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Excerpt: 'Willing'

Chapter One

So there I was, Avery Jankowsky, New York City, early twenty-first century, not terribly well educated in light of all there was to know, but adequately taught in light of what I had to do. I wasn't someone you could push around, but I was not a leader, not a standout. I was a face in the crowd, a penitent on the edge of a Renaissance painting, a particularly graceful skater in a Breughel, the guy in the stands at the World Series, right behind the crepe bunting, his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief during the singing of the national anthem. Why would you even give him a second look? But you do. Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag. I had a kind of 1940s manliness—perhaps the doomed manliness of the father I had never known—and, unfortunately, I had a kind of 1940s income, too. Thirty-seven years old, and I had studied a chart that had run in one of the monthlies I sometimes wrote for, and in terms of income I simply wasn't where I should be. The thing is, if I'd had more money, it could be that none of this would have happened. Heracleitus taught us that Character is Fate. I don't want to argue, but money is, too.

Did I need more than I had? To that, I would have to say Yes. Did I want more than I had? Here, the Yes is unequivocal. Not that I was one of the Gimme Gimme people. I was not hatching schemes to make millions. I was not one to shove my way to the front of the line. I was not plotting the downfall of my competitors. Here's the way it was with me: I was staring at my half-empty plate with the absurd hope that my sad, hungry eyes might one day inspire someone to heap some of the world's bounty on me.

Be careful what you wish for, But before that, before I got what I wished for, and more, which is, as most people know, another way of saying Before I got what I wished for, and less, I was, to be perfectly blunt about it, still absorbed with the Sisyphean task of getting over my childhood, which was not at all how I wanted to be spending my brief flicker of existence, but was, to my perpetual chagrin, what I seemed to be stuck with.

When I asked myself Why am I me? I usually didn't look much further than the fact that I was a man who had had four fathers.

Each time my mother remarried she took her new husband's name, and I did, too. If we were to meet when I was fifteen and I said, as I would have, because I was rather formal as a teenager, How do you do, my name is Avery Jankowsky, I would be giving you relatively new information. Jankowsky was my fourth and final name. First there was Kaplan, after my first father. I don't like to call him my real father because he was around for such a short time, certainly not long enough to corner the market in realness. I wasn't yet walking or talking at the time of his death, and I have no independent memories of him; all I have are my mother's handful of repeated stories about him, memories I have more or less incorporated as my own, something in the way ethnic minorities in the former Yugoslavia have heard the stories of the crimes committed against them by the Moors in the time of Suleyman and somehow take these experiences as their own. I don't like to call him my birth father, either, since he didn't give birth to me, and Ejaculation Father is just nutty and rude, so for the most part I have simply called him Ted, though sometimes I have referred to him as Mr. Kaplan.

After I was Avery Kaplan I became Avery Kearney, out of my second father, Andrew, who was Ted's partner in a flag and banner business, and who was himself a stern Irish miser, with large ears and icy hands. The marriage lasted eight years, until my mother was caught in an affair with the man who would become the third and by far the worst of her husbands, a sadistic, sarcastic bully named Norman Blake. And so I became Avery Blake, wearing his name like a crown of thorns. In Einsteinian-emotional time, that seemed like the most protracted of her marriages, though, in fact, it lasted three years, which I would say was an embarrassingly short time for a marriage, except my one marriage was even briefer than that. After Blake was swept into the dustbin of conjugal history, I had my mother to myself, relatively speaking, for eighteen months, and then, just when the gears of our shrunken family began to mesh, she met and fell in love with my fourth and final father—Gene Jankowsky. Gene was a painter, a maker of large busy canvases, full of reds and oranges and darting little arrows indicating the flow of energy, that is, God's presence. He was tall and thick, with a Russian mystic's beard and hair down to his shoulders. His clothes and hands smelled of turpentine and his breath carried the yeasty tang of B vitamins. He loved van Gogh, St. Francis, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and, to my great relief and surprise, he loved me, too. He saw me as a helpless boy tied to the zigs and zags of a childish woman's life, like a water-skier hitched to the stern of an out-of-control speedboat.

The foregoing is excerpted from Willing by Scott Spencer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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