Saturday, October 6, 2007
To Be Consoled
a novel in voices
by Paul Charles Griffin
“There is no leaf of the forest, or lowly blade of grass, but has its ministry.”
-Ellen G. White, from The Desire of Ages: The Conflict of the Ages Illustrated in The Life of Christ
Lower Plymouth, Pennsylvania
The world was peaceful from the top of the evergreen. The wind was blowing from the south, from the schoolyard at the end of the street. The wind was blowing through the leaves of the other trees. The wind blows wherever it pleases. Jesus said that. Soon the leaves would change their colors. Maybe then Mommy would come home, I thought. That morning she had thrown plates against the kitchen wall, taken a busted plate into her room and locked the door. Uncle Don came over and broke down the door and took her away. There was blood on her arms. We were in the hospital for a couple of hours and Uncle Don yelled at us. Wagged his finger at us and told us it was all our fault.
The fiesta style plates were clean, fresh out of the dishwasher. Now they were shattered. Four of them in total. Through the wind, I could still hear the sound of each one hitting the wall.
I wondered what was for dinner. Sissy was not a good cook, but she’d have to make something. Maybe she’d put one of those Stouffer’s vegetable lasagnas in the oven. That wasn’t hard. I figured that was what she’d do. Sometimes I got a cold spot in my lasagna, but if it was warm throughout, it was okay. I wasn’t hungry, though, so I didn’t care.
Uncle Don said mom had gone away for a couple of days, maybe forever. And that it was our fault. That we had to behave, to be nice to mom so this wouldn’t happen again.
—Look what you’ve done to her, he said.
I figured Mommy would come back before the leaves changed because she loves when the leaves change. She taught me why the leaves change colors: because autumn arrives. She wouldn’t miss it. I wondered if the leaves changed where ever Mommy was. I thought so because nature is everywhere.
I could see the end of the block from atop the tree. The neighborhood boys were playing basketball. The ball clanged against the rickety backboard. This sound was jarring, like the sound of a plate shattering against a wall. Beyond the court, beyond the dead end, there was the schoolyard. The big red brick wall of the schoolhouse. The flags whipped around in the sky above the building. There was a strong wind.
—Maggie, come down from there.
It was Sissy, standing at the bottom of the tree. Sissy is beautiful. The bones in her face were made right. I will never be as beautiful as her. She has large breasts, like Mommy, and even though Sissy tells me that I too will have breasts one day, I know they won’t be as large as hers.
—Come down now, she said. It’s almost dinnertime. We’re having lasagna.
What is the word for knowing something before it happens? I asked my teacher in school last year, last spring. But that was so long ago that I forgot. I don’t like to forget things, it makes me nervous. For example, they told me where Mommy was, but I couldn’t remember the name of the place. It was a kind of Center. A place where Mommy can rest, Aunt Rita said.
—Maggie, are you listening to me? Sissy said. Come down from there.
—No, I said.
—Yes, she said.
Sissy flipped her hair back over her shoulder. She did this when she was nervous, she made this gesture to show off her beauty.
I was staring into space, trying to see the wind, but I could only see the wind in the wind-blown leaves.
—Maggie, are you all right?
Everybody was asking me this. Is there a word for everybody asking you the same question over and over again?
—Yeah, I said, I’m fine.
Sissy was standing at the base of the evergreen tree that stood on the corner of our property. Behind the tree was the sign that named our street, Eagle Road. I was at the top of the tree, like a bird. Once Daddy had come back when the leaves turned red and orange. He pulled up in a new-smelling car and drove us to the Ponderosa for dinner. Mommy didn’t come. But Daddy stood there at the door of his car, and he seemed proud. Red leaves blew around behind his head. We piled in the back of the car and as we drove down the road, Daddy played rock music from the stereo and we all sang out loud with the windows open and the fresh air pouring in. I sang too, even though I didn’t know the words. The chorus was easy: Forever young, oh, forever young. I poked my head out the window. I stuck my hand out the window, too, and let the wind catch it. I moved my hand up and down over the mailboxes and street signs as we passed them, tracing the forms, pretending that I had a wing.
—Mom’s going to come home soon, you know that, right, Maggie?
I looked down squarely at Sissy. She should have emptied the dishwasher, even if it was Simon’s chore for the day.
—When? I asked. When is mom coming home?
—Probably tomorrow morning, she said. Maybe before you even wake up.
I woke up before the sun came up, so I didn’t believe Sissy. I could tell she wanted to be telling the truth, but she wasn’t, because she really didn’t know when mom was coming home. I wanted to believe Sissy, but I couldn’t.
Angry, I turned away from her and started rubbing my arm against the bark of the tree. My skin got red and crumbled off. It hurt and felt good at the same time.
—You’re lying, I said.
I rubbed my arm against the tree real hard, staring off into the green wind. Bits of bark broke off the tree and stuck into my skin. I liked that.
—Maggie, come down now! screamed Sissy.
—No! I screamed back.
She was angry, too, and she began to climb the tree. As she got closer to me, my heart sped up. She was climbing quickly, gripping each branch so that her knuckles went white and then pulling herself up with great huffs. For an instant, I wondered if her anger was the same as my anger, if it existed between us, or if her anger was her own anger, and was inside her body somewhere, or if the anger was entirely separate from both of us.
—Get away from me! I screamed. I don’t have to come down if I don’t want to!
I rubbed my arm harder and blood started oozing out of my skin. That felt good, that was what I wanted. If Sissy got too close, I could wipe my blood on her to scare her off. My blood mixed with bits of bark. I was crying, though I hardly realized it. A gust of wind blew in from the south, from the dead end. I could see it coming because it swirled up the leaves lying in the street. I could see the great gust of wind coming at me and when it hit the tree, I held on tight. Sissy didn’t see the wind coming and when it hit us, her foot slipped, and she screamed a curse word.
—Fuck! she said.
I stopped rubbing my arm, and felt my arm tingle with pain. To escape from Sissy, I began climbing higher, but the truck of the evergreen grew thinner and thinner as I climbed higher, so I couldn’t really go much further. As Sissy got closer to me, my heart raced faster and faster. I was so afraid of her touching me that I had a hard time breathing. My breaths were short and choppy and frightened. I felt really claustrophobic. I couldn’t go any higher, but Sissy kept coming at me. When she reached my part of the tree, she grabbed my foot and pulled. I yelled at her to stop because I felt for an instant that I might fall out of the tree.
—Get away from me! I screamed. I’m going to fall.
She yanked at my foot and I was scared shitless. I thought we might fall. So I whipped my foot free, and with all my force, I kicked Sissy in the eye. Hard.
—Fuck! screamed Sissy, holding her eye.
I put my foot back on the branch and watched Sissy feel her pain.
—Damn it, Maggie, she said. Come down for dinner!
—No, I said.
Then she left. In defeat, she shook her head at me, and with one hand holding her eye, she carefully descended the tree. Pete and Simon showed up at the bottom of the tree and started yelling at us. The were all yelling at each other so loud that I couldn’t hear the wind anymore.
I just wanted to be alone.
I looked down at my brothers and sister and felt far away from them. I felt different, that’s all. Not that I didn’t like them, just that I was different. And different from Sissy in particular, who was so beautiful and girly and perfect. She backed down out of the tree, holding her right eye, yelling mean things at me, calling me a “brat” and a “freak”. But I didn’t care what she said. Even if her eye bruised, she would always be more beautiful than me. That was hard to understand. Why was Sissy so beautiful and perfect? Alone again at the top of the tree, my mind started racing. Two more things I didn’t understand were why Pete wasn’t wearing his glasses anymore and why Simon hadn’t emptied the dishwasher like he was told. Why was Pete staring at me like that? What was wrong with Simon? Why had mom thrown dishes against the wall? No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t figure these things out.
It began to rain and Aunt Rita came out of the house and said dinner was ready. I would have to come down from the tree and eat dinner. I wanted to be alone, but I wasn’t allowed to be. Again, for just a moment, I looked out across the schoolyard, and then up into the sky where I could see dark clouds approaching, and I knew it was going to rain hard all week.
I could see Maggie in the tree just fine. I used my willpower focus on her. Come down from the tree, Maggie, I thought. Come down from the tree, Maggie. Come down from the tree. Down tree. Down tree. Downtry. Downtry.
She climbed down and joined the family for dinner.
Sissy had set the dining room table for supper. She used the cloth napkins and lit two candles. I don’t know who she was fooling. mom was gone and nobody was happy. Aunt Rita was pretending along with Sissy that everything was fine, commenting on how delicious the lasagna tasted, how scrumptious the buttered rolls. Sissy, the oldest, always had to have things perfect. Good looks, good grades, good prospects. When the country is ready for a woman president, it’ll be Hannah “Sissy” Lord swearing in on the Capital steps.
Maggie didn’t eat anything. I saw her stuffing green beans down her shirt, as if anybody cared if she ate her supper that night. Simon was eating with his fingers.
—Peter, please put your book down, said Sissy.
—Why? I asked.
—Because it’s Sunday supper and we’re going to talk, she said.
I laid my book, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, still open to the page I was reading, to the side of my plate. Not mom. Not mom. Not mom. Ntmum. Ntmum. I concentrated on steering the conversation away from the topic of our missing mother. When mom came back from Simon’s baseball game, she freaked out. I was sitting on the couch in the living room, reading my novel, focusing my energies. Trying to figure out why exactly I so hated this Rabbit Angstrom character. Of course I knew why. The bastard ran. I didn’t understand him. That’s why I hated him so much. Confusion, repulsion, disgust. These emotions were purged by my reading. “Purged” is a good word. mom walked by me and into the kitchen without saying anything. I heard her pull open the door to the dishwasher. She shrieked. I sat upright, my ears pricked. An avalanche of silverware fell to the floor. I ran to the kitchen door and stood there, a few paces from my mother.
Ours is small kitchen. A round wooden table sits before the window and takes up most of the space. Out through the back of the kitchen is the laundry room and the door to the backyard. The wallpaper is yellow and a ceramic rooster sits on the table next to the lazy susan. mom stood at the sink, straight ahead from where I watched. The dishwasher was to her left. Sissy, Simon and Maggie appeared beside me at the doorway just as mom threw the first dish against the wall, causing the clock to fall down, nicking her arm. I covered Maggie’s eyes with my hands.
—Have you finished your homework, Simon? asked Sissy as we picked at our lasagnas.
—Yeah, said Simon, lying.
—Did you have a lot of homework? persisted Sissy.
—Like a million tons, said Simon. And I got every answer right.
Simon had recently discovered sarcasm and I didn’t like it. I wondered if he’d ever talk straight again. If not, I’d hit him. Hard across the chin.
—Why don’t you wear your glasses anymore? Maggie piped up, addressing me.
But what could I tell her? She wouldn’t understand. Nobody understands anything.
—Don’t worry about it, I said.
See see see, I silently intoned, staring at my little sister.
—Can you see all right? she asked.
—Sure, I can see fine, I said.
—How many fingers am I holding up? she asked.
—Three, I said.
—Well, I don’t get it, said Maggie. I think it’s stupid.
Aunt Rita looked at me.
—Your mom tells me you think your eyes will improve naturally, she said. Is that it?
I rolled my eyes at her and thought, Nothing will help me from seeing your ugly face.
—I said, Don’t worry about, I said.
I picked up my book. On page 85, Rabbit makes love with Ruth, his crosstown mistress. Her nipples are sunken brown buds, her bush a froth of tinted metal. It excited me to read this passage. I felt throbbings throughout my body. When I turned my attention to the story tucked within these pages, my anger abated, my family ceased to exist.
Then, in the present tense, when I look up from my book, the world rushes back into me. It is my presence that creates the world. The candles flickering with hopelessness. Aunt Rita, dumb and helpless, watching over this flock of her sister’s. The store-bought lasagna, ever cold in the middle. Simon, whose feeble mind has never stood still for a single minute, bless his heart, is looking out the window, his plate clean, his desire that dinnertime be over evident in his upward-titled chin, his longing, outward gaze. Dropped again from the sublime world of words into this physical existence of ours, I lick my chops like a beast, looking around at these strange fellow creatures, my family. Maggie’s feet are restless, almost running beneath the table. Sissy sits upright, ever mindful of her posture. The slab of butter, carelessly stabbed at on all sides. The sun is setting out the front bay windows, just over the hedge, out beyond the schoolyard, and the long day is ending.
—When’s mom coming back? asked Maggie.
—Soon, said Aunt Rita. Probably tomorrow morning.
She knew nothing. We all know nothing. The food in our bellies was our consolation.
—What’s the name of the place, again? Where mom is? asked Maggie.
—Redwood Center, said Sissy, certainty lending her confidence.
The name was somehow soothing.
We ate our dinners in silence until Simon asked to be excused and Sissy let him go. It was my night to do the dishes. Such a quotidian task. Names to contemplate: plate, sponge, Brillo pad, Palmolive. Drying rack and elbow grease. I dedicated myself to the job. I scrubbed the five plates — we were using our breakfast plates — and placed each one carefully on the drying rack. The excess water dripped off the plates and onto the towel beneath the rack. The few remaining rolls I put back into a plastic grocery store bag, closed the bag up with a twisty tie. I took the dish cloth and wiped down the counter and the table and the sink. Squeezed the dirty water out of the rag and draped it over the spigot. Stood back and admired the quiet glisten of a clean kitchen. Order, perfection.
Down the hall of our rancher, I got under my covers and opened my book again. A light seemed to beam out from the book as soon as I cracked it. But I did not pick up from where I had left off. I unwittingly returned to page 82. I was ashamed at this failure to exercise my will. But the pull back to the earlier page was like the undertow in the ocean on a stormy day. Stronger than I. What else is stronger than I? Nothing. I come into the present again and, without a forethought, I send out a prayer to a God I don’t believe in that I will encounter nothing else stronger than I. No other such insoluble problems. Please Lord, send me no unworkable situations. I even ask him to heal my eyes, and then am ashamed for having done so. I will heal mine own eyes. Mine eyes. Mine eyes. Have seen the glory but also the extinguished flame. Read about it in a book that moved me to read all night without sleep. Is that not then truth? To read all night without sleep and be moved in the heart. How else am I to discern truth from un-truth besides this inward fluttering? So, my prayer escaped now, no bringing it back, I return to my senses. And beneath the sheets, my hand begins to bring blood to my most precious member.
Galled, he shoves up through her and in addition sets his hand under her jaw and shoves her face so his fingers slip into her mouth and her slippery throat strains.
The fucking bastard. Fucking shithead Rabbit Angstrom. Why does he “shove” her face? My father told me he loved this book. The problem with books is authors are ghosts.
I imagine shoving up through someone. I try to imagine widehipped Ruth, but the face is more like Janie’s from school. There is a frantic passion to my stroking. Quickly now, the sock.
Shame, power, fatigue, vigor. My senses again grow keen. Self-control returns I look around, breathing in close, silently. The corners where the walls met the ceiling sharpen. The walls themselves pulse. My bed, a refuge. I am alone. With perfect concentration, I return to my book. The words flow to my mind like so many soldiers lined up and marching in a parade. There is no time but the time in the story. Fifty pages later I can’t take that no-good bastard Rabbit any longer. Yet, I am drawn to his story like a space ship to a black hole. I fear my own obliteration therein, but fearlessly, I read on. Another five pages.
My lights off, I perform my focus exercises. Work on my night vision. Place my eyes on an object across the room — the dark lamp on my desk. Notice its particulars: the long, black arm, the Philips bulb, the twisting switch on top. Intone: see see see. See. But this slogan morphs into mom mom mom. I allow this, accept this. Come home, mom. Come home, mom. C’mhmom. C’mhmom c’mhmom c’mhmom c’mhmom... Quieter now, a self-whispering, a sleeping... c’mhmum c’mhmum c’mhm’m’c’mhm’m...
The lasagna was cold in the middle. Gross. My stomach hurt. When I put the lasagna in there, it hurt more. Maybe lasagna and Now and Laters and Skittles don’t go good together, I thought, so I didn’t have another bit. When Aunt Rita looked away, I stuffed green beans down my shirt so it looked like I had eaten something. I hate when people bother me about my eating. So what if I eat a lot of candy? Stacy and I like to eat enough candy so our minds go Sugar Loopy.
—Peter, please put your book down, said Sissy.
—Why? he said.
—Because it’s supper and we’re going to talk, she said.
I wanted to know where Mommy was because I had forgotten where she was but I was afraid to bring it up. In my pocket, I found a few leftover Skittles.
When Stacy and I went to the WaWa in town in the afternoon before Mommy threw the plates, we didn’t have any money. Never any money, honey, Stacy says, and we laugh. There’s never any money, honey, she says, and she pats me on the back kinda hard. Her Pa is a trucker and is gone for days at a time and when he comes home all he does is sleep on the couch in front of the TV and watch re-runs of crime shows. Sometimes he leaves change in a bowl by the front door, but we looked today and there wasn’t any. We went to the store anyway.
We had a plan to put the candy down the front of our pants and just walk out the front door.
—I take stuff all the time, Stacy said.
—Really? I said.
—Sure, I do, she said. Because there’s never any money, honey.
We walked down the sidewalk, skipping over the cracks. We held hands.
—What does it feel like? I asked.
—What does what feel like? she said.
—What does stealing feel like?
—Taking candy isn’t really stealing, silly, she said, pausing. It’s gotta be, like, more than five dollars worth to be stealing.
—Oh, I said.
—What does it feel like taking stuff? I asked.
—It’s exciting, she said, and she let go of my hand and ran up ahead. There were dandelions in the lawn of library we were passing through. Stacy ran and kicked one and the white tufts floated up into the air.
Acne-faced Alex was behind the counter at the WaWa. The candy aisle was close to the front and when we got close to the candy, I got scared. The stuff the preacher said at church about the wrath of God flooded my head. Even though I often didn’t quite understand what he was saying, I could tell by the way he swung his arms that he was serious and that I would be in trouble if I broke the rules. Stacy didn’t go to church, ever. She giggled as she went down the aisle stuffing Fun Dip, Pock Rocks and Pixy Stix down her pants. But I couldn’t do it. She egged me on with her eyes, but I just couldn’t do it. The crinkle of the wrappers down her pants made me anxious. And when the cash registered beeped as other people’s items slid across the machine I got really nervous. As we walked out the doors, I felt Alex’s hand on my shoulder, but when I turned around he wasn’t touching me. If fact, he wasn’t anywhere near me, he wasn’t even paying attention to us. Didn’t he think pale, freckled girls like us ever stole anything?
We ran to the park and laughed. In the field, we collapsed and Stacy started pulling out her booty. The sun was hot and the air was cool and even though I hadn’t stolen anything, I felt exhilarated and sinful and alive in my heart.
—That looks like more than five dollars worth, I said.
—Whatever, said Stacy, unwrapping a Now and Later.
We lay back and ate our candy and felt the sugar go to our heads. It was Sugar Loopy time and we sang songs and stomped our feat and steamrolled each other in the grasses.
That was in the afternoon, before mom threw the dishes.
—Eat your dinner, said Sissy to me, all bossy.
But I didn’t feel like it. I wasn’t hungry at all because of I ate all that candy with Stacy and because my stomach felt funny about mom being gone. So I just pulled my leftover Skittles out of my pocket and ate them one by one, slyly so that Sissy and Aunt Rita wouldn’t see me. I think Simon saw me, but he didn’t say anything because he didn’t care. The sweet, candy-red in my mouth cheered me up, but only a little and not for very long.
The world is too loud.
To me, it’s like the music on the car stereo when the windows are down and my sister is yapping and the guitarist is shredding his guitar and the drummer is crashing his snare and the singer is screaming his rock. That’s what the world sounds like to me all the time. TOO LOUD in my head. I can’t control the sounds. I can’t keep them from coming in and I can’t turn them down.
Even at dinner with mom gone and everybody quiet and scared the room is screaming.
Even the silence screams.
What I like most is riding my bike. I rode my bike all day today and I forgot I was supposed to empty the dishwasher. I forget things all the time. I rode my bike behind the school and through the woods. Looking for the man in the woods the enemy the man with the evil in him. The man who my brother said hurt mom. I do not know what the man in the woods looks like, but I am looking for him, and when I find him
I will hurt him.
When I ride my bike the air blows by my ears so loud that it quiets down the world.
I don’t have to go to school tomorrow because mom is gone.
She threw plates against the wall and Uncle Don took her away so now I don’t have to go to school. That makes me happy because I hate school.
Today on my bike when I sensed the helicopter I chased down the sound. What I most love in all the world is heavy metal music and chasing down helicopters. I followed the helicopter through the woods to the river and the whole time I wasn’t even looking where I was going. I was just riding straight through the woods with my ears on the copter in the sky and suddenly I went crash into the creak. Got my clothes all wet and bent the handlebar on my bike. Came home all soaked that’s when mom threw the dishes.
and this lasagna is cold in the middle, but I don’t care I’m soooooo hungry.
Mom is gone everyone’s mad at me. I can’t do anything right. I can never remember the things I am supposed to remember like math or chores.
Even during dinner when people are quiet I can hear their hearts beating loud and I can feel them feeling things loud. I can hear Sissy’s heartbeat louder than the rest. She is often has the loudest heartbeat and I feel bad for her and want to hug her but if I try and do something like that in the middle of dinner Sissy will just tell me to sit down. I can hear Aunt Rita chewing her lasagna. Everything is so loud it’s deafening.
I’m gonna be straight-up honest here, I always had a thing for Miss S. Not to be crude, but she was in fact a first-class MILF. A Mother I’d Like to Fuck, for those of you unfamiliar with the expression. Yes, Miss S was the neighborhood’s number one MILF before her friend Karen moved in, then they were tied for the neighborhood’s number one MILF. Ms. S because she was so damn voluptuous, you know, with her gigantic knockers and her ass shaped like a watermelon, and Karen, well, because she was young and blond and sexy in that bad Catholic school girl way. Six kids between the two of them and still, Good Lord, you wanted to screw them both. At the same time, if possible. Maybe that’s rude of me to say, but that’s the way I think. I’m constantly full of sexual fantasies. As far as I know, that’s the way all men think.
I used to mow Ms. S’s lawn. You know she had left her husband a while back, and I could see she had a tough time with those kids, financially and emotionally and whatnot. I mean, I saw her foodstamps lying around the kitchen counter once, and I also heard her yell at her kids, especially that younger one, Simon, more than a few times. Without a man around, I knew she had a hard time keeping food on the table and keeping the four of them in line. So I offered to help out and I got to mowing her lawn about once a week. It’s not like it was big deal, my brothers and me, The Giovanno Brothers Co., we mow laws all over town, so we have all the best mowers. When I told them I wanted to mow Ms. S’s lawn, they gave me the eye, like, You know she can’t pay for that, and I said I wanted to do it as a service, a kind of friendly neighborly service. And they said, Yeah right, you just wanna mow Ms. S. And they laughed, and I laughed too. But it’s one of those things, one of those truth on both sides of the coin things. Because, honest to God, on the one hand, I just wanted to do something nice for Ms. S. She was such a good person, you could tell by the way she looked at you. She was the kind of person who looked you in the eye and wasn’t afraid to look away, not at all, not for any reason whatsoever, and yet when some people give you that kind of stare-look, you feel this aggression, like the person is trying to laser you down with their eyes or something, you feel kind of annihilated by their stare, if you know what I mean; but Ms. S, her eye contact was completely different, there was this warmth and openness in it. I know that sounds strange, but believe me, I’ve done some shit in my life, especially in my relationships with women, and when people try to look at me like that, with that intense stare, sometimes I give way, I look away first, because, honest to God, what the hell are they looking for in my eyes in the first place. Most people, when they stare you in the eye, it feels like some sort of test, like, I’m going to stare you down and I’m going to look into your soul and I’m going to see whether or not you are a good person. That kind of aggressive morality test stare, I don’t like. But when Ms. S looked at me, with her special brand of kind intensity, I just felt all right. I’d even venture to say I felt love, in a general way, but honestly, I’m not sure I know what that word means.
So what I’m saying is I really liked Ms. S, and I liked being around her. She made me feel good, just standing around drinking lemonade and shooting the shit. She was always good for a talk, even if she was distracted by the kids, busy cooking them dinner or whatever, and even if she had to slip in some Jesus crap at some point, usually toward the end of our little chats, I didn’t mind, I still loved talking with her. In fact, hearing Ms. S talk about Jesus a few times even got me thinking about that old martyr again, about how he was a swell guy, maybe not the Sole Redeemer of All Humanity or whatever, but a good guy nonetheless, a fellow worth spending a couple of minutes thinking about now and again. Talking with Ms. S and thinking about old J.C. while walking home actually made me feel good. And for all of these reasons — that Ms. S clearly needed a man to help out once in a while, that she was a real good person, and that I just liked talking and being with her — all of these reasons made me want to mow her lawn.
But, I’m gonna be completely honest here, at the same time, I wanted to screw her. God, did I want to screw her. I’d get about twenty steps away from her house, pushing my mower down the street back home, and after a fleeting thought about old Mr. Died On The Cross, I’d be back to the rampant sexual fantasizing that occupies so much of my waking life. I know women like to joke about men thinking about sex all the time, but I am firmly of the opinion that if a woman, say Ms. S for example, got into a man’s mind, say my own hopelessly dirty one, for just a day, just one measly day, they’d be shocked shitless how much we really do think about sex almost non-stop. I read something like every three or four seconds, on average, and I wouldn’t doubt that for an instant. Yes, I wanted to lay that big-breasted, cheerleader-like, Jesus-loving mama like you wouldn’t believe. For me, Ms. S was your classic MILF, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I suppose that’s the flip side of the coin.
But the question is: Could I have wanted to mow Ms. S’s lawn for free purely out of the kindness of my heart, purely because she was a good person in need of a neighbor’s friendly helping hand? Could I just have been being a good Samaritan, as Ms. S always called me? Is that even possible? Or, deep down, in the final analysis, in truth, did I just want to bang her? Who the hell knows. It’s easy to say, Oh, a little of both. Okay sure, but can the truth really be so easy, so ambiguous and guilt-free? I’m not so sure. My hunch is that the latter reason, my raging sexual desire for the woman, is the dominant cause of my supposedly charitable behavior. I’m just trying to be honest. I’d like to believe that I mowed her lawn just because I was a nice guy. I’d like to believe that, believe me, I would, but I’m gonna be honest here, I can’t, I just can’t.
The compost bucket reminded me of mom. In the corner of the kitchen counter, mom kept a green Tupperwear container into which she put refuse: the outer layer of an onion, an orange rind, leftover salad. Then she would take the bucket out to the back yard, behind the raspberry bushes and under the pine tree, and she would dump the refuse into the compost, a small circular space enclosed by a wire fence. I was cooking scrambled eggs for breakfast. Aunt Rita was buttering toast. A fly buzzed around the compost container. Mom hadn’t come home in 35 hours. She hadn’t even called.
I was trying to remain outwardly calm, but my hands were shaking.
—Simon, I said, I want you to take the bucket out to the compost after breakfast.
He was eating Honey Nut Cheerios, reading the comics. He didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen.
—Simon, I said, lifting the wooden spoon to my ear, Did you hear me?
—What? he said, looking up.
—I said I want you to take the bucket out to the compost after breakfast.
—Okay, he said. He stuck his spoon into his bowl and pulled up a spoonful of milk and honeyed oats. The food in his mouth, he smacked his lips.
—Stop smacking your lips, I said.
He didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. Or, as I understand his condition—Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—from my readings in my Psychology textbook, he hears everything, in fact, he hears all too much, and his mind can’t properly filter the information.
With my wooden spoon, I swatted at the fly. It lifted off a piece of lettuce, hovered a moment, then landed again in the Tupperwear container. Seeing that bucket, I kept thinking about mom. The eggs came out too dry because I hadn’t been paying attention. My mind was all over the place. I hadn’t slept well. I’d been up most of the night, again, waiting for mom to come home or call. My body felt tired and weak and achy. I swatted at the fly—three times I swatted—but it wouldn’t go away. I felt like crying, but I had to hold it together.
—Who wants eggs? I said, turning around with the hot frying pan in my oven-mitted hand. I’m sorry, but it looks like they came out a little dry this morning.
As I served Maggie a heap of eggs, I wanted to yell at her for disappearing yesterday. I hold grudges. But at the same time I was afraid to speak, because I was afraid Maggie would ask about mom. And I didn’t want anybody to talk about her. I felt like if anyone mentioned mom, I would break down. She would be home soon, I was sure of it. Because she had to see me off to the Homecoming Dance with Jason tomorrow night. She would be home by then. It was that simple.
Aunt Rita got out five small plates that we never used and put the toast on them and put the plates on the kitchen table. I was afraid Aunt Rita was going to talk about mom. How she didn’t call. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t called yet. Uncle Don called late last night and talked with Aunt Rita for fifteen minutes. But when Aunt Rita got off the phone and came into the den where we were watching TV, all she said was, “Your Mom’s all right and she’ll be home very soon.” We looked at each other in silence. Simon asked, “When?” and Aunt Rita said, “Soon.” But we didn’t believe her, at least I didn’t. We turned our attention back to the TV, which was playing an advertisement for L’Oreal.
I served Simon and Aunt Rita. Peter declined the eggs, said he just wanted cereal. As I put the pan back on the stove, I saw Maggie open her mouth. Please Lord, no.
—Can I go over to Stacy’s after school today? she asked.
Aunt Rita and I looked at each other. On the one hand, I wanted to let Stacy go, so she could be happy. But on the other hand, I was still angry with her for disappearing and I felt she had to be punished.
—Sure, you can, sweetie, said Aunt Rita.
Since when was Aunt Rita in charge? Where was she all the nights I had spent babysitting?
—Be home in time for dinner, I said, 6:30.
My hands still trembling, I scraped the remains of the eggs—the part that sticks to the pan and peels off in one piece, like a layer of skin—into the compost bucket. I let out a spurt of tears, but no one saw. I kept scraping even when all the eggs were already scraped out.
Then I had the horrible thought again, the thought that had been haunting me, the thought that had been keeping me from sleeping: What if Mommy had died? Because that’s what it felt like. Like she had died. Like she had killed herself. Like we had lost her and no one was telling us the truth. She hadn’t even been gone two days and yet that’s what it felt like. Like she was dead and gone. This thought led to the next horrible thought: What if she hadn’t died, but what if she came back and kept throwing plates against the wall? Would that be better than her not coming back at all? Ever? This was my horrible thought; it had nested in and stuck with me. It returned that day at the most unpredictable times: when I was scraping eggs, when I was taking my math test, when I was standing at my locker with Jason. And again at the end of the day when the final bell rang, the thought devoured me. What if Mommy had died, or what if what had happened to her was even worse. The thought had its own life. It led to other tormenting thoughts: What if Mommy had lost her mind? That happened to people. I’d read about it for my Psychology class. Mommy could have lost her mind. Why not? That happened. People died, and people lost their minds. Both were possible. In bed the night before I had looked up “nervous breakdown” in my Psychology textbook. Because that’s what I’d heard Aunt Rita say on the phone to Uncle Don. That Mommy had “suffered a nervous breakdown.” But my textbook said that this was not an actual medical term. Nevertheless, there was a section in the book devoted to it. Its possible causes included:
chronic and unresolved grief
chronic insomnia and other sleep disorders
serious or chronic illness of a family member
death of a family member
a traumatic, violent, or near-death experience
deception by a loved one
—Sissy, said Peter, can you please stop scraping that pan?
I turned on the hot water and poured soap into the pan and put the pan in the sink under the water. I watched the pan fill with sudsy water then turned the faucet off.
—Sit down and eat something, Hannah, said Aunt Rita.
—I’m not hungry, I said.
—You have to eat something, she said.
So I sat down and took a bite from the corner of a piece of toast. Aunt Rita had put too much butter on it. The center of the toast was soggy and gross and fattening. Even though it wasn’t really butter—it was Country Crock margarine—I still didn’t want to eat it. I nibbled at the edges and prayed silently to Jesus to steady myself.
Dear Jesus, I pray to You in all Your glory. In Your all-powerful, all-loving grace and truth, I beg You to keep my mom well. I don’t want her to die. And I don’t want her to go crazy. I want mom to come home and be well, and when she does, we will all be good to her. We will do our chores and do as we are told and do our Bible studies. I will help Simon and Maggie with their studies because I know they struggle. I will read to them from the Book of John because this is Mommy’s favorite book and in this book Your story is told. In Jesus’s name I pray, Amen.
—Can I have a dollar? said Simon.
—What do you need a dollar for? I snapped.
—I just need it, he said.
—That’s not a good enough answer, I said.
I never know what to say, I thought.
—I want it so I can get something sweet, he said.
—What are you talking about? interjected Peter. Just shut up.
—At lunch, said Simon. I want something sweet at lunchtime.
—Don’t you get a dessert with your meal card? I asked. You should get a dessert with you card.
Simon shoved a spoonful of Cheerios into his mouth and said:
—But the dessert I get with the meal is stupid. Like pineapples or something.
—Don’t talk with your mouth full, I said.
—Get the pudding? said Peter.
—I don’t like pudding, said Simon.
—What do you want for Christ’s sake? asked Peter.
—Peter! scolded Aunt Rita. Watch your mouth.
—I want a Kit-Kat.
—Oh, shut up, Simon, said Peter. You don’t need a frickin’ Kit-Kat.
I stood up and began clearing the table. I could smell a piece of cantaloup rotting in the compost bucket. My chest was tight and I realized if I didn’t hurry I’d miss the bus. I stacked the dishes in the sink and told Aunt Rita I didn’t have time to wash them, that I would wash them later. With a sponge, I wiped down the counter, scooping up the crumbs under the toaster, sopping up a pool of spilled eggs.
I spoke the words in my head: For God so loved the world.
I knew Jason would be standing at the curb when my bus arrived. His bus always arrived earlier than mine so he waited for me outside and then we went to our lockers together. He took me to my locker first because he was a gentleman. I wondered if he was the kind of man my grandmother told me to look for: the man with the biggest mind who thinks the least.
From across the front yard came the sound of the middle school bell. The five minute warning bell.
—Simon, Maggie, did you hear that? I said. Get going.
Aunt Rita stood up and hustled Simon and Maggie along. As Simon was tying his shoes, I saw her take a Fruit Roll-up out of the cupboard and put it into Simon’s backpack. Maggie went la la la out the door as if her head were in the clouds and life was but a song. Pete sat at the table reading his book, eating his cereal; the rest of the action he blocked out. I don’t know how he did it, how he shut out the world and concentrated on his reading. It seemed unfair, almost inhuman. I gave both Maggie and Simon notes explaining why they had missed school the day before: absence due to illness. What else did the school need to know of our private affairs? At the door, I tried to comb Maggie’s hair because she always left it in tangles as if she didn’t even care. But she pushed me away and ran out the door and down the driveway, singing her la la la’s.
—Simon, I screamed, tie your shoes!
I heard the bus for the high school coming down the road.
—Peter, I screamed, the bus is coming!
He was standing right behind me, ready to go.
—I know, he said, it comes every day at 6:34.
Peter can be a real jerk sometimes. He stepped past me. Aunt Rita handed me my backpack and a banana and an apple and said:
—Honey, you’ve got to eat something.
I grabbed my things and kissed Aunt Rita goodbye and ran to the corner, where Peter was standing with one foot in the bus and one foot on the ground, holding the driver for me. For me: a total mess, an absolute disaster. My cheeks flushed red as I boarded the bus and thanked Sam for waiting. I sat down in the second seat and pulled out my math homework. I had thirty trigonometry problems to finish in only eighteen minutes.
I looked out the window and thought of the compost bucket, still full in the corner of the kitchen.