On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Mrs. Handy, the speech teacher at school, tells me I have my own language.
The problem is I don’t talk at a seventh-grade level. I mumble and swallow words, sucking them in instead of spitting them out. Mrs. Handy wants me to work on my breathing. She says I gulp air like I’m afraid the world’s running out of oxygen. She gave me a list of words to work on this summer — words like delicatessen and turmoil. Mom taped it up on the wall next to the medicine cabinet so I could practice every morning after brushing my teeth. What I do is say each word fifty times while I hold my chin in my hand. Mrs. Handy told me to go for “maximum extension,” exaggerate each word, feel how my chin moves, and watch how my tongue and muscles operate. When you repeat a word fifty or so times, it stops meaning anything. You’re moving your mouth, but it’s like you’ve forgotten why, like you’re talking in a language even you don’t understand.
I’m upstairs in front of the bathroom mirror saying “trolley” over and over and waiting for the dew to dry so I can cut the grass and get Dad off my back, when Mom hollers from the bottom of the stairs for me to give her a hand carrying things in from the car. I mouth off to her, like I always do when Dad’s not around, but I can’t tell if she heard me. Then there’s a creak, like she’s coming up, so I hustle downstairs quick.
Mrs. Bell across the street is out in front of her house, pulling weeds from her flower bed. She smiles and waves her clippers in the air. Mom calls, “Good morning,” and then gives me a look until I say hello, too.
Mom unlocks the Pontiac’s trunk. It’s jammed full of flattened-out boxes. Mom’s chatting away with Mrs. Bell about how nice her flowers look and how hot the summer’s been when she notices me just standing there and says, “Let’s go! I don’t want to stand out here all day.”
I ask her what’s with all the boxes, and I can tell by the way her eyes scrunch together that she hasn’t understood me. So I say it again, louder.
Mom says, “Do we have to talk in the street?”
She runs her hand through her hair, then leaves it there, hesitating, like she’s going to say something more. But after a second she just reaches down into the trunk and starts lifting out stacks of cardboard.
Inside, Mom sits me down at the kitchen table and shows me how to put the boxes together. While I’m doing that, she starts to take the house apart. She grabs an armload of clothes out of her closet and dumps them, hangers and all, into a box. She throws her jewelry into her big purse, and sweeps a hand through her makeup drawer and the medicine cabinet. She yanks books out of the case in the den, leaving Dad’s military and history books, but grabbing the others, one here, a couple there, until it looks like termites have eaten holes in the rows. She gets the knickknacks, too, and all the framed photos. She takes the flowered comforter off her bed, and the toaster and mixer from the kitchen. She drags a dining-room chair through the house and climbs up on it at every window to slide the drapes off their rods. Then she sits down at the desk where Dad pays the bills, and she rifles through the drawers, taking envelopes, keys, bankbooks, and birth certificates.
I carry the loaded boxes out to the car and pack them in. We carry the TV out together, walking sideways like crabs, knocking into the doorjamb on the way out. Mom takes the good plates and the silverware from the sideboard in the dining room and Dad’s liquor bottles from the tray on top. She empties the decanters into the sink and packs them, too. “Just to make sure our leaving hits home,” she says.
For lunch, we sit at the patio table on the back porch and eat tuna-fish sandwiches. There’s too much mayonnaise in mine, but I keep it to myself. Between our house and the neighbors’ is an empty lot filled with thin saplings. The green leaves shine in the sun.
I remind Mom that I have to cut the grass before Dad gets home.
She swallows a bite of her sandwich and says, “Forget the lawn. That’s not something you need to worry about anymore.”
I don’t bring it up again.
What I want to know is how long Mom’s been cruising around with her trunk loaded full of boxes — like knowing when it began will make any difference. They’ve been going at it for so long that I suppose it doesn’t matter.
When we’re done eating, Mom says, “Don’t you have any questions? All morning I’ve been waiting for you to say something. You live here, you hear all the fights, but you never speak. You act like you don’t hear a word.”
I tell her that I was waiting for her to say something.
Mom leans in close. “I can’t hear you,” she says, but she doesn’t wait for me to say it again. “You have to learn to articulate, to express yourself. You’re like your father in that respect; you keep everything inside.” She reaches across the table and taps my chest. “You don’t let people know what’s going on in there. That’s a hard way to go through life, Mike. And it’s hard on people who love you.”
I don’t think Dad’s quiet — or at least, no more quiet than Mom. I think about someone keeping everything inside, and wonder what that would do to a person in the long run. I tell Mom that I don’t want to be that way. I open my mouth wide, trying to articulate.
Mom nods, tilts her head a little, and asks, “Have you been working on your lists?”
The phone rings late that afternoon. Mom yells, “Don’t answer it!” but the receiver’s already in my hand. I’ve already said hello.
“Son, how’s everything? Is Mom there?”
I’m on the kitchen phone. We’ve loaded as many boxes as we can fit into the car, and now Mom’s upstairs shoving my clothes into green trash bags. When she hears who it is, she hustles downstairs and stands in front of me, shaking her head. “I’m not talking to him,” she whispers.
I can hear men’s voices in the background on Dad’s end. I can hear the sound of metal on metal and a steady, grinding buzz. Dad raises his voice over all the noise: “I tried her at work, but they said she didn’t come in. Is she sick, or what?”
Mom’s ear is right next to the phone. She smells sweaty and dusty from packing.
I tell Dad to hold on.
“What?” he says.
Mom takes the phone out of my hand, covers the mouthpiece, and says, “Finish packing some clothes — just enough for a few days. We’re going to Grandma’s.” Then she turns and looks out the window over the sink at our front yard, where there’s a rock ledge with ivy growing up it and bright red geraniums in clay pots. Sunlight reflecting off the sink and faucet throws bright spots on her skin and clothes. “Yeah?” she says into the phone. “Yeah. . . . Packing.”
I can hear Dad on the other end — not what he’s saying, just the sound of his voice. I’m listening so hard my ears feel like they’re going to pop.
Mom says, “We’ll call tonight.” She pauses for a second, like she’s been cut off, and then adds in a rush, “We: Mike and me. Who do you think?”
I walk through the dining room to the foyer. A lawn mower starts up outside, and I open the front door. A red pickup is parked across the street with two boards leading from its tailgate to the pavement. A thin guy in jeans is pushing a mower in the Bells’ front yard. He has no shirt on, the bottoms of his jeans are stained green, and his chest is plastered with clippings.
I hear Mom say, “Like this is news. . . . You’re the one. . . . I’m hanging up now.” But she doesn’t.
Mom’s car keys are right where she always drops them when she walks in the door. I pick them up and jam them into my pocket, then stand in full view of the kitchen, hoping that she’ll turn and look at me, that she’ll hang up the phone and tell me to bring everything in from the car.
She paces in front of the sink. “Every day,” she says. “Every day is awful.”
I close the door quietly as I leave.
Outside, the sweet smell of cut grass fills the air. The back end of Mom’s Pontiac hangs low; the tops of the back tires disappear under the car. We’ve tied the trunk down with rope. I take a right out of our driveway and walk down the shady street, crossing the intersection with Fairfield Woods Road. There aren’t any woods, only a gas station and a small grocery store where Mom and Dad buy things at the last minute. I imagine Dad jumping in his car right now and racing home from his job at Sikorsky’s on the Merritt Parkway, and this makes me feel better. I take off my T-shirt and wrap it around my neck. The sweat on my back dries in the cool breeze.
I end up in the woods behind the school, sitting on the bank of the stream that runs through there. Some young kids, eight or nine years old, are splashing and goofing around, trying to catch frogs in the skunk cabbage along the bank. I take off my shoes and socks and walk into the shallow water downstream from them. Sometimes Mrs. Handy brings us speech kids back here instead of meeting with us in her office. She says one reason people can have trouble speaking is because they don’t listen. So we come here and listen to the water rushing over the rocks, and the birds whistling, and the insects buzzing. It’s stupid, but I like getting out of school, walking across the playground while everyone else is inside studying math or history. I listen hard today, trying to hear the smallest sounds. Maybe I’ll hear all the way to my house; Dad must be home by now, and he and Mom must be yelling at each other.
When the sun goes behind the trees, I carry my shoes up the hill to Melville Park and sit in the bleachers to watch a Babe Ruth ballgame. I’m still in Little League. In Babe Ruth you get to wear real baseball uniforms. I’m sitting with the parents, behind the backstop. It’s getting dark, and the lights have come on around the field. The parents know the names of all the players; whenever somebody gets a hit they stand and scream his name.
When the game ends, I head home through the woods.
Mom’s car is in the same spot, but now Dad’s beat-up Volkswagen bug is parked behind it, sticking out a little into the street. The Pontiac’s trunk is shut tight, and the TV and all the boxes and bags have been taken out. Every light in our house is on. I see Dad walk past the dining-room window.
When I open the front door, there’s something behind it. I squeeze in sideways and trip over a box. There are boxes all over the foyer. Everything me and Mom packed is in piles on the floor.
I find Dad in the bedroom. Mom’s clothes are piled high on the bed. He scoops up an armful and shoves them into one of Mom’s dresser drawers. He’s still wearing his coveralls from work and his heavy brown boots. His hair, which he always parts neatly on one side, is going every which way. A floorboard creaks under my foot and Dad turns and sees me, then looks over my shoulder into the foyer, finger-combing his hair. “Is Mom with you?” he asks.
I shake my head.
He stands real close to me and stares down with his hands on his hips. Then he walks to the den. I follow. There’s a box of books on the couch. “Your mother,” he says, pulling two books out of the box and slamming them into the bookcase. He looks at the shelves like he’s reading the titles off the spines, then asks, “What happened here today? What on earth happened?” He turns to face me. “Where is she?”
I tell him Mom’s at Grandma’s, because that’s where she told me we were going.
“I went there. That’s the first place I went.”
Now I wonder where she’s gone. Where else could he have looked for her? I try to picture my mother having a life beyond taking care of me and Dad. I try to picture her at work or having lunch with friends, but I can’t.
“We’ve got to get all this put away,” Dad says in the foyer. He pulls the living-room drapes out of a box and says, “Where was she going with this crap?” He picks up another box of clothes and heads down the hall. I don’t follow him. He waves for me. I inch forward.
“Don’t you want to see your mother’s things put away?” He’s waiting for an answer.
I tell him sure I do.
He tries opening the front door, then picks up the box that blocks it and heaves it away from his chest like he’s passing a basketball. It hits the wall, punching a small hole in the plaster, and the bottom splits open. The toaster and Mom’s shoes and slippers spill out. Dad wrenches the door open like he’s trying to surprise someone on the front stoop.
“How’d you get here?” he asks me. “Where were you?”
I shift from one foot to the other.
“Will you just speak?” he says. “Just say something.”
I clear my throat and start talking, so he’ll stop. I tell him about the morning, about packing, about picking up Mom’s keys and walking out. I take the keys out of my pocket and hold them out in the palm of my hand.
Dad stares at the keys for a few seconds and then smiles — not like he’s happy, but like he’s embarrassed. It’s the same smile I feel creeping across my face when I have to speak in front of the class. He shakes his head and walks out onto the lawn. He stands in the grass and stares down at his boots. The sound of crickets is everywhere, like they’re right under our feet.
“This isn’t anything we have to talk about right now,” he says, “but you’ll have to cut this grass tomorrow. You should have taken care of it today.” Then he covers his mouth with his hands, like he’s praying, and says, “I’m sorry.” For a moment, I think he’s going to cry, and I’m not sure I want to see that.
Lights are on in the house next door, and in the Bells’ across the street. A blue Jeep drives by. The driver honks, but Dad doesn’t take any notice.
“I guess your mother has talked to you about this latest incident,” he says.
“No?” he says, surprised. Then: “I guess she wouldn’t.”
I listen to the steady chirp of the crickets and wonder what it was Mom didn’t tell me. I ask Dad. If he hears me, he doesn’t show it.
A car drives up the street, slows, and pulls into our driveway. I squint as the headlights pass over me. It’s Uncle Don’s Cadillac.
“What’s this now?” Dad says.
Uncle Don opens his door, and the inside light comes on. Mom is sitting next to him, staring at me and Dad. My uncle climbs out of the car. “What the hell’s going on between you and my sister, George?” he says, sounding fed up. He’s wearing blue pin-striped pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, like he just got off work. “I come home and Shirley’s sitting in my living room, bawling. What the hell?” He walks around the car, opens Mom’s door, and leans in.
“I won’t go back in there!” Mom yells.
“Watch it,” Uncle Don says. “Your son’s right here.” He reaches in the car and grabs Mom’s arm above the elbow. His other hand goes down below the dash to take hold of one of her legs, and in a second Mom’s out of the car and down on the pavement, crying and slapping at my uncle’s face. He tries standing her up, but she’s flattened herself out on the driveway and is gripping the pavement with her fingertips. When he moves to lift her, his shoes slide out from under him, and he falls to his knees.
“Go in the house,” Dad says to me, taking off down the walk. He runs like his legs don’t want to move. I stay put.
Uncle Don manages to stand Mom up and hold both her wrists in one hand. Her sweater’s gotten twisted, and I can see her white belly. My dad grabs my uncle from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. Mom pulls away.
“Damn it, George!” my uncle yells, but Dad doesn’t let go.
“Move back, Shirley,” Dad says.
Mom’s down on one knee, crying. She sees me and says, “Will someone get Mike inside?”
But Dad and Uncle Don aren’t paying any attention.
Mrs. Bell, in a pink robe, opens her front door and says something I don’t quite catch.
“No,” Mom says, “it’s all right. Sorry, Carol.”
Mrs. Bell stands there, watching.
Dad lets go of my uncle and steps back quickly, keeping his hands up, ready to grab hold of him again. My uncle doesn’t move at first. Then he goes and turns off the Cadillac’s headlights and shuts Mom’s door.
Mom, Dad, and Uncle Don stand there staring at each other. I can hear the three of them gasping. I can hear myself breathing hard, too. Mom’s down on one knee, Dad’s back is bent and his hands are on his thighs, and my uncle is leaning against his car. All of us are huffing, like we’re exaggerating our breaths on purpose. It sounds just like in Mrs. Handy’s office when she’s got a bunch of us breathing in and out, trying to fill our lungs to the max before launching into our lists.