In those years, when the mother would wake the boy, it was frequently for him to discover that it was the middle of the night, the rest of the house still cloaked in sleep. Her gleaming face hung like an olive moon above him as she hissed – Get up, get up! – her hand pulling him out of the bed, tugging at him with an urgency that the house might be burning, or a burglar might be there, or the world might be ending.
The boy dazedly but dutifully stood up, following behind her down the stairs, unquestioningly, as upon similar occasions, for what else was he supposed to do? Her forefinger to her lips – Sh! – as she ushered him out the front door and into the old Firebird, his thin pajamaed body pressed against the cold red leather seat that smelled of her stale smoke and perfume, the sleep still in his eyes, everything like a fever dream.
The silence as she drove through their neighborhood of nearly identical houses, her silhouette dignified, beautiful, head uplifted, the glimpse of her breast cutting through her gaping black robe, the boy breathing as cautiously as he could with regard for her nerves, not daring to turn to look at her, not daring to ask where they were going or why. Her fingers gripped tightly about the steering wheel, one finger missing from a childhood accident in a factory on the other side of the world, one finger encircled with the dull brass wedding ring.
Where the tract houses ended, the fields began. Here, where no one had yet come and cut anything down, he sometimes went chasing after the dog; once he watched a whole kaleidoscope of painted ladies cartwheel and swirl above a field then vanish into the sky. Before long, everything tunneled into a narrow rural road, a tricky and possibly dangerous one with barely a shoulder to speak of. After some minutes of silence, she stopped, turned to him and said – You out! –with the same urgency she’d awoken him. And when he was outside of the car, standing barefoot in gravel and dirt, her long robed arm reached over like a bat’s wing, slammed the door shut, and drove away.
The first stab of panic was excruciating. The air turned deathly still but for the roaring in his ears. How many hours or minutes or days was he there in that great and frightening wilderness, waiting for her return? Beseeching – Come back! – until his throat hurt. Not knowing what else to do then but walk around in circles. He saw pieces of a broken bottle, a red stiletto, a blue rubber glove. He began to gather stones. Some were flat and thin as pancakes; others were the size and shape of eggs. He held them in his cold hands. He studied their smooth texture. Some were dusted with starlight, and some had faces in them – or was that only his imagination? He stacked them one on top of the other in little heaps, astonished when they didn’t topple over.
And then just as the sun rose from out of the fields, the Firebird returned. His mother awaited him impatiently inside, smoking. He put out his raw hand to open the door and watched himself get in, his eyes filling with tears until she said hotly – You stop that! You stop that right now! He could feel the flush in his face as he swallowed his shame, his stomach hurting from fear or hunger, he didn’t know which. He tried to sit perfectly still, tried not to sniffle or weep or wet his pants for fear she’d turn around and do it all again. Then the same words cheerily said – We’re home! – the overwhelming relief he felt to be back, how terrified he’d been. Her raspy, smoker’s chuckle as he limped up the stairs – That’ll make a man out of you! – the air queer and sharp, the pebbles and pine needles still stuck to his soles, the soft sound of a door being locked against him as he slipped back into his bed and lay with the dog. He’d bury his head in the dirty warmth of its matted fur, close his eyes, and try as hard as he could to turn himself invisible.
Years later, after marriage and divorce and grown children, he’d tell me his story, whispering it beneath the sheets, the terrier asleep at our feet. This, the secret he’d carried all these years. The scene that played over and over in his mind, never to let him go. The fifty words she had for rain. The abandoned bird that flew out of the tree and into her hand. The cracks in her nightstand bowl filled in with gold. Having been better, she said, for having been broken.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Curtis Keester