The ship on which Theseus sailed … was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.
–Plutarch, “The Life of Theseus,” The Parallel Lives
We had just buried Nora Naughton. My heart ached at her loss and for the loss suffered by her father, my friend and former teacher, Professor Theodore Naughton. Many had come to Nora’s grave, and several had followed to Theo’s house, but at half past eleven it was only Theo and I who remained. We shared a brandy at his kitchen table, always the Naughton center of activity, and mourned the wonder who was Nora and the way of life she had taken with her. Gussie nuzzled my leg and looked up to me with sad eyes that I assumed were begging for her mistress’s return.
“Poor Gussie,” I said.
“Nora loved Gussie,” said Theo. “And the Gussie before her.”
I chuckled. “What breed is she?” Gussie looked like a cow; she was white with big black patches over her body and another crowning her head.
“Mutt of some kind. Sweet disposition. You see hundreds of dogs look just like her, but they’re only Gussie once the Naughtons get a hold of them.” Theo bit his lower lip and inhaled deep from his nose to stifle his tears. “Ah, shit,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Theo. I’m not here to upset you.”
“Never mind me, Fred. Just realizing that there isn’t any plural form of Naughton anymore.”
I smiled miserably, unable to think of any reply. I had met Theo in ‘33, when chance placed me in one of his European history classes. Cancer claimed Beatrice, Theo’s wife and Nora’s mother, within a year of my knowing him, and the Naughton house became our shared sanctuary through my schooldays and beyond. Nora was six when I met her, fourteen when I enlisted, and the sweetest little girl one could ever wish to see grow up in the years in between. I was Uncle Fred, even when I was still her father’s student, and especially when I remained in town after graduation. My folks were my folks, back home and I liked it that way; Theo and Nora were my family, and I cherished them.
Was only the war that broke me away, and that was nobody’s fault but time and circumstance. Nora wrote me often, as often as any of my best mate’s sweethearts penned them, and Theo usually added his own short note to her envelope. Nora told me about her friends, her education, her first date and first dance. She was like a favorite niece—no, a little sister even—and I was missing her most complicated years. Theo’s letters continued in the vein of our discourse just prior to my shipping off to war: leave town, find a city, get a job, start your life. My uncomfortable pause now steered him back in this direction.
“Any plans?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I had hoped to spend some time with you and Nora before trying anything more productive.”
“You’re an ass, Fred. It’s time you leave me be.”
“Theo, you can’t be serious. Between the time I read her last letter in France and my arrival home, our Nora has left us. I’ve barely got my uniform off, and you’ve barely spent an evening alone.”
“See here, Fred.” He patted the top of my hand and looked me hard in the eyes as he spoke. “I need time alone now. It may sound selfish, but I need to mourn Nora alone. I can’t share that with you.”
“I … I never thought of it that way, Theo.”
“You wouldn’t.” He smiled. “You’re good people, Fred. Your only thought is for me. Well, hate to be selfish, but so’s mine at the moment.”
“This is your opportunity, Fred. Go to some city. Philadelphia, New York, hell, Washington even. Find yourself a career, build yourself a nest egg. I’ll write you.”
Gussie nudged me from under the table and I sneaked a biscuit into her mouth. “I’ll try, Theo.” I was surprised at how my throat tightened. “But I’m sure going to miss Gussie.”
So I took Theo’s advice, went to New York, took a room on West 22nd in Chelsea, and fell into an entry level position in advertising at one of the monthly magazines. I put in my time, secured my position, and exchanged letters with Theo all the while. After a year at my desk I had earned a week off and I knew exactly where I was going to spend it. Theo was teasing some great surprise: I suspected he had found a friend, if not for himself maybe just for Gussie, but I never could have guessed what he had really found.
I journeyed with hope for it was Theo who had sent me away and Theo who now called me back. I recalled how well he had handled the death of his wife, but he was a younger man then and had little Nora at his side cheering him. I did my best to squelch images of squalor and loneliness. I made sure Theo knew exactly when I was to arrive, so that if he had gone to the devil he could spruce up—not for my benefit, but to avoid any embarrassment himself. My mind busied itself the entire journey, by rail and then foot when the familiar white wood-sided cottage finally presented itself before me. His yard seemed well maintained, reasonable lawn, manicured bushes, a good sign. I glanced up at the little window over the front door—Nora’s window—stepped in under the gabled roof, took a deep breath, and knocked at Theo’s door.
Yes, I knew it wasn’t Nora, except that the little golden blonde-haired girl was her spitting image of a few years ago, right around the time when I had joined the army. I was speechless as she curtsied before me, a lifetime and another whole life crammed between years that had suddenly swept away.
“Who might you be?” I asked.
“I am Nora,” she said in no more than a whisper, hesitantly adding, “Uncle Fred.”
At that point Theo rushed towards me at the door, one hand on his pipe, the other extended to steady me.
“Come in, Fred, come in, and have a nip to restore your color. Nora, dear, would you bring us the bottle?”
I waited for the girl to leave the room before grabbing hold of Theo’s shoulder and whispering through gritted teeth, “What have you done?”
Gussie nosed between us, wagging her tail and waiting for my greeting. My mind went blank as I reached into my pocket to retrieve the treat I had brought special for her.
“You gave me the idea last time I saw you,” Theo said, beaming as he did so. “Well, you and Gussie.”
“I don’t understand.” I really didn’t.
“Come in, Fred. Get your coat off, get yourself to the table and have a drink. I’ll explain all.”
“Well,” I said, following Theo into the kitchen. “You seem well.”
“I am, Fred, now I am.” He patted the kitchen table, prompting me to take my seat as he swung around and took his normal position.
“It took many months,” he said. “Thinking of Nora, our Nora, it breaks my heart and will until I lie beside her out on the hill.”
The little girl returned with the bottle of brandy as Theo spoke. He wiggled his fingers over our glasses and she filled each with a small pour.
“I understand,” I said, reaching for my drink. “I’ll always remember her, Theo.” Then, raising my glass: “To Nora.”
“Yes, to Nora, indeed.”
The little girl, this new little Nora, raised her eyebrows at my toast, sucked her bottom lip and refilled our glasses before departing the room with a trailing sigh.
“You see, Fred, I was recovering, bit by bit, day by day, but then I’d find myself away from the house. Going to town, to the bank or barber, to the grocer, and I’d see a little child and that child would snap my heart all over again.”
“I think I understand.” I did. Every little blonde girl in New York stirred my memories of Nora.
“So, I adopted her. It took quite a bit of shopping around, but …”
“Theo, dammit, this is Nora we’re talking about.” At the sound of her name the girl, this stranger, reappeared and filled my glass again. I gave her the side eye until she fell back out of the kitchen, then I leaned across the table, grabbed Theo by his shirt sleeve and whispered, somewhat ferociously: “This isn’t another Gussie, Theo. This is Nora.”
“And so is this.”
“No, Theo.” And again: “What have you done?”
I stayed five days, each of them awkward. I discovered that Theo had adopted this Nora at twelve, though the girl had recently celebrated a birthday. She was obedient, but not without a dark streak that revealed itself once or twice per day. I twice caught her rifling through my belongings, saw her sweep away the remnants of one of Beatrice’s treasured old vases before Theo could notice the accident, and one evening after dinner, as I edged towards the back door for some fresh air, I overheard her using salty language in the company of a neighbor boy with whom she shared a cigarette. There was none of the honeyed whisper she used in Theo’s presence, nor any resemblance to the late Nora’s sweet lilt, as she talked to Chollie about what, or I should say, who, her favorite film starlets were doing. In Theo’s presence she was a fawning little doll, but when he excused himself she dropped all pretense and gave me the feeling that I was unwelcome or at least interrupting something.
The morning of my departure the house was more chaotic than usual and that’s when I caught her slipping a bill from Theo’s wallet. Luckily, Theo had taken a moment to use the wash, so I confronted her.
“What business is it of yours, Uncle Fred? Maybe Papa asked for me to run some errand for him?”
I bristled at her familiarity with Theo and myself. Uncle and Papa.
“Did he?” I asked.
The glint from her eyes as they narrowed behind her mischievous smile sent a shiver down my spine.
“Did he?” she replied.
I said nothing to Theo before I left, and I never would. Theo and I still wrote, but the time between letters lengthened. Theo would update me about Nora’s accomplishments and I responded with single page replies that went out of their way to never mention either Nora.
I knew I should have been happy for them. My best friend had lost so much, was so lonely, and in response he had offered some unfortunate girl a life of comfort that she could never have imagined before coming into his house. The new Nora, whoever she was, would certainly emerge a much better person than she would have under less charitable circumstances. And Theo, either blind to her imperfections or willing to overlook them in order to relive his true daughter’s youth, snuffed out way too soon, was happy. He had made the Naughtons plural again. So why wasn’t I happy?
I visited less often as the months and years passed. I advanced at my job, fell in love with a secretary from Brooklyn, married, moved to Long Island, and we were working at having a child of our own. Nora drifted to the corner of my mind reserved for cherished children’s stories and yesterday’s sports legends. Theo remained my oldest friend, one whose friendship could withstand the passage of time through the ether. I knew he’d be there if I ever needed him, though I realized that every time I did see him, I’d have to come to grips with Nora—both Noras—all over again.
Still, I planned a visit to the Naughtons and, give her credit, my wife was willing to remain behind, allowing me the freedom to live out my past on its familiar terms. Two weeks before my scheduled arrival I received a telegram from Nora informing me of Theo’s death.
I was devastated. I told my wife that I had to move up the timing of my trip and she understood. She offered to accompany me, but did not flinch when I said it was still probably best for me to go alone. I had never actually explained the finer points of Nora to my wife, only because she hadn’t reacted well to the story of Gussie’s background. I thought about this on the train to pay my respects to Theo and decided that I would tell all when I returned home. I think I had restrained myself till now because I didn’t want her to think any less of Theo, who she already found eccentric without even having met him.
I’ll likely recall it as a dreary miserable day, but truth was it was a beautiful spring morning when I arrived at Theo’s house. Once again, the property was well-groomed and the house looked fantastic, somehow something both past and present. Memories place rainclouds over the Naughton home, but in reality the sun brightened the premises.
It had been nearly two years since I had seen Nora, who must have been about eighteen or nineteen now. While I never truly grew fond of the girl, I was curious to see what she looked like, especially since the war had denied me the privilege of seeing my Nora at her age. I knocked at the door and braced myself for the appearance of what would surely be a most beautiful young woman, but the door of Naughton house always opened with surprises.
Here I’ll admit that this is the closest I’ve ever come to fainting. My character had hardened during the war when two Germans fell by my hand and a half dozen of my friends before my eyes. I was far from squeamish. But this?
Then I noticed: Theo’s ear lobes hung a bit too low, possibly a sign of age, but his blue eyes were now brown, and that was impossible, and now that I think of it, he seemed a little taller than I remember from the last time he greeted me.
“That will be all, Papa.”
The Theo-like man turned to Nora and nodded his head. He smiled at me and walked away, a mute automaton for all I could tell. Nora, more beautiful than I even expected, entered and extended her arms, palms up, in what may have been an invitation to a hug, but which I took as a confident expression of voilà!
“I suppose you understand,” she said.
I shook my head in the negative and searched for words. “Understand? No, but I know what’s happened.”
“I had been looking for years,” she said. “This one was the best I could find, and I think he’s rather close, don’t you?”
“Fooled me,” I said. “You didn’t waste any time.”
“He was all picked out. He helped me with Papa’s arrangements last week. Now I’ll only say this once, Uncle Fred, but his name is Silas Wheatley and he ran the general store a few towns over. He answers to either Theo or Papa now.” She smiled. “I’m afraid you won’t find his conversation nearly as stimulating as Papa’s was. Poor fellow barely made it through grade school.”
“But what’s he doing here?” I asked.
“Oh, I married him.” She winked, then turned. “Won’t you come in, Uncle Fred?”
Gussie leapt at my pocket on my way to the familiar confines of the kitchen. I fetched her treat and slid it between her jaws.
“We can speak freely, Uncle Fred. I sent Papa out for groceries. He should be awhile.”
I was still speechless as I fell into my chair. Nora poured me a brandy from the familiar dust-coated bottle before sitting down across from me and smiling. Wantonly.
“It’s unseemly,” I said, my tone hushed despite the promised privacy.
She laughed, shamelessly. “He doesn’t touch me, Uncle Fred. I’d never permit that.”
She shrugged before changing the subject.
“Have you thought of me, Uncle Fred?”
“Really?” she asked. “Really, truly me? Or that goody-two-shoes old and dead Nora.”
“I … I don’t even know anymore.”
She ran her finger along the edge of her glass and smiled, this time without any sense of mockery. “That’s good, I suppose.”
What was I doing here?
“You knew about Nora’s journals, didn’t you?” I nodded. She had turned journaling into a hobby. “She loved you, you know.”
I glanced up from my drink wanting to strike her. This impostor.
“She saved all of your letters from the war. And kept carbons of the letters that she wrote to you. Oh, Fred, she wrote,” my teeth grinding as Nora reverted to her whisper, the tiny voice that approximated her predecessor. “You don’t mind if I call you Fred in my letters, do you? Under the circumstances it sounds so much more natural than Uncle Fred—”
“Stop it,” I demanded.
“Daddy says I should marry, Fred, but I’m not interested in boys—”
“Unless I could find a boy that reminded me just of you.”
I stood so quick that my chair nearly tipped over. Gussie uncharacteristically emitted a low growl. Suddenly I found myself using my shirtsleeve to wipe a tear from my eye.
This one chose the moment to laugh at me.
“Grow up, Fred,” she said, reverting to her unpolished voice.
“Bitch,” I said, under my breath, but audible. The curse only drew more laughter.
“Calm down at least. It should make you feel good.”
I sat back down and composed myself, finally staring across at the impersonator, this charlatan, only when I was sure I would not break down.
“It makes me …” I paused to find the words. “Feel shattered.”
She didn’t laugh.
“She was a hard act to follow,” Nora said of Nora. “You and Theo loved her so much, I was bound to resent her.”
I appreciated Nora’s shift away from mockery. Her words, true words, finally made me consider her side of the story. I reached out and took Nora’s hand.
“Was he a good father, at least?”
“Yes, he was. I wasn’t easy, but he made life better for me. I like to think I improved over time.” She pulled her hand away. “Fewer secrets. Less rebellion. And no more money gone missing,” she added.
I nodded. “What’s your true name, Nora?” It was the least I could ask. I wanted her to understand that I could appreciate her for who she truly was.
“Elodia Conover.” She giggled and I let out a laugh. “A bit much, right? I’ve come to prefer Nora Naughton.”
We shared memories of Theo until the new Theo, Silas, returned. He dropped an armful of brown bags on the counter, kissed Nora’s forehead, and then smiled at me on his way past before making himself scarce. Nora leaned forward to say something, and I bent towards her to hear.
“He simply obeys me,” she said. I was dumbfounded. She saw how I’d been unnerved, and so she added: “You asked me why. Because he obeys me. And while he’s not the brightest match from the box he’s much better at cards than old Papa ever was.”
I departed having made up my mind never to return. I wasn’t sure if I could hold myself to it though. These people were not Nora and Theo, they were strangers. Like a sports team where the players change but the uniforms remained the same. I was visiting Team Theo and Team Nora, Team Gussie even, and I should add that shortly after she growled at me I realized Gussie was now male. Never had been before, but then what did I expect: a twenty-year-old dog?
I recalled the old story of the axe whose head and handle had been replaced over time—was it still the same axe? All of my favorite Naughtons were now gone, but then I still rooted for the Yankees even after DiMaggio retired. And I still appreciated DiMaggio, even out of the public eye, while rooting for his replacements.
At least the kitchen furniture remained the same.
Cliff Aliperti is a Long Island-based writer, who has blogged about classic film for several years at his site Immortal Ephemera. His fiction has appeared in After Dinner Conversation, the Under Review, Fleas on the Dog, and elsewhere. You can find more about Cliff at cliffaliperti.com. Twitter: @IEphemera.