© Jo McCulty 2009

River of Heaven 
a novel
Lee Martin

Reprinted from RIVER OF HEAVEN: A NOVEL Copyright © 2008 by Lee Martin. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


elebrated author Lee Martin, a '78 and '79 graduate of the EIU English Department, visited campus in April 2009 to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Earlier he was the featured reader at the Alan Neff Memorial Reading in April of 2008.

Formerly chair of the Program in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, Martin is currently taking a sabbatical while he works on a new novel. After earning his M.A. from Eastern in 1979, he went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas and a PhD in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is author of the story collection The Least You Need To Know (1996), two lyrical memoirs, From Our House (2000) and Turning Bones (2003), and the novel Quakertown (2002). His novel The Bright Forever, a somber study of a small Midwestern town torn apart by the murder of a child, was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. His essays and short stories have appeared in Harper's, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Story, DoubleTake, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and Glimmer Train. He has won various fellowships for fiction and nonfiction and for his teaching, notably the 2006 Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award at OSU.


his evening toward dusk my neighbor, Arthur Pope, strides across the driveways that separate our houses, a casserole dish held between his hands. I see him through the kitchen window as I stand at the sink opening a can of Natural Balance duck and potato for my basset hound, Stump. I reach to switch off the light, but, too late, Arthur has spotted me — I can tell by the way he lifts the casserole dish higher, extends it with his oven-mitt covered hands — and I have no choice but to wave at him and then go out into my side yard and open the gate.

“Ahoy, neighbor.” A former Navy man, this is the way he talks. Unlike me, he’s kept fit over the years. He still does calisthenics, even keeps a barbell set in his basement — a manly man with chest and shoulders and arms that aren’t what they were thirty years ago, but still they’re impressive. A thick head of wavy gray hair. A bounce to his step. “Time for mess.” He bows his head over the casserole dish and sniffs. “Andouille jambalaya,” he says. “Permission requested to come aboard, sir.”

It’s October, and the leaves have started to fall. Here in Mt. Gilead, our small town in southern Illinois, we can burn them on Saturdays, air quality and the ozone layer be damned. We rake our leaves to the sides of our streets or onto our back yard gardens, and set them to burn. The air smells of the must and the smoke the way it has this time of year as long as I can recall since I was a kid in Rat Town — that’s what we’ve always called the neighborhood in the lowlands on the south edge of Mt. Gilead, a mess of tumble down houses. Each spring there, when the Wabash River rises, the floodwaters still come up to the doorsteps. I’m glad to be safe and dry here in Orchard Farms, this modest gathering of ranch homes on streets with names like Apple Blossom and Cherry Blossom and Peach Tree.

Arthur thinks he knows my life — me, Sam Brady, a bachelor all my sixty-five years — and I wish I could believe that he does. He thinks he knows it because his dear wife, Bess, is now six months gone, and he imagines that we share the misery of men living alone. “You and me,” he said once not long after she died. He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Jesus, Sammy. We’re a pair.”

But my life is not his. I’d tell him this if I had the heart. I’d tell him I have no idea what it is to love someone all that time — nearly forty years he and Bess were married — and to lose them one day without warning. An aneurysm in her brain. “Arthur, my head hurts,” she said, and then the next instant, she fell to the kitchen floor, already gone. All my adult life I’ve lived alone, except for the dogs, the latest being Stump, who stands now at the screen door waiting for his duck and potato.

“He gets contentious,” I tell Arthur, nodding toward Stump. Nothing could be further from the truth; like all basset hounds, Stump is long on patience, steadfast with his devotion, mild-tempered, and affectionate — a perfect companion. His nose is up against the storm door glass. His velvety ears hang in loose folds, their ends curling slightly inward. He stares at me with his sad-ass eyes. “Stump,” I say to Arthur. “He puts the hurt in me if he doesn’t get his grub.”

“Don’t we all.” Arthur lifts the casserole dish toward my nose. “Sailor, don’t we all.”

What can I do but let him into my house and tell him to set the casserole dish on the range? He tells me exactly how he made it, and I know what’s coming next. “I could give you the recipe.” He snaps his fingers. “Or you could come on down to the Senior Center — that’s the ticket — and, Sammy, you could learn to do for yourself.”

It’s not the first time he’s asked. He’s learned to cook by joining a widowers’ group — the Seasoned Chefs — and every Wednesday evening he goes downtown to the Senior Center and works up a new dish. But me? “Sorry, Arthur,” I tell him. “No can do.”

I’ve heard them all my life, these words. I’ve let them, for better or worse, make me a cautious man.

For a moment, I’m tempted — I’ll admit that — but then I think of myself trying to make conversation with all those men, widowers who have a genuine right to their loneliness, and I can’t imagine it. You see, I’m a man who chooses to be alone, a man who has a secret. I’m a closet auntie, a fag, a queer — you know all the words. Here in Mt. Gilead, even this day and age when the world is supposed to be more tolerant, more accepting, it’s clear that many folks think this is a wrong thing to be. I see the graffiti spray-painted on the sides of garbage dumpsters along alleys, on the bathroom walls at the city park, on the Salvation Army collection bins in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Those words. I hear them on the lips of school boys and cocksure young men swaggering around the Town and Country Lanes, where I sometimes bowl a few lines, even from people like Arthur, older men who still believe that naming something they fear puts it in a place where it can’t hurt them. I’ve heard them all my life, these words. I’ve let them, for better or worse, make me a cautious man, on guard, well aware that danger always waits just around the corner.

The truth is I don’t much know how to be around people. I’ve spent so many years avoiding them for fear that they’d find out the truth. Trust me, this isn’t the sort of place where you can make it known that you’re the kind of man I am and then expect to live a comfortable life. I read the letters to the editor in the Daily Mail, letters from church-going folks — maybe even some of the men at the Seasoned Chefs — who write about the abomination of homosexuality, the perversion, the sin. They think they know so much, but they don’t know anything about me, and I’m determined to keep it that way. It’s easier — at least it has been for me — to lock the truth away and live quietly with my dogs. It may be a stupid way to live — cowardly, even — but such is the truth of the matter. I’ve given up companionship for fear of losing it. Better to never have it than to watch it disappear.

The past forty-six years, before I retired, I worked for, and finally owned, a custodial service. When I was a young man, the boss would send me out somewhere — Sherman’s Department Store, The IGA Foodliner, Loy’s Skating Rink — and I’d spend the night hours, after all the customers and the workers had gone, stripping and waxing floors. Later, when I was the owner, I kept that job for myself. I even took jobs out of town — as far away as Paducah, Kentucky, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri — just for the pleasure of all that time on the road, all that quiet and no one else around.

Stump bumps his nose into the back of my leg. I get down on a knee and scratch his ears. I let him sniff my face, give me a lick. I stare into those sad eyes. “I’m about to get busy,” I say to Arthur.

“Busy?” He stands with his hands on his hips. He still has on his oven mitts and he looks. . .well, if you want the truth. . .he looks like a man afraid of his own hands. “Sammy,” he says, but I cut him off before he can launch into what I know will be another attempt to persuade me not to be so much of a loner.

“Winter’s coming,” I tell him. “I’ve got to build Stump a new house.”

“What’s wrong with the one he’s got?”

“Oh, it won’t do,” I say, still looking into Stump’s eyes. “Nope, not at all. Not for a dog like this.”

I start with a picture in my head — a kids’ playhouse I saw once years ago in a backyard in a town I was passing through on my way to somewhere else. I’d never seen anything like it, that house, made in the shape of a sailing ship: hull and deck and mast and crow’s nest, something out of Peter Pan. What a sight, this ship. All for the sake of a kid, some lucky kid. I had to pull over to the curb, had to sit there and talk myself out of going into that backyard, walking past the playhouse up to the real house, a house of brick and bay windows. I wanted to put my face up to one of those windows, just for the chance to get a glimpse of the miraculous life I imagined going on inside.

Sometimes I take Stump out for a walk at night, and we slip through the dark, past houses all lit up. I see people’s lives going on: mothers rocking babies; an old man in an arched doorway, leaning over to kiss his wife; a woman wiping her hands on a dish towel; a teenage girl dancing to music. Sometimes I’ll hear someone laughing, a television playing, a voice calling out, Sweetie, hurry. You’ve got to see this. My God, what a hoot.

I spend weeks drawing up the plans for Stump’s ship. I while away several pleasant days at the public library studying out how to build the curved hull, the castle tower, the stern wheel, the crow’s nest. Then I gather my lumber and tools, and I get to work.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” Arthur says to me one afternoon when he comes to watch me in the side yard with my saws and hammer and nails. I’ve caught him on certain afternoons peeking out his window, and now he’s finally come to tell me exactly what he thinks. I’m nailing together the hull, overlapping the planks the way you would a clapboard house. “That’s a clinker hull,” he says. “Now, sailor, how in the hell are you going to cut cannon ports in a clinker hull? What you want is a carvel hull, the planks all flush and even. Then you’ll be in business.”

“Cannon ports?” I stop driving nails. The air, after all that pop, pop, pop, clears out, and I watch a lone maple leaf come drifting down, twirling and then floating, until it finally settles on Stump who’s sleeping in the sun. “Why would I want cannon ports?”

Arthur narrows his eyes, sets his jaw, tips back his head. “Sailor,” he says, “what if Seaman Stump suffers an enemy attack?” Then he gives me a wink, and it almost breaks my heart because I know he’s telling me he’s lonely. I know he’s asking me to please play along. What he wants more than anything now is to help me build this ship, to have my company to help him pass the hours, and I’m willing to grant him that.

Stump is lolled over on his side, the maple leaf stuck to his white belly, but he doesn’t know it. His legs are up in the air, and one of them twitches, the only sign that he might have felt that leaf at all, but he keeps snoozing, belly full, warming in the sun.

“Arthur,” I say, and I say this in all earnestness, careful not to hurt his feelings. “I’ve never known Stump to be the fighting kind.”

“Sailor,” Arthur says, “Do you want to be authentic or not?”

“A carvel hull,” I say, imagining the two of us working together.

“Let me grab my carpenter’s apron,” he says, and apparently, I want to be authentic because I don’t stop him, and the next thing I know we’re pulling off the planks and starting over.

While we work, he tells me stories of the earliest shipbuilders — the Egyptians and the Chinese — the ones who knew that to build a sailing vessel was a matter of faith. They could make it water-tight — hull and keel and prow — and then set it to launch with no guarantee that it would ever return to port. The gods that ruled the seas might, at any instant, take a whim to dash a ship against an outcropping of rocks, or spin it topsy-turvy with giant waves, or the winds might get fickle and carry it so far from course it would never be able to right itself. So the builders carved eyes into the ships’ bows so they might better find their way. The sailors watched the stars. The North Star poked a hole through the top of the sky. The Milky Way was a river running from Heaven.

I like to think of the old shipbuilders and their faith. I imagine them fitting the timbers together, raising up the castles and masts. Day after day of this work, their methods tried and true, mastery learned over time.

Now, here we are, Arthur and I, each afraid to admit that we’ve reached the age where our circumstances — this widower, this secret auntie — sweep us, scared to death, into our last years.

You have to know a story of a boy I knew a long time ago and a brother I loved and then lost.
Soon the conversation turns to Bess, as it often does. Arthur stands across from me, marking lengths of plank for the deck. “I always thought Bess was looking out for me.” He lays a two-by-four between two sawhorses, measures with his tape, and then draws a mark with his thick, flat carpenter’s pencil. “She was my friend. My first mate, I always called her. Sammy, do you remember that?”

I’m at my table saw cutting the planks that he’s marked, and just before I bring the blade down, I say, “I do, Arthur. I surely do. You were her Popeye; she was your Olive Oyl.”

The saw whines, its blade slicing through wood. Sawdust sifts down to coat the toe of my boot. The scent of freshly cut pine sharpens the air. When I raise the saw blade, and its shrill noise falls back, I see that Arthur has laid down his pencil, and he’s bowed his head. His carpenter’s apron, its strings tied too loosely, sags from his hips. His hands grip the two-by-four, and it looks as if he can barely hold himself up.

“Arthur?” I say.

He snaps up his head, and what I see in his eyes surprises me. I know that somehow I’ve hurt him.

“How can you say something like that?” he asks, his voice smaller than I’ve ever heard it. “Make a joke like that? Popeye and Olive Oyl. . .a cartoon, for Pete’s sake. Jesus, Sammy. I’m talking about Bess and me. I’m talking about people who meant something to each other. Forty years together. But, of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

All along, I’ve been wanting to tell him this — when it comes to love and what we’ve lost, he and I are not the same; he’s owned an abundance I’ll never know. Now that the moment is here, though, what I feel inside isn’t the relief I’d prefer. Instead, I’m miserable because Arthur knows without a doubt that I’m a man who’s afraid to get too close to anyone. The greatest gesture of love I can manage is to build this ship, this fancy house for my dog. I can’t even tell Arthur I’m sorry, and finally he picks up the two-by-four he’s marked and hands it to me. Without a word, we go back to work, and for just that instant I get a sense of what it must have been like for him and Bess — all the times they must have hurt each other, all the compromises they made for the sake of love.

“She took care of me,” Arthur says after a while. “Bess.”

His voice is so quiet I can choose not to hear it if I prefer. But I do hear it. I hear the way it quivers. I take it inside me, knowing that later, in the night, when Stump has fallen asleep by my chair, and the house is still, I’ll remember the way Arthur said her name. I’ll recall, as I do now, how night after night, all summer, I used to hear her laugh coming from their house. “Arthur, you kill me,” she said one night as Stump and I passed by, and she said it in a way that told me that whatever Arthur had done, it delighted her. She was sitting in a chair by the living room’s picture window. She tossed back her head, threw up her hands as she laughed. I stood in the dark and watched her, this petite woman who tap-danced in the community talent show, who still wore Arthur’s high school class ring on a gold chain around her neck, who could look at me — yes, even me — with a smile that made me believe she’d been waiting years for me to come along, and I thought, My God, she’s an angel.

So we finish Stump’s house, Arthur and I. We measure and saw and cut the angles just so while Stump dozes on the grass. How good it is to work in the autumn sun, to feel its warmth on my face, across my back, to coax this ship along, plank by plank, no thought of the time passing, the light shortening as we move toward winter.

We work, for the most part, without talking, falling into a comfortable rhythm of measuring and sawing and nailing. We put a pet door into the hull so Stump can enter, and we design a gangway so he can waddle up to the top deck — the promenade, Arthur insists I call it — with as much dignity as a basset hound can manage. We cut a hatch into the deck and equip it with another pet door so Stump can move back and forth from the hull to the deck. He can be topside, or he can go below. I catch on to the sailor’s lingo. Pretty soon, I’m talking about fore and aft, bow and stern, port and starboard. “Steady as she goes,” I say to Arthur as we raise the mast tower, and he says to me, “That’s it. Now you’re getting your legs.”

I let him cut the cannon ports in the hull and rig them with hinged shutters that we can prop open or close. Stump, when he’s below deck, sticks his face out a cannon port and sniffs the air. “Ahoy,” I say to him, and he barks.

Then, one day toward evening, we’re finished. For a moment, we stand in the last of daylight, admiring our work, and, pleased that I am, already I miss the way the hours have so pleasantly unfolded with Arthur.

“I’ve got a surprise,” he says. “It’s over at the house. I’ll be right back.”

While he’s gone, Stump sniffs around the perimeter of the ship, and I imagine he’s trying to make up his mind about such a thing.

Then, Arthur’s back, and he has a flag. “The lady who teaches the Seasoned Chefs stitched it for me,” he says. He unfolds it, and I see that it’s a Jolly Roger of sorts, only instead of a skull, there’s Stump’s face, and below it the crossbones are Milk Bone dog biscuits.

“Not too authentic,” I can’t resist saying to Arthur.

“Well,” he says, “who’s to notice except us old sea dogs?”

He gets up on deck with a stepladder and hangs the flag from the mast tower. Then he comes back to where I’m standing, and we put our hands on our hips and tip back our heads to study that flag furling and popping in the wind.

Stump lifts a leg and pees on the stern.

“Looks like he’s christened it,” Arthur says with a laugh. “Now all it needs is a name.”

I don’t even give it a thought. “How about we call her The Bess?”

For a long time, Arthur doesn’t say a word. He just keeps looking up at that flag. His eyes close for an instant. Then he opens them and says, “If that’s what you want.”

“It is,” I tell him.


This may not seem like much, this story I’m telling, but you have to understand what it is to be me — a man who has always been afraid of himself. You have to know the rest of my story, the part I can’t yet bring myself to say. A story of a boy I knew a long time ago and a brother I loved and then lost. I’m sorry, but for now I’m afraid all I can give you is this picture of me moving through the twilight as I fetch a can of red paint from my basement. I hand a brush to Arthur and he takes it, his eyes meeting mine, both of us unashamed of how sentimental this all is. He kneels down along the prow of this ship — the house of Stump — and with great care he paints the first stroke, the bristles of the brush folding back with a slow, steady grace that stirs me on this evening near to winter. I know this is as close as I’ve come in some time to living by heart, and what shakes me is the understanding that this is as close as I may ever come — this moment already beginning to fade — here on dry land.

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