|Jan/Feb 2008 Fiction|
They touch me sometimes, pat my arm, smooth my hair. "Don't mind them," my mother says. It's all fine for her. They don't touch her. Maybe it's because she spends all day waving needles around or sticking thermometers in unpleasant places, or maybe it's because she's angry all the time, but they keep their distance. But I'm like a magnet.
I wonder if what they have is catchy and if one morning I'll wake up not knowing how to tie my shoes or how many quarters are in a dollar. I'm no genius, but when I buy an Archie comic, I know how to count my change.
"Yaw a good gurl," Lisa will say, sitting down next to me in the enormous dining room. When she speaks, the words come out so slowly it hurts to listen, and I want to grab the words and pull them out faster. Her mouth is full of crooked, yellow teeth, and she's always smiling. She has a boyfriend, if you can believe that. Robert spends half the meal rocking back and forth in his seat like a wooden rocking horse I once got for Christmas. The same thread of saliva is always hanging from the corner of his mouth. I keep waiting for it to break, but it's as strong as Superglue. Lisa and Robert hold hands under the table, and even if it is spaghetti night, I lose my appetite. I think someone should stop them, but when I tell my mother, all she says is, "You mind your manners." I know better than to talk back because the last time I tried it, she slapped me so hard the mark left by her wedding ring didn't fade for a week.
I wish we didn't have to eat with them, but when I tell my mother, she just says, "This is our home, now." Some home. Me and my mother and 300 retardos living together at the Freemont Residence for Retarded Adults.
It wasn't always like this. We used to live in a real house with my mother's Plymouth and my father's Cavalier parked in the driveway. We had a chain link fence around the front yard so that Buster, our fat English bulldog, could bark at the neighbors and could leave his large piles where no one would step on them. But one day my father loaded Buster and two suitcases into the Cavalier and was gone.
After my father moved out, it took my mother a month to stop setting a plate for him at dinner. Before she would serve the food, she would stare out of the kitchen window and down the block as if she expected him to drive up any minute, as if he had just gone on a business trip and forgot to tell us. When it finally sunk in that he wasn't coming back, she gave up on dinner altogether and stayed in her bedroom with the TV blaring. One night I heard Sue Ellen say good night to John Boy just as my mother started crying.
That's when I started worrying that she would leave, too. In the middle of the night, I would hear a car door slam and think that she was going. I would lie in bed wondering what it would be like living in the big house all alone and who would take care of me. I'd worry until my heart was beating out of my mouth. Then I would get up and look in their bedroom. She would be there, curled up like a baby on her half of the bed, his side strangely flat, like a balloon with the air gone out of it.
One day I came home from school and she was packing, and I thought, it is finally happening, that I would be on my own. But it turned out we were moving to Freemont. We got there in the middle of the school year.
"What are you, retarded?" a dark-haired boy shot at me the first time I got on the bus next to the sign for the home. I found out later his name was James. He had turned around in his seat and was staring at me. So were the rest of the kids on the bus.
"No, I'm not retarded." I made my way to the last row so I wouldn't have to sit next to anyone. The seat back in front of me wasn't tall enough to hide behind.
"The sign says retarded," he said. "Oh, that's right. Retarded people can't read." That gave everyone a good laugh. Everyone except me, that is. All I could do was sit there while my face turned red and wish I had some snappy answer. The truth was I did live with the retardos, and for all I knew, it was rubbing off.
I had begged my mother to drive me to school or at least to arrange for the school bus to pick me up in front of a regular house. "I'm sure the kids will be very nice," she had said, staring over my head at some other life she wished she was living.
At school that first day, I had to get up and introduce myself. "I'm Ellen. I just moved to Freemont," I said and I started back to my seat.
"Tell us a little more, dear," Mrs. Baxter urged. "What do your parents do?"
"My father's dead, and my mother is a nurse." The part about my father took Mrs. Baxter by surprise, and she didn't object when I sat down. And he might as well have been dead. There was no telling when I might see him again.
At recess, a group of girls came up to me. "We're sorry about your dad," they said.
"Yeah, me too," I said, not knowing what else to say.
"When did he die?"
"I was just a baby. I hardly remember him."
"Wow, that must have made your mother really sad."
"Nah, she likes it just being the two of us."
They invited me to join a game of truth or dare, and that is how I learned that the boy Nancy Jenkins most wanted to kiss was Simon Dane and that Laura's earrings weren't real pearls. When it was my turn, I chose dare because I was afraid of having to tell the truth about my father. They dared me to sit next to James on the school bus on the way home, and so I did it, and James said, "You can't sit next to me," and I said, "I think I already did," and got up and went to another seat.
When I got home, I went straight to the clinic to check on my mother. In her white uniform she looked even more pale than usual, like she could disappear or maybe already had. She had grey circles under her eyes like smudges of ash, and the rims of her eyes were red.
I wanted to ask her if my father had called, but the way she was tearing the wrapper off of a gauze pad—like she was trying to strangle it—made me change my mind, and I went back to my room and thought about Buster and wondered whether his life had changed as much as mine.
When my father lived with us, my mother would put on a dress just before he got home for dinner, a dress covered with flowers or bright, wavy designs. They would have a drink together, a drink that smelled like cherry soda and made my mother's cheeks pink and her voice high. She would ask my father how his day was, and he would tell her, but I can't tell you what he said because that's when I would stop listening.
He had to travel sometimes, and then it was just me and my mother, but not like it is now. Then it was an adventure, and she would make a tent in the living room, and we would sleep in it on piles of blankets and roast marshmallows over the gas burners in the kitchen. She would put a flashlight under a sheet and pretend it was a campfire and tell ghost stories until I was so scared I begged her to stop. Then I would fall asleep in her arms, and she would still be there when I woke up, her hair all soft and messy.
In a corner of the room where my mother and I now sleep, there are boxes piled as high as the ceiling, and I wonder if that is where all of her colorful dresses are and the crystal glasses that held the cherry drinks and Buster's food bowl.
Above the fireplace in our old house, there was a framed picture of my father holding me when I was two or three. In the picture I am wearing a green velvet dress and white tights and black patent leather shoes, and everyone is smiling. Even my mother, who is not in the picture, is smiling; I am sure of it. In another picture my mother and father are with their friends at the beach. My mother is wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit that has a little skirt at the bottom, and her head is thrown back, and she is laughing, and my father is looking at her like she is the only other person in the picture, maybe the whole beach, maybe even the world. I guess those pictures are in the boxes, too. At least, I hope so.
My second day at school, the girls spent part of recess hovering around Mrs. Baxter's desk and then brought me a card they had made. The cover said, "We're Sorry," and inside, "ABOUT YOUR DAD." I thanked them and stuck the card in my book bag, but believe me, I was sorrier than they were, but there was no going back. Everyone was extra nice to me, and at lunch Tanya offered me her cupcake, and I ate it, but it tasted like the sand that gets between your teeth at the beach.
Mrs. Baxter had decided to have a class about families. She explained to the class that some families have mothers and fathers, and some only have one, which you would have to be a complete idiot not to know. She made Nicole talk about what it was like having parents who were divorced. Nicole said that at first she thought it was her fault that her parents got divorced and that it was a tragedy, but then she realized divorce wasn't so bad because you got a present from each parent on your birthday and the same thing at Christmas, and if her mother didn't want her to do something like go to a certain movie, she could just ask her dad, and if her dad said she had enough clothes, she could always get her mother to buy her more, and now her father had this pretty new girlfriend who gave her presents, too, and the girlfriend was always kissing her father, but then Mrs. Baxter said, "That's enough, Nicole, thank you."
Then I was supposed to talk about what it felt like to have a parent die. But I didn't. Instead, I told the class that there was something much worse than having only one parent, and that was having no parents at all. I said that if you lost one parent, you had to be very careful not to lose the other one, or to do something that would make the other one leave you, only you couldn't be sure what that something was. You had to worry about your mother dying, but you couldn't do much about that except to remind her to wear her seatbelt and to tell her to please slow down when she was passing all the other cars and cutting some of them off and the other drivers were waving their hands and saying words I'm not allowed to repeat. I said that losing both of your parents would be like the dream where you can't stop falling, and that was when Jennifer began to cry and Mrs. Baxter told me to sit down.
When I'm home, I am surrounded by retardos, or as my mother insists I call them, residents. I hide in our room most of the time so I don't have to see them, and so I can keep an eye on my mother. But I don't have a TV in my room. When I want to watch TV, I have to go to the TV room and watch with the retardos, which is annoying because they talk during the show and walk in front of the set and laugh too loud at the sitcom jokes, which aren't that funny. Robert is there rocking, and you get dizzy if you look at him for too long, but sometimes it's hard not to stare. They pick their noses and fart and burp and aren't the least bit embarrassed.
I hate to look at them. Their clothing never seems to fit. They are too wide in the chest. Their bottoms, which should be tidy circles, are like pumpkins. It is no wonder their buttons pop off and their zippers break.
Lisa is so skinny, her clothes look empty, like no one is wearing them. Her hair is full of knots and shoots out in all directions just like the hedges in front of my old house before my father trimmed them. She carries a little green purse close to her body and sometimes pulls a red lipstick out and puts some on, staring in a compact as if she is a normal person putting on lipstick. She thinks she looks beautiful, but I know better. I know that beautiful is the way people look on TV: tall, with perfect teeth and silky hair, smiling—a clever smile, not some retardo grin. I want to be around people like that, not a bunch of drooling idiots.
Sometimes Lisa and Robert sit next to each other on the couch and hold hands and even kiss, and then I have to leave the room, TV or no TV. It is too weird. I tell their counselors what Lisa and Robert are doing and wait for them to put a stop to it, but they just laugh. I don't know what kind of a world this is where my parents can't stay together and a pair of retardos can.
I visit other kids after school, and my mother picks me up when she finishes working, but I can never, ever, invite anyone to where I live. I would die first.
We have been at the home for two months, and my father hasn't visited or called. Maybe he really is dead. I wonder if by saying it, I have made it true. Maybe I killed him. One night I repeat five hundred times, "My father is alive," to undo what I have done, but I don't know if it is too late and he is already dead and it is my fault. Worrying about it keeps me awake, and my mother says, "What's bothering you?" but of course I can't tell her. So that's when she says, "You know your father loves you," which is the first time she has ever lied to me. I am surprised she doesn't say, "To hell with that sonofabitch," which I heard her say to my grandmother on the phone just last week.
That weekend I go to the mall with my friends and we eat hot pretzels and pizza and drink cokes and hang out in front of stores and go into the music store where we listen to top forty songs through head phones and pass the head phones back and forth at the best parts and look at magazines and shriek when we find pictures of our favorite bands. We go into department stores and try on clothes and pose behind lingerie saying, "Dahling, you look gorgeous," until the clerk chases us out and we end up back in front of the pizza store, laughing so hard we can hardly stand and imitating the clerk, hands on hips, saying in low, serious voice, "This is not a toy store girls. Where are your parents? We don't allow children in here without their parents."
We are looking at the wedding rings in a jewelry store window when I hear Lisa shouting across the mall, "Eh-len? Is thaaat yuh-oo?" She is charging toward me, her counselor a few steps behind. "Eh-len, hiii." Her pink pants come up to her chest. As she comes closer, my friends look at one another. "You know her?" Melissa asks.
"Kind of," I say.
But there is no pretending, because she has reached me and is all over me like a long lost sister.
"Luhuck whaaat I bouuuugt," she says, holding up a flowery blouse even my grandmother wouldn't wear.
The next thing I know, a whole group of them have reached me and they are pulling purchases out of bags, saying, "Luhuck," and "Seeeee." My friends have edged away, but I am trapped in the middle of the shouting, arm-waving mass. I am telling them how beautiful their hideous purchases are when I see a chance to escape. I run without looking back.
I find my friends in front of the music store.
"Eh-len, looook whaaat I bouuuugt," Jennifer says.
"Eh-len, Eh-len, loooook," they all begin to chant, and for good measure they pat me on the arms and hair.
"Cut it out!"
"We didn't know you had so many friends," Melissa says.
"They're not my friends. They live at the center where my mother is a nurse."
"Don't you live there, too, Eh-len?" Melissa says.
"I don't have a choice."
"They're creepy," Melissa says. "I would take ten showers if they touched me."
"Too bad your father's not around," Chris says. "You could live with him."
"Yeah, too bad," I say.
"We shouldn't have to look at them," Melissa says.
"They shouldn't let them out," Chris says.
"Yeah, they should lock them up," Jennifer says.
"I don't know about locking them up," I say, because even though I don't like the residents, I figure even they deserve to get out of the home every now and then.
"I forgot, they're your best friends," Jennifer says. "Maybe you want to hang out with them."
"Don't let us keep you," Chris says.
"All I'm saying is they're not dangerous."
"She likes them. I can't believe it," Chris says.
"I don't like them. They give me the creeps. But they're harmless, that's all."
"I still say she likes them," Chris says.
When my mother picks me up from the mall, I get in the car and pull the door shut harder than I have to. She's listening to a news program on the radio, and even though I know it will make her mad, I turn the dial to a rock'n'roll station and turn the volume up loud so that I can pretend not to hear her when she says, "You know I don't like that kind of music."
She snaps off the radio, and I shout at her, "Why did you bring us here? I hate it here! I hate the retardos, and I hate the home! Why can't we live in a normal house like normal people?" Then it's quiet, and I wonder if she's looking for a place to pull over and let me out, and if she'll drive away and I'll never see her again.
But she keeps on driving, and after a while she says quietly, "I'm saving money so we can buy our own house."
"The girls all made fun of me," I say, although I don't know if she hears me because I'm crying pretty hard. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hands, but that just makes my hands cold. The seat of the car suddenly feels too big for me, and when I try to hold on, my hands are slippery on the vinyl.
Later that night my mother takes me on her lap, and even though I am too old for that, I let her, and that's when I notice that she's not wearing her wedding ring anymore. "I know it's been hard on you coming to live here. I know you want things to be like they were," she says. "Sometimes we don't get what we want," she adds, but I think she is talking to herself.
On Monday from across the room, I see Melissa and Chris talking to James, and I think I hear Melissa say "Eh-len," and then they all laugh, but when I reach them, they stop talking. When it is time to go home, I see that someone has written RETARDO on my book bag in red marker, and I have to think of my favorite food—seven layer cake—to keep from crying. When I pass James on the school bus, he is smirking, and that gets me thinking that he has done it.
My mother tries washing it out, but no matter how many times she runs it through the washing machine, a red shadow of the word remains, and I make her take me to K-mart to get a new bag that night, and she doesn't argue with me. The next day at school, I look around to see if anyone's fingers are red, but I can't turn anything up. I don't tell Mrs. Baxter because I know that would just make things worse. "Nice book bag," James says to me on the bus that night. "What happened to your old one?"
I take my seat in the back of the bus and stare out of the window and imagine the bus rolling down a rocky embankment and me jumping out of the window in time and James getting crushed against the rocks and his parents crying at his funeral.
On Saturday I see my father's car climb the steep driveway to the home. I run to meet him in the parking lot, but even after he pulls into a spot, he doesn't get out right away. He just sits in the car with the engine running and me outside his rolled-up window shouting, "Hi, Daddy," and hoping that he can hear me above the engine and whatever he is thinking. He stays that way for a few minutes, and I wonder if he has changed his mind about coming and if he is going to leave without ever getting out of the car, but just then he shuts the engine. He is barely out of the car when I wrap my arms around his waist and bury my head in his side. I hold on tighter than I have ever held on to anything, tighter than I held on to the side of the ice rink when I was first learning to skate, tighter even than I held on to the safety bar on the Magic Mountain roller coaster last summer, but he peels me off anyway.
I look in the car, hoping to see Buster, but he tells me he has left Buster home, and I realize I don't know where home is. I wait for him to notice that I have started wearing glasses, but if he does notice, he doesn't say anything. He is wearing wrinkled jeans and an old Coca Cola sweatshirt. The letters are peeling off the logo so that it reads, Co Cola, like someone with a stutter is trying to order a soda. But I know better than to make a joke about that. When he lived with us, my father wore button down shirts and khaki pants that my mother ironed in the basement. As I lead him to our room, I reach for his hand and squeeze, but he doesn't squeeze back. His hand feels cold and rubbery, like a toy snake I once hid in my mother's bed. When we get to the room, my mother says they need some privacy, which means I'm not wanted.
I have nowhere to go except the TV room. I am hoping it will be empty, because I don't feel like hanging around retardos. But when I get there, it is as busy as ever. I settle on the couch, and when Lisa tries to touch me, I tell her to get the hell away, and when Robert laughs too loud, I call him a retardo, which I have never said to his face, and he starts to cry. I stare out of the window and try to ignore his uneven sobbing and Lisa patting his hand and saying, "Dohhhnt cryyy Rohbert ihhhts awl riiight."
I wonder if my father has come to get my mother, and if they are planning to leave me behind. I stand outside our door for awhile making sure I can hear their voices, making sure that they have not left me.
When my father finally emerges, he takes me to a diner and orders steaks for both of us, but from the way he is looking at me, I don't think we have anything to celebrate. He tells me that he and my mother are getting divorced and that I will live with my mother except for two weeks in the summer when I will stay with him. I am glad he isn't dead but happy that I will be staying with my mother, even if it means living at the home. He says he will call me every week, but I know it is a lie from the way he doesn't look at me when he says it.
When I get back to our room that night, my mother has begun to unpack some of the boxes, and she has put the picture of me and my father on the nightstand, but the picture on the beach is nowhere to be found. Through the open door to the closet, I see that she has hung some of her dresses. I realize she must have just hung them, because they are swinging back and forth on their hangers like they are keeping time to a song.
On parent teacher night, Mrs. Baxter finds out that my father isn't really dead. She never says anything to me about it, and it wouldn't really matter if she did. By now I have made friends, and even though they occasionally make fun of me for living at the home, it isn't really that different from the way we make fun of Melissa because her mother sometimes picks her up from school in a bathrobe, or how we tease Chris because her father works as a garbage man. My friends and I hang out at the mall every weekend, and every now and then we run into a group of residents, but it is never as bad as that first time, and besides, I have bought a black book bag so that even if someone gets it into their head to write on it, it won't show.
I am even getting used to the residents. When Lisa reaches out to touch me in the dining room, I tell her, "I don't like that," and she says, "Whyyy di-dn't youuuu saaay sooo," and pulls her hand back and doesn't try to touch me again. Even Robert sits down in the TV room when I tell him he is blocking the set, although by the next day he has forgotten and I have to tell him again. When I catch the two of them holding hands or kissing, I still feel sick and have to leave the room, but I have given up trying to stop them. I figure the chances are pretty good they'll break up soon, anyway, without any help from me.