Read an Excerpt
Getting Off Clean
By Timothy Murphy
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1997 Timothy Murphy
All rights reserved.
West Mendhem is one of those old Massachusetts towns—north of Boston, just below New Hampshire—whose name corresponds to a place in England from which religious people fled, hating England, missing England so badly they named their settlements after the very places they came from. When you drive into West Mendhem over any one of its six borders, you pass the same municipality sign you'll pass on your way into any Massachusetts town, announcing West Mendhem, incorporated sixteen-something-something, framed around a seal of Indians canoeing on the great lake upon which sit St. Banner and some very fine old country estates. There's a study of West Mendhem in a book of anthropology I read once in a history class, delineating the patterns by which young men in old West Mendhem left their family homesteads to settle their own at a much later age than the young men in most New England towns. Young men here didn't leave their homes until the unseemly age of twenty-one instead of the median eighteen, because West Mendhem was primarily a farming community, a turkey-raising community, and progeny were tied economically to the money-raising concerns of the parents.
Not a great deal has changed; there are dozens of young men who graduated from West Mendhem High School ten years ago and you can see them around town operating the DPW trucks that vacuum leaves in the fall and blow snow in the winter. Maybe you can see them in their parents' homes, ranches, and garrisons, getting stoned in the bedrooms where they grew up, listening to hard rock on WAAF, their wallpaper still the train or football-pennant pattern they chose when they were ten. You can see the girls as teachers in the elementary schools where they went to school themselves, or maybe filing cards at the library, running the concessions table at football games, or, like my sister Brenda, behind the counters of shops downtown. At night, you can see them all at the Hayloft, in work boots and Fair Isle sweaters and Irish claddagh rings, drinking Coors, listening to Steve Miller, anticipating their two weeks of vacation in a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, screaming and bellowing, "Get outta heah! You fuckin' queeah, you're a wicked liah!" In a few years, you can see them marrying each other and starting all over again.
There are three ancient burying grounds in West Mendhem, one behind the old North Church, designated by the state an official historic preservation site, contained by an old stone wall with a plaque dating the spot to 1666. The other two lie in neglect in the fields between the old houses on Scholarship Road, headstones lodged semirecumbent in decay, obscured by weeds and the warping of the ground. From the dates I witnessed when picking through them, I knew they were just as old as the official site, and there may be dozens more like them in town, but those I haven't found.
When I was a freshman in high school, our history class took a field trip to the official site to coincide with our study segment on colonial America. A woman from the historical society gave the tour, a rich woman with a clear, deliberate voice who owned a horse farm on the border of West Mendhem and Boxford. She herded us away from the separate places where we were creating stencils of the headstones with pencils and tracing paper and directed our attention to a tiny headstone isolated on a little rise in the ground. "Here lies the body of Charity Bradstreet, daughter of Samuel Bradstreet and his confort, Mary, b. 1684 d. 1686." There was also a biblical quote about children that escapes me, and above the script, the rendering of a tiny skull, the cavity of the mouth carved into a frightened, perfect O, and the skull was framed by the delicate wings of angels. The woman from the historical society squatted down sturdily in her horsey-smelling overalls by the headstone, pointed to the little winged skull with her pinky, and said, "Now, my question to you kids, with your video games and MTV and fancy New Balance shoes, is, 'How did West Mendhem progress from this incident of a little dead two-year-old girl to all the technology and modernity that's around us today?'" Nobody, including me, had an answer. "Maybe that's an essay question your teacher wants to assign you." Our teacher, in the back of the group, laughed and shrugged.
But later that night at home, I couldn't stop noticing the modernity—the microwave oven, the VCR and the cable hookup, Brenda's stereo, Joani's digital watch (because she has a hard time with a traditional face watch), my father's electronic adding machine, my mother's shiny manmade-fiber sweatsuit. I looked around my own room—books, bed, magazines, duffel bag, tapes, and a small cassette recorder that sat atop my night table. I was largely exempt from modernity, I thought. But it was November, cold that night, and the heat had come on. I thought about the yards of coils and wires and pipes underneath the house and below the streets that brought us heat and water, light and ringing phones. And I still couldn't trust the resiliency of the line of progress that brought us from then to now. It seemed like at the center of West Mendhem there was still a barren cavity where Charity Bradstreet lay, and for all the high fidelity of beeps and clicks and buzzes I could hear the moaning sound of wind inside this perfect O, a few leagues below everything else.
* * *
When I wake up the next morning, Joani is pulling at my sheets and chanting, "Wake up Erky, Wake up, Erky." She's nearly twelve now, but as recently as two years ago, she couldn't say my name properly and called me Erky. Then one day my mother found Joani sitting in her room, pasting a picture of me onto construction paper to make me a Valentine's Day card, saying over and over again to herself, "E-ric, E-ric, E-ric." That night at dinner, my mother said, "What do you call your brother, Joani?" And Joani looked up and said, "Erky Fizzpatrick," just like she always had. She's been calling me that ever since.
I look at my radio clock and crash back down into the pillow. "Joani baby, it's eight-thirty."
"I can't sleep in the other room. Grandma's snoring. Lemme lie down with you."
I know Joani isn't lying, because I've heard our grandmother snoring and she sounds like the apocalypse. I look up at her. She's got short, easy-care hair that's mussed up from bedhead and she's wearing her favorite Strawberry Shortcake nightgown, which is covered with pills. If you just glanced at Joani fast, you might not put it together that she has Down's syndrome; you might just think she had two wandering eyes and a chubby face. You probably wouldn't put it together that she's that different at all, until you talked to her a little bit. When we were both younger, I was more aware of how different she looked, especially because other kids would gladly bring it to my attention. But after all these years, I've settled into her face; I can see how she looks like my mother and I can see how she looks like my father. It's only when I see some other kid with Down's that I'm startled a little bit.
I sit up in bed and put my T-shirt back on; it was muggy last night and we only have little window fans, because my father thinks air-conditioning is a waste of money and putting up with humid weather builds character. He thinks any kind of "putting up with" builds character.
"You can sleep with me if you let me go back to sleep," I say.
"Okay. I'll let you sleep. Go back to sleep."
She climbs in under the sheets and I give her one of my pillows, grudgingly, because I like to sleep on two. I turn around and try to go back to sleep, but pretty soon she starts in with her sighing—long, theatrical sighs, mimicking my mother, which means she wants to talk. At first I ignore her because I really want to sleep, but then I start to feel guilty, as usual, then I start to feel angry with her for making me feel guilty. Then finally I feel guilty for feeling angry with her. It's not her fault that she likes me the best.
"What'd you do last night?" I ask her, half my words muffled by the pillow.
She stops mid-sigh. "Eddie came over last night." Eddie is her best friend from special ed at school. They're in the same Aptitude Group, which as far as I can tell means they've both mastered the alphabet but are still grappling with Green Eggs and Ham.
"Oh, yeah?" I ask. "What'd you do with Eddie?"
"We played Atari. We played Pac-Man and then we played Ms. Pac-Man. I won the whole times."
"You won the whole time," I say automatically.
"I won the whole time," Joani says. We do this constantly. I correct her, she repeats back, and we go on. I'm the only one in the family who picks up on all her speaking errors, even the small ones, so I feel like it's my responsibility to set her straight.
I flip my head over and face her. She's picking pills off her nightgown and flicking them in the air.
"Why you doin' that, Joani?" I say.
She stops, blushing, and clamps her hands on top of her head. "I dunno."
I lean over and try to smooth down her hair. I like it; it's fine, like a baby's. She closes her eyes and sighs, smiling. "Are you and Eddie in love?" I ask.
She flops over and hides her face in the pillow, laughing. "Erky, shut up!"
"Are you? You can tell me, Joani."
"He loves me," she says into the pillow. "I don't love him."
"Because he's weird. He sucks his fingers and he's always singing the Happy Days song."
"So what's wrong with that? He's eccentric."
"What's that?" She's serious now.
"Eccentric. It means somebody who has unusual habits. Like how Grandma used to wear wigs all the time. Or how Ma can't sit in the back of the car without getting sick. Or how you pick at the little balls on your clothes."
"I don't do that all the time!"
"Yeah, but you do it sometimes, so it makes you eccentric. It makes you an individual. That's okay."
"Ex ... trick ... extrick ... extra. What is it?"
"Eks-sen-trick," I say slowly, breaking apart the syllables.
"Eks-sen-trick," she says back to me, singsong.
"That's it. That's what you are. That's what Eddie is. So now you guys can be in love."
She laughs, dropping her elbow and smashing her face back into the pillow. Her little chubby white hand is clenched around the sheet. To see those hands for the first time, when they brought her home when I was six, was a sight. They sat down me and Brenda, who was nine, and told us we had a sister. Nothing was wrong with her, they said, but she was different. She was going to progress slower and we had to look out for her and be nicer to her than we were to each other.
"Do I have to take her everywhere?" Brenda barked. She was big for her age, broad-shouldered, and preoccupied with her first year of judo classes at the YWCA.
"You don't have to take her anywhere right now," our mother said. "But in a few years it might be nice if you got over yourself and showed her a little support."
Brenda scowled. "Am I gonna have to beat up people that give her crap?"
"Watch that kind of talk," my mother said, perched on the edge of the couch, her arms crossed combatively across her chest. Back just two days from the hospital, she looked ashen and exhausted. She would be away from her job as nurse at the Prospect House Nursing Home for three months, and the thought of long days alone with a third child—a problem child—was already making her edgy. Then, "No one's gonna give her crap."
"You just said crap yourself!" Brenda screamed, outraged.
"Shut up," my mother said wearily. Meanwhile, I was trying to formulate a question, wondering if I might spare my parents by looking it up in the World Books, which they had ordered more for me than for anyone else. As we sat, I could see them on the mantel, gleaming in fake gilt and wipe-clean leatherette, all twenty volumes flanked by twin casts of The Thinker. Under what would I look? "C" for children, "B" for babies? Did the little baby have a disease? What was it called? Would she live?
My mother leaned over and brushed crumbs aggressively off my T-shirt. "Whaddya wanna ask, Eric? Just go ahead and ask it."
"What is it called?"
"What is she called? We told you. Joan Erin Fitzpatrick. But we're gonna call her Joani."
"I mean, what's her thing called?"
"It's called Down's syndrome. She's got a moderate form. It's not the most severe." The name conjured for me the image of submerging, of my alien new baby sister, undiapered, attached to nothing, falling deeper and deeper in water or in black space, somehow losing brainpower as she fell.
Brenda looked terrified. "Is she a 'tard?"
"Brenda, don't you dare let me hear that word again in this house. You don't say it anywhere!" my mother said in her sharp I'm-disgusted-with-you tone. Brenda blushed, contrite. "She's mentally retarded," my mother went on, articulating the phrase at Brenda in further rebuke. "Mildly."
"Why did God make her like that?" I asked. I was thick in Sunday mass, CCD classes, and my grandmother's constant Jesus-and-the-saints stories at the time; it wouldn't have occurred to me that Joani's condition was attributable to anything other than God's pointed choice.
My mother hugged me, brisk, businesslike. "Honey, he did it to see how good and how strong we could all be. Isn't that right, Art?"
My father had been standing by the living room window throughout this conference, silent, minutely examining something, maybe the state of the front lawn, which he had neglected in the past two weeks. It had been his first day back to work in a week; he was still in work armor, combed, buttoned, and polished, but around his leaking eyes and chapped mouth he looked permanently bugged.
"Hunh, Terry?" I saw his head follow the arc of the neighbor's Airedale cutting across the front yard; I saw the single loose lick of hair bob on top of his head when the dog barked outside. It was September.
"Isn't Joani a special chance for all of us to show God how good we can be to her and to each other? That's what I just told Eric."
My father turned, glistening around the eyes. If you didn't know him, you would have thought he had been crying, but he wasn't; it was only his usual leakiness. He bongoed his stomach and smiled brightly at us.
"Isn't that right, Arthur?" my mother said in the same voice.
"'Bout what, honey?"
"About Joani. What I just said about her."
My father made one of his trademark creaking sounds before he answered, comic and exaggerated. "Your mother's always right, Eric." He stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and stretched his back.
"I hate it when you say that," my mother said, at the same time that Brenda squawked, "No, she's not!" I think I laughed then. It was a familiar exchange, and for a moment I was glad that the four of us were in here and the special new challenge with the little white hands like uncooked biscuits was asleep down the hall. There was plenty of time to service God and contend with her later.
* * *
I'm tickling Joani now and she's laughing harder when we both hear a protracted moan from her room, where Grandma is sleeping on the second twin bed. She's seventy-six; a week ago, Auntie Irene stopped by her apartment to drop off fresh eggplant from the farm stand and found her lying on her bed, saying her rosary and breathing like she had an amplifier in her throat. On the way to the hospital in the ambulance, my grandmother asked Auntie Irene where she had put the eggplant.
"Calm down, Ma. You're sick," Auntie Irene said, rearranging my grandmother's rosary in her hands. "I left the eggplant on the table."
"It's not gonna keep."
"Ma, it's fresh. It'll keep."
"You should have put it in the crisper. It's not gonna keep in this muggy weather."
"I'm not thinking about the eggplant right now, Ma!"
"You're not, but I am. You never think about nothin'."
They said my grandmother had had a minor stroke. We all visited her on Saturday; at one point there were twenty of us in a pack outside her hospital room, waiting to visit in shifts of three at a time. A few days later Dr. Mullane let her out with a new round of pills.
"Stay off your feet, Doris. Your children and your grandchildren can cook for themselves for a few weeks."
"Your mother raised a good son, Joey," my grandmother said as my mother and aunts packed her up.
Later, Dr. Mullane took my mother and her sisters aside and told them it was dangerous for my grandmother to go on living alone; what if this had happened in the middle of the night and she couldn't get to the phone? He told them they should start thinking about alternative living arrangements. "Terry and I work at the two best nursing homes in the area and I still wouldn't put my mother in one of those jail cells," announced Auntie Irene.
So now, while everyone figures out what to do with her, my grandmother is staying with us—sneaking into the kitchen in the afternoon when nobody's home and cooking our dinners, amusing my father and me, worrying my mother, driving Brenda crazy, and scaring Joani awake with her snoring and moaning, like she's moaning right now. I think I hear her moan after our grandfather, who died before I was born—"Oh, Georgie, oh, oh, oh!"—but I may be wrong.
Joani looks dismayed. "What's she yelling about?" she asks me.
"She's just talking in her sleep. Everybody does that. Especially old people."
"Who's she talking to?"
"She's talking to the people in her dreams, like Grandpa and all her old friends. Don't you have people you know in your dreams?"
"I don't have any dreams," she says.
"Everyone does. You have to, or you go crazy."
"I don't have any," she says flatly.
"Oh. Well, I see." But I can't contest further, because I, too, usually remember only whether my dreams please me or trouble me, but never what happens or to whom, by whom. All tone, no content, which is maddening.
"I'm gonna go wake her up," Joani says abruptly, clambering out of the bed. I check my digital radio clock; it's nine o'clock now.
"Hold on. I'm coming," I say, sitting up and pulling on my shorts while Joani waits by the door, giving me a skeptical look I can't place.
The bedroom is about ten times hotter than the rest of the house, and still dark from the drawn shades. Grandma's lying in bed on her back, her short and stout frame obvious under the sheet, the same string of blue glass rosary beads she's had since she was a girl clicking faintly in her hands.
Excerpted from Getting Off Clean by Timothy Murphy. Copyright © 1997 Timothy Murphy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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