Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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From ten Saturday morning — when your father picks you up at the house you don’t want to live in, your mother’s boyfriend’s house — to eight Sunday night, when your mother retrieves you from the house you never wanted to leave but are now allowed to visit only twice a month, you have thirty-four hours for your father to prove to you that he’s not the man your mother says he is: the man she left, the man she didn’t want coming into daily contact with her or her child anymore, the man who tells you things about your mother you’d rather not know, the man who now cries in front of you when talking about having had his family “stolen” from him, the man who places a hand on your shoulder, stares above your head, and says that you have to tell your mother that she was all wrong about him; thirty-four hours to lie on your back on your old bedroom floor, moving your outstretched arms and legs up and down as if making a snow angel while saying, Mine, mine, mine. Thirty-four hours to wander around the neighborhood, tracking down your friends Jason, Curtis, and Johnny and reminding them that, although they haven’t seen you in two weeks, you’re still the best friend they’ll ever have, which you prove to them by laughing the loudest at the stupid jokes they tell; by slowing down and letting them tackle you just before the goal line in your backyard football game; by sharing with them the beers you’ve pilfered from your father’s fridge; by passing out your father’s Playboys in your room and locking the door and promising them that you’ll talk your father into subscribing to Penthouse next or maybe even Juggs or Fling; by not complaining about the cheap shots they take at your stomach and face when you have wrestling matches; by squeezing with them into the back seat of your father’s car so he can drive you to Mario’s for all the pizza you can eat, all the soda you can drink, and all the quarters you can pump into the pinball machine; by convincing your friends’ mothers that your father is not going to the bars tonight (you don’t exactly look them in the eye, but you’re convincing nonetheless), so it’s all right for their sons to sleep over at your house, all four of you smushed into your queen-size bed, smoking the cigars your father had forgotten about in the bottom of his desk drawer and talking about the girls in the neighborhood who have grown tits and the chances of your ever getting to feel those tits and what you’re going to do to the girls’ houses on Halloween if they don’t let you feel their tits. And when silence sets in among the four of you so completely that you can hear your own heart beating, you panic over the time you’re wasting, over the thought that this precious moment is getting away and will never return, because you now get so few moments like these. So you promise your friends they’ll have even more fun on future nights when they sleep over: more beer and possibly peach schnapps; porno movies; a visit from hot Debbie Jones, who lives on Juniper Street; shooting your father’s pistols; anything, anything that will have them looking forward to seeing you again, that will make it so much harder for the memory of you to slip from their minds during the time you are away.
Sleep forces you to throw away eight hours, to wake up Sunday morning and groggily watch your friends leave, then get into your father’s car so he can drive you to church, where he has been looking for God since your mother left him; where he closes his eyes for long periods of time during the sermon, stares at the ceiling during the hymns, and waves away the collection plate when the usher tries to hand it to him; where the highlight is the leaving, the driving away, getting back to the rapidly diminishing hours you have left, getting home and opening the door for Nana and Pop, who have brought fried chicken for lunch; who hand you a bank envelope full of dollar bills, which they call your “pay” for the job of being their wonderful grandchild; who pump you for information about the unhappiness in the home your mother has moved you to (you’re glad to fill them in); who shake their heads at the depravity of her and her boyfriend; who give you bearhugs and assure you that your mother will get what’s coming to her, if not now, then when the devil gets ahold of her; who spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning your father’s house (Nana) or napping on your bed (Pop).
You have thirty-four hours to realize that there was only one second when you actually had the full thirty-four hours, and that was yesterday, which means you’ve got to get going, because Sunday-afternoon loneliness and fear are catching up to you, are coming from behind and will knock you flat to the ground if you don’t get out of here, get scrambling around the neighborhood in an ever-more-desperate attempt to surround yourself with the (temporary) cure. But the only antidote you find is Jason, who is in the little patch of woods at the end of your street, whacking a stick against a thin tree trunk to strip off its bark, who tells you to come with him to his house to help him eat a box of ice-cream sandwiches, who asks you to play a couple of games of ping-pong, who turns on the TV so you can watch the second half of the Eagles game, then the first half of the Cowboys game, whose mother says they are getting subs for dinner and offers to get you one, who piles up the long pillows of the sectional sofa once his parents have left and hands the Nerf football off to you as you plow through the cushion defenders and into the end zone, who has you go out for a long pass, as long as the living room — and you, for a brief moment, hold that football on your fingertips before bam! your forehead smashes into the wall, and you end up on your back groaning, and Jason falls to the floor laughing, slapping the carpet with his palms, saying it was the funniest thing he’s ever seen, who then, when the two of you hear the garage door opening, yanks you up by your armpits and tells you to sit on the sofa like nothing happened, tells you to make it look like you’re scratching your forehead to cover your thickening welt, tells you to stop groaning, Stop it. No more, though he can’t stop laughing with you later when both of you — your bellies now full and the pain in your head minimal — kick your heels against the sofa and relive that moment, and you realize that running into the wall might be the thing that causes Jason and everyone he tells about it to never, ever forget you.
A cautious glance at the clock above Jason’s TV reveals that it is 7:50. Thirty-three hours and fifty minutes have been lost. It feels as if you lost them, as if you are lost. Your gut tightens. Oddly time slows down now. You stand up, act as if your leaving is no big deal, that this is not the time for a dramatic goodbye, even though the fuss of a goodbye would salve some of your wounds. “See ya,” you say to Jason, who responds in kind, barely glancing in your direction. In the kitchen you thank Jason’s parents for dinner and head out their front door and walk across several yards to (what you still think of as) your house. Inside, your father watches a TV show about animals on the verge of extinction. Your grandparents are gone. They have vowed never to see your mother again, so they’ve left before her arrival. You stuff yesterday’s clothes into your bag, along with the homework you didn’t do, then move slowly down the hall and stand at the living-room window to wait for your mother’s headlights in front of the house. When she’s there, you open the front door. You’re not sure, but you think there might be a few seconds left to your thirty-four hours. You pause and look at your father, who stares past you as if he can’t see you, as if you’re already out the door. Your time has run out.
Kelly DeLong’s short story “On the Verge of Extinction” [June 2012] is a powerful account of the agony children go through each day after a divorce. Many hide their suffering and shame from their friends, fight a constant internal battle, suffer through accusations they don’t want to hear, and move from one place to another, always fearing they will upset one parent or the other.
The scene that really grabbed my heart was when the young boy, having arrived for a weekend at the house he’d grown up in, lies on his bedroom floor and moves his outstretched arms and legs, all the while repeating, “Mine, mine.”