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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 31


  I was very good to my boy the rest of that day. (I was so good to him, and sensitive, that I did not even tell him or my wife what I had seen. He had been afraid to fight.) The next day, as I more or less foresaw, he did not want to go to play group again. He didn't say so; he merely said he didn't feel well but would probably be all right if we told him he had to go. He looked wretched and pasty, and my heart went out to him silently because I knew (I thought I knew) what he felt. He went. We told him he did have to go and took him. Leaving with us for play group that morning (our daughter was away at camp that summer, where she was having a difficult time of it too, if we could believe her), he looked as miserable and ill in spirit as he did on that bleak and drizzling, unnatural dawn we rode with him to the hospital to have his tonsils--and his adenoids--taken out (I keep forgetting those adenoids. I don't even know what adenoids are, except that they are there and dangling, somewhere up inside the nose. Maybe nobody knows what adenoids really are. I once felt pretty witty telling a young girl from Ann Arbor that adenoids were undescended testicles), and, numb with gloom ourselves that dark and heavy morning, strove to make casual conversation with him in the taxicab that I wished would speed faster and be there at the hospital already before one of the three of us passed out or passed away from the sheer strain of the approaching event, like that jolly and innocently empty conversation I always used to try to make with my mother in the nursing home during those tedious and sickening visits with her that soon served no purpose at all. I could just as easily have sent my small food parcels into the room by mail or with one of the nurses and departed immediately (and spared myself the gruesome ordeal of watching her fumble with fragments of fish and meat and candy and cake with her deformed and trembling fingers and dabbing the greasy, crumbling pieces into her lips. She did not want me to feed her). But I was her son: I was her dutiful son (ha, ha, and willing to suffer penitentially with her part of every weekend at first, then every other weekend, then every third or fourth weekend, until she began to fail rapidly, when, for some hypocritical reason, to absolve myself, it turned into every weekend again for five or ten or fifteen minutes), but not an especially grateful one. Neither one of us was grateful to the other. I was not grateful to her for having been my mother (it had become by then an unjust imposition. Why could she not have gone away unnoticed, as my father had done, inconveniencing me not at all?); and she was not grateful to me for my visits or the news and things to eat I brought her. What little conversation we had was forced. Angered silence would have been better. She missed her mother.

  "Ma," she moaned deliriously again and again from her drugged and agitated stupor near the end, her glazed, reddened eyes showing unfocused fright and welling with tears, and that was almost all she had to say, except for what I think she had to say to me at the end.

  I like her more now than I did when she was alive.

  My mother was almost eighty when she died, and her memory had gone almost entirely, but she died crying for her mother, and I suppose that I shall die crying for mine (if the Lord, in his infinite mercy, allows me to live long enough. Ha, ha). So much of misfortune seems a matter of timing. We were late coming for him that day, and we saw him, half a block from the play area, standing alone on the sidewalk in his bare feet and bawling loudly, helplessly, because he thought we were never going to come for him at all. (I was incensed when I saw him. We were simply late. Nothing else had happened.) Other people, children and grown-ups, looked at my boy curiously as they walked past and saw him standing there crying: none of them offered to help, none of them questioned him. (Good God--even I will help a small child who seems to be in trouble, if no one else does.) He did nothing when he saw us, except shriek more piercingly, quail more frantically, in a tortured plea for us to rescue him from whatever odd spell was holding him to that spot in terror. (I was so deeply incensed with him for a moment that I was actually tempted to stop with a sneer and delay going to him.) He was convulsed with grief by the idea that we had abandoned him, just because we were a little bit late, that we had left him there purposely because we were dissatisfied and disgusted with him, and that he was never going to see us again or have anyone to take care of him.

  I was infuriated. He knew the way home. It wasn't far. The walk was uncomplicated. Many mornings we would let him lead us from the house to the boardwalk to the play group just to show him he could get there alone safely and then let him lead us back afterward to demonstrate to himself and us that he also knew how to return. The village was small, there were hardly any cars, it was impossible to get lost--if he did, he could always follow the boardwalk or ask somebody for directions. He knew that too. (We were always pressing him to ask people for directions when he was unsure, but he was afraid of strangers, even children his own age, and reluctant to talk to them. When he did, he mumbled inaudibly with lowered eyes, and whoever he asked always requested him sharply to repeat what he had just said.

  "Do you know how to get there?" my wife and I would ask. "You know how. Are you sure you won't get lost? Which way do you turn from here? Do you see you can't get lost? Even if you turned here instead of there or a block later you would still wind up on the boardwalk or the main avenue. You can just follow the people or ask somebody if you do get lost. Will you get lost?") Yet he had gone only far enough to be almost out of sight of the play group area, where the few remaining counselors were languidly cleaning things up, and could go no farther. Even when he recognized us and saw us coming he did not move, as though even to budge one hair's-width from that agonizing place he occupied would be to risk fainting away over some invisible precipice and swoon out of existence. He remained stationary on the pavement in that single spot on his tiny bare feet as though every bone in his ankles had already been crushed (I noticed then, I think, for the first time, how his feet pronate, how his arches are almost flat, and how large and sharp and close to the ground his ankle bones are) and even to continue standing there was excruciating and unendurable. He couldn't move and he couldn't stay where he was. (He did not rush to us.) He howled. We were salvation, God, his only hope for life, but we had to go all the way to him in order to save him, while his gaping, glistening eyes fastened on us frantically. He would not (could not) take even one step toward us to assist in his own rescue and abbreviate his torment. (It was pitiful, pathetic, heartrending; and I fought back violent surges of anger and impatience and the feeling I might lose control and start berating him right then and there. I wanted to hit him. I felt he deserved it and felt I would have done so if he were older and bigger.) My wife quickened her pace and moved out ahead of me and I plucked at her elbow to hold her back.

  "Don't run!" I hissed at her. "You'll scare him."

  But it was me he waited for, my presence and protection he needed, and he did not begin walking again until he had felt my hand and was able to grip it solidly. (I had the impression then, as I have now, that if we had turned away from him and gone back, or if, for some unavoidable reason, we had not come for him that day at all, he would have remained stranded unalterably on that same spot at which by invisible forces he had been brought to a stop, a tiny mark on the surface of the world no greater than the dimensions of his own naked footprints, until he had perished or collapsed from exposure, hunger, thirst, fear, or fatigue, or until some unnaturally concerned and curious lady or man had gone searching for a policeman to notify him that there was a small boy standing in one place on the sidewalk who had been crying there all day and night and was in danger of dying from starvation, fright, or loneliness. I had the feeling then, and I sometimes have it now, that he would have failed to survive without my wife and me, will not be able ever to exist without the two of us to sustain him, and he may have that feeling too. What will he do when we die? What will Derek do?) "If you were swimming," he asked me recently, "and thought you were going to drown, would you yell for the lifeguard and let everybody on the beach see them save you? Or would you let yourself drown?"

  I don't know which I'd
do. I do know, though, that I no longer go swimming in water over my head.

  I would be embarrassed to yell for the lifeguard.

  I would be embarrassed to call for a doctor at night if I was having a heart attack but wasn't sure.

  "You don't have to be afraid," I told him.

  He clung to my hand and walked beside me gingerly with his head down, making each step he took on his bare feet a delicate, probing test. His chest panted, his ribs and breastbone heaving as though they might splinter and stab through his fine translucent skin.

  "I don't feel well," he said. His tears dried slowly, staining. "I felt sick."

  "We'll take your temperature. Do you feel sick?"

  "I was afraid you were never coming for me."

  "If you really feel sick when we get back to the house we'll call a doctor and have him fix you up, so you've got nothing to worry about."

  "I didn't feel well this morning either."

  "I don't know what you're so scared about. You couldn't get lost coming back to the house even if you tried."

  "I knew you'd think I was making it up."

  He didn't go back to play group the following morning. He didn't want to and we didn't make him. (He adored us for allowing him to stay at home.) He never went back.

  "Don't you want to go back there at all?" I asked at breakfast on Sunday.

  "He doesn't."

  We let it drop.

  But after that he had little to do. He had no other kids to play with, no more friends. He spent much of each day on the beach with us, sifting sand. And saying nearly nothing. He wanted to remain indoors a great deal. He read picture books and built lots of models of cars, planes, and aircraft carriers that he took no pride in completing and no joy in preserving. He had no interest in anything. He reread comic books and stared torpidly and sporadically at the television set. He offered to help my wife with the housework. (This made her nervous.) His attention span was nil; he could not concentrate for long on any of the jigsaw puzzles we bought him. He seemed forgetful. He glued himself to us and went with us almost everywhere, holding on. He did not want to go into town but did not want to be left behind.

  ("Must you both go?" he would ask despondently.)

  He did not want to be left alone and tried to remain with one or both of us always, except at bedtime, when he had to go off into his own room in a different part of the house (and even then he would awake very early each morning--sometimes he awoke in the middle of the night--and ease into the doorway of our bedroom just to assure himself that we were still there and breathing. He remained there persistently, making enough soft noises to disturb one or the other of us.

  "What is it?" my wife or I would demand in an exasperated groan. "What do you want?"

  "Breakfast," he would lie, if it was already light.

  It was spooky. I sometimes had the feeling he never slept at all but merely pretended to and lay awake in his bed watching the window and counting the minutes until he could bear his solitude no longer and felt it was safer to come in to us). He exuded always an air of abject apology, even as he loitered about the kitchen and handed my wife things to help her with the cooking and dishwashing. (My wife had a fear that he would begin wearing her aprons and then other articles of her clothing. What would we do if he turned into a transvestite? And so did I. I pretended to be eager to teach him how to play chess, in order to distract him from my wife and help the time pass, and he pretended to be eager to learn. But neither one of us was really interested, and we soon stopped, even though we could not think of much else for him to do.) It was useless and cruel to urge him to go out and play. There was no one he could play with. He did not want to be with, talk to, be seen by, or even look at any of the boys and girls from the play group, not even any of those he used to hail with glee and point out proudly as his friends. Whenever he walked with us someplace and any came into view, nodding, waving, grinning, or calling hello to him by name, he stiffened and turned his gaze away in angry resolution, offering no response. And soon, no more of them did. They were no longer his friends. It was eerie. It was as though he had never met any of them. He continued to stiffen anyway, tensely and wrathfully, each time we walked and he saw any of them, as though expecting something he loathed to happen. Nothing did. I was angry too and wanted often to slam him on the arm with my fist and shove him toward them roughly with a command to begin playing with them again and have fun.

  It was an agony for all of us.

  It was the worst summer I ever spent. None of us knew what to do. My wife and I were all he had, and we were not so sure we liked him anymore, although, we never said exactly that. Derek was still a baby in a crib. We didn't know about him yet. And my daughter was away at camp that year for the first time, where she was having a lonely and miserable time of it too, if we could believe her, because all the other girls had been there before and fell easily into cliques, while she was left a friendless outsider. Or so she maintained to us in her letters. We didn't believe her. She wanted to come home: in every letter, she wrote that she wanted to come home; sometimes she wrote only to tell us she wanted to come home. We didn't believe her. Some children don't write home enough; ours wrote too much, three or four, five times a week, and our spirits sank every time we saw another letter from her. We did not know whether to believe her or not. We thought she was telling us such things solely to make us unhappy. Even at so early an age she was crafty enough to feign crisis and despair just to afflict us with indecision and guilt. She knew how to hurt. From what we were able to learn from other parents with children at the same camp, she seemed to be having no worse a time of it than normal. I wondered why she wrote so often if she had nothing else to say. I did not want to go see her on visiting day. I didn't miss her--I didn't have a chance to, with those damn letters. What for? It meant a long drive on a hot day, a reunion filled with accusations and dejection, another wasted weekend. When we got there, though, she seemed all right and genuinely glad we had come. She behaved as though she had missed us, which was a thing that had not occurred to me and which she had not once, I am sure, put into her letters. Under an elm tree, where no one else could hear us, I asked her point-blank if she wanted me to take her back with us. I even offered to invent some face-saving explanation: my mother was seriously ill, which was true. She said no and seemed to have many smiling friends and sang the camp songs lustily along with the rest of them. She lost the color war. Later, she was to charge that I had bullied her into saying no, and I imagined I saw tears in her eyes and felt a lump in her throat as we drove off for the rest of the summer and she stood at the roadside staring after us with a somber, unmoving face, refusing stolidly to wave good-bye. And those same urgent, whimpering, peremptory letters insisting we bring her home began again and continued in a ceaseless stream. Why, we wondered, although we never lamented it to each other in precisely these words, couldn't she leave us alone, why could she not have the decency to leave us in peace now that we had gone to so much trouble and considerable expense to get her out of our way for eight weeks? She wrote letters to our boy marked PERSONAL in which she pleaded with him--and lavishly promised him things, including to be kinder and more generous with him in the future forever--to do everything he could to get us to let her come home because she was so miserable away from us, at a time when he himself was so downtrodden with sorrow over his own suffering that he could scarcely muster the courage to speak to us about anything at all. Most of his talk with us was monosyllabic replies to questions, mumbled in undertones. One would think she enjoyed being with us, had been satisfied in our company in the past, which was not true. All our summers have been bad. And most of our Sundays. And still are. How I dread those three-and four-day weekends. I wish my wife and I played tennis or enjoyed going on boats for sailing or fishing. But I don't; I don't even enjoy people who do. I don't enjoy anything anymore. I didn't know how to explain to my boy just what the hell was going on with my daughter each time he received another letter from her decla
ring she was miserable and begging him to beg us to allow her to come home.