Authors: Sandra Scofield
His father snorted in laughter. “So I told her, what do I know, my son comes home from the sticks? All the rest, I lied. I told her, I don't know.”
“There's stuff still piled in the car,” David said as he walked into the kitchen just beyond the chair where his father sat. He had backed the wagon onto the yellowed lawn so that it wouldn't be so far to haul goods into his father's workroom. His father's shopâwith his sewing machine, an ironing board, shelves, and many boxesâwas a second-thought addition made by the original owners. To get into it you had to go out of the house and in the door from outside. Nobody ever told what other owners and renters had done out there. David's room was another afterthought. It was, at least, truly attached, entered through what had once been the back door out of the kitchen into the yard. Only a tiny bit of space remained between the alley and the house. The room had been built as a mother-in-law studio. It had had a stove and refrigerator, both tiny and malfunctioning. His mother had had them removed and replaced with a washer and dryer. There was a toilet and shower, cold as ice in the winter. His grandmother had lived in the room until she died a few years ago, in the same bed where he now slept. It had been Saul's idea to give his son the room. He had said, “David will be needing his privacy already.” Though this made David happy, it was an awkward moment, Saul pontificating about the dispersal of space in a house his wife had bought while he was away, gone so long she changed his children's names.
David felt that moving into the room was a passage into his young manhood. He didn't care that it had only a portable gas heater. There was the private entrance. The tiny house proper was merely a green-shingled box sliced into four small rooms and a bathroom not much bigger than a closet. Saul and Marge's room was cozily carpeted and painted a deep blue. Marge had decorated the room for herself, while Saul was in New York. David and his sister had shared the second bedroom, he in an upper bunk. After his father's return, in David's early puberty, he had become agonizingly aware of night sounds: his father heaving himself onto his mother, making a sound at the end like a sick man clearing his throat; his sister turning, rearranging her legs under the sheets, sometimes making light clucking sounds or popping her lips like someone blowing a kiss. He had masturbated dozens of times in absolute silence. When Grandma Puckett died, he had thought his parents would move into the larger room and give their blue room to Joyce Ellen. But the prize was his, and the irony was that his sister was gone anyway, and the back bedroom nothing but a storeroom, with his mother's ironing board left standing all the time. Neither of his parents ever slept there, even in the worst of their quarrels, probably afraid that whoever moved would never get back into the double bed.
His mother had scrawled a note to him:
Somebody Kimbro called. Something-Ann, hyphenated. I didn't get it. La-di-da voice. She'll call u Sun. Davy, I cd. use some help tonite.
He glanced at the wall clock by the door. It was smeared with grease and dirt. A little after four. They would be bringing supper up soon. If he was going to help, he ought to go right now. Supper could be an ordeal in a mental ward.
He did not recognize the name of the caller. He did not know any girls besides Glee who would call him.
In his room he saw that his mother had changed his bed. He felt a stab of resentmentâhis mother did these things as an excuse to snoopâbut he was soothed by the thought of lying on clean sheets. She had swept, too, and shaken out his shabby rag rug and laid it again on the linoleum right beside the bed. Piles of laundry were heaped in front of the folding doors that hid the washer and dryer. One of her white uniforms hung droop-shouldered and slack, making him think of her posture at the end of a shift.
He lay flat on his back on the bed and flung his arms out straight from his body. His shoulders ached. His father would yell at him in a minute to unload the car. Saul was probably half-drunk already; he would have started in the minute Marge went out the door at 2:30. At least he was still on beer.
He closed his eyes. He should call Glee. He expected to see her in his mind's eye, the way he always could if he tried. He could always see her tiny wide tits with their rosy nipples. Her belly button made almost no indentation at all in her flat abdomen. That was how she came to him in these musings: a torso with no head. She was an attractive girl, in a peculiar, broad-faced way. Her eyes were spaced too far apart, her face was square, her shoulders wide. She would have made a good-looking boy, though she was feminine enough, for she used makeup expertly, and curled her hair, cut just above her chin line. She aspired to be voted “Most Beautiful” in their class, though they both knew some rich girl would win. The girls with money had beautiful teeth and hair and clothes. He had teased Glee about fussing with her hair, and the wish for adulation had come out accidentally. She had said, “This is how Annette Carlton wears her hair, remember? She was Senior Most Beautiful last year.” He had felt painfully sympathetic for her; she had indeed chosen a goal that was appropriate for her while still utterly unlikely. He had told her, “You're a cheerleader, isn't that enough? And you made it because you're pretty, and because you look good out there.” Truly it had not been because she was “in”âshe was a waitress's daughterâbut as a cheerleader she automatically assumed a new and better status. “Don't let it go to your head,” he had said, to cut back on his sympathy. He had been made nervous by the moment of fondness; he liked to keep his feelings for her carefully bounded by his mix of gratitude and resentment that she let him make love to her, that she was always there and willing. Of course, she wanted sex from him. It was the least thing she wanted, and the easiest to give. He would not let her name the other things, they all came down to love. “Talk doesn't make love,” he told her. He picked his moments. Then he had just been entering her, and she would tell herself he meant
was love, though he didn't.
If he thought of her face, he saw her mouth. She looked best smiling, and knew it, and so smiled nearly all the time. He had had U.S. history with her last yearâthat was where they had first spoken, where he had yielded to what he now knew was her campaignâand at any moment he looked her way, she was smiling. She beamed at Mr. Yarborough, the teacher; she beamed at the blackboard, at her textbook open on her desk, even at test papers. She was very tan. He had learned that even on a cold day of winter, if there was sun, she sat out in her back yardâher house had a little pink brick patioâand turned her face up to catch it. Over the summer she had grown progressively darker until, the last time he saw her, early in August, she looked like someone from India. She kept her toenails scrupulously groomed, and painted them pearl white. Of course he would see her, if he tried. But the face that floated before him was Teresa's. He could see her thin upper lip and the line of her nose. He could see her blouse open, the white brassiere showing. He felt a thick warmth in his chest. His imagination was a hot fist in there.
His door was banged open. “You're not through, sonny boy!” his father growled. He had put on a pair of worn flannel pants. Even in summer Saul wore wool. He did not own jeans or khakis, though he sold plenty of both. David wore jeans because he liked them, and they were what kids wore, but he was conscious that doing so was a small act of defiance.
He opened his eyes and pulled his arms up, bending them at the elbows, pressing down on the bed but not yet getting up. “Mom wants me at the hospital. Do you need the car tonight?”
“All summer I walk. Now the car is mine again.”
“You'll have to take me.” David thought how ridiculous his father looked standing there with his hairy chest showing, being stubborn about the car.
“You could walk. Your legs don't work already?” It was over two miles to the hospital. David had walked it lots of times.
“It's supper that's the craziest time,” he argued. “If I'm going to help, she needs me now.” He pushed himself up and swung off the bed. “I'll unload in the morning.” His shirt was soaked under the arms. “Just let me pull on a clean shirt.”
“Clean up for the loonies,” his father grumbled. He went through the house ahead of David and out to the car, still bare-chested. “Where's the cash box?” he asked when David scooted into the car.
David jerked his hand back and pointed with his thumb to the piles of clothes. “Under the green wash pants.”
They didn't speak for the first ten blocks. Saul's arms glistened with perspiration. Finally David said, “I'm sick of summer.”
Saul grunted. “Just wait for winter dust,” he said, meaning the wild storms when the wind blew dust so hard it was like ground glass, sometimes mixing with rain to splatter mud. His father hacked and wheezed all winter. It was not the dust, or the cold, that brought on David's attacks. His bad moments always came from moments of stress; he was deeply ashamed of his weakness.
“At least we'll get rain then,” David said, “if we're lucky. He was happy to have his father talk to him about anything.
“I'll pay you in the morning,” his father said at the hospital. “After you unload.”
“Sure, Pop.” David thought Saul looked foolish, driving half-dressed. “Where am I going tonight?”
The air was perfectly still. He could smell dust. It was hot and bright, the orange brightness of late afternoon. He looked out at the town. Most buildings in Basin were a single story, except the hospital, the high school, a couple of office buildings, and the Alamo Hotel, at eight stories the city's only “skyscraper.” Looking into the sun, David saw the city fade and waver like a mirage. In half a moment he saw only sky and light. The sky was vast; it would hold light until ten or later. Once it was dark he always felt the city had sunk even farther away from the sky, making it seem larger. He felt, at certain times, that he lived in the very bottom of a huge bowl, aptly named Basin. Yet the truth was he lived on a high plain, and the basin was below and inside it, the heart of an ancient sea that extended all the way to Kansas. And in that sea, pooled in the rocks that had accumulated over timeless time, was clear and bountiful water, so that, if you got at it, you could live here, where it looked as though nothing could live. And there was oil, which seemed to matter more, so that the people in this cityâmore than 20,000 of themâcould live small lives digging and refining it, and the lucky few whose oil it was could live in the next city over, which was neater and prettier, or in Dallas, which was a real city, or if in Basin, then in a part of town that was an oasis of trees and grass and elegant houses, some of them surrounded by stone walls.
He shook his head to clear it. If he thought about itâand “it” was nothing more than luck, fate, to be born what you were bornâhe would grow bitter, like his father, or stoic, like his mother. He would become crazy, like the old geezers he was going to see right now. It was not right to seethe; anger dragged you down. It was only right to hope, and strive, and escape. He had not lost yet, he was not defeated; he had not entered the battle.
His father knew he would, and knew he might winâsomethingâwhat?â
something better than this
. Saul needled him ceaselessly. What if it was not meanness or jealousy? (Sometimes David longed to say, Can't you get it up anymore, old man?) What if it was exactly what Saul had to give: permission to try for more than either of his parents would ever have? What if his father was driving him away, so that he could go?
Or did his father like it when he lost? Saul laughed at him in the spring when he came back empty-handed from the tennis tournament. He tapped David's head and said, “If this gets too bigâ” and he hit his assâ“or thisâ” and he laughed againâ“you can't keep thisâ” and he mimed a back strokeâ“you can't keep this going where the goddamned ball is!”
Like father like son
. Was that Saul's ambition for him? David had spent many hours sitting in his father's little shop, doing homework while. Saul hummed, altering some rich man's trousers. Would a son who repeated his father's sorry life validate it?
“Not me, sport!” David said aloud to no one, shaking his fist in the direction his father had driven. The shrill squeal of an arriving ambulance brought him back to himself, standing in the side entrance of the hospital. Does anybody think like me? he wondered. He knew other boys had dreams, of course they did. Leland Piper wanted to go to Rice and become a scientist. Ellis wanted to play professional tennis. He heard a kid once in the hall at school say that he could die happy if he ever owned an eighteen-wheeler. Sure kids dreamed, but did the longing feel like something searing their souls? Was it bigger than anything?
As he pushed the buzzer at Ward 2-West, the supper cart rattled up behind him. He said hello. The pudgy woman pushing it nodded curtly. He hoped it was not the food making her look so grimly determined. A strong, steamy, unidentifiable smell wafted out from the cart. “Can I help?” he asked, as the door opened. She shoved the cart past him without answering.
It was Nurse Benke who let him in. “It's you,” she said. Benke always seemed befuddled to David, which at first had surprised him. In time he had come to expect personnel on the mental ward to have their own eccentricities. His own mother often looked sour, but could be very kind. Sometimes hysterical at home, sometimes morose, she never lost control at work. And she was tough; even a small person could be difficult to manage on the ward.
She was on the phone behind the desk. She wore a name tag on her left breast pocket, PUCKETT. He went into the day room. There were a lot of patients on the ward today. Pajama-clad men huddled at a big round table, awaiting their supper. The food server gave them their trays without speaking and then, consulting a list, set more trays in front of empty chairs around both tables. Other patients shuffled into place. A woman lay sprawled on the vinyl couch over by the television, which was off. She was talking to herself, twisting her head this way and that, and kneading her knuckles. Another woman patient went over to her. “You come eat,” she said loudly, and led the way back to the table. As they sat down, David heard an elderly man say his wife had cooked the supper. A tall fellow with a long bony face was working his way down the corridor, touching one wall with the palms of his hands, then turning and going to the opposite side. He was standing behind a chair, holding onto the back of it, when two women came on the ward. The older woman looked uneasy. Her eyes darted from patient to patient. The younger woman called, “Daddy!” and ran and hugged the man. He pulled the chair out and sat down without reply. David went to the desk.