By ANTONYA NELSON BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2009 Antonya Nelson
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-574-9
NEVER SHAKE A BABY," the flyer insisted, "Never, never, never." The public service brochures displayed at the district attorney's office seemed to be speaking to Hannah, each pertinent and personal. The face on Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence was one big yellow-blue bruise. "Substance abuse abuses us all," another insisted, a martini glass with a slash through it. The illustration was so highly detailed as to include a toothpick-speared olive.
Her fifteen-year-old son had demanded that Hannah wait rather than join him and his probation officer. Down the hall, a door banged open, a courtroom released. A young man in an orange jumpsuit emerged between two older, somber men, trailed by weeping women. His lawyers, his guards, his mother, sister, girlfriend. Like the brochures, this scene also seemed a warning; Hannah had passed from one kind of life into another. A small boy brought up the rear of the procession, one hand hitching his pants, one swiping at his running nose. Hannah felt close to bursting into tears. Ten years from now, that little boy would be wearing the jumpsuit, leading the pack. Her own son seemed poised somewhere between these two, teetering.
"Ma," he brayed, suddenly beside her, nudging to indicate that his appointment had ended, they were free to go. Still free, Hannah thought, and her mood lifted.
"You take us to the most interesting places," she said as they exited the courthouse. This had been the third required monthly meeting since he'd made a bomb threat at school. Beside her, passing through the metal detectors, Leo pulled in a savoring breath. "Good times," he murmured. He'd been to jail, he'd worn handcuffs. He had a psychologist, a lawyer, and a probation officer; this current round of meetings was part of something called "diversion," and maybe it was sort of amusing. Leo's delinquency had to become something else, Hannah supposed, having already been terrifying, divisive, pricey, and heartbreaking.
He was her second son, and he'd never been the one she understood best. Recently, she'd found herself disgusted by him-she didn't want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils-with her own boy. His brother, who'd passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditional male's transformation to manhood-the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move-might eventually convince a parent to despair, to say to that child, "You are dead to me." Because it would be easier-more decorous, acceptable-to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.
Their next stop was Wichita Central High School.
"Leo's mother," the PE coach greeted her. He was precisely as billed: soldierlike, down to the bullet-shaped shaved head and stiff-armed formality. "G.I. Joe," her son called him. In his first-period class, Leo had recently pierced his own lip with a safety pin. In the divot beneath his nose, a pulsing bump he'd tried to pass off as a bug bite and then a pimple. Finally he'd just shown up at breakfast with the pin hanging there, clicking against his cereal spoon. A parent was required to come pay penance, help reclaim the old gymnasium. The smell alone could have brought back adolescence-sweat, fried food, patchouli-but this was also the high school Hannah had attended. Back then, this had been Central's only gym. In the years since, groups would intermittently creak open the metal doors and throw a party or host a science fair. The drama club had contributed a couple of sofas. Windows, metal-barred and streaked with pigeon droppings, let through a gloomy cold light; voices echoed. Hannah had played basketball here, once upon a time. More recently, her first son had acted in plays on the very stage that, today, G.I. Joe would lead the group in dismantling.
"Leo's mother, meet Dylan's father." Several fathers, Reagan's, Meagan's, Dusty's, and Jordan's; a roomful of uncomfortable men, glancing around with their hands jammed in their pockets, awaiting instruction. Hannah couldn't help prescribing makeovers for everyone. First, twenty pounds off each, that defeated weight of middle age, of parenthood. Next: therapy and SSRIs, all around. Hannah knew that whatever she saw as deficits in these people, they themselves recognized. They, too, wished not to seem sad and skittish. They wished they were trim and brave and confident. They wished they were young-not as young as their offspring, these children, clustered and glowering fifty paces away, also in the proverbial doghouse-but younger than their forty or fifty years. They knew their best years had passed, that they'd been sapped of something vital, and now could only make futile guesses at how to get it back.
The group had been told to dress "grubby," bring tools, and, now, to "buddy up." Hannah watched her son pair himself with a big slow-moving girl. This was the daughter of a dad making his way toward her, a man who'd covered his bland sameness with a vivid orange Hawaiian shirt. His long wavy white hair and bright craggy face suggested decades of overindulgence, specific decades, the seventies and eighties.
"I'm Chuck," he said to Hannah, thrusting out his hand, "and that's my girl Niffer."
"Leo's mom." They shook vigorously. He smiled quizzically, and Hannah smiled back. Perhaps they were both wondering the same thing: why their children had chosen one another. They glanced in unison that direction. Niffer was larger than Leo-taller, meatier-with soot-black hair pulled into a dozen little pigtails. She stood sullenly while Leo twitched alongside, talking at her eagerly, as if to sell her something.
"Finally, I meet the boyfriend's family."
"Boyfriend?" Hannah repeated. To her knowledge, her son had never been accused of this before.
"Leo. The boyfriend. I had to nail shut Niffer's window to make him come in the front door. 'Stop your sneaky ways, son,' I told him. Frankly, I'm more worried about mosquitoes and West Nile than finding a boy in her bed."
Hannah sighed, her heart heavy with Leo's persistent deception, its busy proliferation. She took in Niffer once more, the faintly domineering power the girl seemed to have over her son, as if she might stretch out a paw and cuff him. "How old is she?" Hannah asked.
"Eighteen. Nineteen next month. This is her fifth year of high school." The parents appraised one another, still quizzical but without the smiles, trying to guess the trustworthiness of their children.
"You a doctor?"
"No, no." Hannah looked down at her green scrubs, which had been the required outfit of her former job. "I worked at a doctor's office."
"Well, you're not a doctor and I'm not Jimmy Buffet." He laughed abruptly, like a dog. "Not anymore, anyway. And I'm betting that fellow is not Abe Lincoln." An Amish father stood rocking on his heels, looking serenely about, his sons like sentries on either side of him. What bad deed had those boys done? Now Niffer's dad noticed Hannah's hand, from which she had removed her wedding ring. He didn't wear one, either, and for whatever reason, the absence made a difference. You didn't notice until you took it off.
For a couple of hours that afternoon the two of them hauled trash from the gym while others, those who'd brought sledges and crowbars, performed the more violent labor-enthusiastically, like cavemen. Despite the chilly October air, Chuck wore flip-flops. Hannah liked his casual use of profanity, as it made him seem not young, exactly, but immature, and therefore less likely to judge her. Having grown up in Kansas, she should have been accustomed to judgment, inured to the pity and superiority her neighbors felt toward someone like herself, with her foreign vehicle and secular Sundays, and yet it still hurt her feelings. Her neighbors would change her in ways she wouldn't want to change herself, she supposed, reconsidering her earlier notion of a mutually agreed upon ideal. They would send her to pantyhose and pumps, hair spray, Episcopal fellowship, potluck dinners, blood drives.
"Do you donate blood?" she asked Chuck, trying to balance her loathing of small talk against her tendency to appear bored or annoyed by others.
"Nah," he said. "I'm a nancypants around the needle. You?"
When his cell phone rang, he cursed reflexively. "Fucking cow."
"Ex-wife." This opened the subject of divorce, his of twelve years, Hannah's of four months. They discovered they'd been married the same summer twenty years ago, which led Hannah to speculate that if he'd stayed in the marriage, as she had, he probably wouldn't be as bitter about the split.
"Yeah-huh," he said skeptically.
"You could pretend that's what happened," Hannah suggested. But his wife had found a new love and life immediately, spawning a crop of younger, cuter children, Niffer's half brothers she never saw; Chuck helped at high school whenever he could because his wife had simply abandoned their now-aging teenage daughter.
"No way can I forget or forgive what that bitch has done to Niffer."
Hannah didn't mention that she'd been hoping her ex-husband would do precisely what Chuck's ex had, attach himself to another marriage so as to let Hannah off the hook. It was a particular kind of hook, and it was painfully embedded: the specific knowledge that she'd disappointed a good man, and disappointed him so deeply that he'd come unmoored, lost and adrift. There was no undoing that. She could only pray someone would arrive to save him. And she wasn't a person who prayed.
"I went to school here," she told Chuck now. "Go Cougars." She made the traditional Cougar fist, the one that was supposed to resemble claws.
"I went to East," he said. "Well, for a while I did. Then I just said 'Fuck it' and got my GED."
"I played basketball in this very gym," Hannah went on. "I was so stoned during one game I scored at the wrong end of the court. Right there," she added, pointing to the netless rim under the snarling cat. They each carried two bags of trash to toss on the growing heap outside. "How'd you misspend your youth?"
"Chasing tail. Racing cars. Taking drugs." He smiled his beach-bum smile, then shook his hair out of his eyes. "But I gave up partying," he said earnestly, letting the gym door close behind them. "Since the divorce."
"Oh," said Hannah, made uneasy, as always, by someone else's committed sobriety. Now, inhaling a deep breath of the fresh, cool air, she was afraid he would proselytize, attempt to sponsor her at AA or NA or whatever A wagon he'd climbed onto, and the spark of friendship she'd felt with him fizzled. But then he began slapping at his pockets until he hit upon his pack of cigarettes, offering Hannah one. She wasn't a smoker but joined him just from relief: he'd not relinquished this bad habit.
You had to have something with which to fill the hours.
"I like Leo," Chuck announced. "He set up my e-mail account, and he always says thanks. Although his fashion statement baffles me, him and Niffer both." He had the self-possession to look down at his own feet then and smile at his flip-flops. "Fungus," he explained.
"Ah," Hannah said, trying to exhale elegantly. "Leo thinks he's an anarchist." Her son had taken to dressing like a homeless man, baggy wool pants with exhausted suspenders, food-stained shirts and holey fedoras. Anarchy, despite its resemblance to clown-wear, felt like a state of siege; Hannah was coping as best she could. Because money was regularly missing from her purse, she had begun sleeping with it beside her on the bed. She stored all the liquor in her car trunk after finding a water bottle of gin on Leo's nightstand; when he caught scabies from his thrift-store clothes, she took him to the doctor. And it was Hannah herself who'd given him the idea of obtaining his fake ID, recounting to him her own adolescent scam at the DMV, where she claimed to be her older sister, acquiring a valid duplicate license with her own young photograph on it, a full five years' difference in their ages. "I just kept forgetting to respond to my sister's name," she had told Leo, laughing. "Margaret," sent trembling into the liquor store with all the money. So how could Hannah really complain when she found Leo's fake license in his dirty pants, his photo over his brother's name and birth date?
That was the thing: she both understood him, and was totally flummoxed. For instance, why so angry? Why the hair-trigger temper, so often? He was always breaking the telephone. Apparently, this aspect of his character was under control over at Chucks house. "Maybe teenagers should be shuffled around," she speculated. "Maybe they'd be more mannerly with people they didn't know so well."
Niffer, it turned out, was depressed. "It's kind of like living with two different girls," Chuck explained. "You never know what side of the bed she's gonna get up on."
"I feel that way about Leo, too. And sometimes it seems like he doesn't really know, either." There often appeared to be a war going on inside Leo, the mild silly boy he'd been versus the hairy, hoarse-voiced soul who'd suddenly moved in. The divorce had contributed, no doubt, but her sons' behavior had influenced the divorce, too-their childhoods abruptly gone, leaving everyone feeling robbed. It just wasn't fun to be a family anymore. Plus, Hannah had been fired from her job. A bad year. "It's a combo plate of reasons," she acknowledged to Chuck.
"A cluster fuck," he agreed.
Hannah decided to tell him that her husband, like his wife, had seemed to give up on their child. This wasn't strictly true, but it made her feel noble, loyal to Leo in the face of so much disapproval and lack of confidence. His father was in the throes of grief, overwhelmed by losing both Hannah's passion and Leo's innocence in the same season. His response, finally, was to take their older son and retreat to his mother's home half a mile away, to his knotty pine bedroom with its desiccated ornaments from his youth. He hadn't given up on their son; he just longed for last year's model, cursed as he was by that most disastrous of devilry, nostalgia. But Hannah found it more interesting to construct a different story for Chuck, Chuck who was field-dressing both his and her cigarette butts, ready to rejoin the group.
"You have to stick with them," she said, of their teenagers. "It's like they're toddlers again." All the common household objects were dangerous once more, pills, razors, knives, liquor, glue. "Except toddlers are sweeter."
"And now we're older," he replied.
"Don't forget divorced," Hannah added.
Chuck shook his wavy hair-gold, it must have been, now silver-and opened the door. "I have to check out Niffer every night to see if she's cutting again. Up her arms, on her belly. It's just vigilance, my friend, round-the-clock vigilance. We do a UA every couple weeks. I am on the case. My ex doesn't know the half of it."
"Urine analysis. I take one, too, for solidarity. I'm letting her know I'm on her side, I understand how hard it is not to use. I'm telling her every day, in every way, that I am aware of the facts, and the facts are that life is a cage of pain, just a damn cage of pain."
"Must she be named Niffer?" Hannah asked that evening, trying to tease Leo.
He glared at the cheese and grater he held, as if he could imagine ways of injuring his mother with them. She had said a foolish thing; once said, it was not retractable. She was forty-three years old; why hadn't she learned that yet? When she and Chuck had left the gym that afternoon, they'd found their children kissing by the portables. It was an alarming moment for Hannah. She'd never seen Leo touch a girl; until earlier that day, she hadn't known he was a boyfriend. His brother Justin had been so easily embarrassed by the questions she and his father had asked concerning desire or romance that they hadn't even broached the topic with Leo. They were a polite family who lived in the Midwest under those unspoken rules. The arguments she and Thomas had had-even the final, fatal ones-were marked by respectful restraint; for all she knew, Justin was gay. Where had Leo learned what to do? How had he known to grip Niffer's buttocks while chewing hungrily at her mouth?
Upon seeing the groping pair, Hannah's response was to turn away; avert her gaze from the slight pump of her son's hips, but Chuck had boomed right in, waving his arms, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, let's keep it PG, boys and girls!" Leo had leaped back as if electrocuted, then trudged sullenly after Hannah to their car, where they got stuck idling along behind the Amish horse and buggy.
Once home, Hannah didn't know how to be tactful about the subject. Up close, the girl seemed brain-damaged, her face not angry so much as smeary, as if her features had been smudged by a giant careless thumb: hooded eyes, mashed nose, down-turned mouth. She reminded Hannah of a rabbit-not a real rabbit but a stuffed one, lop-eared and lifeless, costumed in torn black fishnets and red plaid skirt, a pair of mud-spattered combat boots.
Excerpted from NOTHING RIGHT by ANTONYA NELSON Copyright © 2009 by Antonya Nelson. Excerpted by permission.
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