In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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At the beginning of winter, not long after Gary’s fifteenth birthday, his father, William, fell from a ski lift. William had been drinking from mini bottles of Scotch and smoking dope at the time. He had never been a big drinker or smoker. William had made record sales as a furniture salesman that year and had gone up the mountain to celebrate with Howard, his closest friend. It was Howard who had brought the Scotch and dope along. Evidently, the height from which William fell should not have been fatal, but he landed the wrong way — at a precise and extremely unlikely angle. The world, Gary thought, must have been conspiring against his father. The sky, the clouds, the rocks — nothing was innocent.
At the funeral, Gary and his mother, Barbara, huddled together at the back of the room. Barbara wept and said, “Something good is going to happen to us soon. I know it will.” Because they had rarely gone to church, their Presbyterian minister — a big man whose voice was oddly small in comparison to his bulk — did not recognize them, though he spoke about William as if he had known him for years, describing him as “a humble man of quiet integrity.” Gary didn’t find these banalities at all comforting.
Howard came to the funeral, and after the sermon he started to approach Gary and his mother, but he was obviously drunk and afraid, and he circled back. Dianne, his ex-wife, held him up and said, a little too loudly, “We need to go talk to them, Howard.” Dianne was wiry and determined, a successful real estate agent. She and Howard had been divorced for seven years, but maintained a habitual friendship. At the funeral, Dianne repeatedly adjusted the collar of Howard’s jacket. Gary didn’t want to talk to them, but they finally came around again and faced Gary and Barbara.
“We’re very sorry,” Dianne said.
Howard opened his mouth. He smelled of hair tonic and liquor. “I don’t know what to say,” he said.
Barbara looked up at him. “As far as we’re concerned,” she said, “you did this to him.”
In the months following William’s death, Gary’s mother took a leave of absence from her job as a school speech therapist, and she and Gary rarely left the house, or each other’s presence. Neither of them could stand to be alone. Barbara roamed the house with her terry-cloth robe sometimes half open so that her underwear showed. These glimpses of his mother startled Gary. He was seeing her raw and unprotected. They ate with their fingers from paper plates. They didn’t do laundry. They didn’t clean or bathe often enough. They didn’t answer the phone or open mail or shovel snow. They let the winter white cover their walks, their driveway, their green Impala. They let it erase things.
Gary tried to comfort his mother. He touched her back and shoulders when she wept. It was scary to give her this sort of touch — the protective touch that adults give children. He drew baths for her, put perfumed bubbles in the water, stood outside the closed bathroom door and talked to her while she bathed. “I feel like leftovers,” she said once. Gary guessed that she had looked at herself in there — her nakedness, her aloneness — and hadn’t liked what she saw. Her sadness seemed far more dangerous than his own, and when she began to weep in the tub, when she said to herself, “Oh, God, look at me,” he walked quietly away from his station outside the door and left her alone with her grief.
Gary had his own grief to attend to. His dead father seemed to be everywhere in the house: In the laundry in Barbara’s closet — a heavy, twisted pile with the faint odor of something barely alive, festering. In the bathroom — shaving cream, razors, a few of his curled pubic hairs floating in the soap dish. In a family portrait on the mantel in the living room — a pale, pear-shaped man with a soft, malleable face and wet eyes. His body had become increasingly muffin-like, William himself had said, as he’d advanced into his late thirties. There was nothing defiant or heroic about him, nothing that seemed to provoke death.
The strangest remnant of William was a red party balloon that he had inflated and given to Gary as a joke on his fifteenth birthday, long after Gary had outgrown balloons. William’s sense of humor had been peculiar, but well-meaning. The balloon said, Happy Birthday. Gary stared through the stretched membrane at the invisible breath of his dead father. He considered pricking the balloon, but that seemed wrong. So he shoved it under his bed and hoped it would get lost there.
Three weeks after William’s death, Gary loaded the pile of dirty laundry into a basket — it had a distinct, almost sweet smell by then — and walked a mile and a half through the white January afternoon to a laundromat called Wash-O-Rama. The walls inside Wash-O-Rama were aqua green, and the air smelled of dirty socks and detergent and of the babies and toddlers who sat in strollers or lay across the tables where their mothers sorted and folded wash.
When Gary lifted the wet ropes of laundry from the washing machine, some of the clothes were transformed almost beyond recognition. He had washed the whites with the darks, and the colors had bled.
The drying part seemed less complicated and went smoothly, but Gary felt self-conscious as he tried to fold one of his mother’s bras.
“Not like that.”
The voice came from a girl about his age who sat on the hood of a spinning dryer, her legs crossed at the ankles. Behind her ankles, several pairs of lavender and citrus-colored panties churned in the round, hatchlike window of the machine. “Like this,” she said, making a complicated gesture with her hands that Gary couldn’t quite follow. “Here.” She walked over to him and folded the bra herself, oddly at ease with his mother’s underwear. “The cups fold into each other like that. See?”
Then she glanced at his pile and said, “Oops, looks like you fucked up. There’s a chemistry to laundry, you know.” She sounded condescending but kind. Her hair was dark, and her eyes were a muddy brown, so soft they seemed to smear. She wore a purple jewel — its color bristled in the white light of that place — in her pierced nose. Gary recognized her from school. He’d seen her hanging out with a harsh-looking group of kids. Gary didn’t hang out with anyone in particular.
She put down the bra. “I’m Vickie,” she said. “I’ve seen you around.”
Gary didn’t say anything. He had just lifted his father’s wool sweater out of the pile. The sweater had shrunk in the dryer to about Gary’s size, and the thought that his dead father’s sweater would now fit him was disturbing.
“That’s a weird color,” Vickie said, looking at the sweater. It had been a light gray, but was now a strange, vascular shade of pink.
“I don’t like it anymore,” Gary said, suggesting that it had been his. The truth of the sweater seemed too terrible to admit. “You want it?”
“Sure,” she said. “It’s sort of different.” She put it on over her T-shirt and modeled it in the laundromat’s reflective windows. It suited her, Gary thought. “I like it,” she said. “Thanks.”
In February, casseroles began to appear on Gary and Barbara’s front porch. The doorbell rang, and there they were, in glass dishes covered with foil. Gary spooned out a helping for himself and a helping for Barbara. “Come on, Mother,” he said. “You’ve got to eat.” Gary was determined that his mother would get her strength back, that she would bathe and groom and dress herself. This new role of caretaker made him feel strange, not quite himself. Sometimes he stared at his reflection in the mirror, an exercise that revealed nothing except that his acne had thickened a little. Sometimes he said, “Fifteen . . . fifteen,” to the mirror, trying to make the connection between himself and his age. He put a fork in Barbara’s hand. “Eat,” he said. He had mastered a certain angry-but-affectionate voice. She ate.
The casseroles weren’t exactly delicious — some lacked seasoning; others were undercooked or burnt and nearly inedible — but they were small miracles of much-needed food. Gary suspected Vickie of having cooked them. She had been easy to get to know. Though she was only fifteen, she worked at a 7-Eleven in Gary’s neighborhood, and Gary had been spending his evenings there talking to her. “Not that I wouldn’t,” she told him when he asked about the casseroles, “but I couldn’t cook a hole in the ground.” Vickie had a lot of sayings that weren’t really sayings and didn’t make a lot of sense, but that you remembered anyway. Later that month, buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizzas, and cartons of Chinese takeout replaced the casseroles. Their mysterious benefactor had given up on cooking.
Gary brought Vickie home with him one afternoon and tried to introduce her to his mother, but Barbara went into her room and stayed there. Vickie had a distinctive, fluttering laugh and didn’t need much of an excuse to use it. After a while, Gary’s mother said from behind her door, “Would you please tell your friend that I’m not feeling well and we can’t have guests right now.”
So Gary and Vickie went to Alters, a coffeehouse where college kids lounged around on fat armchairs and couches. Vickie was teaching Gary to drink his coffee black. “It’s cheaper that way,” she said. “All that sweet, milky shit costs.” She was also teaching him to smoke. “I don’t care what you say about your health and cancer and all that,” she said. “If you’ve got a cigarette in your hand, the camera’s on you.” Gary felt he shouldn’t have been trying out these new bad habits. It didn’t seem right. But Vickie was gleefully transgressive. She had taken to his father’s sweater. She wore it three or four times a week, and it continued to look good on her.
Just then, the sun came out. In the middle of a dreary winter, there it was, bulbous and artificial-looking. The college kids squinted at the brightness, and a slab of light buzzing with molecular dust fell over Gary and Vickie. “Cool,” Vickie said. “It’s like the world is trying to tell us something.” Then she said, “I’m sorry I was laughing at your house. I don’t think your mom wanted to hear laughter. I can’t imagine it — someone just being dead like that.” When Gary didn’t say anything, she said, “Hey, where are you?”
Gary was thinking about his mother, trying not to resent her for what she had done. “Oh, I’m here,” he finally said.
Vickie and Gary touched fingertips, setting off static sparks as sharp as little teeth. Their hands touching made a shadow on the wall like scaffolding — a small, skeletal shelter. Gary felt a compulsion to tell Vickie the truth. “That sweater you’re wearing wasn’t mine,” he said, fingering its pink cuff. “It was his — my father’s.”
“Oh, God,” Vickie said. She started to remove it. “I can’t take it. Not if it’s his.”
“Please keep it,” Gary said. “I want you to have it. I don’t want it to be his anymore.”
On a Thursday afternoon, at about the time the anonymous food would usually arrive, the doorbell rang, and Gary answered it. Howard, who had accompanied Gary’s father on the ski lift that day, stood on the porch holding two white bags from Taco Bell. “I’ve been a coward,” he said. “I need to tell you that it’s me.”
Although Howard had been Gary’s father’s best friend, Barbara had never liked him. Howard was what she called “party-happy.” He was a daredevil who’d always brought out a little of the same male bravado in otherwise quiet William. It was Barbara’s theory that William had kept Howard as a friend because Howard was William’s fantasy self.
Howard tried to put the bags of food in Gary’s hands, but Gary made no effort to take them. Howard’s shirt was wrinkled, and his face was pale and bruised around the eyes from sleeplessness. He smelled vaguely of unwashed bedsheets. Gary wondered how Howard could be anyone’s fantasy self.
“How were my casseroles?” Howard asked.
“Bland,” Gary said.
“I know I can’t cook worth shit,” Howard said. He sounded sad.
“Who’s there?” Barbara called from inside the house. Gary told her, and she said, loud enough for Howard to hear, “Tell him to go away.”
Gary said, “Go away.” When Howard didn’t go, Gary said, “Please.”
In the last week of February, the weather turned unusually warm. Winds blew in from the south, and it rained, and the muggy smell of mud filled the air. Swarms of gnats were born in the gray afternoons. The snow in the mountains melted, and the ski resorts reported huge losses. Let them lose money, Gary thought. Let them lose it all.
At night, Gary would walk the two blocks from his house to the 7-Eleven where Vickie worked. Water flowed in the gutters, and Gary felt something loosening inside him and seeping away. That night, Gary found Vickie alone. The night manager, a tall, skinny man named Abbott, sometimes let her run the store by herself on slow nights while he went over to his girlfriend’s and, Vickie claimed, nibbled on her toes until it was time to return for the graveyard shift.
“I’d like to do it with you sometime,” Vickie said to Gary with adult confidence.
“ ‘Do it’?” Gary asked.
“You know,” she said, “fuck.”
Gary could hardly believe she had used that word, though it hadn’t sounded at all derogatory in her mouth. Rather, it had sounded playful, good-humored. He and Vickie were eating cookies from an open box of Chips Ahoy. Vickie ate the cookies in one bite. She fed one to Gary, brushed the crumbs from his chin, and said, “We didn’t pay for these, you know. We’re stealing. We’re outlaws. How does it feel?”
“It worries me,” Gary said. He imagined Abbott coming back any minute and catching them with the open box of cookies. He felt a rush of guilt.
“Don’t worry,” Vickie said, feeding him another cookie. “I know what to do to make it safe. I know what to use and all that.” Then, after he had chewed and swallowed the cookie, she said, “What’s the matter? You scared of it?”
“Scared of what?”
“Fucking,” she said.
Gary was surprised again by that word — how gentle it could sound — and saw no reason why he shouldn’t be honest. “Sort of,” he said. Then, after a pause, “Yeah, I am afraid, I guess.”
One night, Gary was about to enter through the glass door of the 7-Eleven when he saw a man pointing a handgun at Vickie’s face. Gary heard the robber shout the word bitch. The black metal gun had a dark, monstrous quality. Gary did not have to deliberate about what to do. He walked in the door and stood there.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the robber said.
“I’m her friend,” Gary said. “I’m not doing anything. I just don’t want her to be alone.”
“Take your goddamn hands out of your pockets, then,” the robber commanded. Gary did so. The robber’s face looked like a vegetable — cool and raw — beneath the brown pantyhose. He looked like the robbers Gary had seen on television, except that he was trembling. His fear made him real.
Vickie kept saying, “Look, I don’t care about this place. You can take whatever you want.”
Gary had the same thought: Take it all.
Later, Gary would think that this moment could never have happened if his father hadn’t died. William’s death had allowed Gary to walk into the store that night. His father’s death was the terrible thing that had made every other terrible thing both more likely and less terrible.
The robber took all the cash in the register — less than fifty bucks — a pocketful of king-size Snickers bars, and a liter of Diet Coke. “Are you sure that’s all he took?” said Abbott, who walked in only minutes after the robber had left. “Lucky,” he said, “that’s all I can say. You kids are lucky.” It was true: it did seem like a harmless act of robbery, so harmless that Vickie and Gary constructed a story for the police. They said their robber had driven a blue Ford van, when, in fact, he had driven a VW Bug the color of rain. They said he had been Mexican or Cuban or something, when really he had been a skinny, balding white guy. They wanted their robber to go free. They wanted him to be something that had happened to them alone. It was their secret adventure, and they had survived it.
At the beginning of March, Gary woke one morning to the sound of Barbara carrying bags of groceries into the house. “You went to the store?” he asked.
“Citrus,” she said, “is God-awful expensive in the winter months.”
“You went to the store?” Gary asked again.
She looked embarrassed now, as if she suddenly realized that he had been in charge of the household all this time. “Yes,” she said. Her hair wasn’t done, her face looked raw and weepy, and her pants zipper was half open. But there she stood with a bag of oranges and grapefruits so heavy she needed both arms to hold it up. “I invited Howard and Dianne over for dinner tonight,” she said. “If you want, you can invite your little friend, too. I think we need people again.” That phrase “little friend” was his mother speaking. It was her old adult way of rendering his world harmless and diminutive.
He started to tell her about her zipper, but he wasn’t sure he needed to take care of her anymore. She looked strong piling fruit into the fridge. He said, “Her name’s Vickie.”
“That’s a nice name,” she said.
“You might not like her. She’s kind of a rebel.”
“If you like her,” Barbara said, “I like her.” That was his mother, too — determined to avoid conflict.
“Maybe,” Gary said.
That evening, Vickie wore a T-shirt with Girls Kick Ass on the front, and Howard said to her, “So, is that supposed to be a feminist slogan? Is it supposed to mean freedom or something?” He asked this in a tone of honest curiosity.
“No,” Vickie said, “I don’t think so. It’s just supposed to mean what it says. What do you do to make money?” she asked him.
Vickie and Howard were just trying to have a normal conversation, trying to take each other seriously. To Gary’s amazement, it seemed to be working.
“I sell paper bags and plastic sacks,” Howard answered.
“He’s got this bumper sticker on his Lincoln,” Dianne added, “that says, i have sacks appeal.” They all laughed at this.
Dianne talked about selling houses. She had just signed the papers on one that afternoon. She seemed to like Vickie, though she obviously wasn’t accustomed to dealing with teenagers. “So, is this your girlfriend, Gary? Are you two going steady?” she asked.
Gary didn’t know what to say, so Vickie answered for him. “Sure,” she said, “but that word’s not really used anymore. I guess you would say that we’re ‘together.’ ”
Before dinner, Vickie went up to Barbara and whispered in her ear. Barbara blushed and laughed, then pulled up her zipper. Gary was grateful for this woman-to-woman gesture. It seemed surprisingly easy for all of them to get along.
Howard looked self-consciously washed. He gave off an odor of after-shave, and his clothes smelled like he used too much laundry detergent. Barbara cooked chicken breasts with a sauce made from canned cream-of-mushroom soup and white wine. She wore her baby blue cardigan, but the buttons weren’t in the proper holes. Evidently, buttons and zippers were still beyond her. “I thought we should feed you, for once,” Barbara said to Howard. His food had kept coming all through February and on into March, the pizza or burgers or chicken appearing every afternoon. It was hard to keep thinking poorly of the person who was feeding you.
After they’d cleaned their plates, Howard and Dianne kept saying to Barbara, “You look good. You really do.”
“Nonsense,” Barbara said. “I look stricken.”
Everyone at the table denied this, even though it was true.
When they’d finished eating their ice cream, Barbara looked seriously at Howard. “Will you tell me something?” she asked him. “Will you tell me what he said just before it happened?”
Earlier in the evening, Howard had discovered two six-packs of William’s beer in the fridge and had helped himself to “just one or two.” Now, after his fifth beer, he was growing maudlin. “Please, let’s not think about that now,” he said.
“You’re making a baby of yourself, Howard,” Dianne said. “Don’t get infantile on us.”
“He didn’t really say anything,” Howard said. “I wasn’t looking at him at the time. I was looking down at my skis, at the little k2 insignia on the tips. Then he made a sort of gasping sound. When I looked over, he was already gone.”
Outside, it was raining. Howard drank another beer or two and seemed to forget about everyone else and wept. To his relief, Gary found he was able to pity Howard without disliking him.
Just before Howard left with Dianne, he held on to the door frame and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Barbara said, “It’s ok, Howard,” and she seemed to mean it.
Later that month, the weather froze again, and the air turned chalky and cruel, but the sun shone brilliantly. The world was bright and electric, like the inside of a freezer. Barbara walked through the house with purpose now, her robe closed tightly around her. She went back to her job as a speech therapist. Howard and Dianne came to dinner once or twice a week. Howard was quieter and more contemplative than ever. Barbara didn’t allow him to drink in her house anymore. That was the rule, and Howard obeyed it.
One afternoon, when Gary and Vickie were in Gary’s room “trying things out” — that’s what Vickie called it — Vickie discovered the balloon beneath his bed. They had been trying things out for a while now, though this time they had gone a little farther; Vickie had sat astride Gary and put his hands on her bare breasts. “Kiss them,” she said. As always, Vickie was unafraid to say things. “Kiss them worshipfully.” Gary didn’t know how to make a kiss worshipful, but she seemed to enjoy his kisses anyway. She opened her mouth and made sounds of pleasure. He tasted a mix of salt and perfumed soap. “Relax,” she said. “The whole world does this.” Nonetheless, Gary tried not to think of the whole world. She was doing something pleasant to him with her hands. Then they sort of bounced around until, unsure what was happening, Gary lost courage. Vickie wasn’t worried. The first time doing anything is always stranger than you thought it would be, she said. “We’ll get it. It’s like other things: it takes practice.”
Now the balloon sat in the middle of the bedroom floor, having been jostled from its place beneath Gary’s bed. It had lost most of its air. Without asking, Vickie began batting the balloon around with her hands, and Gary marveled at how easy it was to be in the world when you didn’t know certain things. Vickie tapped the balloon around until, finally, it evaded her and fell to the floor. “I feel like stepping on it,” she said. “Can I step on it?” Gary nodded. He said yes.
One nagging thing remained: a cardboard box full of William’s pink, shrunken laundry. Barbara had given all his other clothes away — shoes, boots, coats — but these things were ruined, and you couldn’t give ruined things away, she said. Every morning, Gary saw the clothes in the hallway sitting in a pool of sunlight. They needed to be thrown away, but neither he nor Barbara could do it. So Gary decided that he would try to give the clothes away himself.
Vickie offered to drive him to the Salvation Army downtown. Like Gary, she was still only fifteen, but edging up against the law excited her. She drove as she did other things: with an easy intuition, one hand on the wheel while the other tuned the radio to a country station. A man with a sad, dark pit for a voice sang, “Hold me while you love me, baby. Love me while you hold me.” Barbara was at the movies with a girlfriend that afternoon, and Gary had taken the car keys from atop her dresser. Outside, yellow sunlight pressed down on the icy roadsides and the white mountains in the distance. Vickie drove too fast along the interstate, doing almost ninety in Barbara’s apple green Impala. Gary was worried. He was afraid of being caught. He was afraid — though he couldn’t say why — for the clothes.
Vickie’s parking skills were less developed. The huge green car slanted at a thirty-degree angle from the curb. She had dented the bumper of the car in front of them. They were leaving evidence behind. “Oh God, oh God,” Gary said.
“Shush up,” Vickie said. “Nobody saw us.”
Indeed, nobody had.
At the counter where people handed in clothing, the homeless loitered in their knit hats and layered sweaters and coats. They drank coffee out of styrofoam cups and Big Gulps from the 7-Eleven down the road. Homelessness, Gary thought, was a film that smeared itself onto you. He wanted to believe that all these people needed was a good bath. He wanted suffering to be simpler than it was.
“We can’t take these,” the man at the counter said. He had a carbuncular nose shot through with burst vessels. “People think we’ll take anything they want to give us, but that’s just not true.” Gary sympathized with this man: receiving charity all day must make you grumpy. But he also remembered the robber — his urgent need to take. What Gary felt now was an urgent need to give. If he’d had a gun, he would have made this man take his father’s clothes. He would have said, “Take them or die, motherfucker!”
Instead, he and Vickie placed the box on a nearby street corner and then sat at a Wendy’s across the street, drinking coffee and smoking and watching to see what the world would do with the box. The plastic lids of their paper coffee cups said, caution: contents may be extremely hot. Even coffee cups told you to be afraid. On one flap of the box, Vickie had written in ballpoint pen, “These clothes are for you. Please take.” How odd, Gary thought, for a box to say something like that.
For a long time, nothing happened. People just walked around the box. Finally, a teenage boy dressed in army fatigues rummaged through it and took a shirt and some pants. He seemed to have friends who came after him and rummaged, too. The box attracted a circle of young people. Gary felt that some distant desire — not quite his own — had now been satisfied. He felt the world expand a little. Vickie said, “See? Sometimes things just take care of themselves.”
They drove away in the green Impala, leaving no note on the dented car in front of them. They had done well. They had left behind exactly what they needed to leave behind. “Ha!” Vickie said, accelerating off the line at a green light, the wheels of the Impala squealing, and the force of the engine pushing Gary back in his seat as the huge car lurched forward.
A different version of this story previously appeared in New York Stories.
John Fulton’s short story “Outlaws” [February 2001] was good, start to finish, but one line outshone the rest: “His father’s death was the terrible thing that had made every other terrible thing both more likely and less terrible.”
In my own life, the “terrible thing” was learning of the abuse of frail, helpless humans in our nursing homes, and the knowledge that my own tax dollars support this.
Just as Fulton’s fifteen-year-old protagonist, Gary, is helpless to undo his father’s death, so am I helpless to undo my society’s continuing cruelty. But, like Gary, I find this terrible knowledge allows me to do things I could never have done otherwise.