The flags of the boats in the bay whipped in the wind and the gulls wheeled for snapshots and the sound of bicycle bells fell through the leaves of the chestnut trees and down the cobbled streets, and, on warm afternoons, on the porch of her summer home, Mrs. Harlan Case would often be heard to say, “I would have sown them like beautiful flowers,” for she had wanted many children. It was a resort town, rich and glossy, and the Case house had the dignity of age and wealthy tenants. It was a restored Colonial with elms and widow’s walks, a tiny front yard bordering a brick sidewalk and masses of roses in the rear. There was a portrait of Winthrop in the ball and the rooms were stuffed with antiques and long mirrors guarded by eagles. Martinis chilled all day long. The driveway held a Mercedes, and, when the husband drove down from the city for the weekend, a new Porsche. A brace of Yorkshire terriers lolled on the grass. The Case’s had surrounded themselves with taste and various forms of beauty, the most precious being their only child, their son, Jefferson.
He was a beautiful child. With impeccable manners. Tucked demurely into rattan, one slender finger constantly circling the rim of her glass, Mrs. Case would speak as much in pride as in sorrow, for her single creation was (all the neighbors agreed) perfect. The other pretty freckled children with slim bodies and damp hair, with white but slanting teeth, were common as grasses or bright air beside Jefferson who, in neat white shorts and small white tennis jersey, passed the crackers and made polite and precious conversation.
Upstairs in the bathroom of his father’s house, on the morning of his birthday eve, on the last day that he would be five, Jefferson, beautiful solemn child, hair blond to the color of tinsel, eyes large and grey, small swim trunks bunched round his knees, peed into a jelly jar.
He pushed his trunks all the way to his ankles and stepped from them carefully. They lay there, two blue eyes, the green tile of the floor their pupils. He set the jar on the sink and clambered onto a chair where he admired himself in the mirror. The beautiful growth below his belly. Between his legs. White and perfect as a northern peach. He thought it was the finest thing he had ever seen, much finer than his father’s which was raw and dark, surrounded with harsh hair. He patted it fondly. To an only child to whom everything is private, everything one’s own, this was his most prized possession. He scrubbed his hands and face, combed his hair and brushed his teeth. He dipped his finger into the jar and sniffed.
His father used colognes and dusting powder. There was a splashy odor of lime and alcohol about him. His mother drenched herself with wide swaths of perfume which Jefferson did not care for. There was a curious texture to her lipstick which he also did not like, for when she kissed him, her lips fell greasily away from his cheek like a spoonful of cake batter. He did not like to be kissed by his mother. He did not like to be touched at all. His body would feel stained and uncomfortable—blurred like a watercolor, no longer entirely his own. He politely endured his mother’s caresses although he did not understand them. She handled him as though he were one of the stuffed animals of his room even though he had never felt a desire to hug his own toys, not even as a baby. She had feared that he would chew them in his crib and she had taken away their eyes, snipped off the buttons, the goggling plastic from the clowns and bears and ponies—but he had shown little interest in toys or objects. Occasionally he would touch them very carefully, respecting their furred or shining faces. When he grew older, their eyes had been restored and they stared at Jefferson admiringly from the shelf. When he rearranged them, the buttons swiveled wildly in their sockets.
“Jeffie,” he said to the face in the mirror, “is going to do something special for you today.” He smiled. The vision in the mirror smiled. He crooned at it, opened his mouth still wider and grinned. He thought again of the whale and of his own wonderful idea, pleased that something so eminently his own could be put to such good and fragrant use.
His father had told him about the whales, traveling in herds like cattle through the sea—about the boats a hundred years ago that had sailed from Nantucket and their own summer island. They walked together hand in hand along the shore, Jefferson blinking uneasily with the knowledge. He thought all fish to be ugly unnecessary things, especially the scup and blues which his father brought in from the bay and cleaned on the chopping board behind the house and which he, Jefferson, pushed around his plate at supper, in and out of the peas and white sauce. He thought Ahab a fool to lose his leg for casks of oil from a useless whale. Jefferson thought the whole operation to be unclean and he found the stories boring. As with his mother, however, he was polite and silent, nodding his lovely head, smiling kindly. While his father told him about spars and quadrants, squaring the yards and sounding, Jefferson slapped his feet against the sand and felt the sun beat through his shirt onto his shoulders. He never went out without some protection for his skin. His father would laugh at his grim caution.
“Jeffie,” he once said, “sailors don’t cover themselves up. They let the sun burn them the color of leather. Out on their boats they’re dark as Indians.”
Jefferson winced at the vision. “I don’t care,” he said, and then, later, stroking his shoulders, smooth, warm, the color of honey—“I’m not a sailor.”
“No precious,” his father had said. “You’re a little boy. You’re my beautiful son.”
It was the ambergris that fascinated Jefferson. The sweetness in the bowels. The basis for all perfumes. He was appalled and then entranced. His father went on to other things—gunwales, harpoons, the black towering sea—Harlan Case being a devotee of the past and the islands, cheerful in the enormity of his information—but the child, while the white sun poured down onto his hair, thought only of the wonder of the body. He had a new respect for whales who were able to create from their own diseased and private parts exquisite fragrances. If such beasts could make something extraordinary, he could make something divine. Jefferson had walked along the beach, his arms folded across his chest, pleased with the dreams of his own possibilities. He was beautiful and capable of anything. His parents told him that he was beautiful—the mirror—the people he saw every day, those who spoke and those who did not, the last telling him how perfect he was with their own imperfections—with their moles, stray hairs and swellings, with their pimples, bad teeth, pale lips and large noses. Everything reflected Jefferson’s beauty. He was confident. He spoke softly to himself—his only friend.
In the bathroom on the day before he was six, he dipped his fingers into the jar of his urine and slid them through his hair, repeating this until his head was damp. He took the comb and slicked his hair down neatly. He daubed himself on the forehead, behind his ears, on his chest and under his arms. He did this until the jar was empty. An amber drop slipped down his cheek and hovered on his chin. He swept it away, put his trunks on and trotted down the stairs.
Up the street roared the butterscotch Porsche, slipping from one gear into another with a sound tidy as ripping canvas. The pride of Harlan Case, it was a beautiful car, throbbing purely, gliding around corners, glinting in the sunlight like a shining coin. On the luxurious leather of the passenger seat, mingled with packages in candy-bright wrappings, lay a stack of cards and letters. The car swung into the driveway just as Jefferson was kissing his mother good-bye. She pulled her fork away from a soft-boiled egg as though she had wounded it.
“Darling,” she said, “you smell funny.”
Jefferson tugged away from her. “No, I couldn’t,” he said and picked up a sand pail and shovel from behind the door. A pirate straddled the sides of the bucket, guarding a chest of gold. The shovel was grey and jagged where the paint had worn off.
She placed her fork in the middle of the egg again. “It’s probably something gone bad under the sink.”
Harlan Case bounded into the kitchen followed by the two terriers who flung themselves against Jefferson’s legs and started licking him. He pushed them away and looked at the presents in his father’s arms. He couldn’t think of a thing that he wanted for his birthday. His father grinned extravagantly, his teeth white as candles. “You can’t see them yet,” he said. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.” Jefferson nodded and turned the shovel around in the pail.
His mother’s face was pink and vague. “You shouldn’t tease him like that, Harlan. You can open them all now if you want to, sweetie,” she said to Jefferson. “There’ll be more tomorrow.”
“Of course there’ll be more,” his father yelped indignantly.
“He’ll be unwrapping presents all day long!”
“That’s all right,” Jefferson said. “I think I’d rather wait.” Overcome with tenderness, Mrs. Case’s face went soft as custard. Her jaw sagged into caricature. God love him, she mouthed to her husband.
“What aplomb,” his father said. “What a patient little man!” He put the presents into the closet and handed Jefferson the stack of birthday cards. There was a shade of disappointment in his voice. “At least you can look at these.”
Jefferson sat obediently at the kitchen table and opened each envelope with a knife. When he had opened all the envelopes, he systematically thumbed through the cards, looking up only once to glare at the dogs who were snuffling and panting on the floor. Under his gaze they closed their pink happy mouths slowly—their eyes puce and puzzled, their small white teeth protruding evenly beneath their whiskers. When Jefferson looked away, they resumed their ragged exuberant panting.