The phone rang and, for maybe the fifth time that night, it was Dad. "Christ, Mikey. I just got off the phone with your sister. She told me what you and your mother are up to. She told me you were turning my car into braces."
I didn't say anything. I could hear my own breathing amplified and strange in the receiver. The line beeped and I said, "I've got to get that."
He said, "Don't you dare leave me on this—" but I did.
"Goddamn you, Sarah," I said.
She said, "Somebody's after me, Mikey." I could tell from her voice that she'd been crying.
I said, "What?" Then I said, "Why the fuck did you have to tell Dad?"
"Somebody's after me," she said again. "They want to hurt me 'cause I owe them money, right."
"Don't cry wolf to me, Sarah." I didn't like the sound of her voice. It sounded small and frightened.
"I'm not shitting you, Mikey. It has to do with money, okay. I owe someone money and they're going to hurt me now."
I said, "Why did you tell Dad?"
Her voice got sort of happy then. "He's pretty pissed off, I bet."
"Yeah," I said.
"That bastard wouldn't let me call collect. He made me pay for the phone call." Then she said, "You tell Mom that somebody's after me. You tell her that somebody wants to hurt me. Later, Mikey."
"It's a vintage car, Mikey."
"Sarah says somebody wants to hurt her."
"Do you know how much work I put into that car?" He was yelling.
I said, "I had ugly teeth."
"But the Mustang's my car. My car!" he shouted. I pulled the phone away from my ear and held it out in front of me, where he sounded tiny and distant. "My car! My car!" He became this little, furious cartoon voice trapped in the phone. I could put him down on the table, if I wanted. So I did that. I put him down and walked away from him on my way to the bathroom. I heard his voice saying, "Mikey? Mikey? Where are you, Mikey?" He was pathetic. He was easy to hate now.
In the bathroom, I smiled in the mirror and saw that my gums were lined with a little bit of blood. The scarlet mound of a pimple was beginning to rise at the center of my forehead. I felt it beneath my skin: hidden and painful. Ben had followed me into the bathroom and climbed into the tub, where he liked to drink from the leaky faucet. I heard the small, wet sounds of him slurping away in there. "What are we going to do, Ben? What the hell are we going to do?"
I got back to the couch and turned the TV on to this program about performing dolphins. I could still hear Dad's voice speaking through the receiver on the table. "Mikey . . . Mikey," it said. The program was called Our Friends from the Sea and a scientist with a mustache was saying, "I'm absolutely convinced that dolphins can understand us—every word we say. They have a marvelous talent for deciphering vocal structures." Then he turned away from the camera and looked at this dolphin in the pool beside him. The dolphin's head bobbed above the surface of the water. Its eyes were these black, sensitive ovals, like polished stones. "You can understand me, can't you?" the scientist said, and the dolphin beeped and clicked at him.
The orthodontist's office was painted in shades of minty blue, clean and arctic, and smelled of toothpaste and harsh, soapy chemicals. In the waiting room, kids with headgear and silvery mouths sat beside their mothers. These kids didn't look happy, exactly, though they did look changed. They looked stunned and maybe a little afraid. On the receptionist's counter—a cool slab of green—sat two plaster molds of corrected teeth, a plastic model of the human jaw, and a shiny bell to ring for the receptionist. One girl said to her mother, "Is he going to use that thing on me again?" The girl wore this apple-green T-shirt with the word Happening in large, yellow letters across her chest.
Her mother just said, "Your teeth are getting so pretty."
The orthodontist was called Dr. Ellis. His assistant was a Polish woman, Tasha, who spoke with a European accent and had this long bleached-blonde hair and a nice straight smile and wore blue surgical clothes. It was our first visit, so Mom insisted on coming back with me. "We want to get on the two-year payment plan," she kept saying to Tasha. Mom was nervous. Her voice trembled a little. She didn't know what to do with her hands.
"You have to talk to the receptionist," Tasha said. She motioned for me to sit in one of those long chairs and pulled a tray of metal instruments up beside me. The instruments were bright and seemed unreasonably sharp and pointed, and they clattered on the tray as Tasha moved it. Lulling violins played "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" from hidden speakers. I heard the scream of a girl coming from another room down the hall.
"Relax," Tasha said. She touched me on the shoulder. "We're not going to do anything that hurts today."
"Do they have braces in Poland?" I asked.
She laughed. "No. In Poland the people are poor." Her eyes were the same shade of blue that covered the waiting-room walls. I imagined how Tasha had come to this country poor, with a brown potato sack over her shoulder, dust in her yellow hair, and a dirty, mud-puddle cast to her eyes. Then, simple as that, she'd cleaned herself up, gotten a job, and come into her bright, hard New World beauty.
The chair buzzed and lifted me closer to the globular light that Tasha centered above me. She flipped the light on, snapped on a pair of latex gloves, and touched my mouth. The gloves smelled of mint and Clorox and I started having these crazy thoughts about her. I saw Tasha and me in this dark blue minivan with kids and the best downhill ski equipment in the back. With bare, ungloved hands she touched my face—my mouth was strong and symmetrical—as I drove up this bald, snowy mountain. The kids had bright, alloy complexions like hers. "Michael," she said, "Michael."
I held her closely. I said, "We're going to have a great ski vacation this year. The kids are going to love it."
The doctor had entered the room and Tasha seemed to disappear behind his tall shoulder. He introduced himself and said, "How you doing there, Mikey?" He had this large, fat man's laugh, even though he was slim and had a neat haircut and looked like a newscaster or a senator. (Later, in the car, Mom would say, "Dr. Ellis was handsome, didn't you think? Of course, he had to be wearing a ring. The handsome ones all do.")
"Call me Michael, please," I told him.
"He's got a difficult mouth, Mrs. Larsen," he told my mother. He moved my jaw from side to side, then up and down, and my bones made a light popping sound. "You've got a difficult mouth, Mikey," he said. "What a jaw . . . what a mandible," he said. Tasha seemed to agree. She was studying me with this focused, knowing eye.
"The kids teased him for years," my mom said.
"Please don't, Mom," I said.
I saw my mother looking over Tasha's shoulder. My mother was smiling and seemed extremely happy, as happy as she'd been since she kicked Dad out. "We've been wanting to do this for a long time now," she said. "We want to get on the two-year payment plan."
"He's a difficult one," Dr. Ellis said. My mouth felt small and soft in his hands. His face moved so close to my own that I could smell through his cologne and spearmint breath to some salty, moist odor. "But nothing we can't fix."
"That's a relief," my mom said. The doctor was working my jaw in this funny, sideways direction until I felt my bones lock.
"I'm afraid, Michael," he said, "that we're going to have to correct your jaw."
"What does that mean?" my mom asked.
"Well, Mrs. Larsen," he said, "it means that we're going to have to break it."
Dad was still on the phone. He was saying, "Please, Mikey . . . please. Just pick up the phone and talk to me." I picked up the phone, but I didn't talk to him. "Are you there, Mikey? I just want to talk to you, Mikey." His voice sounded tired. On the Our Friends from the Sea program, performing dolphins were being transported. These men wrapped the dolphins up in thick black slings and carried them into the backs of special air-conditioned trucks, then drove them onto the freeway. I couldn't help but imagine this terrible accident. I saw the truck burning and the slick, mercury bodies of dolphins flopping over the black asphalt as semis and cars tried to swerve around them.
"Dad," I said.
"Mikey," he said.
"Could you call me Michael instead of Mikey? I'm fifteen. I want to be called Michael now."
"Sure," he said. "I could do that. Look, Michael, I'm sorry about this. I didn't want you to get caught in the middle." He sounded sort of sad and I liked the way it felt when he called me Michael, as if some weight, some realness had been added to me.
"I know," I said.
"Look," he said, "maybe we could make a deal. Would you make a deal with me, Michael?"
"I don't know."
"Well," he said, "if you tell me where your mom parked my car, I'll pay for your braces."
I thought about this. "You don't have that kind of money, Dad." He was silent and I heard the grainy buzz of the line between us and I wished I hadn't said anything about his money. Next to me on the couch, Ben huddled over his pink claws, absorbed in the minuscule task of preening them.
"Do you hear what you're telling me? This is me. This is your dad, your father speaking. You're my son, Michael. You used to call me Daddy. We lived together in the same house for fifteen years." He wasn't shouting. I had heard him speak like this to Mom before. It was a kind of forceful begging. He sounded weak, dependent on me for whatever kindness I could show him.
I said, "Winnie Howell."
He said, "What?"
"The car's parked in Winnie Howell's garage."
"Thanks, Mikey. Thanks so much. We're going to take care of your mouth, all right."
Then he hung up and I turned to Ben, who was staring into the TV screen—the glow of the colors could mesmerize him—and I said, "I fucked up, Ben. I fucked up." The dolphins flew through hoops and performed back flips.
I rushed over to the refrigerator door and pulled down the numbers of Jim and Larry, the guys Mom was sort of seeing—not seriously, just dating. I called Jim's place and got an answering machine. At Larry's a little girl answered. I hadn't met Larry or Jim yet and didn't know this little girl. "Is my mom with your dad tonight?" I could have asked for Larry, but I didn't really want to talk to him.
She said, "I don't know. Who's your mom?"
"I don't remember the name of the lady he's with. She's pretty, though."
I said, "She's got shoulder-length hair. It's black."
"That's not her," the little girl said. "This lady has short red hair."
I remembered that Mom had gone to the hairdresser that afternoon. She'd probably had a cut and her color changed. "That's her," I said. "Is she there?"
The girl handed the phone over. "Hello."
"I told Dad about the Mustang."
"Who's this?" the woman asked.
"Michael," I said. "It's Michael." A key turned in the front door then and Mom walked in. She was with a man—probably Jim—and I said, "I'm sorry," to the woman on the phone and hung up.
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