That afternoon I had just gotten the last of my braces on and Mom had dropped me off at home, then left again, when Dad started calling. My mouth felt heavy and cramped with metal. I kept touching the wire with my tongue, trying to get used to the sharp, spiky feel of it. Dad called about every fifteen minutes and said, "Your mom home yet?" and I had to keep telling him no. Each time he called, he'd say, "So how are you, Mikey?" as if he hadn't talked to me two or three times already. He was a little loose, I could tell. He was the only one I let call me by Mikey anymore, because he'd been gone since early Decemberwhen Mom kicked him out of the houseand didn't know that I'd decided to go by Michael now.
"You're talking sort of funny," he said. I told him about the braces. "That's right," he said. "How they feel?"
"They hurt," I said. "I can't eat anything. But Mom says they're handsome. She says they do something for me."
"Good boy," he said. "Good boy." His voice sounded happy with me. Then his tone changed. "She's out, isn't she? She's with another guy, right?"
"No," I said. "She's getting her hair done or something." That was true, though later, after the hairdresser, she had plans to see Larry or Jim, both guys she'd been sort of dating recently.
Ben, my older sister's pet rat, climbed up the couch and started nibblingon my fingers. Ben was about the size of a kitten and Sarah had bought him because other kids in our school kept rats as pets. There was something hip in a disgusting, industrial way about owning one. He kept nibbling at my fingershis way of saying he's hungry. I walked into the kitchen, with Ben scurrying in front of me. He knew he was going to be fed. Mom had bought a new cordless phone that you could walk anywhere with. I popped a bag of popcorn in the microwave and looked through the little window as it turned around on the carousel in that radioactive yellow light. I knew what Dad was going to say next. He'd been calling for the last four days, saying the same thing.
"Listen, Mikey," Dad said. "I don't want to put you in the middle of this, okay? But your mother needs to understand that the Mustang is mine. I owned that car before we married. I know she's hidden it. She's got it parked at one of her friends' or something. Will you please tell her I know that?"
"Sure," I said. The popcorn began popping and I felt Ben on the kitchen floor circling my leg, growing more excited because he recognized the sound of his favorite food.
"You know where it's parked, don't ya?" he said.
"No," I lied.
"Good boy," he said, really happy again. "Don't let yourself get caught in the middle of this, all right?"
"I won't," I said.
"All right," he said.
"All right," I said.
I opened the bag of popcorn and tried to eat a piece, but it hurt like hell because of the braces. So I put the bag down between my feet, where Ben could burrow into it and feed. Ben was a real pig when it came to popcorn, and he was eating so fast right now that the bag sort of spasmed between my feet.
When the phone rang next, it was Sarah. Sarah had taken offshe was a runaway, I guessthe day after Christmas with her boyfriend, Marcus. They ended up in San Franciscoa long way from Orem, Utahliving in this abandoned school building. Sarah had gone sort of crazy living at home with Mom and me. She renamed herself Nancy for no good reason, and you had to call her Nancy or she wouldn't answer you. Then she started speaking in a British accent and using British words like bollocks and over the top and brilliant. For her, everything was brilliantbrilliant ... brilliant ... brilliantwhich was funny, because she'd never been to Britain. Mom started calling her "the foreigner." "Tell the foreigner that she's got to do those dishes," she'd say. The only time Sarah used her normal voice was when she spoke to Ben, which she did a lot, especially if Mom was around. Once, Mom told her to stop talking to that animal and to be herself. Sarah looked at her and said in her heavy British accent, "I'm sorry, Mummy, but I don't feel real with you."
The morning after Christmas, I woke up and found Ben scurrying around in the kitchen, hungry and dragging his leash behind him. (Sarah had kept him on a little leather leash, the way you'd keep a small dog.) There was this paper tag on Ben's collar that said:
Sarah ran away and left me.
Please look after me, please!
So of course I did. What had Ben done to anyone? He just ate and slept and lived. He had it all right, I guess. Besides, he was a white rat, a fluffy, irresistible white like you would expect a rabbit to be. He'd nudge at your hand for affection, nudge away until you gave him some. He needed me, and I liked that.
"Where's Mom, Mikey?" Sarah asked when I answered the phone.
I said, "Michael, not Mikey, please."
"Oh, yeah," she said. "So where's Mom?"
"She's getting her hair done or something."
She asked why I was speaking like a dork and I told her about the braces and she said, "Ouch. That hurts." It didmy mouth felt tight and wooden and every word I said hurt me. "At least no more buckteeth, right?" Then she said, "Ching, ching. That costs money. Where's Mom getting the money for that?"
"You still living in the school building?" I asked.
"No," she said. "We bolted. It was too freaky sleeping in a room with all those blackboards on the walls. I mean, I was living in a school, and I always hated school so much." Then she paused. "So where's Mom getting the money for your mouth?"
"If you're not in the school building," I said, "where are you ?"
"I got to go," she said. "This is costing me."
I knew she was lying. Mom had somehow sent her one of those "call home" calling cards so that Sarah could call home on Mom.
"You got a number there you could give us?"
Outside, a light snow began to fall. The flakes were fine and ashy and the sky was this polluted gray color. She said, "I got to go, okay? You tell Mom I could use a little of that money, wherever it's coming from. Later, Mikey."
I said, "I talked to Dad just now. He called a minute ago."
"Oh," she said. She was going to stay on the line now. "He have much to say?"
"He was worried about his car."
"That stupid car," she said. "He was fucked up, wasn't he?"
"He was maybe a little loose," I said. I hated the way she had to use the worst words for everything.
"Did he ask about me?" The line beeped thenwe had call waitingand I told her that Dad was probably on the other line and to hold on, and she said, "All right, but this is costing me."
Dad said, "Your mother sold the fucking Mustang, didn't she?" He was almost shouting, his speech slushy and reckless, the way it got when he really let himself go. "I know she sold it. She sold it, didn't she, Mikey?"
I said, "No, she didn't sell it."
"But she's going to sell it. She's going to sell it, isn't she?"
I said, "Sarah's on the other line."
"Just tell me she's not going to sell the Mustang."
I told him that. Then I said, "Sarah's on the other line. She wants to know if you asked about her."
"So she's not going to sell it?"
"No," I said.
Then he said, "Your sister's not crying wolf again, is she? She's not saying she's in some hospital, is she?"
She'd done that a few timescalled up and told Mom that she'd been in an accident and was in a hospital and needed an operation, then hung up without leaving a number or the name of a hospital, so that Mom stayed up the whole night biting her nails bloody and Calling around to different hospitals in the Bay Area, when Sarah wasn't in any of them.
"No," I said. "She's not crying wolf. She'd like to talk to you. Could she call you collect?"
"You know how I feel about that, Mikey. She chose to live out there on her own. She can pay for her own phone calls. I've got to go now, kid. Tell your mom that we need to talk."
"What's he say?" Sarah asked.
"He says to say hi. He says to ask what's up."
"He's sort of worried about his car. He thinks Mom's going to sell it." As soon as I said that, I knew I shouldn't have.
"She'd do that to him? She'd sell his car?" She was laughing.
"No," I said. "No, she wouldn't."
"Bullshit she wouldn't. That car's worth mucho buckage." Then she was quiet for a second. "That's how she's going to pay for your mouth, isn't it?"
"No," I said. "Forget about it. Dad says he wants to talk to you. He says you can call him collect at his place. All right?"
"Why don't you fuck with him a little, Mikey? Tell him Mom's already sold his car. That'll drive him crazy."
"Shut up about that, okay? Dad says you can call him collect."
"Maybe," she said. "Tell Mom I want some of that car, too."
"He really wants to talk to you."
"Maybe," she said. Then she said, "How's Ben Franklin anyway?"
"You're treating him right? He's getting enough water and food?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm treating him right."
"Thanks," she said. "Later, Mikey."
Outside it was dark and the snow had become large and feathery and fell in thick sideways sheets. Ben was down at my feet, still munching away at the popcorn. I wondered when Mom would get home and thought about the car, a 1968 red Mustang, locked safely in Winnie Howell's garage on Breywick Street, three blocks away from our house. Mom and I had already talked about her plans to sell it and how she had a dozen or so offers. She was holding on to the car, waiting for the highest bidder now. It was a collector's item, worth I didn't know how many thousands. But I did know how much that car meant to Dad and I hadn't wanted her to sell it. She'd said, "How do you think we're going to pay for your mouth, Mikey? This Mustang's going to pay for your mouththat's how."
I said, "I don't want it to pay for my mouth." We were driving the Mustang then, on our way to the orthodontist's for the first consultation, and I could smell the sweet treated leather of the interior, which, the year before, Dad had re-upholstered. Later, when he started asking about his car, Mom bought us a used Impala and hoarded the Mustang in Winnie's garage. Dad had redone the whole car at one time or another and usually spent his weekends working on it. He'd even named itcalled it Victoria, after a famous queen of England, he saidand always spoke of it as a she, she this and she that, until Mom would get irritated and tell him that a mustang wasn't a she. Sometimes he'd just call it "the horse" in this rough, affectionate man voice. The car was sort of alive to him. Mom was decked out in her best suit that day and I was in my good clothes, too, because she didn't want them thinking we couldn't afford the braces. As she talked on, her voice got pitched and angry.
"I can't pay for your mouth," she said. "I'm just a secretary. Your dad can't pay for your mouthevery dollar he touches turns to booze. Don't you want your mouth?" I put my hand to my face and felt the buckteeth, the crooked, hard ridge of little bones, the ugly, ugly mouth that I'd lived with for fifteen years, and I didn't know what to say. "You deserve straight teeth. Other kids have straight teeth, and I want my son to have straight teeth, too." Ever since she'd kicked Dad out of the house, Mom had become vocal about what we deserved. "Don't worry about him," she said. "He put more time, money, and care into this car than he ever did any of us." Then she slapped the steering wheel with both hands and said, "We deserve to look at least as good as this stupid car."
We had stopped at a light and she was looking at herself in the rearview mirror, touching up her hair and tracing the wrinkles along her mouth, when she said, "Oh Christ, I've become an old woman," a thing she'd been saying a lot lately. "At least you deserve to look good. It's too late for your old mom." She was crunching up her face and looking at the thick lines that formed.
"He might get better," I said.
"Get better?" She laughed. "Your dad's a sick man, Michael. He's been sick for years. He won't get better."
"He might," I said.
"He's a bottle man, Michael," she said. "He's not a family man." She had learned phrases like bottle man at this group she attended on Wednesday evenings called Wives of Alcoholics. "We've got to start thinking about us, Michael. You and me." She was still crabbing up her face and looking into it. "I just wish I'd kicked him out before I got like this." She rolled down the window and tried to throw out a strand of gray hair she'd just pulled from her head. She was forty-three and hated us to look shabby. The hair kept blowing back into the car. Finally, she let it fall into her lap. "It's a question of money, you know. If we could afford it, we'd get me a face-lift, too." Then she paused and said, "Don't look at me like that, Mr. Judgmental." I guess my face told her pretty much what I felt. "We're not bad just because we want some nice things for ourselves, are we?" When I didn't answer, she pressed the point, "Are we?"
"No," I finally said. "I guess not."
She took my jaw in her hand and shook it gently. "We're going to get you fixed up, kiddo." By then, the light had turned green and the people behind us were honking.
The phone rang and, for maybe the fifth time that night, it was Dad. "Christ, Mikey. I just got off the phone with your sister. She told me what you and your mother are up to. She told me you were turning my car into braces."
I didn't say anything. I could hear my own breathing amplified and strange in the receiver. The line beeped and I said, "I've got to get that."
He said, "Don't you dare leave me on this" But I did.
"Goddamn you, Sarah," I said.
She said, "Somebody's after me, Mikey." I could tell from her voice that she'd been crying.
I said, "What?" Then I said, "Why the fuck did you have to tell Dad?"
"Somebody's after me," she said again. "They want to hurt me 'cause I owe them money, right?"
"Don't cry wolf to me, Sarah." I didn't like the sound of her voice. It sounded small and frightened.
"I'm not shitting you, Mikey. It has to do with money, okay? I owe someone money and they're going to hurt me now."
I said, "Why did you tell Dad?"
Her voice got sort of happy then. "He's pretty pissed off, I bet."
"Yeah," I said.
"That bastard wouldn't let me call collect. He made me pay for the phone call."
Then she said, "You tell Mom that somebody's after me. You tell her that somebody wants to hurt me. Later, Mikey."
"It's a vintage car, Mikey."
"Sarah says somebody wants to hurt her."
"Do you know how much work I put into that car?" He was yelling.
I said, "I had ugly teeth."
"But the Mustang's my car. My car!" he shouted. I pulled the phone away from my ear and held it out in front of me; he sounded tiny and distant now. "My car! My car!" He became this little furious cartoon voice trapped in the phone. I could put him down on the table, if I wanted. So I did that. I put him down and walked away from him on my way to the bathroom. I heard his voice saying, "Mikey? Mikey? Where are you, Mikey?" He was pathetic. He was easy to hate now.
In the bathroom, I smiled in the mirror and saw that my gums were lined with a little bit of blood. The scarlet mound of a pimple was beginning to rise at the center of my forehead. I felt it beneath my skin: hidden and painful. Ben had followed me into the bathroom and climbed into the tub, where he liked to drink from the leaky faucet. I heard the small, wet sounds of him slurping away in there. "What are we going to do, Ben? What the hell are we going to do ?"
I got back to the couch and turned the TV on, to this program about performing dolphins. I could still hear Dad's voice speaking through the receiver on the table. "Mikey ... Mikey," it said. The program was called Our Friends from the Sea and a scientist with a mustache was saying, "I'm absolutely convinced that dolphins can understand usevery word we say. They have a marvelous talent for deciphering vocal structures." Then he turned away from the camera and looked at this dolphin in the pool beside him. The dolphin's head bobbed above the surface of the water. Its eyes were these sensitive black ovals, like polished stones. "You can understand me, can't you?" the scientist said, and the dolphin beeped and clicked at him.
The orthodontist's office was painted in shades of mint blue, clean and arctic, and smelled of toothpaste and harsh, soapy chemicals. In the waiting room, kids with headgear and silvery mouths sat beside their mothers. These kids didn't look happy, not exactly, though they did look changed. They looked stunned and maybe a little afraid. On the receptionist's countera cool slab of greensat two plaster molds of corrected teeth, a plastic model of the human jaw, and a shiny bell to ring for the receptionist. One girl said to her mother, "Is he going to use that thing on me again?" The girl wore an apple green T-shirt with the word Happening in large yellow letters across her chest.
Her mother just said, "Your teeth are getting so pretty."
The orthodontist was called Dr. Ellis. His assistant was a Polish woman, Tasha, who spoke with a European accent and had this long bleach-blond hair and a nice straight smile and wore blue surgical clothes. It was our first visit, so Mom insisted on going back to the exam room with me. "We want to get on the two-year payment plan," she kept saying to Tasha. Mom was nervous. Her voice trembled a little. She didn't know what to do with her hands.
"You have to talk to the receptionist," Tasha said. She motioned for me to sit in one of those long chairs and pulled a tray of metal instruments up beside me. The instruments were bright and seemed unreasonably sharp and pointed; they clattered on the tray as Tasha moved it. Lulling violins played "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" from hidden speakers. I heard the scream of a girl coming from another room down the hall.
"Relax," Tasha said. She touched me on the shoulder. "We're not going to do anything that hurts today."
"Do they have braces in Poland?" I asked.
She laughed. "No. In Poland, the people are poor." Her eyes were the same shade of blue that covered the waiting room's walls. I imagined how Tasha had come to this country poor, with a brown potato sack over her shoulder, dust in her yellow hair, and a mud-puddle cast to her eyes. Then, simple as that, she'd cleaned herself up, gotten a job, and come into her bright, hard new-world beauty.
The chair buzzed and lifted me closer to the globular light that Tasha centered above me. She flipped the light on, snapped on a pair of latex gloves, and touched my mouth. The gloves smelled of mint and Clorox, and I started having these crazy thoughts about her. I saw Tasha and me in this dark blue minivan, with kids and the best downhill ski equipment in the back. With ungloved hands, she touched my facemy mouth was strong and symmetricalas I drove up a bald, snowy mountain. The kids had bright alloy complexions like hers. "Michael," she said, "Michael."
I held her closely. I said, "We're going to have a great ski vacation this year. The kids are going to love it."
The doctor had entered the room, and Tasha seemed to disappear behind his tall shoulder. He introduced himself and said, "How you doing there, Mikey ?" He had this large, fat man's laugh, even though he was slim and had a neat haircut and looked like a newscaster or a senator. (Later, in the car, Mom would say, "Dr. Ellis was handsome, didn't you think? Of course, he had to be wearing a ring. The handsome ones all do.")
"Call me Michael, please," I told him.
"He's got a difficult mouth, Mrs. Larsen," he told my mother. He moved my jaw from side to side, then up and down, and my bones made a light popping sound. "You've got a difficult mouth, Mikey," he said. "What a jaw ... what a mandible," he said. Tasha seemed to agree. She was studying me with this focused, knowing eye.
"The kids teased him for years," my mom said.
"Please don't, Mom," I said.
I saw my mother looking over Tasha's shoulder. My mother was smiling and seemed extremely happy, as happy as she'd been since she kicked Dad out. "We've been wanting to do this for a long time now," she said. "We want to get on the two-year payment plan."
"He's a difficult one," Dr. Ellis said. My mouth felt small and soft in his hands. His face moved so close to my own that I could smell through his cologne and spearmint breath to some salty, moist odor. "But nothing we can't fix."
"That's a relief," my mom said.
The doctor was working my jaw in this funny sideways direction, until I felt my bones lock.
"I'm afraid, Michael," he said, "that we're going to have to correct your jaw."
"What does that mean?" my mom asked.
"Well, Mrs. Larsen," he said, "it means that we're going to have to break it."
Dad was still on the phone. He was saying, "Please, Mikey ... please. Just pick up the phone and talk to me." I picked up the phone, but I didn't talk to him. "Are you there, Mikey? I just want to talk to you, Mikey." His voice sounded tired. On the Our Friends from the Sea program, performing dolphins were being transported. These men wrapped the dolphins up in thick black sling and carried them into the backs of special air-conditioned trucks, then drove them onto the freeway. I couldn't help but imagine this terrible accident. I saw the truck burning and the slick, mercury-like bodies of dolphins flopping over the black asphalt as semis and cars tried to swerve around them.
"Dad," I said.
"Mikey," he said
"Could you call me Michael instead of Mikey: I'm fifteen. I want to be called Michael now."
Excerpted from Retribution and other stories by John Fulton. Copyright © 2001 by John Fulton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.