Within Arm's Reach

By Denise Cook,2014-11-04 17:23
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Published by Crown Publishing Group on 2007/12/17


This book is dedicated to my parents,


JAMES ROMEO NAPOLITANO,for giving me every opportunity.


    “A stunning first novel . . . This exquisite, skillfully written gem addresses seriousissues—e.g., guilt vs. loyalty, the past vs. the present— while the narrative remainshopeful and includes ample doses of humor and wit.”

    Library Journal (starred review)

    Within Arm’s Reach explores this fertile territory . . . an Irish-American Catholic familyliving in New Jersey. We view this clan’s unfolding problems . . . without which familylife—or at least family reunions—would be unbearably dull.”

    New York Times Book Review

    “A mosaic of the past intersecting with the present and a reminder that what we most love iswhat can do us the most damage.”

    Dallas Morning News

    “Every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, Tolstoy once wrote—sort of. Andhe had not even read about the McLaughlin clan of Ann Napolitano’s interesting debut novel,Within Arm’s Reach.”

    Miami Herald

    “Shows the promise of a very talented writer.”


    “Napolitano draws us in. . . . Gracie’s pregnancy and Catherine’s response to it is thecatalyst that unfreezes [an] unhappy tableau and demands that truths long hidden be spoken andconfronted.”

    Tallahassee Democrat

    “A wonderful first novel . . . Napolitano gracefully and honestly charts the tensions as thevarious family members come together.”

    Publishers Weekly

    “A fresh and exceptionally strong family portrait, mercifully free of the sentimentality thatcould easily have turned the proceedings into a soap opera.”

    Kirkus Reviews

    “Graceful and fluidly written . . . Napolitano’s clear-eyed narrative allows us to see theghosts and desires along with the ties that bind.”


    “Ann Napolitano has one of the most natural talents I have seen in a long time. . . . Within

    is for anyone who has ever had family difficulties, been in love or wanted to beArm’s Reach

    in love, felt lonely or troubled, which, of course, makes it a book for just about everyone.”

    —Craig Nova, author of Cruisers

    “Ann Napolitano has written beautifully and wisely, and the product is a stunning and lastingstory.”

    —Robert Inman, author of Dairy Queen Days and Captain Saturday

    Within Arm’s Reach is, plainly stated, a beautiful story. Napolitano accomplishes thedifficult task of interweaving multiple voices into a strong, subtle narrative that engages tothe very end.”

    —Martha Witt, author of Broken As Things Are


    Helen Ellis and Hannah Tinti have read nearly every word I’ve written for the last eightyears. Thanks isn’t a strong enough word, but it will have to do.

    For their constant support I’d like to thank: Stacey Bosworth, Lauren Strobeck, MichaelNapolitano, Leah Napolitano Ortiz, Peggy Kesslar, Kristen Fair, Suzanne Klotz, Dan Levine,Mrs. Ronning, Dr. and Mrs. Nap, Carol Fishbone and Toby Hilgendorff, Dina Pimentel, JenEfferen, Chelsea BaileyShea, Joshan Martin, Theresa Lowrey, and the Sumner family.

    Thanks to my editor, Shaye Areheart, and my agent, Elaine Koster, for loving this book andgiving it life.

    For inspiration and instruction I thank my teachers: David Boorstin, Blanche McCrary Boyd,Paule Marshall, and Dani Shapiro.

    My love and gratitude to Dan Wilde, who holds my hand.

    And I thank the McNamaras for their stories—both the ones they reluctantly told and the onesI made up.

Part One


    My grandmother gave birth often, which I suppose increased her odds for tragedy. Herfirstborn, a sweet, chatty daughter, died when she was three years old from dehydration andthe flu. My mother had become the oldest McLaughlin child by default, and three more of myfive aunts and uncles were already walking or crawling, climbing over furniture, and drivingmy grandfather, whose heart had broken with the death of his first baby, crazy when mygrandmother became pregnant with twins.

    Today twins are considered a high-risk pregnancy. I’m sure they were then, too, but mygrandmother had four kids under the age of six to clean, dress, feed, and teach manners towith the help of Willie, the live-in black maid. My grandfather was a lawyer and on theweekends he played golf and in the evenings he drank scotch. This was long before the days ofcoparenting, long before it was even a word.

    My grandmother had to get my mother and Pat into neatly pressed uniforms and off to single-sexCatholic schools every morning. She had to keep the two youngest home with her while she andWillie split the cleaning, laundry, and cooking. She had to write letters to her mother andher husband’s mother each week, updating them on the family’s life. On Sundays, out ofrespect for the Lord, she met the challenge of keeping all of the children quiet and prayerfulin their bedrooms without toys or any books other than the Bible.

    Pregnancy, even of twins, did not get in the way of the daily routines. It couldn’t, really,since my grandmother was, for the first eleven years of her marriage, more often pregnantthan not. So she picked up toys and assigned the children chores and shushed them around theirfather and kept an eagle eye on their manners at the dinner table and supervised prayersbefore bedtime as her five-foot-two, petite body swelled. She occasionally allowed herself asmall nap while she sat upright at the kitchen table, a bowl of peas waiting to be shelledunder her fingertips. But that was it. Birthing children, making a big family, raising it upright was her main job. She ignored all sharp pains, any warning signs that something might bewrong. She was never one to complain. Even now, at the age of seventy-eight, she refusesnovocaine at the dentist’s office. She lies perfectly still, hands folded on her waist,while the dentist, shaking his head in amazement, drills into her teeth.

    My grandmother went into labor very suddenly one night after she and Willie had finishedserving the evening meal. She set down a bowl of broccoli and pressed the heels of her handshard against the edge of the table. “Children,” she said. “Meggy, elbows off the table.Your father and I will be eating later tonight. Kelly”—her sharp blue eyes on my mother,the oldest now that the true oldest was gone—“you’re in charge here, understood?”

    She walked carefully out of the dining room, aware of the children’s eyes on her, turned thecorner, and collapsed. The doctor didn’t make it in time. Willie boiled water and carried astack of clean towels to the bedroom and wept while my grandfather, scared and thereforeannoyed, stood by the head of my grandmother’s single bed and told her to keep it down. Hecursed the doctor for his slowness. He cursed Willie for moaning under her breath at the sightof blood. He cursed his pipe for not lighting on the first try. He cursed the children in theother room for their existence. He cursed his first child, his sweet baby girl, for dying onhim and leaving him here like this. Shipwrecked and lonely. Useless.

    The doctor, his pockets filled with lollipops for the McLaughlin children, showed up just asthe twins were born. Stillborn. My grandmother must have felt it. After the long last shudderof labor she turned her head to the wall, shut her eyes, and began to wail. My grandfatherand the doctor were shaken by the noise. The doctor bent over the babies, one boy and onegirl, making sure that there was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could do.

My grandmother’s cries got louder.

    “Now, Catharine,” my grandfather said, looking from the still, purplish babies to this womanwhose contorted face he did not know.

    The doctor gathered the infants in his arms. “Get them out of here,” he said to mygrandfather. “She can’t take the sight of them.”

    My grandfather grabbed the babies and, glad to have something to do, an answer to the miseryin that room, an order to follow, rushed through the house. He stumbled two steps at a timedown the stairs. He strode through the living room, where Kelly, Pat, Meggy, and Theresa saton the couch and on the floor where Willie had told them to Keep Quiet and Pray. The childrenwatched, frozen in their places as their father moved past them, blood covering his crispwhite work shirt, two purple babies held against his shoulder. He was in their sight for onlya few seconds, but that was long enough.

    Then my grandfather was in the kitchen, where Willie had gone to hide after the doctorarrived. He yanked open the door to the garage and rounded the corner to where the huge metalgarbage cans were kept. He lifted off one of the metal lids, and dropped the babies inside.They fell one after the other onto a cushion of broken eggshells and milk gone bad and a fewpotatoes that had sprouted knobs and spuds too unsightly to just cut off and ignore.

    THE STORY of the twins’ birth is a strange comfort to me. I recognize myself in the story; Irecognize the people I come from and am surrounded by. It proves that even when the worst thingimaginable happens, the individuals involved still survive. The McLaughlins were able to limpaway from the death of those babies. They remained a family. Daily routines, petty arguments,and relationships continued. I run this story over and over in my head because I need theconvincing right now. I need to know that my world is not about to explode, in spite of anysurprise or botched plan I throw at it.

    The twins’ stillbirth is just one of the refracted images that have made their way downthrough the communal memory of my family, breaking over each of us like a wave. My motherwitnessed that day with her own eyes, and then twenty years later those same eyes saw mybirth. She never spoke of the twins—because my mother, like her own mother, never speaks ofanything important. But still, I was aware of what she had seen from her seat on mygrandparents’ living-room floor long before I was able to put words to it.

    That has become my obsession, and sometimes livelihood, putting words to sensations, inklings,feelings. Looking for the back-story. I write a weekly advice column for the Bergen Record. I

    used to date the editor of the paper, and Grayson both came up with the perfect job for meand let me keep it after we broke up. He is probably my favorite ex-boyfriend. I love to comeup with the right phrase, and to pinpoint the stories that have made people who they are. Ienjoy working out other people’s problems. I like to come up with the final word, the rightanswer, and to see that printed indelibly in black and white.

    No one in my mother’s family ever talks about anything that can be categorized as unpleasantor having to do with emotions, and, as a result, they no longer have anything to say. Mymother has no idea how to carry on a normal conversation; my aunt Meggy never stops talkingand yet never says anything constructive; and getting more than four words out of my uncle Patis a major feat. For them it’s not a matter of keeping secrets; it’s a matter of beingpolite, mannerly, and tough. The McLaughlins couldn’t spill their woes or ask for help evenif they wanted to, because they don’t have the vocabulary. They are stranded withinthemselves, convinced that the only way is to silently persevere.

    My last name is Leary, but I have a lot of McLaughlin in me. It’s like looking at areflection in a broken mirror; I can see the sharp corners and growing cracks of my family. Isee pride fix my thin lips shut. I see the irony of my profession, where I ask everyone tocome to me with their heart on their sleeves, while not allowing anyone a good look at who Iam. I spend my nights at the Green Trolley, laughing, drinking, making eye contact with someman I’ve never met before and feeling that lightness spread through me, but I know this isnot—was not ever—a step toward revealing myself. I tell lies in that bar. I sometimes give

    a false name. I tell men whatever I think they want to hear, and once the words are out of mymouth, I half-believe them. I never tell anything close to a whole truth, to anyone.

    Unfortunately, I now have a secret that I won’t be able to hide for much longer. There’s nolie, fib, or narrative that will keep people from knowing this truth. Everyone will take oneglance in my direction and know my story. My belly will give me away. Twenty-nine-year-oldwoman, not enough steady income, no husband, pregnant.

    Tonight I picture my dead grandfather hugging his dead infants to his shoulder, ruining hisfine white shirt forever. Breathing steadily, in and out, aware of the muscles in his calvesas he pumps down the stairs, aware of the throbbing at his temples, the dryness in the back ofhis throat, which means he will have a drink at the first chance he gets. He clutches the

    I am alive. Then he thinks it as ababies and feels all these things and thinks, At least

    question, as he rushes past the living children sitting tight as balls on the floor and on thecouch.

    Am I alive? Is this my life?

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