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On the TV screen some thug with long blond hair named Hulk Hogan was wrestling some other hooligan wearing leopard-skin jockey shorts. Their grunts, as they hit the floor, sounded to Anna like a hippopotamus in labor.
Anna's grandsons, Abram and David, leaned forward on the couch, staring at the screen without blinking—two complete morons. At each sound of a human head hitting the canvas, a burst of unintelligible speech came out of Abram's mouth and his bare, tanned knees came up as if he were having a fit. (Despite the fact that it was December, he was wearing some garish flowered shorts that had cost Carol thirty dollars.) He leaned over suddenly and punched his brother who cried out, "Rad, man! Rad!" Then the two boys proceeded to punch each other violently for about twenty seconds.
Carol was calmly reading the paper and drinking her coffee at the table. Either she was deaf, or dead, to ignore the carnage taking place here. How could her daughter, how could anyone, live like this? These boys weren't civilized human beings. They were cave men just out of the bush. The sounds that came forth from these children's mouths were unbelievable (and not only from their mouths). Anna felt sorry for Carol, but what could she do? She was supposed to mind her own business no matter how bad things got around here.
She scrutinized her older grandson. He was just fifteen and was six feet three inches tall. His good looks were no fault of his. Plus he was adopted, and God only knew what else would turn up in him. He held in his lap a soup bowl piled with eight scoops of Heavenly Hash ice cream and raised to dangerous heights with swirls of fake whipped cream shot from a can. Anna had noticed that he'd emptied into his dish the entire ice cream carton and the entire can of whipped cream which her daughter had just bought yesterday at the supermarket. He'd only stopped his frantic squirting from the nozzle when the last blurps had spat dots of cream all over himself and the couch. And this was right after he'd eaten a gigantic dinner—three burritos with red sauce (whatever was in them Anna should never know from it). The food in this house didn't last twenty-four hours after Carol dragged in two hundred dollars' worth from the car, bag after heavy bag. And did the boys help her carry in the groceries? No, they were too busy watching TV. "Later! I'll do it later!" was their refrain—a reflex wailed constantly, whether or not anyone was asking them to do anything. ("Goodnight," Anna would say, and they'd yell, "I'll do it later!")
Anna had addressed them many times (both in and out of their mother's presence) in the two weeks she'd been recuperating here. She had told them, speaking very slowly, in a way that even a total retard could understand, that they only had one mother in this life and she was the only one they were ever going to get and they had better treat her with respect. She wasn't going to last forever and at the rate they were wearing her out she wasn't even going to last another week. Especially with no father around to keep them in line. By the way their eyes went blank, Anna knew she should have saved her energy. It all went in one ear and right out the other. As for Carol, if she were listening to Anna give her speech, her eyes got small and hard in a way that made Anna's heart skip a few beats. But she wasn't going to be intimidated. She had her piece to say and she was going to say it; maybe it wouldn't sink in till ten years from now, and maybe never, but at least she could feel she'd done her part.
Now Abram stopped gobbling ice cream long enough to pull off his shoes and socks and toss them at Mr. T, the dog. Between the smells that came from both ends of the animal, and those that came from Abram's feet, it was no wonder Anna couldn't eat here, was nauseated all the time. The instant she got better from her fall, she would be out of here and back to her own apartment like a shot. In fact, as soon as she got home to LA, she planned to start a lawsuit against the high school where she went to her night classes—whose pothole she had fallen in and thereby broken her foot. She couldn't wait to get home. God save her from the day she would ever have to live with either of her two children—this arrangement was no good and what's more it could only get worse.
"Time to light the Chanukah candles," Carol announced from the table. "Also time to rewind the movie, boys, because we have to return the tape to Leo's before nine."
"This is a rented movie?" Anna asked her daughter. "I thought this was just regular TV junk."
"It's only ninety-nine cents to rent a movie on a weeknight, Mom," Carol said. "It's no big deal."
"Why is it that everything they do has to cost money? Didn't they ever hear of reading a book?"
"They can't learn everything from books," Carol said. "They get plenty of that in school."
"They can learn something from baseball cards?"
"Yeah," Abram interrupted, "especially from baseball cards. Hey, Mom—I need money for another pack. You promised. Brian got Peewee Reese, the lucky dog."
"I know exactly what they learn from TV," Anna said. "They learn how to murder drug pushers and how to throw someone out a window. But what talents do they get from baseball cards?"
"Well, for one thing," Carol said, "they trade and sell them. They learn about the realities of the market place."
"Reality! This is reality? VCRs, video games, new bicycles, new skateboards—they think it all comes to them at the snap of a finger."
"My children know more about reality, Mom," Carol said coldly, "than anyone their age should ever know." Anna knew exactly to what Carol was referring; her daughter was going to use that as an excuse to spoil her sons for the rest of their lives.
"Rad!" breathed Abram toward the TV screen. The gorilla in the jockey shorts was now spinning the blond guy over his head like a helicopter's blades. Anna closed her eyes till the thump occurred and only opened them when she was sure the body had hit down. Abram swung his long arm forward and hit a button on the VCR. The screen began to flutter and show the wrestlers doing everything backwards. They rose up from the floor like ballerinas.
In actual fact Anna was not against Carol's spending money on the boys for cultural purposes—music lessons would have been fine, even English lessons! But Hebrew lessons? That was going too far. The way the kids fought Carol, who literally had to force them into the car twice a week to go to shul, was a disgrace. Why was she wasting her time? Did she think these hoodlums of hers were going to turn into little rabbis? Again, on this issue, Anna had plenty to say, but maybe this wasn't the right moment.
"Now let's do the candles," Carol said firmly. "Then we'll go to Leo's."
"I don't want to go," David said. "I'm busy."
"I'll only go if you take me to Big Five first," Abram said. "I need new tennis shoes."
"Not tonight," Carol said. "You just got new tennis shoes."
"I didn't just get them. Besides, Mr. T chewed holes in them."
"That's because you throw him your shoes as if they're meat bones," Carol said. "Now— whose turn is it to light the candles?"
"His," both boys said, each pointing at his brother.
"All right, you do it tonight, David. I think Abram did it last night." Carol went to get the matches from a high shelf. As she reached for them, Anna saw how thin her arm was, how lank and frail she seemed. To handle boys like this, a person would need to have the strength of an ox. To do it all without a man to help—that was the real tragedy.
On the counter between the kitchen and the family room sat the menorah which had belonged to Anna's mother. It was made of tin. Her mother had paid five cents for it in 1910 in a grocery store in Brooklyn. Anna, having long since had enough of Jewish nonsense herself, had asked her daughters a few years ago which one wanted the family heirloom. She didn't have the heart to throw it out. It was so lightweight Carol had had to steady it on the counter with the end of one of Abram's small barbells. The tin was embossed with the image of a real menorah: brass—heavy and authentic. The tin cylinders which held the swirled, colored candles were deformed, pressed out of shape by time. Each night that the boys had been forced by their mother to light the candles, Anna had felt something close in her throat, some soundless gasp escape her. Her own Abram had been observant; he had lit the candles seriously, said the prayer. To whom? For what? What had his prayers got him but leukemia at fifty-five? And left her here, lost in this life without him, an intruder in her daughter's household, an extra person who belonged to no one.
"Where's the box of candles?" David demanded. He had a voice like a hog-caller. Words didn't exit his lips, they exploded forth. "I don't want two yellows next to each other. They look gross. Who put them in like that?"
"I did," Carol said.
"What are you, some kind of retard?" David accused her.
"Don't speak to your mother that way," Anna said.
"But she is," Abram defended his brother. "Mom's just out of it all the time. She's a total nerd."
This boy who was now addressing Anna and insulting his mother was the child who bore Anna's husband's name and wasn't even from their genuine family. She didn't believe in adoption and now she had doubts about personal childbirth as well. Even her other daughter's children—college girls now—were not always to her taste, to say the least. Their genes, of course, were diluted by the father. In every birth, unfortunately, there was always a father in the picture. In the case of her grandsons, she didn't know which boy was worse—the one related to her by blood or the one not. She decided she might take both boys out of her will as soon as she got home. David, who had the genes of her ancestors as well as hers and her husband's and Carol's, also carried the weird genes of his father, the madman who had killed himself with a vacuum hose and carbon monoxide from his car exhaust. No one Anna knew was acceptably related to her—not purely, not in a way she could tolerate. No one satisfied her but herself.
In a flood of indignation, she began to berate the boys despite Carol's warning look. "You children are hateful, disrespectful, rude, loud, and ungrateful." She hit them with her powerful vocabulary. "You are thoughtless, demanding, greedy, and inconsiderate." Then she added "Dirty." Then, "Filthy." Finally, directed at Abram, "Smelly."
Abram muttered something. Could Anna have heard right? With his handsome head bowed, could her grandson actually have said the unforgivable to her, "Fuck off"?
Anna thought she could possibly faint now that she had lived to see this day. She closed her eyes while the room spun. When she opened them, the Chanukah candles were lit, and Carol was reading from the side of the box the end of the prayer in English. "... Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season..."
Preserved me too long, Anna thought. Enough already.
It was deadly quiet in the house. Carol had taken Abram to return the video tape to Leo's, and David had gone off to his bedroom and slammed the door. Only Mr. T and Anna were on the couch. Mr. T had his nose in Anna's lap, and she didn't have the strength to push him off. She already could feel fleas creeping up her arm.
She sat in the dark, with only the glow from the Chanukah candles lighting the room. She could try to have another talk with Carol when she came home, but what point would there be? Carol always took the boys side. She had the same defense each time—"They've been deprived of enough as it is, Mom. They've had a very hard time. And they're no different from other kids their ages—thirteen and fifteen are very hard times, they're adolescents, they need to make noise, to release energy. They have very strong forces to deal with, peer pressure, their sex drives ..."
"Don't fill me in with the details," Anna had said. "I watch Dr. Ruth. I know all about it."
She sat there, absently patting Mr. T. His tail thumped. At least with dogs, you could alter them, tone them down, defuse their energies. Anna wished she could alter the world, start over and give her daughter a good husband who could earn a living and wasn't crazy and wouldn't kill himself, give her two sons without anyone's genes at all, just two perfect respectful children, give her good health and a house out of the smog somewhere. And while she was at it, she'd bring Abram back for herself, and they'd take a condominium on the beach, also out of the smog.
Loud hammering came from David's room. What was he doing now? Knocking holes in the wall? She didn't have the strength to go down the hall to see, not with the heavy cast on her foot. But maybe she'd better. With his stupidity, who knew what he was capable of?
"What's going on?" Anna said, opening his door. She ignored a big sign that said, "KNOCK FIRST OR YOU'RE DEAD."
"Nothing," David said. He was hammering small wooden boards together on his desk.
"Don't tell me nothing when you're doing something. I'm not blind and I'm not deaf, not yet," Anna said.
"I'm making a bed."
"You don't have a bed?"
"It's for my wrestler," David said.
"Oh," Anna said. She was silent.
"Want to see him?" His voice, for once, was not a bark.
"Maybe ..." Anna said.
David flung himself over his bed and pulled from beneath it a shoe box. Inside, laid on tissue paper, covered with a folded wash cloth, tucked in, was a miniature rubber thug, Hulk Hogan, sleeping peacefully within the outlines of his huge, ugly muscles.
"Want to hold him?" David asked. He offered her the shoebox.
Anna stepped back. "Maybe later," she said. She was touched by the vision of the doll. To think that David was building a bed for that creature made her grandson seem human, even sweet.
She left David hammering and wandered down the hall. On Abram's door was the sign, "YOU'RE DEAD IF YOU EVEN TOUCH THE DOORKNOB. DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK. NO ONE COMES IN HERE."
Anna pushed in the door. She expected the room to be a shambles, a pigpen. But when she turned on the light, she saw first the baseball cards, pinned in their plastic envelopes in neat rows on the corkboard which lined one whole wall. Then she saw the airplane models, hanging on strings from the ceiling, silver fighter jets and brown vintage bombers, wafting in the draft from the heater vent, Abram's bed was made as tightly as a marine's. On his desk were a notebook and an open volume of the encyclopedia; Abraham Lincoln's face stared up at her from a photograph. It was clear her grandson had been working on some kind of report. Anna was having trouble breathing deeply. Not only could Abram the hoodlum maybe read, but he could also maybe write.
She carefully backed out of the room and closed the door. In the TV room Mr. T had started barking violently. He ran from one end of the room to another, convulsed with hysterical yaps. David came out of his bedroom.
"I better go see what's up." His voice had suddenly become deep. "Someone might be in the yard." Boy and dog went outside through the patio door, and Anna found her way again to the couch, dragging her foot in its cast in the hospital-issue Abominable Snowman slipper. She heard Mr. T still yapping maniacally. David rushed inside and grabbed one of the burning Chanukah candles from the menorah, the one on top, the shamesh, and ran out again. "I need to see over the fence," he yelled. "Something bad is out there. Maybe a rat."
The next thing Anna saw through the plate glass window was an explosion. A flash of fire like an atom bomb. Then: David's screams.
She ran outside—she didn't know how she got there with her broken foot—to find her grandson on fire: there he was, huddled by the fence, a screaming flare of flame.
Don't, she commanded God. Don't you dare do this.
She found the hose, turned it on full, aimed it, tripped on the dog, saw stars overhead in the sky, found her balance, forced a Red Sea of water on his precious life. He was now down in the dirt; he knew to roll around on the ground, from television. She had seen him see that very scene on television on a murder mystery program. Thank God for television.
Excerpted from Anna in Chains by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1998 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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