Callum Reed is a fiction writer with two families. The first of his families he created as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, the second during a sabbatical trip to Dublin, Ireland, and while it might be pleasant to maintain that he loved both equally, anyone who spent more than an afternoon in Callum’s company would tell of his favor for the former.
It is a rule that things of substance, be they project or child, are conceived during periods of tumultuous emotion, and so it happened with Callum’s first family. So, too, did it happen—though in a lesser, more muted way—with his second.
The first family constitutes a boy and dog. The boy, Aaron Hill, is part young Callum Reed, part Huck Finn. He has dark hair and gray eyes and once told a classmate that he’d rather bury himself than the duffle of Wilson lacrosse sticks they’d plundered from a local sporting goods store. It wasn’t that he was opposed to horsing in itself, but rather that the defiant nature which allowed him the horsing refused, afterward, to conceal it.
The dog was an Irish setter named Nepomucene, after the saint who’d refused to defy the confessional, because he was Aaron’s sounding-board. Nep, he was called for short, because Callum kept his coat shining, and because he had a clean look, a regality sort of English which called for such oddity, for his reputation of being otherworldly.
He first appeared in Callum’s collegiate novel, What You Left Inside. In a most-criticized plot point, he is described as rescuing a sleeping Aaron Hill from a fraternity fire: “Trotting into the quad, house-slipper in mouth, his coat shone as though reborn from the tragedy’s heat” (What You Left Inside, p. Little Brown Press, pg. 6).
The second family is a woman and child. She is a woman who frequents oversized fisherman’s sweaters in stone colors. She went to Harvard without lifting a hand for it and finding academia a mahogany coffin—the ever-present pressure, the always-pursuit—she took to simplifying her husband’s plot-points instead of conjectures, and to raising a hell-seeker instead of raising hell. She uses her law degree as a coaster. Except in sleeping she conceals her eyes behind gigantor tortoise orbs she’s assumed as costume for a lifetime of trading Jack for Jackie.
The child, now five, is a package of eyes and overalls. He has father’s coloring and his mother’s composure; he loves pumpkins and vanilla bean frosting, snow-fights and the pearl earrings he fumbles at in his mother’s ears.
Callum, like any man with two families, practices the dividing practice of separate houses. The second family lives in a rundown Victorian in Burlington, Vermont, the first in a barn-converted-office a ways off, on the same property. The space between the house and the barn, between his two respective lives, is lined with oaks and acorns.
At the entryway from the first world to the second is a mudroom the color of mustard. Callum’s wife Victoria designed the room after her favorite novel, Tuck Everlasting, which features an immortal family. A vanguard, she’d explained to Callum, so that no one should trespass on our eternal family. What she’d failed to recognize was that such eternality adhered, for Callum, to his first family as well as to the one they shared.
For Halloween, Joshua Reed was a firefighter. Aaron Hill, in a costume with originality better suited to print, was Roger Federer. Victoria, adopting a hair clip and gingham shift to accentuate the disguise she already wore daily was Jackie O. Callum was JFK, which is to say he dressed like himself. Briefly, over cornflakes and Williams Sonoma “rustic pumpkin pancakes” Callum had used his rudimentary Spanish to ask if he could be a JFK con sangre, a request Victoria both burned a pancake over and shot down for being in poor taste.
In the afternoon, Victoria took Joshua to t-ball. He was to play in the local “Bats and Bats” Halloween game. Or, as Callum later described the event, despite having visited it only in his imagination, as “One of those events for which the parents drawing up signage at Kinkos expend more energy than do the littles—still, graham-dusted—said to be TAKING THE FIELD” (“Dead Day,” The Saturday Evening Post, pg. 59).
Callum spent most of the day in his office. Most exciting of the day’s events was Callum’s misfortune at finding Nepomucene gorging himself on a salad bowl of trick-or-treat minis. Bits of caramel and what appeared to be 3 Muskateers were caught in the stagmalites of his teeth.
“Goddam it, Nep,” Callum said, at the scene. He returned the bowl to the desk atop the draft of “Dead Day” he’s been drawing up on a yellow legal pad.
“Would’ve done better with Reece’s,” said Aaron, who was smoking a Camel cigarette on the barn’s settee. He had on a white sweater, a Nike sweatband, and the tennis star’s famous equanimity.
Nep coughed in the corner.
“Might want to check that,” said Aaron.
“Oh, I might?” said Callum. He went over to the settee and pushed Aaron’s feet off where he’d concealed sneaker-clad feet beneath a cashmere throw. “And what would you be doing, Mr. Einstein?”
“Riding a Camel.”
Callum dislodged a wrapper-clad Snicker’s minis from the left side of Nep’s mouth. With his wrist already lodged in the dog’s jaw, he proceeded to pick bits of caramel, nougat, and chocolate-tinted slobber from the bone slopes of his teeth.
“You better rest up,” Callum said to Aaron as he first shed chocolatey slober from, and then proceeded to wash with maple soap, his hands in the barn’s farmhouse sink.
“You’ve written me into a party for tonight,” said Aaron.
“Read my mind,” said Callum, pulling a towel over the paddles of his hands. He sets the towel down and turns to the door, swinging it ajar.
“You’re not leaving yet, Dad?”
“I have to set up for their party before I—”
Callum sits beside Aaron on the settee. “Fuck what?”
“This, Dad. You. You don’t—” he pauses. Stretches across the settee to put out his Camel on a glass tray kept on the sill. “You love me don’t you, Dad?”
“Of course.” Callum stands.
“More than Josh?” says Aaron.
Callum pauses before the door. “You’re my son.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Aaron says, settling back into the settee, like a boy, with the cashmere blanket pulled up to his chin.
“I have to go set up.”
And Aaron lets him, but he does so starting a new Camel, eyes posed intently on the sweater and corduroy form of his father, exiting the barn.
As Callum passes back into his second life he passes the accompanying clutter which marks its reality in the mudroom. When Josh was an infant it was easier. In those days his wife and child, his second life’s entirety, has been an altar he visited dutifully, daily, but always on loan from his first. He presided over Josh in his crib, as though priest at altar. He slept with his wife, but in dim lighting, with herb-smelling candles.
Now that Josh is a child and not an infant, a small person with feelings and thoughts, the mudroom has changed from being singularly his place of transformation to a catch all for his child’s developing life.
There are plastic t-ball stands and small Patagonia raincoats. There are mittens and rainboots with ladybug faces. Phosphorescent tennis balls and friendship bracelets with cube-beads fornicate in the leather bowls of baseball gloves.
He had touched his second life as an extension of his first, but now his second was pouring into the space between. Now his second child was causing his first to question where his father’s loyalty lied.
There was a knocking at the barn door. Callum put the pencil he’d been writing with behind his ear, shrugged on his cashmere sweater, and welcomed the autumn bitterness inside to answer it. “Joshua,” said Callum. He stepped back.
His five-year-old son entered the barn. He was wearing a flimsy plastic fireman’s hat and a jacket which appeared to be made of liquified licorice. It had fluorescent yellow stripes across the chest. “Dad,” he said.
“Sit here, bud.”
Josh sat on the settee. The cashmere throw blanket was warm against his boy-calves, and possibly mistaking the sleeping form beside him as one of his father’s friend, or some strange extension of the barn’s rugged interior—he’d never been inside before and all, the workman’s table, the galvanized metal manuscript buckets, the grate stove were new.
Nepomucene, however, as he stood on rickety legs, either produced by the stomachache or by the unfamiliar child, began to howl.
Years afterward, Joshua Reed maintained that he’d been bit by a dog in his father’s barn.
Callum’s second family said he’d blamed a branch-scrape on the dog from one of his father’s stories; the first Reed family said nothing at all. When Josh arrived at Andover in 2012, he mentioned to his roommate something about a bloodthirsty dog. There was a scar up his left hand punctured too deep to have been perforated with oak.