Half-empty pot of caffeine. TV still on, paradoxically gray and glowing like smoldering ash. Drapes open, lights on–a beacon and a welcome mat. Clocks purring in all the attention; dark circles under eyes, weakening the anticipation, the anxiety.
Soft but hurried steps of small feet down carpeted stairs. Ith he here yet, Mom? Not yet, baby. I’m notta baby, I’m thickth. O.K., Dennis; go to bed.
The boy is in his jungle, a plastic rifle in his hands, mimicking rapid fire. He’ll be here, though, won’tee? Yes, baby, he’ll be here. The boy shoots down an imaginary enemy from the top of the stairs.
Sun pokes its revolting head. She awakens more at the sound of its snickering than from its molten penetration of her kitchen window as inside and outside melt together, the windowbeacon swallowed like a drop by the rising tide of light. Drapes still gaping. Their eyelids have beat them again, but it has only been yet another battle–the war, as all wars, will fuel itself.
“Perhaps today,” she lies to herself. She manages to slither from beneath her little boy, creaking away, letting him sleep on the hard wooden rocking chair, go on dreaming beneath her knitting. Even a nightmare is a mercy, she whispers, cocooning him in her quilt.
“It’s late, baby. Go to sleep. I’ll wake you when he gets here.”
“No, Mom. I wanna wait.”
“No one wants to wait, baby.”
“I do. Can I have coffee?”
“It makes you wet, and you’ll have nightmares.”
“Do you have nightmares, Mom?”
“I hope he gets here soon.”
“Hope . . . Yes, hope.”
“Why didn’t he come last night, Mom?”
“I don’t know, baby. But he’ll be here.”
“Are you sure?”
“No one is sure of anything. But he’ll be here.”
“Why wouldn’t he come?”
“I’m sure he’ll come. I’m sure he’s on his way.”
. . . . . . . .
“Go to bed, now. Go say your prayers.”
“If I say my prayers, then can I have coffee?”
“We’ll see, baby.”
“O.K. I’m gonna pray for him to come. I’ll ask God to send him.”
“That’s a good idea, baby.”
“Yup.” As he scurries up the steps, almost tripping on the clumsy feet of his Big Bird pajamas–is he getting too old for such things?: “Wake me up when he gets here!”
The sun can be pornographic. Every day it becomes more and more obscene–up and down, up and down, up and down–dragging it out like love making in eternal bondage, laughing at my helplessness, always in a sweat. It knows I need it, hides only long enough for the trembling to creep back into my skin and then rises over me, making me small, blind, frantic, wound up and coated over. Raped daily by the sun. The days run together like sour genital fluids.
I’ve tried to convince myself that Jude doesn’t exist, that he was never born, that little Dennis is all I’ve ever had. But it’s not enough, or else it’s too much. I think I could succeed, if not for the dreams. Oh, the awful dreams. Every night the same: I’m in the jungle, wearing a clown suit. My hands have been severed and a Chinaman is forcing coffee into me, although it tastes of blood and urine. The Chinaman seems more concerned than malicious, almost gentle, like a nurse force-feeding medicine. He fills me until I’m fit to burst and then suddenly gasps, drops the chalice, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere past me. I gaze into his eyes for what seems like an hour, until his terror and revulsive shock steam into me, through my eyes, making my tears burn and then I turn around to see him: Jude standing behind me in full uniform with a gun to my head, a gleam of hate piercing me, and he shoves his tongue into me until I gag, forced to wake or suffocate on him.
I miss Roger. I tell myself he would be proud of Dennis, but I’m not sure. Still, the boy takes after him. Same as the other. But I guess it doesn’t matter now.
God, I wish I could stay awake. Even now I am drowsy, and it has become such an obstacle that it nearly controls me. Like drowsiness is all there is of me, and to grow alert would be to lose myself. It is not fatigue, only a yawn here and there which stretches in me and almost stings, like if I yawned any wider I would rip. My stomach knots, I sweat, and I do anything to stay awake. Anything I can do to myself to keep from sleeping, whether I have to hurt myself . . . I do the most appalling things. I’m afraid one day little Jude will–funny. I wrote Jude.
God, if only I could stay awake. But the waiting has become too much, and I’m no longer sure which is worse. One or the other, please, only not this half-way. It’s like being half dead. Whatever it is keeps me up, there’s no way out. It seems like the night gets hold of you, squeezes in around and if you sleep you know you’ll choke so you go on strangling. Once its claws pierce the flesh of the heart and start wringing, it never lets up. It clings like a parasite, a venomous leech. You feed off it, it feeds off you; and the night is fed by the process of feeding, like a jaw.
“Mom?” He sits on floor, looking up at her, the coffee table between them.
“It’s a sweater.”
“Are you restin?”
“Will you have it done in time?”
“I hope so.”
The G.I.-Joe’s arm comes off in his hand. He wonders why. He wonders why he does not mind. He sets the arm and its figure on the coffee table. Picks up toy rifle, next to cup on Bible.
“Careful, Dennis. You’ll scratch the table.”
He wants to aim it at her. He wonders why.
“Do you pray?”
“Oh, not so much anymore.”
“Oh, I’m not sure . . . I’m just not sure.”
“I’ve prayed every night for Jude to come.”
“Do you think it’ll work? Do you think I should keep praying?”
“If you want to.”
Silence but for TV ashstatic. Cup after cup, eyes nailed to floor, voice a whisper, yarnsoft–but words woolen.
The boy lays his toy rifle on the coffee table next to Mom’s knitting needles. She sets her cup back on the brownringed book.
“You want me to get you some more?”
“That’s all right, Dennis.”
“O.K. . . . I’m gonna go to bed now.”
He wanders up, wondering.
A shatter batters Dennis from his bed, yanks him up and drags him down the stairs by the cartilage to the kitchen, where his mother sits–hands resting plastically on lap, head tilted limp and comfortable down and to one side as though stuffed with soggy straw, eyes open wide as pies and refusing to blink. She does not look up at him. Shards of glass lie strewn in a deep brown pool on the linoleum. Drowning. Lights on, drapes pulled, TV whispering SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH from the living room. Embers.
“I’ll clean it up tomorrow,” he tells her in a tone of sticky annoyance coated with concern. Then, monotone but cottony and more consoling, “Don’t worry, Mom. He’ll come.”
“Dennis, I want you to pick up some groceries for me today.” She is an iron lamp, planted at the kitchen table, bare bulb above dimming and diffusing her.
“But Mom, I got school. Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m not going out there, Dennis. Now just do as you’re told.”
Dennis’s face contorts, brows knitting as though by unseen needles, twitches as if itching internally as he lights a Doral cigarette. Grabs a Shasta cola from the refrigerator, cracking it open with a doll neck’s splinter and dumping down into him without tasting. Rattlethwuck-schlup, he throws the door against the light.
“And don’t bring me any of that freeze-dried fucking Folger’s crystals, Dennis. You know I can’t drink that shit.”
“Mom, you know we can’t afford the gourmet stuff.” Half under his breath: “As much as you drink.”
“Don’t fucking argue with me, Dennis. Here’s the list and here’s my prescription. Put it on the Visa. The Visa’s not overdrawn.”
“And some cups.”
Dennis slops some generic cat food into the bowl next to the sink, half of it spilling over onto the tile. Dumps the remainder of his Shasta into the water bowl, the brown thinning and swirling, never quite clear. Snatches the items from his mother’s motionless hand, and stomps for the screen door in haste, as one hunted.
“And pick up some steaks!”
“Mom, that Goddamned freezer’s full of steaks. When the fuck are you–“
“Don’t you argue with your fucking mother, Dennis! Jude’ll be home soon and he’s gonna be hungry.”
Profane mutterings under breath and tongue, shoving out into the blistering sun.
The door creaks open late, and Dennis’s feet send gentle taps of slow sole on linoleum to announce his sulking body’s arrival. Subtle stumbling and smell of bourbon on the breath. Mother stationed at kitchen table, head tilted, hands on lap.
“Hey, mom.” His voice hoarse, as though he has been screaming. She does not speak nor look up. “You want some coffee? I bought some new cups.” Holds up the bags.
She musters a nod. He starts the pot.
“Did you get cigarettes, Dennis?”
“Yeah. Two cartons.”
“And my pills?”
“Yeah, Mom, I got em.”
One carton into fridge, pushes door shut gently, knowing the light will go out all the same. Sets other carton, a meal, down in front of her. Ashes litter the surface, a post-apocalyptic wasteland in miniature, made surreal by the huge false teeth sitting there. Making an effort to sit instead of collapse–wondering why–down across from her at the table, glances gingerly at her scarecrow face, then down at the cloth, the ashtray spewing. A burnt out bloated thing. Long silence.
“I’m sorry about the cups, Dennis.”
“It’s all right, Mom. I got some more.”
The droning fuzz as the TV stokes itself, cracks the silence and seals the monotony. Dennis pours a cup of the thick dark muck, plunges a straw, sets cup on the table below her stuffed stuck stare.
“Sorry, you’ll have to lean down and sip it,” he says, leaning over to wipe the ring with his sleeve. He thinks: if she had leaned over we might have kissed or cracked heads, collided.
“You’ve always got to overdo a thing, Dennis.”
“It’s always got to be overflowing.”
Nod. Eyes like strangers, meet and flee.
“I wait for you, I picture how it’ll be, and then you go and spoil it.”
“Mom, I didn’t–“
“You spilled it.”
. . . . . . . .
“Yeah. I spilled it. . . . But I wiped it up.”
Breath seeps out in a sigh from her nostrils, like something at last leaking, deflated.
. . . . . . . .
Her hands float up, land, one on handle, other on warmth of body; like drunken storks, shaking, fluttering, they carry the cup toward her lips, dripping. Blowing, showing not yet empty; white breath ascends, an upward breeze; vanishing as it hits the air. Flinch, as though bitten, her lips pinch back. The hands dart, splashing; shrieks; cup swoops, abandoned. Sits in its own puddle, dripping its insides over on the surface separating mother and son.
“Now look at what you’ve done. You see? You burnt me, Dennis. You burnt me.”
The two look together at the form the bony scalded storks have left. Contained, liquid rippling. Holder unbroken. No pieces to pick up for once, nothing to be thrown away. A thing to be held, washed and kept, empty dry and put away.
The steam seems silent, as though it ought to say something.
“Shut that damn thing off, would you?”
“I thought you couldn’t stand the silence.”
“It’ll be all right. It’s not so quiet when you’re here.”
The words like fleas nibble something, a pocket of blood blooming in a droplet behind his dogged eyes . He looks at her as at a gossamer moth. He will not brush the words off.
In the living room, he sees the needles, the yarn, the started sweater on the coffee table; the book, layered with rings; he wonders if something has come unraveled, or been completed, or both. He clicks the knob, the gray flame fades, TV sleeps. Nothing for an instant, and then he can hear the chirp of crickets, the clock on the wall, the night itself. Then a voice:
It draws him nearer.
“Would you close the drapes for me?”
Some juice in the eyes behind white rind of skin, patched and stitched as by a needle within. An old gourd, spitting stringy seeds of words, scraping itself out, all on the table.
His eyes incise her every wrinkle, her chafed pallid skin a dried apple core. Grown shriveled and withered yet somehow tough. Coated with peeling white paint like an eroded home; flakes falling away, exposing grain; but still sitting, eyes still glowing, stoked by something, not alone. Her eyes of buttered corn, glazed and glistening moist, rise like yeast. A drop seems to coagulate in the crusty corner of one socket, but refuses to fall.
Dennis is lifted up, carried to the window, his head turned out into deserted dim sleeping street. A minute of colorless study, as in a mirror; he in the glass, against the dark, and his mother distant but there with him on the smooth surface between, behind and yet in front of him, looking in his eyes as though from outside in the night, a sad shade. He pulls the drapes closed, hiding them, and stands next to the counter, resting his palms on brown stains and grounds, eyes tight now but wide awake. Ecstatic and sick.
Voice seems to come from the image in the glass, behind the drapes, the shade in the night street:
“Do you want some coffee?”
He looks at her, and wonders.