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Chapter One

Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There
is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the
desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the
envelope and unfold it. There is no sound but the melody of the
dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet
nihilistic measure of static. The brief elemental vibration that
means contact. And then nothing. No smudge of ink, no greasy
thumbprint left behind. In and out of the files, no trace. It could
be the work of a ghost, this electronic eavesdropping.

I was the boy in the family and therefore, statistically, the
person most likely to seize upon the computer culture, the child to
wire the household, tune it into our century, keep the two systems,
one for me, the other for the rest of the Shaws, up and running.
Elvira, my sister, was detail oriented and analytical and could
have easily outdistanced me if only she'd had the desire. She had
the intelli- gence, certainly, to learn complex languages, to
program, to hack. But through most of the time I was living at home
she was scornful of technology, stuck, as she was, in 1862 with her
Civil War infantry regiment, the 11th Illinois. At a young age,
much to my mother's sorrow, Elvira became a hardcore Civil War

It was I who begged and moped a little and pleaded for some kind of
computer, a dud, a two- or three-year-old dinosaur--anything would
do. I built myself a cardboard replica of the first Macintosh
model, and for a good half hour at a stretch I lay on my bed typing
on the paper keys, pretending to write programs that would win me
fame and fortune. When I was nine, I appealed to my grandmother in
a simple poor-boy letter: my grandmother, the one money bag we all
in our particular ways went to, again and again, a source that
seemed inexhaustible and at the ready. When the box arrived on our
doorstep, I sat patiently with my parents showing them the
fundamental maneuvers--dragging the mouse, clicking the mouse, see
Mommy and Daddy double-click the mouse--as if the two of them were
babies being prodded through an ordinary developmental stage.

Several years later with my own money, I seriously upgraded. I had
to lure my mother to her own e-mail account with the promise that
she'd have satisfaction and even happiness. It was still early days
for the kind of communication we now take for granted. Wizard that
I was, I guaranteed her pleasure. I provided the password for her
so she could commune with her musician friends, the hip ones, so
she could have her circle of intimates right in front of her
without having to go down to the end of the town. For her screen
name I did away with her flat, no-crackle name, Beth, and from the
full Elizabeth plucked the zippy Liza, attached her age to it,
Liza38. I told her it sounded like the code name of a blond spy
with a sizable bust, someone operating out of what used to be East
Germany. When I was fourteen and fifteen, I liked to think that
what was surely my sophisticated sense of humor had blossomed into
its fullest dark and ironic potential. But big-busted-floozy spy
jokes were not my mother's style. She was not herself well endowed,
and from my point of view she was no seductress. She smiled at my
attempt at wit: Nice try, Henry. Although she would but of course
retain her dear perfection no matter what name she used, Richard
Polloco, the lover, took to the pizzazz of her screen self and
often called her Liza38.

When I first stumbled into her e-mail file, I didn't mean to. It
was accidental. It was about as easy to type in her password as
mine. I wasn't even thinking. I had no plan, nothing premeditated,
no scheme in place. I realized my error as the icons slowly formed
before me in their beamy pleased way. It was through my fingers
that I understood the misstep. "Welcome," our provider said. My
hands froze above the keys. And again the voice. "You've got mail."
You've got mail. What was the old girl up to? I suppose that
thought went through my mind.

I can't say for certain what the first message revealed, or even
whom she had written. Because it was not only messages from Richard
Polloco and messages meant for Richard Polloco that I read during
that time, but others too, e-mails that my mother wrote to her
friend Jane, hundreds, thousands of words, to explain, to justify,
to excuse herself. What I do remember is the letter, a real United
States Postal Service letter that I found in the box in the hall,
the place we put outgoing mail. I noticed it because it was
addressed to him, to Richard Polloco, in Tribbey, Wisconsin. My
mother was in the kitchen making up a shopping list, and she must
have set it there for just a minute. Richard Polloco. I already
knew enough to think, I shouldn't pick this up, and I don't want to
pick this up, and How can I keep from picking this up? I held it to
the light, and I could see the scrap of paper inside. I could see
the scrap, the size of a stamp, so small you couldn't write more
than a single word on it. That's what I thought: What did she write
that could be more than a single word? I held the envelope up in
part because it was seemingly empty. At the angle, with the aid of
the lamp, it was impossible not to see that single word on the slip
of paper. You. That's all she had written. But that single word had
weight. I knew enough by then to understand, to feel, if I'd wanted
to, the ache in that short word.

It is true that the subject of love, generally, is exhausted, but a
person can still go on for a good long time about the specifics of
a love scene, including the setting and then who said what and why,
and how it made the listener feel. One of the first e-mails I read,
and perhaps the very first one, was my mother's message to her
friend Jane, back in Vermont. "This is an old story," she began.
"There is nothing new in it." What she was doing, she said, was
hardly noteworthy because it had been acted and reenacted countless
times before. For me, during that year, the story had no elements
that felt in any way worn.

I don't believe that everything a person has seen and done is
stored in the brain, there to retrieve if only you can pick the
right lock. In fact, I blame the brain for making us as selective
as we are, for editing out what we don't want to hear, for refusing
to take hold of what could be the important detail. Still, if I
have forgotten the first message, I have the sense of what it could
have been. "This is an old story," my mother began. "There is
nothing new in it." The seemingly shopworn tale my mother inhabited
did not stop her from recounting, through the year, at great
length, her feelings, her guilt, her despair, as well as the
particulars--terrible in their vividness--of her journeys to see
Richard Polloco in Wisconsin. Rpoll, he was, at

This is how our family was back then, not so long ago, less than a
decade ago: Elvira Shaw, thirteen; myself, Henry Shaw, seventeen;
Beth Gardener Shaw, thirty-eight; Kevin Shaw, forty-three. We had
moved from a small town in Vermont to Chicago when I was fourteen.
My parents seemed to feel that the upheaval, the trauma, of moving
from one culture to another, from Mercury to Pluto, in effect, was
worth it for all of our educations. I still ask myself regularly
what it was, actually, that they were thinking. My father is a high
school history teacher, a job that combines the skills of
preaching, mudslinging, acting, and arm-twisting. You take his
American history survey course and you can never again celebrate a
holiday such as Columbus Day or Memorial Day or Presidents' Day
with any sense of national pride. After my father has done his song
and dance, you know more than you wanted to about the roughly 9
million Native Americans who died between 1642 and 1800. You are
filled with disgust, dismay, and self-loathing because a complex
civilization, a creative and by and large generous civilization,
was wiped out. My father was offered a position at the Jesse Layton
School in the tony Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. At the
time I didn't catch the detail that he'd been fired from his job in
Vermont, probably because too many of his students felt disgust,
dismay, and self-loathing after learning about their

No problem, to move from the Northfield mountains, pure granite,
from a town of 317, to a Midwestern city of 7 million built on a
swamp. What, really, were they thinking? If we were going to go
urban, my parents figured we might as well bypass the suburbs and
do it up right. Without much discussion, as was her way, my
grandmother purchased a brownstone for us on the upscale block of
Roslyn Place near the Jesse Layton School. Minty, we called my
grandmother, dollar signs blinking in our eyes. It was I, as a
toddler, who parsed Grandmother Gardener down to the essential
component. It goes without saying that we all wanted to be as close
as we could to the aging matriarch, she who ruled with her iron
hand from Lake Bluff, Illinois.

As far as the Jesse Layton parents went, the school was basically a
front for the Democratic Party, for rich bleeding-heart liberals.
If Kevin Shaw couldn't live on a racially balanced street, at least
he was given free reign to teach as he pleased, to turn out little
socialists from his class to his heart's desire, with the
understanding, of course, that the firebrands would someday settle
down and become responsible Democrats. Although his salary was
modest, he believed his position at Layton had many elements of the
dream job.

My mother, for her part, was interested in moving back home to the
Midwest because of the cold and snow of the Vermont winters and the
mud of the Vermont springs and the black flies of the Vermont
summers. Not to mention all year round the warp we lived in,
somewhere between the hardscrabble life of the real Vermonters and
the artiste vacationers, giddy with their views and the mountain
air and their leisure. My mother was ready to leave all of it, and
it was a fine time, because the band she played in had gone through
a difficult period and split up. She was free of them. Not least, I
think she believed that if we stayed in Vermont, her tomboy
daughter would one day take off into the hills with nothing on but
a loincloth, nothing but her bare hands and sharp new canines to
get herself some bloody grub.

Many friends expressed sympathy for us both before and after the
move. They had the idea that Elvira and I were being wrenched away
from Eden, taking that long fall from the fragrant warm garden to
the gritty gray world where, it is true, Elvira would have to wear
clothes. Fully dressed and in a brownstone, we would be cramped.
Outside we would be in danger from both the careless ways of the
rich and the careless ways of the poor. Chicago would be beautiful
in a man-made way, but the splendor would hardly be noticeable
because of the exhaust and the grime and the noise and the litter.
The natives jogged with their dogs and could not break their
strides to clean up after them; it was no better, probably, than a
medieval city, the chamber pots being emptied out of windows right
into the street. And there would be people, people everywhere. That
would be the worst of it, I thought, the feeling that you were
always in some- one's company. But I got tired of what seemed like
pity, and I did want to point out to the chorus that Wellington,
Vermont, was hardly Shangri-La, that at the church suppers in
Wellington you could get a hot dish with beets called red flannel
hash. Furthermore, the librarian, Mrs. Hegley, based on her
extensive knowledge of her neighbor's moral behavior, either
excused her patrons their fines or did not. My father had been a
selectman, and I had heard enough of his conversations about the
difficulty in getting monies for the school, for the library, for
much of anything beyond snow removal within a week of a storm. Both
my parents, I knew, worried about my education and my sensibility
in a community where I was the only boy in school during
deer-hunting season.

All this is not to say that Wellington wasn't a good place and that
I don't still miss it. I was taken from Vermont before I could
think to want to leave it myself, and so for me Wellington is the
ideal, my old backyard there my deepest sense of home. Right away
after the move I longed for it, in spite of the fact that I'd been
in a conspicuous position, the kid of a proselytizing socialist
schoolteacher and a city-slicker piano-playing mother. To make
matters worse, we had no television, not that, as my mother used to
say, I didn't absorb most everything I needed to understand about
our culture by respir- ing. Inhale, I got The Simpsons, exhale
Beavis and Butt-head; inhale Letterman, exhale MTV, every single
song, every single leer. When we finally did get a television, when
we moved to Chicago, I watched it that first summer, up in my
parents' room, without moving from the bed.

Excerpted from DISOBEDIENCE © Copyright 2011 by Jane
Hamilton. Reprinted with permission by Anchor, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.

by by Jane Hamilton

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385720467
  • ISBN-13: 9780385720465