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Something Happened 34
Another man my age was shot to death in the park yesterday and no one knows why. (Men my age are starting to die of cancers, strokes, and heart attacks now.) Last week, another man was shot to death in the park, and no one knows why. The week before that, another man was shot to death in the park, and no one knows why. Every week a man is shot to death in the park. No one knows why. A boy was stabbed on the subway. I don't go into the park. (In Jackson, Mississippi, every year or so, three colored college students are shot to death in cold blood by state police and everyone knows why, so none of the rest of us are afraid.) I'm even still afraid of doors. I'm afraid of closed doors and afraid of what I might spy or what might come in through open ones. I know I nearly died of fear from his tonsil operation that day in the hospital when the attendants rolled him back unconscious through the doorway still and pale, reeking of ether fumes that sickened me, and a crust of nearly black blood inching disgustingly before my eyes out through one of his motionless nostrils. (Only a miracle saved me.) My stomach turned. My head reeled. The room swam.
"What's the matter?" my wife shrieked at me in panic, looking at me. "What is wrong?"
(I don't know what she thought I saw or knew about him that she didn't or what she thought was happening to me that filled her with such alarm.) I couldn't speak. I thought I'd vomit (but didn't feel healthy enough). My ears buzzed, my brain ached, the floor undulated insanely, and I really believe I might have fainted away right then and there (like a woman) if my wife had not jumped up from the bedside of my boy to grab me by the elbow, shocking me with the stinging points of her long fingernails and with her shrill, penetrating shrieks. She held me firmly, her eyes burning upon me as large as blazing lamps. She kept me from falling and helped me, like a feeble invalid, to a chair. (My wife is stronger than I am, and better too, but I must never let her find that out.) She poured a glass of cold water for me from a pitcher that had been set on the table near the bed for my boy. The doctor entered as I was sipping from it and asked if anything was wrong. I shook my head, faking.
"There's nothing wrong, is there?" I said. "Tell her. He's all right, isn't he?"
"Good as gold," he answered with a smile. "He's going to be fine. These are his. They used to belong to him. He may want to keep them."
We threw them away before my boy regained consciousness and knew about them.
I've never forgotten that tonsillectomy. (I've never forgotten my own.) I still relapse into acute symptom recurrences in which I gag on the sweet, suffocating odor of ether rising from him and remember that pale face and dried smudge of blood desecrating one nostril and recollect with inescapable pain how, back home and recovered, he began crawling obsessively and instinctively (for a little while he was like some living prehuman thing small and obsessed) through the low and musty darkness into our bedroom over and over again after calculating each time until he hoped we were both soundly asleep because it was impossible for him to remain alone at night in his own room. (We did not realize then that it was actually impossible. We thought he was just being smart. I think it was impossible for me to remain alone at night in my own room after my tonsillectomy. I think I remember being allowed to sleep in bed with my mother and father once, and I can't imagine why they would have let me unless I was ill and scared.) We would chase him out. Each evening, he would not even want to go inside his own room when we told him it was bedtime. We made him. (He was afraid, I think, that we were plotting to nail him in for good as soon as we tricked him into entering and permitting us to close the door. He would not let us close the door. We always had to leave it open at least an inch.) We did not lock him in. We locked him out. We locked ourselves inside our room because we could not stand him crawling back to us all night long with his gaily colored quilt, which he always dragged along with him (and found him huddled up outside against the door on the floor of the narrow, drafty hallway. We had to stifle screams in the morning when we opened our door and bumped him because, at first, we forgot he might be there. Later, we were almost unable to open our bedroom door because we sensed he was. Sometimes he was not; he was missing, and that was just as appalling until we found him where he was). It was a scary, nerve-wracking time for all of us (mostly, I guess, for him, although we tended to ignore that. I slept out someplace as often as I could. He got over it in a week. It took me longer). It was torture (and he was putting us through it). It was maddening and exasperating to have to lie in bed trying to sleep each night while waiting to hear him testing our doorknob again or scratching against our thick pile carpet as he came worming his way back inside our bedroom again, rousing us, frightening us, from sleep in sluggish protest and torment again, or to awake disgruntled in the morning and discover him lying prostrate on the floor at the foot of our bed or in some corner of the room, with his quilt, near the legs of a dresser or chair, his sticky, heavy-lidded eyes glued shut finally with exhaustion, his misshapen lips lax, swollen, and blubbery, his thumb lying lifeless near his mouth as though it had just fallen out. (What a terrible time that tonsillectomy of his was for me. It was worse than my own. I may never recover from it fully.) "Stay in your room," I would command him sternly.
"You have to go back to your room," I would try to coax him gently in the darkness of our bedroom when some unexpected new reserve of kindness and pity would flow within me (pleading with him, really, to please let us alone). "You can leave the lights on if you want to. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'm not afraid."
"One of us will stay with you."
"Then you'll go."
"I can't stay in your room all night."
"Then why should I?"
"It's your room."
"I want to be in your room. I want to stay with you and Mommy."
"A doctor said you shouldn't. He said it would be bad for you."
"A doctor we saw."
"I don't believe him."
"Do you want to go see him?"
He was afraid of doctors then and has been afraid of doctors, nurses, and dentists ever since. (He doesn't ever want to have to have teeth drilled or pulled.) I don't think he will ever recover from that operation of his fully either. I fear he and my daughter too may never forgive me for permitting their tonsils to become so severely infected that it was necessary for them to be taken to a hospital to have them pulled out (or cut, if that's what they do. And his adenoids too. He isn't mad at me about his adenoids because he doesn't know what they are yet, and neither does anyone else, although those were taken away from him, too. They seem to be highly specialized organs growing inside a person's pharynx whose only natural function is to be taken out), and he keeps associating men he doesn't trust (not me, although he doesn't always trust me) with the anesthetist there, whose appearance he recalls only hazily.
"He gave me an enema," he alleges with abiding resentment and embarrassment during one of our disorganized discussions about everything that might be on his mind.
"No, he didn't," I correct him again. "That was an anesthetic. We gave you an enema at home the night before."
"He looked like Forgione."
"He was a Jap. You didn't even know Forgione then."
"Forgione is an Italian," he concedes abstractedly. "Forgione doesn't like me."
"Yes he does."
"No he doesn't."
"Yes he does. He does now."
"I don't like him."
"You don't have to. Just pretend."
"Miss Owens doesn't like me."
"Yes she does. She gives you good grades."
"She always hollers at me."
"She never does."
"I'm afraid she will if I don't do my work."
"Do your work."
"He says I can't climb ropes."
"I hate Forgione."
"You don't have to."
"He likes you."
"Did you go see him again?"
"Did you want me to?"
"I'm afraid of Forgione."
"You don't have to be."
"How do you know?"
"He says you've got a good build and can run like a weasel. You don't try to learn. You're supposed to use your feet too when you climb ropes. Not your legs, your feet."
"What's a weasel?"
"A four-legged animal that runs like you."
"Will I have wisdom teeth?"
"Sure. When you grow up."
"Will they have to be pulled?"
"Are you going to start worrying about that?"
"Do you think I can help it?"
"If they're bad."
"You don't like me."
"Yes I do."
"You go away."
"To Puerto Rico."
"I have to."
"To Puerto Rico?"
"Last year. You went away to Puerto Rico."
"I had to."
"Are you going again?"
"I have to."
"To Puerto Rico?"
"I'm on the committee. I help pick the place."
"Is that your new job?"
"I don't have it yet."
"To make a speech?"
"I hope so."
"They stole my bike when you were away."
"I bought you another one."
"I thought they were going to beat me up."
"They would have stolen it anyway, even if I was here. I would have been at the office."
"I have to."
"Whenever you go away I'm afraid you won't come back."
"How do you know?"
"You told me."
"Sometimes I cry."
"I'll come back."
"I don't want to be alone."
"You wouldn't be alone. You'd have Mommy."
"Mommy doesn't like me."
"Yes she does."
"She yells at me."
"I yell at you."
"You don't like me."
"You're full of bull. I'm always sorry afterward. You don't have to worry. I'll come back. I'm never going to leave you."
"When you die?"
His question catches me by surprise. "What made you think of that?"
"I don't want you to," he answers solemnly. "Maybe that's what made me think of it."
"I'll try not to, then," I laugh. (My laugh sounds forced, hollow.) "For your sake. I don't want to, either."
"You have to," he speculates. "Won't you?"
"Someday, I guess. By that time, though, you might not care."
He looks up sharply. "How come?"
"You'll be all grown up by then, if you're lucky, and won't need me anymore. You'll be able to take care of yourself and won't want me around. You might even be glad. I'll finally stop yelling at you."
"Hey, slut, come here," he calls out excitedly to my daughter with a grin of incredulous wonderment. His eyes gleam. "Do you know what Daddy just said?" His eyes gleam. "He said that when he dies we might not even care because all of us will be all grown up and able to take care of ourselves. We might even be glad."
My daughter's mood is dour and unresponsive (and I feel already that she will soon be deep in deadening drugs, if she isn't using them already).
"What about Derek?" she demands with inspired malice, and her eyes grow bright and cold. I frown. (She is proud of this thrust.) "I wasn't thinking about him."
"You forgot about Derek."
I forgot about Derek. I wish I could forget about him more often. It's hard to forget about him for long (while he's still here in the house with us, although I always try. When he's out of sight, he's usually out of my mind. We should send him away someplace and have him out of our house and minds for good. What a relief that will be. It would be upsetting. My daughter wants me to. My boy doesn't. It's no use seeing doctors anymore). Like my boy, I am afraid of doctors, nurses, and dentists (although I pretend not to be), and I guess I always have been. I'm afraid they might be right. (In the army, I would look directly at the needle when I got my immunization shots because I wanted so strongly to turn my head away. I am no longer a blood donor: I no longer give blood to my company blood bank when the Personnel and Medical Departments set up facilities annually to take blood from hardier employees than myself who volunteer and get thinned orange juice back in exchange. I do not set a good example for the people who work for me.) I am empathizing already with my boy's wisdom teeth. He has never mentioned them before (or I would have been empathizing with them sooner. I hope they're not impacted. How will I ever be able to get him to a dentist if he knows they are going to be pulled? Maybe he'll be different by then. And maybe he won't. I am not looking forward to having my own teeth pulled. I rarely get new cavities now, but old fillings fall away and teeth do have to be cleaned, and I don't like having my soft gums pricked by those hard, sharp dental instruments until they're sore from back to front and awash with blood. I don't like having my palate tickled when the backs of the uppers are polished. I am afraid to visit my dentist twice a year. I need periodontal work and have to go once a week). I am afraid of Forgione too (and would not want to have to climb ropes for him. He sneaks into my dreams occasionally too, along with niggers and other menacing strangers, steals through shadows in the background and slips away before I can find out what he is doing in them), although I do not associate him with the anesthetist at the tonsillectomy (who did not threaten me at all, although he did, quite cheerfully, give my boy a liquid anesthetic through a pink rubber tube as we watched. Is that an enema? Maybe he's right). No, I know I will never forget that tonsillectomy of his, or my own, or my daughter's, or the sequence of repetitious medical messages in hushed tones from doctors who told me to my face that my mother had probably suffered another small brain spasm or stroke and was degenerating simultaneously from progressive arthritis, so it was sometimes hard to be sure (for all of these were morbid and revolting experiences and I am unable to repress the memory of them), and I know I will also remember and dislike that last prospering young doctor with the pinstripe suit and exaggerated good posture (he was younger than I was and makes more money) as he stepped out onto the patio (I will never forget him) after examining Derek that pearly spring day (I will never forgive him), the screen door banging closed behind him, to tell us, with something of an unconscious quirk of a smile on his otherwise smug and emotionless face (I think I will always remember his smile): "He will never speak."
All my life, it seems, I've been sandwiched between people who will not speak. My mother couldn't speak at the end. My youngest child Derek couldn't speak from the beginning. My sister and I almost never speak. (We exchange greeting cards.) I don't speak to cousins. (I may never speak. In dreams I often have trouble speaking. My tongue feels dead and dry and swollen enough to choke my mouth. Its coat is coarse. It will not move when I want it to, and I am in danger and feel terror because I cannot speak or scream.) I wish I didn't have to leave my family and go to Puerto Rico. (I worry when I have to go away. I worry about all of us. I worry what would happen to them if I did not return.) Derek is pleasant enough most of the time (for a kid that cannot speak) and toilet trained now. He hardly ever causes a disturbance anymore when we take him out in public and usually does not act strange. But he will achieve a mental age of not much more than five, and arrive at that slowly, and turbulent emotional changes are expected with adolescence and full physical sexual maturity. (If he lives that long. I have heard that certain kinds of retardates--that's another thing we call him now--have a life expectancy shorter than average, and that's another thing I catch myself counting on.) He has a dreamy, staring, uncomprehending gaze at times that makes him appear preoccupied and distant, but apart from that, his face is not especially distinctive. (He does not embarrass us unless he tries to speak. We tell him not to.
r /> "Shhhh," we whisper.)
"Will he ever speak?" my boy asks.
"Will you send him away?"
"We'll do what's best."
"Would you send me away if I couldn't speak?"
"You can speak."
"If I couldn't?"
"But if I couldn't. If something happened to me."
"We would do what was best."
"For who?" sneers my daughter.
"For all of us. We aren't sending him away just because he can't speak."
"Please don't give him away," begs my boy, who is unable even to look at him without drawing back.
"Then why don't you help us with him?" I demand. "You never want to play with him. Neither of you."
"Neither do you," sneers my daughter.
I do not reply.
My boy is silent.
In the family in which I live there are four people of whom I am afraid. Three of these four people are afraid of me, and each of these three is also afraid of the other two. Only one member of the family is not afraid of any of the others, and that one is an idiot.
It is not true
It is not true that retarded (brain-damaged, idiot, feeble-minded, emotionally disturbed, autistic) children are the necessary favorites of their parents or that they are always uncommonly beautiful and lovable, for Derek, our youngest child, is not especially good-looking, and we do not love him at all. (We would prefer not to think about him. We don't want to talk about him.) All of us live now--we are very well off--in luxury with him and his nurse in a gorgeous two-story wood colonial house with white shutters on a choice country acre in Connecticut off a winding, picturesque asphalt road called Peapod Lane--and I hate it. There are rose bushes, zinnias, and chrysanthemums rooted all about, and I hate them too. I have sycamores and chestnut trees in my glade and my glen, and pots of glue in my garage. I have an electric drill with sixteen attachments I never use. Grass grows under my feet in back and in front and flowers come into bloom when they're supposed to. (Spring in our countryside smells of insect spray and horseshit.) Families with horses for pets do live nearby, and I hate them too, the families and the horses. (This is a Class A suburb in Connecticut, God dammit, not the wild and woolly West, and those pricks have horses.) I hate my neighbor, and he hates me.