged, delirious. The spaniel mutt wags his whole body. When the last dog is freed, the biker pulls up on his Harley, leaps off, and suggests loudly that George has violated his mother in socially and morally unacceptable ways. The dogs are slippery as seals, inhaling mocha and toffee air. George locks the back of the van as the biker charges toward him.
Keys out, hurl self into the driver’s seat, biker arriving, George with strength he didn’t know he had closing the door, elbow spiking down the lock. Engine started, dogs jostling and barking. Forgot to roll up the driver’s window. The biker’s fist lands on the left side of George’s face, his eye. Accelerate, escape. He listens for a motorcycle tailing him, but the ringing in his ears is celestial, a choir. The van lifts from the road, and the dogs croon. George looks at stars small as ornaments, and they pop in front of him, like the soap bubbles that his son Gabriel blows. George is sure he sees a mathematical formula, smoky in the atmosphere, that someone wiser would interpret as a secret of the universe. The blood on his collar is hot. The animals in back are speaking in tongues.
A hero’s welcome as the dogs bound into his home. He staggers to the freezer and presses the package of frozen peas against his black eye. They feed and bathe the eight mangy dogs. Linda turns off the television to care for them, she walks them daily and takes them to the vet to sew up their wounds, the house is near to bursting, he is a Benevolent King of Animals, he has saved his wife, he has rescued his children.
The biker never finds him. They will find homes for the dogs but keep the spaniel mix. Lisa names their new pet Ovaltine, because Daddy made that for them on this first night. Chocolate crystals melting in milk. Ovaltine will be beloved for ten more years, as he bounds through youth and middle years and old age, that span speeded-up for dogs because their love is so pure the world doesn’t deserve an expansion of it.
Linda will lose the sixty pounds she put on, the full weight of a schoolboy. One late night at work, George will think of what his son—named Wilbur on his final day—might have been and, mindless while eating a fish, will begin choking on a bone. Frank of the Golden Tee will save his life with the aid of August on the telephone, guiding Frank through a rescue that frightens and thrills George as vividly as when he robbed the biker of Ovaltine and Ovaltine’s imprisoned kin.
“Humble” is another word that Charlotte the spider spun for Wilbur. George tells Frank he is humbled. He could have died from a ridiculous fish bone.
When George tells a grown-up Isabel his memories—she comes home to attend to the dying of her elderly father—she ends it by saying: She does not recall naming his infant, but Charlotte would write that his story is “Terrific.” George Summers gave a dying boy a full life within only a few weeks, and the liberation of the dogs is out of a boy’s adventure dream; George has enriched us all, he has explained that dashing scar still on his eyebrow, he has added to the storehouse of grace in the world.
Katherine Vaz has been a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard and Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute. For six years, she has conducted the Writing the Luso Experience workshop at the DISQUIET International Literary Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Her novels include Saudade, a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection; and Mariana, in six languages. Her collections include Fado & Other Stories, a Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner; and Our Lady of the Artichokes & Other Portuguese-American Stories, a Prairie Schooner Book Award winner. Her work is the first by a Luso-American to be recorded for the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division).