Excerpt from Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

From the Giller-nominated novel

On the Friday evening before Kaj Adolfsson was killed, I was actually feeling pretty good about things. I had just landed in Madrid, which was home, and a big round sun the color of orange sherbet was three-quarters gone in a fine late-summer sky. I was coming off a strange year, a bit battered and bruised, but my circumstances were looking up. The language business was going well, my love life had crawled back up out of a deep dark hole, and the day after tomorrow I was hosting my daughter’s thirteenth birthday. My problems seemed at that moment destined to disappear like that setting sun. And then, as I watched the city come into view from the backseat of my taxi, my brother’s wife called with the news that set everything moving off in the wrong direction.

“And you haven’t heard from him since?” I said, leaning forward and pointing to the dashboard radio.

When the cabdriver reached for the dial to turn down the volume, I saw the little stub on his right hand where his index finger used to be.

“That’s why I’m calling,” Monica said. “I thought maybe he’d called you.”

“No. Nothing. I just got in. There were no messages.”

My brother and Monica were in the middle of a divorce full to overflowing with discord and grievance. Over the past year they’d told me in so many words that they each wished the other had never been born. Now she was on the phone telling me Nate’s sailboat had been found crewless and adrift thirty miles south of Naples, Florida.

“The Coast Guard contacted me three hours ago. I don’t know what to think. That stupid boat was his baby.”

“Is his baby,” I said, maybe a little too forcefully.

“He’s two days overdue, Charlie. He was supposed to pick up the kids yesterday. Of course he doesn’t show up. Now they call telling me his sailboat’s under tow and do I know the whereabouts of my husband? The partners at his office haven’t heard from him, either. No one knows a thing. You can imagine what this is doing to my head right now.”

I did what I could to convince Monica that Nate was probably fine and all we could do was sit tight, he’d call soon enough. I’d be back in three days, on Monday, in any case. But after slipping the phone back into my pocket, I wondered if he wasn’t already somewhere over the Atlantic en route to finishing up the business we’d left hanging between us. He was capable of much more than I could ever understand, that much I knew by then, and this sort of grand gesture—popping up in Madrid on the weekend of my daughter’s thirteenth birthday—provided the retributive drama favored by a man on the verge of losing his family. I ran through as many likely explanations as occurred to me in the time it took to get into the city. But half an hour later, when the cabbie dropped me at the door of the Mesón Txistu, that feeling of unease still hung over me. Men and women were sitting and standing in small groups taking aperitifs at the front bar when I walked in. I nodded to the bartender and continued up the stairs into the back room and found Isabel and Ava, our daughter, sitting at the table beneath the bull’s head on the south wall, a pitcher of ice water between them. Ava’s hair was shoulder length and chestnut brown, like her mother’s, and she looked, despite my northern complexion, every bit the Spaniard. When she turned and saw me at the far end of the room, she got up and met me between tables, throwing herself into my arms. I gave her a spin and a hug.

“How was your flight, Daddy? How was Ireland ?”

“It was good,” I said, slipping out from under a shoulder strap. I handed her the lighter of two carryon bags, the one loaded with presents. “You’re looking great. How’s Mom? She okay?”

“She’s fine,” she said, then led me by the hand to where Isabel sat, wearing a smile I wasn’t quite able to pin down.

“Good to see you,” I said, stooping to kiss both cheeks.

I didn’t recognize the dress she was wearing that night. It was a green-and-white summery number that showed those great arms of hers, shaped and tanned at the tail end of an active and outdoorsy season. We’d been separated for more than a year now, and the fact that she had a man in her life was old news. Through a family friend named José, whom I’d known since my earliest days in Madrid, I’d heard more about him than I needed to know—for instance, that he was a constitutional
lawyer in the Spanish Supreme Court and, at forty-two, the youngest justice in the history of the institution. He owned a house in Ibiza, as well as the flat in Paris I’d visited the previous Christmas. As far as I knew, he had no kids and lived the kind of life that stressed-out parents like to dream about.

The waiter appeared, helped me with my seat and left us with three leather-bound menus. Isabel was sitting directly across from me, Ava to my right.

“Are you feeling okay?” Isabel said. “You look worried.”

“Just glad to be back,” I told her. “No problem.”

We usually spoke Spanish when the three of us were together. But for some reason we spoke English that night.

“You know Dad always looks tired, anyway,” Ava said, opening her menu. “It’s all that thinking he does. Right, Dad?”

“There you go,” I said. “Nail on the head.”

“I hope no one drops dead at my party,” Ava said.

“The heat’s killed forty-one people in France this summer. Can you believe that?”

“That’s horrible,” I said.

“Mostly old people, I know. They were talking about it on the news this morning.”

“At least it’s cooler up there in the mountains,” I said.

We’d celebrated Ava’s birthday at a friend’s house in the Madrid sierra, thirty-five minutes north of the city, for the past ten years. I’d flown into Dublin from Toronto that morning and spent the day putting out fires at the Bellerose Academy—one of the language schools I owned and operated—before hopping a shuttle over to Madrid for the occasion. Since splitting up the previous summer, her mother and I had managed to keep the lawyering to a minimum. Now, whenever we found ourselves in the same room together (which wasn’t very often), we did our best to keep the edge out of our voices. In calmer moments we’d agreed that the success we’d have in raising our daughter would rise or fall in direct relation to the number of conflicting issues we chose to leave by the wayside. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. Choose your battles. Wasn’t that the best advice you could ever give or receive? By then it wasn’t a question of solving anything or determining who was in the wrong, as too often someone was, but managing to move forward with our dignity intact.

“Grandpa’s going to talk your ear off about his gardening. He’s on this new thing. He’s ordering papaya seeds from Brazil or something.”

“And you?” I said, leaning forward to kiss her forehead.

“What’s up with you? I’m sure you’ve got a doozy waiting for me.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, her big brown eyes glowing.

 Excerpted from Going Home Again by Dennis Bock. Copyright © Dennis Bock, 2013. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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