<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <i>MAY <p> <p> Young Man! This ship is sailing: Happiness bound. Cool tide, mild light, The soft green ground seized and taken- Let others see that you know where you are going. To the orchard, let us go, where your Brothers and Sisters are waiting. There we neither save nor hoard, for all that we need Is forthcoming. <p> <p> Ben</i> <p> The alien silhouettes of a New Family drifted behind the gauze-thin curtains of his childhood home. He knew by heart the route that blocks of sunlight took when they migrated along the upstairs hall; he knew the sound of water traveling through the walls to meet his mother's face when she washed for bed; he knew the smell of his father's suits in the armoire. As a boy, he had loved to hide in the armoire between his father's suits, inhale the scent of the cedar planks slotted into the pockets. In the evenings, he had rolled a coin silently across the high kitchen counter while his mother made him dinner, and he had reached out to touch one of the ice-cold plums bobbing in a bowl of water. "Leave them alone," his mother had said, and he had returned to rolling the coin, slowly, moodily, along the high wood counter. <p> There should be signs of a struggle: uprooted trees, trenched soil, shattered windows, charred stone, bleeding policemen crying pitifully in the yard, the odorless corpses of Brothers of Mercy piled high in the drive. "at was the mother he remembered: the merciless protector of all that was hers and his. But he had le% her, and maybe she had simply grown old in her fortress of tea and warm wool, easily conquered by the Brothers of Mercy, by a polite, insistent knock at the door. Another day, another old woman who clutched at her frail heart and screamed, "Mercy!" when bulbs blew overhead or pots overboiled, who feared everything from her morning shower to the common household peril of stairs to the slow, dragging knock of a stranger at the door: <i>The countryside will do you good, Sister.</i> <p> Ben stared hard at the old house, and the old house smiled serenely back at him without recognition. The windows glowed benevolently around the shapes of the invaders. The flower beds were thick with life. A house was a beast of burden all too happy for new masters. <p> Ben yanked a flower from the low-hanging branch of a flowering tree in the yard and walked on, past the garbage sorters whose hands moved like independent animals, past the gray-faced laundrymen harvesting the crisp white shirts of other men from the line. Ben pinched the stem of the flower reassuringly between his thumb and finger: the fruit carts, the stalwart police horses, the warm and glowing windows of the factories by the river-<i>his</i> city, everything as he had left it. <p> Down the street, the old butcher was still in his shop, hard at work, hunched over a low scale before the same gleaming walls of yellow tile, the same affirming cherry-red and mint-green lights that spelled out CITY BUTCH-R. Ben loved how the dusty neon lights tinted the butcher's folded white paper hat, loved the crispness of the butcher's white apron, blood-pink fingerprints notwithstanding. He sighed with pleasure, felt his body relax. The sky was clear and bright, and it was still early in the summer, and maybe it was true that almost anything in this world could be regained, and almost anything could be made. <p> Across the street, Ben went into the slope-floored old shop and found the tailor standing at his enormous worktable eating fried fish with his fingers. Ben thought of his mother, frightening and sweet, their summer by the sea. <p> "Ben!" said the tailor with the cheerful indifference of an old man. Behind him, dress dummies bristled with pins; fabric hung from every available bar, hook, and nail; regulation suit patterns, tattered and constellated with pin pricks, slumbered neatly beneath the tailor's worktable. The tailor wiped his fingers on a scrap of fabric. <p> "I was very sorry to hear about your mother." <p> Ben nodded. "Thank you." <p> The tailor circled, inspecting the condition of Ben's military uniform. He approached once or twice to eye the stitching, yanked gamely at the cuffs. "Look at this handsome soldier. Looks like the uniform held up well." <p> "Well, for the most part ..." <p> "That's all behind you now, Ben. You must look to the future!" Against the far wall of the shop, pale cardboard boxes stood in stacked columns; the tailor pulled a box expertly from the middle stack: "Try this." <p> "Is there a changing room?" <p> "I'm not your mother, Son. Just put it on. And give me back your uniform." <p> Ben turned his back to the tailor and changed quickly. He could smell the cheap black dye of the suit when he opened the box; he saw the pant legs were creased horizontally at the knees, where they had been folded, for years, probably. It was depressing, the cheap black suit, the columns and columns of cardboard boxes filled with cheap black suits, but he supposed it was designed to be depressing: the apparatus of grief. Ben tucked his military cap back into his satchel and turned to face the tailor. <p> "You see, Ben? Problem solved. It's the clothes that turn boys into soldiers, soldiers into men." <p> <p> Ben sat in the worn armchair at the front of the shop and sipped tea the tailor had made for him. He watched the butcher at work across the street. The heavy, dusky shapes of meat hung from the ceiling chains, their shadows stock-still along the yellow wall. The butcher hauled a rack of ribs from the glass case; he forced the thin blade between the ribs and sliced them apart. <p> "They've reassigned the house," Ben said suddenly. "Another family is living in it. I saw them." <p> The tailor turned, concerned, "Did they see you?" <p> "I don't think so," said Ben. "Then I came here." <p> "You should have come here first, and I might have prepared you for the shock." Ben touched the warm side of the porcelain teacup and shrugged apologetically. "And now you've nowhere to go." The tailor sighed, hesitated. "I know of a Bachelor House-an excellent one. Nine-tenths marry out in the first year. Something like that. I might be able to get you a room, but it won't be easy, Ben." <p> "I'd be grateful." <p> "Anything for your mother. I like to think I was a great comfort to her while you were away. She was all alone in that big house. And she was a great comfort to me, of course. Both of us waiting for our sons to come home, something you know nothing about." <p> Ben opened his mouth to speak. <p> "This is no time for formalities, Ben. Let's not explore our feelings, shall we? Time is of the essence for a man like yourself, but here you are, still youngish and, in any case, an eminently marriageable man, and I wouldn't worry too much. Nor would I put <i>anything</i> off. <p> "Listen to me carefully." The tailor brought over a small wooden chair and sat uncomfortably close to Ben. "Are you listening?" <p> "I'm listening." <p> "For the moment, you should make the most of grieving-you'll only have one opportunity in life to grieve for your own mother. Don't cheat yourself. Remember, there is no instinct for comporting oneself around death; grief won't come to you whole and perfectly formed without some work on your part. Your instinct may be to go insane, to hit yourself in the face, to tear out your hair, to cry all the time, to scream at the sky, to run into the river, to blame others, even to attack them in the full fever of grief." (Ben opened his mouth to speak, but the tailor raised his hand to stop him.) "If the dead man or woman is a close relative, mourning is expected-in all other cases it isn't. If required to mourn"-he pointed at Ben, Ben nodded-"get a black suit, preferably one as dark as night. Done. In speech and attitude, be as inconspicuous as possible. What is grief but a sudden inability to sustain belief in the story that preceded it? I say you're lucky. Only those who have grieved love the world enough. I try to picture the missing sleeping peacefully, like those smooth rocks in the shallows of a clear, cool river, the water soothes them, it soothes them...." The tailor brushed the air in a gentle arc and smiled peacefully. "I like to imagine some birds singing to the water. This may be a comforting thing for you to think about." The tailor leaned back in his chair and frowned at the view of the butcher's shop through the window. "Did you know that long ago-too long ago for any of us to remember-this entire street was lined with tailor shops? Anyone could stumble in off the street and ask for anything, no matter how ridiculous. No guidance, no rules, no comprehension of the stakes. You're lucky to be living in this day and age, Ben, when good, hard-working people can expect to succeed, when happiness comes to those who deserve it. Do you appreciate how lucky you are?" <p> "I do," said Ben. <p> "Good." The butcher stepped out into the street and lit a cigarette, blinking in the strong sun. Ben and the tailor watched him from the window. "You're a good boy, Ben. It's honorable, at least, to engage one's father's enemies. Look at you-taking up arms against the Enemy, when so many of your brothers will raise a fist only to defend their own happiness." <p> Ben smiled noncommittally. <p> "The butcher's son-there's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. He stole another man's suit last summer, right off his living body. The police caught him, of course, swung him for the crowds." Ben glanced across the street; the butcher shuffled back into his empty shop, started halving and quartering the racks of ribs. <p> The tailor leaned toward Ben. "What have you got in terms of cash?" <p> Ben reached into his satchel and handed the tailor a folded stack of bills. "Only this," he said. The tailor weighed the money unhappily in his hand before pocketing it. <p> "How quickly can you make a new bachelor's suit?" asked Ben. <p> "I can't make you a new suit. It's out of the question." <p> "But everything in the house is gone, including my father's suits. I have nowhere else to start but here." <p> "You <i>have</i> a suit. I just <i>gave</i> you a suit, Ben. The ingratitude of bachelors in this day and age never ceases to amaze me." <p> Ben glanced down at his new black jacket, more of a bottomless gray in the light of the window. "And I'm grateful for it-thank you. But I'll need to buy a pale suit, in addition." <p> "Impossible. I'll have to put all the money you gave me toward paying your bills at the Bachelor House." <p> "I'll get more money." <p> "How do you plan to do that? You've got nothing to sell, and you can't work until you're married." <p> "Couldn't I owe you the money? I'll pay you back once I'm married, have a job." <p> "No." <p> "For my mother," pleaded Ben, hating himself. <p> "But it's for you, isn't it? Not for her, so let's not confuse matters. If I made a suit for every bachelor who begged me, Ben, I'd soon be out of business and living in a little room by the train station and cursing my 'fate,'" said the tailor, raising his fat fingers to indicate quotation marks around the word. "Give up my life, so you can have what you want? As I said, it's out of the question." <p> Ben stood and stretched. He should think strategically. Always better not to push old men. The tailor returned to his worktable; Ben investigated the tailor's dummy in the front window of the shop. The dummy was wearing a classic bachelor's suit, the sleeves pinned behind its back. A hat had been laid over the neck, giving the dummy the look of a commanding officer deep in thought, his chin against his chest, his hands clasped peacefully behind his back, as he paced some ridge over a smoky, blue-gray field of battle. "Beautiful suit," Ben said. "They can't make them like this any longer, can they?" <p> "But we most certainly can still make them like that, and do." The tailor stared into the pool of fabric, pressed a scrap of fabric against the back of his neck to soak up his sweat. "It's already getting hot as hell." <p> "I have an idea," said Ben. "Could I use this suit? Rather than asking for a new one." He smoothed his hand across the fine pale fabric. <p> "No. It belongs to someone else." <p> Ben saw that years of shop dust had accumulated on the brim of the hat. "But if he isn't coming back for it?" <p> "But he is coming back, Ben. He is coming back, and he will need his suit." <p> The tailor turned his back to Ben, began petulantly rearranging the scraps of cloth on the table. <p> "I'm sorry," said Ben. He stared dumbly at the back of the old man but was paralyzed by uncertainty. He might easily make things worse while intending to make them better. The tailor's son had been missing in action for as long as Ben could remember-twenty-five years, at least. Finally, the tailor turned and pointed at him. "The black suit is more important, Ben, for those observing you are unlikely to read the subtler signs of grief. Is it artificial? Of course it is. But how else will you communicate your feelings, Ben, when conversation in this city is so dishonest and exhausting." <p> <p> <i>Meeks</i> <p> I made my rounds first thing in the morning so that I wouldn't miss Bedge, who sometimes came to the bench early. I had a serious matter to take up with him, something that couldn't be postponed. I hurried around the perimeter of the park, checking the fence, shaking the park gates to test hinges and locks, and then cut back down through the center, taking note of the condition of the statues and monuments, giving special attention to the statue of Captain Meeks-the father of our world (and my namesake). I was in a hurry, but once or twice I found myself standing, still as a statue, in a clearing or under a tree, mesmerized by the blue bud of summer: the river mist warming like wool under the first sun, the ants and beetles commuting along their branches, the worms boring silently through the new green leaves. The garbagemen were already up and trawling the park, and I felt their dead eyes slide over me as I stood stock-still in the sun. <p> Move along! I said. As you can see, Brothers, I am alive and well. <p> I went to the bench and waited. In the distance, the factories hummed with power, chugging white smoke. I heard the low, long morning whistle, and the great windows filled with light, and I tried, in vain for the millionth time, to make sense of the procession of shadows suddenly sweeping across them. Machines? People? <p> The fruit vendor set up his cart nearby, collapsing the delivery boxes and arranging the fresh fruit, pyramiding the limes ... the plums, plump and purple-black, flecked with lavender, and the oranges constellated with fine drops of cool water, and the lemons bright and indomitable in the sunlight, and the polished red apples still bristling with dark, sweet leaves. A breeze rushed through the high branches of the park trees. I thought of how pleasant it would be to line the interior of my head with layers of the cool green leaves. I thought of how I loved the healthy green give of the grassy slopes, the sound of the breeze through the grass growing uniformly on the surface of the earth, the warmth emanating from it, the perfect scent of things just broken open. I love this world as I loved my very mother. <p> The fruit vendor brought me a few warm, soft plums wrapped loosely in some old paper. The day before, the baker had thrown a sugar bun my way. I took it from my coat pocket and halved it carefully, arraying the pieces neatly beside the plums. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Meeks</b> by <b>Julia Holmes</b> Copyright © 2010 by Julia Holmes. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.