They were late. Mead peered out the living room window again and checked his watch. Already an hour late. That was Sharon for you. It was, he'd decided long ago, a genetic flaw like baldness or myopia, only more irritating. Even as a child she'd been chronically late—pleading for a ride after missing the school bus, lingering dreamily on the jungle gym long after the school bell rang, prancing down the stairs to the dinner table at the very last moment, her sunny round face disarming his anger. She'd even been two weeks overdue at birth as Sophie swelled like a manatee and finally had to be induced. Mead dropped back down into his dark blue overstuffed chair, shuffled through the paper, then stood back up and peered out the window again.
After realigning the magazines and books on the large oak coffee table, he gave the brown sofa pillows a few dutiful whacks, then adjusted the gray dustcover draped over the telescope that sat on a tripod in the corner. Crossing the light blue carpet again he entered the kitchen, wiped down the counters one last time, then refilled his coffee mug and held it to his lips, taking small sips as he surveyed the empty sink and the neatly folded hand towels that hung from the oven door handles and the tidy row of spices and medicine bottles on the windowsill. So damn many medicines. He tapped the fingers of his right hand against the tip of his thumb, counting off the last dosage: next batch at 4 p.m. (A complete waste of money, he suspected, hating the frailty they implied.)
He set his mug on the counter and walked down the short and dimly lit hallway to the first bedroom on the left, peering inside. Sophie's room, the 1960s Singer workhorse still sitting on a small white table, waiting. "Just give me one little teeny, tiny place where I can make my mess," she'd said when they began looking for their first house in 1954. And finally, after Sharon went off to college and they purchased their third house in 1974, he'd been able to oblige. "It's perfect," she said as they surveyed the small extra bedroom. "Just wait until I'm finished with it." Once they'd fixed it up with some new carpeting and paint she'd disappear for hours to sew and hum and iron and do her decoupage and putter—or just sit like a queen in her hand-painted rocking chair by the window, gazing proudly at her small vegetable garden, now untended, overgrown and reclaimed by nature. Like Sophie.
For the first three months after she died Mead kept the door closed, unable even to set foot in there, as though afraid he might see her, afraid that she'd have to go through it again. The unbearable thing. So he kept the door closed and walked quickly past, some days wondering whether he had heard a sound, a sigh or rustle of fabric.
When Sharon visited that first Thanksgiving—nearly three years ago now—she tried to clean things up, making big piles of her mother's clothes to give away. But while she went to the grocery store to restock his refrigerator, Mead quickly rescued several of his favorite items and returned them to Sophie's closet, where her best shoes still hung from a pink wire rack on the left. And her slippers. Her worn, old yellow slippers, which still bore the impressions of her narrow size-six feet. Mead could never bring himself to throw out her slippers.
He listened to a car pass, still standing in the doorway, then checked his watch again. He'd spent three days trying to ready the room for his grandson, removing some of the pictures on the dresser—but leaving enough to remind the kid of his roots, of where he was. He stored all the plastic boxes of thread, pins, fabric samples, knitting needles and patterns beneath the twin bed. And buttons. There were jars and jars of buttons stashed everywhere, like acorns for winter. Sophie loved buttons. She adored the shiny, small, matching cuteness of them. Whenever Mead lost a button, a look of singular purpose shone on her face as she'd snatch off his shirt or coat and whisk it away to her room. "I can match it perfectly," she'd say as she foraged noisily through her button jars.
When he tired of trying to organize the room he'd sit in the rocker thinking of her sitting in the rocker and he'd steep himself in as much of her as still remained in the room. There was plenty. Enough, he thought, to survive on. At least for a few years. He didn't think of it as a memorial or a mausoleum—nothing quite so morbid; it was simply the place where she was more present than anywhere else, where her scent was the strongest. And so he'd gotten into the habit of spending a few minutes each day in the rocking chair, telling her things and imagining what she'd say and how she'd laugh or scold him, or just give him that look of hers where her eyebrows came together. After three days of moving things back and forth he'd finally made what he considered adequate space for his grandson. Just enough for a few weeks, then he'd put everything back exactly as it was.
He smoothed down the bedspread one more time before returning to the kitchen where he finished his coffee, washed out the mug, dried it and re-shelved it before wiping down the counters once again. Then he checked the refrigerator: plenty of sandwich meats, orange juice, milk (whole, as well as Mead's one percent), two flavors of Gatorade—terrible stuff, he thought, after a taste—two packs of all-beef franks, several pounds of lean hamburger meat, Swiss cheese, eggs, bacon, sausages in both links and patties. Even ice cream bars with nuts, which he'd selected after much consideration. (He'd been off ice cream for two years after noticing a certain softness around the midriff.) Plenty to get started. Who knew what the boy would eat?
He went back into the living room and peered out the window, then sat back down in his blue chair and waited.
A knife. A goddamn pocket knife.
Andrew sat in silence next to his mother, arms wrapped around his backpack. Crazy stupid thing. Crazy stupid world. And now this. He tapped his toe against the floorboard. And the thing was, he'd do it again if he had to. He'd push back again. He squeezed his backpack to his chest. Push, push, push. That's what it was all about. Getting pushed and pushing back. So he'd finally pushed back. Hard. And now everybody wanted to destroy him.
They always had.
It wasn't hate he felt, not the usual hate that seemed to pressurize everything until his ears ached. More like a sort of burning in his pimpled, freckled face. He kept thinking about what his best friend Matt used to say, about how sometimes it felt like life was gonna bust his head wide open. And then one day Matt decided he couldn't take the pain anymore; he'd had enough. How could you leave me like that? Now Andrew was no longer sure that he could take it either.
He stared out the window at a passing silver Porsche convertible, watching the middle-aged driver talk smugly on a cell phone. Sixteen, and still the fucking helplessness of it. Can you will yourself into someone else's skin? But who'd want to switch with him? No one. He watched the driver, one hand resting lazily on top of the steering wheel, world by the balls. Probably talking dirty to his horny girlfriend. And with a silver Porsche convertible hauling his rich ass anywhere he wants to go. Andrew couldn't imagine the freedom of it, the absolute independence; doing only what you want to do, going wherever you felt like going. Just being able to pick up and move. Was it just a matter of waiting long enough? Learning when to push? But he'd always been waiting. He was tired of waiting. He slipped on his headphones and turned up the volume on his CD player. Fuck waiting.
They'd left the house at nine that morning for the flight from Chicago to San Diego, landing just after lunch. But his mother took the wrong bus to the wrong car rental agency and it was another forty-five minutes before they arrived at Thrifty, where they were given a tiny, white two-door with the smallest tires Andrew had ever seen. Typical, he thought, squeezing into the front seat and putting his headphones back on. The cheapest everything.
He looked quickly over at his mother, then back out the window, forwarding to the next song. He'd have to wait a lot longer now. Maybe forever. Okay, so he'd wait forever. What did it matter, really? What did anything matter? Because the thing that he could never stop thinking about was: nothing really mattered. The vast stupidness of everything was always there laughing at him: when he took a test, when he studied, when he stood before the mirror in the bathroom for twenty minutes each morning struggling to conceal his acne with his mother's makeup. It was all so amazingly pointless. All of it: grades and sports and theorems and diagramming sentences and always having to pretend to be what you weren't, and—most of all—the way everybody worked so hard trying to impress everybody else. Pointless. Yeah, he understood that. He understood a lot of things. That's what made it harder: knowing. And no one thinks you know. They don't have a clue that you can see through it all. Or maybe they've forgotten that they could once see through it all, too. (Is that it? He was never quite sure what happened to adults, how they became so pathetic.) He turned up the volume on his CD player. But still he'd have to get through the next three weeks. Twenty-one days with his grandfather. Mr. D-Day himself. The great Nazi slayer. Just thinking about it scared him, knotting up his stomach. And Andrew hated being scared more than anything. He was tired of being scared.
His mother tapped him on the shoulder. "How are you doing?"
"We should be there in fifteen minutes."
"But you'll try?"
Andrew remained silent.
"Please?" Her features drew up with concern, which always got to him.
"Yeah, I'll try."
He didn't hate his mother. He never could, not like some guys hated theirs—a deep, primal sort of hatred. His mother was simply too stupid to hate. Nice but stupid, always losing things and leaving the car lights on and forgetting to pay the phone bill and dating the biggest jerks in the world. And then there was all her crying, which seemed to get worse and worse so that her mascara was always smearing, which drove Andrew nuts. She cried over everything: television shows, his grades, boyfriends, burning dinner, being poor. No, he didn't hate her. She was too fragile to hate. But he couldn't tell her anything. No way. There was a time when he wished he could, when he wanted her to understand what was happening to him, when he desperately needed her help. But not anymore. Who wants their mom to know the truth, to know that their son is silently drowning—that every morning when he goes to school and walks down those cold, echoing corridors with the jeering faces and the impenetrable circles, he just dies?
He changed CDs.
And that was the worst thing: hurting her. He still couldn't shake the look on her face when she arrived at the principal's office and saw him sitting there with the knife on the table and the cop and the flushed angry faces and the accusations. Like he was crazy, one of those wackos on TV in combat black, taking the whole fucking football team down with them.
No, he wasn't the crazy one. It was the rest of them that were crazy. All he wanted was for the pushing to stop.
Just please stop pushing me.
Sharon had called her father that night.
"Oh God, Dad, you'll never believe what's happened . . ."
"Andrew's been expelled. He brought a knife to school. He pulled it on a classmate. He didn't hurt him but—"
"Now slow down a minute. A knife? You sure they got the story straight? Andrew hardly seems like—"
"Of course I'm sure. He's been expelled. Andrew's been expelled." She burst into tears. "I can't handle him anymore, Dad. I know he's a good kid inside but I can't handle him."
"How long is he out of school?"
"At least three weeks, which is all that's left until summer break." Sharon's voice wavered. "I don't know what's going to happen in the fall. There's a hearing. They could press charges."
"Just back up a minute. What kind of knife?"
"A pocketknife. The one you gave him when he went to that camp you sent him to."
Mead recalled the small buck knife he had engraved for Andrew's tenth birthday, just like the one that his own father had given him and that he'd kept all through the war. Did he still have it somewhere? "And you're saying he pulled it on somebody?"
"An older boy named Kevin Bremer. All I know is that he's on the football team."
"Maybe Andrew was just trying to show it off, impress the guys." He couldn't imagine his grandson trying to hurt anybody. Being hurt, yes.
"No, he was going to . . . stab him. That's what all the other kids said." She tried to stifle another sob. "I just can't believe it. I've completely failed. I'm just a mess, Dad. I don't know what to do anymore. Ever since the suicide, Andrew's been . . . oh God, Dad, what am I going to do?" She cried even harder.
Six months earlier, Andrew's best friend had killed himself by overdosing on alcohol and a bottle of his mother's tranquilizers. Mead had offered to send Andrew away to a boarding school, thinking it might give him a new start, but Sharon wanted to keep him close by.
And now this. Mead shook his head. To hell in a handbasket. And he'd seen it coming for years. The riots, race problems, drugs, violence, promiscuity. Christ, the filth on television. Pure pornography at family hour. At least all those young soldiers who never came home didn't have to see what became of the country they died fighting for. Freedom? More like anarchy. But he'd be gone soon enough. And frankly, that was just fine with him. He'd seen plenty, thank you.
"It's the goddamn television," he said finally. "That and the music and those computer games they play and the general lack of respect. You throw your TV out the window and tell that boy to straighten up and mind his Ps and Qs, or I'll do it for him. Better yet, tell him he'll go to military academy and I'll spring for it."
"This is Andrew we're talking about," said Sharon. "Andrew."
Mead looked over at the photograph on the coffee table: Sharon and Andrew at the boy's middle-school graduation. A nice enough kid, Mead thought, but shy and small and underfed-looking, with oily skin and a droopy, introverted face. A disappointment, frankly. Four-F. And as for teenagers, Lord, Mead could hardly bear the sight of them lurking in the malls, the girls dressed like hookers and the boys with their pants practically at their knees, cracks showing for all to see. "Pull up your trousers, sonny," he'd mutter to himself, never quite able to figure out how they stayed up at all. Every Christmas he made sure to give Andrew the finest belt money could buy. But the kid never wore one. None of them did.
Still, he'd always had a soft spot for Andrew, the only child of his only child. How Sophie used to dote on the boy, making him little outfits, buying him more presents than he could ever need, puddling up at the mention of him, as if having a grandchild was her life's crowning triumph. And Mead knew it hadn't been easy for the kid, whose father, Carl the Creep, ran off with some floozy when Andrew was just eight, and hardly bothered to call except when he was crocked. Mead had felt something funny on the back of his neck the first time he met The Creep, and he had sat distraught during the wedding wondering what in God's name he'd done wrong to cause his daughter—his sweet, precious Sharon, the only child Sophie had been able to have—to seek out a lazy son of a bitch like that. (Though she'd always had terrible taste in men, like the color-blind choosing a wardrobe.) Oh yes, he'd been onto The Creep from the start, and every time he was forced to talk to his son-in-law he'd find himself fantasizing about where on that big, mushy, arrogant face he might plant a decisive punch.
"Why'd he do it? There must have been some reason."
"How do I know why?"
"You ask him, that's how."
"He won't tell me. He won't tell me anything."
"Well then you lock him up in his room until he will tell you."
"You don't know him, Dad. He'd stay there until he starved. He's . . . he's changed. He's just boiling inside." She paused to blow her nose, making a loud honking sound. "I know he hasn't had it easy—I'm doing the best I can—but this?"
"Wasn't he seeing some sort of therapist?"
"He went for a while. Then he wouldn't go anymore."
"You don't give him a damn choice."
"Dad . . ." her voice broke. "I just can't handle him anymore. I took tomorrow off from work but I just started the job and . . ." She began to cry again.
Mead winced at the sound of her tears. What had happened to her? How had she become so beaten down and overwhelmed by life that he feared what each phone call might bring? Without thinking, Mead said, "Why don't you let me take him for a few weeks?"
There was a long pause. "You?"
"Why not? Maybe I can knock some sense into him."
"You know you'd go crazy in about five minutes."
"Give me some credit."
"Let's just say that teenagers aren't exactly . . ."
"Aren't exactly what?"
"Sure I'm serious."
Was he? Already Mead wondered whether it was too late to retract the offer.
There was another long pause. "Maybe it would be good for him. God knows, he needs a man around. But you're really serious?"
Mead swallowed hard. "Of course I'm serious."
Mead was on the front walkway of his small, white, one-story ranch house when the car pulled up. Three years in the service and the one lesson that stuck with him was: never volunteer. But Sharon needed him. Frankly, she needed a lot of things. Poor girl, always reeling from one disaster to another. Sophie had been right, their daughter just wasn't a natural when it came to motherhood. Or men. But did I really say three weeks? You're getting soft, old man. The thing is to lay down the law from the start. State the rules and consequences. And there would be consequences.
But exactly what consequences? He'd given that question considerable thought over the past few days. He couldn't just take the boy over his knee and smack him (though it might do him some good). He could always ground him, but ground him from what? It wasn't like the boy had any friends in the area. And what the hell would they do for three weeks? He was stumped on that one. At least there was the basketball hoop he'd purchased in a panic the day before and spent four hours assembling in the driveway. So—he could take away the boy's basketball privileges. And no Gatorade. Any back talk and down the drain goes the Gatorade, which is where it belongs anyway.
Across the street his neighbor Evelyn came out to water her flowers, stopping to wave enthusiastically. He waved back politely, hoping she wouldn't bring him over another batch of her nefarious raisin cookies. He wasn't quite sure what to make of Evelyn. A few years younger than Mead, she'd been widowed ten years previously and seemed to spend most of her time tending her garden and cooking raisin cookies or brownies or muffins, which she'd leave on Mead's doorstep in little decorative tins, returning every so often to collect the empties and chat. She and Sophie used to gab about gardening, sharing tips and an occasional recipe, but they'd never been close. Mead always suspected that it was because Sophie thought Evelyn was excessively attentive to him. (She didn't miss a thing.) It probably didn't help that Evelyn's bougainvillea scrambled enthusiastically up her trellis while Sophie's seemed paralyzed with a fear of heights. Indeed, Evelyn's flower garden put the entire subdivision to shame, exploding in riotous reds and yellows and oranges and blues long after every other garden—including Sophie's—had expired in the summer heat. "I think she uses something," Sophie would say accusingly.
She wasn't at all bad-looking—for her age (no small qualification). But Mead certainly didn't think of her that way. Indeed, he was careful always to be extremely circumspect in her presence, not wanting to give her any encouragement. The thought of Sophie rolling jealously in her grave was simply unbearable. Besides, Mead had little confidence in his ability to correctly interpret the subtle signals that guided male-female relations. Years earlier he'd been the unwitting and mortified subject of a vigorous pursuit by a chain-smoking, six-foot-three divorcée named Frances who worked in the accounting department of his engineering firm. At first he thought it a mere unfortunate coincidence that she always appeared at the coffee machine whenever he went for a refill, but when she goosed him at the Christmas party after imbibing too much punch he knew he was in trouble. The next day he went out and purchased his own coffee thermos, and from then on he took elaborate precautions to avoid being in the same room with her. Yet two months later an envelope with no return address arrived in his office mail. Inside was a one-page poem, which, as far as he could tell, had something to do with the different shades of light on a Sunday afternoon—though he suspected it might be some sort of coded proposition. He received three in all, and though he shredded each one on the spot, they left him feeling sullied and traitorous (despite a flawless record of fidelity). Should he tell Sophie? But how could he? You must have been leading her on. And yet if he didn't, he'd have something to hide. A secret. He never did tell her—despite several aborted attempts—and thankfully the pursuit ended as suddenly as it had started. Still, the experience convinced him that one could never be too cautious in dealing with the opposite sex. He glanced over at Evelyn across the street, then quickly looked away, pretending to be busy adjusting his sprinkler.
Finally a small white car—so small he thought it might be electric—turned the corner and came down the street, popping the curb as it pulled into his driveway.
"Hi, Dad." Sharon jumped out and gave him a big hug. He'd forgotten how familiar she smelled. Even with her lotions and shampoos and the awful perfume that always made his and Sophie's eyes water—are you sure it's not tear gas?—he could still trace her original scent, the one that drifted into his being the day he first kissed her fuzzy little scalp at the hospital in Tampa, where they had lived for three years after the war.
"Sorry. We had a small problem with the rental car."
"Mom went to Hertz by mistake," mumbled Andrew. "This is from Thrifty." He pointed disgustedly at the car. "We should have gone to Hertz. Everybody else goes to Hertz."
What a punk, thought Mead, studying his grandson, whose enormous jeans could easily have fit on the biggest man in Mead's old rifle company. He wore dirty, unlaced sneakers, walking on the flattened back heels as though they were slippers, and a large and rumpled black T-shirt with some sort of Satanic omen painted on it. He had a small, gold hoop earring in his left earlobe and his hair—once brown but now streaked with yellow along the top—looked like it had been cut with shears, then fermented under a helmet for several weeks. In short, the boy looked like a refugee or drug freak.
Mead felt a chill of repugnance. My own grandson. And a hooligan as well. He reached down and tapped the roll of antacids in his front pants pocket. What the hell was Sharon thinking, letting him travel dressed like that? It was no wonder so many friends had retreated into elderly compounds over the years, safe in their snug little time capsules, oblivious to their irrelevance. Mead would never do that. He wasn't about to hide behind some damn guard and gate. Finally he stepped forward and put out his hand. "How are you doing, son?"
The boy shrugged and took his hand, offering a limp, moist grip, so that Mead feared he might break the boy's bones if he squeezed too hard.
"Well, get your things and come inside."
Andrew returned to the car for his backpack, duffel bag and skateboard. Sharon stood staring at Mead, her eyes moistening. "Thank you," she whispered. "I don't know what else to say."
Mead watched the boy for a moment, wondering if he should help—naw, let him carry his own load—then turned and went inside, hoping Sharon wouldn't get weepy.
"Well, this will be your room," Mead said, standing awkwardly at the doorway to Sophie's room.
"It was Mom's," said Sharon.
"You guys had separate bedrooms?"
"Of course we didn't have separate bedrooms," Mead said with a scowl. "This was her . . . workshop."
"Mom loved this room."
"What did she make?" asked Andrew, eyeing the room suspiciously.
"What didn't she?" said Sharon. "She was incredible with her hands. I think I must have been adopted."
"Your grandma made half the stuff in this house," said Mead proudly. "Take that mirror with the shells, for example. She found every single one of those shells herself."
"When they lived in Tampa," explained Sharon. "Mom loved beach-combing."
"And look how she glued each one on just perfectly," continued Mead. "You could get some money for that one. And those curtains, made them herself, and this quilt . . ." Andrew eyed the bright orange and brown bedspread. "And that plate on the wall."
"Decoupage," said Sharon.
They stood in silence, shifting from foot to foot.
"So, why don't you unpack your things and your mom and I will be in the living room," said Mead finally. The moment they walked away Mead heard the door close.
After stopping in the bathroom to down two antacids, he offered Sharon a soft drink—Fresca, his favorite—then took a seat in his blue, overstuffed chair and looked closely at her. She looked thinner than usual, with a puffiness around her large hazel eyes and lines on her oval face that he didn't remember seeing before. Even her hands looked thinner, veins showing. Where did you go, Princess? It broke his heart to see what had happened to her, how she never seemed to get her footing, going through jobs and men like tissue. What had they done wrong? Nothing. Sophie had even offered—much to Mead's horror—to move out to Chicago to help with Andrew after The Creep first walked out. (Thank God Sharon wouldn't hear of it.)
She had a big enough heart; maybe too big. It was common sense that she lacked. He looked at the gray roots of her thinning, dark brown hair, remembering how full and shiny it once was and how Sophie loved to braid it into all sorts of designs before sending Sharon skipping off to school in the morning. "Look at me, Dad!" And what a beauty she'd been, beauty that gradually had been washed away by heartbreak and circumstance. Mead took a deep breath, fighting back a tightness in his chest.
"How have you been, Pumpkin?" he asked softly.
"The truth? Awful." She sat on the sofa across from him, leaning over her knees. "I just don't know what to do about Andrew. He's . . . he's not a bad kid, Dad. You know that. But he's got so much stuff inside and I don't know how to get it out. Ever since Matt's death he's been . . ." She raised her hands into the air, eyes welling up.
"Any more word from the school?"
"I'll find out more next week. They're considering whether to let him back next fall."
"How are his grades?"
"Terrible. In the last couple of years he's just stopped trying. And he's such a smart kid. I know he is." She wiped her eyes.
Mead leaned forward and took Sharon's hand. "Are you taking care of yourself?"
"Oh God, don't worry about me."
"But I do. You look thin."
"I've never been thin."
"Baloney. You getting any exercise?"
She shrugged. "I was working out a couple of times a week until I started this new job. I've just got to get a routine going."
"You're not still smoking?"
"I stopped—for good."
Mead raised his eyebrows.
"It's been a month. Promise."
"You two could move out here. Get some sunshine." Mead surprised himself with the offer, half hoping she'd decline.
"Dad, I like Chicago."
"Can I give you some money?"
"You just sent me a check."
"I have more than I need."
"I'm not your charity."
"You're my daughter."
She leaned toward him and kissed him on the cheek. "So how are you?"
"Fit as a fiddle."
"I hope I have your genes, but I'm starting to have my doubts."
Mead considered inquiring into the latest developments of her tumultuous love life, but then thought better of it. "So, uh, how does Andrew feel about . . ." he gestured around the room, "this?"
"Coming here? Well, it wasn't exactly his idea. He's a little nervous."
"I don't know how to thank you. With this new job and—"
"Don't think about it."
She wiped her eyes, smudging her mascara. "I think you'll be good for him. He needs a man, Dad. I really think he needs a man to reach him."
Mead took a deep breath and finished off his Fresca. "Well, we'll see." He heard noises coming from Sophie's room. Christ, was the boy rearranging things? Mead wouldn't stand for that.
Sharon glanced at her watch. "Yikes, I'm supposed to meet Cindy in half an hour. You remember Cindy? She's letting me sleep at her place tonight and I've got a flight home first thing in the morning."
Mead tensed. "You could have slept here," he said, trying to keep the hurt from his face.
Sharon looked around the living room, simply furnished with a dining room table at one end, and at the other a sofa, two chairs and a coffee table set around a small gas fireplace with three artificial logs.
"I would have slept on the couch."
"You're sweet, but I haven't seen Cindy in years." She got up and gave him a hug. "Thank you for paying for the tickets. I'll pay you back. Promise."
"You know I won't let you do that."
Sharon tried to smile, then gestured toward the hallway. "I'll just go say good-bye."
"He's really a good kid, Dad. He's just . . ."
"We'll be fine."
Mead stood on the front porch watching Sharon drive off, waving until the car turned down the block, then waving to the memory of her being there. He lingered for another moment, making a fist at his side to keep hold of himself, then pulled the mail out of the box and went back inside, bolting the door before returning to his chair where he sat leafing through the bills and catalogs and wondering what to fix for dinner. He heard more noises coming from Sophie's room. What the hell's going on in there?
When Andrew failed to emerge after half an hour Mead finally got up, walked down the hallway and stood outside the door listening. Not a sound. Was he taking a nap, for Christ's sake? Mead would have to put a stop to that, put the boy on a firm schedule. He returned twenty minutes later and listened again. "You want some Gatorade?"
"I said, do you want some Gatorade? Got orange and red."
"No thank you. I don't like Gatorade."
Mead stood at the door for a moment. "Neither do I," he grumbled, heading back to the kitchen where he removed both jugs of Gatorade from the fridge, opened them and poured them down the sink.
An hour later he returned to the door and listened again. "You coming out of there sometime?" No response. Mead knocked. "I said, are you ever planning on coming out of there—or shall I just slide the food under the door?"
"I'm sorry, I was listening to music. Sure, I'll be out. When do you want me out?"
Mead stared at the door, noticing how faded the paint looked. Come to think of it, the whole house could use a fresh coat. Mead remembered how he and Sophie had spent weeks repainting it themselves, using the savings to go to Hawaii. Must have been fifteen years ago. "When would you want to come out?"
A minute later the door cracked open and Andrew peered out, all the shyness gathered around his eyes. Damn if he doesn't have the saddest eyes. Mead took a step back. "Well, I'll be in the living room. Dinner's at six. Sharp." He turned and headed back down the hall. The door closed behind him. Three weeks, Mead thought, shaking his head as he settled back down in his blue chair and shuffled through the newspaper. Better restock the bourbon.
First, the orange and brown bedspread would have to go. Pathetic. It was like rooming with an orangutan. He folded it up and stuffed it onto the top shelf of the closet. After contemplating the layout of the room for several minutes, he switched the rocking chair with the dresser, then back again. Maybe the bed should go against the window. He tried four different arrangements, finally settling on the bed in the corner by the window, next to the dresser, with the small rattan desk at the foot of the bed and the rocking chair in the opposite corner. He considered unpacking his bag, but all but two of the drawers were full, crammed with sweaters and bracelets and earrings and balls of yarn and socks and shawls. Grandma's stuff. He picked up a yellow sweater and held it to his nose, then put it back and closed the drawer. Creepy. So he'd just keep his things in his bag. No need to unpack anyway. Only three weeks. Any luck and he'd go home early. The thing was just to get through it.
He sat on the bed wondering whether to take down any of the photographs and cheap-looking artwork, the kind sold at garage sales, then drummed his fingers on his kneecaps. Day one. Should he make a scratch on the wall? At least he'd finish The Two Towers and maybe even The Return of the King. But man, three weeks with GI Joe? He got up from the bed and stood at the dresser studying the framed photographs of his grandparents that were neatly arrayed in rows. As he looked closely at them he realized for the first time that both his grandfather and grandma had once been okay-looking, at least in black and white. He picked up a photo of his grandfather in uniform, surprised by how young he looked, like he barely shaved. Definitely good-looking: powerful eyes—deep blue in real life, which always made Andrew wonder why his own were dirty brown—good nose, all-American face. Frankly, way better looking than me. And the thing was, there was no similarity at all. He tried to see himself in his grandfather's eager young face but couldn't. Not even a trace. Grandfather the Kraut killer. Probably killed dozens of them. He'd seen plenty of shows on late-night television about the big war, the German dive bombers screaming downward and the guys jumping into the water and wading to the beach and then the grand finale with the mushroom cloud and then all those white crosses that went on forever. Saving Private Ryan was definitely intense, especially the scene where the Jew gets knifed by the German. Nasty. But he could never place the old guy in the green, button-down sweater sitting in the living room with those battles in Europe. That was like, fifty years ago.
He carefully placed the photograph back on the dresser, then knelt over his bag, opened a side compartment and pulled out the extra large Ziploc bag containing Matt, or what was left of him. He'd been surprised that the ashes weren't exactly ashes—not like what's left from a campfire—but more like little coarse white and gray pieces of ground shells from the beach. He had spent hours imagining Matt's body being placed on a big grill and then slid into a hot furnace and cooked to a crisp. (Heat for two hours at up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, then pulverize—according to a Web site he checked out.) Even dead, how could that not hurt? And how did they catch the ashes and keep them from being mixed with other people's ashes? What if it wasn't Matt at all that he was holding but some big-butted Bertha from the South Side? He carefully opened the Ziploc and put a finger in, stirring the little pieces of bone. Was it a crime to transfer stolen ashes across state lines? He didn't care—stealing Matt's ashes was the single best thing that Andrew had ever done. Once he heard that Matt was going to be taken to some family plot in Indiana he knew he had to do it. Matt hated Indiana, where he had to spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas on a farm visiting relatives, all of whom were seriously religious. Everyone suspected him, but they couldn't prove it. The perfect crime. He smiled and placed Matt in his lap.
Actually, he didn't really think of the ashes as Matt. He figured Matt had already been reincarnated into something else. He was always on the lookout, scrutinizing cats that rubbed against him and dogs that licked him and babies wailing at the grocery store and any stranger who gave him a second glance. He knew that Matt was out there somewhere; it was just a matter of time before he made the connection.
He put the Ziploc on the dresser and pulled out a smaller baggie containing three joints, which was all he could scrounge up for the trip. Would his grandfather search through his things? (Didn't everybody?) He looked around the room, then went over to the closet, chose one of his grandma's shoes at random and stuffed the baggie containing the joints into the toe, smiling to himself at his cunning. Then he gently flattened Matt's ashes and placed them under the mattress near the head. When he finished he sat back down on the bed and checked his watch. Is the old man expecting me in the living room? But what the hell are we going to do sitting in the same room?
He'd never felt comfortable around his grandfather (it was never grandpa). Not the way he had with Grandma, who played hours of cards and checkers and Parcheesi with him and always brought him homemade cookies and brownies when they came to visit. He hardly knew his grandfather, who always seemed to sit watchfully in the largest chair like the teacher during an exam. Sure he respected him, at least in the reflexive way you admire an astronaut or Olympic athlete, or show reverence for the dead. But he felt more intimidated than anything, hating the sweaty smallness he felt in the great man's presence. GI Joe's generation saved the world and there's been nothing but riffraff ever since. And basically, hero or not, the guy was wound up tight as an asshole. It was like having a cop, a priest and a principal all wrapped into one. And what's with the big American flag out front? It's like staying at the fucking post office.
He got up and looked at the photographs again, trying to figure how the young man in the uniform mutated into the cranky old headmaster sitting in the living room. What the hell did he do for kicks? Fondle his medals? Andrew tried to imagine his grandparents having sex but the idea made him cringe like he'd just sucked on a lemon. He sat back down on the bed, feeling edgy. Oh man, three weeks.
Mead settled on hamburgers. Top-grade, mixed with his own special seasoning. He scrubbed his hands, dried them, then carefully laid out a sheet of wax paper on the kitchen counter and began to knead the meat, shaping the patties until they were just so, plump but not too thick in the middle. Four patties should do it. These kids could eat entire livestock. He added a bit more pepper, then another dash of Worcestershire. Nothing like Mead's juicy burgers. (To hell with doctors.) After putting on his apron—the black one with the white chef's hat on it that Sophie made for his sixty-fifth birthday—he grabbed a box of Ohio Blue-Tip Matches from the top of the refrigerator, opened the screen door and went out to the side of the house to light the grill, suffused with a rare sense of contentment.
Once the burgers were on, he sliced up some onions, tomatoes and lettuce, then readied the condiments—ketchup, French's, Grey Poupon and horseradish spread—as well as cheddar cheese. He'd make two cheeseburgers and two plain. The boy could take his pick. But where to eat? Mead usually had his breakfast at the small table in the kitchen, then ate lunch and dinner on a TV tray in the living room. Hmm. They could eat at the table outside, enjoy the evening air. But it might be buggy. He stared at the little kitchen table, imagining them sitting face-to-face. Not a chance. There was always the dining room table; certainly plenty of elbowroom. But no, too formal. Besides, Mead never ate at the dining room table. As far as he was concerned, that was for entertaining, and he most definitely was not entertaining. Well then, they could eat from trays in the living room, keep it casual. He glanced down at the condiments, imagining his grandson dribbling ketchup and mustard all over the sofa and carpet. To hell with the bugs, they'd eat outside. He went back out and checked on the burgers, delighting in their freshly-singed smell. As he flipped them one last time—nearly perfect—Andrew appeared.
"What are those?"
Mead looked down with pride at the sizzling patties, adding cheese to two of them. "Well now, cut off my leg and call me Shorty, but in these parts we refer to them as burgers. Hamburgers. And they happen to be my specialty."
"Are they meat burgers?"
"I don't think I follow you, son."
"Are they made of meat?"
Mead put down his spatula. "Now what do you think?"
"I mean, real meat?"
Mead sized up his grandson, wondering if the boy was on drugs. It would explain a lot of things. But his eyes were clear enough and he seemed steady on his feet. "Yes, you're looking at real, honest-to-goodness hamburgers. Top grade. Ol' Daisy herself gave up the ghost so that we might eat." He picked up his spatula again. "Grab a plate."
"I thought they might be veggie-burgers."
"Now why would you think a thing like that?"
"Because I don't eat meat."
Mead stood motionless. "You don't eat . . . meat?"
"I'm not like a total vegan. I like cheese and tuna fish. But no land-based animals. It's been almost a year now." Andrew shoved his hands into his front pockets. "Farming's like the biggest polluter in the country," he mumbled. "And the energy that goes into raising one cow could feed thousands of people. Cows are even considered holy in India. Did you know that? They're practically rock stars. Man, if I was a cow I'd definitely want to live in India."
Mead looked down at the burgers, then back at the boy. "You don't eat meat?"
"Nope. But with tofu—"
"By God, it's no wonder you're so damn scrawny. You're not getting any protein."
"Beans have tons of protein."
Mead stared at the boy, then down at the grill. The burgers were now overcooked. Nothing Mead hated more than overcooked burgers. He grabbed a plate and took them off.
"I figured Mom would tell you."
Mead considered forcing his grandson to eat a cheeseburger on the spot, double time. Might be just what he needs. "You come with some sort of instruction manual?"
"I'm not that hungry anyway," Andrew mumbled.
"And for God's sake, stop mumbling." Mead carried the hamburgers to the kitchen while Andrew held open the screen door. "I've got some tuna fish. You said you like tuna fish?"
"Yeah, I guess I'll have some tuna fish."
Mead set the burgers down on the counter. They'd be cold by the time he ate. Tough and cold. He thought of all the meat sitting in the fridge. Enough for a platoon. Damn. He'd have to freeze some or it would spoil. Or was it too late to freeze meat that had been in the refrigerator for two days now? Better freeze some anyhow, give it the sniff test when it thaws. He looked back down at his burnt burgers. Patience.
"I make great tuna fish," he said finally, trying to sound pleasant. "Your grandma taught me the secret. Gotta mince it up real fine with your fingers. Then a squeeze of lemon, some Grey Poupon, mayonnaise and relish."
"I just like mayo, thanks. If that's okay . . ."
Mead stood looking at the boy, who was a good five inches shorter. (Mead was six-foot-one, or liked to think he still was.) "Fine. You make the tuna. It's there in the cabinet." Mead pulled out a bowl, a can opener and the mayonnaise, then covered the hamburgers with tin foil. "I'll be in the living room."
"You can go ahead and eat," said Andrew.
"I'll wait," said Mead, heading for the bourbon and feeling his stomach growl. He could hear Andrew rummaging through the cabinet.
"There should be a couple of cans right there in front, second shelf," Mead called out, knowing full well there were five cans of Starkist stacked right between the jar of Prego pasta sauce and the two cans of sliced Dole pineapples.
"I was just wondering if you had any packed in water?"
More sounds of cans and jars being moved. Damn it. Mead rose from his chair. "Is there some sort of problem with my tuna fish?"
"It's just that it's packed in oil."
"It's Starkist, for Christ's sake."
"You can get it packed in water—but that's okay."
Mead sunk back down into his chair wondering if he should just call Sharon and tell her the whole thing had been a mistake; that Camp Mead was closed for the season and that little Sad Sack would be on the first plane home in the morning with a bag of carrots to see him through.
Several minutes later Andrew appeared in the living room. "I'm ready to eat when you are."
After Mead toasted a bun he slathered his hamburger with condiments, touched up his bourbon, then sat down at the small, white kitchen table across from Andrew and ate in silence.
Midway through his burger the doorbell rang. The raisin cookie lady, thought Mead, shaking his head.
"I'll get it," said Andrew.
Mead rose to stop him but Andrew was already halfway to the door.
"You must be Andrew," he heard Evelyn say. "Every bit as handsome as your grandfather." Who is she kidding? "I hope I'm not interrupting . . ."
"No, please come in. Hey Grandfather, you have a visitor."
Mead quickly wiped the mustard from his mouth and grabbed the three empty tins from the top of the refrigerator. "Hello, Evelyn."
"General?" Andrew looked at his grandfather with a grin. "I didn't know you were a general."
"I'm not a general."
"But he seems like one, don't you think? Must be that commanding presence." She winked. "Anyway, I've brought you some muffins." She took the three empty tins from Mead and handed him a full one. "I would have made more if I'd known your grandson was in town."
"This looks like plenty," said Mead.
"How long are you visiting for?" she asked Andrew, who was still grinning.
"A couple of weeks—maybe." Andrew took the tin from Mead, popped it open and selected a muffin. "This is good," he said, taking a bite. "And I love the raisins."
Oh, God, thought Mead, she'll bake up a storm. She gave him a big smile. He had to admit she had a nice smile, which after so many years had been etched into her face as a kind of testament to her pleasant nature. Taller than Sophie, she had warm hazel eyes, sun-freckled skin—a bit wrinkled but not yet lifeless—and good posture. Her gray hair was cut short and styled simply and she wore khakis, sneakers and a plain lavender shirt. Either good genes or healthy living or maybe even both. (How quickly Sophie had aged those last years, shrinking so fast that he had the illusion he was getting taller.)
"I try to keep your grandfather from wasting away," she explained to Andrew as he stuffed the remaining half of the muffin into his mouth.
"Delicious," he mumbled.
"Evelyn lives in the white house across the street," said Mead.
"Oh, I see," said Andrew with a knowing smile, which made Mead blush. "Well, it's really nice to meet you."
"I'll leave you two to finish your dinner," said Evelyn, sending Mead another one of her smiles, which wafted toward him like an enormous smoke ring. Sophie would have had her neck, he thought.
"Thanks for the muffins," Mead said, walking her to the door.
"Yeah, they're awesome," Andrew called out from the kitchen.
Mead always took a walk after dinner—it kept him regular as a Rolex—but he wasn't keen on leaving Andrew alone in the house. Nor did he especially want his grandson to join him for what was his favorite time of the day, watching the colors change and feeling the heat finally break and in the winter being able to look in the windows of his neighbors and glimpse little snapshots of solitude and chaos. After clearing their plates—at least the boy cleaned up after himself—Andrew retreated to his room while Mead returned to the living room. Jesus, it's like rooming with a monk, he thought, giving the paper a final once-over while listening to the tick of the silver clock on the mantle above the fireplace. Sophie's parents had given them the clock as a wedding gift along with the brass nameplate that still hung just above the doorbell beside their front door, though Mead always felt it belonged on a much larger house (which was why he kept it hidden in the back of the closet for years until Sophie insisted they put it up shortly after their last move). "Seems a bit showy to me," he muttered as Sophie marked off with a pencil exactly where she wanted it mounted.
"Everybody has one," she said, handing him the drill.
"They do?" Mead looked around at the other houses. "Looks like someone better tell the neighbors." But it was worth it just to see the glow on Sophie's face when she stood back and admired it.
"Now isn't that the homiest thing you've ever seen?"
He listened as Andrew emerged from his room and headed for the bathroom, closing the door quickly behind him. The kid goes more than I do.
He looked back at the clock. The thing was to have some sort of talk. Man to . . . juvenile delinquent. What the hell business have you got bringing a knife to school? Don't you know who you are, son? Oh, the things he could tell the boy. Goddamned vegetarian, worrying about cows when you're pulling knives on classmates. He took another sip of his bourbon. You know the kind of work I was doing when I was your age? Have you any idea what work is?
"Good night," said Andrew, appearing in the hallway with his Sad Sack face again.
Mead looked at his watch. "Hell, it's only eight o'clock," he said. "Thought we might play a few darts." He gestured toward the dark wooden cabinet that hung above the small bar. Sophie had bought it for him with her first couple of paychecks after she got a job working at a fabric store once Sharon went away to college. Mead loved the way the cherry cabinet doors swung open to reveal the board and the little drawer beneath that held his six high-density tungsten darts with solid aluminum shafts and feather flights. There was a small blackboard for scoring on the inside of the left cabinet door and a second drawer for chalk and the eraser. Mead had carefully mounted the board so that the bull's-eye was exactly five feet, eight inches from the ground, and he had adjusted a table and chair until he could draw a visual toe line across the carpet precisely seven feet, nine and a quarter inches from the board. Regulation.
Mead walked over and proudly opened the cabinet.
"I'm tired," said Andrew.
Mead hesitated. "Sure. Traveling and all." He closed the cabinet back up again. "Well—got everything you need, toothpaste and all that?"
"I keep a light on in the bathroom. I'm always up by six."
"Good night. And don't forget to brush your teeth." Mead listened as Sophie's door clicked quietly closed, then went out front, took down the American flag, carefully folded it and placed it on the top shelf of the hall closet. Then he freshened up his bourbon, opened the dartboard cabinet again and selected three darts.
It felt strange having someone else in the house. After Sophie died he hated the quiet, which was so enveloping that he soon found himself tiptoeing about. Then one evening he dropped a glass in the kitchen and it shattered with such a loud noise that he ran from the room in a panic. For the next few months he left the radio tuned to a classical station, even at night, and when that wasn't enough he hummed to himself. Then one afternoon the power went out and the silence swept over him so suddenly and completely that he could almost hear his grief, as if loneliness was an audible thing. But he had faced it, and when the power came back on three hours later he kept the radio off, gradually acclimating himself to the hushed timbre of widowerhood. Still, he couldn't shake the awful feeling of being left behind, like a child who loses his parents at a carnival and can't remember the meeting place. Every room seemed so desolate and hungry for her presence that he even considered moving. But when the perky young realtor with a long tear in her nylons suggested that the house would show better if they rented some happy furniture he'd gone cold on the idea, thinking that anywhere else would just be farther from Sophie.
Mead carefully took aim and threw the darts one by one, clustering well below the bull's-eye.
Even dying she'd been stronger. As soon as she knew she wasn't going to get better she started worrying about how he'd manage.
"Now, Peanut, don't concern yourself about me."
But she had. If she could have she would have cooked him ten years' worth of meals and frozen them in labeled Tupperware containers. Monday dinner, preheat to 325. Tuesday lunch, thaw overnight. She'd even left him a list of simple recipes, writing everything out as clearly as possible with smiley faces drawn here and there. No, you can't cook it in half the time by turning the oven up to 600! (He'd tried, and sure enough she'd been right.) The last thing she'd done before she was bedridden was to make and freeze a large batch of her special pasta sauce, which he loved. But he never could bring himself to eat it. When he thawed it out two months after she died the smell was simply too much. But he couldn't bring himself to throw it out either, not until it got moldy. Sorry, Peanut.
After putting the darts away he turned off the living room lights and sat in the dark, thinking he'd wait until he felt a little more tired before heading to bed.
He looked over at the burgundy sofa, remembering how he'd slept there that last month when Sophie was in the hospital bed they'd set up in the living room with the IVs and oxygen.
"I've been having the most lovely dreams," she said one night as they lay in the dark talking.
"Don't keep any secrets."
She started coughing, almost a choking sound, then caught her breath. "You'll just laugh."
"If you insist." She coughed again, then cleared her throat. "This afternoon I dreamed that you and I were having a wonderful picnic—on the roof of the Duomo in Florence."
"On the roof? We've never even been to Italy."
"But I know what the Duomo looks like." And that she did. She had dozens of coffee-table books about Italy and France and Spain, planning for the trip that they never took.
"You see, we'd just gotten married in the Sistine Chapel and—"
"The Sistine Chapel? Not by the Pope, by any chance?"
"Actually, yes! It was Paul."
"No, the first Paul. Saint Paul."
"Saint Paul? Geez, that's some wedding, especially for a couple of Unitarians."
"It's just a dream, silly."
"Anyway, it was a beautiful service but your stomach kept growling."
"Probably just nerves."
"And so I decided to have a picnic on the roof of the Duomo in Florence."
"Good thinking. But isn't it a sloped roof?"
"That's why the grapes kept rolling off!"
"It's the medicine, my dear."
They lay in silence listening to a large plane rumble overhead, then suddenly Sophie let out a laugh.
"I was just thinking about the night you asked me to marry you. Remember how you kept getting up from the table to use the restroom? You must have gone four times."
"Must we really—"
"To tell you the truth I thought you had . . . you know, problems."
"I was rehearsing my lines."
"You never told me that."
It was true. Mead had gone to the restroom four times to practice in front of the mirror. But it hadn't done any good. Once he took Sophie's hand and began to speak, the words had derailed right in his mouth and Sophie had to finish his sentence.
"I must be the only girl who proposed to herself," she said.
"I would have gotten to the point eventually."
Mead listened to the sound of her turning in her bed, then more coughing, which made him wince. "Can I get you anything?"
"No no, I'm fine." She coughed again. "I'm sorry to be such a bother."
"I really don't want a big fuss made at my funeral."
Mead opened his eyes and stared at the red blinking of the monitors by her bed. "Let's not talk about it."
"I just don't like big fusses."
"Okay, no big fusses."
"You'll keep going to church?"
"Sophie . . ."
"I need to know."
Mead hesitated. "I'll keep a foot in the door."
"I said a foot."
"That's good enough." She sighed. "I just worry about you so."
"Come on now, I'm a tough old bear."
"Oh no you're not. You're a big Pooh." She laughed again. "I'll never forget the look on your face when you walked Sharon down the aisle. Goodness, you had the whole place in tears."
It was true. Even though he loathed his son-in-law, the sight of Sharon in her wedding dress had completely undone him. There were other times, too, when he'd suddenly find himself full of more emotion than he knew what to do with: anniversaries, Christmas, New Year's Eve when Guy Lombardo and his band played. He always fought it, disliking the feeling of being out of control. And yet every year it got worse.
"I don't know how you're going to get through my funeral," she said, her voice suddenly squeaking.
"For Pete's sake, Sweetie Pie, let's talk about something else."
But she'd been right. For when he sat there in the front row looking at her casket he thought he would drown.
Her final wish was to die at home and yet he hadn't let her. When she couldn't catch her breath one evening and the monitors started flashing he simply couldn't bear it and had called an ambulance. Hurry! They'd resuscitated her all right, yanking her back to life despite the D.N.R. orders she'd drawn up months before and granting her one more hideous week, which she spent behind the curtain of a small, semi-private hospital room.
"I'm so sorry," he told her over and over again, bent over her bed and trying to keep away the pushy nurse who pumped the fluid from her lungs twice a day.
She just squeezed his hand.
He used to visit her grave twice a week, bringing her yellow tulips—her favorite—and making sure the gardeners were keeping things up. But no matter what time of day he went, he always ran into an enormous widow who parked herself in a little beach chair right on the adjacent plot and yacked nonstop to her dead husband Henry.
"Should have been at the races today, Henry. All the long shots were placing. And did I tell you about the trifecta? My God, Henry, we almost won the trifecta! Five thousand dollars, Henry!"
Thousands of headstones and not a visitor in sight except the big, loud psychotic sitting three feet from Sophie and chewing the ear off her dead husband.
"Excuse me, I wonder if you could keep it down a bit," Mead finally said one sweltering afternoon.
A look of hurt came across her big, juicy face, which was heavily powdered. "I'm just talking to Henry here." She fondly patted the top of Henry's gray headstone.
"Yes, well you see I can't hear . . ." Mead started to gesture toward Sophie's grave, then dropped his arm, feeling foolish.
She winked at him. "You too? And my daughters think I'm crazy."
"Now wait a—"
"Not to worry." She leaned over and gave his forearm a knowing squeeze, then turned back toward her husband's headstone. "Hey Henry, you want to meet the neighbors? I mean we are practically neighbors." She gave Mead a big, lusty smile.
He placed the flowers on the grass beneath Sophie's name, silently apologizing for the short visit, then turned to go.
"Maybe we could go to the races or have dinner or something?" the widow whispered. "Seeing as we're neighbors."
Mead looked at her in horror. "I don't think Henry would like that," he said in a loud voice. Then he walked quickly to his car.
Andrew lay in the dark listening to his headphones for a while, then placed them on the table next to him, pulled up the sheets and rolled onto his stomach, digging his fingers into the pillow. It had him again, grabbing him in its claws and tearing at his skin. Tossing and turning, he couldn't escape the awful, cold emptiness of everything.
That was what he feared most about silence. At least the music could chase it away, scattering all the thoughts and images like a hurricane flattening trees. But silence? He dreaded silence. In bed at night in the dark was always the worst, stranded there with all the fears, squirming and batting at them, feeling embarrassed just being alive.
He could never figure how other people managed. How could they be so calm, even cheery? Were they clueless? I mean, fuck me, fifteen years of homework just so you can get a job kissing up to some asshole? (All his mom's bosses were major assholes.) Please. And then after putting up with all the bullshit—years of it—what happens? You croak.
Ever since puberty Andrew had been haunted by the conviction that he had been born into a primitive and brutal stage of human evolution. The older he got, the harder he found it not to dwell on the mounting evidence that life was, in a nutshell, ridiculous; a big tease in which you could imagine and hope for wonderful things—constant sex, being able to live forever, world peace—only you couldn't have them. (Not even close.) So what was the point? (And what kind of God would invent a creature with needs it had no hope of fulfilling?) And yet other people didn't seem the least bit fazed. Truckloads of bullshit every way you turned and nobody else seemed even remotely freaked out. Was he just wired differently? (Sometimes he imagined himself as one of those huge radio dishes, able to suck in all the bad vibes in the cosmos simultaneously.) Was he the only one who was wired?
He sat up and opened the window a few more inches. When he lay back down he could just hear the soothing murmur of a neighbor's TV, then down the block the groan of an automatic garage door. As he closed his eyes he felt the anger backing up in his veins.
He used to cry. At night when his parents would yell at each other—mostly his dad—he'd sit in the far back of his closet under a pile of clothes crying with his hands pressed against his ears.
"Goddamn it, Sharon, can't you even balance a goddamn checkbook?"
"I thought I'd—"
"Twenty-five bucks every time you bounce a goddamn check!"
"Where's your checkbook?"
"I told you I'm not going to talk to you when you're drinking."
"Give me your purse."
"Please lower your voice, Carl." Crying. The screech of a chair being pushed aside.
Andrew pressed harder against his ears.
"Give it to me now, you dumb bitch!"
And then the day in third grade when he came home from school and his dad was gone. At first he thought they'd been robbed. The TV and stereo were missing and the house was a mess, with all the dresser drawers in his parents' room opened. In a panic he called his mother at work.
"Oh my God," she'd said. "Your father's left us."
He didn't believe it at first. Not until he went into his room and saw the note on his bed.
I'm not sure how to explain this to you, but your mother and I haven't been getting along too well and I've decided to move out and get my own place. You're just going to have to trust me that it's better for all of us. Sorry I didn't have a chance to say good-bye, but I'll call you when I get settled and you can come and visit, all right? So be tough and take care of your mother, okay Tiger?
But he didn't call. Not the first week. When Andrew's mom finally handed him the phone nine days later the voice on the other end sounded distant and slurred. "Now don't start bawling on me, Tiger." He called again three days later, then once a week, then once or twice a month, always promising things that never happened.
Andrew stopped going into his closet after that. Instead he'd just lie in bed and cry, not even meaning to or knowing when it would start or how he could ever stop it. But one night he couldn't cry anymore. He was empty.
He rolled over on his back, watching the light from a street lamp press through the curtains. He tried to imagine Grandma sitting in the corner sewing those curtains, working her wrinkled fingers over every stitch. He could recall her hands perfectly: the large brown splotches, the green veins snaking between the knuckles, the way her fingers curled this way and that like they'd all been broken a dozen times.
He put his headphones back on and turned up the CD as loud as it would go until his body rocked back and forth beneath the sheets. They understood. He could tell by the sounds and lyrics that they'd been there. That's how he knew that he wasn't alone; that there were others out there. Man, thank-fucking-God for that.
Music was basically the only thing that wasn't bullshit. It said everything. Ever since he got his first radio when he was eight he could hardly get enough of it. He loved singing, too. Sometimes when he was in the shower he'd sing so loud that his mother would bang on the door. "Time for school, Pavarotti." He spent hours strutting around his room with his stereo cranked, howling into his hairbrush and hitting the notes just perfectly. He knew he had a good voice; maybe even a great one. When he was little he'd been in the choir at church and sweaty Ms. Swanson frequently complimented him. "You have a gift, young man," she'd say, pinching his bright red cheek.
Only there wasn't much he could do with his gift. He quit the church choir in sixth grade after blowing his debut solo at the Christmas concert—he'd been so paralyzed with fear that he began hyperventilating—and he wasn't about to sing at school, where being in the choir was not only seriously uncool but infested with sexual implications. He thought about trying to start some sort of band—Matt played the clarinet when he was younger and could keep a beat—but Andrew couldn't imagine getting up in front of people—not unless he was drunk. (Going to the blackboard was misery enough.) Besides, he didn't have enough friends to form a band. So instead he sang in the shower and in his room and on the way to school—if no one was around—and at Matt's prodding he began keeping a notebook in which he wrote lyrics.
He'd been singing the first time he really got beat up. It was the second week of fifth grade and he was walking home from school while slowly working his way through "Sunshine on My Shoulders" (his mom was a huge John Denver fan and Andrew had Denver's entire playlist involuntarily embedded in his brain). He'd scanned the block for pedestrians, but somehow he got so caught up in the lyrics that the Laffley brothers, who were several years older and ruled a four-block area between Andrew's house and school, managed to creep up behind him. Just as he was hitting the high notes—makes me crrryyyyyy—they pounced, locking his left arm up behind him before flagging down every kid for miles and demanding Andrew sing.
"Take it from the top, Sunshine," they said with hoots of laughter, thereby creating the nickname that would haunt him for years.
"Let me go," he cried as a swelling crowd of kids formed an expectant semicircle.
The Laffley brothers lifted his arm inch by inch until he was fighting tears.
"Sing it, Sunshine."
Andrew searched all the faces, looking for help. But he only saw smiles.
After that he seemed to get picked on more and more—mostly with words, sometimes with fists, until he felt like a target every time he passed by a group of classmates. He didn't tell his mother. Years earlier he stopped telling her things like that, not wanting to upset her any more than she already was. Even as a child he could sense that she had her hands full just fending for herself—she always seemed to be getting fired and he figured it was because of trying to take care of him, making her late for work—and he was determined to show her that he could look out for himself just fine. He didn't want her to leave too.
He'd always been a loner, keeping such a low and cautious profile that he often thought of himself as a Special Forces commando slithering through each day. But it wasn't until sometime in the middle of fifth grade that he realized he'd been ostracized; that he'd always be alone, that he could no longer pretend he was a loner by choice. As far as he could tell, it was like, one day when he wasn't looking everybody in the school had a secret meeting and paired into lifelong cliques, passing out various codes and inside jokes. Once, when he was younger, he felt like part of the class; invited to all the birthday parties, included in games at recess. Then suddenly it was nothing but tribes and packs and clans and he couldn't find anywhere to squeeze in, not until he met Matt, and even then he still felt alone because their friendship was based on loneliness.
For a couple of years he pretended that he didn't care, that when he headed down the hallway at school or crossed the yard he was going somewhere important; that he had other plans and friends. But once he went to Montrose High there was no more faking it. You can't hide your status in high school. People know just by looking at you. At first all the unspoken rules and rituals of high school completely baffled him. Just figuring out where among the bike racks an unpopular freshman should park in the morning was trauma enough; running the gauntlet between classes was almost unbearable. Can I piss safely at the urinal if flanked by two juniors? If a bunch of jocks are blocking my locker (to his horror, his locker was situated right in the middle of a hallowed stretch known as football row) should I attempt to politely squeeze through and get my books, or is it better to go to the next class unprepared, but unmolested? He spent hours trying to figure out exactly where the boundaries were, where he could and could not set foot. Then one day he got it; he cracked the code. It all came down to numbers.
It was breathtaking to suddenly see everything so clearly, to understand exactly what high school was really all about. And yet it depressed him enormously too. Because from then on, there was no escaping the stupid fucking numbers. Every day when he stood with his lunch tray at the cafeteria wondering where to sit he could see them; the all-important rankings that were updated hourly and written right on the calculated expressions of every student from number 1—Sue Richards, the prettiest girl in the school—to 3,000—Bill Humphrey, who at two hundred and eighty buttery pounds was the undisputed social caboose of the entire student body. The kids in the top thirty sat at one table while those from roughly thirty-one to sixty sat at another. Once the higher numbers sorted themselves—and it was an effortless, almost instinctual process—the lowest-ranked kids, the untouchables, shared whatever empty tables were left. And so every day as Andrew stood holding his lunch tray, he'd anxiously scan the tables to see where he belonged, which meant first eliminating all the tables where he didn't belong.
For years he worshipped the most popular kids, trying desperately to imitate everything they did and said, hoping that someday, somehow, he would be initiated into the elite. He studied what they wore and how they walked and even the way they laughed and scowled. But it was a joke trying to be like them. Because no matter what he did he never could. Not even close. And then he started hating them. Every time he saw them clustered at the best tables having all the fun he hated them. He hated their expensive clothing and their perfect hair and teeth and their beautiful faces and trophies and cars. But most of all he hated them for making fun of people like him.
One to three thousand, plain as day right on every student's face. There was no hiding from the numbers. Maybe you could keep it from your parents, but not from other kids. For some reason Andrew always thought of himself as number 2,888, well below Matt—not that it really mattered once you were anywhere below five hundred, which was social oblivion—but above complete losers like Phil Lubman and Beth Rodriguez and Stuart Smith, whose nervous ticks and physical deformities were surpassed only by Bill Humphrey's endless rolls of smelly fat. Yes, everyone could see Andrew's ranking just by looking at him. Even Andrew could see it.
He could still remember the morning, standing before the mirror in the tiny bathroom with the peeling yellow ceiling that he shared with his mother, when he first realized he was ugly. It was as though one day he was just this kid like every other kid, shy and quiet, but physically average, and the next he was ugly. So that's why they don't like me, he thought, standing there at the mirror with tears coming down his stupid ugly face. He looked at his ears from different angles, wondering why he'd never noticed just how obvious they were, like they belonged on a much bigger head. Then he studied his teeth, which were all bunched up in the front of his small mouth (braces in sixth grade would straighten them, but not improve the overbite that made him look like a braying donkey when he smiled). He stood back and looked at his face from one side, then the other. No matter how he tried to push out his jaw, his chin just sort of disappeared into his neck as if he was wearing a muffler. In a panic he leaned into the mirror and examined his nose. Straight enough, but a bit short, so that the nostrils looked slightly flared. Jesus, have I always looked like this?
He switched the bathroom light off, then on again and reexamined his face. Ahhh! I can't have morphed overnight. Yet everywhere he looked the proportions were wrong. His muddy brown eyes seemed a little too far apart and lacked any of the power he'd started noticing in other people's eyes; his shoulders were small and severely sloped, like a broken hanger; his skin was getting greasier by the day. In short, he was one ugly fuck. He turned off the light again, then sat on the toilet, dropped his head into his hands and cried, feeling as if a terrible mistake had been made and he'd been assigned the wrong face. And that's when he realized that there'd be hell to pay for years.
Some days, standing there before the mirror after school, it was all he could do to keep from trying to peel his face right off. He came to think of it as a mask behind which he was imprisoned. People could look at him, but they couldn't see him, and that explained almost everything. Nobody picks on you if you're good looking. It's like armor. Good-looking people are practically celebrities. They get everything. But if you've got an ugly face, it's just flies to shit.
Sitting in Spanish class, he couldn't decide which was worse: having Cori Fletcher (a genetically perfect goddess he'd been tracking since fourth grade) look at him—especially when his face was all broken out—or being ignored by her. He tried to sit right behind her and he would spend the entire period staring at the back of her neck and bartering with the devil. (One minute of free reign with the soft flesh just behind her ear—oh, to bury his face in there and never come out!—for five years in burning hell. What do you say, Satan?) If she could only see him for what he could be—what he would be—instead of what he was! Look at me, Cori. No, not my face, at me. Look all the way inside me. But she didn't see him. None of them did. And that right there told him that God was a big, fucking joke.
He rolled back on his stomach, remembering the feel of the knife in his hand and the power that he felt shaking it right in Kevin Bremer's stupid face. Now who's scared? Wasn't even like it was him holding it. And yet everything in his whole life seemed to lead up to that moment; being pushed around on the playground and on the way to school, pushed in the hallway, pushed during P.E. Then one day Sunshine pushed back.
First he just started sleeping with it, like for good luck, wanting its power to rub off on him. He loved the smoothness of its handle and the shiny brilliance of the blade, sharp and deadly as anything. It wasn't until Matt died—until after they'd killed him with all their taunts—that Andrew started carrying it in his front pocket, desperate for the companionship. Just knowing it was there made all the difference when he set off to school each morning, bracing for blows. If only you knew, he thought. If only you knew.
He lay listening to the CD for a while, still watching the light from the street lamp creep around the edges of the orange curtain. Gradually the volume faded. He checked the dial: still on full. Must be the batteries. That's what he'd forgotten to pack: the adapter. Shit.
He took his palms and pressed the headphones against his ears, desperate for sound. Why'd you leave me, Matt? Why? And then closing his eyes he saw the whiteness of Matt's face again and felt the coldness of his cheeks as he shook his head back and forth trying to wake him. Wake up, Matt! Please oh please wake up.
He held the headphones to his ears until the music died, then curled up on his side and rocked himself to sleep.
Excerpted from THE DISTANCE FROM NORMANDY © Copyright 2003 by Jonathan Hull. Reprinted with permission by PUBLISHER. All rights reserved.
The Distance From Normandy