My son runs into the wind, and his shirt billows out behind him. He says he will sail away. I grab his arm, hard, and pull him away from the wind, from the street, from the cars in the street.
“That hurt,” Jake says. “Too hard.” “I told you about running,” I say. “You can’t run. It’s dangerous. Only on the playground.” “There aren’t any cars. I looked.” “It’s always the car you don’t see.”
He squirms and squiggles, using his body weight against me. He’s too young to know how to use his body. Years from now, he will come home drunk, and I’ll remember this seemingly drunken walk down 4th, past the bakery, the independent bookstore, the paint-your-own-pottery shop. All the way to the clinic on the corner, where they’ll swab our cheeks and compare us on trays where our parts will become, as theydescribe it, glow-y—I think separate and luminous, luminous like those deep-sea creatures that I saw on television one night, late when the house was quiet. Then, they’ll help me figure out who Jake’s father is. I was too young then, and I’m too young now. When I was a teenager, my grandmother said that Man’s heart was evil from his youth. When I was a teenager, I told her that I was no evil thing. She said that God always got the first and last Word. My grandmother’s got an unwavering faith, but her way of speaking and worshipping has changed. Now, she’s more inspirational than damning. Now, I’m twenty-something and potentially evil-hearted. My grandmother thinks Jake’s father was my first, that I should know who the father is. I couldn’t tell her.
She’s at home getting ready for the “senior” prom at church tonight. She has a handsome date, a Sean Connery look-alike. My grandmother is starting all over. She says we all need to start over, start living for real and not like a bunch of old rock’n’roll stars trying to make it big with a twilight-year comeback. Grandmother says we need to purge and then go after what we want, what we need. She’s going after true love, the second-time around. She’s told me that I must go to a community college in the area. Grandma always said that I was smart before—before the you-know, which is my own mother’s crazy. I don’t remember being smart, but Grandma says that I was creative-smart. She says I was smart and against-smart at the same time. I asked her if against-smart isn’t the same as dumb, and she said, “It’s smart like a dream.” Grandma says that we can do it. I believe her because she dyed her hair and bought a sexual lubricant. She says that I have to hold down a job first. I just got fired from the Golden Corral. But I also believe that to purge your past you must know it. I know that my mother is dying, up at the loony bin—because she tried to kill herself one too many times, without succeeding, except this time she succeeded, sort of, but it will be a slow death—and I don’t know who Jake’s father is. I need to know, and then it’s living for real.
Jake wakes me up in the middle of the night. He says goblins exist, no matter how much I say they don’t. He says he had this dream again, that they came to him. Just now. The goblins came to him and said if his father ever came home, they would take him, Jake, away from me. I tell Jake his father isn’t so bad. Jake says he wishes he could believe me. He says that I won’t even let him listen to the radio. Is his father famous? No, I tell him. The radio is just a bad influence. I tell Jake that he’s too young to worry about this, restrictions and all. I’ll worry about his father, how to get him home.
Jake says a purple goblin told him to sneak into my bedroom and put a pillow over my face. I ask Jake if he thinks that’s funny. He says that this is really what he dreamt. He knows it’s wrong. He loves me. I tell him to go back to sleep. Jake asks if we can talk more about goblins tomorrow. I leave him to sleep, and I go outside to stare at the broken wooden fence, the dry grass, and the kiddie pool. And the moon. The dry and broken wooden moon. And I think of my mother, how it will feel when she dies. Much like it already does?
A nightmare of my own: A goblin kills my mother, but the goblin is me. She lies on an operating table, wrapped with white cloth, like a mummy, roses in between her skin and the cloth because I can smell them.
Then, she is there, skiing on the broad, white mountains with a shock of color behind her. I thought I had killed her, but now she chases me. What is that color? What rainbow? What say you, goblin?
My mother is yelling something. She is yelling for her own mother to save her as she races down the slope, toward what—a wall or a tree or a burst of light.
“How was prom?” I ask Grandma the next morning. “Oh, you know,” she says. “All that peach schnapps. The sugar’s what does you in.”
Her auburn hair doesn’t glow in the morning sun, and she doesn’t look flushed or happy, even hungover. She looks like an old lady.
“Something happen with Sean Connery?”
“Ted, and no. We had a nice evening.” She has her back to me, and the water pours into the yellow kettle with a sound that’s like an echo off a distant cliff face.
“Did he make a pass at you?” I say, smiling like a fiend.
Her face is smaller, then, and I think she’s about to cry. But this could all be a trick of morning light. “It was a nice evening,” she says.
Can a face fold into itself? That’s what it looks like. I touch her arm, to comfort. The water is still running behind us, the kettle overflowing.
She says I need to go see my mother before she dies. Grandma’s been three times. I don’t want to go to the hospital. My mother’s in a coma anyway, and there’s this psychiatrist from the loony bin hanging around because he’s using Mom in his study on the genetics of suicide. I tell Grandma that there’s no point. I speak too loudly, and even though she’s the one crying, she looks at me with pity.
“I should lust not. On my grave, they’ll write Kibroth hattaavah,” she says.
Grandma has been alone for a long time. In her youth, she had her husband, a naval corpsman. Then, she had Mother, and, now, me and Jake. Alone, though surrounded by us. Alone because surrounded by us.
I have been alone for a long time—really alone. I worry about my son, his dreams and his hair that’s too long and the father he’s never had but just might need. And of course, I don’t want to be alone—or leave anyone alone.
I’ve worked at the Winn Dixie, the Radio Shack, the Golden Corral, the Belk’s, and the Tom Thumb gas station. I’ve been fired for chewing gum, cursing, flashing customers, mooning bosses, not refilling the sweet tea on time, and not using the counterfeit detection pen on large bills.
I just got a job at the Pleaze-U gas station and convenience store. To get the job, I flashed the manager, Mr. Josh, as we’re to call him.
A picture of Grandma. She lounges on a beach chair. Her hair is done up for a special occasion, but she’s at the beach. All around her, sand. The sand is white in the black and white photo. She is lounging on a dark chair in a sea of light. Her hair, dark. Her shadow is the third object. Grandma doesn’t look into the camera. She looks away and up. She looks directly at the sun, for you can see its light in her eyes. Her eyes are white. She is beautiful. She has pale skin, but smooth. She has her bikini on, the kind with shorts for a bottom, but her stomach is exposed and flat. Her breasts are full. She has applied her lipstick just so, a darker shade. Maybe red. The only other makeup I notice is a beauty mark that I know isn’t natural. I scratch at the photo, trying to take it away.
Sometimes when I look at these old pictures, I wonder about how beauty fades. Grandma says that you can always see beauty, if it was ever there. But I look at her, and I know that it can fade, that it can be something left behind in pictures, not of our flesh.
At the Pleaze-U, you—oh yes, you—have to pre-pay after nine o’clock. Customers stand outside taking their time figuring this out, even though there’s a sign with bold font on each pump. My co-worker, Mary Beth, who is only seventeen, asks me if I’ve got a man. I tell her that I’ve got a little man, named Jake. We get to talking about how men are shit, and Mary Beth lifts up her Pleaze-U smock and her shirt underneath and shows me where some guy came on her stomach, and because she didn’t wash the next day and there was something wrong with his cum, now she has little red rashes all over her belly. Mr. Josh comes strolling by, and Mary Beth quickly re-clothes herself. Then, her face crumples like Grandma’s and she cries a little bit. I start to tell her the story of my dream. I ask her what it all means. Mary Beth says to ask someone older. I tell her I want to know what she thinks. After I ring up a thirty-ounce slushy for some kid with blue hair, Mary Beth says that my mother was running toward me, that I am the burst of light. I tell her that I was the goblin, and Mary Beth says that I don’t get dreams at all.
The genetics of suicide: Seretonergic pathway. Intronic polymorphisms. MAOA. Life. Love. Money. Family. One man and one woman, and then children.
The genetics of suicide, if laid out on a plate, are like a fancy meal at the steak house. You cannot say what you like best, but it all just works together on your palate. A delight which leads you to heights of ecstasy, and despair that you will never eat that meal again. That singular moment, when your son walks a certain way, your mother smiles a certain way, when a boy touches you a certain way. Now, it’s not about the certainty, but the uncertainty if you will ever experience this again, the joy in that. Monsters and mutations. Separate but luminous.
I’ve got the afternoon off, and Jake and I are going back to the clinic today for a consultation that I requested. Jake isn’t very clear on what’s going on, and I intend to keep it that way. Grandma is at a makeup party.
Inside, there are mostly couples, men and women who look tired and who do not look at each other. Jake isn’t the only child there. In the corner, three other kids play with a pretend oven. They keep confusing who is the cook, the server, the customer. I see one woman who was here last time. She wears her lipstick old-fashioned, so there are two pointy peaks on top. She’s alone. I can’t remember if she was with someone last time.
Jake scoffs at the younger kids playing restaurant. I sign us in, and the woman behind the counter leans over to look at Jake. “How old are you?” she asks. I tell her he’s seven. “We have some educational magazines, and they’re real fun.”
I drag him away before he can be rude. “When we leave, can we go get fries?” Jake asks. “Fries and hamburgers?”
He says, “I don’t feel like eating meat. Grandma says that the meat is full of hormones. She says I could go crazy.”
“Meat is fine, Jake. Don’t listen to everything your grandma says.”
“She’s really my great-grandma, right?” he asks. I say yes, and he says, “If she were my grandma and your grandma—that would mean we have the same mother.”
“Jake, stop messing around.”
“I’m just saying. If you weren’t my mother, I think my mother would have blond hair, blond hair like a movie star. Then, I’d have blond hair, too, and we would live in a house with a real pool.”
This is one difficulty of parenthood: to punish by wrath or silence. Another is to know how to love your child.
The kid across from us swings his legs. I think of the swing sets of my childhood, the one in the park, the one Mom took me to before she went to Betton. And I think of swinging hard and launching up through the clouds to that place Grandma always said was not quite heaven but dreamy enough.
When Jake was four, he began to dream of monsters. These monsters were purple and they ate people. I told him that was a song. He said, “What song?” His favorite color was purple.
When I was pregnant with him, I lived with my grandmother, and she played all those old records. Grandpa’s collection, really, but she couldn’t get rid of it. When he died in Betton, years before I was born, she gave away everything except his records. She kept his records.
Jake looks like my grandfather. Grandma wishes that Grandpa and my mother could have known Jake. But they were gone, one really and one gone enough.
My mother used to make the best potato salad.
When Jake was four, he also began to dream of goblins. Some of them were purple and some red, yellow, green. I told him this was his favorite book, Rainbow Goblins. Jake said, “No, these are my dreams. And the goblins are coming.”
After Vietnam, Grandpa came home and tried to relax. He had lost too much, and he never really could love my mother.
He couldn’t help but feel he’d traded the lives of his platoon’s dead for his beautiful girl. He found some evil in her, and he felt he’d sold his soul, made that trade with the devil. When he’d left for the war, she was the pure and innocent babe. Now, she was Woman, at age four. Woman, this kind of beauty, was evil. He’d traded the lives of good and honest men for this sort of beauty. This sort of beauty led men to death, brought death to them. He’d made a trade.
The leafy green, the wet leaves, breathing. The sound of animals he couldn’t name, bird sounds and larger and louder.
He had killed, but he had wanted to save.
He couldn’t eat pot roast or pork butt or meatloaf or tuna casserole or even grilled cheese sandwiches. He wanted the meat of a locust. He wanted the heart of a locust, to be hard and hungry and to be able to live with what he had done.
He lit fires in the backyard and then he lit fire to cats that hung around. He cried. He said he would keep on until he stopped crying. Grandma said that a burning cat sounds unholy, like a siren that would never go off.
Then, Grandpa went bat-shit crazy. I wasn’t born yet. Grandma was young enough to still be beautiful, and my mother was eight years old.
Grandma told me this when I was eighteen. She cried and told me that I should know the way of things.
The clinic counselor says, “I’m glad you set up this appointment.” She flips through my file, stops and looks right at Jake. “Jake, I think you should have your own meeting with my friend who really wants to meet you.”
“He can stay,” I say.
“Come with me,” the counselor says.
“He can stay,” I say, and grab Jake’s arm.
“Too hard, Mom,” Jake whines.
I let go quickly, ashamed. And Jake is led out of the room, through the sterile hallways.
The counselor returns, and I feel strange without Jake. My chest opens up, and my breath comes easier. But I’m afraid while my body isn’t. I hate this woman for taking him away.
“Sorry, but I don’t discuss these things with children in the room,” she says. “Well, Ms. Ellison, we have your sample and your child’s. You’ve paid your down payment and partial collection fee for your son. But we can’t really do anything until we have potential father’s DNA to compare to.” She flips through the file. “Am I right in understanding that you don’t have any candidates for the paternity test?”
“I don’t know who the father is,” I say. “Possibilities, but I don’t know where those guys are. I don’t have money for a P.I.”
“Have you tried basic Internet searches and networking amongst your friends and acquaintances?” “Yes.”
“Well, we have a service that we recommend to our customers for a minimal fee. Basically, someone—not necessarily a P.I., now—does some legwork for you. The fee is much less that that of a P.I.” She leans in. “And our guy is slick. It’s a steal.”
I wish I were at the makeup party with Grandma. I agree, and the counselor takes down my information, and her slick not-a-P.I. is off to find Dylan Rosko.
A picture of Jake. He rides on his unicycle, which he insisted on for his fifth birthday. He mastered it, didn’t fall off much at all. I told him he could have a regular bike, but he didn’t want one. This kid was crazy for the unicycle. He said it was the only thing that could outrun the goblins.
The goblins were after him for what he knew not. Jake said, “They’re like dogs after the mailman.” Jake said the goblins were like a rainbow that he’d seen in science class, like all sorts of flowers, like pretty monsters. He said he wanted to play with them. I said, “Sure, play with your pretty monsters.”
Grandma walks through the door, and I can smell her makeup before I see it. I love the way her makeup has a smell. All the makeup I buy is hypoallergenic and good for my skin. But it’s boring. Grandma has color and smell. Once a long time ago, I tasted her lipstick and it was candy.
“How was it?” I yell, before I can even see her. “Wonderful. Just what I needed.” She walks into the room, and her hair shines. “I love this eyeshadow.” “Lovely.”
“I do feel a bit silly for my worldly desires, but it feels good and it feels good to feel silly for once.” She starts showing me what she bought for me. I refuse to go to these parties, mainly because of Rachel who is really and truly a whore and yet called me one when she didn’t know I was there just around the corner during Thanksgiving right before Jake was born. Grandma always buys me stuff. Sometimes, I actually use it.
“Have you thought more about going to see your mother?” she asks.
I flip open eyeshadows and powders and blushes—all the compacts I can find. I smell them. I stick my nose in eyeshadow, powder, blush, and inhale slowly, then exhale. Like I’m trying to prevent a panic attack, which I’ve never had but imagined. The panic stays inside my head, my eyes. I remember a day when my mother wore makeup, a day before, before.
Grandma is quiet for a moment. Then, she asks, “Do you want a sandwich? I can make you some grilled cheese.”
I’m ready to say no, but Jake wanders in, says, “Can we have fries, too?”
We have grilled cheese and fries, the crinkly frozen kind that cook up nice.
I have to work the night shift again tonight. Me and Mary Beth are good at this shift. We don’t mind the customers getting irritated about pre-paying, the silly drugged-up kids, or the prank calls.
Mary Beth asks after Jake. She asks after Grandma and my dreams. I tell her we’re all okay. Then, I think to tell her about Jake’s goblin dreams, and she says, “Oh, so it’s a family affair?” I tell her the dreams, and she says that I should get Jake checked out by a psychiatrist. I tell her that it’s all normal, but she says, “I mean, who even thinks about goblins any more? That’s so old and not like old school. Old like maybe fairy tales?”
Mr. Josh comes by the store, even though he’s not the manager on shift. He pours us coffee and says it’s free. After he’s gone, I watch Mary Beth act like the coffee is poison. I ask her if she’s okay.
Dylan Rosko was the first boy I ever slept with, but I kept going back to him. In the beginning, he lusted after me because I hit him every time he said “bitch” to or about any girl. I punched him good and hard in the shoulder, sometimes the leg. I was a thirteen-year-old feminist.
He walked home with me the Thursday before school let out for the summer. He grabbed at an azalea bush and gave me purple-pink flowers. He said, “I’d buy you some, but that might be patronizing, right?” He braced himself for a punch. I grabbed his hand instead. Held it too tight. I always hold too tight.
At home, my mother was gone. She was just gone. Dylan and I went out to the garage and played pool. He lost, and I was so happy to beat a guy and a guy two years older. I was jumping up and down like a kid, and Dylan came at me. He kissed me and I’d never been kissed like that before. A boy had never touched my arms or my stomach, especially not my legs. He touched my shoulder blades, and I couldn’t remember if anyone had ever touched my shoulder blades, even my mother. Somehow, he was touching me all at once, and he had this way of brushing the skin, touching those little hairs on my skin that were standing straight up for him. He didn’t let his fingers sink in. I felt like he was a ghost, ghost-touching me. And it was easy enough to believe it was all safe and innocent. It was easy enough to relax and just enjoy it.
Then, he stopped kissing me and looked into my eyes. I thought he was going to tell me that I was pretty, the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. He said, “Do you want to do this?” I felt then that this would be better than being prettiest. It would have reality, proof of it. I wouldn’t just disappear, ever.
“What do I do?” I asked. “Just be calm,” he said, “and hit me if anything hurts.”
A picture of Dylan. He leans against his Toyota Tercel, making up for the lame car with his coolness, his body and face relaxed and taunting the camera to do the same. Relax. Behind him and the car is a fence, and then the high school soccer field. He never played soccer.
He holds a pack of cigarettes in his hand, his arms crossed, like he refuses to give away a smoke. The white daylight shows how dark his hair his, so black its almost blue or purple, like a cartoon. His skin white enough to melt away into the sky.
“Dear heart,” Grandma says in the morning, “are you really not going to see your mother?”
Jake has fallen asleep, though he’s too old for afternoon naps. I’ve just woken up from my morning sleep, sleep from seven to noon. We sit outside in beach chairs in the summer sun, which is mild today. Grandma has made us each a Tom Collins. She says it’s like lemonade but better.
“I don’t want to see her,” I say. “She’s been about as big a part of my life as that man who was my father .”
She prattles on and on about how it’s not my mother’s fault, a disease, and how I should care. She says, “You will feel alone, even though you think you’ll be glad to. I know how hard it’s been, but if you don’t say goodbye, you’ll feel alone forever.”
I know she’s tired of being caretaker, to Grandpa, Mom, and now me. We thought Grandpa was sick from Vietnam. We never thought it was in our genes. His genes. My genes. Our genes. Separate and luminous amongst us.
“Grandma, I don’t know who Jake’s father is.”
She looks at me and says with a great deep breath, “We’re all fornicators. We’re not all of God. He didn’t send us, and the only way for us to move through the world is to fornicate. I’ve already forgiven you.”
“I have a list.” I take my list out of my pocket. There are four candidates, four possibilities, because by the time I got pregnant with Jake, my fornication was all I had. Mom was gone to Betton. She’d already tried to kill herself four times, once at home. The boy who was with me all those years ago, Dylan. He took one look at my mother, her milkshake mouth. He guided me into the living room and sat me down on the floral couch, soft to the touch. Velvet. You could run your fingernails against it, opposite the direction of the fibers. Like a cat, I clawed the couch while Dylan called the paramedics. It never occurred to me that she was still alive, that I could or should sit with her. Try to wake her up. I would now. I would tell her that it was a dream and a song and a book and that we loved her, even Grandpa.
After that, Grandma cried all the time because she’d been living in her own house away from us and dating this guy, a Gregory Peck look-alike. She’d thought everything was fine. She was starting over. Now, she had to take care of Mom. Grandma was reminded of Grandpa, who was still alive but locked away in Betton. I think maybe she thought it was her fault. She got over it pretty quick, took us in. Grandma tried her best. But it all went bad for me. So, I have a list.
I hand it to Grandma. It’s on some pink stationery that she gave me for my birthday. Grandma cries but still reads the names, trying to figure out if she remembers these guys. She says again she’s forgiven me.
Here’s a picture of my mother. She’s with a man a bit shorter than she is. They’re dancing. He seems reluctant, avoids the camera’s eye. My mother looks at us dead on. She smiles like Broadway.
She has on her black dress, off the shoulder. This guy wears a suit but no tie. The lawn behind them is green, summertime. And this is daytime. They’re dancing like lovers in the daytime.
“Dylan Rosko?” Grandma asks. “The one in jail?” “Not anymore,” I say, “and it was juvie. That was a long time ago.”
“Michael Smith, Roberto Espinoza, Nick Ziedel.” She refolds the list. “I don’t remember any of them. Not really.” She’s still crying a little.
“I was good at keeping my secrets,” I say. “All of these could be Jake’s father?” she asks. “How could that be?”
“Dr. Chaudary said that the window could be pretty wide, depending. He helped me calculate it so I could be sure.” I take the list from her. “And I’m changing as we speak. So are you. We’re going to start living for real, right?”
She sits up in her beach chair. She looks out at the brown yard. Now, Grandma is really crying. She takes this, my mother dying, harder than I do. She says that I dissociated, which is a term she gets from the doctors up at Betton. They want me to come in more, for Mom and for psychological tests. The whole study on the genetics of suicide. I want to tell them that it’s not passed on. It’s something people have to deal with, and sometimes people imitate. It’s the sincerest form of flattery.
I say, “Don’t worry.” I take her hands. They shake a little. I am shocked by the dryness, the bones I feel through thin skin. I could break her by accident. I expect her to complain about my grip, like Jake always does, but she just lays her head on my shoulder.
A secret, revealed: My grandmother has interviewed with this doctor doing his genetic research on suicide. She said he asked her about Grandpa, and she told him about the schizophrenia and how he took a Saturday drive into the side of a brick building. Grandma said the doctor told her that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, that we can’t fight genes. Grandma said that she found some relief in this, solace.
I told her that she should be ashamed. I told her that we are all together here, though there is a wall, and we are all above something—animals and weather, I don’t know. But we are all up high. Perhaps, we all sit or stand atop it, I told her, but we are all together here. There are not those below in the genetic muck who we excuse from watching. Watch the sunset. Watch the dead, the death of the sunset, the bright sky, the green trees, the success of all Mankind.
At work again tonight with Mary Beth. Mr. Josh is on duty, and his buddy cop friend swings by to check on the store every hour. Mr. Josh goes out to meet him, and they laugh. Mary Beth says that she’s tired and goes off to the bathroom for long periods of time. Then, whenever we start talking about something, she wanders off to stare at the display of Tab and pork rinds.
Mr. Josh swings by the counter and tells me that he likes my shirt. I say that it would look better if I took my Pleaze-U smock off. He says to go ahead, so I do, and right then, his cop friend drives up outside and honks while yelling things you would maybe hear at a football game. I still have my t-shirt on, so I don’t know what the fuss is about.
Then, Officer Duvall is inside coming toward the fun. On his way in, he spots Mary Beth, now perched on top of the four-foot display of Tab, pork rinds to her right. Officer Duvall asks me how my grandmother and Jake are and if I remember that football game where he—and I say I don’t. I pull my smock back on and nudge Mary Beth off the display.
After Duvall and Mr. Josh leave, Mary Beth looks like she’s going to cry but doesn’t. We are silent until the morning sun.
A picture of my mother. She sits with Grandma on a green settee. Grandma is younger. Mom is younger. Their hair shines. Grandma’s hair is light brown, and I can see its summer highlights. She wears it in a bob. Mom’s hair is darker, like mine. She wears it long but in a ponytail. Grandma smiles picture-perfect, like a doll, for the camera. Mom smiles but she slouches, and I can tell she hates this. Still, she smiles.
When I look closer, I wonder if Grandma is really happy. Yes, she’s really happy. Mom is okay, too. She slouches because she’s a kid, not because she hates this. She’s looks calm, too. I don’t remember my mother ever sitting still. But here she seems good at it. Her slouch is her giving in to Grandma, to happiness or, no, maybe just the calm of the moment. Or maybe she was outside in the sun and the water all day. She’s exhausted from happiness.
The next morning, Jake wakes me up at eleven. “I had another dream,” he says. “About the goblins.” “And what did they tell you to do this time?” I ask. “They said to take away Grandma’s lipstick.” “Why?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “It looks weird.”
“What if Grandma likes it?”
“She doesn’t. She licks at it.” Jake messes with the chair’s plastic, sticks his fingers through and pulls them out. “She smells weird, too.”
“Grandma needs to try different things,” I say. “She’s trying to be happy.” He’s quiet, and I can relax and drink my Tom Collins now. But no, Jake’s not done.
“The goblins say this isn’t right. They say we have to, to take her away. I know you don’t think the goblins are real. Maybe they aren’t. But I don’t understand what they are. They’re real in my dreams. I understand them there. I know where they came from,” he says. “I know what they want.”
“What they really want is different.” I push his hair out of his face, and I see by his eyes and the shape of his lips that he’s serious.
The search service the counselor recommended has found a phone number for Dylan Rosko. It’s a local number. But they only give you a phone number and an e-mail address so I don’t know where he lives.
When I was twelve, I came home to find my mother with a gun in her hand. She didn’t answer me when I asked her what was going on. I thought she was mad at me. I thought she was trying to punish me. I’d just stolen eight dollars from her purse that morning. I thought she’d found out and was going to scare me straight. But no matter what I said, she didn’t answer me. She didn’t even look up from the yellow vinyl of the tabletop. I sat down next to her. I put my hand on hers. She didn’t respond. I said, “Mom, what are you doing?” And she said, “I don’t know. I remember us being a family. Your father loved you. He told me that I was crazy, and then I felt crazy.” I felt her hair, to make sure she was real. I brushed it out of her face. I wondered if that’s what it felt like to love someone. I thought I should hug her, but I didn’t. I kept my hands on the tabletop. Yellow, like the sun that should always cheer us up. We sat there for about thirty minutes, me watching her for any sign of movement.
Eventually, I took the gun away from her, and she didn’t respond. I took it into the other room with me. I called Grandma.
Grandma walked into the kitchen and saw Mom just sitting there. Grandma tried to get through to her, too, but nothing worked. Mom spent a few weeks at Betton, and when she came back, she hugged me and said that she was sorry that she’d “flipped out.” Stress, my mother said. Then, we made brownies and she joked about how glad she was that I’d come home that day. “Imagine if I’d done it,” she said. “What a mess!” Maybe I started to cry then. My mother hugged me and said she was sorry and she would never do that to me again. She told me to remember that people, like Dad, left her. She told me she’d never left anyone, not really. I knew she told the truth.
We’re making spaghetti and turkey meatballs for dinner. Grandma doesn’t cook with beef anymore. Jake is making the meatballs too big, says he can eat them all. He needs big meatballs. The size of softballs.
“Listen,” Grandma says, “if you’re okay with raw meat in the middle, you can make them as big as you want.”
Jake splits his big meatballs in half. “I found out where Dylan is,” I say to Grandma. “I told you that it doesn’t matter,” she says. “Who’s Dylan?” Jake asks. “It matters to me. I need to know” “Why?” Grandma asks. “I don’t want to be alone with Jake.” “But Grandma’s here,” Jake says. “It’s a different sort of lonely,” I say. “Don’t you feel it, too?”
Grandma hushes us before we can begin to speak, for real, about Jake’s missing father. Grandma redirects us, our attention, back to food and board games. Jake wants to know what hormones are, and if they’re in his meat, what will they do to him? Grandma speaks, then, of illness and insanity.
A picture of my father. He’s sitting on a bench, and his hair has gone gray. He has elbows on the table, hands folded together. He’s about to tell us something. I can’t see his eyes clearly because his glasses are bright with the flash and other reflected light. The trees are blurred in the wind behind him. The bench is painted red, and I can see people have already carved themselves into it. Maybe Johnnie loves Katie. I’ve never been here, and I don’t remember him looking like this. But he’s about to tell us something.
I’m working the eight-to-midnight shift at the Pleaze-U. At Grandma’s insistence, I brought some meatballs for Mary Beth. Grandma says Mary Beth sounds like she could use a good meal. She eats behind the register while Mr. Josh checks on all the displays. When he’s done, he comes up the register and says, “Mary Beth, I could fire you for eating out here.”
Mary Beth keeps right on eating. Mr. Josh walks over to her, and at first, I think he’s going to slap her but then it looks like he’s going to touch her boob. He removes her nametag. He says, “I’m done playing games.”
Mary Beth says she’s pregnant, and he says, “Prove it.” She pulls her shirt up, revealing her stomach and her bra. I want to tell her that you don’t show for almost four months. But Mr. Josh looks at her belly like he can see right through it, into the baby.
Right then, the bells on the door ring, and a man walks in. He walks back to the beer section. From behind, I could swear it’s Dylan Rosko. I check the parking lot for a Toyota Tercel. Then, Mary Beth is clinging to my back, crying on my back. I turn around and hug her. Mr. Josh is gone. I tell Mary Beth that it’ll be okay, but I know it won’t. I know that she will try to mother this child and it just won’t work. He’ll have bad dreams. Her grandmother will kick her out. Her mother will die.
I hear the bells on the door again. The man walking away—and with beer that he didn’t pay for. I look harder, but I can’t tell if it’s Dylan. If it was, what did he think when he saw me?
When I get home, I can’t sleep. So, I stay up watching some television. I think about calling Dylan, and I think about Betton calling to tell us that my mother has died. I ponder these things while watching a show about stars, about how most are dead and the light that we see is dead.
Grandma comes into the room. She still can’t sleep until she knows I made it home okay, even if it means she has to wake up at one in the morning to check. This may be why I choose to work the night shift, so that she can sleep. Grandma asks me if Mary Beth liked the meatballs, and I tell her that I think Mary Beth is pregnant.
Jake comes into the living room. He’s had another dream. “Tell me,” Grandma says.
And Jake tells her all about his goblins, the strange colors they are and how he knows them but can’t remember how or why. He tells her about how they hate her new lipstick and her new smell.
“I’ll tell you about goblins,” Grandma says. “They’re demons, you know. Goblins are demons. But all demons aren’t bad. Some of them are like thunderstorms, scaring us straight. Some of them are from the devil, and they want to mislead us. But the devil doesn’t take anything away from us. God takes things away from us. Have you read Job at church yet?” Jake shakes his head. “Well, the goblins are trying to take you, but you shouldn’t be scared because they’re of God and not the devil.”
“Where do they want to take me?”
“They won’t take you to God,” she says. “It’s someplace between heaven and hell. You could play all day there. But the problem is that no one there will love you.”
“Why can’t I play all day here?”
“Because you have to be of the world to be loved by people in the world.”
“But we love Jesus, right?” he asks.
“We do, but he doesn’t need our love. He wants us to love each other.”
Jake seems satisfied with this. “I’m going back to bed. I’ll tell them what you said.”
We laugh at this once he’s out of the room. I think he knows that he can’t run away.
Grandma says, “I’m glad for all of your mistakes.”
I smile and say, “I hope he can sleep better after this.” But I doubt it. Grandma’s stories are scary, though not intended to scare. She’s Old Testament.
Grandma turns in, and I sit to write Dylan an e-mail. I practice, write it out by hand. I never was good at typing. I write slowly, taking an hour to write some rambling piece of garbage. I won’t send this letter. He’ll think I’m dumber than he remembers. I want him to remember me well, to think I’m better now than ever. I am. I remember once he told me to fill up my skin with pride. Dylan always liked strength.
Here is a picture for Dylan. Jake before he was Jake. A black and white blob with the almost-shape of a catfish. He’s smiling, and there’s a glint of purple tracing behind him.
A picture of my mother from a few years back. There is a large building, covered with green ivy. An arbor off the side, which can barely be seen through the pine trees. The lawn, immaculately manicured.
My mother sits in a room, cement blocks for walls. Lunchroom tiles for the floor. A drywall ceiling with one light fixture hanging down. There are two beds in the room, but one is empty. My mother sits on the other, and she stares out of the five-by-three window, stares out at the endless pines in the back. As I approach, she turns to me and I hug her. We don’t kiss. She is never the mother that kisses me. Instead, we grapple at each other’s shoulder blades. There is something intimate in that. Shoulder blades tell you when someone is happy or sad or sick or dying. My mother’s now tell me that she is about to die.
I ask her if she’s doing okay. She says, “Those pine trees will be a bitch to deal with in the fall. The needles actually do fall off. Did you know?”
Behind her are pictures that she’s drawn, like a child. Scrawling and nonsensical colors. She is like a child with all this medicine that they’ve given her for what is not her fault, just a disease. I don’t believe it. I hug her again, grapple at her shoulder blades, wanting to pull, pull hard—at a wishbone, and make a wish.
Jake comes charging into the room. “I did it,” he says. “I got them to leave me alone. They chased me, but I won. I got away. The purple one almost caught me.”
“So, they’re gone now?”
“Yes, the purple one was the saddest to lose me. He said that he’d had plans for us to play tag in a big valley filled with tall grass and lilies and butterflies. He said we’d have so much fun. But I told him I was too old for all that. I told him about you and Grandma and how we all needed each other.”
“Did he believe you?”
“He cried, I think, but he was so far behind me that I could only hear him and he was wailing like a baby. He says he’ll miss me.”
Then, he climbs into my lap. He lays his head on my chest and starts to fall asleep in my arms. He’s too old for this. My mother is too young. I will wait for both of them. Perhaps my mother will wake up and Jake will sleep.
I remember the story Grandma told me about demons, or goblins, or whatever she wants to call them. She told me that they would come for me if my parents loved me too much. She told me that the demons were jealous. She said that if they came for me and my parents weren’t there, I was to cry, frown, act weak and pathetic. She said if I did that, they wouldn’t want me anymore. They would leave me alone.
But we are hard and hungry. We have proven it so. We are thick as locusts. We will stay close to the wall, to the earth, to the food. We will not float away. We will try not to float away.
Jake lifts his sleepy head and asks if he can go swimming. I tell him it’s cold outside, and he laughs at me. It’s never cold outside here. We are outside quickly. I fill up the kiddie pool, the water hitting the plastic with a sound too loud for nighttime. Jake runs around. I tell him this: “No running around the pool. It’s dangerous.” I’m joking. This isn’t a pool surrounded by slippery cement. Just brown grass.
He laughs again. He strips down to his underwear and looks at me, waiting for me to disapprove. But I’m the too-young mom, the one who never knows how to “establish boundaries.” For once, we’re together— young. He gets in the pool, and I sit in the pool, my shorts getting soaking wet and freaking cold. I say “fuck” in front of him for the first time. He asks what that means. I say, “That’s how you got here, dear heart.” He says I should stop talking like Grandma. Through the fence, I see a shadow, a full-grown
something moving to and fro, keeping an eye on us. I hear someone crack open a beer. Is it Dylan? I laugh to show how strong I am. The moon above the broken fence. Jake splashes water on me. I get out of the pool and splash water on him. He gets out and splashes water on me. Then, we run around, chasing each other. The dry grass beneath our feet. The dry grass talks, and it says that we will never be okay but we’ll be left alone. The old will die off. We will kiss them goodbye. The water on my face. We don’t want to die. The dead-of-night moon shines down, and now there is no sound at all. Just light.
Printed with permission by Nahal Jamir, copyrighted by Nahal Jamir @ 2010. This piece first appeared in Issue No. 9 of the Los Angeles Review.