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Vol. 3, No. 3

Braces
by John Fulton

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,

    Dear Mikey,
    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."
      "What else?"
      "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?"
      "Ben's good."
      "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.

~

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?"
      "Marsha Larsen."
      "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.

~

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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