That afternoon I had just gotten the last of my braces on and Mom had dropped me off at home, then left again, when Dad started calling. My mouth felt heavy and cramped with metal. I kept touching the wire with my tongue, trying to get used to the sharp, spiky feel of it. Dad called about every fifteen minutes and said, "Your mom home yet?" and I had to keep telling him no. Each time he called, he'd say, "So how are you, Mikey?" as if he hadn't talked to me two or three times already. He was a little loose, I could tell. He was the only one I let call me by Mikey anymore because he'd been gone since early December—when Mom kicked him out of the house—and didn't know that I'd decided to go by Michael now.
"You're talking sort of funny," he said. I told him about the braces. "That's right," he said. "How do they feel?"
"They hurt," I said. "I can't eat anything. But Mom says they're handsome. She says they do something for me."
"Good boy," he said. "Good boy." His voice sounded happy with me. Then his tone changed. "She's out, isn't she? She's with another guy, right?"
"No," I said. "She's getting her hair done or something." That was true, though later, after the hairdresser, she had plans to see Larry or Jim, both guys she'd been sort of dating recently.
Ben, my older sister's pet rat, climbed up the couch and started nibbling on my fingers. Ben was about the size of a kitten and Sarah had bought him because other kids in our school kept rats as pets. There was something hip in a disgusting, industrial way about owning one. He kept nibbling at my fingers—his way of saying he's hungry. I walked into the kitchen with Ben scurrying in front of me. He knew he was going to be fed. Mom had bought a new cordless phone that you could walk anywhere with. I popped a bag of popcorn in the microwave and looked through the little window as it turned around on the carousel in that yellow, radioactive light. I knew what Dad was going to say next. He'd been calling for the last four days, saying the same thing.
"Listen, Mikey," Dad said. "I don't want to put you in the middle of this, okay. But your mother needs to understand that the Mustang is mine. I owned that car before we married. I know she's hidden it. She's got it parked at one of her friends' or something. Will you please tell her I know that?"
"Sure," I said. The popcorn began popping and I felt Ben on the kitchen floor circling my leg, growing more excited because he recognized the sound of his favorite food.
"You know where it's parked, don't ya?" he said.
"No," I lied.
"Good boy," he said, really happy again. "Don't let yourself get caught in the middle of this, all right."
"I won't," I said.
"All right," he said.
"All right," I said.
I opened the bag of popcorn and tried to eat a piece, but it hurt like hell because of the braces. So I put the bag down between my feet where Ben could burrow into it and feed. Ben was a real pig when it came to popcorn and was eating so fast right now that the bag sort of spasmed between my feet.
When the phone rang next, it was Sarah. Sarah had taken off—she was a runaway, I guess—the day after Christmas with her boyfriend, Marcus. They ended up in San Francisco—a long way from Orem, Utah—living in this abandoned school building. Sarah had gone sort of crazy living at home with Mom and me. She renamed herself Nancy for no good reason, and you had to call her Nancy or she wouldn't answer you. Then she started speaking in a British accent and using British words like bollocks and over the top and brilliant. For her, everything was brilliant—brilliant . . . brilliant . . . brilliant—which was funny because she'd never been to Britain. Mom started calling her the foreigner. Tell the foreigner that she's got to do those dishes, she'd say. The only time she used her normal voice was when she talked to Ben, which she did a lot, especially if Mom was around. Once Mom told her to stop talking to that animal and to be herself. Sarah looked at her and said, in her heavy British accent, "I'm sorry, Mummy, but I don't feel real with you."
The morning after Christmas, I woke up and found Ben scurrying around in the kitchen, hungry and dragging his leash behind him. (Sarah had kept him on a little leather leash the way you'd keep a small dog.) There was this paper tag on Ben's collar that said,
Sarah ran away and left me.
Please look after me, please!
So of course I did. What had Ben done to anyone? He just ate and slept and lived. He had it all right, I guess. Besides, he was a white rat, a fluffy, irresistible white like you would expect a rabbit to be. He'd nudge at your hand for affection, nudge away until you gave him some. He needed me and I liked that.
"Where's Mom, Mikey?" Sarah asked when I answered the phone.
I said, "Michael, not Mikey, please."
"Oh yeah," she said. "So where's Mom?"
"She's getting her hair done or something."
She asked why I was speaking like a dork and I told her about the braces and she said, "Ouch. That hurts." It did—my mouth felt tight and wooden and every word I said hurt me. "At least no more buck teeth, right?" Then she said, "Ching, ching. That costs money. Where's Mom getting the money for that?"
"You still living in the school building?" I asked.
"No," she said. "We bolted. It was too freaky sleeping in a room with all those blackboards on the walls. I mean, I was living in a school and I always hated school so much." Then she paused. "So where's Mom getting the money for your mouth?"
"If you're not in the school building," I said, "where are you?"
"I got to go," she said. "This is costing me." I knew she was lying. Mom had somehow sent her one of those Call Home calling cards so that Sarah could call home on Mom.
"You got a number there you could give us?"
Outside a light snow began to fall. The flakes were fine and ashy and the sky was this polluted gray color. She said, "I got to go, okay? You tell Mom I could use a little of that money, wherever it's coming from. Later, Mikey."
I said, "I talked to Dad just now. He called a minute ago."
"Oh," she said. She was going to stay on the line now. "He have much to say?"
"He was worried about his car."
"That stupid car," she said. "He was fucked up, wasn't he?"
"He was maybe a little loose," I said. I hated the way she had to use the worst words for everything.
"Did he ask about me?" The line beeped then—we had call waiting—and I told her that Dad was probably on the other line and to hold on, and she said, "All right, but this is costing me."
Dad said, "Your mother sold the fucking Mustang, didn't she?" He was almost shouting, his speech slushy and reckless, the way it got when he really let himself go. "I know she sold it. She sold it, didn't she, Mikey?"
I said, "No, she didn't sell it."
"But she's going to sell it. She's going to sell it, isn't she?"
I said, "Sarah's on the other line."
"Just tell me she's not going to sell the Mustang."
I told him that. Then I said, "Sarah's on the other line. She wants to know if you asked about her."
"So she's not going to sell it?"
"No," I said.
Then he said, "Your sister's not crying wolf again, is she? She's not saying she's in some hospital, is she?" She'd done that a few times: called up and told Mom that she'd been in an accident and was in a hospital and needed an operation, then hung up without leaving a number or the name of a hospital so that Mom stayed up the whole night biting her nails bloody and calling around to different hospitals in the Bay Area when Sarah wasn't in any of them.
"No," I said. "She's not crying wolf. She'd like to talk to you. Could she call you collect?"
"You know how I feel about that, Mikey. She chose to live out there on her own. She can pay for her own phone calls. I've got to go now, kid. Tell your mom that we need to talk."
"What's he say?" Sarah asked.
"He says to say hi. He says to ask what's up."
"He's sort of worried about his car. He thinks Mom's going to sell it." As soon as I said that, I knew I shouldn't have.
"She'd do that to him? She'd sell his car?" She was laughing.
"No," I said. "No, she wouldn't."
"Bullshit she wouldn't. That car's worth mucho buckage." Then she was quiet for a second. "That's how she's going to pay for your mouth, isn't it?"
"No," I said. "Forget about it. Dad says he wants to talk to you. He says you can call him collect at his place. All right?"
"Why don't you fuck with him a little, Mikey? Tell him Mom's already sold his car. That'll drive him crazy."
"Shut up about that, okay. Dad says you can call him collect."
"Maybe," she said. "Tell Mom I want some of that car too."
"He really wants to talk to you."
"Maybe," she said. Then she said, "How's Ben Franklin, anyway?"
"You're treating him right? He's getting enough water and food?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm treating him right."
"Thanks," she said. "Later, Mikey."
Outside it was dark and the snow had become large and feathery and fell in thick sideways sheets. Ben was down at my feet, still munching away at the popcorn. I wondered when Mom would get home and thought about the car, a 1968 red Mustang, locked safely in Winnie Howell's garage on Breywick Street three blocks away from our house. Mom and I had already talked about her plans to sell it and how she had a dozen or so offers. She was holding on to the car, waiting for the highest bidder now. It was a collector's item worth I don't know how many thousands. But I did know how much that car meant to Dad and I hadn't wanted her to sell it. She'd said, "How do you think we're going to pay for your mouth, Mikey? This Mustang's going to pay for your mouth—that's how."
I said, "I don't want it to pay for my mouth." We were driving the Mustang then, on our way to the orthodontist's for the first consultation, and I could smell the sweet, treated leather of the interior, which, the year before, Dad had reupholstered. Later, when he started asking about his car, Mom bought us a used Impala and hid the Mustang in Winnie's garage. Dad had redone the whole car at one time or another and usually spent his weekends working on it. He'd even named it—called it Victoria, after a famous queen of England, he said—and always spoke of it as a she, she this and she that, until Mom would get irritated and tell him that a mustang wasn't a she. Sometimes he'd just call it the horse in this rough, affectionate man-voice. The car was sort of alive to him. Mom was decked out in her best suit that day and I was in my good clothes too because she didn't want them thinking we couldn't afford the braces. As she talked on, her voice got high-pitched and angry.
"I can't pay for your mouth," she said. "I'm just a secretary. Your dad can't pay for your mouth—every dollar he touches turns to booze. Don't you want your mouth?" I put my hand to my face and felt the buck teeth, the crooked, hard ridge of little bones, the ugly, ugly mouth that I'd lived with for fifteen years, and I didn't know what to say. "You deserve straight teeth. Other kids have straight teeth and I want my son to have straight teeth too." Ever since she'd kicked Dad out of the house, Mom had become vocal about what we deserved. "Don't worry about him," she said. "He put more time, money, and care into this car than he ever did any of us." Then she slapped the steering wheel with both hands and said, "We deserve to look at least as good as this stupid car."
We had stopped at a light and she was looking at herself in the rearview mirror, touching up her hair and tracing the wrinkles along her mouth, when she said, "Oh Christ, I've become an old woman," a thing she'd been saying a lot lately. "At least you deserve to look good. It's too late for your old mom." She was crunching up her face and looking at the thick lines that formed.
"He might get better," I said.
"Get better?" she laughed. "Your dad's a sick man, Michael. He's been sick for years. He won't get better."
"He might," I said.
"He's a bottle man, Michael," she said. "He's not a family man." She had learned phrases like bottle man at this group she attended on Wednesday evenings called Wives of Alcoholics. "We've got to start thinking about us, Mikey. You and me." She was still crabbing up her face and looking into it. "I just wish I'd kicked him out before I got like this." She rolled down the window and tried to throw out a strand of gray hair she'd just pulled from her head. She was forty-three and hated us to look shabby. The hair kept blowing back into the car. Finally, she let it fall into her lap. "It's a question of money, you know. If we could afford it, we'd get me a face-lift too." Then she paused and said, "Don't look at me like that, Mr. Judgmental." I guess my face told her pretty much what I felt. "We're not bad just because we want some nice things for ourselves, are we?" When I didn't answer, she pressed the point, "Are we?"
"No," I finally said. "I guess not."
She took my jaw in her hand and shook it gently. "We're going to get you fixed up, kiddo." By then, the light had turned green and the people behind us were honking.
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