My mother thinks her boyfriend is a father figure for me. I think he’s a derelict. His name is David. I call him the Big D — D for Derelict. He’s always trying to help me with things.
“Let David help you with your homework, Noah,” my mother says, but I don’t want his help, so I tell her I’ve already finished it. Besides, I don’t need help. When I go into the seventh grade this fall, I’ll be in the advanced class.
David and my mother work at the same office. Every day they eat lunch together, and every night he comes over to our house for dinner and hangs around afterward. My mother says he used to be in the army and fought in Vietnam. She tells me this with a serious look, as if it means something about David — like maybe he should be treated special. While my mother cooks dinner, he smokes pot in our kitchen and tells stories that I pretend don’t interest me.
“ ’Nam,” he says, rolling up his pant leg and pointing to a small, doughnut-shaped scar dug deep into his calf.
The three of us go on outings to the beach or the park, or just for a drive. I like to play miniature golf, but David always tries to help me, showing me how to hold the putter, laying his arms over mine. I squirm to get away from him. He acts like he doesn’t notice and hits my ball anyway. It goes through the tunnel under the windmill and drops into the cup on the other side. My mother cheers for me.
“I didn’t hit it,” I tell her. “He did. He hit my ball.”
“He’s trying to help you, honey,” my mother says. Then she goes to hit her ball, and David helps her, wrapping his arms around her waist and kissing her on the neck.
He sleeps over at our house, but I’m not supposed to know. When I go to bed, he acts like he’s going home after the next TV program. He really leaves around 5:30 in the morning; I know because I hear his car in the driveway. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I open the door to my mother’s room and look in at the two of them sleeping. I try to see if they’re naked, but it’s too dark to tell.
This Sunday we’re going for a drive in the country. At least, that’s what my mother tells me we’re going to do: drive out to the country and have a picnic.
When I get up Sunday morning, she and the Big D are already dressed and in the living room. They’re wearing the same clothes they were wearing at dinner, and David is peeling the label off a half-finished beer. I wonder if they’ve been up all night.
“Ready for our big adventure?” my mother asks me.
“I don’t want to go,” I say. “I don’t feel so good. I think I’m sick.”
“Oh, come on, Noah,” she says. “We’re going to have fun. David knows where there’s a waterfall up at Pyramid Point. He wants to show it to you.”
The Big D burps and nods.
We drive out of the suburbs and up into the hills, where the cedars are as big around as lighthouses. I sit in the back seat alone. I used to sit up front with them, in the middle, but they would always be leaning around me to look at each other. Now I sit in the back and listen to my Walkman. David drinks a beer and smokes, and my mother sings along with the radio. She holds up a map to show me where we’re going.
“I’m hungry!” I shout over the music in my ears. “Where’s the picnic?”
“We have to stop soon,” David says, trying to catch my eye in the rearview mirror. “We’re out of refreshments.” He holds up a beer can and crunches it with one hand. Cool. Big deal.
Suddenly, my mother realizes she forgot to stop at the bank machine on our way out of town. “Do you have any money?” she asks David. He says he’s got his paycheck; maybe he could find someplace to cash it.
We pull over at a liquor store. David goes in and comes back with a brown bag. “They wouldn’t cash my check,” he says, closing his door and pulling out a bottle of tequila. “But I got this with my last four dollars. I still owe the guy a quarter.” He fishes around under the seats for loose change.
“We can return these beer cans,” my mother says, picking the empties up off the car floor. “They probably have a machine inside. Here, Noah.” She hands me the cans. “You like to put them in the machine. Why don’t you go inside and do it and give the man the quarter.”
“I thought this was going to be a picnic,” I say.
“It is a picnic, sweetheart.”
“So where’s the food?”
“We’re going to get food. We’re going to cash David’s check and get some lunch. We’ll have whatever you want. Just be a sport and take these cans inside.”
“I’m hungry now,” I tell her.
She turns to David, who’s drinking tequila from the bottle, then back to me. For a second she looks panicked, like a game-show contestant who can’t decide which door to pick.
“Noah, David and I have worked hard all week, and this is our weekend,” she says. “We’re trying to have a good time. Please take the cans inside, then we’ll be on our way. OK?”
In the liquor store, I put the cans in the machine and take the quarter from the coin return. The man behind the counter is doing a crossword puzzle. I look around, but there isn’t anything to eat for twenty-five cents, so I use the quarter to play a game of Donkey Kong, then go back out to the car.
We drive for several miles without seeing anything but trees.
“I thought there was another little town up here before Pyramid Point,” David says. My mother is sitting right next to him now. She’s put the tequila back in the paper bag and told him he shouldn’t drink any more on an empty stomach.
“This is beautiful,” she says, but she’s not looking out the window; she’s looking at David. The road narrows, and now there’s nothing between us and the edge of a big cliff.
“I want to go home,” I say.
“I think the waterfall is right up here somewhere,” David says.
“I can’t believe we’re not eating lunch,” I say.
“We’ll eat,” my mother says. “We’ll see the waterfall first, then stop off on our way back.”
“It’s two o’clock,” I tell her.
“Fine!” she says. “After I die, you can write a book about me. You can write a book and tell the world how one Sunday your mother did not feed you lunch until after two o’clock. I’m sure everyone will be appalled, and they’ll make a movie about it. That’s me: Mommy Dearest.”
We pass a sign that says: Road Closed — Travel At Your Own Risk. The asphalt turns to dirt, and rocks fly up under the car, making popping noises. I’m too nauseated to look out the window at the trees, which swirl away down the steep cliff into a ravine. I stretch out on the back seat and lay my hot face against the cool vinyl upholstery.
The Big D is moving in with us. I sit on the couch and watch him carry an army trunk into my mother’s room. Next he brings shoes, a camp stove, a pile of old magazines, some pots and pans, a box full of records, and an aquarium covered with an old flannel shirt.
“What’s in there?” I ask him.
“Tarantulas.” He laughs and uncovers the aquarium, which is empty. “Actually, I used to keep a snake in here. I sold her, though. The mice got too expensive.”
“She ate mice.”
I turn back to the TV.
“We could get something to put in here,” he says. “How would you like to have a pet? We’ll go to the pet store this weekend, and you can pick something out. I’ll buy you anything you want. Maybe you’d like gerbils. Would you like to get a couple of gerbils to put in here and keep in your room?”
“No thank you,” my mother calls from the kitchen.
Every night, after I’ve gone to bed, my mother comes into my room to give me a kiss good night. I always wait for her, and never fall asleep before she comes in.
“I love you,” she says, pushing aside the hair on my forehead to clear a place for the kiss.
“I love you, too,” I used to say, but not anymore. Now I pretend I’m asleep, and try hard not to move in my bed until she leaves the room.
My father drank. He worked a lot of different sales jobs. Twice, he got to fly across the country. He brought back the empty airplane liquor bottles for me. I keep them on a shelf in my room. Sometimes the sun shines through them, making watery-looking shadows on the wall. When I look at them, I wonder where my father is, and whether he’s even still alive. Once, I imagined the bottle shadows were his ghost.
I remember everything about my father. The last year he lived with us was the year I started kindergarten. Every morning he and I ate breakfast together. We’d wave goodbye to my mother through the storm door as she left for work; then I’d sit down at the kitchen table, and he’d fix a bowl of cereal for me and a drink for himself. He’d pour vodka and tomato juice into a glass and mix it up with a celery stick. Then he’d lick off the celery and give it to me. I’d use it as a spoon to scoop up my Sugar Pops. When I was done, I’d eat the celery and pull the threads from my teeth as I watched my dad read the paper and sip his drink.
I remember the time he drove our station wagon through the garage door. Actually, the car went only partway through, then got stuck so that the front doors wouldn’t open. My mother and I ran out of the house to see what the noise was. We stood on the lawn and watched my father climb over the front seat, open the back door, and step out onto the driveway.
“Well, I’m home,” he said. “And I didn’t get the job.”
Soon after that, my mother told him to move out. He left a phone number so that she could call and arrange for me to see him on weekends, but when she dialed it she got a woman who barely spoke English and had never heard of my father.
I pretend I don’t remember him.
“What was Poppy like?” I ask my mother.
She tells me he was a nice man, but they just couldn’t get along.
“If he comes back,” I say, “I’ll be too old to call him Poppy anymore.”
“I guess so,” she says, cooking frozen string beans in a little boiling water.
“Will he come back?”
“I don’t know, honey. He knows where we are. He knows how to find us, but I don’t know if he’ll come back. If he does come back, he won’t live with us. You know that, don’t you?”
“Why won’t he live with us?”
“Because he and I aren’t married anymore. We’re divorced.”
“Because, Noah, your father and I can’t live together.”
I know these things, but I want her to tell me.
While she’s trying to explain to me why she and my father can’t live together, the water in the pot boils away and the string beans burn and stick.
“Shit!” my mother says, and snatches the pot from the burner.
“I’ll bet you made him leave us,” I say. “You made him leave me.”
She throws the pot into the sink and runs the water full blast. She doesn’t look at me; her face is lost in the explosion of steam.
I wake up one night and can’t go back to sleep. I try reading with my flashlight, but the book the school librarian gave me — a story about two kids looking for buried treasure — is like a stupid Walt Disney movie. I put it away, get up, and sneak into my mother’s bedroom.
Sleeping together, she and David make me think of sweet-and-sour pork, the only Chinese food I like: my mother’s sweet, flowery, perfume smell mixes with David’s sour, cigarette-butt-and-beer smell. I stand by my mother’s side of the bed and watch them breathing under the covers. Their bodies aren’t touching, but David’s hand is in my mother’s hair, which is tucked behind one ear. A silver earring shaped like a leaf lies flat against her cheek. I bring my face close to hers to feel her warm, damp breath. She opens and closes her mouth a few times, then sighs. I put my lips to her ear, my nose in her hair, and let out the most horrible scream I can.
My mother jerks violently awake, and her head hits my mouth, splitting my lip open. I fall to the floor, knocking the water glass off her night table. David jumps out of bed, naked. “What the hell?” he says. My mother clutches her nightgown and stares at me bleary-eyed in the dark.
“I had a bad dream,” I tell her, grabbing a corner of her summer cotton blanket. It’s yellow with little nubby bits woven into it, like tapioca pudding. When I was little, I used to crawl under it with her and my father and hide from thunder and lightning. The blood from my lip tastes salty. “Can I sleep in here?” I ask her. “On the floor?”
“Of course, honey. Get your sleeping bag.”
When I come back, I hear David in the bathroom saying, “Eleven years old. Eleven years old.” He comes out with a towel wrapped around his waist. I lay my sleeping bag at the foot of their bed and crawl inside.
In August, the three of us spend a weekend in a rented cabin up at Crystal Lake. My mother wants the Big D to take me fishing. I tell her I don’t like fishing. I don’t like fish, period. I don’t even like fish sticks.
“Have you ever been fishing?” she asks me.
“Then how do you know you don’t like it?”
In the boat at dawn, David helps me put on a life jacket, fastening the clasps so tightly I can barely move my head. He pushes off from the dock with an oar and rows us out into the middle of the lake, where it’s really quiet. Then he stops rowing, cracks open a beer, and balances it between his knees as he opens a plastic margarine container full of worms. He attaches one to his hook, casts his fishing line, and hands me the rod to hold while he sips his beer.
“You have to hold it still,” he whispers, “but give it a little tug every so often.” He hasn’t shaved, and his whiskers form funny shapes on his cheeks, like the outlines of states on a map. The lines on either side of his mouth are like rivers or roads. I don’t know how old he is. This morning in the boat, he looks like an old man.
“Just a little tug,” he says.
I jiggle the fishing rod, not taking my eyes off his face. “What are we going to do if we catch a fish?” I ask.
“We’re going to whack it over the head, take it home, and fry it up for breakfast.”
“That’s gross,” I say.
“That’s the food chain.” He nods at the fishing rod, and I give it another tug. “You can have cereal if you want.”
On Labor Day, my mother and I sit at the picnic table in our backyard, husking corn, while the Big D tries to get the barbecue started. We’re out of lighter fluid, so he gets a can of gasoline from the garage, pours it over the charcoal, then throws in a match. He jumps back as the flames shoot up at him.
“If Poppy comes back,” I tell my mother, flicking a worm off an ear of corn, “I think I’ll call him Dad.”
She throws a clean ear into the pot and glares at me, swiping the hair from her eyes, her jaw clamped shut. I look away and step on the worm.
The night before the first day of school, I wait in bed a long time for my mother to come and say good night. I can’t sleep anyway, thinking about school. I want to wear jeans the first day, but she says I have to wear my new corduroys. I know everyone else will be wearing jeans.
Finally, I hear her footsteps. They sound clumsy, like maybe she’s had too much wine. I want to ask her a few things. I want to ask why I can’t wear jeans the first day, when everyone else will be. And why she can’t live with my father because he drinks, when David drinks, too, and she drinks with him sometimes. How is their drinking different from Poppy’s? I want to ask if she and David are going to get married, and, if they are, whether my name will be different then.
She is beside my bed now, bending over to kiss me. I’m pretending to be asleep, waiting for her to say, “I love you,” so I can not say it back. But she doesn’t say anything. Her lips barely brush against my hair — not my forehead, as usual — and she doesn’t say anything.
Maybe she’s given up on me. As she turns to leave the room, I roll over and say it to her. “I love you,” I say.
Then suddenly there are arms around me — David’s arms, his soft chamois shirt smelling of sweat and cigarettes. “I love you, too,” he says, hugging me so hard I can feel the pulse in his neck against my ear.
“You’re not my mother,” I say.
“No, Noah, I’m not your mother. And I’m not your father, either.”
“You’re an asshole!” I yell, crawling out on the other side of my bed and bolting from the room. My mother is standing in the hallway in her bathrobe. The kitchen light is behind her, and she casts a shadow over me. As I’m thinking of what to say, her hand flies out of her bathrobe pocket and slaps me across the face, setting my skin on fire. Hot tears fill my eyes, making them itch. I look to see if she’s crying, too, but I can’t see her face in the shadow. Behind me I hear a gurgling noise, like maybe David’s crying. I can’t believe it: I’ve never seen a man cry. But he barges past before I can tell for sure. I hear him in the kitchen opening another beer: pop-fizz.
“Get back in bed,” my mother says. I’m still trying to think of what to say to her when she slams my door shut.
It’s too dark to see anything in my room. I yank the cord on the window shade, and it flies up and snaps against the ceiling. The street lamp outside casts a yellow stripe of light across my headboard. Two knots in the wood stare at me like eyes. I try to hear what my mother and David are saying in the kitchen, but all I can make out is TV-movie music and the cracking of an ice tray, then cubes tinkling into glasses. A few minutes later, I think I hear the jingling of keys. I hope they’re not going to go out and leave me here alone the night before the first day of school.