By Joshua Hren

Little Michael let himself in the backdoor, his lank hand firm around the hydraulic meant to ease the door shut without slam, his black bangs cut in such a way that the line left there was almost inhuman, a concision that existed only in mathematical ideals. Always straight. His parents took that sort of thing very seriously. Little Michael poised between the door and the slam. He would not let it ease shut. He would not have it sound at all. Come out, he mouthed without noise. Come out, his neck jerking to the side and back.

Blaise sat at the green table, his head just jutting out over the surface. Blaise listened behind to the sound in the bathroom, the hairdryer’s hum. It was still on high. It would still be two or three minutes. He gave his friend the look, something between a glare and a dare. Then white bread sopped the whole plate. He pressed hard, starting at the center and moving out in circles to sponge clean the over easy yellow delight. The sting of pepper in his nostrils, then the perk of tabasco. The plate looked practically unused, and he set a clean fork next to it. Grandma would not settle for dirty dishes on the table, but he could by no means set the thing down in the sink without sound. He thought, something like a prayer, please let her come into the kitchen before mom does, please send me something to stall mom. His cheek took the balled bread well, and he fashioned himself a baseball player, minor league at least, chewing. And Little Michael flung the door open wide. A dare.
A demand. Blaise would have to either exit fast or risk his mother’s hearing the bang.

“Come on,” Little Michael said, when Blaise caught up beside him.

“Where are we going?” asked Blaise.

“Your mom’s getting married,” Little Michael said.

“Don’t do it,” Blaise said, “Whatever. Not today.” feeling already the itchy pain at the edge of his eyes.

“Seriously. And you’re going to have a sibling.”

“A what?”

“A sister. Or a brother. You have to be ready.”

“I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

“For what?”

“I’ll show you.” Little Michael felt low in the pocket of his thin blue jeans and pulled out a thin bullet-shaped container and pointed it at Blaise. “Here,” he said, leading him around the alleyway to his garage, which was three houses down. The alley was as gray as the smoke that Blaise had seen come from his mother’s mouth as he spied through the upper bedroom window, through the folded-over shade that by now stayed that way, folded over, dogeared like the most important page of a book, when she would sit out on the swing in the last reaches of some streetlight and have her cigarettes. Blaise would count them. Seven, sometimes, at a time. In between came the calmest part, when the backyard swing would whine a bit and darkness would cover the earth. Then there would be light again, no larger than the oval of a peach seed, and then gray again. His bare feet freezing on the tiled floor, bent at the toes to see her. Sometimes the window crack to hear. Sometimes she said things to herself out loud. 

The silver canister, which was no bigger than Little Michael’s hand, overflowed with creamed coffee.

“I added milk so you wouldn’t get sick. I remember the last time I let you try my dad’s coffee you got real sick, and got all sad too, and told your mom. But you’re not going to tell your mom anything this time, because I thought it all through. I’m looking after your best interest.” He said this last line with a garbled face that made Little Michael look older than his father. “I brought coffee because I need you to be awake. Fully awake. Can you be awake?”

“I am awake,” Blaise said, fingering the nose-rest of his thick brown glasses.

“My dad says we need to be vigilant, which means wide awake. He says the president sent him a signed paper calling on people such as himself to be awake. Things are falling apart in this country. My dad’s the one who told me that your mom is getting married. And he’s the one who told my mom that it wasn’t going to last. I wasn’t supposed to hear that but. Look, I thought I’d tell you now so you’re vigilant when the man starts living in your house and that.

“My dad knows the president so he knows things. I wouldn’t trouble you if he didn’t. Some of my friends’ dads think they know things but they don’t. My dad told me that too. Look. I have been given directions by him because he knows. I am to find the mail stack at any new friend’s house. There I am to look for letters reading MILL COUNTY HUMAN SERVICES. If I see an envelope that reads that way I am still to be friends with the boy but I am to understand that his parents are in need of my exemplary behavior, really, because they are in the same position as me. Do you know what exemplary means? Good. I thought you would, even though you’re younger than me. You have a good head on your shoulders. My dad said that. Anyhow, my point is that I’m a dependent. I can’t provide for myself. And neither can they. So, we’re both at the same level. But I’m supposed to be a dependent, whereas they’re supposed to be holding their own by now but they can’t help being babied. He said I can make up my own mind if I want to feel bad for them or not. Geezeus. My dad’s real smart. He’s out of town on business, but he calls every night. My mom and I wait by the phone around eight o’clock and he always calls. He’s real responsible.”

Blaise was rubbing at a spot of coffee that was bleeding outward from where it dripped and burned by his crotch. The blue jeans had darkened there to almost black. His hair was laid densely around his head, hay-colored like roofs in certain northern Wisconsin towns, falling down around his forehead in a mussed way, the way the hay falls down around the eaves. Some of the houses even had ewes eating at the green grass. Blaise gulped a good measure of coffee, loudly so that there would be no questions. He would not get sick again.

Thin stretches of tar like serpents cooked in the sun and dead-still now covered the cracks of the gray alleyway.

“Someday soon we’ll be out of this neighborhood,” Little Michael said, his eyes fixated on the tar, the three basketball backboards without rims, the red and green innards of the exposed power line swinging down from the sky. “This was my grandparent’s neighborhood, my parent’s parent’s house. Things were good then here. Now anyone can live here. People can save up money because they don’t have to pay for their own food because half the city is on foodstamps. So now you have all kinds here. My parents talk about moving a lot. After he comes back from this trip they’re putting up our house for sale. Between you and me. This is why I need to talk with you now. Because you need to be ready for things. Otherwise you might run away. You can’t run away.” Blaise rubbed his eyes. They were flitting now and he could not hold his concentration in one place for more than a few seconds. He finally focused on the exposed wire, above the garage. He shivered as though the thing had just finished touching his shoulder. It hung down like a thin hand beckoning him he knew not where. Away.

Little Michael was satisfied enough. He started down the side of the baby blue garage, looked meanly through the fence toward the back-bay window of his parent’s parent’s kitchen, and turned the golden handle of the garage door.

A weak breath of light covered most of the empty inside with blue-gray. The sides were still dark, shadows. Little Michael disappeared there for a while, pulled back what sounded like the sack used to cover the mower. Then came a wobbly, bouncy sound. He appeared, his face a smudge of sweaty peach sucking quick breaths. He called Blaise over to him with a wink, the clasping of his single eyelid barely visible in the cobalt shade. But his eyes were somehow yellow. Not ominous like a cat’s. Sickly almost for the first time. He was always a healthy young man. Blaise obeyed, and Little Michael motioned him to sit down. They were both on the ground now, and both could see enough to know that their pants would be soiled with the island of oil they now sat upon. The concrete was cold.

“Here it is,” Little Michael said, and he unfolded the wobbly, twanging pages, bending the backbone of the magazine so that only one image could be seen. Blaise squinted, squeezed some vision from the greedy dim. He saw first a pale pear, upside down. The color of a pear picked before season. But his mouth objected. It was wet. Not with bile. He would not get sick.

“I caught my dad with these last year. He was in the bathroom, in the middle of the night, when I went in to pee. His face went very far away and then he said, ‘I’m getting ready for your mother.’ He didn’t mean to talk. I had caught him off guard. He’s only human, see. Even though he’s very responsible. The magazine was laid out across the sink. Two naked women arranged in these strange poses. In one a man stood over her. ‘This is not for your mother to know,’ he said. ‘She has enough trouble right now.’ He’d pulled up his underwear by now. My mom called to him from the bedroom. I couldn’t sleep for hours. I pretended like I was walking back to bed, all the way down the other end of the house. I turned back in about five minutes. I thought I heard a dog. You know the way that old lady’s dog gets, down the street, snarling and sticking its face in the dirt. I heard that sound come from the bedroom. I asked my dad about it the next day. He said it was nothing to be afraid of, the noise. But he was sorry we had had to meet the way we did, in the bathroom. But he said something in him told him it was alright. It was not ideal timing, but it was something I should know. My dad is real honest. Other people would try to hide it, he said.”

Blaise’s eyes absorbed what had previously been an upside-down pear. It was now the butt of a woman, bent toward his face. He felt something like a rash run across his cheeks.
“You have to be ready for these things. That new man’s gonna come into your house and you’re gonna hear these sounds. But it’s okay. Even if it sounds like a mean dog. You can’t look at it like that. It’s okay.”

Then the side door swung open and a rectangular slab of light about the size of a prominent gravestone fell upon them both. They bent a bit under its weight. Blaise saw Little Michael’s hands try to move. They tried to fold the glossy, durable page inward, then pulled at the edges as though to rip it in half. Nothing worked. His mother was there, her long red-brown hair tied up around her head, sprays of strands hanging down, the bleak light coloring it beautifully. Like water made of fire. Falling down from her head, falling down around her reddening temples.

Two days after she wrote Blaise’s mother a letter. Little Michael told Blaise, during a sleepover some months later, that his mother told him not to tell his father. Not any of it. It would be too much for him, she said. He was busy enough and stressed enough as it was. The letter was written on the inside of a sympathy card. The card’s cover had a bouquet of sunflowers on the front, some of their black seeds shown in the motion of falling down to the ground. It read:

Dear Neighbor,
We are so sorry for your loss. It is a humbling thing to have something like this get out. We are      sure you will not share it with too many others. I am sure Blaise told you everything. I am sick at the thought. I am so sorry for your loss. For what you have lost. If you believe in forgiveness, mercy, what have you. If you could, try.
Grieving with you,
Jacklyn and Ed

She had signed for both of them.

Blaise had told his mother none of it. The letter opened his mouth so that everything came out. It took him an hour to say it in a way that made any sense. What he had lost. Then he knew what he had lost. As best he could. His birthday party was forty-five minutes away when they finished talking, mother and child. His uncle was coming. A professional clown. He and his mother spent their remaining time alone on their knees.

“Kneel down here,” she said, half pulling him over to the base of the couch. The grandfather slept through everything, a partially eaten hardboiled egg laid across his lap on a tissue. “Dear God,” she said, “Wash his mind.” She said so many other things and Blaise was amazed at how familiar God was to her.

Then they were on their knees again, scrubbing the kitchen floor with water that reeked of lime, ginger, and bleach. They had gloves on their hands when Little Michael came for the party. He was the first guest. Blaise’s mother checked the clock with the rooster on the end of its long hand. Ten minutes early. They couldn’t give him a proper welcome because they had gloves on their hands and the gloves had dangerous chemicals on them. She tried to say this with a smile. Spit came out when she spoke. Some of it struck Little Michael. Her son was turning nine today.

That time. Those times.

Once, a year later, the police came personally to escort Little Michael’s father to what must have been one of the most important event of his life.

“Probably he’s going to see the president,” Blaise said, his nose and lips against the big bay window, the clean-looking father of his best friend a giant, so tall, bending hard as an officer helped him lower his neck and take the back seat. The way a chauffeur helps a client settle into the irresponsibility of the rear.

Thomas, the man who asked him daily to call him dad, neither nodded nor said no. He ran his fingers along the poorly-tuned piano, lightly so as not to wake grandpa, who snored vigilantly in the large, brown leather recliner, his brittle body fattened by two flannel shirts, one black and gray, and one black and blue. 

The next morning when Blaise sifted through the sprawled newspapers in search of the comics he saw that one of the cartoon cat’s heads had been blotted out by a black permanent marker. He traced the blotch back it its origins several pages away, an article with much underlining, several lines even, in some places, enunciating the words TOO BIG TO FAIL and SLAP ON THE WRIST. There was a picture of a tall man, a giant really. It was the back of his head as he bent into a limousine. A man with a garbled nose that stuck out between wiry glasses blocked the giant’s face. The blocker’s teeth were frozen in a gnashed position. The eyes were drawn more there than anywhere. 

Later, many years later, Blaise’s uncle told him the whole thing as the two painted a highrise one summer. Ten minutes after the police sirens drew them from their settled routine, from the things they did every night while mom worked second shift at the emergency clinic, after Thomas returned everything to its place, righting that routine by wrapping Blaise beneath the thick quilted blanket that always smelled of grandpa’s rum cigarillo smoke no matter how many times it was washed, the man he was told now to call Dad slipped out the door like a man involved in an affair, holding the hydraulic so that he wouldn’t even leave a soft sound in his wake, and knocked on Little Michael’s door.

When no one answered he tiptoed around the back, felt the door handle to see if it turned, and let his feet work their way in and walk him through the path lit by cottony lights that gleamed behind papery white circles placed everywhere. Chinese lanterns. No plain bulbs here.

Little Michael let out loud rhythmic exhales from his little bedroom, but these could only be discerned if one adjusted to the machine next to his bed. The machine released the sound of a seashore. Waves, without the scent of the sea, beating against the walls of the gray machine, spilling through its speakers. Seagulls crying here and there. It was meant to keep things calm.

Thomas found her in the subdued scarlet light of the bathroom. Little Michael’s mother. Her flushed cheek rested against the toilet bowl. Her carefully pressed hair, its red-orange fire still raining in gorgeous strands from her skull, was drawn back so that it stayed out of the yellow-blue mess that filled the toilet. Pulled back, a layer of gray showed underneath. Her mouth chewed slowly and her eyes were occupied with some vision that prevented her from reacting to Thomas.

“What can I do?” he asked.

She spat out the mashed pixels of what had been airbrushed breasts, thighs, legs, and this was followed by a deeper heave which gripped her bowels and brought up more bile. She was eating the other women one by one, regurgitating their picturesque flesh, her body rejecting their inky blood, their unleavened waists. Have me, have all of me for free, they said in so many words. Thomas did not hear them but she did and this is what they said. She told him.

“Call the doctor,” she said, then, leaning heavy on the toilet.

“911?” Thomas asked. “What should I say?”

“Tell them I’m dying. A woman is dying for Christ’s sake call the doctor.”

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll have Michael over for a sleep over. I’ll see if I can’t carry him over without him even waking up. Do you have any blankets? I’ll call the doctor but I just wanted to let you know. We’ll take him for the night. No problem.”

“You can’t do that. He’ll wake up most definitely,” she said. “He would wake up and then—. Are you crazy?”

The paramedics measured her pulse. She persuaded them to put her in the back of the ambulance and the orderly complied. He had become more amicable after laughing, still maintaining some semblance of the professional poker face but laughing knowingly nonetheless, before both her and Thomas. And then he said, “Alright, we’ll take you in,” as though he was paying her back for the chance to chortle out a little condescension. Thomas said to her, when they had a moment alone:

“They don’t pay these ambulance drivers much. Minimum wage at best.”

She was shuffled from the emergency room to the psychiatric ward. There were many people in the waiting room whose way was paid for by the Human Services. Little Michael’s mother looked at them longingly, as though she wanted to be them or was them or what she did not know. She picked up a magazine. It had taken two treatments to get all the pictures up from out of her belly. They had washed her tongue of the black and blue blood of the ink. Here, in the waiting room, the women were not nude, in the magazines. She did not feel the need to shred them.

The psychiatrist called her in. He listened for a long time, here and there lifting a metal ball that fell and clanked a series of other metal balls. Listened to her whole life. Then tried the following technique:

“It is only ink,” he said. “You can’t look at it as though he was with other women. That isn’t helpful. We need to think of what will be helpful right now. What will replace the—this difficult thing, and put something manageable in its place. It is only ink. Two dimensional ink. Not people. Not real women. Don’t think too much about it. Just think that it is only ink, if that is helpful. If not try something else. Millions of men. . .” he trailed off as a spray of wash pummeled the window. Little Michael’s mother told herself little jokes about the doctor prescribing his own medicine, therefore the cheer. A man, suspended some seven stories above the earth, hovered over them, running a rubber squeegee over the glass. The student intern who sat across the room, on a small sofa, studied the psychiatrist. Her hand scrawled hard words onto a pale yellow pad. He started again, his voice less certain this time: “The thing is, you need to do what works for you, what will be most helpful for you to overcome . . .  to really reckon with the ambiguity at the heart of . . . ” Little Michael’s mother watched her hand reach out and strike him, saw a little leak of red where the diamond of her ring had scratched the thick glasses lens that protecting his eye. The student intern stood up to get help. Help.

joshua hren

About the Author
Joshua Hren published scholarly articles, poems, a translation, and short stories, most recently “Heavyweight,” in Aethlon. He teaches literature, fiction writing, and philosophy at George Fox University.