Whenever Dad came up to Nooksack from Seattle, he took my brother and me to the movies, or to a sandwich place on the waterfront where we shot pool. He booked a motel room in town where we’d watch color TV before he returned us to Mom’s.
One Sunday my little brother skipped Dad’s visit, so Dad brought me home alone. He parked his station wagon down the block from Mom’s house and taught me to hypnotize myself so I could sleep better at night. Dad was a psychiatrist.
“Get comfortable in the seat,” he said from behind the wheel.
The gray, rainy weather made a kind of half light in which it was easy to dream.
“Are you comfortable?”
I said I was. But I never felt comfortable in that middle ground between Dad’s visit and Mom’s house.
“Now pick a spot on the fabric here. Have you got a spot?”
He had me concentrate on the spot above my head — a smudge of some sort — until my eyes crossed. Then he spoke to me in a low voice, asking me to count backward from one hundred and imagine an escalator going down, with me riding down it as the numbers descended.
I pretended to relax, but I knew Mom was home and in a few minutes I would have to face her and listen to her telling me what a bastard my father was — he and his “paramour,” and such and such. Being hypnotized would have been an improvement. I assured my father that his trick had worked — I didn’t want him to feel he had lost his fatherly power over me.
“Is there anything you want to talk to me about?” he asked.
“Don’t think so,” I said.
When I slipped into Mom’s house it was filled with the same half light of winter rain. I checked her room and saw that she was safely passed out and snoring, the smell of gin medicating the air. Then I went upstairs to my room and started rearranging the furniture. My room was long, narrow, and peaked like the roof, with a tiny window at the far end. I had the old desk from Dad’s office, and I wanted an office look for my room: everything squared off neatly. But the room was so alley shaped that nothing fit. It always looked disorderly.
I heard Mom get up and pace the downstairs hall; I wondered if she knew I was home. After a few minutes, I could hear her shuffling back to her room.
My little brother, Tom, came in from his room next to mine. He had gone to a matinee with Louis and Mitch Bertheimer. Tom was short like me, and both of us had hair that stuck up in back, so we secretly trained it to lie flat by Scotch-taping it down before we went to bed. We had a friend who taped his ears flat every night, but we made fun of him for it.
“How was the movie?” I asked.
“We left early.”
“Louis got scared of the Germans.”
“He always gets scared.”
“He’s the big brother.”
“But he’s mental. Mitch takes care of him. He’s a baby.”
Tom talked about the realistic blood in the movie. I told him I knew how to hypnotize myself.
“It doesn’t work,” I said.
Then we heard Mom stirring again downstairs.
Mom made dinner for us that night — meatballs and rice — and sat at the kitchen table with us while we ate. Except for the puffiness in her cheeks, she didn’t look so bad. She held a cup of coffee between her hands and sipped from it now and then, telling us, no, she wasn’t hungry tonight, and asking how was the movie and how was the visit with Dad. I never knew what to say that wouldn’t get her started, so I let Tom go on about the movie and how stupid Louis Bertheimer was.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, looking out the window at Puget Sound as if for advice on what to say. “He’s a nice boy, isn’t he? It’s not such a bad thing to be scared of a war movie.”
Tom gave me a look.
“Besides,” she said, “if I’d known that was the movie you were going to see, I might have put my foot down. I never seem to know what you boys are doing anymore.”
“We don’t do anything,” I said.
She was quiet for a long time. “I know. You’re good kids. I sometimes forget how lucky I am.”
My chest froze when she talked that way. I wanted to be a good kid, but sometimes it was just too hard. Without thinking, I said, “My turn for the dishes,” and they both looked at me as if I were Saint Francis and some perfect little bird had just landed on my head.
When we woke up the next morning, there was a note from Mom saying she had left early for work. The same gray half light came in the windows. From our house we could see the sound and the islands like boats adrift in the drizzle. I found hamburger patties in the freezer and fried two for our breakfast. Then Tom and I walked to school, ten blocks downhill from our house.
I was in fifth grade, Tom in fourth. Mitch was in Tom’s class, and Louis would have been in mine except that he was mental, so they had put him in special ed. The four of us always walked home from school together because we were neighbors. The Bertheimers’ house was small and needed paint; ours was large and needed paint. Nooksack was a dull, peaceful town overlooking the sound. We were nearly always bored.
Today we took our time, as usual, walking slowly uphill, stopping to throw rocks at a cat, which took off into an alley. Mitch was dark haired and serious, always watching out for his brother. Louis was taller and very skinny, with big ears and thin lips that dribbled when he talked. He had trouble keeping his tennis shoes tied, so he stumbled as we walked uphill.
Mom wasn’t home yet, so the four of us filled our hands with cookies from the jar in the pantry and headed across the back yard, a thirty-foot slope of mossy grass, down to the alley. We stood in the alley kicking rocks and eating cookies.
“Let’s play army,” Mitch said.
Louis looked afraid.
“We don’t have enough people,” I said, “only two for Germans and two for Yanks. And Louis gets mixed up.”
“He’s OK,” Mitch said.
“He’s too easy to kill. If I kill him, then there’s only one German left.”
Mitch put his hands on his hips. “Why are we the Germans?”
“Well, I’m not a German,” I said. “No way.”
“Call them krauts,” Tom said. “I’ll be a kraut. Mitch and me against you and Louis.”
“Why not? You’re bigger. You go with Louis. That’s fair.”
Louis looked at me eagerly and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
“Tie your shoe,” I told him.
“What’ll we use for guns?” Mitch asked.
“I got one,” said Tom. He ran inside the house and came out wearing his olive-drab war-surplus shirt and carrying Dad’s .22 rifle.
“You can’t use that,” I said.
“It’s real, stupid.”
“It’s not loaded.”
“Prove it. Point it up and pull the trigger.”
Tom aimed at the gray sky and pulled the trigger. It clicked.
“Now put the safety on. And don’t point it at anyone.” I remembered these commands from Dad.
“It isn’t fair,” Louis said. “He has a gun.”
“It’s not loaded,” Tom said.
“We only have our fingers. He has a gun.”
“Here,” I said, handing Louis a broomstick from a garbage can, “here’s your gun.”
“I want a gun like his,” Louis said. He was starting to flap his arms like a duckling and stomp his untied shoe.
“Make him stop, Mitch,” I said.
“Stop,” Mitch told his brother.
Louis slobbered and moaned for a gun.
“He won’t stop,” said Mitch.
“Goddamn it,” I said, “stop whining.”
Louis’s eyes sprouted tears that trickled down his face and mixed with his slobber.
“I’ll give him the gun,” said Tom.
“No you won’t. Stop slobbering, Louis.” I was getting sick of all this weakness, sick of the same wet weather that never went away, sick of having to take care of people. “Stop slobbering, stop slobbering, stop slobbering!”
“Leave him alone,” Mitch said. “He’s my brother.”
“I’m not mental,” Louis said. He looked like a guy who had to pee but couldn’t find the bathroom.
I pushed Louis down.
“Let him alone!” Mitch shouted.
I shoved Mitch away and landed hard on top of Louis, pinning him under my knees. It was easy. He was weak as a noodle and refused to fight. He just lay on the wet grass, moaning and tossing his head from side to side like someone having a nightmare. I felt Mitch’s hands on my shoulders, trying to pull me off, and Louis going limp beneath me. I hit Louis in the face. Snot flew from his nose. He was easy to hurt, so weak.
“You’re mental,” I said. “Admit it. Admit you’re mental.”
“He’s not,” said Mitch.
“I’m not,” said Louis.
“Admit you’re mental or I won’t get off.”
“I’m not,” said Louis, slobbering. Then his eyes started to bug out and he made choking sounds and turned a kind of pea green, so I got off.
“You’re not even worth fighting,” I said.
Louis didn’t move. He just lay there, crying. I feIt hard and cold and sick to my stomach.
“We’re leaving,” Mitch said. “We’re going home. We’re never going to play with you again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Suddenly Louis looked so small and gentle, like a puppy, that tears came to my eyes. “Don’t go.”
After they had gone, Tom and I sat on the back steps. We took turns holding the rifle, aiming it at birds on the telephone wires strung over the alley. Then we aimed at tugs and trawlers in the bay, at distant islands drifting in the haze. I still felt sick and didn’t want to move.
“I know where the ammo is,” Tom said.
“I’ll show you. It’s in Dad’s drawer.”
Most of Dad’s stuff was still in the house, even though he hadn’t lived with us for years.
We went inside to Mom’s room, where the shades were always drawn; there was a half-empty gin bottle on the bedside table. Dad’s shoes were still in the closet, their wooden shoe stretchers stuffed inside them. The rifle had been in the closet since the days when Dad took us target shooting at the Nooksack town dump. That was before he moved to Seattle.
Tom opened the top drawer of Dad’s dresser and scraped aside the socks and handkerchiefs. I remembered Dad standing there, unloading his pockets when he came home from work, the sound of keys and coins on the dresser top. If he had gum in his pocket he would give me a stick.
Under the socks in Dad’s drawer was a box of bullets. Tom opened it to show me. I had known they were there, but had made myself forget.
I said I wanted to shoot the rifle.
“We’ll get arrested,” Tom said.
“No, we’ll do it inside.”
“You can’t shoot a rifle inside. You’ll wreck the furniture or something.”
“Yes we can,” I said. “Here, you carry it.”
We closed the drawer, and Tom, holding the rifle and bullets, followed me into the study. Dad’s books still lined the shelves next to Mom’s. The fake-leather chair where Dad used to sit and listen to music was still there, and the old phonograph in its wooden cabinet, but his records had been put away in a box in the corner. I dragged the heavy box of records to the middle of the floor, where I read the names on the spines — Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Duke Ellington — and remembered the way music used to drift under Dad’s stocking feet when he sat in his chair and used the footrest. Dad liked to listen to music alone, but it was OK for us to come in and sit with him if we didn’t make any noise. Tom wouldn’t have remembered that as well as I did.
I carried the box — the heaviest thing I had ever lifted — upstairs to my room; Tom brought the rifle and ammo.
“It won’t work,” he said. “These things shoot a mile. You’ll blow a hole in the wall.”
“No we won’t,” I said.
I placed the box of records at the far end of my room, under the tiny window.
“We better not,” Tom said.
“Better not shoot Dad’s records.”
“What if he wants them back?”
“Don’t be stupid. He doesn’t want any of his stuff back. If he wanted them back, he’d have taken them years ago.”
Tom stood with me at the door end of the long room under the peak of the house. He looked very small. Maybe he felt as sick as I had after beating up Louis in our back yard.
“Give me a bullet.”
I slipped the brass casing into the chamber and drove the bolt home. The rifle was heavy. The barrel wavered as I aimed for the spot below the window.
“I’m scared,” Tom said.
“Don’t be mental.”
I pulled the trigger. The barrel leapt, and the clap of the gunshot hurt my ears. I could smell burnt powder and oil.
Ears ringing, I dropped the rifle and ran to look at the box of records. I could hardly believe my good luck. There must have been dozens of records in their cases with a neat .22 hole through the upper half. They had stopped the bullet.
“Jesus!” Tom was on his knees beside me. “Dad’s going to kill us.”
“He’ll never know,” I said.
My fingers trembled as I flipped through the records in the box. A Cossack on the cover of a Prokofiev album had a neat bullet hole between his eyes. The record that had stopped the bullet was Van Cliburn’s My Favorite Chopin, RCA Victor Red Seal, “A ‘New Orthophonic’ High-Fidelity Recording.” Van Cliburn was a dashing, blond-haired man in a tux. He looked a bit like Kennedy, and it made me feel uneasy to have shot at him. I took the cracked record out of its sleeve and saw the familiar picture of a dog cocking its ear toward the bell of a gramophone; “His Master’s Voice,” the label said.
Downstairs, the front door opened and slammed shut.
Tom grabbed the rifle and slid it under my bed. “What about the records?”
We took them out of the box and piled them under my bed. The room still smelled like a fired gun, but the house had become eerily quiet.
“We better go check on Mom,” I said.
She was sitting on her bed with a glass of gin. Her room was dark and her hair was disheveled. Tom and I stood by the door so that we could leave quickly.
“I’ll fix your dinner in a bit,” she said. “Just wanted a little pick-me-up. I had a rough day.”
Mom was a teacher, and every day was a rough day.
It would be easy, later that night, to return the rifle and shells to their proper places. But there was no place to hide forever dozens of records shattered by a bullet. Someone was sure to find out. Justice would be served. I would be punished for my cruelty.
“Don’t go yet,” Mom said. “I had a call at the office from Mrs. Bertheimer.”
Tom and I stared at our shoes.
Mom pushed the hair off her brow with a tired hand. She had already begun to slump. “Mrs. Bertheimer says you were picking on Louis today. Is that right?”
“No,” I said.
“She says you hit him. Is that right?”
“She’s lying,” I said.
“You know Louis is a troubled boy. It’s not fair to pick on him like that.”
“He just fell down,” Tom said. “He tripped. He’s always tripping.” Tom was petrified. The army-surplus shirt was too big for him and he seemed to have shriveled inside it.
“We can’t help it if he’s mental,” I said.
“But you took advantage of him,” Mom said. “That’s a lousy thing to do. I want you to apologize to Louis and to Mrs. Bertheimer.”
“No, you can do it later. Tomorrow, when you go to school.”
That night I fried a few more hamburgers for dinner because Mom didn’t feel up to joining us. When she had passed out, we snuck into her room and returned the rifle to its closet, the box of shells to its drawer. I could hear her snoring in the dark.
Tom and I did not talk about firing the gun again, but when I tried to sleep I saw Van Cliburn looking at me from the record jacket. His look said: What kind of a fool would shoot at recordings of great music inside a house in a nice, quiet town like Nooksack? He was right. I was a fool, a violent one. I didn’t deserve to live.
I decided to hypnotize myself so I could sleep. Lying on my bed in the dark, in a room where a gun had recently been fired, I found a knot that looked like the letter D in the pine panel above me and concentrated on it for a long time. I heard my father saying in a low voice, “Now, count backwards from one hundred. . . .”
I saw myself on an escalator going down, all the way down to Puget Sound, then over the wharves, out across the flat gray water to the drizzling islands, all wet and cold and closed off.
In the morning, Mrs. Bertheimer was standing by the school’s big front door when we got down the hill. She wore a blue raincoat and one of those plastic hair covers old ladies wear, even though she wasn’t old. In fact, she was pretty except for her glasses, and I didn’t know why she was wearing the hair cover when it was only drizzling and her hair was straight and tied back. Like Mom, she didn’t have a husband, though I had seen good-looking young men — fishermen and mechanics — park in front of her house and go in.
I walked more slowly, hoping she wasn’t waiting for me. She kissed Louis and sent him inside the school with his brother, then greeted Tom and me, a weird executioner’s smile on her face. “Go on,” she said to Tom. “I just want a word with your big brother.”
The word big fell on me, and I could look no higher than the hem of her blue raincoat. I heard Tom going in. Then I heard the raincoat coming closer, and now I was looking at her wet tennis shoes.
“Guess you know why I walked my boys down,” she said.
“What did you say?”
“I guess so.”
“What do you mean, you ‘guess so’? You going to tell me you didn’t hit Louis yesterday?”
“I didn’t really hit him.”
“How hard was it?” she said. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hit you.”
I almost wished she would.
“You little prick.” Her voice quavered. “The family you come from. Your easy life. All the stuff you have. Think I don’t wish I had it easy like you? Louis’s problem is he isn’t a little prick like you. He’s nice to people, like I taught him. He expects people to be nice back.”
“Nothing happened,” I said.
She leapt on me like a lioness, took both of my arms in her claws, pushed her face into mine: those glasses; her face, thin like Louis’s with brown eyes behind the rain-streaked lenses.
“Don’t tell me nothing happened!”
“Am I hurting you? Does this hurt?” She clamped down on my muscles until I thought they would split open. “There’s something more going on here. I don’t know what kind of game you were playing, but Mitch was scared when he came home. There’s something he’s not telling me, but I can find out what it is. My kids will tell me, eventually. My kids are good kids.”
Her face was swimming in the salt water that covered my eyes. I felt my chest heaving as if knocked by a rifle butt. Inside I was screaming at her: What do you know? I don’t have a father! I don’t have anything!
Mrs. Bertheimer had left long before I felt the pressure ease on my arms. I saw the blue blur of her raincoat hurrying back up the hill. I could hardly see a thing beyond the wetness of my eyes, couldn’t tell whether anyone was watching me from the classroom windows. I had no choice but to stand there, shivering like a beaten dog, and wait for my eyes to dry.