I try not to think about the fact that my son is dead. I try harder not to remember that his funeral was the sixth time I had ever visited him. It was a three-day trip from Waco to San Diego to the funeral and back, and I spent most of the time I was there getting in fights with my ex, Cindy, who kept complaining about my tie and drinking far too much and chewing with her mouth open. Now that I’ve gone back to Texas and stopped hating her so much, it seems most nights I could fall asleep, wake up, and have forgotten about the whole thing. But when I wake up every morning there’s still something. The grief counselor I’m seeing says I’m numb, but that word’s not quite right. It’s not sadness, really, just something of a general incompleteness, like that moment just before you put on a new pair of glasses and realize that all you’ve been seeing for months are shapes and colors.
I wasn’t tearing my hair in grief or drowning my sorrows. I drove home from California and called the principal that afternoon to tell him that I’d be back at school the next day. That night before I was meant to go back, I sat at my table and picked out the raisins from a dry bowl of Raisin Bran. Now, this morning, I can’t even bring myself to eat it.
I work two jobs at the local high school: in the morning I teach English and in the afternoon I pull out this name plate that says Lewis Wilson, Guidance Counselor, and try to pretend I have any sort of advice to give. Sometimes, I hand out these little inspirational quotes to the kids, tiny laminated pieces of paper that are supposed to provide encouragement and pep. You know that, “shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars,” sort of shit. My grief counselor does the same thing, and I find myself reciting over and over again the words he had given to me from King John, which Shakespeare apparently wrote immediately following the death of his son. Grief, the paper says, fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words.
If anything, reciting this speech has made me realize exactly how little good I’ve done as a guidance counselor. The words feel stale to me. I decide that I am not ready to go back. I feel suddenly insane for believing I could return to work so quickly. I stand, take my bowl to the sink, reach for the phone to call the principal, and that’s when I spot Elaine. She’s walking by my window, the thick mess of orange curls almost blinding in the sun. The route she walks from her father’s house on the edge of town always brings her by my house. It takes her an hour at least to get to school. In the beginning, Principal Currie used to suspend Elaine for missing school, but now he just sends her to detention and considers it lucky if she can make the walk three times a week. I watch that haphazard ponytail bobbing away and tell myself to stop feeling sorry for myself. I toss the bowl of Raisin Bran down the sink and pack up for school. I bring the speech with me. It is time for me to start my students’ unit on Shakespeare anyway.
In school, I cannot get far into the speech, as many of the girls in the back of my classroom, the girls who often bring a hairbrush to class or begin painting their nails, have dissolved to tears. I should have realized everyone would know about my son. Amber Wilson, head of the cheer squad, a girl who has never turned a paper in on time, springs up from her seat and throws her arms about my neck, and I’m enveloped in a cloud of something artificially fruit-scented, something that has a name like Passion Blossom or Midnight Blackberries. Elaine, who has not only made it to school but also to class, swings her feet off her desk, sighs and stands up. She slings her backpack up on one shoulder and walks out of the room. She looks at me, shakes her head, and curls up her mouth, so that for a moment I am certain she is going to spit on the floor.
“This is a fucking joke,” she mutters as she leaves.
It’s that moment in class that I finally feel as though I have snapped back into myself. This girl, and the brief rush of hate I feel, makes me take the deepest, fullest breath I have in months.
There’s not a soul in Texas that would call Elaine a pretty girl. Her two front teeth split apart from each other as though they cannot stand to touch. She has thick cheeks and wiry red hair that she wears piled on top of her head. She is smart, but in the worst possible way, wielding her knowledge like a blunt weapon—shouting over other students in class, rejecting the rules of basic classroom behavior like raising hands. When she gets worked up like this, sometimes her cheeks will burn bright in a flush, until they match the color of her hair, and she starts to look like someone possessed. The worst, though, is that she treats her teachers the same way: as though they are nothing more than slightly older students that happen to be standing at the front of the room. Mr. Leonard, in the physics department, told me that she once corrected him on his definition of gravity, and tried to take the white board marker out of his hand.
A girl like that quickly becomes a topic of discussion in the teacher’s lounge. Since her freshman year, she has made three teachers cry. Once, I overheard Mrs. Cook saying, “If I’d had to give birth to that girl I bet I’d keel over and die, too.” Everyone laughed. There is a board full of her insulting essays and tests that they have tacked up for us to marvel at and mock. I used to take down the papers and insist that she was just a kid. Her mother died giving birth to her and no one knows much about her father, other than the fact that he’s your typical, drunken, West Texas screw-up. Her circumstances are tragic but common. No one felt sorry for her but me.
I knew there had to be something good inside her; it was probably just her upbringing or something that made her the way she was. I knew this, because in my Freshman English class she used to write poems that made me feel like my heart was an animal I couldn’t control. She may have had a blunt tongue, but her pen smoothed over all those rough edges. I also believed it because I was an English teacher, and we all know the best characters are also the most troubled.
Here was another thing: I felt a sort of kinship to her. She was nasty and she never tried to hide it, while I had so many awful histories of my own squirreled away. For months after I moved here from San Diego I walked around convinced that everyone could look at me and see that I was a man who’d deserted my family. I thought you could see my secret in the blunt dent between my eyebrows, or the quiet tremor in my pinky. But after so long, I began to realize that no one could see how cruel I was. Elaine didn’t have that luxury. So, I hid her thoughtless essays in my drawers, even as Ms. Loeb in the bio department began posting her hastily drawn diagrams of the male sex organ on the board in the lounge. “We all know she hasn’t got a mother, but it looks like she might not have much of a father either,” she joked, sticking a thumbtack through what looked like the flattened face of Mickey Mouse. I didn’t laugh. I was her ally.
Preparing for class the next day, I convince myself that Elaine will have returned to her usual sullen, quiet self. That her temper yesterday had nothing to do with me, and that we will resume our timid truce, me ignoring the angry tilt to her eyebrows and the aggressive way she bites her lip to remain perpetually silent in class, crouching her face close to her desk as if she is continually preparing for an attack. Instead, Elaine sits with her feet on her desk and interrupts her classmates every chance she gets. She says that a Shakespearean sonnet is anything that, when read aloud, sounds like a sexual metaphor. When I ask her not to interrupt she says that she is simulating an authentic Elizabethan theater experience. Finally, Amber does what I cannot and whips around in her chair to face Elaine.
“You are a rude, hateful girl,” Amber informs her in a voice that is righteous and reedy. “Some people have real problems to grieve.” She pauses and then adds, “You are exacerbating the situation.” She draws out that word, exacerbating, like it’s something she just memorized for the SAT and Elaine rolls her eyes, but her face transforms from her usual smirk into a small, pleased smile.
“What kinds of problems could you possible have? A broken taillight in your father’s Mercedes?”
“No, I was talking about Mr. Wilson losing his son.” Everyone sucks in a breath. I turn back to the board.
“That’s funny. Before he died no one even knew he had one.”
She didn’t actually say the bit out loud. She wrote it on a note and handed it to Sally who passed it to Amber. I found it after class crumpled by the wastebasket. I looked at it for so long that all the words began to seem misspelled. She didn’t say it. But I heard her, her voice like a moth beating against the inside of my skull, and me, my reaction, was the flame it could never resist. She was a girl who was so rarely wrong. I held that note in my pocket all week long, and every time I touched it I could think of nothing but my boy.
Here are the things I knew about my son: he played soccer, he loved the jazz saxophone, he was a vegetarian, and he scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on every test he took. His father was a drunk and left him when he was six. It took me four years even to pick up the phone and call him. I left his mother because of my drinking, and because she was becoming a drunk, too: a hateful drunk, which is even worse. I figured she was so drunk and mad all the time because of me, and I figured if I left town and dried out, she would stop drinking and stop hating. I was wrong. Every time I went to visit her, the garbage bulged with empty bottles, and I kept finding vodka handles behind the Cheerios or under a stack of magazines. She was always getting boyfriends and then trading them in for a newer, drunker model. Rob, her latest man, was a pallbearer at my son’s funeral. We stood next to each other when we lined up and he gripped my shoulder once and called me buddy. We had never met before, and I was struck by his hands—so warm and uncallused. It seems strange, but his grip felt just like my mother’s, as if she had lifted herself up out of her grave to hold my arms against her chest and fill me up with warmth.
But then, Rob exhaled and it was like getting doused in rubbing alcohol. I gripped that coffin extra tight as we carried it. I may have been an absent father, and a pretty shitty one when I was there, but I certainly wasn’t going to let my wife’s drunk boyfriend drop my son’s casket on the ground where it could spill open for anyone to see.
Over the next few weeks, I start keeping the list in my head, reciting it every time I touch the note, and, after a while, every time I look at Elaine all the details of my son pop right into my head. I also remember the other reason I began to take pity on Elaine, a reason that makes me want to forgive her still, even after finding the note.
One afternoon after school when she was in my freshman class I came outside and found Elaine, sitting with her knees pulled tight under her chin and her headphones over her ears. This wasn’t the first time I had seen her out there, but it was the first time I really realized that she’d been forgotten, that she was waiting, and not just loitering.
“Your dad forget about you?” I asked her, and she turned her head away.
“He’ll get here,” she said, but I couldn’t stand to see her waiting there, two holes in the tips of her sneakers and a backpack that was ripping at the seams. I saw in that moment that she was not as different from her classmates as she pretended to be. She too had watched her parents pour their heart and their bank balance and their sobriety into the ground and the oil industry. I put her in my car, and she was silent and sullen and only used her finger to point the way out to the oilrigs on the southeast side of town.
The drills did their slow pirouettes around themselves while the sun flattened out behind them. In the pink light they looked so alien and mechanic, so violent. Her father was standing beside one, taking in the upswing and the down with nothing more than a shifting of his eyes.
“You didn’t have to do this,” Elaine said to me, staring out the window.
“You’re a good kid, Elaine,” I said. She laughed at that, so I repeated it once more. “You don’t deserve this.”
She shrugged and unfastened her seatbelt. The metal slipped under her sleeve as it retracted, exposing her arm in a quick pale flash. I reached out before I could stop myself and grabbed. I saw something I had always suspected was there—lines up her arm, as though someone had been using her pale skin as a measuring stick. We let silence take its fill of us. I stared out at the field, at her father, cap tilted down, he flicked his head and I realized that he had seen us, but was pretending he hadn’t, still savoring the minutes left of his isolation. In that moment, I knew I was about to do something awful: I was about to ignore what I was meant to do just so I could avoid hearing her answer, hearing the reasons she might give for slicing herself open.
Instead I smiled, looked into her eyes, and let go of her arm.
“I’ll see you in class tomorrow,” I told her.
I had suspected she would hate me for it, but instead her whole body trembled once, and her face slipped into a lax expression that I could only call pleasure. Then, she was back to her normal, sullen self. She slung her bag over her shoulders and began to walk. The sun was like a flattening peach in front of her, blurring her edges until I was unsure if I was watching a girl or a boy. If not for the oilrigs spinning, I might have even forgotten which state we were standing in.
Here’s the truth, before I met Cyndi I’d never slept with the same woman twice. I felt pretty keen about the whole thing, too. But I fell into that woman in a way I never could explain. I think it was her body: the rounded sounds she made in bed, the heavy drape of her on top of me. She piled her hair on top of her head and slapped her soft stomach when a joke caught her unaware. In my most romantic musings, I thought of her like a tree—long and thick with a bark-rough voice and laugh. But when I touched her, my fingers sank into her as if her whole body was just begging to be gripped. I loved her more than I knew I could love something living, but I ruined her as surely as I ruined myself.
He wasn’t a mistake, our son. We got married, we bought a house, and then I said to Cyndi, “Well, I guess it’s time we got a kid.” We were in bed, and she didn’t even stutter once. She rolled across the space between us and pressed her dimpled thigh between my own.
Even then, I couldn’t say exactly when it all went wrong. All I know is, one day I was sitting and watching her coo down at our son’s bald head. I took one look at her face and it just undid me. I knew she wasn’t seeing the fat, fleshy body I saw when I looked at him. She was seeing something miraculous. And I knew, just as certainly, that this was something she had been born with: mother’s love. It was something I could never learn.
From that day on I draped my misery over that house like it was summer heat. The edges of our lives filled with empty bottles, and Cyndi learned to hide from me the same way I was hiding from her. The more she drank the more she dried out, until her hips were only a memory and the only hint of her once full figure was the way her skin eyed itself loosely. Sometimes when I touched her, I imagined the points of her bones made my fingers bleed.
It’s strange, but people can convince themselves that they know someone based on the simplest things: the shape of their hands, the motion of their hair across a pillow, the way they tilt their head while applying mascara. It takes watching the erasure of all those things to realize how little you actually know. I watched my wife become a crooked, mean thing and I thought that if only I left, and took my drinking with me, she and my son might have a real life, with their real selves.
I was wrong.
The next day, I confront Elaine about the note.
“I found this in the classroom. It’s your handwriting.”
“Yes.” She rolls her eyes towards the note but does not seem to be really looking at it. “I suppose it is.”
“Well, do you want to explain yourself?”
“Explain what? No one here even knew you had a kid. I’m not spreading rumors or anything, I’m just stating a fact.” She put her hands on her hips and thrust her shoulders forward.
“I’m not saying you’re spreading rumors, Elaine.” Stay calm, I tell myself, she is seventeen years old. “Something doesn’t have to be a lie to be hurtful and rude.”
“I just think it’s a bit ironic.” She tosses her red hair and I get the sudden flash of a matador, waving a cloth before a bull. “You’re always acting like this friendly, father-figure teacher who’s looking out for all his students, but you don’t even think your own son deserves a mention until he’s dead.”
She reaches for the note and flicks her hair again, clearly planning to leave. I slam my hand down on top of hers, knuckles clenched. She yelps and pulls the hand back cradling it. I wait for her to yell more, to accuse me of abuse, but instead she just stares evenly. She sets her hand back on the table. The force of the hit has left my own palm smarting, but I do not pull it back. I hardly feel it, staring down at our two red fists. I get the strangest sensation that I am smiling, although my face has not moved. Her eyes blink slowly, looking between my still clenched fist and the quiver in my jaw. Then, she turns and leaves.
I go home that night and think about the funeral. It’s something my shrink is always trying to make me do. Remember the details, he urges, what were you feeling? Well, I can’t remember much on account of my being distracted by my drunk wife and her drunk boyfriend, and that gut-throbbing feeling that I needed a drink of my own. I do remember the coffin. It was made of good wood, sturdy; maybe oak, and it had been a proper size too. Not one of those pint-sized baby coffins. Matt hadn’t been big, at least not the last time I’d seen him, but he must have grown to fit into a coffin that big. I can’t know for sure, though, because the train that killed him had split about every bone between his nose and his hips. They had to identify him by a scar on the bottom of his foot—he’d gotten it stepping on one of Cyndi’s broken bottles.
In the corner of the room, I’ve set up a bottle of whiskey right next to my five-year pin from AA. I stare at them both for a long while tonight. I don’t drink, but I do go out on my porch and burn through four cigarettes in one sitting. Then, I go back inside and call my ex-wife.
“Cyndi, I want to talk to you about Matt.”
“Christ,” there are glass sounds in the background, and I try to guess if it’s a pinot or a merlot. “I’m not in the mood for this, Lewis. It’s all too raw still.”
“Fine.” It’s not fine, but I figure if I keep her talking long enough, she’ll move on to her second bottle and change her mind.
“I’m starting a new rehab program next week,” she says.
“Right. Sounds like it’s working already.”
“That’s hardly fair, Lewis. I’m grieving. And this program focuses on a slow withdrawal. I think it’s going to do wonders for me. One of the women who referred me said—”
“Christ, Cyndi. I don’t care.” She is silent and I worry for a second that she’s hung-up. I push on. “I mean, there’s no reason to pretend we like each other anymore now that he’s gone, right?”
“Funny.” Her voice is dry and suddenly I wonder if she’s more sober than I thought. “I didn’t realize you were trying to do that before.”
“Just ask the damn question, Lewis.”
“Do you think it was an accident?”
She must know immediately what I’m talking about. The story Matt’s friends told the police was that the four boys like to gather at the trestle on the Western edge of town and outrun the 11:23 train from Fresno. Apparently they’d been doing it for months, and for some reason, that night, Matt’s timing was just a bit off. It was an accident and everyone agreed it was a tragedy, but the sort of tragedy that taught teenagers a lesson. But I’d started wondering recently, or maybe, when I’m being honest with myself, it was actually the first thought I had.
“Why would you ask that?”
“I have to know, Cyndi. Sometimes when I’m counseling my students I see these kids from bad families and the things they want to do to themselves—”
“Jesus God, Lewis, have a fucking heart.”
And then she hangs up. It’s quiet in my living room and I sit and listen to myself breathe for a long time, staring at the bottle in the corner, knowing that I can’t move, not even to get up and go to bed, without reaching for it. I sit in that chair with my spine straight for the rest of the evening. Around one A.M, I notice my lips start moving. Grief fills the room up of my absent child.
It is a big surprise to everyone when, sometime later in the month, Elaine gets a boyfriend. Greg is a big guy, the second-string quarterback, and Mr. Morris points out in the teacher’s lounge that even though he couldn’t have anyone he could certainly do better than Elaine. But then it becomes clear exactly why Greg has chosen Elaine when she arrives to class with deep bruises scattered about her neck and throat.
I walk into class and see her sitting there. My mouth opens instinctually, even after all this time, in sympathy, but I am cut off by Amber.
“Don’t bother, Mr. Wilson. Elaine likes it. She gets off on it.” Amber turns to look at Elaine. “Don’t you, you freak?”
Elaine smiles. I see that she has purposely dressed to show off her neck and wrists, pulling her collar down whenever the lowest of the bruises threatens to disappear under her shirt. She leans forward towards Amber.
“I love it. We both love it.”
While I am standing at the front of the class, trying to think of any way to regain control after that moment, Elaine stands.
“I’m ready to do our required Shakespearean recitation, Mr. Wilson.” Without waiting for a reply she walks to the front of the room and plants her feet wide.
“I have memorized a monologue,” she announces to the class. “It is from Titus Andronicus. It is spoken by the character of Aaron the Moor, a murderer of many, when he is asked if he is sorry for his deeds.” She clears her throat once, looks at me in defiance. She means this speech for me. “Ay, I am sorry that I had not done a thousand more,” she begins. Her classmates are studying their cuticles and their split-ends, acting as though she is doing a geometry proof, instead of speaking about a man who digs people up from their graves and sets them upon the doorsteps of their families. A man who is only sorry that he has done too few crimes.
“It’s so delicious, isn’t it?” She asks when she has finished. “Can you imagine how a thing like that must feel?” Then she smiles. The class hums collectively in puzzlement at the unfamiliar expression on her face. I imagine her as someone wholly different, suddenly. I see her as one of those children on television, the kind that kill their neighbor’s pets and press lit cigarette butts onto small children’s arms. I have been wasting my sympathies on her. I can see it now; she is rotted all the way through. She stares at me with that challenge in her eyes and will not drop her eyes from mine until she takes her seat.
I stay calm. Now that I can see her it is easy to send her back to her seat, to stand at the front of the classroom and recite on the burial practices of Shakespeare’s days. The whole time, though, I am watching her fiery red hair and her sharp eyes. At the end of class I do not look away from her. The class filters out. As if on cue, she stands and walks towards the door, but I am ready. I grab her before she can leave and throw her against the black board. I hear a pained gasp, but it is not Elaine. Her face has taken on that same relaxed, self-satisfied expression it had that day in my truck.
“You are rude and hateful.” I take her wrist and push it harder against the blackboard. I spit the words out so she can feel them on her face. She tips her head back and rolls her hips up against mine.
My stomach churns. I drop her wrist like it has the heat of a thousand Texas summers. I wipe my mouth, though she hasn’t touched me there, while I fight against the desperate urge to strike my hands back out, quick and sharp.
“Don’t you dare judge me,” she says. Her thin hips press back against the wall and she pushes her sleeves up so I can see the whole history of her wounds. Her scars look faded and weak against the barely contained blood under her neck. “You have no idea how much better this feels than anything else.”
Before I can move, she is on me, her small frame somehow driving me across the room and over the desk. She reaches into a drawer and pulls out my letter opener, holding it against the palm of my hand and pushing its blunt edge down. It splits the skin slowly, as though each thin layer is resisting its entrance. I look up at her wide teeth and burning cheeks and suddenly I am reaching towards her, drawing one finger from her nose down to her chin with the tenderness of a lover. Her face is soft and comforting, like a warm drink on a winter’s day. I grasp her chin and pull her closer. She pushes down harder, and I feel my skin opening gently, like the pages of a book. I roll my head back and close my eyes. Then, she shakes her head out of my grip.
“It almost makes you forget, doesn’t it?” Her words slap my open palm and bring me back from my daze.
“Forget?” And then, of course, I remember. She nods and presses a finger against my mouth, digging her thumb into my bottom lip, reminding me not to speak. My tongue tingles with the coppery taste of my own blood, and she drops the letter opener to the floor. Then, she is gone.
I stare at the plain, silver metal lying on the floor. In the hallway I can hear the sharp weight of Elaine’s steps: she must be running. Her exit fades away into the slamming of locker doors and boys shouting “faggot” and “queer” back and forth as they hurry off to practice. The noise reminds me that it has only been minutes since the bell has rung. I glance down at the thick, red mess pooling on my desk. I lift up my textbook and press my palm into the pages, hard. The pages grow sticky and heavy, but there is nothing else in the room I can see to cover the wound. I keep my hand hidden in the book, tuck my entire arm under my jacket, and head towards the door. I pause. A sudden but familiar urge to test myself fills me and instead I turn again and carry the knife home with me.
Driving home, it seems as though the terrible comedy of my life has finally been exposed to me. I pass a giant billboard proclaiming, Greet Santa on his Harley. Across the street is a fifteen-foot-wide mural of Jesus, standing knee deep in grain, looking out at the motionless oilrigs. Everything here is dry and dusted, a parody of small town life. There is nothing here worth holding.
I don’t turn the lights on in my house; instead I set the blade gently where I propped my bottle of whiskey so many nights ago. Even in the darkness it seems to catch light and glint it back at me.
The minutes pass and Elaine’s voice fills my head. She taunts me, but not in her usual way. Instead, she is saying over and over again, you left me. It should be no surprise that her tone fades into my son’s, and that the two of them form a jangling chorus in my head. They grow louder and louder, settling deeper in my chest, becoming something leaden and mocking that I cannot escape. Still the letter opener tempts me. I dig my nails into my hands, a gesture of resistance already familiar to me. But my fingers slip through the wound, sliding into my palm as though my flesh is softer than dirt.
The voices stop.
I exhale as my hips slip unconsciously lower in the chair. A sullen red color soaks over my nails and slides down my arm, until there are drops of blood dotted around the chair and the floor. I imagine that they will be almost impossible to clean. In the silence of the room, I feel Elaine settling over me. Her colors are muted and transparent and she lifts her chin with the air of a teacher correcting a particularly stubborn student. I cannot turn away. She settles into my chest with a weight that feels nothing like a lover, nothing like a child, but something metallic, rusted, as though my body were nothing more than a plank of rotted wood, splintering at the middle under the first touch of a nail.