Matthew Clark Davison
They met, and out of their silence elected me the storyteller.
I-80 is the longest line of the longest poem in the heaviest book. Punctuated only by Motel 6s with humming ice machines and thin-as-skin doors; and gas stations with large-knuckled attendants whose eyes are filled with asphalt and sky.
Even before I drove back across the slight arc of three thousand miles and read all those white letters on green signs. Even before I knew the advantages of matching my sweater to the color of my eyes; or how to change a diaper; or how to iron clothes on a towel; or how to say No. Even before love arrived. I was afraid. Of becoming like them.
Westford, Massachusetts. August, 1985
My father, less than a month ago, danced with me in the family room's dusky, dark wood light. My mother had been away visiting Grandma Cate in Wisconsin. He came to stay with us, leaving his apartment in Acton to his mistress. Someone my two brothers didn't even know about, and none of us had met, but I pictured her the opposite of my mother: An atheist with makeup and high heels and an occasional laugh for my father's jokes.
That night, my brothers -- one older, one younger -- were playing hockey on the kitchen floor with two brooms and a Tupperware lid. I'd been sprawled close to the chill-churning air conditioner on the couch under an afghan with his music providing the soundtrack to my daydreams of California. When he pulled me to him, left hand around right forearm, Marvin Gaye had just asked, What's Goin' On?
His center, where my hands landed, felt soft on the surface, a roll of fat, but underneath, my fingers sensed something sturdy. He danced unrhythmically, distracted, but with a certain grace, like a leaf falling from a tree in last night's storm. The family room was already crowded with the extra lamp and bamboo magazine organizer and all that he brought home after the last separation ended. But we managed to dance. In my periphery I could see that my older brother Michael and the younger Budd had stopped their game. They stood in the doorway, watching. Michael with his father's posture and a whoosh of bangs covering a freckled forehead. Budd's mouth open and his pink tongue resting in his mouth. As if a porcupine had walked in the front door.
The music had floated around us, and my father's tasseled loafers occasionally brushed my toes. In that moment with his hands on my shoulders, I wanted to be able to ask him something important, like, Is it really that hard to be a man? Why did you marry Mom? Or, Did you hold me when I was a baby?
I wanted to tell him to draw me a map -- show me where I took the wrong left. What did I do to make him leave? And even before he left, what had I done to make the evening newspaper The Great Wall? But I couldn't, I just absorbed his touch the way that I did with other men. And long after the dance, my feet remembered the pressure of his weight. The fact that he smiled and twirled me under him was enough. The centrifugal force caused a silent implosion in me. He said, "Jeez, I've missed you kids," then hugged my face to the shoulder of his fuzzy yellow summer sweater and let me go when the song ended.
Something sputtered and spun inside me. Images of Santa Cruz's distant stretch of beach and the roller coaster click clicking to its peak before zinging into a steep plunge behind my brothers and my sunburnt shoulders had been replaced by the newer fantasies of all of this meaning something; like that we were a family capable of hanging on, laughing with each other. Maybe we were stuck in Massachusetts now because of my father's job. But that didn't mean we couldn't line up single file outside in the muggy weather, dosed with Off, for a game of Whipit. We could join hands and run across the wide lawn, hanging on to each other for dear life. I stood in the living room, the warmth of my father still on my left cheek.
On the way to the kitchen, he ran his fingers through the wisps of hair remaining on the top of his head and asked Budd for the broom. Budd handed it over, then stepped back and adjusted the striped junior-wristbands that we'd gotten him just a couple of months ago for his tenth birthday.
In the doorway, my father put his knees together like a collapsed puppet, held the broom in front of his feet, and said, "Okay you two. Slap shot time! Michael first. Let's see what you're made of."
By then, Michael, a high-school senior, stood a good couple of inches taller than our father, and a whole two heads taller than Budd, who mumbled something about homework and hunger. It suddenly occurred to me how much older Michael was from Budd. Seven years.
How could it be that Michael and I were born not even two years apart, yet the distance between us lay open like burnt earth after a forest fire? Something in me unzipped -- to see the other boys in my family standing close to each other. Me alone in the family room's doorway, uninvited into their game.
Michael's almost constant silence was water pushing against his eyes -- bluer now than ever. Dark blue and shiny. The color of our veins on the undersides of our pale forearms when we're tub-wet.
Budd watched, nervous. His hair, buzzed at the beginning of summer, was growing in darker, I had thought. Or maybe it was the light. His skin still tanned from the previous Saturday's soccer game where he scored once and assisted twice.
Michael almost put out the kitchen lamp as he raised the old-fashioned-looking, but new straw broom that mom bought from the country store along with a jar of her gross honey. Not the clear kind in the bear like we had in California, but a cloudy, dark honey in an old jam jar with a chunk of bee comb tilted inside.
Dad made two saves and then Michael tossed his broom.
"Didn't think the old man still had it?" Dad asked.
Michael shook his head and left the room.
"What did you expect -- charity?" Dad called after him.
Budd's wristbands were now pushed up, three blue rings circling each of his elbows. He embodied the coordination and foresight to sink the puck in the goal from either side of my father's leg. His little knuckles were red, and the skin around them drained of blood as he gripped the broom two-thirds down the stick. With a bent waist, he played toss with the lid on the floor. Budd's neck was tight, and I could see that he wasn't breathing; there was no rise and fall to his back like when he had slept next to me the night before.
"Come on," my father egged. "Don't think all that fancy footwork is going to distract me."
His voice reminded me of one of those weird Jesus cards my mother kept in the knife drawer. If you look at it straight on, it's Him standing tall in the pasture with a bunch of dumb lambs. If you tilt it, the picture changes, and it's a close-up of His face. At that angle, He's wearing the crown-of-thorns and bleeding from the forehead.
I watched Budd weighing his decision. Budd's small strong thighs were tight against the fabric of his sweats, and before my father finished another sentence, Budd lifted the broom a foot from the floor and sent the lid sailing through the door. My father's broom went right and the puck passed the threshold near his left knee.
When my father looked back at us in the kitchen, Budd had already dropped the broom and run to me. He kept his arms at his sides, but tilted his head into my ribcage. His body was a beehive, buzzing. He still hadn't learned what triggered my father's temper. On another night, if he'd still been living with us, and he and my mother had argued, maybe losing would set him off; but not tonight. We were safe. I steadied Budd, putting my hand on the top of his oily head. And reminded myself to make him take a bath.
My father dropped his broom and said, "Pick up this nonsense."
I inched into the kitchen and gathered the stuff to put back in the hallway closet. When I opened the door, I smelled my mother. She'd left the cardigan that she often wore hanging there. Off-white and the scent of her newest brand of on-sale fabric sheets and the hairspray she used to keep up her perm. I'd tried to imagine what she was doing in that moment. Sitting with her mother and sisters around Grandma's kitchen table? Were they drinking beers with flour fingerprints on the cans? Were the pepperoni rolls they always made in the oven? I took the sweater to my face and smelled it, and imagined how easily my mother could forget about this houseful of boys. I didn't feel sorry for myself, either. I imagined her happy: childless and husbandless with a full stomach.
When I returned from the closet, Dad had been organizing a series of bottles and silver mixing bowls on the wooden island in the yellow kitchen. Budd skittered around him, asked, "Do you need me to do something?" Dad shook his head and told him to get some more beer from the basement.
The knife rested at a forty-five degree angle against the cutting board Michael had made for him in woodshop a few years back. Everything was in order of use. I don't remember where I was standing. Thinking about that night, it seemed I was everywhere and nowhere at once. Invisible but with a bird's-eye view from on top of the cupboards. He clumped a huge spoonful of seeded mustard into the ground beef that he then mixed together by hand with the onion and garlic that he'd cut into little squares the size of paper hits of acid. From wherever I was, I could see the meat in the bowl, and my father's hands moving through it. With everything he put in it, it turned from pink-red to brown.
Budd placed the beers one by one into the fridge, and the clinking bottles added to the sound of Michael's footsteps upstairs. Budd saved the last one for my father to open and drink while he put the burgers in the pan. Then he lugged his book bag to the kitchen table. He pulled out his fifth-grade homework and spread the papers across the table where my mother's place wasn't set. I helped him with a few long division problems while we waited for the burgers and fries.
Dad sang the wrong words to the radio's song while he heaped grated cheese onto the tops of our sizzling burgers. It meeeeelts better this way, he sang instead of Don't treat me this way…"
When Budd's homework was almost finished, my father said, "Soup's on!" and I wiped down the table. Budd grabbed the condiments while I lit the candles. Soon Michael was sitting, surveying the table and staring into the empty chair.
We had always done that. Lit candles with dinner. Two white candles in their pewter holders.
Dad told Michael to say grace.
"Grace," Michael said, piling the French fries into a small haystack on his plate. "There, I said it."
We all knew that this would usually be something I'd say. Something that would result in a smack. But not tonight. All of the rules have been suspended. What we were witness to was my father's atonement.
Dad piped up, "Bless us, Oh Lord, for these our gifts that we are about to receive at thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen." And he added, "Thanks for these three great kids." He'd switched from beer to red wine and raised his glass. Budd clicked his cherry punch to my diet cola.
Michael immediately ate. I noticed that he'd shaved. The tiny black dots that had sprinkled his upper lip and under his sideburns during the hockey game were gone. He liked to brag while shaving, saying his girlfriend Mitch didn't like beard-burn. He took another bite. "Buns are burnt," he said.
Budd looked down.
I felt tenderly toward our father, sorry. The globe-shaped wineglass that he drank from was smeared from grease. What Budd and I called chicken-glass. I tried to imagine my father the same age as Michael. Spruced up with a head full of hair and the scent of face tonic rising from his cheeks as he rushed through supper to get to his girlfriend's house. I wondered how many girlfriends he'd had before he married my mother. I thought of how many times he sat at our table after a hard day at work, needing my mother to talk him up, make him feel important, appreciated, but she wouldn't. My parents were worse than their kids. In a holding pattern waiting for the other to be the first to give in.
I could see the confusion in Budd's little, freckled, ten-year-old face. Who is this funny, bald guy? And what will we do when he leaves us alone again in this big house? Budd picked off the sesame seeds from his bun.
I reached over to the drawer and grabbed the rubber hammer my mother used to tenderize meat. I scraped the pile of sesame seeds from Budd's plate and dumped them on the table. I raised the hammer a few inches above and then slammed it down.
"Open Sesame!" I yelled.
Budd's quiet laughter, giggling almost, replaced his loud silence.
"That's enough," Dad said, but it wasn't the crown-of-thorns voice.
Michael watched the scene as if he were a tourist viewing a panorama from an outlook. He slid out the tomato slice and mashed it with a fork against his plate. On married nights, playing with your food is a serious offense. Who knows what would've happened as a result of the hammer crashing into the maple table.
We were asking: Are you sure you love us enough to come back?
The difference was that I knew the answer to the question, and Michael and Budd didn't.
I finished every bite of my hamburger, savoring the stretchy, melted cheese; trying my hardest to put the cold, raw center out of my mind. I told him that it was good, and when he asked if his burgers were better than Mom's, I was the only one of his three sons who lied and answered yes.
Supper somehow ended. And I looked up when Michael asked, "May I be excused?"
"Yes," my father said, tired, into his wine glass.
I did the dishes after rubbing Budd's head and telling him to get busy and that I knew for sure he could do the last four equations without me.
The mashed tomato and other uneaten bits gurgled in the garbage disposal. The car that my father had given to Michael backed out of the driveway.
When the phone rang, Budd was curled up on the leather armchair, dozing on and off during a sports game on television. His bowl of ice cream had melted into a cold soup, swirls of fudge in a bubbly vanilla pool. In that position, with sleep jerking at his neck, and the background of play-by-play, it wasn't difficult to see him as my father's child. I tried to imagine him a man, worn out from an honest day's work, perhaps with a family and children of his own. Like trying to imagine waves turning cliffs into sand. My father had picked up the phone, pressed buttons. Chatted with my grandmother in his everything-is-just-grand tone. I left my brother to sleep and headed upstairs.
By the time I'd arrived in their room, kneeled in front of the bedside table and lifted the receiver, my grandmother had passed the phone to my mom, who had just finished saying something about hating Sanka, probably to one of her sisters.
My father said to her, "Come on, Ruth, let's try."
In their upstairs bedroom, the phone was easy to pick up without the other line hearing the click. So there I was listening to the dishwasher's hum behind their conversation. I'd covered the mouthpiece with the laced doily my mother kept on her bedside table under the light-blue, fist-sized statue of Mary.
"How many times can we try?" she asked.
"The kids," he said. "They miss me."
I'd left Mary tilted on the table. She was gazing into space, as if she were as amazed by his words as I. My mother breathed into the phone. I wanted her to say something real. Something like, What about me? And what about whoever you're fucking? Won't she miss you, too?
But she didn't.
He said, "Ru? You there?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm here." Her voice thin. I heard a metal against ceramic sound in the background, and I imagined my mother in Wisconsin, back in her childhood home, stirring honey into her tea.
I stayed in the room listening to the tone after they hung up. I knew if he caught me sneaking around the Mr. Nice Guy routine would come to a quick finish. I lay back on their bed. Looked around at the light fading from dim to nothing. It was the only room in the house that stayed the same. He could come and go, buy and buy and buy and bring it all back, filling the rest of the house we have to live in with the difficult reminders. That he was gone. That he's here again.
Now, three weeks later, the night before he's coming back, I'm sitting on my bedroom's rust-colored carpet amidst unpinned posters curling at the edges. My soccer trophies and swimming ribbons are jutting out of the wastebasket. I'm holding a photograph of my brothers and me taken six years back. The corner is torn from a scene of us three kids, legs dangling from the perch of a thick, high branch in a leafless orange tree. In the picture I'm nine, Michael's eleven, Budd's four, and we're in the backyard of our smaller, now-abandoned house in California. The sun is warming our shoulders; freckles decorate the skin around our light eyes. Michael, with his golden brown bangs sweeping his forehead, rests his right arm on my shoulder and our legs are entwined at the ankle. He seems content to share the space of a camera's frame. It seems like a long time ago.
Budd, with darker skin and his hair the color of light on water is leaning against me, and though small and wiry, it looks like he's keeping me from falling down.
I think of us three now. We're still brothers, but our lives are about to split forever.
I look closely at myself before I tuck the picture into my bag. I am their brother. With smaller proportions between neck and shoulders. My torso is pear-shaped while theirs are solid trunks. Our eyes are almost identical. We are the children of our parents, and I can't remember which one of them stood behind the camera and snapped the shot that ended up blown up and sitting on the desk of this room.
Outside my window, tree branches lay akimbo in the uncut grass. Last night, our part of Massachusetts caught the tail of a hurricane.
Before the wind came, I had been in my room, listening to my boom box, rolling small bunches -- toothpick size -- of my hair into little spears thinking about how I'd tell my mother that I'd kill myself before going back to high school. Or was that too dramatic? I'd wondered. Maybe I'd go the I-can-always-get-my-GED route. Both were true.
I rolled my spikes between my thumb and forefinger. My hairspray smelled like grape-flavored candy. My mother hulked in, dressed for work with her stethoscope already around her neck.
"Whatcha up to?" she asked.
"I'm doing my hair," I said. "You should try it once in a while. Maybe you'd find a boyfriend."
"Very funny," she said. "What are planning on doing with that hairdo anyway? You gonna aerate the garden for me?"
Last winter I'd said something smart-ass to her in her car five miles from the house. And she didn't make a comeback. She jerked the car into the shoulder, slammed on the brakes, almost giving me whiplash, and made get out. I laughed in her face the first few times she ordered me out. But her voice kept getting louder and louder. A piece of her spit flew out of her mouth and landed on my lip. She started slapping my face. My head hit glass.
The first mile I walked with a full erection that I couldn't get to go down. I replayed my mother's face and the shrill sound of her voice and the sound of my shoes packing the already packed snow. Then I got cold and stuck out my thumb. A man with capped teeth and his jeans tucked into his untied Timberlands picked me up. I let him put his hand down my pants and even made sounds to show him how much I liked it. After everything else, he delivered me right to my front door. He showed me a picture of his daughter before I got out. She, his daughter, had eyes too far apart and those barrettes with the ribbons hanging down in two colors and looked happy.
Last night I tried to act cool, but my voice shook. I had said, "If you take him back, I'm leaving. If you don't divorce him, I'll never come back to this house." I continued twisting the spikes, but my hands were shaking too and I couldn't concentrate.
Her skin pulled taught across her jaw. But her eyes were letters in envelopes too big for the paper. They were dry and I hated her but I wanted to lick them. Give them back their shine. I waited for her to say something. To engage me in something. But she didn't. She turned around, said, "You've got no place to go."
This is not your room, he -- my father -- would always say. It's the room where you're allowed to sleep in my house.
I'm young, but already I realize my two biggest faults: I am not the son my father wanted, and I cannot be my mother's husband. So I pack and wait for one of the many who'll help me escape. You've got no place to go, she said.
But she should've known better. We are from one blood. It's from her that I've learned the skills that make me useful out there. I have a mouth and two hands, an able body. She has shown me love and taught me to use the stove. I can comfort a child and make a soup from scratch. She gave me, the middle one, little boxes tied with bows when she picked me to do the girl-jobs, to ease her burden. Inside her boxes were skills. I wash, fold, and iron laundry. I can polish silver, mop, strip, and wax floors. I remember to dust the rods crisscrossing under the wooden kitchen chairs. Hairspray removes ink from fabric. Toothpaste numbs the itch of mosquito bites. Brown wax melted and molded disguises gouges in wooden furniture. Like new.
She has cried in the warm skin container between my chin and collarbone, and led my hand to her hair, showing me how to caress. Go like this, she has said. She has let me cry into her. From my mother I know when to bide my time and when to leave. I know how to lie beside a man I don't love. From her I know when to smile, to say nothing, to say too much, to say just the right thing. She left me alone overnight with her terrified youngest son. With him jerking from nightmares I can't protect him from I've wanted us dead. In the night I have been both his mother and father and failed. Now I have nothing left I want to learn from her, or my father. I've done their jobs and now its time find my own. I have a few more things to find out to get as far away from them as I can. To get back to the place where I belong. I must be taught how to drive a car, follow a map, fix a flat, change the oil. I have found the person who will coach me. And there will be a price. And I will live in his house and I will pay.
What can she possibly mean I have no place to go?
Jesus hangs above my door. I don't look at him on that small cross because I'm sure his little dabs of blue paint will become my father's eyes. I remembered the one good thing they said in Sunday school: Jesus suffered on the cross so we wouldn't have to.
The sounds of my father's house echoes. The leak in my bathroom sink plinks in between the ticks of the grandfather clock in the hallway; the one that my mother has suddenly started winding again. A radio is tuned to some ancient-sounding AM station where the men who drone on drop their Rs and use words like pissa and wicked to mean good. Their language is a constant reminder that we don't belong. We're from someplace faraway. We don't have family here in town, our last name hasn't been in the phone directory since its invention. They go anyway, like everyone, buying things at the mall and the country store.
I lay back for a moment, feel my head against the carpet, and a surge of something uncontrollable builds, like a leg spasm or sneeze. It's defiance. I say, No. This isn't your room, in your house. It's mine. I've made it mine by holding his wife and youngest child in the bed in this room, and I've slept on the damp pillowcases that later I've washed. And now I'm leaving it.
The rust-colored carpet is matted -- not soft -- but coarse, almost like the crotch-hair of the guy who will come and park in the street this time instead of the branch-strewn driveway and he'll honk his horn. In a few minutes he'll take me to my first new location. In this moment, I can't yet know all that will happen. He'll steal liquor for us, dose me with acid, feed me hash brownies, keep me numb, stir pieces of hotdog into a warming pot of baked beans. He'll imitate the guy with the eye-tick and lisp who sells cigarettes at the gas station, and it'll make me laugh. He'll ride me on the back of his motorcycle and teach me how to drive a standard. He'll demonstrate how to tell lies that no one believes but everyone accepts. He'll press his body onto mine and for a time, it will be a kind of warmth I'll need to get to the next place. He'll try to be like a brother to me and fail. He'll confuse me with himself and punish me for it. He'll confuse insults directed at me for his own, and he'll punish me for it. I'll never kiss him, but I'll taste his body when he shoves himself into my mouth; in his bedroom, in his car, in his tree house, in a motel, in the woods. I don't know all of this is coming even though it is already written. When he arrives, I'll go. Let him deliver me.
I force myself to look at Jesus, and I want to believe what they've been telling me about his father in Sunday school and at church. That He, too, The Father part, was this punishing and vengeful presence. But when I look into the small face of Jesus, he looks like someone who has seen love.
Maybe I'm making a mistake. Perhaps my mother has more faith than me. Or perhaps she's too much like those weird saints she reads about. Like the one who walked around licking the pus from lepers' sores. To the outside world she'll get to be a woman who stays married to a man she doesn't want "for the sake of" her children.
It's not easy. I'll give her that. Her children are afraid of him, and not her. They don't argue with him. Michael stays clear. Budd makes him proud. But when his temper catches on, we hide, we obey. The times I haven't, there have been welts raised on my back, weeks without television, eight hour shifts of hauling wet leaves from the lawn up the woods' steep hill, or the words I hate you. How could I've prayed so hard for your birth?
But she doesn't listen. She hears the words. Hate and you and I. But it's just a phrase, something everyone says when they're mad. I once asked her if she knew what he said to me. And she said yes, but don't forget, you need to love someone to hate them. I asked her why he prayed for me to be born. Because, she said, I had two miscarriages after Michael and before you and he wanted a little girl.
She stays with him, again. And why? Because when they're married, he leaves her an envelope on the counter every other week with several hundred-dollar bills. He tells her to keep track of her gas mileage by writing it on a little piece of paper on the control panel of her car. When it goes down by five miles a gallon, he puts on his boot-cut jeans and sweatshirt and gives her car a tune-up. The oil is changed every three-thousand miles. The tires are rotated every five. He does the Christmas shopping himself, loading all the gifts that we want under the tree. He never washes a dish, or even puts one into the dishwasher, but once a month, he'll fire up the grill. All the reminders of what made her want to marry him in the first place, before it turned into this. A house with four televisions and a fifth on the way. Mismatched armchairs crowding a living room and plates stacked in the already crouched cupboard to make room for the new set that'll arrive tomorrow.
These things are nice. But I can't make myself understand. There's no room here in this house. He dishonors her, makes her into something laughable in the neighborhood, ignores her, tells her the meat is dry, complains about the starch in his shirts she irons, blames her because I'm not his little girl and I'm not his perfect boy. Dishes and ghosts and televisions.
It was easy to spend a couple of nights with him. Tell him his burgers were good when I imagined us for a moment a perfect family. My imagination functioned when it seemed inevitable that he'd never come back. But not now. Even Michael shares our father's shame over me. For Michael, I'm the brother reciting the lemon fresh line from the Pledge commercial with a rag in my hand, a bandana around my head and the handle of a feather duster buried in my back pocket when he comes home with his high school friends. I'm the tailless peacock, uninterested in their games and their girls. To him I'm invisible or an eyesore.
I wonder now what my father was thinking with his eyes closed dancing with me in the family room that night. He didn't ask me to take a hockey shot. Was he pretending I was that -- his unborn girl?
"Let me think about it," my mother had said into the telephone that night after he uttered, "let me come back." I could hear the voices in her background blending with the sound of his.
I had put the phone back on the hook (phones everywhere. Even Budd has a phone in his room. What are they going to do with two more?), placed Mary's doily under the hem of her robes. By the time I'd arrived in the kitchen, my father had hung up. The proud, dancing, hockey-playing, hamburger chef was replaced by the father we'd come to know even better. The old, hard nighttime face with blotchy patches and thin lips that he wore when he said things like, "You're fat. And you walk like a goddamn sissy."
So now I'm here in my room packing in the strange silence enveloping the house's noise. I'm going to go back to California. Find that house and tree where my brothers and I sat together. Look for the piece of me that fell out of my eyes as I cried in the station wagon as we drove to the airport.
I want to save Budd, but I lack the strength and stability to translate for him anymore. The neighborhood kids tell him that his father is a cheat. I tell Budd that all that means is that their mothers have nothing to do. His father says he needs some time away. I tell Budd it means that adults are like soccer teams. They play some games at home, and some away. The storms rip trees apart. I tell him God's making it easier for the squirrels to find acorns. His questions don't stop. Why is mom working again? What's a cramp? A remainder? What did we do to make him so angry? He held me at night, and said, "They call you a fairy. What does that mean?" I told him it means that I'm magic, and that I can disappear.
Even more, I know that, like my mother, I'm capable of suffering. But not Budd. I will not stay and risk arriving at the day when I can see my father's and my older brother's looks transferred like poison ivy on bare legs. I could not survive seeing shame in my little brother's eyes.
It'll be better in the long run if he's left to fend for himself. Before his little body understands how to hate someone you love.
Soon this now-quiet house will be a flurry of activity with moving trucks and men adding the televisions and couches to the ones we already have. After this latest reconciliation there will be stereos everywhere and waterbeds in all four bedrooms (instead of three). I won't be here if the roof falls under the weight of all that tepid water. My father will march out to the driveway and scold the movers to be more careful with an armoire that won't fit in this house. And if I were going to be there, I'd marvel at him. How he could manage to stand there on the stage that is our neighborhood. Perform as if the audience wasn't there.
I think, I won't be here tomorrow, but if I were, he'd give me something. A bookcase or penholder or the oblong pillow he bought that allowed him to read his management strategy books more comfortably while in bed.
More for my brothers. They'll benefit from his indiscretions. And he'll be kind -- a child on his best behavior -- happy that he's gotten his way. There will be other gifts, too: a fancy dinner for no reason near his abandoned apartment, at The Rusty Scupper where my brothers will visit the salad bar as many times as they want. Michael will pile up on the buttery, garlicky croutons and add them one by one to his steaming bowl of French onion soup. My father will order another Roy Rogers for Budd before finishes his first one, and he'll tell his wife to go ahead and get the lobster.
But it won't last.
I think of the avalanche that will become my father's face, of my mother's temporary giddiness over her own ability to forgive. She will have taken back her rotten, wandering man. Turned the other cheek just like she was taught. A double martyr, a woman who keeps her vows and continues to make balanced meals even after being abandoned, again, this time by her middle son.
There is a flooding of liquid that veins its way through my body as I sit there and try to finish packing. Budd. I can't help it.
He slept in my bed last night, as usual, and I think of our pocket of warmth. Huddled together face to face, his eyelids twitching as it thundered, his breath warm puffs of the mint toothpaste in our bathroom. We were counting backwards the moments until daylight, the insides of his arms as white as my sheets, our breathing moving the water underneath us, trying to rock us to sleep. I held him around the shoulders, my palms against his rib cage, snuff-tight and kissed his neck softly, like my mother used to do to me, hoping to ward-off his nightmares. His skin was the softness I needed. Only his sweet smell and us living amidst trees being split by hurricane lightning.
Our last night, after some sleep, a sound, I woke up. We had shifted, moved to separate parts of the bed, his little pajama bottoms tangled on the leg jutting out from under the quilt. I thought about going into the bathroom, getting down the old blue sewing kit where my mother, the nurse, keeps all of the drug samples and unfinished prescriptions. I could do it, I thought. I could take all of those pills and mash them into powder with the back of a soupspoon. I could make his chocolate milk and swirl the powder in along with extra syrup. We could drink it together, I thought. He'd never have to feel the pain of a broken bone, the feeling that you're being used. He'd never again have to hear the chatter about his next-to-oldest brother who walks like a sissy and doesn't even look at girls in that way. With those pills zinging through our bodies, we could fly backwards through the sky, touching eagle feathers with the tips of our fingers. We'd land in that branch of our tree behind our little house in California, and we'd sit there for a minute, split an orange, segment by segment, the juice sun-warmed and sweet. When we finished, he'd float up and he wouldn't be afraid to go without me.
But I didn't. Still sleeping, he moved toward me, his foot found my ankles, his hand my neck.
Now I'm forced to contemplate the rest of my life without our bodies entwined. There isn't going to be a goodbye. I'll go out into the world and find the strength I need. Find that piece that this move gutted from me. And then maybe, when he's old enough to understand it all, I'll return to him. And we'll be brothers again. Once and for all, we'll be a family.
The bags are packed, I wait for one second for someone to come to try to stop me. But before it happens, a car honks for me outside my window. I stand with my bag around my shoulder. Look at that room and wonder how it will look to them…stripped and used. I descend the stairs and leave Jesus hanging above the door to look after my empty space. I inhaled the stale-air-smell of adults trapped in spaces too small for their reckless bodies. I'm compelled to change. Away and away and away. When we drive away, I say, "Goodbye, Budd," and suddenly remember last night's dream: my once-beautiful mother's mouth around the exhaust pipe of this very car, her body being dragged behind like wedding regalia.