In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
Staying Away from Blake
Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner
[p.1]Rayne calls before Terry’s morning class. She says, “We need to talk. Can you break away for lunch?” She doesn’t sound good, will not tell him why they need to talk.
“All right,” he finally says. Terry knows his wife—he knows she won’t tell him anything more until he agrees to meet her. “Just tell me this isn’t about Blake.”
“This isn’t about Blake,” she says.
So he meets her at the cafe, orders pastrami under fresh onions with horse radish. Then he asks, “What’s going on?”
“Blake,” she says.
“Judas, Rayne,” he moans. “You said this wasn’t about Blake.”
Blake is their fifteen-year-old, their oldest child. Blake has become a problem Terry doesn’t understand.
“What of Blake?” he asks. Rayne receives this question as Terry intends it, to mean, “What stupid thing has he done now?”
“His school counselor called me at work. He’s failing another class.” Rayne delivers this information without flinching, without altering the expression on her face even to blink her eyes. The first dark tones of Terry’s internal picture, like a newly out-spit Polaroid print, begin to take form. Rayne is showing great self-control, bravery.
[p.2]Terry’s seen the routine before: This meeting is not about Blake. It’s about him.
“Jesus,” he says. “He’s a manipulator. Divide and conquer!” Before he can finish, the waiter arrives with their meals. Terry’s spoon has a small grime spot in the ladle, which he shows the waiter, who takes the utensil and promises to return with another.
“Terence,” Rayne says. “What are you going to eat with a spoon?” She is angry, though she smiles. Her anger surprises Terry.
“My spoon was dirty,” he tells her.
“So what. You don’t need a spoon for anything on your plate.”
“It was dirty!” He feels surrounded, and itchy from the inside out.
“Don’t do this, Terry.” Rayne says this holding her sandwich midway between her plate and her face. Her head is cocked down so Terry is certain her forehead blocks a portion of her vision. She glares at him a moment longer before tearing off a bite of sandwich.
“This is worse than last year,” he says more calmly. “It’s not even mid-term and he’s failing three classes. The kid’s lazy, Rayne. He’s not normal.”
“Normal? Compared to whom?”
As is often the case when put on the spot, he is blank for an outstanding comparison. So he pretends the remark doesn’t deserve reply and begins cutting his sandwich into two equal parts. “What class is he failing?”
“Math,” she says.
“He’s good at mathematics.” He moans and cuts away at his pastrami and onion and feels betrayed: When the son of a math professor fails math, it is clearly an act of betrayal.
“He’s good at everything he does.” Rayne sighs a heavy, resigned sigh. “He’s good at every class he’s failing.”
“What a mess,” he mumbles through a mouthful of sandwich. It makes no sense to Terry. A genuine mess. Blake refuses to behave as he is supposed to, and it is Terry who feels the anxiety. And anger. Anger because Blake is doing this to him, causing him to feel this anxiety. And anxiety because he has no idea how to clean up the mess.
I’m telling you now so you can calm down. Okay?” Rayne stares at Terry, gives him a warning look. “It’s stating the obvious to say you two don’t always do well face to face. You’ll calm down? You’ll make yourself calm down?”
He scowls at his plate but nods his head. More color, more image, [p.3]more sharpness—his picture is coming clear. Rayne can make him feel like a little boy.
“I have a meeting tonight,” Rayne says. “I won’t be home when you get there. Blake will be home. Don’t mention the class. Not a word until I get home. Please!” She makes this request beseechingly, with but a trace of command.
He wrings his frustration into a quiet grunt of protest, then drains his glass of milk. “I got you something,” he says, reaching under his chair for a plastic sack he has brought with him. He takes out the gift. “It’s that Cheever book you were talking about. I saw it at the bookstore today—” He shrugs.
“Oh, Terry.” She examines the gift-wrapped package, opens it and leafs through the pages of the book. She looks up. “You do know I love you?”
He shrugs again, and this time there is something of acquiescence in the gesture.
She slips the book into her large, canvas purse, then holds the purse on her lap and absently scans the table as though taking stock of some unseen inventory. Her food is only half eaten. “My prep-period is almost over. I’ve got to get back for class. Please, stay away from Blake until I get home?”
“You’re afraid I’ll do damage?” he says more lightly than he feels. He smiles: his futile attempt at diffusing poor faith, restoring good faith.
“Enough damage, I’m afraid, has already been done,” she says, and reaches for the check.
He is at his desk reorganizing the notes for his afternoon class, trying to forget his son, when Carter Lexton, a young assistant professor whose office is next to his, steps through the door and slumps into a chair. Carter carries a ceramic coffee mug, an every professor accessory, yet on Carter it appears contrived and cliche. So soon after his lunch with Rayne, Terry doesn’t think he is up to a chat with Carter Lexton.
“They’re busting my ass!” Lexton moans.
“Carter,” Terry says, nodding his head as though it is he who has spoken first. He pretends not to have heard Lexton’s complaint. Carter Lexton is not one Terry pursues for conversation.
“They’ve got the dogs on me, that damned Tenure Committee. Now they’re claiming I don’t work enough problems on the board. Can [p.4]you believe that? They’re saying it’s because I make mistakes, that I’m embarrassed! What bullshit!”
“That you make mistakes or that you’re embarrassed?” Terry asks. He slides a paper clip onto his notes.
“What?” Lexton looks bewildered.
For an instant Terry can’t remember his own question. “Bullshit to the mistakes or—?” he begins.
“To all of it!” Lexton nearly shouts.
“Look Carter,” Terry says, standing. “I’ve got a class in five minutes.”
“One question.” Lexton rolls from his chair in a single movement. He stands fixed, like Terry’s seen so many students stand in that very spot, nervous and imploring, and sometimes, as with Lexton, crazy enough to detain Terry bodily until he’s heard them out. Lexton, Terry sees, is genuinely frightened.
“One question,” he sighs, then looks at his watch.
“What’s the deal with Percy and Adams? Do their wives know they’re, like—?” He pauses for effect, but Terry doesn’t give in. Terry waits, looking down at his papers so he doesn’t have to look at Lexton. The younger professor finishes, sneers, “Bum chums, you know? Fags!”
Terry looks up, startled and angry. He is speechless. Terry’s distaste for homosexuality is no secret at the university. Still, colleagues may not agree, but they remain professional—they avoid being rude and base and slanderous to one another. And they do not make fun of each other, not to students, not to other colleagues. “This is a sick joke, Lexton,” he finally says.
“No joke,” Lexton says. He is more than frightened, he is desperate. He appears ready to bolt, like a child who has defined the boundaries of his courage and is prepared to flee at the slightest trespass. Terry can see that Lexton well understands the nature, the untruthfulness, of his slander. Avory Percy is Terry’s best friend, chair of the Tenure Committee. Mark Adams is a Tenure Committee member, the committee member most aggressively in pursuit of Lexton’s job. Neither of their spouses knows. There is nothing for their spouses to know.
“What are you talking about?” Terry seethes. He makes no attempt to hide his disgust. “Never mind—I’m already late for class.” He stuffs his notes in their folder and clears everything from his desk. Usually, [p.5]he leaves a pen on his desk, and perhaps some uncorrected tests or assignments. But Lexton is staring at him, drilling him for a response, so Terry clears the surface completely, giving Lexton time to give up and leave. Finished, Terry is forced to look up. He walks around his desk and pushes the chair Lexton had used to its place along the wall. “I’m late for class, Lexton,” he repeats. He pulls the text for his class from its place on the bookshelf.
“This is for real,” Lexton insists. “I’ve got evidence—I know everything.” He shuffles his feet, repositions. “I’m serious.”
“Yeah, well, I’m serious, too.”
“So, that’s all?” Lexton whines.
“That’s all.” Terry takes out his keys and glares at Lexton. Lexton’s nervous stench is in Terry’s nostrils, the odor, almost, of electrical burn. Glaring still, Terry waits for the young man to pass through the door and then deliberately locks, checks, and double checks his door.
Terry is enraged—more upset than he had at first realized, while still in Lexton’s presence. He storms to class and furiously works problems for his students, answers only questions he can’t ignore or postpone. He is preoccupied and little interested in the students’ learning. He simply cannot understand Carter Lexton.
A girl asks a question as Terry works a problem at the board. He ignores her for the moment. His back is to the class. The mathematical concepts are rudimentary, untaxing. Most of his brain is with Lexton. He feels victimized. Perhaps he too is a target. “Carter Lexton,” he whispers to the chalk-board, “is a weasel—”
Startled, Terry spins around. The entire class looks at Terry oddly, as though drawn together into a single, sallow expression of righteous surprise. A particularly unkempt young man stands, leaning forward, the tips of his fingers pressed against his desk top to maintain his balance. His blond hair is so shortly clipped his head appears bald. His clothing is poorly coordinated, poorly cleaned, poorly worn.
“We thought you’d left us,” the boy says. He neither smiles nor frowns, but looks at Terry evenly as he sits down. “This young lady,” he points, “has a question.”
Terry listens to the girl’s question and tries to remember this rude young man’s name. So early in the semester, he hasn’t yet learned all of his students’ names.
[p.6]”This is calculus,” he tells the girl. “That’s a concept you should have mastered in Algebra 111. Perhaps your friend, Mister—” he indicates the unkempt student.
“Roderick,” the boy says, looking Terry in the eye.
“Yes, Mr. Roderick, perhaps, will further assist you after class today. That way we won’t continue to waste everyone’s time.” Terry turns back to the board and completes the problem. But he’s annoyed, now—annoyed with his son, annoyed with Roderick, annoyed with Carter Lexton, annoyed with his self-righteous students. He is annoyed with himself for being annoyed. And while he is usually polite to students, he has had too much for one day. “You know,” he says, dropping the chalk onto the tray, facing the class, “we put a lot of money into the math lab. We pay qualified graduate assistants to be available from six a.m. to eleven p.m. There’s no excuse for not knowing material covered in prerequisite classes. If you don’t understand algebra, you sure aren’t going to understand calculus.” He pauses and looks at the clock. Five minutes remain. “If you don’t understand what’s going on, I recommend you get some help. You’re dismissed.” The students, some grumbling, close their books and gather their things. Terry feels a tiny victory, though it is nearly buried under the larger annoyances. He places his notes in their folder, sets them with his textbook on the lectern, and begins erasing the chalkboard.
“Dr. Walker?” Terry looks over his shoulder but continues the large, sweeping strokes. Roderick stands on the other side of the lectern, staring at him.
“What do you need, Roderick?”
“Well, see, you’ve got me confused.” Roderick’s shirt suffers from a stain, a coffee stain most likely, which, for the cloth’s antique paisley, was not before apparent. “I took your class because I’d heard so many great things about you. So it’s a little confusing to discover you’re so rude. It doesn’t fit my expectations, see. Pride’s not a good thing, Dr. Walker.”
Terry smiles at Roderick, an uncomfortable, rubbery smile. His eyes begin to water and he is certain if he attempts to speak a glob of spit will slide down his throat to choke his speech.
“Are you an authority on pride?” Terry asks. He gets it out before the spit slides; he swallows in secret.
“Yes sir, I am an authority on pride. I’ve been struggling with pride for quite some time now.”
[p.7]It’s difficult for Terry to imagine Roderick having much cause for pride. “Which, I assume, entitles you to attack me?” he says.
“I’m only making an observation, Dr. Walker. I’m not attacking you.” Terry senses Roderick is backing down, beginning to see his error and retreat, but when Terry eyes him squarely, the student returns the look as one thoroughly enjoying a conversation.
“You’re a hypocrite, Roderick,” Terry says. “You’re neither humble nor polite.” He turns his back on Roderick and finishes erasing.
“You’re right,” he says. ”I’m not very humble, not entirely yet, but I wouldn’t say I’m impolite. My pride stems from my alcohol and tobacco addictions, although for a long time I thought it was the other way around. You’re not addicted to alcohol and tobacco are you, Dr. Walker?”
Roderick, it occurs to Terry, is not his sort of person. What initially has irritated Terry—the boy’s brashness—now makes him uneasy. Terry does not want Roderick around. ”I’m in a hurry, Mr. Roderick.”
“Jason. Jason Roderick.” Roderick holds out his hand, and after realizing he can do nothing else, Terry shakes it once, briskly, then wipes his hand on the hanky he carries to remove chalk dust from his fingers. Terry reaches for his books. “You know why I came back to school for another degree?” Roderick asks. “And why for a degree in mathematics?”
Terry shakes his head and mumbles something. He steps past Roderick, heads for the door, but from the position of Roderick’s voice, Terry can tell the boy is following.
“Two reasons. First, nobody pays anything for a degree in philosophy. At least nobody’s paid anything for mine. And second, if I have to do something to earn money, it has to be something with an entirely ethical premise. The way I see it, mathematics is the only completely ethical discipline, not even philosophy’s as ethical as mathematics. That’s why I get so concerned seeing you be so unethical while discussing something so ethical. I’d just hoped—”
“Jason Roderick!” Terry swivels around to face Roderick. Terry’s words and his shoes hiss simultaneously. Roderick is so close now Terry can smell the boy’s foul breath. Large, dark rings encircle Roderick’s armpits, fading to the powdery salt-white of repeated perspiration. The stench of Roderick’s breath masks the stench of his body. “If you do not like the way I teach my class, you should acquire a drop-slip, and remove yourself therefrom. Now, I am late, so please [p.8]go somewhere else!” Terry straightens his tie, brushes away a chalk smudge on his sports coat, and hurries down the hall in search of privacy.
Terry intends to stay away from Blake, as Rayne has instructed. He commits to it as he prepares to leave his office, knowing Rayne will not be home to intervene if he should suffer a moment of anger. He turns off his computer, shuffles a stack of uncorrected assignments. He considers staying longer to correct the assignments or, perhaps, to rewrite a test. Rewriting a test seems a fine way to avoid a moment of anger. But he doesn’t want to be here if Carter Lexton returns, so he stuffs the assignments in a drawer and takes his sports coat from its hanger behind the door. He picks up his briefcase. Roots into his pocket for keys.
Outside the late September air is warm, fragrant, and Terry feels slightly better. The foliage on campus has begun to turn. Soon the world will ignite red and gold and orange. The mountains above the university and the valley below will blaze, the ironic fire of cooling weather. From the shade of his building, Terry walks into the afternoon sun, breathing deeply. It is a long walk to his parking place, and though he should move quickly to avoid rush-hour traffic, he takes his time, imagines the math building and his office and his colleagues and his students dissolving away behind him. He almost turns to test the power of his imagination. But he doesn’t—the math building, The Arthur T. Baldwin Building, is impervious to the whims of a tired, disgruntled mathematician.
Terry looks at the campus around him. New buildings, old buildings—these are the structures of his memory. It seems to him he has always been here. As a child, with his father. As a student. As a faculty member. Enough familiarity to be both burdensome and comfortable. His return here, to Salt Lake City, to the University of Utah, was as automatic, and perhaps as thoughtless, as is his drive home from work each day. He was a fine undergraduate student, one of the best the U had ever seen. When he’d submitted his application for employment, his colleagues (his once-professors) did all but bless his path with palm fronds. Rayne’s family was here. Terry’s mother, the final remnant of his family, was here, too. His father-in-law, an architect, had even designed the Baldwin building (amazing, he thought, how such insignificant coincidences affect the processes of our decisions). He and [p.9]Rayne hardly considered other offers. And there were more than a few. Now, after some twelve years, Terry imagines he could construct an entire dissertation—probably using some obscure calculus theorem—on the likelihood of staying forever in the place of one’s birth.
It’s been an hour since his getaway from Roderick. Terry attempts to shake the lethargy, the exhaustion caused by the day’s encounters. He picks up speed. He has escaped his office, and in the warm sunshine, it seems possible to forgive Jason Roderick, to forgive his students for being students. The campus is quiet, that lull between day classes and night classes. He passes a series of signs, Keep off the Grass, looks around to assess the chance of being caught if he violates the grass law. He feels the need to tread on protected grass, to be rebellious, though it will not shorten the distance to his car. He is ready to abandon the sidewalk when someone hails him from behind.
Surprised and guilty, he looks back. Avory Percy is fifty yards behind, waving, walk-running to catch up. Terry stops, amused by his guilt. He conspicuously places his briefcase on the grass.
“You were going to walk on the grass,” Avory accuses, gesturing at the signs. He is out of breath. “I saw you wavering.”
“Screw you,” Terry says. Avory knows him well.
Avory pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He is a chain smoker, Terry’s friend Avory. He has a nicotine crisis at the end of nearly every class. It’s not uncommon to see Avory’s students wandering out of the classroom early as Avory does the walk-run to the nearest john. In his office, where it is illegal to smoke, he’ll flip on the portable air processor, roll the window open, put an ashtray on the window sill. He’ll look at Terry sideways, curious, as he lights the cigarette. Then he’ll hold out the pack and ask, “Cigarette?” Terry’s seen it a million times.
“I just had a student named Jason Roderick tell me I’m rude and prideful,” Terry says. “He claims tobacco and alcohol are the root of pride.” Avory knows Terry hasn’t smoked for years, but he offers anyway, customarily holds out the pack, fully aware that Terry hates his temptation to tobacco as much as he hates being witness to Avory’s clandestine office-smoking infractions. Terry tolerates his friend’s taunts, however, because Terry knows if ever he said yes, Avory would hide the cigarettes and kick him in the ass.
Avory squints needfully behind the popping ember and draws deeply. “Rayne called while you were in class,” he says. Six tiny puffs[p.10] of vocal smoke punctuated by a fat cloud of cigarette exhaust at the end. A question mark, Terry thinks. “She said she had to go to some meeting for work and wanted me to remind you to stay away from Blake until she gets home. Said she’d break my arm if I forgot to tell you.” He smiles. “I didn’t think you’d leave so early. Damn good thing for my arm I spied you from my window.”
“Shit,” Terry says. He’s tried to forget about Blake and right now, particularly, is not interested in talking about him.
“Well, come on,” Avory encourages. “What’s the crisis?”
“He failed another class,” Terry says. He waves his hand as though it’s not important. “Math, if you can believe it. Rayne’s afraid I’ll kill him. ”
“Last year all over again,” Avory says.
Terry rolls his eyes in agreement and considers his bad luck at being caught by Avory. Terry has left his office early in part to avoid his friend. So close to his encounter with Lexton, he has feared his confessional nature might betray him, that he might fall into Lexton’s manipulation. Listening to Avory, however, considering their friendship, it occurs to Terry that secrecy, even in the name of protection, might prove the greater disservice.
“Look,” Terry says, uncertainly. “Carter Lexton and I had a little chat today. He came to my office.”
“I’m sure you enjoyed that,” Avory says. He knows Lexton like Terry knows Lexton. The whole math department knows Carter Lexton. Carter is a man who is unable to transcend his own perceptions. He assumes that his ways are everyone’s ways, which inevitably, for his lack of caution, is some day going to ruin him. Unlike Lexton, Avory—and almost every Tenure Committee member Terry’s ever known—is discreet about tenure reviews. Avory is professional and keenly aware of the legalities of foul play. He’s never told Terry a thing about Lexton’s evaluation. But, then, he has never needed to. “Was he looking for a status report?” Avory asks.
“Maybe, in part,” Terry says. “He’s scared. I mean scared like his foot’s in the trap.”
Avory’s cigarette bobs between his lips. He presses his hands into his pockets, rolls his shoulders as though stretching to relieve stress. Avory is a perceptive man, like a shrink. Terry has seen him decipher marital chaos from the way a student works logic problems. Avory doesn’t say anything, for which Terry is glad. Terry’s not interested in [p.11]knowing Lexton’s tenure evaluation. Avory just watches carefully and listens.
“He’s out to do damage,” Terry continues. “I don’t know who he’s after. You and Mark for sure, maybe me. Perhaps the entire department. Maybe just the Tenure Committee.”
“What did he say?” Avory asks. He reads in Terry’s hesitation that Lexton’s message is something Terry finds particularly distasteful.
Terry clears his throat. “He insinuated that you and Mark are having a sexual relationship. I couldn’t believe he actually had the balls to say it. He wanted to know if Trina and Adrian know the two of you are, as he put it, ‘bum chums.’ I hate to tell you, Avory, but this sounds like something Carter really intends to push.”
Avory assumes a meditative position. He tilts his head back on his shoulders to fix his eyes on the sky, and he breathes deeply once, in and out of his nose, a thick, rushing torrent. As Terry predicted, Avory has already begun structuring a solution, a professional solution. Most likely, Avory has not considered, will not consider, avenging the lie. He does not even appear angry. Terry’s friend Avory is a tolerant, patient man.
“I recommend you report this to the Senate Arbitration Committee,” Terry suggests after a few moments. “I would think they can diffuse the whole thing fairly easily.”
“You may be right,” Avory says, thoughtfully. “I’ll have to talk it over with Mark and the rest of the Tenure Committee.”
Avory is hard at work thinking the thing out, so Terry doesn’t say anything, just mulls over the lousy mess in his own mind.
“I’m sorry he dragged you into it,” Avory says. He smiles wearily, and Terry feels sorry for being the messenger. “Such destructiveness. It’s clinical behavior. A sane man would have enough decency to resolve his professional affairs in a professional manner.” He digs after another cigarette, pats his pocket to find the lighter. ”I’m particularly sorry he tried to violate our friendship, though it might be my salvation that he did. As usual, you’ve done me a big favor.”
“Lexton’s destructive,” Terry says. He’s uncomfortable with Avory’s gratitude. He feels used by Carter Lexton, unwillingly drawn into the younger professor’s plot.
“All the more reason to say thanks.” Avory is himself again, determined to taunt and abuse Terry’s discomforts. He grins through the smoke.
[p.12]”Yeah, well, what else was I going to do?” Terry glances at his watch, a bad habit of which Rayne often reminds him. “So, anyway,” he adds, eager to change the subject, “if Jason Roderick’s in any of your classes, don’t be rude and prideful.”
“Yeah, sure,” Avory says. “And you stay away from Blake until Rayne gets home. And get your damned briefcase off the grass.”
“Right,” Terry says. He picks up his briefcase and, with his free hand, jabs Avory, a sucker-punch, in the shoulder. Then, as Avory jeers, Terry walks across the grass in the direction of his car.
The thirty-minute drive from the university today seems arduous, and Terry is tempted to stop at his mother’s house. She lives near the U, in a part of the city having long succumbed to student rental, fraternity and sorority houses. It is a noisy neighborhood, run down from the frantic turn-over of college life and death. She could rent the place, Terry has told her a thousand times. Make enough to buy a nicer home or a condominium in a better part of town, nearer Terry’s house. But it is the home Terry was raised in, the home his mother loved her husband in, and there is no taking her from it. Terry does not stop to see how she is, but only because for once, if he does not delay, he will be home before rush-hour. He will stop another day, as he often does, to visit with Mother while waiting for rush-hour to subside.
Terry is tired. His discussion with Avory has covered him with a strange residue of satisfaction and apprehension, an other-where sensation not entirely without pleasure. Nevertheless, Carter Lexton is a person Terry would like to forget for now, though not in trade for the more annoying preoccupation caused by his own son.
“Don’t do this, Terry,” he says aloud in his car, mimicking Rayne’s husky imperative. It will be one frustration or the other; it is the way of his brain. Rayne claims Terry is only truly happy when he worries.
Terry is an adult, forty-eight years of age. His son, Blake, is fifteen. Blake thinks Terry is old, and, in fact, Terry is older than many of Blake’s friends’ fathers. But Terry refuses to believe he is an old man, out of touch. He is a full professor of mathematics with a keen aptitude for discovering solutions to complex equations. It just seems that there are no logical solutions, no solutions period, to this problem called Blake. The child speaks oddly, he cuts his hair bizarrely, he wears rags for clothing. He is defiant and incorrigible. And all of this, it seems to Terry, has occurred overnight.
[p.13]Terry drives through his neighborhood, takes comfort in its arrangement. Things do not change so much among these people, with these houses. The trees become imperceptibly larger, the color of a house changes slightly, a new car, purchased by a longtime resident, is suddenly parked in a driveway. But the faces stay the same, the names stay the same, the relations, despite the aging process, stay the same. His neighbors, with their large yards and well-kept homes, are capable of taking care of their own. They have problems, but they handle them respectfully. They are people the police protect, not apprehend. They openly like or dislike one another, and they function as best they can.
When the garage door opens, Rayne’s car is expectedly gone. Terry pulls his car onto the left side, his side, until the small rubber weight he has hung by a string from the rafters touches the windshield on the mark made with a dot of Rayne’s white fingernail polish. A similar string hangs for Rayne’s car, so when both cars are parked correctly, all car doors can be opened without touching walls or the other car. Under such conditions, a body can easily move around the garage without risk of property damage or bodily injury. Terry turns off the ignition and sits for a moment, mustering the will to go in where he knows he must not say anything to Blake. Problems, Terry has always believed, are only made worse by delay.
Inside the house, Terry’s ten-year-old, Mindy, sits at the kitchen counter completing her homework. Terry catches himself looking at her narrowly, suspecting that she too will become unmanageable in five years. Of late Terry is more often fatigued than relieved by the years that separate his two children. The thought of doing this all again exhausts him. Perhaps in five years he will know how to parent a fifteen-year-old.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” he says. He is ashamed of himself for casting undeserved condemnation. Mindy is a mild, unobtrusive child, built short and compact like her mother. Terry has always enjoyed her personality, her pleasant nature, her fine mind.
“Hi, Daddy.” She smiles and returns to her homework.
“Been home long?”
“Just a couple of minutes.” Which means one to sixty minutes.
“I haven’t seen him.” She is intent on solving some problem and doesn’t look up.
[p.14]”You don’t know if he’s in the house?”
“Urn …” She lifts her face, unaware, as though coming from a dream. “I don’t know, Dad. He might be upstairs in the bathroom. I think I heard the shower.”
The shower. Blake has already showered once today, he will shower again before going to bed. There was a time growing up when Terry’s parents only allowed him to shower once every other day, and Blake is showering three times a day!
“Will you do Dad a favor, Honey?” Mindy looks up willingly now that Terry has gotten her attention. “Will you go remind your brother to open a window so the steam won’t make the bathroom moldy and stinky?”
Mindy hops off the stool and bounces out the door. Like her mother and brother, she knows the rules, and Terry can see in her face a slightly pleased conviction that her brother is breaking the law. Terry is scavenging through the fridge for something left-over when she returns.
“The door’s locked and he won’t answer,” she says, climbing back onto the stool. “I told him anyway, though. He heard.”
“Is the shower still on?”
“Sounds like it.” She is already involved in her homework again.
Terry wanders to the base of the stairs and looks up. He can hear the faint whine of the pipes, the murmur of the shower, which by now has been on a very long time. He walks back to the kitchen, feels his resolve weakening, his anger rising. Terry goes to the sink and turns on the hot water hoping to draw enough from the shower to give Blake a cold shot. But no hot water comes, none at all.
“How long did you say you’ve been home?” he asks Mindy again.
“I don’t know, Dad.” She looks at the clock. “Half-hour, forty-five minutes.”
“That little shit!” he says. Blake’s behavior has released Terry from his promise to Rayne—so Terry justifies. He stomps from the room and takes the stairs two at a time, nearly trips once trying to take three.
“Blake!” he yells through the door. He pounds three or four times. “Blake, you open up this damned door right this minute!” The shower is fully streaming ten feet away. “I mean it, Blake. If you don’t [p.15] open this door by the time I get the key, I’m going to open it and drag you out of there. ”
Mindy, wide-eyed, is standing at the end of the hall by the banister. Terry stomps by headed for the linen closet where they store the emergency key to the bathroom. Key in hand, he passes Mindy again on his way back to the bathroom. Terry barely sees her.
“Open this door,” he yells. But Blake doesn’t, so Terry inserts the key and pushes the door open. Blake is standing there in front of the tub, naked, looking at Terry cockeyed, it seems, until Terry realizes Blake’s not looking at him at all. In fact, Blake’s not even standing, but, rather, hanging, his feet only inches from the ground, his heels pressed against the outside porcelain of the tub. Something is around his neck, hanging him from the shower-curtain rod. Terry’s frantic, he’s not thinking clearly, so he stumbles across the floor and slaps Blake on the side of the head, because, with the boy’s face turned at such a funny angle, Terry can’t get a good bead on his cheek. “Look at me! ” Terry yells. All he wants is a look, a simple blink, even. But Blake just sways, feels like plastic. The shower hisses behind him. The lights are on, but it has become almost too dark to see.
Terry sits himself hard on the toilet. The shower mat is at Blake’s feet, and on the shower mat something Terry can’t distinguish for a minute. Terry is pushing his fingers through his hair and screaming at his son, “A blink, boy! Just a blink!” And then he realizes what he’s looking at. It’s a magazine, a picture of one man bent over another man, his tumescent penis pressed into the front man’s anus, inserted so that the head has disappeared. The tip of the front man’s erect penis can be seen peeking around his thigh. There is contrived ecstasy on both men’s faces. Terry attempts to regain his feet. He is dizzy and finds the direction up unbelievably difficult to determine. Pushing himself toward Blake, Terry’s foot slides on something slick, and he almost falls. But he knows now what has happened—the only possible explanation—and he is determined to save his boy before it’s too late. He forces himself to remain erect and begins pulling on his son. He lifts Blake to relieve the pressure from his neck, to allow him to breathe. Terry wonders, with strange clarity, why he insisted on installing the finest of shower curtain rods, the strongest, the one capable of sustaining a person’s weight.
Behind, Terry hears a sound. He spins awkwardly, holding Blake, prepared to save his boy from another attack, to do whatever he must. [p.16]But it is only little Mindy, white-faced and open-mouthed as though screaming, though no voice comes forth.
“Call the ambulance!” Terry yells. “Call 911! Tell them someone has tried to murder your brother!”
For a moment Mindy doesn’t move, just stares and screams silence. Then she turns and runs, Terry’s obedient daughter, Mindy. He watches her go and then hugs his son in the air. He waits for someone to come save Blake’s life.
The way a body cools after death—Terry knows nothing about it really, how fast, how cold, except that a warm face, a feverish face pressed hard against the lifeless chest causes no significant warming of the blood, of the heart. The moisture between them, Blake and Terry, when the policeman gently pulls them apart, is cool. Blake looks bad—the color in his face is different than the color in his body. The color in his face and body are different than the colors of his natural appearance. At Terry’s feet the magazine lies crumpled and torn and stained from the dust off his shoes. He bends to pick it up, to show the policeman the nature of his son’s murder, but the policeman catches him bodily, a hand in the pit of each arm from behind, and tells him gently to “Leave it be.”
“Leave it be.” A familiar phrase in Terry’s repertoire of experience. Many times Rayne has said these same words to him. He remembers once, a strange synaptic segue of unlikely words at an unlikely moment, some years ago when they left the gynecologist’s office knowing Rayne was pregnant. “Just leave it be, Terry!” Rayne said. Despite her words, her voice was playful. “We decided to do this. Remember?”
Terry remembered. He laughed at himself, a gesture of fair play, then said, “I was insane.”
Rayne smiled a smug little smile. He’d seen that smile. It was the “You just came inside me without a rubber” smile. “It’s too late,” she said. To prove her point, as though he hadn’t already seen it, she held up the small plastic indicator with the bold X for yes. Shrewd, his wife, so very shrewd. How was Terry to argue with a positive pregnancy test?
“I vas treecked!” he accused. He wrapped his hands around the imaginary stake through his heart and made wet, gurgling sounds in his throat.
[p.17]”Oh, grow up!” she snapped. Much more severe a response than Terry had expected. And what says one to this? Perhaps, “Well, dear, I actually think I’m behaving in a very grown up fashion. I was tricked, you see. It was a hormonal plot, one of those well-being attacks you get on occasion that jerks you momentarily out of your fixations and turns you into a blithering, reckless baby-maker.” Or maybe, “Yes, Sweetie, you’re absolutely right. It’s time to cast aside thirty years of resentment. Let’s see, I hope it’s a son. A son is what I want.”
Instead, Terry said nothing. He walked with Rayne to the car, his face slack and pallid. He climbed in, turned his face aslant, away from Rayne, so she could not see that, in fact, he was on the verge of panic. He held it there, unable to look at Rayne, unable to speak, unable even to start the car for fear of falling apart.
Rayne, bemused by her own unpredictability, leaned forward for a better look. “Oh, wow!” she whispered. She reached across the hand-brake between them and drew him by the crook of his arm to her breasts, where he nuzzled, aware less of the awkward position than of the fresh musk of Rayne’s perfumed perspiration. Through her sternum, her voice resonated against his ear. “What am I going to do with two babies?”
Midway on the staircase, which Terry does not descend, another policeman crouches, holding Mindy, who sobs hoarse, gulping mouthfuls of air to make up, perhaps, for her previous silence. Terry stands by the banister, by the entrance to Blake’s room, and carefully studies the tiny blemishes in the sheet-rock he has been threatening to repair for a very long time. The policeman holding Terry’s arm looks at him helplessly. The policeman seems young, doesn’t know what to say.
“This isn’t as difficult as you might expect,” Terry tells him. “In fact, I don’t feel much of anything.” Terry reaches for a small crack in the paint, to flick it with his fingernail, and loses his balance. The policeman steers him down hard, so Terry’s bottom bounces on the carpeted floor. He presses Terry’s head between Terry’s knees and tells him to stay there until someone comes to get him. The policeman then leaves down the stairs, where Terry hears the voices of other people. In a moment someone, the other policeman, places Mindy next to Terry. She is wrapped in a blanket and shivering, and when Terry takes her hand, it feels cold and damp, remarkably similar to Blake’s chest. Men wearing uniforms, paramedics, come out of the bathroom. Terry had not seen them go in. They seem in no particular [p.18]hurry. They are quickly lost in a mass of people: Firemen, police people, uniforms, ties and dresses, T-shirts and sneakers. Terry’s rooms and hallways, he sees, were not made for so many people. He is sorry, in a convoluted fashion, he did not buy a larger house.
“Mr. Walker?” A large man wearing boots and Levis stands before Terry. The man’s hips are large like a woman’s, wider it seems than his broad shoulders. His pants stretch around his thick legs. His badge, attached to his belt next to his buckle, is partially covered by his twisted, clinging tie. “Why don’t you and your little girl step into the bedroom, there, where we can ask you a few questions.” The man turns and Terry sees a shorter man behind, the other half, Terry assumes, of the we. The two carry on a whispered debate. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” Hips says to Shorter.
“Should do it anyway,” Shorter says. “Got to do it right.”
“Look at her!” Hips complains. Shorter glares at Hips. Shorter’s not giving an inch. Finally, Hips gives in; he’s a conformist after all—a considerate conformist. “Mr. Walker, we’d like to ask your little girl some questions alone first, and then we’ll do the same with you, if that’s okay?”
“But—” Terry begins—it is very difficult to say this just right, to think it right, even—”she’s terribly upset right now. She’s a little girl, you know. She’s very scared.”
Hips and Shorter exchange a glance, an angry glance, Terry thinks. They look back at him, saying nothing.
“Do we need a lawyer or something?” Terry says. It occurs to him that what he told the first policeman is true: this isn’t as hard as one might think. There is a certain logic to it.
Shorter answers. “I don’t think anybody’s going to need a lawyer, Mr. Walker. We just don’t want her memory and your memory to get mixed together, see. Maybe later we’ll ask you questions together. Okay?”
“Okay,” he says. “If Mindy thinks she can.”
Without protest, Mindy accompanies the policemen into the bedroom. As she walks away, her shoulders stoop under the trailing blanket, and she appears to Terry an old woman, Rayne in forty years. One of the men closes the door.
Terry stands up. Things should be different, he thinks. He should be with someone, helping, telling them what happened—“He acted strangely lately, but I didn’t think he had enemies. No, no, [p.19]nothing like that. He was just going through a phase. Look at his bedroom; just a teenager’s bedroom. Who could do such a thing to my boy?” He wanders to the bathroom. Only two men are in there with Blake. One man takes pictures, and the second man scrapes something off the floor in front of Terry’s boy, next to the magazine. The second man is wearing rubber gloves, and putting whatever it is in a bottle.
“You are sick,” he tells the photographer. “What are you going to do with those pictures?”
“Who’s this?” a third man asks. The man pushes past Terry, through the door, and stops directly in front of Blake. The tips of his shoes are nearly on the magazine. He is mostly bald. The back of his head is a shiny, dark, freckled brown, and as he chews gum his jaw ripples and his temples respirate. After studying Blake at this distance, he looks down at the magazine, directly without searching. He knows right where it is. Terry is indignant, like his privacy is violated. The bald man must feel Terry staring because he swivels his head toward Terry and asks the other men, again, “Who is this?”
“The kid’s dad,” the photographer says.
“This is my bathroom,” Terry tells the man. “Who are you?”
“Shit!” says the man. “Who let him in here?” He glares at the man who was scraping at the floor, who is now studying the tub behind Blake’s legs. When he gets no answer, he says to Terry, ”I’m the medical examiner.” He speaks like a nice man, sympathetic and polite. But between sentences he pauses to chew his gum, which is an irritating habit. Terry intends to tell him about his gum-chewing when the medical examiner interrupts all intentions in his nice, sorry way. “I don’t think you should be in here. Why don’t you go out and wait somewhere else.”
“Yeah,” Terry agrees. The suggestion sounds logical to him, and four people in that bathroom is too many people, anyway. Terry begins to feel ill, and before he can leave, he vomits in the toilet.
“Christ!” says the medical examiner. He turns to the man at the tub, points to the toilet. “You get the toilet yet?”
“Yep,” says the tub man. Terry flushes the toilet and leaves the room. On his way down the stairs, someone from the bathroom says, “This is the strangest fucking one of these I’ve seen yet. ” Terry is too far away to hear anyone’s answer.
In his living room, Terry realizes that many of the emergency [p.20]people have already left. He looks out the front window. There are no fire trucks, the paramedic truck is pulling away. A police car pulls away a minute later and then another, though many still remain, some marked, some unmarked. The ambulance is on Terry’s front lawn, probably because of late arrival, or maybe scarcity of parking. A wave of uniformed people washes through the house and drains out slowly, taking something with it and leaving something behind. Who knows who the people are? It’s as though they came because they wanted to. Because they wanted to and because they could. Terry’s neighbors stand around the plastic blue and yellow police ribbon. They want to come too, but they can’t.
Terry decides to kick them all out, every last policeman and medical examiner, fireman, paramedic, ambulance driver, all of them, but he forgets what he’s thinking when a policeman escorts Rayne through the front door. She gives him an uncertain look, as though he should not be standing. Hers is a comforting, haunting face, full of motherhood and marriage. Terry has seen it before.
When Rayne was pregnant with Blake, Terry had a recurring nightmare which often awoke him. Rayne’s poor sleep made her vigilant and receptive to Terry’s need for comfort. It was that midnight face, Rayne’s tired, labored eyes, that Terry recognizes now. She allowed him, in his midnight doubts, to touch her changing body. Lying on his side, Terry would will his hand large and intuitive enough to cover her completely so as to understand her heavy breath. He’d place it just below her breast and let it glide downward atop her skin, up and over the maternal mound to her pubes. Back and forth, he’d coast his hand, and listen to her sleep-thick voice assure him of his place within her sphere. His recurring nightmare, even, was not without its reward.
His nightmare. He was no longer an only child—or more exactly, his status as an only child was jeopardized by his mother’s pregnancy. She waddled around, full of baby, cursing Terry for so burdening her life. She cursed him also for removing himself as the center of her life, assured him that having a sibling and being an orphan were much the same reality. Why did you do this? she asked. Why did you push me away? He was five years old. He looked at his five-year-old penis and wondered how he could do such a thing. It was not his ability he doubted, it was his motive. Being the father of his brother was not a distinction he wanted to have. His mother was weeping hysterically [p.21]when his father came in. He smiled the smile he always smiled. He patted Terry’s mother’s bulging tummy. I made you a brother, the father boasted. And, I’ll have you know, I enjoyed every minute of it. Suddenly, Terry didn’t understand. Something was wrong! He looked at his mother, but she was Rayne now, and his father was patting her stomach, Rayne’s stomach, and telling him how much he enjoyed making the brother, who Terry realized, was actually his son. Terry looked at his wife’s face, but it looked like his mother’s face, except that he was sure it was his wife’s. She turned and kissed Father, and Terry awoke weeping and full of alienation. Touch me, Rayne would say, feel where our baby grows. Terry was slow to accept her invitation: There was mischief in their bed. But reason always prevailed, and he’d allow himself this luxury.
May I touch you? he nearly asks now as Rayne stands before him waiting to understand.
“You’re home,” he says instead. He says it like, “Dinner’s on the table and you’ve arrived just in time.” She has no idea what has taken place; she does not know that her son is dead. She shakes her head like she might be clearing dust.
“Mr. Walker?” Down the stairs come Hips and Shorter with Mindy behind. Rayne frowns at them, but when she sees Mindy her expression lightens. She is greatly relieved. Hips and Shorter stop, seeing Rayne. They seem uncertain what to do. They are wondering who she is. Mindy squeezes by them and races to Rayne. She sobs against her mother’s stomach. Rayne stands solid, her face darkening again. She wants to know what is going on. She is simply not capable of forming the question.
“Blake’s dead,” Terry says. It seems the logical thing to say. “Somebody murdered him in the upstairs bathroom.” He grabs Rayne’s hand, to drag her to the bathroom, but lets go when she stands firm. Stale, forced air parts Rayne’s lips, hissing. It occurs to Terry, in fact, that Rayne has been holding her breath.
Listening, breathing still himself (he checks to be certain), Terry sits down in the nearest chair.
“I want to see my son first,” she tells Hips when he motions the ambulance people to take Blake down from the curtain rod and drive him away.
“No ma’am. I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
[p.22]”You don’t understand.” Rayne faces off like a prize fighter. Her head comes almost to his chest. “If you don’t let me see him, my husband and my daughter will have to live with what they saw, and I’ll never be able to understand.” She looks at Terry. He huddles vacantly on the couch, holding Mindy, hardly interested in Rayne’s discussion. He is thinking of his mother. “You must let me see my son,” Rayne demands.
So Hips takes her by the arm, like some uncertain escort to a high school dance, and leads her up the stairs, from Terry’s sight and, as immediately, from his thoughts. He should call Mother, he thinks. Unsuccessfully, he searches his brain for Mother’s telephone number.
Until he was five years of age, Terry slept in the same bed with his mother while his father was away at the war. He didn’t entirely know he had a father, or even what this meant. For a very long time his mother’s bed, even its memory, denied him a sense of sanctuary in any other bed. Even in his adult bed, with Rayne, he has at times felt alienated by his longing after sanctuary.
Under the covers of his mother’s bed, he’d fold his little body against hers, his butt tucked warmly against her womb, his head against her breast, a fetus again sustained entirely by the umbilicus of his mother’s love. He was the center of a world so perfectly regulated, or maybe so perfectly void of regulation, that he was oblivious to the possibility of losing his place.
Terry’s father was away a very long time, so long the boy’s five-year-old brain forgot him and was altogether unprepared for his return. Which Father did, just as Mother told Terry he would.
“There he is!” Mother cried. “There’s your daddy!” She pointed across the cement airfield at the people descending from the huge plane, and in this last moment that Mother was his alone, Terry selected from the travelers a husband for his mother, an unthreatening wisp of a man, who after being adopted by the boy passed by without a paternal glance.
Standing there, small under a growing forest of people, Terry watched and waited, not knowing anything, until, without notice, his mother threw herself—not just embraced or even reluctantly submitted, but pitched her entirety—into the arms of the largest man Terry had ever seen. Terry was nonexistent, even to himself. His mother hovered there, her flowered sun-dress slipping higher and higher up her thighs. One of Father’s huge hands was pressed against the small of Mother’s [p.23]back, the other was cupped like a form-fitting swing under the swell of her buttocks. Terry stood there, invisible, eye-high to his mother’s emerging thighs.
“And this is my little man!” the giant exclaimed. He put Mother down and scooped Terry up, a single, fluid motion. Terry was powerless, and as completely enraged by the man’s presumptuousness as by his own helplessness to escape the massive strength. He had never been manhandled. The man was pungent with travel and abrasive to the skin. He was foreign and threatening in ways Terry sensed more than knew. Instinctively, no calculation, Terry opened his mouth and emitted the shrillest, most violently hysterical display of terror a parent could ever hope to avoid. People from all over the world twirled and ducked and prepared to run. His father’s fingers tightened, felt like they were coming through Terry’s ribcage. Terry pulled G’s as the man hurled him toward Mother, screamed louder, until abruptly he sank into the pillow of Mother’s soft breast. He pressed his nose firmly between her cleavage and made no effort whatsoever to control his hitching breath….
Terry is squeezing his daughter, weeping. His breath hitches like he is five years old. Mother should be here, it seems to him. He should call her, but he can’t recall the number. Rayne comes down the stairs, followed by Hips and the medical examiner, so Terry ceases the repetitious mumbling that is his search for Mother’s number. Rayne has been crying hard, but she is fully lucid, a person capable of rational assertiveness at moments when others are flying apart. She has been up to see her Blake hanging from the shower-curtain rod.
“Who would do this to my boy?” Terry asks Hips. Rayne sits next to Mindy and Terry. She moans vocally, as one does in great ecstasy or great pain. “Who?” Terry asks, turning to Rayne. She offers him a puzzled look. She nearly speaks, but turns away instead.
“I don’t think you understand, Mr. Walker,” the medical examiner says. Hips looks from Mindy to Rayne to Mindy to Rayne. He nudges the medical examiner and gives him a funny look. Rayne sees their silent communication.
“What are we going to do?” Rayne asks Hips. “Send her out of the room now, after she’s seen her brother up there hanging from a curtain rod?”
Everyone stares at nothing for a moment.
“Well, for starters,” the medical examiner finally says, “what we’ve [p.24]got here is an unattended death. Anytime somebody dies alone or in an unusual way like this, it’s called an unattended death and we have to treat it like a homicide. That’s why the barrier ribbons and the fingerprinting and Detective Craig here from the Homicide Department.” He nods at Hips. “And that’s why me.” Terry looks around for Shorter, but he is nowhere to be seen.
“We don’t have an official report, yet,” Hips says. Terry likes Hips because he’s cautious and hesitant to break conformity. “This is still under investigation, so nothing’s in stone, okay, but I think we can pretty well tell you what we’re going to come up with, here—”
“My son didn’t commit suicide,” Terry insists.
“No sir, we’d have to say you’re right about that.”
“Why would somebody kill my son?”
“Nobody murdered Blake,” Rayne says.
“Mr. Walker,” the medical examiner says, “your son’s death was an accident.” Everyone is looking at Terry: Rayne, Hips, the medical examiner, even Mindy. Everyone is looking at Terry like they’re waiting for the slow one, the last one to get the joke at the party.
“An accident?” Terry laughs a burping, single bleated hack. “Blake’s death was no accident. His conception, now—his conception was an accident. But not this.” He points at the bagged form on a stretcher the ambulance people are trying to sneak through his front room. Seeing Terry’s movement, the two men look his way, guiltily, like criminals caught in the act. “This is insane!”
Rayne says, “You have no idea what’s going on, do you?” Her voice is full of something very near pity and very near anger and very near disdain, though it’s none of them, really.
It suddenly seems very possible to Terry that he has missed the punchline.
“This isn’t the first one of these we’ve had,” Hips says. “Though it is a little different than the others.”
“‘Of these?'” Terry says. “‘The others?'”
“Well, we don’t exactly have an official name for it,” Hips says. He gives the medical examiner a helpless look. “We’ve been referring to them as autoerotic deaths.”
“It’s like this,” the medical examiner says. “A kid, most often between the age of say thirteen and eighteen, hears from somebody that getting off is somehow better on the verge of unconsciousness. So he decides to try it and rigs up a device, usually in a closet, to [p.25]strangle himself to the brink of unconsciousness while he masturbates.” Hips is looking uncomfortable, ready to recant everything being said. The medical examiner appears affected by neither the information nor the audience. “Lots of kids are doing it. Most of them rig safety devices and put foam rubber around the noose. Some devices are pretty sophisticated. All the same the hospitals have seen a lot of damaged tracheas the last few years. Occasionally, some inexperienced or unlucky kid tries it, and he loses control and passes out and either there’s no safety or it doesn’t work, and he never regains consciousness…. ”
Once, when Terry was a small boy, he had an erection in the presence of his mother. They were bathing together, as they had always done, only this time was different, for Father was home from the war and Terry had an erection. In remembering, Terry cannot believe the erection was erotically induced, at least not overtly so. Perhaps it was a subconscious or primal reaction to his surroundings, to his changing environment. It couldn’t have been anything more. He was, after all, only a small child. But there he sat, facing his mother, in the canyon of her long, outstretched legs with his tiny erection pointing straight out of the water, at her.
Terry was fascinated. It seemed his groin was the center of the universe. His mother, glistening from the bath water, hovered above him, intently aware of his exploration, yet permissive and cautious and curious. Until he touched himself, the only movement in the tub was a tiny stream of water draining from his mother’s long hair, down over her shoulders, around her breasts and into the soapy water.
This was not Terry’s first erection: little babies have erections, and he was much older than a little baby. But it was the first erection that was his, recognizably attached, connected beyond removal. It was alive with sensation when he touched it, and pleasurable, though ironically, for all its connectedness, it was pleasurable in a detached and distant manner. His mother helped him to his feet so his midsection was out of the water where he could better examine himself. Standing on the rubber slip-mat, calf deep in water, he faced her and touched himself. He craned his neck down to get a top view of his tiny, tumescent penis.
He was in this position—standing before his naked mother, holding himself—when his father walked into the bathroom.
“Judas Priest!” the man bellowed. “What in the hell’s going on [p.26] here?” Terry understood nothing except his father’s fury. Father snatched Terry from the tub and carried him at arms’ length through the house and down into the basement. Terry was wet and it was winter. In the unfinished basement Terry’s father kept thousands of perfectly ordered tools. When Father was not working, he closed off the basement’s heat. It was cold.
“It’s homos and buggers that play with their own dicks!” the man hissed at Terry. He gave the child’s flaccid little penis a tug (it had not taken long for the erection to wilt). Terry knew from the look on Father’s face that whatever homos and buggers were, neither was something the man would allow him to be. “That’s the last bath you take with your mother!” As Terry raced away across the concrete floor and up the stairs, Father followed behind, slapping the child’s goose-bumped fanny.
To Hips and the medical examiner, Terry says, “You don’t know this happened to Blake, right? This is all speculation. Maybe this was a suicide after all.”
“Maybe,” Hips says quietly. Terry barely hears him through the screaming in his brain. “There’ll be an autopsy and some more investigation—”
“An autopsy?” Rayne moans.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hips says. “It’s procedure.” That’s Hips, a procedure man to the end. “We know that’s difficult, but—” He looks helpless, sympathetic.
“There wasn’t a note,” the medical examiner says. “Sometimes one turns up a few days later, hidden under a pillow or in a drawer, written in a diary or something. Your boy didn’t keep a diary did he.?”
“No,” Terry answers because Rayne, though next to him on the couch, is too far away to answer. She is staring at the top of Mindy’s head.
The two men nod. Hips writes something on his note pad.
“He didn’t do this in a closet,” Terry says. “You said this usually happens in a closet—probably sitting down, right?”
The medical examiner studies Terry, then says, quietly, “These things happen in lots of different ways, Mr. Walker. Your son’s case is a little more different. Maybe he did have a bit of a death wish. If we find a note, we’ll call it suicide. Otherwise, excepting the hanging arrangement, it all fits, right down to the pornography. Which in my [p.27]experience is usually that kind: men with men. I’d say if the sperm we took off the floor is his, then we’ve got us an autoerotic death here. No suicide, no murder, just a lousy, stupid accident.”
“My son’s no faggot!” Terry says. “There’s nothing queer about him!” Rayne reaches over and slaps her hand over Terry’s mouth, which makes him livid, out of control, so he opens his mouth and bites down on the few fingers he’s able to catch. When he hears her gasp, he stops, covers his face with his hands, and waits, hoping everything, particularly Hips and the medical examiner, will disappear. He hears them stand.
“You going to be all right?” Hips asks Rayne.
“Fine,” Rayne says. In the darkness behind his hands, Terry is strangely pleased with her composure.
“We’ll contact you tomorrow,” Hips says, “let you know when you can schedule the funeral. We might have more questions. We’ll let you know when we know.”
When Terry uncovers his eyes, the men are gone, climbing into the two remaining emergency vehicles. The front door is still open, the front window. The last sun of the day cuts patterns from every spindle: the banister spindles, the antique chairs, the table legs, the piano legs. Their nearest neighbors, those from each side, cautiously move toward the door, conferring as they come. The blue and yellow police tape is down.
“Hey!” Terry yells after Hips and the medical examiner. A fearsome realization has bludgeoned its way to the surface. “Hey, what about the newspaper? What are they going to say in the newspaper?” But they don’t hear: Their cars have pulled away. All who remain to hear Terry are his wife and daughter and the neighbors on his lawn.
He was only five years old. He had no foresight, no fundamental sense of cause and effect. They were home from the airport the day of his father’s return, and Mother was swooshing and swishing. Swoosh, the refrigerator door careened through the air, and his mother’s skirt swished to the pantry with her barely still inside. She was swooshing from the counter to the stove to the drawers to the table. Father sat on a stool at the counter observing Mother’s flighty movements. The man smiled a lot and occasionally reached out and [p.28]patted his wife’s fanny as she passed. She smiled back and stopped between swooshes to kiss him on the lips.
Terry stood out of the way in a nook between the fridge and the cupboards. He awaited his mother’s acknowledgments. And her attention came as she passed, with the same hastened excitement present in all her movements since her husband’s return. Her long fingers streamed through Terry’s shaggy hair, or the back of her hand caressed his cheek. Terry maintained his stance but did not hide his gratitude and pride. Each time she touched him or chattered his name while telling some story, Terry looked at his father hoping to see some indication of the man’s intentions. Hoping to determine the correct response. And the man always smiled, and not just smiled in general, but smiled directly at Terry, as though to say, “Serve yourself, there’s enough to go around.”
Terry was placed across from Father at the dinner table. What a smiler Father was! He smiled as he chewed, he smiled as he put the fork in his mouth, he smiled a magnified, toothful smile as he drank from his glass, a very pleased smile, as though few things could be better than that about which he was presently smiling! He got up from the table and came back carrying a sack. From the sack he pulled gifts. A toy airplane, a baseball, a baseball glove, a truck, candy, and more candy. A man’s man, Terry’s father, no sissy stuff in that hoard. Terry stopped chewing—his mouth full—and watched his father’s hand disappear and then reappear with something new. Terry said nothing. He didn’t reach, only stared. He looked at his mother. She nodded her head and smiled approvingly. He looked at his father. Father still grinned. Terry took his plate of potatoes and gravy and turned it upside down on the whole pile, then he spit his mouthful of food on top, where it landed like a green and yellow cherry on an ice cream sundae.
His father’s smile disappeared. Finally. It was banished by Terry, the opening banishment in a night of banishments. Father the airman looked confused. Hurt. Mother jumped to her feet and plucked Terry from his chair. Terry was flying now, piloted by Mother. Missed a wall here, a wall there. Behind, Father protested quietly. “He doesn’t understand,” he said. “He’s upset by all the excitement of my coming home.”
They stomped into Terry’s little bedroom. Father trailed behind. “He’s your father!” Mother declared over the boy’s screaming. “You love him. He brought you presents, for heaven’s sake!” She dropped [p.29]him over his bed, upon which, for his clinging, he only partially landed. She grunted, bewildered and conflicted, then hurried from the room.
Father, however, remained. He stooped and hoisted the child from the ground where he had settled. He hugged Terry, despite the child’s flailing limbs, held tightly until the flailing and weeping calmed, then stripped the clothing from the boy’s hiccuping little body. He rubbed Terry’s tummy and his chest and played with his hair. Chattering, he searched out pajamas and helped Terry put them on, then carried Terry to Mother, who had recovered enough from the shock of her anger to acknowledge her shame. Cooing, apologizing, she carried Terry to the big bed, in her big bedroom. She tucked him in and kissed his face.
Vindication—too young to understand what it was he had done, exactly, Terry sensed, at least, that he had gotten something, won something.
But it was a fallacy, Terry thinks now, that concept of sacrifice to greater return, one of the many fallacies exposed in the wake of his son’s wasted life. Perhaps, as a child, Terry had learned only part of the lesson. He waits for some remuneration, as though there must always be a trade off, or better yet, a trade up. Now all common remunerations seem trivial to Terry. And the major remunerators in his life, Rayne, Mother, Mindy, Blake, even Avory and Trina, are wounded (or dead) and in need of remuneration themselves.
Rayne, Mindy, and Terry ride together to the funeral home in Rayne’s father’s huge Oldsmobile to make arrangements for Blake’s funeral. For some purpose, Ray and Alice—Rayne’s parents—and Terry’s mother accompany them. The funeral home, a country affair with Southern columns and ivy attached to most of its brick exterior, appears misplaced in the city center, among the glass and concrete buildings surrounding it. It was the place of Father’s funeral, and of the funerals for both sets of Rayne’s grandparents. The excess of family, both present and deceased, reminds Terry of the emergency people, the glut of spectators, so recently in his home. Accompanied by so many parents, Terry feels more like a child, more like Mindy’s brother and everyone else’s son than like the father of the deceased and a maker of decisions.
Blake’s life insurance policy will pay for the purchases they have come to make. It wasn’t a large policy, just a token of adulthood to be handed over to Blake’s administration when he was old enough to [p.30]choose his own beneficiaries and to appreciate the significance of owning such a thing. Had the police report read “suicide,” the insurance policy would have been forfeited. It did not read “suicide”; it read “accidental strangulation,” surrounded by such words as ejaculate, unclothed, homosexual oriented pornography, and autoerotic death. The coroner’s report described him as a healthy fifteen-year-old with a crushed trachea and a mass of pulled muscles. There was no broken neck. Terry read both reports.
His father-in-law, who is Terry’s nearest living male relative, follows behind, a look of consternation creasing his face at all the appropriate seams. The man’s hands are stuffed deep into his pockets and his shoulders are hunched. He isn’t sure why he was invited, and neither is Terry. Rayne and Mindy lead the way into the funeral home, followed by Terry. Arm in arm, Mother and Alice fill the space between Rayne’s father and Terry. No one has said a word since leaving the house, except the mothers who speak only in whispers as though they know something the others do not, something the others must not know. The truth is that the others, especially Rayne and Terry, know something, many things, which the mothers, the others, do not know, must not know.
Repeat customers at Horton’s Chapel of Flowers are, perhaps, to take comfort in the timelessness, the lack of change, the establishment offers. The huge foyer carpets, expensive single piece designs, look new and unused, as though extra carpets identical to the originals were purchased in the beginning to be rotated when the originals began to wear. The paint is a never-ending, expanding shade of white. Even the artificial trees in their highly glossed brass canteens have not deteriorated one whit from their immaculate state of some fifteen years ago when Father’s funeral services were purchased and performed. When he died, Father was thirteen years older than Terry is now, considerably older than Terry’s mother, but a young man really, still patting Mother’s fanny as she swished and swooshed about him. Mother has never told him, but Terry knows his father was on top of her when he died of a lousy heart. Terence Walker, Sr., was a man who never changed. What could have been more appropriate than to eulogize him at a mortuary that never changes? The routine of the funeral home stays the same. The expensive carpets, the unblemished walls, the barely tasteful accessories, the squeaky, soft-spoken people. It all remains predictable, Terry thinks, as one huge cliché to create the framework for the [p.31]biggest cliché of all: that the only things that really stay the same are death and the changes it brings.
Horton, the funeral director, meets them in the foyer. He shakes Rayne’s hand, then Terry’s, and all the rest. “I’m very sorry,” he says, though Terry knows his family’s loss is Horton’s gain, suspects that Horton is not sorry, not in the least. It’s time for business, all business, which suits Terry fine, for he is not yet prepared for the condolences of people who have no idea what it is they condole. There is something pure about the mortician’s desire to make money. He is a professional. It will be a quality funeral.
“The deceased is here now,” Horton says. “Everything will be ready for the viewing tomorrow and the funeral the day after.” He suggests they proceed to the basement and the casket showroom. Mother wraps her fingers around Terry’s biceps when they step onto the large utility elevator. She is a young sixty-seven, still beautiful and capable, not at all weak or in need of stability. She touches Terry for his benefit, or to quell her own deja vu. Perhaps she senses the many betrayals, Terry thinks. Perhaps she registers ownership for those she is responsible.
Terry awoke in Father’s arms the night he returned from the war. Mother’s touch transmits the essence of that night. The memory, like Mother’s touch, is without nostalgia, for Father’s arms offered Terry no real comfort, no kindness, though he was gentle. Here was but another banishment, this time from Mother’s bed. It was the man’s odor and the texture of his carriage that awoke Terry. Once Father realized Terry was awake, he whispered to him, offered explanation. Poorly steered portions of Terry’s little body interfered with his passage through door frames. Only when his head found the frame post to his own bedroom, however, did he realize where it was they were going. Terry sensed in his father’s action something more basic than a simple misunderstanding of the way things were done. This removal from Mother’s bed was not a malicious act, a punishment directed vengefully at him as his due. Terry knew this. The exclusion was something so comprehensive of his father’s presence, Terry was struck silent.
Where was Mother?
And there she was. Smiling, standing next to his down-turned bed. Terry gawked as his parents tucked him into bed and told him to go back to sleep. And here it was, the awful truth he saw in the after-glow [p.32]of his eyes: his father was going to sleep in Mother’s bed, in Terry’s spot, tucked against her body! Did Mother know this?
Go back to sleep, they told him. How could he sleep? So he waited until all was quiet, then climbed out of bed. He crept to Mother’s bedroom door, which was closed, and stood there, determined somehow to recapture his place in bed. He waited for something to give. But it was dark and Terry really was very tired. He slumped against the wall next to the door. His little legs became tired, so he slid to the floor. Here, this was the perfect place to wait. But the floor was hard and Terry’s bottom was not at all comfortable. He could occasionally hear his parents’ voices though not their words. Before long Terry was on his back in front of his parents’ door, watching little transparent amoebas float across his peripheral vision. The hall light directly above his head illuminated this phenomenon. The last amoebae he saw turned into an airplane and flew away with his father inside.
Pain and loud sounds awoke him. When Terry finally separated his dream from reality, he realized he was gasping for breath. Father picked himself up from beside and atop Terry. He had tripped over the child, kicked him in the stomach. Like Jack’s bean stalk, the man rose up and up until his head almost touched the ceiling. And Terry saw it. His father’s penis. It was huge. From Terry’s supine vantage, he could see only its bottom-side profile. It arched outward and down toward the boy in a gentle slope, and hovered above, swaying on him slowly from side to side like a tree in the breeze. For a moment, until it concluded its shrinking (which, Terry had no idea then, was mostly accomplished before the bedroom door opened), it seemed larger even than the boy’s entire body. Terry felt very insignificant.
Looking up thus, startled and amazed, Terry did not consider his mother until he saw her standing in the bedroom door. Her expression, a cross between horror and mirth, was one he had never before seen. She too was naked, which alone did not stun Terry so completely as Father’s huge penis in the presence of Mother’s nakedness. There was a difference in her body, too—Terry had seen her bathe, he had seen her dress. This was different. Though he didn’t understand, he felt the finality. Father grumbled and turned into the bathroom. Mother stooped down and picked Terry up. She carried him back to his bed and kissed him on the lips. She stood [p.33]and turned out the light. Terry watched his mother’s well-kept nakedness leave to find Father.
The casket showroom is not so dissimilar from a car showroom. Terry is amused by the crass similarities. The demonstration models are placed strategically, tilted this way and that way for aesthetic impact, arranged from least attractive (least expensive, bargain boxes) to high gloss, solid material (only-the-most-expensive-will-do-for-the-one-I-love). As at a posh art gallery, there are no prices on the goods. Beside the door, printed price lists are stacked on a pedestal. Like cars (and unlike art), caskets have no investment value. In fact, as an investment, a casket is worse than a car, for once the casket has been parked, it can never again be sold. On the other hand, there is, Terry supposes (tasting the acerbic observation at the back of his tongue but managing somehow to keep tight rein on his mouth), a certain peace of mind knowing that a coffin you have purchased is well preserved in a sealed vault, entirely isolated, protected from other parkers.
Mindy separates from the others at the door and walks ahead into the showroom. She stops at each casket, pushes to her tiptoes so she can examine the plush compartments. Rayne’s maternal instincts are tightly strung: she is vigilant of Mindy and she is vigilant of Terry. Neither Rayne nor Terry have been surprised by Mindy’s recession, though they worry that they have allowed the girl to be too involved, to see and hear too much. But even as Rayne and Terry fret, they drag Mindy with them, supposing, Terry reminds himself, that a partial administration of any therapy is far more damaging than the entire treatment, no matter the outcome. All the same, Terry is disturbed that Mindy knows the abnormality of Blake’s death. He is disturbed by the possibility that anyone knows.
Mindy’s face is pale and strained, though brighter and more alert than Terry has seen it for a number of days. She hasn’t spoken much, just the obligatory and life sustaining responses they are all forced to voice. She hasn’t mentioned Blake once. Occasionally, as she drifts from casket to casket, she reaches up inside and touches the soft fabrics, tests the give of the cushions.
“Mrs. Walker,” Mr. Horton says. “Perhaps it would be best if your daughter didn’t touch.”
Rayne doesn’t look at the funeral director. “If she damages anything, Mr. Horton, we’ll pay for it.”
[p.34]”I was more worried about the child’s safety,” Horton says. He is used to grieving people, and he doesn’t pursue his warning. He may also be embarrassed, though Terry doubts it. Usually Terry does not allow his children to touch. It annoys him when parents leave their children unattended. But today Mindy’s touching, for many reasons, is beyond his care.
The other members of the party have considerately wandered away. That they are here seems increasingly odd to Terry. Who wants an entourage at such times? Particularly an entourage of people who await some unsavory truth one is trying to hide? Terry’s father-in-law is examining the construction of each coffin. He pulls back cushions, withdraws a penlight from his pocket and studies the corners and shadowed areas the rest of them will overlook. Terry knows Ray: he is checking for cardboard construction. Mother and Alice have stopped at a coffin on the expensive side of the room. They look at it and continue their hushed discussion.
“We offer various packages,” Mr. Horton says. He walks between Rayne and Terry, touching them gently on the elbows. Terry is not a liberal toucher, but Horton’s manner is so perfectly austere Terry hardly notices the touch. So, Terry wants to ask him, what type of coffin would a homosexual buy? Or, better yet, a fifteen-year-old faggot who dies jerking off to fantasies of queer sodomy? Did you ever hear the one about the two fudge-packers … ? Terry laughs out loud, choking Mr. Horton’s package description to a startled silence. It is a nasty, jeering laugh, and Terry can tell by Horton’s pinched expression that the man thinks Terry is laughing at him. Just as well.
“Maybe you should let us browse for a minute,” Rayne says. She knows Terry is not laughing at Horton, though she offers no explanation.
“Yes,” Horton agrees, stepping back, wounded but ready to spring to the sale at the slightest twitch. “I hope I’m as lucky as my father and my son,” Terry tells Rayne. “Just think—death by orgasm.”
“Do you really want to do this now?” she asks. She is talking about his behavior, not the funeral arrangement.
“What’s the matter? I’m not my usual model of propriety?”
“I’m not sure what you are,” she says. She takes Terry’s hand, and he feels the bandages on her injured fingers. She changes the subject.
[p.35]”This is good for Mindy.” Mindy stands beside Ray, watching him study the bottomside of a casket.
Mother and Alice turn as Terry and Rayne approach. Terry resents Alice’s presence, and he is ambivalent about Mother’s. “Look, Terry,” Mother says. “This casket is exactly like your father’s.” After fifteen years it seems impossible to Terry that she could remember so clearly. Had she not told him, he would have passed it by without recognition. But there it stands, his father’s casket, the same color, the same model, who knows, maybe even the same place in the showroom. His mother adored his father. She even remembers Father’s casket. Things in the death business, Terry thinks, truly do not change much.
“Perhaps he’s in there,” Terry suggests. The lid is closed to display the coffin’s detailed carvings. Rayne squeezes Terry’s hand in warning, and Mother shoots him a time-worn glare. Terry steps up to the coffin, lifts the lid, looks inside. “Nope,” he says, turning to show everyone. Terry hated the coffin then, and he hates it now. Fifteen years ago, at the time of its purchase, it was the most expensive coffin in Horton’s display, a notoriety it no longer owns, Terry suspects, though it remains on the expensive side of the room. Back then it was richer than any casket Terry had ever seen. Mahogany and hand carved, dark and thick with red interior or blue or brown or white, whatever the customer wanted. Terry hated it because it was too beautiful for his father and too much money for his mother. Had Father been alive, he would have selected for himself exactly this casket. But Father was dead, and nothing was any longer his decision.
“He’s been making and repairing things with his hands all his life,” Mother had said. “Perfect things, beautiful things, things nobody else could make work. He kept that university running” which was probably true, knowing his father’s intolerance for things that were not perfect. His father ran the university’s maintenance department for years. He even made the janitors work (something the maintenance department hasn’t done for years). So, because she adored him, Mother wasted on Father’s coffin the few luxuries she was finally in a position to buy for herself. There he was, Father, proving to Terry that being dead did not mean leaving the game. The coffin’s sight created then, creates now a foul taste in Terry’s mouth. “He deserves a casket that beautiful!” Mother had said. Then she’d bought the vulgar thing.
“This is the casket for Blake,” Terry announces.
[p.36]No one speaks. No one moves.
“This is the casket we want,” he says again, waving at Horton. He thumps the casket’s carved lid with his hand, and it dully voices the echo of solid wood. Rayne’s eyes are huge and she is pumping her mouth, trying to bring up words like water pumped from a well. She knows everything about Father’s casket. Terry and Rayne were a few years married when Father died. Rayne saw everything, sees everything now. Mother looks puzzled for a moment, then peeved. She is much like Rayne, capable of thinking rationally at difficult moments. Alice is smiling; she likes the coffin. Or maybe she thinks Terry’s choice sentimental and touching.
“What are you doing, Terence?” Mother asks. She moves closer to Rayne and wraps an arm around her. She and Rayne, unlike many women of similarity who love the same man, have always been very close, very devoted. Mother’s touch primes Rayne’s pump.
“Don’t you do it!” Rayne says. “Don’t you do this!”
“This is the coffin for Blake.” His mind is made up.
Alice is not smiling now, and Ray and Mindy have come to see the casket Terry has selected. Rayne’s expression is all grief and disbelief. “What in the world is going on inside your head?” she demands.
With his index finger, Terry hammers angrily at the casket, drumming out that solid echo. “This is the only coffin I’ll come to my son’s funeral to see,” he declares.
Mr. Horton takes out a pen and begins to write.
ROBERT HODGSON VAN WAGONER received first prize in the 25th Annual Utah Original Writing Competition. He has published in The Best of Writers at Work, Carolina Quarterly, Metaphor, Modern Short Stories, Rough Draft, Sunstone, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He twice won the Brookie and D. K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest, sponsored by the Sunstone Foundation. He lives in Ogden, Utah, with his wife and two sons. “Staying Away from Blake” is from his novel-in-progress, Dancing Naked.