The West |


by Ruth Galm

edited by Kara Levy

She has been watching Will play baseball in the park across the street, watching him bend his entire torso, the long, thin ankle of the bat against his body as if he were cradling an upright bayonet. (“Ankle” is what Beth thinks; she does not know the terminology of bat parts; it looks like her mother’s ankles, slim and fragile and seemingly pure bone for inches, always too thin a foundation for standing.) Her son grips the bat the way he has learned to: stiff up against him, as if he were an eighteenth-century British soldier carrying his weapon as he marches, so that he will not lose hold. The grip is awkward because of the stump. He swings and thumps it up the center, drops the bat and runs to first base. Beth exhales. She sees him grin wildly. She watches him squat on his knees and heave his chest and wipe his sweaty forehead with the bald end of his right arm. * Will comes into dinner flushed from the baseball game, smelling of grass and dried sweat. Today was his first day of middle school, a day he’s been looking forward to for weeks. His habitual grin flashes, but the overall expression is a glazed-over blankness, a result, Beth knows, of the slamming lockers and hallway voices, the brownie- and nacho-buying adolescents jabbing and thrusting all around him. Beth asks him how his day went, her husband Steven nodding enthusiastically but mutely as he gnaws his corn on the cob. I got my locker combination, Will says, looking beyond them at a point on the wall. Her breath leaves her again. The gym reeks, he adds a second later, coming back to them, the smile blooming. He plugs his nose with his good hand and everybody laughs. And the gym teacher’s a dork. Everybody rags on him, he adds. Then he tries to balance his corn cob on his stump to chew. If you need anything, you have my number on campus, and you have Dad’s number at the office. She hears the words rush breathlessly from her but cannot stop them. And otherwise just go to the school secretary and tell her you need us and she’ll track us down wherever we are, all right? Okay? She begins spreading butter over the curve of her own corn, back and forth without looking, until the kernels are drowned in a thin greasy pool. Mom. Her son rolls his eyes and smirks at his father. Steven winks at him. After dinner, Steven arranges the dishes into the machine, humming and dropping them in, as if, Beth thinks, the day has no weight. Maybe I’ll go to another meeting, she says. The eight o’clock. If you need to, he says, still humming. She wipes the counter and grabs the keys from the key bowl and backs the car carefully out of the driveway, hearing the crack of walnut shells under the tires. In the campus neighborhood at dusk, sprinklers are spraying across the lawns and the late rose and bougainvillea blooms glisten darkly. But all Beth can picture are the children from the morning. Wiry and quick across the middle-school lawn, the perfect image of predators. * It’s a new school across town, a large public school swollen with portable buildings, drawing students from all over the city. Beth and Steven have always prided themselves on their commitment to public schools. The great social experiment. Common denominators and teachers’ unions. Beth had always felt superior to their neighbors, to the Silicon Valley types who bought their character-filled, “retro” downtown homes but still sent their children to private schools or cherry-picked public ones near blond, gated communities. No, she had believed in the great American equalizer; the idea that children must be raised in a way that would make the world a better place. And Will’s elementary school had proved her right. For the past three years since the accident, her son had been in the same classroom with the same teacher, Mrs. Beebeck. “Looping,” the school called it. (If someone asked her to, Beth would drive cross-country knocking on people’s doors and leaving pamphlets on their windshields about looping; she would lobby Congress for looping through high school, looping on college campuses.) Mrs. Beebeck had created a class of equals and yet not tried to distill it into a brown mucky stew. She’d encouraged each student to write and draw about the “thing that makes me different.” Will had learned to talk without shame about his disability, like a Kiwanis Club member at breakfast buffets, and he had won the contest of difference, Beth thought. He’d been the rock star of otherness. But Beth no longer cares about equitableness or the world. About the troubled, diamond-in-the-rough children. She wants her son to be in classes with only the right children, the gentle-souled who would bring you the extra cookie from their dessert plate or tattle when other kids swore. In office hours, waiting for her own college students who never show, Beth remembers her junior-high years, the girls in gym class who spread the rumor she’d shit her pants when her first period came in a brown glaze in her panties. Memories like these are how she knows the reprieve is ending. She has let herself daydream too long among Mrs. Beebeck’s sun-kissed poppies and now will come the harsh winter of punishment. Beth gazes out her office window and imagines a conference with the principal of her son’s new school. In her only suit, she could hand him a request on university letterhead. Please sort the mean kids out of his schedule, she could say. They should not be a part of his day. Her need to imagine this possibility so keen she leans across her own desk to tap the imaginary letter for the imaginary principal. And if the letter didn’t work, she could demonstrate with one hand the different ways her son has had to learn to tie his shoes. * They had gone to the mall the Sunday before to buy a new backpack. Will could not sit still that weekend, drumming on tables and chairs with his left hand, padding around his room even with his video games in full, rumbling tilt. He reminded her twice about his new school supplies. In a sneaker store at the mall, she stood back while he scrutinized his options and selected a black-and-neon-green backpack with reflective silver strips up the sides. In the middle of one pocket was a crisscross of elastic cord, a device he excitedly informed her was for carrying water bottles and soda. At the bottom was a strap that could be secured across the waist for further girding. Beth had pressed her hand inside the elastic cord until her skin reddened and numbed. They ate chili dogs and drank overlarge cups of lemonade in the food court. Beth had probed his face for some sign of trepidation. She noticed several shoppers trying to look at her son’s arm without looking. Will never notices, which galls her: people secretly wanting to stare at his knobby flesh, study the smooth, strange bubble of skin where a lower arm should be. The rest of him is tiny and unobtrusive. Brown hair and brown eyes and a good nose with freckles, turned up just a little at the end; his body small-boned for now, lean and elfin. He’s average, she’s concludes. A boy who looks mostly like a boy should. Do you have any classes with Elliot? she asked that day. No. Are you worried about making friends? No. He sucked down on his straw for several seconds. I get to take woodworking, Mom. I’m gonna have a locker. A fat woman with a baby on her lap continued to stare, the baby’s eyes malicious and beady. Beth had wanted Will to wear a prosthesis. The doctor had told them kids his age with his type of injury sometimes wore one. But he’d hated it. By the end of every day, he pulled off the silicone appendage, saying it rubbed too much, and hated a new model they tried in fourth grade where muscles in his back sent signals to his brain to move the fingers, and eventually Beth gave up. I like it just me, he told her, shaking out his arm after the flesh-colored device was gone. Beth shot a withering look at the fat woman and beady-eyed baby. I’m gonna try out for the baseball team, Will said. He peeled the Velcro tab on his binder open and closed in a horrible, shredding sound. * The first week he begs to ride the bus but Beth insists on dropping him off. She is memorizing the angles of the windows and doors, the pathways and bell schedule so she can find him at a moment’s notice. As they drive to school the third morning, the air coming through the windows tastes like the same fog-dampened onion grass it did when she was a girl. The fog to burn off and the days still too hot for sweaters, leaves on sidewalks dry and pale and instantly combustible. Beth recalls her visceral childhood dread of fire season, after once seeing orange flames streaming down the hills and a house folding over and collapsing in molten light. From then on she had imagined herself in a locked room in that tumbling house, her skin puckering, her parents forgetting her there to die. Mom, turn here. Mom! Oh. Sorry. She pulls into the school driveway, along the tall row of eucalyptus and pepper trees up to the lawn. And there the children, circling, sniffing. He gathers his things, takes out the plastic binder from which the top flap has been ripped. What’s wrong with your binder? He shrugs. It broke. She glances at the kids again, grips and ungrips the steering wheel. How could it break already? I don’t know, he says. Then her son opens the door handle with his good hand. Beth watches him walk toward the herd. She drives home to grade papers before class and parks in the little square of driveway in front of the garage. The yellow recycling bins totter in a stack against the fence, full. She should wait for Steven’s help. It goes so much faster when they do it together. What they used to do together, she thinks sitting immobile in the driver’s seat, was drink. Before there was aluminum and dusty newspapers to sort. They met for beers and lined up shots like normal twenty-somethings blowing off steam. They’d started dating in graduate school, when she was in the middle of her Ph.D. and he in law school, and every weekend they hit the books and libraries all day and the bars all night. He buzzing just enough in his six-foot-two frame to hold a smile while she could down her first three beers in an hour. And she knew at first he thought it was sexy. (More than sexy, she’d later have to drill into her head to make it real, like the news of someone dying whom you haven’t seen in years. She would have to repeat it to herself while washing her hair and brushing her teeth.) Sexy with a beer in her hand, swiveling her hips against the pool table when no one else danced; sexy during hangover, inhaling red meat and sports drinks and climbing on top of him for hazy afternoon sex. And she felt that it was understood: Alcohol was a necessary part of their life as a couple, like the occasional romantic comedy and oral sex and coffee always in the house. But after they married, after Steven joined Legal Aid and she started teaching and then became pregnant, they stopped going out. The natural evolution. Except she still needed to drink. Not just wine at dinner or a cocktail before bed, but a steady, quiet stream of drink, sips from a bottle in her gym bag or one in her desk or possibly stopping by for shots at a bar on the way home. It was a faint sepia film she needed over everything, all the time; an attempt at life in a permanent golden hour, beautiful and gilded and without sharpness. And for a long time, it worked: She could burp Will and read term papers simultaneously, manage a faculty meeting while she made out grocery lists, all inside her fog. The only difficult part being getting out of bed. She sometimes bit the inside of her cheek to make herself stand. And there were one or two slipups. Once, she left her car locked and idling in the parking lot at work all day; one afternoon the daycare teacher asked her if she needed to lie down before she left with her son. Beth had tried to laugh off this second remark, tried for a casual commiseration between two working superwomen, telling the daycare teacher she felt perfect to drive, she’d never in her life felt so completely on top of things. Steven had confronted her. Tentative and quiet, as if he didn’t really believe what he was saying. She screamed that he was controlling and selfish and knocked over a bowl of potpourri in the hallway as she gesticulated. He crouched on his hands and knees and picked every dried petal up off the pale floor. She didn’t speak to him for a week, until the night they made up and she kissed both his hands and promised him it would all be fine. * At dinner on Friday, the end of his first week, Will no longer looks overstimulated but stern and annoyed, like a disgruntled government worker. He crushes peas with his fork tines. Beth asks him about his day. Fine, he says. She’s afraid to ask anything more. Steven says they should plan a camping trip to Yosemite before winter and asks Will what he thinks. The boy shrugs his shoulders and flattens more peas. After dinner, Beth sees her son’s backpack on the hallway floor. She reaches to pick it up and notices that the elastic crisscross cord for water or soda is missing. On closer inspection, she sees that the backpack is stained brown and green in several places, that a few parts have been graffitied and then penned over. She can’t make out any words through the dark blue hatches. There’s an odor. Spilled soda and the film of boy-sweat—musty-gym-shorts-and-not-airing-things-out sweat. A smell created in a separate and sweaty life. Beth carries the backpack up the stairs to Will’s room. On the top step, she hears the video games, the blasting and killing in an attractive, syncopated rhythm. She knocks on the door. You left your backpack downstairs, she says through the crack. The detonating continues. She says it again louder. Then the video game stops and her son opens the door, grabs the backpack and shuts it, and Beth hears the backpack hurled against the wall. She feels as if someone has shoved her in the street. She puts her lips to the crack in the door and cannot move for some time. I think he’s getting bullied, she tells Steven that night in bed. I knew this would happen. What makes you say that? her husband asks, not looking up from his book. He’s reading a thick tome about an epic man in an epic time who controls a fantastic empire. Did he say something else? The wrinkles in his forehead are deep now even when his face is at rest. No. She fingers a bad essay of which she has reread the first paragraph four times. The proof of the above thesis will be laid out in this paper herewith. You know I’ll talk to him if something is actually wrong. There’s irritation in her husband’s voice. She nods. He does fine in school, you know that. But this is middle school. Sixth grade. Steven sighs. Sure, but he has to get through it. He’s a strong kid. Beth’s skin feels as if it is a raw wound catching all her air. Steven presses the heel of his hand firmly against the book cover for a moment as if to crush some impulse. Then he releases it and reaches over to kiss Beth’s cheek. I don’t think he’s getting bullied. Try and relax. It’s only the first week. Beth nods again, staring at the cover of the book, this empire she knows was built on the backs of the weak and maimed. * The next morning, Beth tries to make Will’s favorite, scrambled eggs with bits of ham and American cheese. She whacks the inside of the bowl too hard, whipping yellow egg juice onto the counter in sticky streaks. She drops and breaks a dish. She swears. Steven is in the garage, sanding a desk he’s been building for several months. The furniture thing is part of his “recovery”—what all the books on codependency, on starting over with an alcoholic spouse, suggest: basically, get a life. Like a running shoe commercial, Beth thinks, with Alanon. Get a life that is not the addict’s life, not waiting for them to pass out or break a law or finally get a clue. And her husband has done this. With flying colors. He’s taken on therapy and his relationship with his father; he’s signed up for night classes in drafting and building. Several times he’s told her things like “I love you, but that’s not my problem” and it makes her chest tighten. Beth brings the broken parts of the dish to the kitchen sink and looks down at her fingers, her wedding ring clouded and eggy, her thumb covered with blood. She hears the belt sander in the garage and knows she should go to a meeting. Beth drives to the church and parks behind the nave. It’s a small space between a check-cashing store and a carwash hand-powered by Mexican immigrants. She sits for a moment with her window open, taking in a heavy, clear smell of a grass fire somewhere nearby. She watches the Mexicans scurrying around a car, the cuffs of their pants soaked. She likes this meeting. The church fellowship is somehow less defeating, less overwhelmingly collegiate and mocha latted than the meetings at the university. It’s full of secretaries and delivery guys, young, tattooed fathers and women in sweat suits. People who do not describe their developmental fuck-ups with allusions to Sartre or Freud. They sit in a circle in a large basement that’s used for quinciñeras, a room with a linoleum floor and no natural light. Beth has cried twice in this meeting. The first time was when another woman spoke about driving drunk to her child’s ballet practice. She had looked over at her daughter, the woman said, staring at the pink tutued form as they topped a hundred on the freeway, trying to determine if she had picked up the right child. The second time Beth cried was during her own share, when in the three minutes allotted she could only blurt her son’s name over and over. Her sobs echoed in the uncarpeted room and an elderly lady next to her, every last hair pulled into a tight bun behind her ears, patted Beth’s knee. The group moved on, Beth dabbing her mascara with her sleeve, pressing smooth the swelling around her eyes so Steven would not see, and she tried for the rest of the meeting to imagine constructing a subject-verb sentence in that room. In the unventilated basement this morning, the air is thick and acrid, and as the collection envelope goes around, a man to her left shares his “courage, strength, and hope.” He tells the group about a divine intervention: a newspaper boy who came collecting on the very afternoon the man was about to unload a shotgun into the back of his mouth; the man took it as a sign. Listening to him, Beth thinks about miracles and how she used to picture them a long time ago—an act of grace that would make a person feel forever glossy and chosen. Except she never realized that miracles were also ponderous and gray. That one could come along and all it would make you think of, for the rest of your life, was the dark slip of chance all around it, the black void a millimeter further out that was the difference between the miracle and the disaster. * She drops her son off the next Monday and he informs her that he wants to take the bus from now on. No one else gets dropped off, he says, not looking at her but squinting at the herd. Beth says nothing. She watches him leave with the vandalized backpack and drives home before her morning class. The light in the house is too bright and pure with no one in it. Every fourth or fifth breath, Beth feels her shoulders tense and rise. Without thinking, she goes out to the garage. It’s a separate building in back of the house with a shingled roof and two small, four-pane windows; inside, where they used to park the cars, are her husband’s hatchling tables and chairs, a wall of tools covered with wood shaving dust. Next to the garage looms a towering walnut tree that Beth thought protective and august when they moved in, but instead litters the driveway with slimy green walnut peels and jagged cracked shells. She runs her fingers over the beveled wood of the doorframe. Replaced. There is no gash, no splinters. Nothing but whitewashed beams flecked with dirt. She rubs harder, as if this movement will bring back some memory. Some vision of Will standing there, between the car and the door. Steven had shown her where the blood was. The hospital returns in flickers. A policeman, a young social worker with gold hoop earrings looking very sad. The tangy antiseptic smell. Steven later told her that the doctor had pronounced them fortunate: Their son was still young; he could learn to do everything with his other hand. But she must have receded back into blackness for this bit of good news. Perhaps she’d already been inside. Months later, after the rehab and the counseling, the long period of implacable silence, Beth and Steven talked about moving to a new house. They discussed razing the garage and putting in a rock garden. They talked about these things and decided everything should stay. Beth turns away from the garage, gets in her car, and backs out. She drives to the church. There is no meeting. She drives back to her son’s school. From the parking lot, she watches the children at recess, gamboling and chatting, harmless and small. Necessary in whatever form to his development, she tells herself. She searches for her son among the hundreds of them. She feels a sudden desperate need to see him in the midst of being tormented, his lame body tousled back and forth between grimy hands and garish grins, the backpack yanked and tossed to the side, kicked and spun, trampled. She is panicked with this need, as if she has lost her own reflection facing a mirror. When she arrives to teach her class, Beth wears her shame like a scarlet letter in front of her students. They stare at her, oblivious, playing with their phones, waiting for her to speak. * The next afternoon, her son comes home with a scratch over his eye, the faintest mustard yellow bruise spreading around it. It happened during P.E., he says. P.E.? How? She tries to keep the alarm out of her voice. She leans against the counter to look casual. Loose. Basketball, he says. She scans his face for an inadvertent tic, some other muscular giveaway. Listen, she says, you know if something else happened, you could tell me, right? That I just want you to tell me the truth? He stretches the collar of his T-shirt over his mouth. I told you already, he says under the fabric. Okay, she says. But it’s as if she’s begun to pick at a scab and cannot stop even though she knows it will leave a shiny pink scar. The thing is, honey, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth. He groans and turns toward the refrigerator. He opens the door and knocks jars and cartons around with his stump. I just don’t want you to think you have to lie to me, she goes on. I’m someone you can talk to. She hears her voice go higher, faster. No-thing hap-pened, he says, his voice echoing into the refrigerator. He takes out a juice box, and she watches him cradle the small box in the crook of his arm, unwrapping the straw from its plastic sleeve with his teeth and jabbing it into the drink with his left fist. Fine, Beth says, then I’ll go and see the principal if I have to. I’ll go to the district office. Will rolls his eyes and walks out of the kitchen. Beth follows him, at this point breathing only small snatches of air. Her son plops on the couch in the living room, sets the juice box on the table, and stabs his elbows into the pillows behind him to settle in. Beth sits down next to him as he flips through TV channels. What are you gonna watch? she asks. He doesn’t look at her. She pretends to be interested for several minutes as he skips from image to image, female skin to dirt bikes to stovetops to animated aliens with large heads. Beth’s heart pounds in her throat. Do you ever feel sad? she asks. Will doesn’t respond. She wonders if he even heard the question above the TV. Do you ever feel sad? she repeats, louder. He continues to flip through channels, not answering. He finally stops on the dirt bikes. Small-looking bodies in white and black jumpsuits dive their bikes into red dirt pits, spill down the crumbling sides, and land on every part of themselves. Can I ask you something? she says. Something serious? Still no response. Do you ever wish my hand was cut off too? That you had a chance to crush mine? The television’s eerie, unnatural glow reflects in the boy’s face even in the daylight. Beth is acutely aware of his features in this moment. Maturing. His cheekbones hardening, his jaw strengthening. It’s just, I would understand if you did, she goes on. It’s understandable. She is swirling now, not breathing at all, the image of the school and the certainty of evil and penance drenching her. I knew this would be the time you’d finally see, she told her son, and it’s okay. It’s okay if you hate me, if you want to chop my arm off too. All the things you’re going through, they’re not your fault. Will is glaring at the television. Are you listening to me? she asks. Suddenly, without thinking, she draws her right sleeve over her hand and waves the cuff at him. Do you want me to be like this too? Do you want to hate me? You can hate me! Go ahead! She is gesturing wildly in front of him until she sees the horror on his face. What are you doing? he shouts. Slowly, like an old man, he shakes his head in disbelief. Then, as though his whole body were an engine revving up, he shakes violently, his hand and stump punching the pillows right next to her. It’s my arm, he grunts through clenched teeth. It’s my hand that’s gone. He starts to scream. You have to get your own thing! This is mine! You can’t keep pretending it’s your thing! He locks eyes with her, his brown irises teeming with her reflection, his face red, and then storms out. Beth continues to clench the cuff of her right sleeve. Frozen. This is a moment she will remember. This sober moment in the white of the television light with her cuff hanging down she will never forget. * When Steven comes home from work Beth is on the living room floor where she placed herself, head down, after Will left. He’s gone across to the park to play ball. I need an hour, she says to her husband, without lifting her head. Please, she says. Steven does not ask what happened. We’ll get pizza, he says. We’ll be back in exactly an hour. The tone of his voice is compassionate but bounded. Beth hears him leave and call over to Will across the street to come for a drive. She remains hunched over her knees as the light through the windows turns golden and softens, as the walnut tree shimmers and then dims against the sky. When she finally pulls herself up, she goes upstairs, into his room. She hunts for the backpack, which is halfway under the bed, among dirty T-shirts and a damp towel. She hangs the towel on a doorknob, then sits on his bed with the backpack. She presses the nylon to her chest and smells the awful smell. The guilt is a warm and comfortable bath. She does not want to step out of it. Not into the cold air, out of the soft liquid that sloughs away any attempts of optimism, self-worth. What to think if she steps out, exposed? What to do with all that cold, open future?