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Vol. 3, No. 3

Braces
by John Fulton

~

The snow was really coming down now. It covered the streets and sidewalks, and the houses in our neighborhood were quiet, shut up inside the glow of their windows. On the walk from our place to Winnie's, Mom was edgy, excited. She kept slipping in her little, pointy shoes and Jim had to hold her up. "Why did you have to spill the beans, Michael?"
      I said, "I don't want to talk about it in front of him."
      She fell and Jim picked her up. "Ouch! Ouch!" she said. Then she looked at me. "I don't think you're acting very grateful."
      When we got to Winnie's, Mom said, "Ha! We beat him. We got here first." We stood on the front porch in a halo of snowy light when Winnie answered the door. She was a skinny woman with dark, curly hair and long cheekbones. "Bill's coming for the Mustang," Mom said.
      Winnie Howell flipped on the yellow garage light and the red, waxy paint of the Mustang glowed and our nervous shapes glinted and slid across it. It was kind of miraculous, how the car was still there, untouched, recoverable. "This is a beautiful car," Jim said. He was sort of caressing it. Jim had that newscaster look, like the orthodontist—aging, slim, and knowledgeable. He probably kept a decent bank account too. Mom's new hairstyle was weird, cut close to her head, feathery and mulchy, so that her face seemed larger, crisp with makeup. She had been spending all sorts of money—buying clothes, jewelry, hairstyles—on the strength of what the Mustang would bring in. Every time I glanced at her that night, I was shocked by how odd and different she looked, and I turned away again.
      Mom slid into the driver's seat and started the car. Winnie said, "I don't want to be here when he arrives." She was shivering in the yellow light. At the mouth of the garage, the storm made a sucking sound.
      "Get in," Mom said. "We'll all go out for a drink or something."
      Mom craned into the windshield as she drove. "I can't see anything," she said. Normally, she wouldn't have driven in this weather, but she was determined to get the car out of the neighborhood, out of Dad's reach.
      "Drop me off at home, please," I said. "I don't want to go for a drink."
      "Party pooper." Mom's voice sounded mean. She slowed down and came to a stop in front of our home.
      "Sarah's been calling," I said. "She says someone she owes money to is going to hurt her."
      "She's just crying wolf," Mom said. Then her tone changed. She was trying to be nice, I guess. "Mikey got his braces on today. Show Jim and Winnie your braces, Michael. Give us a smile." Jim and Winnie looked at me. Mom's face was this weird green color from the glow of the dash. I didn't want to show these strangers my teeth. But I did.
      "Very handsome," Winnie Howell said in this fake voice.

 

~

On New Year's Day, three days after I'd had my jaw corrected, Dad showed up at the doorstep. Mom was at work. Sarah had already taken off and I wore this huge bit in my mouth with a space in it for a straw. My mouth would be wired shut for more than two weeks. I ate mostly thin milk shakes and soup and drank a lot of fruit juices, even though it hurt to suck on a straw. I couldn't talk. I carried around a pad and pen and I tried to communicate with these things. The world seemed extremely loud to me, full of noise and words, as if I had become some kind of silent focus where all this sound gathered and blared. It was strange to be home alone and hear the phone ring. Sometimes I answered it and heard the voice on the other end say, "Hello . . . hello. Is anybody there?" At these times, my mouth felt large and muzzled. "Helloooooo," the caller would say. I felt pushed away from them in this insulated world of silence and injury. Eventually they or I hung up.
      I told myself that this would make a difference, that this would change something. I would have a straight, corrected mouth forever after this.
      "Jesus, kid!" Dad said. "What happened to you?" I wrote the explanation out and showed the pad to him. He said, "Oh, braces. Good for you. Good for you." He was grief stricken and wasn't worried about money or even about his car yet. He had lost his license for several months because of his poor driving record and wouldn't start wanting his car back until he knew that he couldn't have Mom. Then he wanted his car.
      We took a cab to a diner called Lambs. Little woolly lambs stood on the front of the menus, cute and vulnerable looking despite the fact that they were also featured inside the menu as a dish. The waitress was very cautious—people pitied me, thought I was fragile—and set the milk shake in front of me as if it were an explosive. I waited for it to melt a little, thin down.
      Dad said, "I'm trying to change. Tell your mother that, will you? I'm feeling under control. Look at me, Mikey. I look good, don't I?" He wore fresh, laundered clothes and so much cologne that the abrasive scent of it hovered in the air—all things I was supposed to tell and tried to tell Mom later. But his face was swollen and his hands shook as he lifted his orange juice. "She's seeing other men, isn't she?"
      I wrote the words I'm sorry on my pad and showed it to him.
      "So she is seeing other men?"
      I showed him the words I'm sorry on the pad again.
      "Tell her that I'm going to that group—AA, right?—and that I sit there and say, 'My name's Bill Larsen and I'm an alcoholic.' Will you remember to tell her that?"
      I wrote the words Sure Dad and showed him the pad.
      "Good kid," he said. He laughed. "How are you going to tell her anything? Look at you. You can't say two words." Then, right out of nowhere, he said, "I love you, kid," and I looked at my pad and pen and didn't know what to do with them.
      When he reached out to touch my cheek, I blocked his hand with mine and wrote out another message. Not my face, Dad. It hurts.
      "Oh God, kid," he said, taking my shoulders and squeezing them so hard that I felt the trembling from his swollen hands enter me. "We'll be okay, won't we?"

 

~

I stood in front of my house watching Mom and Winnie and Jim turn the corner in the Mustang and thanked God I wouldn't have to sit around while they had their stupid drinks and asked me to smile for them.
      When I walked in the front door, the phone was ringing. I knew it couldn't be Dad, not yet. He would be driving across the city in a cab. Ben had gone down to the basement, and from the kitchen I could hear him burrowing into some boxes. He was somewhere beneath the kitchen. I could hear the small, struggling sounds he made, creepy sounds, and I moved into the living room. Ben would disappear in the basement all night sometimes, not emerging until the next day. He liked the closeness of it, the dark down there.
      It was Sarah on the phone. "Look," she said, "these people who want to hurt me have knives, Mikey. They may not kill me, but they're going to cut me."
      I felt my face heat up. I hated her for doing this to me. "Don't give me that shit, Sarah. We all know what you're up to."
      "Jesus, Mikey," she said. Her voice had become defensive and vulnerable. "What's your problem?"
      I hung the phone up and started to put my hat and coat back on. I thought maybe Dad would be at Winnie's by now. I didn't want to talk to him and I didn't want him to see me, but I wanted to see him. The phone began ringing again. I closed the door and locked it. Outside, snow flurried in the bright circles of streetlamps. Trees bent sideways, cloaked in white. I put my gloved hands to my mouth because it hurt from too much goddamn talking.
      At Winnie's, I stood behind some bushes across the street and waited. I felt the snow fall and gather on my lashes and hat and become heavy on my coat. The roads and walks and lawns lay buried and mute and the air was a chilly lunar color from all the white. The shapes of parked cars stood crystallized beneath snowdrifts. Everything had been softened, erased. Dad's cab pulled up and he stumbled out of it and ran to the garage door. A huge orange coat covered him up, its bright color burning in the white air. His footprints curved awkwardly through the snow. He was drunk, fucked up. He looked into the little windows of the garage, then looked away. "Oh God," he said. He pounded on the garage door.
      I stayed behind the bushes. I thought of Tasha, Dr. Ellis's blonde assistant, and how we could disappear together, live in abandoned school buildings and beneath docks in California, the way Sarah had disappeared with Marcus. Or maybe we would live in a house, the way people should live. A house on a stupid green hill somewhere. And I would learn her language, the only language we would speak together.
      I had screamed a lot—I was conscious to hear the bones in my face crack—when they broke my jaw. I screamed even though I felt nothing. I screamed at the distant snapping of my own bones. Dr. Ellis grimaced from the effort—my jaw hadn't broken easily. "We're going to make you a handsome set of teeth," he said. My face floated out into the room, rising to the ceiling beneath all the dope they'd given me. Tasha stood behind Dr. Ellis, her blue eyes clear and glowing, beautiful, so beautiful I knew I could never have her. I tried to picture it anyway—the green hill, the house in which we sat at our table in a roomful of yellow light speaking to each other in her language. I spoke it perfectly, a stream of delicate foreign words coming from me as I said things to her, graceful and true things, that I could not imagine saying in any language that I understood.

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