Strangers

Strangers

Winner, Young Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest

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ThPhoto credit: Michael Venturae boy walked with all his weight thrown ahead of him, moving ever forward. Every now and then his leading foot would land wrong and his arms would pinwheel like windmill sparklers. But he would steady himself each time. He had gotten so much better at it. His steps were still arrhythmic, his shoulders always before the center of his gravity, but he would learn to do it right eventually, we hoped. In the subdued buzz of the museum, within the thinly spread throngs of art lovers and men entertaining their right-brained girlfriends, his tiny yellow parka lit him up like a beacon. He was easily identifiable, and it wasn’t hard to keep him in my sight.

I walked over to him. He looked up at me, slightly dumbfounded.

“What do you think, Champ?” I asked.

“This place is really big.”

“Yeah. It’s gotta hold all these paintings.”

“Don’t the people that paint these want them back?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean don’t the people that paint these ever want their own paintings to keep? Like to hang on their refrigerators and stuff? My mom puts all my paintings up on the refrigerator.” I thought of cheap sketch paper stiffened with haphazard, finger-wide streaks of tempera paint pinned to Pauline’s fridge with a Realtor’s magnet.

“I think you’d need a pretty big refrigerator for some of these.” We were looking at big landscapes. The previous room had had an exhibit on Impressionist skylines. The one before that, something else antiquated that half the patrons feigned interest in. The landscapes were enormous, and must have taken decades to complete with this level of detail.

“Do the museums keep them forever, or can the painters come and take them back?” the boy continued.

“Well, a lot of these painters died a long, long time ago, and their children and their children’s children gave their paintings to the museum as a gift.”

“Why?”

“I guess they thought that people might want to see them. Maybe they thought it was greedy to keep them all for themselves.”

“Greedy,” the boy said introspectively. He had this way of repeating the big emotions and the weighty concepts under his breath while grasping them, as if filing them away in some small but ever growing system locked in that small head of his. He did the same when I took him to lunch before the Smithsonian. We were talking about the news. I smartly picked the one restaurant with a TV in it, and the boy was exposed to pictures of displaced families in the desert and hustling troops in tan camouflage toting huge, crocodile-like machine guns past the smoldering skeletons of exploded minivans.

“We have a car like that,” he said.

“Yes. You do.” I rode in it a few times: a used, teal minivan with the sliding side doors and windows that did not roll down.

“Why is that one blown up?”

“Someone put a bomb in it.”

“Why?”

“Because they thought it was the right thing to do.”

“How do they know if it’s right?”

“Faith.”

“Faith,” he repeated quietly. I am sure images arose in his head of people in nice suits hunched over on stiff wooden benches; of men sitting at the heads of their dinner tables with their grizzled, manual-labor-scarred hands clasped. I wondered when he would properly learn the mores and dangers of faith. I wondered what would teach him. I wondered what, if any, faith he would find for himself.

The post-lunch museum crowd was beginning to thicken, and I noticed myself inching a little closer to the boy as the crowd grew denser. The echoes of his word “greedy” still hung before his lips in transparent mists.

“Uncle Tim?” he said to me. And I looked at him and, god, he was so small and so frail. His face was tiny and his legs were thin, jutting out from the yellow parka that was too big on him (it was a hand-me-down), and all at once he just seemed so fragile and so real that I felt he might vanish from existence at any second. I felt his vulnerability explode into my awareness like the concussion of a firecracker detonating underwater. My stomach tightened and my legs shifted a bit.

“Yes, Charlie?”

“If I die, will you give my refrigerator paintings to a museum?”

“You’re not gonna die, Champ. Do you think you are?”

“Not really.”

“Do you believe me?”

“About what?”

“That you’re not gonna die.”

“Yes. I do.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“All right.” As I said this, I realized I had put my hand quite firmly on the child’s shoulder. I removed it. We turned back to the painting we were viewing. It was at least 10 feet high, and showed a typical American solitude: mighty pines and a clear waterfall feeding into a river that snaked, narrowing, into the horizon. “What do you think of this one?” I said to the boy.

“I like it. I want to go there,” he said.

“Me, too.”

Barb and Pauline had been talking clandestinely about having Charlie spend a day with us since we had Pauline and David down for Christmas. It was just the five of us that day, as Mom and Dad had elected to spend the holiday on the beach. Barb had just recently moved into my apartment and a couple of her things were still hidden away in cardboard boxes.

David and I had a drink while Barb and Pauline bused dishes into our kitchen, which was as small as a constricted capillary. Charlie played with his present on the carpet under our cheap plastic tree. Barb and I had bought him a big, yellow, plastic dump truck. We had no idea; we were clueless when it came to kids.

“Little brother,” David said, leaning in sloppily. “How goes it really?” He always asked this when we were alone, when there was no one left to judge or impress, when there were no more volatile catalysts in the conversation that necessitated a filter.

“Things could be better,” I said. I turned surreptitiously toward the kitchen to see Barb’s back, her long, brown hair hitting just past her shoulder blades, her slender figure caved sideways at an angle as she leaned on the counter.

“Was it an argument?” David asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Bad?”

“A bit of a game changer.”

“Will it blow over?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“How’s work?”

“Good. The magazine has me writing art reviews now. Just a couple each month. Only the big exhibits.”

“You’re in the right place for that,” he said, and sipped from his drink.

“What about you?” I asked. A wistful look came over his face and a faint smile curled, showing through his thick teacher’s beard.

“Much better.” He looked awkwardly over his shoulder toward Pauline, who was cradling a glass of white wine and contributing to the distant, unintelligible chatter of the kitchen. “The kid’s got a little catching up to do. He’ll still have attacks sometimes, but for the most part he’s healthy.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Pauline was a mess for the first couple of months. But you know that.”

“I got to hear all about it.”

“You get used to the idea eventually.”

We were both turned around in our seats now, staring at our respective loves across the dining room and through the narrow door that led to our kitchen. Pauline noticed, and then Barb finally turned around.

She looked so young. Her hair fell wildly but somehow as if planned around her face as pale as ivory, in which sat two unmistakable silver jewels that could be either blue or green in the right light. She was wearing a loose, tan sweater, the neck of which came down in between her breasts. I always noticed this anti-stationary quality she had about her. She always seemed ready to move, as if I could barge in one day, breaking in a leather jacket and a three-day beard, and say, “For the sake of our health, we need to get out of here and never look back,” and she would. She would jump up and leave without packing in an ebullient whirlwind. I was always in love with that part of her.

But the look on her face was not one of mobile excitement. When her eyes fell on me, they went dead. Her brow dropped and a hackneyed, banal smile split across her face listlessly. I knew what was wrong. It was like peering through a fog and seeing a buoy bob with the swell of the tide, hovering just out of my reach.

The women came in and sat across from us.

“I was just telling Tim,” David began, “that Charlie has fallen in love with our Bierstadt coffee table book.”

“I like looking at the forest pictures,” Charlie piped up in a warbled intonation from the corner of the room.

“You know, Tim just got commissioned for a few art criticism pieces from the magazine. Maybe he could take Charlie to the museum one of these days,” Barb offered without looking at me. I couldn’t tell whether it was penance or punishment, or some chance at redemption, but like that, it was agreed upon with me having scarcely said a word. A month later, Pauline drove the kid down from Pennsylvania and dropped him off at my apartment. She was still a bit shaky handing him over. She got down on one knee, hugged the boy fiercely, and told him to behave.

“Just make sure you watch him around stairs,” she said, looking me dead in the eye as I grabbed the boy’s hand. It was small and clammy.

“Don’t worry.”

“And you know what to do in case of an episode.”

“Yes. Barb does, too.”

“Just please be careful.”

“I will. He’ll have fun.”

“Promise me.” The whites of her eyes became red and glassy.

“I promise. I promise I’ll be careful.”

We moved from the landscapes to the contemporaries. These exhibits always managed to unnerve me. Everything else in the museum seemed remotely causal. You could feel what they were trying to say. But the absolute anarchy hanging from the walls here, the canvasses painted all one shade of maroon; the indecipherable mazes of brushstrokes; mystifying figures in nebulous poses—to try to understand any of it was like trying literally to stretch your mind around a cube. The rest of the art, the Impressionists, the Romanticists and the naturalists all seemed obsequious, as if in their expression the artists also engendered to please. But the very air in the contemporary rooms was redolent of high-handedness; a take-it-or-leave-it brand of apathy that left a bitter taste in my mouth. Charlie stared wide-eyed, pupils dilated as we sauntered by.

How could he possibly grasp this, I thought. Thirty feet ago we were looking at buffalo grouped together in lush valleys and sitting portraits of intrepid pioneers posed with their chests thrust out. Now he was wandering in some intellectual wasteland of functionless pottery; of haunting, giant horse effigies assembled from driftwood, and monolithic portraits of spider-legged warriors dancing threateningly.

“Kinda weird, eh?” I asked him.

“I don’t understand this one,” he said, pointing to a wall-size black-and-white blowup of a young man in a suit dashing down an otherwise empty sidewalk, running from something outside the frame, not looking back. Typical, I thought. A room full of surrealistic head trips, and he picks the most cogent and discernable piece to puzzle over.

“Why not?” I said, trying not to sound condescending.

“What is he running from? I don’t see anything.”

“Maybe there’s a monster right outside the frame.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Because it would be outside the frame.”

“But there aren’t any shadows or clues.”

“Maybe the monster’s invisible.” What are you doing, you perfect idiot, I thought.

“That’s silly.”

“I guess it is.”

I had a dream about my father once. In all my years living with the man, in all my years knowing him after I moved out, throughout all the anxious phone call checkups, visits and holiday dinners, I only ever had one dream about him.

In the dream we’re walking alongside a shallow canal. The riverbed is as dry as a dune and is choked with dead grass and foliage. My father walks slowly, a bit ahead of me. I can see his bald spot. The air is thick and wet and smells of fresh rain on fusty leaves.

We come upon a bridge, and across that bridge an old, white house, small, with two stories and only one door. My father looks up and down the length of the canal before crossing the bridge.

This is as good a place as any, he says. I drift across the bridge, following him. He opens the door and is swallowed by the tiny dark maw beyond. As I approach the house, the whitewashing begins to peel. At first, it is only at the corners. The paint warps and bubbles a little, then peels away in thick strips, curling and falling off. It spreads. Soon the entire face of the house is rotting before me. The white paint specked with dirt and free-flung mud is coming off and landing in giant heaps, exposing the wet gleam of ruined wood underneath, abuzz with termites and beetles. I turn back across the bridge and start running down the canal, not looking back. I just keep moving, pounding the slick mud beneath my shoes. My father pokes his head out the door and calls at me to turn around. First it is in a longing, heartbroken tone. But the farther away I get, the more enraged his voice becomes. No matter how far down the canal and away from the crumbling house I run, his voice echoes in my head as if he were right beside me.

The boy got tired of walking. He itched at his knees, which probably were sore from constantly shifting his weight. He looked around for a place to sit, and plopped down on one of the cushioned, opulent benches provided in the gallery. I sat next to him.

“Getting tired, Champ?” I asked.

“A little.”

“I guess we can rest for a bit.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you like the museum so far?”

“Yes.” He was quiet for a long time, allowing his batteries to recharge. Sitting for too long made me uncomfortable. I began tapping my foot. “Uncle Tim?” he piped up.

“Yes?”

“Did you and my dad come here when you were kids?”

“All the time. It was one of our favorite things to do.”

“Is that why he likes painting so much?”

“Your dad liked painting from when he was little.”

“I wish he still painted.”

“Me, too,” I said. “Why do you think he stopped?”

“Because of me,” Charlie said, staring at his sneakers. They swung limply above the ground, loose laces dangling like entrails. The boy was right. I was about to tell him it wasn’t true, but he interrupted me.

“Uncle Tim?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think we could look in the gift shop when we’re finished?”

“Sure. We can do that.”

It was two weeks before Christmas when Barb and I were lying in bed and she announced into the darkness, “I want to have a baby.”

We had just made love and I was holding her in my arms, listening to the sound of cars speeding by on the wet pavement outside and cradling her head on my chest. When she spoke, I felt her breath, hot with each annunciation. She said it, and there it was, like a grenade thrown between us, the ensuing silence fraught with tension as the fuse quickly burned away.

“Why?” I asked.

“We’re getting old.”

“We’re not that old.”

“We’re getting there.”

My skull quickly filled with a gallery of memories, all of me standing uncertainly around children, as if they were some massive anchor.

“I don’t think we’re ready,” I said.

“I think we both need to start acting our age.” I could already see my future. White vomit on my shirt. Rooms odorous of used diapers. Day care. Sleepless nights. An inability to travel. Horror. My nice, neat, compact and portable life rent cavernously asunder like an exploding aerosol can. How can someone ever love and care for the pike that keeps them lashed to the ground?

“I don’t think having a baby will make us grow up.”

“Are you afraid it will turn out like Charlie?”

“No.”

“Is it me? Do you not see yourself having a kid with me?”

“No. I don’t.”

“Is it because we’re not married?”

“Like that matters anymore.”

“Do you see us getting married?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tim,” she said, with hurt in her voice.

“You knew this.”

“I thought that was a stage.”

“No, you wanted to think it was a stage.” She was silent. “So you wanted to move in, wanted to have kids, knew very well that I wasn’t ready, and now you’re blaming me for not living up to your illusions?”

“Tim.”

“Why did you even move in to begin with?”

“Because I love you.”

Like the immediate period after a gunshot, there was only silence.

“Barb—”

“You idiot.”

“I’m sorry.”

She got up and left, naked, in the dark. I found her the next morning, wrapped in a comforter on the couch. “That’s my job,” I said aloud. She feigned sleep.

All it takes is one small, 30-second argument to form a wedge ever deepening between two people. Neither of us could take back what we’d said, for that is the weight and innate risk of words. The wedge was shoved further in by tiny snipes, by glances avoided yet noticed, by silence where once there was laughter. Almost a whole month after she moved in, I noticed that two of her boxes remained unpacked, the tape on their seams still intact, like two anchors that kept her just out of my grasp.

 “Why is it red?”

“On the surface, there are little, tiny bits of rusted iron blowing around like sand.” I motioned “tiny” with my thumb and forefinger.

“How did that get there?”

“Volcanoes, probably.”

“Can you walk on it?”

“No, not without a spacesuit. There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere.”

“So you would choke?”

“Yes,” I said. “You would choke.”

He had his frail, rose-knuckled hands wrapped around the edges of a huge photo study of Mars. I had grabbed a big, sleek, covered book on landscape paintings. I thought it appropriate. The gift shop was full and reeked of pomposity. Everything was vastly overpriced and attempted to justify its cost with either a creative innovation or a vague endorsement emblazoned upon it, like the $12 pack of napkins branded with Corot prints.

“Uncle Tim?”

“Yes?”

“Can I get this book?” He held out the Mars book, his feeble, malformed arms quivering under its weight.

“What about this one?” I offered the landscape book. “I thought you liked those huge forest pictures.” He looked at it with his glassy eyes and an interest that almost seemed plastic.

“I do.” He paused and looked at the Mars book wistfully. “But I’ve seen them all. This one’s new to me. It’s cool.” He looked up at me.

“It’s OK if you want me to get the other one.” My chest swelled as if I’d swallowed a depth charge. I felt the sudden, unannounced rush of hot tears and fought them back by squinting, drawing my mouth into a tight frown.

“No. Of course you can get the Mars book.” I dropped the other on a nearby display table and grabbed the book from his hands. “Let me pay real quick.”

We waited in line for a few minutes. I looked quietly down to my hip where this child stood, outwardly bent, looking obviously misshapen as if his mold had been warped by heat, yet inwardly understanding. I felt as if he had grown and I had shrunk in the same instant to reach the same level.

The yellow, hand-me-down parka hung awkwardly on his frame. I debated for a second whether it was appropriate for me to adjust it, and had just barely decided to reach down and give it a light tug to the left when the man in front of me dropped away and I was ushered by the inertia of the queue to the register. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cashier, a young girl with a rubberized face and blond ringlets, bending her fingers at unnatural angles to accommodate her large, colored nails on the keys of the register. But Charlie dominated my focus. When he saw it was our turn, his jilted grin widened and exposed misaligned teeth shiny with saliva.

“Your turn, Uncle Tim,” he said sweetly. I cracked a suppressed smile. And when I bent back up to my full height and grasped the slippery sleek jacket of the book, when I turned to face the makeup-smeared, jocund face of the cashier and my eyes were caught in the blur of my spinning head, when all the gift shop—every patron, every overpriced ornament, every blazing eco-friendly light bulb—swirled into a linear tapestry, a single palette of breathing reality, I heard a tiny moan, and then the sickening thud of a little skull on the hardwood floor.

There was a shaking growl that became a wet gurgle, and by the time I turned fully back around, the shock was still registering on the rest of the faces in the line as the small boy writhed in pain from his spill to the floor and then began to convulse violently, flopping and arching his back like a beached flounder, foaming rabidly at the mouth. The buzz of the crowd intensified as people slapped hands over lips.

“Give him air,” I shouted violently, and found to my surprise that I had already removed my coat and gotten on one knee. I rolled it up into a pillow and placed it under his head.

“Stick your wallet in his mouth,” someone yelled.

“No, that’s wrong,” I said, red-faced, to the mass of people. All I could do was sit helpless and try to hold him, watch him squirming like a trapped earthworm and fight back rage-tainted tears and my own nausea. After half a minute, it was over, and he was quiet.

Barb and Pauline were sitting on the front stoop of my building, waiting for me as I got out of the cab. Pauline was wringing her hands. Barb was chewing the antenna of her telephone. The boy breathed quietly as I held him to my shoulder, the only movement in an otherwise inert mass of flesh. I hurried across the street to the stoop. Pauline rushed down, her hair jostling, and grabbed him from me. I couldn’t even make out what she was saying into his ear, but it was rushed, relieved, intensely loving. I looked around, completely lost and shaken, still sick from hearing the sound of his head thump on the gift shop floor. I was breathing heavily. When my eyes fell on Barb, she had already descended the stoop and was rushing toward me with a look on her face of receding fear, the relief of an anxiety—much to my comfort—that could only exist if there was genuine passion to fuel it.

“Not yet, Barb, just please not yet,” was all I could manage before I felt her hot breath against my neck, before her slender figure, silent and nonjudgmental, was wrapped in my arms.

Judges’ Comments

A man’s trip to a museum with a young nephew who suffers from periodic seizures becomes a proving ground for the man’s fears of fatherhood. This lovely story, written with confidence, warmth and depth, is an eloquent portrait of the man’s close concern for the boy, his strained relationship with his own father and his fears of commitment as his partner expresses her own maternal longings. The author weaves these complex threads together with a skill that the judges found extraordinary for a high school writer. The result is a story that illustrates, in the author’s words, “the weight and innate risk of words.”

Author Bio

Tim Proser lives in Bethesda and graduated in 2010 from Walt Whitman High School. He is attending University of Vermont, and intends to continue writing fiction.

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