Watching your father shave reminds you of the lion in the MGM logo. The movements are predictable, identical every time, but no less impressive for that. There is a grandiosity you wish you had, a majesty of spirit and body you have not yet attained. Manhood, you think, is incredible.
Jonah curled up in the closet, the smell of his father’s work clothes wrapped around him. It wasn’t as good as having his pacifier back, but it was the next best thing. Ima had said he was too old for the pacifier, the motzetz, but Jonah didn’t think so. If there were things he was going to get too old for, then he didn’t want to get any older.
He’d gotten the idea of curling up in here from the stray cat that sometimes wandered into their house. Where they lived, the cats always sat on everybody’s window sills, begging for food, and most people shooed them away – “Kishta!” they’d say, making ugly faces. “Go away! Get out of here!” – but some, like Jonah’s father, had a soft spot for the flea-bitten, scarred-up street warriors that had such pathetic sounding mewls. Once, Jonah’s father had let him feed the one-eyed tabby that sat on the shelf outside the kitchen window, where Ima’s plants were. “Aba,” Jonah had whispered, so the cat wouldn’t run away, “Aba, why does it come back after Ima says kishta?” Jonah’s father had said that cats had chutzpah, that’s why. After they’d fed it, and Jonah was pretending to read the newspaper with his father, he saw the cat slink in through the open window. It sat down, right in the middle of the living room floor, stuck out a leg, and started licking it. Jonah tried not to giggle because he didn’t want his father noticing. So he said that he had to go peepee and slid off the couch.
The cat led him to his parents bedroom. It looked at Jonah. It looked at the closet doors. It looked at Jonah. It opened its mouth and made a soundless meow, really as if it knew that Jonah was in on its secret and was trying to keep it from being discovered too. So Jonah opened the closet door and the cat slid right in and settled on his father’s work clothes – big, baggy cargo pants and long-sleeved light-cotton shirts. He was a construction worker, and his clothes all had lots of stains on them, so maybe, Jonah thought, he would never know that the cat had been there.
When his mother had taken his motzetz away, thrown it right in the trash – right in front of his eyes! – Jonah had screamed for as long as he could. His father wasn’t home, though, so this didn’t work. He should have thought of that, but he wasn’t thinking very straight, really, because he was so upset to see the little rubber nipple that calmed him down and helped him sleep when he didn’t want to go to sleep going into the trash with the leftover salad from lunch and the gross used containers of yogurt that his mother was always eating and everything else they’d thrown away since the last time the garbage bags were changed.
His mother didn’t seem to even hear him screaming. She just shrugged her shoulders and turned around and started washing the dishes in the sink. She always told Jonah’s father, even when Jonah was right there, that they paid too much attention to Jonah and that he could do things on his own because he was a big boy now. Jonah didn’t feel like a big boy, and now he knew he never wanted to be one either. Could a big boy fit inside the closet like this? He didn’t think so. The only big boys he knew were mean to him, and he didn’t like that either. If he did have to grow up, he wouldn’t be mean to people. He would be more like his father, nice and funny and smell good. His clothes, even though they were all clean, still smelled like a him and the construction sites he worked on. They smelled a little like sweat, dust, heat and sunlight.
“Jonah? Jonah? Where are you? Jonah! This isn’t funny, come out. Now. Now!” Jonah heard his mother calling him, and her voice kept changing tones, from angry to nice to angry again. It was very hard for him not to shout “Ima!” and run out of the closet and hug her. Because he loved his Ima, of course. She read him bedtime stories every night and she walked to kindergarten with him every morning. But he didn’t want to come out yet because he was angry at her. She’d been mean to him and had thrown away his pacifier and he wasn’t ready to forgive her for that yet.
Once, she got dangerously close to his hiding place in the closet, but she didn’t even think of looking in there. Jonah needed to be very careful not to giggle or meow or anything when she walked near him. As she walked away and he heard her start crying a little bit, he started counting backwards from ten – which he knew how to do – but slowly. Only when he got to zero would he come out. And he wouldn’t tell her where he’d been hiding. It would be his secret. Well, and the cat’s.
“Of course, of course I shoot. Of course I kill. In the war. I kill because if I don’t, they kill me.”
He had big, watery eyes, and his irises were golden-brown, as if the color of dead leaves stained with blood had become entrapped there. He sat hunched, in a constant flinch. His hands were oddly quiet and still – but it wasn’t calm that made them so, but rather the tension of imminent fight or flight. Even though both his buttocks were sunk deep in the armchair, he seemed to be on the edge of his seat. If he’d have wanted to, he would’ve been able to be up and running before the woman across from him knew he’d left his chair.
“It was war – you had to shoot. You wanted to live.” The doctor’s soft voice was melodic and almost too soothing for him. He had known women who looked like her once, and he had seen them contorted in shapes that this doctor couldn’t even imagine. He couldn’t meet her eyes. He was scared that if he did, she would be able to see his commanders grinning at him, calling him a good boy, and giving him a small, unripe fruit as a reward for the work he’d done during the day. And then there’d been the better reward, the reward that he even now craved and wished he could get again, even though they – the new they, not the old they – had explained to him that it was bad for him and that he couldn’t have it anymore. It had taken him days to get out of bed, he’d felt so rotten without it all, but he felt alright now, though the thought of that reward still made him twitch at times.
The silence had stretched on until he couldn’t stand it, so he broke it again. Those golden-brown eyes of his looked at the corner of the room, where a spider had made an elaborate web. He had good eyesight, and he watched the spider move across the web to fetch its dinner. It must have been an old spider because it moved slowly. “Yes. I wanted to. But it was bad. It was very bad. But they promise – they always promise it would be last time.”
“And you hoped, every time, that maybe this time they meant it.”
The spider had reached its meal and it began to detach the wrapped, cocooned insect from the man web so that it could hold it in its front legs and hold it up to its mouth. He watched it. He almost thought he could see it smiling.
“I liked it. Sometimes.”
“Shooting. What they gave me after.”
There was another long pause, but this time the woman broke it, her voice so gentle and careful that he looked at her for a quick moment just to make sure it was really her speaking. “You liked it just like they wanted you to like it.”
“Yes.” He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, but his voice came out that way, raspy and deeper than usual. His voice hadn’t changed yet. He hadn’t thought about the impending joys of manhood since he’d been a little boy admiring his father’s chest hair. He hadn’t really thought about growing up in years. He hadn’t been sure that he was going to grow up. He still wasn’t.
“Am I bad?”
“Do you feel bad? Do you think you were bad?”
“I was. But I didn’t want to be.”
“So maybe you were’t, really. Because you didn’t want to.”
“And now I can be good. Right?” He wasn’t sure if the question was the one he wanted to ask. It wasn’t really about being good. It was about what being good meant. Being good had meant shooting just a few months ago. Now being good meant something different, he thought, something that he remembered from those early years before they – not the current they, but the past they – had moved into his life. What scared him was that being good was going to change again, soon, and that he wouldn’t be ready for it this time. If he couldn’t keep up with being good for whoever the future they were going to be, then he would die. And he knew, although he couldn’t quite put it into words, that he’d done too much by now to be able to retract his decision to live, no matter what.
The fragrance of fresh bread woke Thomas up one morning. He leaped out of bed excitedly, knowing what the smell signified. It meant that Uncle had come for a visit.
Thomas was six years old, and he could tell, with the instinct that all young children share, that his father liked Uncle a lot, but that his mother didn’t, even though Uncle was her brother. Thomas didn’t know why his mother didn’t like Uncle, but he sensed that it had to do with Uncle being a baker. He thought that maybe bakers weren’t as good as bankers, which is what his mother was. Thomas thought that being a baker was much nicer; Uncle wore comfy clothes and always smelled good, whereas Thomas’s mother always complained about her pantyhose and put too much perfume on.
Uncle was tall and skinny, but this morning, when Thomas went downstairs, he thought that Uncle had become like Flat Stanley, the flat boy that they were reading about in school. The illusion passed, and Thomas realized that it was only that Uncle looked even thinner than usual. He looked gaunt, although Thomas didn’t know that word, and he looked worn out and weary, more words that Thomas didn’t really understand.
“Hi! What’s wrong, Uncle?”
“Drink your milk. Eat. We don’t want you to be late for school.” Thomas’s mother pushed a plate of eggs and a glass of milk at him without looking at Uncle at all. Then she swept right out of the room again, and Thomas and Uncle looked at each other as they hear Thomas’s parents yelling at each other upstairs. Uncle got up and checked on the bread in the oven. Whenever he came to visit, he’d let himself in very early and would bake fresh bread that would be ready for the family’s breakfast when they awoke.
“Here you go,” Uncle said, pulling the bread-pan out of the oven. He cut a thick, still steaming slice, and put it on Thomas’s plate. “Eat up.”
Thomas wasn’t going to give up on his question, though. “What’s wrong, Uncle?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Uncle smiled.
In the car on the way to school, Thomas asked his mother the same question. “Nothing,” she said. “Why? Has Uncle said anything?”
That evening, Thomas tried again. He went into the bathroom where his father was drying off after a shower and began to swing from side to side while holding the doorknob.
“Stop that, you’ll break it,” his father said, without much conviction. Thomas kept swinging.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“Well. What did Mommy tell you?”
“Oh dear. That must mean that whatever’s wrong, it’s a big deal. Listen, bub, you and I – we shouldn’t get involved, okay?”
“Okay,” Thomas said. But when he went to bed that night, he couldn’t help feeling scared by what his father had said. It sounded like his father didn’t know what was wrong either. If nobody knew what was wrong, then what would happen now? For the first time in months, Thomas had nightmares and wet the bed.
Who? Satan, that’s who. He’s a chum, a pal, you see, of my pop. Pop has him over round ’bout once a month, for beer and a chat. They yap their jaws like nobody’s business. They talk and talk and I lie abed like Pop told me to and try to listen, but I can never understand no words nohow. It gets so mighty hard to take, knowin’ the king of hell is in the room just across the hallway, but Pop says he made a deal and he’s gotta abide by it. Pop’s a man of his word, I know that. He’s never made me a promise he didn’t keep, and I know he won’t ever.
Lacy says that Satan once came and spoke to her but she’s a big liar and likes to make hersel’ seem big and important, that she does. She says that Satan gave her an offer, jus’ like he gave Pop, but she said no on account of bein’ too young. She said he should come back in five years and ask again. That was two years ago. Lacy is seventeen now, and I’m fifteen. I guess fifteen is the age Satan likes, cause tonight he comes and knocks on the door to my room.
“I haven’t seen you since you was in diapers,” says Satan, nodding his big head and smilin’ all kind-like. He ain’t so scary once you get used to him. Sure, his skin’s a little strange, and his horns take some gettin’ used to, but all-round he looks a mighty lot like Santa Clause, only in a fisherman’s gear and not a big red suit. He’s fat and jolly, is Satan.
“Yessir,” says I. I wait but he jus’ smiles down at me. He looks like he’s gettin’ taller every second. Pop says that can happen with him – he doesn’t look the same two seconds in a row.
“Gertie,” he says all solemn suddenly.
“I have a proposal for ya.”
“The same one I made your pop all those long years ago.”
I guess Lacy wasn’t lying, and that’s a surprise right there. I think my mouth stays open too long, cause Satan puts a finger under my chin and closes it and says “Don’t want the flies getting in there, do ya?” I don’t know what to say, so I shut up for a while and think.
What have I got to lose? I’m short and ugly, Lacy got all our ma’s looks, and I ain’t brainy neither. Pop is good to me and I’m his favorite, that’s true, but nobody else in town takes much store by me. I think now that Pop maybe never made an effort with Lacy and me really cause he knew Satan would help us along by and by. I think of Sunday school and the old preacher-man who talks for hours and doesn’t say anything. And I think of the talks that Satan and Pop have. I hear ’em laughing a lot. It sounds kinda nice, the way they talk, and Pop always looks kind of young and smooth after Satan leaves.
So I stretch out my hand and tell Satan “Alrighty then. Shake on it.”
The following is a copy of the notes I took during my shift today, with comments that I’ve added in now:
Overheard on June 15:
-“I force myself to finish books.” 😦 [Comment: This made me incredibly sad when I heard it. The woman who said it then complained to her friend that it felt as if she used to read four or five books a week. I wondered if this was true, or if this was just something she was saying because she thought that reading books was something that she should be able to do more easily. Other people who I helped later in the evening were unabashed about their inability to concentrate on fiction books, and while I felt very sad for them, because books are my entirely healthy addiction, I also appreciated their honesty.]
Seen on June 15:
-Blue-eyed, round cheeked boy, finding more and more books, shyly admitting “I like books…” [This made me happy, because I could tell that the boy would grow up to be an absolute stunner, and it made me joyful to see someone who I can see becoming a lady’s man enjoying books so much at a young age.]
-Some people walk around smiling all the time. [I don’t know why this is. It just seems that some people smile continuously, or whenever they’re out in public. It’s unclear to me if they’re smiling at someone, something, the world in general, or to themselves. Whatever the reason, they sometimes make me uncomfortable, but other times they make me think that I should smile more often.]
“Let’s look at the third problem now. Seven-hundred and twelve divided by fifteen.” The chalk squealed against the board, but Mrs. Pipridge didn’t even flinch. “How about,” she said, back still to the class as she finished writing. “Donald.” She turned, and her eyes gleamed with something malicious as she pointed them in the boy’s direction. “Donald?”
“Yes, Mrs. Pipridge?”
“Will you please explain how we can find the answer to the question on the board?” It was incredible how her voice became sharper the more polite she was. Donald looked at her, his mind shutting down as the numbers swam in front of his eyes. He lowered his head and saw that the answer was written carefully, painstakingly, in his notebook. He’d worked so hard with his tutor to learn long-division, and he’d finally got the hang of it. But he couldn’t manage to get a word out. He stared, terrified, at Mrs. Pipridge’s leering face and opened his mouth, willing himself to speak.
Mrs. Pipridge sighed, and Donald felt as if her breath was like the iciest of December winds, penetrating through his sweater and right into his ribs, making his heart freeze and contract. “Fine. I see you have nothing to contribute, as usual. Laura, how about you?”
Donald heard titters from behind him and felt something sticky and wet hit the back of his head. He didn’t turn around, though. He knew that if he did, he’d receive a spitball right in the middle of his forehead. It was no use telling, either, because Mick and Tommy, the boys behind him, always managed to hide all evidence of straws and chewed-up paper by the time any teacher reached their desk. They were pros.
The new school was exactly like the old one. It was supposed to be liberal and progressive – Donald didn’t know what the words meant, but he’d heard his house-mother throwing them around a lot in meetings – but the kids here were just like kids everywhere. Sure, there was another halfling here, but she got as much crap as Donald did. She just shut up about it, like him, because that was the only way to get through the day.
The Other One, as Donald thought of her, had it better than him, though. Everyone knew that she’d got it on her father’s side and that her mother, a war-hero, had killed the one who’d injected her. The Other One could at least embrace her humanity entirely and disown those parts of her that were so different. But Donald didn’t know who either of his parents were. For all he knew he wasn’t even a halfling; he might be pure Aylyen, although he didn’t think so. His skin wasn’t nearly green enough for that, and while he did only have three long fingers to each hand, his toes were absolutely normal, pink and stubby just like any other kid’s, and the doctors said that was a sure sign that one of his parents had been an H, not an A.
He sometimes wondered whether the Other One ever wondered if she’d be happier with other A’s. Donald wished sometimes that he’d been taken along when the A’s left Earth, but he knew it was a pipe-dream. Aylyens wouldn’t want a halfling either, would they? He was stuck in the middle, between two vastly different worlds, and there was absolutely no way out that he could see.