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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 32


  "Why won't you let her?" he would inquire with extreme reserve.

  "I'm not stopping her."

  I didn't know what was going on.

  "Do you want to come?" I told her by telephone. "Pack up and come. I'll drive up for you now."

  "No."

  I did know that she was persecuting me. She could indeed have been homesick and unhappy; but she was also using that unhappiness with cool detachment and calculation to upset and oppress us all--as she persecutes me deliberately that same way still, I feel--and that was how we passed the time.

  Somehow the time passed; it must have passed very slowly for him. (He liked playing baseball then--and enjoyed being good at it. He loved catching flies and getting hits and scooting around the bases. Now he had nobody to play with.) Somehow, the time always passes (doesn't it, with no help from us and in spite of anything that is going on, as it passes for me now at the company, as it passed ultimately for my much younger daughter then away at camp, and passes now uneventfully for my wife at home with the help of a sneaky and avenging slurp from the wine bottle every half hour or so during the morning and afternoon and an energetic bang in the box from me at night one or two times a week or so if I come home and feel up to it, and as it passed for my poor old mother when she was bedridden with arthritis and painful, cramping limbs and joints and stricken speechless by her brain spasms and just about all she had left to her, for that last, little while, was a consciousness that understood dismally how little she had left. All she had left was me. Yet, she held on, clawed fingers and all, even in those final comas, she held on stubbornly and willfully for dear life, ha, ha, but her kidneys failed her treacherously, it was a stealthy, unsuspected betrayal from underneath, and in the end, ha, ha, she died, crying for her mother, moaning "Ma! Ma! Ma!" in a drone that was clear and loud although the doctor said she felt no pain and did not know what was happening. How did he know? Then I could bury her. At last I could bury her, although she had died about sixteen months before. I had a mother once who died sixteen months before she was buried. At least as far as I was concerned. My sister lives far away with diabetes and other family problems of her own and didn't come to the funeral. I didn't want her to and told her it wasn't necessary. I would handle and pay for everything. We aren't close. I wasn't close to my mother. I was mad at her.

  "Hey, look, Ma," I could have argued with her with good reason any time during those sixteen months. "You're dead already, don't you know? You died one day exactly two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve months ago right in front of my eyes, and now you're just hanging around. I didn't know it at the time but I felt it, and I turned away from you with a lump in my throat and sobbed, or wanted to, and grieved for you secretly, for over a week because something inside me knew that you were dead and gone. You were dead but not gone. I lost my mother a while ago and keep remembering and losing her again. But you're not her. You're just hanging around. Now you're just hanging around, ruining my weekends and costing me money, splotching my moods and splattering my future. You've been hanging around ever since. You're depressing everybody. What do you want me to do? What are you hanging around for?"

  Oh, boy. Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy. I never could say that, even to myself, while she was alive. But that was the way I think I felt. I can say it now. That was the longest I had to wait for anyone's funeral, and she waited with me almost as long. God willing, I will have to wait even longer for my own. Soon, I know, I will have to start. I know how I will begin. I'll have bladder and prostate trouble--that's if I'm lucky, and don't have a coronary occlusion or stroke first. Perhaps some hernia or hemorrhoid operation will be thrown in gratuitously also just to divert me from my bladder and prostate troubles while I'm hanging around waiting for my burial services to be allowed by law to begin. But I know I'll probably want to hang around as long as I can too, pain, pity, self-revulsion and all, clinging with weakening fingers to vaporous mirages above the bedsheets and muttering "Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma!" to the end, instead of "ha, ha, ha." Perhaps only then, when there is room left in the brain for just one memory, and throat and mouth left for just one word, will Green, White, Black, Brown, Kagle, Arthur Baron, wife's sister, three-minute speeches in Puerto Rico, and a drunken, blowsy, young whore I didn't even want in Detroit last week ridiculing me obstreperously, at a party, as she rejected advances I did not even make, perhaps only then will galling events and presences like these be expunged from my teeming inventory of trivial slights and defeats I've never been able to absorb and detoxify and will be filed away with me into oblivion and dead records once and for all. That's the way I will put an end to the world. I will not want to go. They will have to drag me down writhing and moaning, I like to think now, while I fight with mind, eyes, ears to remain, but I know I will probably be undermined also by a liver or two kidneys while I'm concentrating all my forces on top, and I will lose the battle without even knowing I have gone. I will give up the ghost without sensing I am doing so. Morphine will help befog me. I don't ever want to go. I hope I outlive everyone, even my children, my wife, and the Rocky Mountains. I don't think I will. There are valves in my heart; there are valves in my car; if General Motors is unable to produce a valve guaranteed to last longer than one more year, what chance has random nature? I cannot help feeling sorry for myself. I cannot help feeling sorry for him). I felt sorry for him then (I feel sorry for him now); he was hanging around already with the vacant, colorless look of someone old and waning, denuded of wants and enthusiasm, like an invalid mother in a nursing home who knows she has been put there to die. He hardly spoke. There was nothing he enjoyed, he seemed to lack even anything to hope for (God--he had given up so early!), except for that sweltering, muggy summer to end and school, which he feared, to begin and snatch him up again into its buzzing, fathomless drama of unknown conflicts and rewards. He had no spark or spirit. He was dull. He was always hanging around. Instead of catching fly balls and running around bases in games with friends, he tagged along with us to the boardwalk or beach and held himself apart, saying nearly nothing.

  ("When are we gonna go back?"

  He didn't want to swim. Wherever he went with us, he was ill at ease and wanted to be somewhere else, usually back home, except in the dark at the movies.

  "Do you have to go out again tonight?")

  And sifted sand listlessly. (We did not want him with us.) Whenever my eyes fell upon his, he quivered and drew his neck in, as though he expected me to lunge toward him and begin browbeating him ruthlessly. He looked like someone sick. (People often inquired of us softly, to my intense discomfort, if he were not feeling well. At times I could not bear him.) I did everything I could think of to help.

  "What would you like to do?" I offered.

  "Where would you like to go?"

  "What would you like to happen?"

  "Do you want to go to the movies? Maybe we'll go with you. What do you want to see?"

  "If you had one wish, what is it? Tell me. Maybe I can help make it come true. What do you wish for now more than anything else in the whole world?"

  "Nothing."

  "Nothing."

  "Nothing."

  "Nothing."

  "Please stop."

  I could have strangled him. I could have beaten him. (I think I wanted to.) All I got from him was nothing. He made no effort at all to help us make things easier for him. I could not bear to see him always so idle and forlorn. He was always there. In the morning when we awoke. He never seemed to sleep. No matter how late my wife and I came in at night, he was always lying awake, his door open, to make certain we were back and that it was us, and not someone else, who had come in. He made no effort to talk to the baby-sitter we had got for him and Derek.

  "Where are you going? What are you going to do?" he interrogated us closely each time it seemed to him that my wife and I were making ready to go out of the house together.

  He trailed after us almost everywhere we let him. He began to get on my nerves. (I had to feel sorry for him too of
ten. Why in the world did he happen to me? I began to feel about him then the way I feel about Derek now. But Derek, at least, I can disassociate myself from most of the time and escape from.) There was no escaping from him. He trailed us everywhere, a visible, public symptom of some odious family disease we would have preferred kept secret.

  "I have nothing to do," he answered whenever we told him to go away from us and do something else.

  We often felt grotesque. People saw him with us all the time. He had that lump in his throat. He would not speak to other lonely little boys we spotted for him and tried to introduce him to.

  "Look, here is Dicky Dare. He is a nice boy and just about the same age as you. Why don't you go play with him?"

  He would not want to.

  "Why not?"

  (He did not want to be associated with another kid who had no one else to play with. He admired the kid who had wanted to fight with him at play group and wished that other boy liked him enough in return to want to become his friend.) When people we knew asked helpfully if he would like to meet someone to play with, we had to tell them no. We could never tell them why. We couldn't explain that he would not cooperate. (We had a lump in our throat.) "I can't stand it," my wife would grieve, and be about to cry. "He looks like a ghost. He's so unhappy. I can't stand to see him this way. It breaks my heart."

  "Me neither," I confessed.

  The only good days I had that summer were the days I spent in the city at my office. It broke my heart too. He wouldn't roller skate or ride his bike. I began to lose my temper more easily. (I was ugly.) "Go play," I ordered him curtly at the beach one day when I could control my temper no longer.

  He blinked.

  "Bob," my wife cautioned.

  "Huh?" he asked.

  "Are you deaf?"

  "I didn't hear."

  "Yes, you did. Go play."

  "With who?"

  "There's a kid sitting there near that fat lady."

  "Daddy. Please."

  "He looks your own age. He looks like he wants to meet somebody to play with."

  "I'm playing here."

  "With what?"

  "Sand."

  "Sand," I mimicked nastily, and pointed toward the shore. "Or I'll drag you over there by the arm and ask him for you." (Having made that threat, I had to mean it. There was an article in a women's magazine that month advising parents to be firm with balky children. There was an article in another women's magazine advising us to be sympathetic and indulgent. I didn't care about either magazine. I was mad. My wife was trying to warn me off with a look. I paid no attention. It was a matter of face now between myself and this poor, bewildered little boy.) "Would you like that?" I threatened.

  His face was chalky. "I won't be able to speak."

  "You're speaking now."

  "I've got a lump in my throat. I want to vomit."

  "You'll have a lump on your head," I could not restrain myself from wisecracking. "Get going. You can vomit later."

  He rose reluctantly and went with slow, wobbling steps to do as I had forced him.

  "You see?" I whispered to my wife, fearfully and penitently, craving immediate absolution. "He's going."

  "I think it's horrible."

  "He's doing it."

  He was speaking to the other boy, a wan, yellow-haired kid who shook his head without looking up and gave a labored, long reply. His mouth moved funny. I was sickened. The fat woman glared. My boy walked back to us with knees that seemed to bend with pain and he was almost in tears as he told us in a blocked, stammering voice that the other boy stuttered badly and had said no, he did not want to play.

  "Well, I did what you wanted!" my boy spat out at me bitterly, giving me a quick, stabbing glance, and sat down in the sand again a good distance away. His eyes were steaming at me with anger.

  I felt frustrated and enraged.

  Everything was going wrong for me, one thing after another, even my wife's snatch (God dammit).

  That summer my wife had a sensitive snatch, a recurring vaginal inflammation, and I (even she, until I tried) didn't even know if I would be able to get laid properly when I came out for those dragging, intolerable weekends. (I could have done much better staying in the city. I was doing better. I was getting all I wanted.) I did not have much else to do out there at the beach that I enjoyed, except make eyes at other wives and josh suggestively with very young girls. So I kept losing my temper with him and trying to help him. (I'd lose my temper when I'd see myself fail. I was filled with such depressing feelings of rejection and impotence at my inability to cheer him up, to alleviate his wretched agony and isolation, to have him succeed at doing something new.) I kept commanding him gruffly to attempt doing things that he did not want to do and was probably physically unable to do because of the rigid tension impairing his balance and coordination and because of the lump in his throat.

  Because I felt he was afraid of the ocean, I made him go wading with me, and he almost drowned when a large wave broke suddenly and knocked us both down, tore him from my grasp, and sent him rolling and tumbling helplessly toward shore in the deep, swirling, tumultuous surf. When he stumbled to his feet finally (as I struggled feebly against the backwash in an effort to reach him and save him), he was holding his breath, and his eyes were clamped shut so tightly that both knuckled halves of his flushed face looked like clenched and crimson fists. He would not open them until I had taken his hand again and led him to shore. I have visions of that episode still.

  "You know, Daddy," he said to me, "I was afraid to open my eyes. I didn't know where I was and I was afraid to open my eyes and look. I was afraid that when I opened my eyes I would be all the way out there, and I didn't want to look."

  I was surprised he talked to me, surprised he still trusted me enough to confide in me. (He could have drowned or been battered to death or paralysis right then and there. He might have been swept away from me out to sea by a suction of rushing water in a matter of three or four seconds. Once I helped lifeguards save a baby in an inflated tube that had been carried out thirty yards from shore in an instant. I might never have seen him alive again. I have always been afraid of death by drowning. I might never have been able to forgive myself if I had lost him then. My wife might never have allowed me to. I would have had to divorce her, leaving her with a Derek who was destined by birth, we are told, to turn out mentally defective and my daughter, who has been of small aid and comfort, which might not be such a bad thing for me to do even now. I do think about divorce a lot and I always have. Even before I was married I was thinking of getting divorced. I can picture my next wife: she would be younger, prettier, dumb, and submissive. She would be blond, short, chubby, and cheerful and would be very eager to please me in the kitchen and the bedroom. In short order I would find it impossible to be with her for more than an hour or two at a time, and I would have to divorce her too. I'm glad he lived. Getting married was my idea. I enjoy fucking my wife. She lets me do it anyway I want. No Women's Liberation for her. Lots of male chauvinist pig. I couldn't bang her freely even when there was no soreness because he was always hanging around the house in the daytime and was apt to be lying awake at night. I often tried to chase him away from us just for that. If we locked him out of our bedroom we didn't know if he was camping discouragedly just outside the door, where he could hear. I was surly much of the time and did a lot of growling at everyone.) I did such monstrous things to him. They seemed so necessary at the time. I did not know what else to do. I couldn't get rid of him, and he knew I wanted to. He did go bike riding one day and he fell against a wooden fence and bruised a knee so badly he had to walk with a limp for a week and got a long black splinter in his forearm that I had to poke at and dislodge with a sewing needle (and felt like vice personified doing so. I debated darkly with myself whether or not to take the two-week summer vacation I had coming to me. My wife made me; she said she would be unable to endure it any longer at the beach without me and that she would come back into the city. So I
took it. And there were days on my vacation that I would have paid the company twice what I was getting just to be allowed to come in and work). I couldn't even get drunk anymore. I couldn't get high on martinis at cocktail time because he was always around somewhere listening and watching. (I got weary headaches over my eyes instead.) We couldn't tell dirty jokes, I couldn't be obscene, not even when we had people in. I couldn't flirt. He was there and would see me. (At least my daughter, God bless her benevolent heart, had been considerate enough to pack up her troubles in her old duffel bag and footlocker and go off to camp to be miserable far away from us for the summer and pester us from afar.) He was right there. He was always right there. (I couldn't say or do anything I wouldn't want him to witness. There were so many ways I might upset him.) When I turned around sometimes, he was underfoot and I would step on him, and we would both feel terrible and blurt clumsy, incoherent apologies. (I wanted to curse. I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream: "Get out of here!") I couldn't decide what to say. I didn't know how to handle it. Finally, I figured it out. I said: "Get lost."

  To make him realize he was capable of leaving us and finding his way around without getting lost, I made him go for a long walk alone; and, of course, he got lost.

  "Get lost," I repeated more sharply, when he appeared not to understand.

  "Huh?"

  "I've got nothing to do," he had grumbled a moment before.

  "Go someplace."

  "Where?"

  "Away. Take a walk."

  "With who?"

  "With yourself. Mommy and I want to be here on the beach alone for a while."

  "I won't know how."

  "Yes, you will."

  "I won't get back."

  "Yes, you will."

  "Now?"

  "When then?"

  My wife stared away from him stonily. "You'd better go," she advised unsympathetically.

  "Go down the beach to the amusement pier. Then turn around and come back. Just follow the water down the beach to the amusement pier. Then turn around and follow the water back."

  "I want to stay here."

  "I want you to go."

  "I'll get lost."

  "You'd have to be pretty damned smart to do that."