By Dan Bevacqua
After being wrong for months and months, and calling them all sorts of horrible names, Dad explained to me that the painters were Vietnamese.
“They’re not Chinese or Korean,” he said. “It’s racist to say they are if they’re not.”
“Why?” I said. We were eating in the kitchen. I stared at my spelling words out on the table. The list was super easy: HUMAN, BICYCLE, ACTION.
“It’s just racist, Kevin.”
“And we aren’t racist in this family,” I said, which is what he always says.
When Dad has a late meeting—maybe with the school board or the PTA or the ladies from the Special Ed. Department—we eat pizza. Guillermo’s is in the same strip mall as the clothing store where Mom used to work, a place called Style. Because Dad says he can’t stand to look through the big picture window at the mannequins all dolled up like hookers, he parks the Contour on the left side of the building, and sends me in. He gives me twenty dollars, and says, “Tip appropriately.” Last month, there was a pregnant girl behind the register. She didn’t look old enough to be pregnant, but she was. When she saw me, she said, “Well, look at you, Mister. Got a hot date?” I was wearing my red sport coat with the fake handkerchief in the breast pocket.
“No,” I told her.
She laughed and laughed, and then her hands jumped to her stomach. “This thing hates that,” she said.
“When I have a good time,” she said. She stuck her tongue out at her belly. “What’s the name on the order, hon?”
The girl got up on a stool and looked at the different pizzas. They keep them in boxes on top of the oven so that they’ll stay warm. I stared at her stomach and wondered if her being pregnant wasn’t some kind of class assignment, like when the high schoolers push each other around in wheelchairs for a week. Dad says that’s dumb because being paralyzed isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s the opposite of fun, whatever that is.
Pretty soon the girl found our pizza. She looked down at me from where she wobbled on the stool. Her neck was sweating. Her face looked like a lima bean. “The nausea comes and goes,” she said. “If this was a year ago, I’d be at cheer camp.” She asked me what grade I was in.
“Enjoy it while you can,” she said.
Back in the car, Dad asked for the change. I told him there wasn’t any.
“How much was the goddamn pizza?”
“Eleven dollars,” I said. I told him how the girl started crying, and how she seemed so sad, but was really pretty, and how I thought I could make her happy.
“You’re doomed,” he said. “And you owe me nine dollars.”
In the kitchen, Dad wiped the grease from his fingers on a blue dishtowel and picked up my spelling words. He likes to complain about the light. We use a table lamp now, after Billy, Mom’s friend, broke the overhead. There was a big party one afternoon when Dad was at school. I was there because I’d faked sick. Also, I’m good at making drinks. I keep everybody’s spirits up. At the party, Billy got so excited when a Prince song came on that he jumped into the air, and put his head through the light.
Dad tilted the lampshade and the room wasn’t quite as dark. He looked at my words. I was bored with FALLING, BLOOD, and LONELY, and I’d written some of my own at the bottom of the page.
“Rapier?” he said.
I explained to him that it was a fancy word for a sword.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “I went to college.” Dad read off the page. “Mace, brass knuckles, blowtorch. Enlighten me.”
“Weapons,” I said. “To use against the painters.”
Dad gave me the teacher face. It might mean that whatever I’m saying is a lie.
“I’m imagining,” I said. “Kids play pretend. How could I actually hurt them?”
I hate the painters. They come around to the complex every three months. Each of the men wears a white jumpsuit and a white painter’s cap, and the women wear the same thing minus the caps. In the morning the painters are quiet. They set up their buckets and tarps and get the brushes ready. Dad says some of the grownups around here still go to work, and when they walk to their cars the painters only nod at them or blurt out a word in their nutso language. Nobody but us kids are around in the afternoon when they get weird and attack us.
“They don’t attack you,” Dad said. “And the way you used ‘nutso’ is racist.”
“They do,” I said. “Yesterday they put Amber on top of a Volkswagen, tied her up, and drove around the parking lot.”
Amber is eight, like me, and the daughter of Jim Costello, the super. We don’t like him, or anyone else in his family because they’re degenerates, even though Mom hangs out with Amber’s mom sometimes.
“They didn’t drive around with Amber on the roof,” Dad said.
He was right, they hadn’t. “But they tied her up,” I said. But that wasn’t true either.
Dad had his phone out on the table and it started to shimmy around. His phone is kind of broken, and it took a few seconds for Mom’s face to light up the screen. It was Thursday, and we hadn’t heard from her yet. I knew Dad was pissed about that, about her not calling, because he’d told me. “I’m pissed,” he’d said. He was angry too about the last time she called. All Mom did was scream at him and then, when I got on the phone, cry.
“I can’t do it tonight,” he said.
I’ve seen the common area at the hospital where Mom calls us from. I can picture what it looks like when she leaves Dad a message. She’s got on the robe we brought her last time we went, and her hair is getting long. She’s scratching at her scalp until it bleeds because I’m not there to stop her.
After Dad’s cell buzzed with the voicemail, our landline started to ring, and he said, “Don’t.”
I climbed down off the chair anyway.
“Seriously?” Dad sighed. Teaching fifth grade exhausts him, and then there are the meetings, and me, and Mom, and everything else. He looks young in the morning, and old by dark.
I put the receiver up to my ear, listened.
“Doomed,” Dad said.
At school, they keep Natalie, Ervin, and me away from the other kids. We have our own purple rug and a table that we share. All of our supplies are in the middle of the table, like glue, and calculators, and a map of the world that folds up into the shape of a telescope, and says EXPLORE! on it. The other kids don’t have maps, or calculators, and their scissors are duller than ours. While they guesstimate the number of beans in a jar, we do long division. During their story time, we read chapter books by ourselves where sometimes the characters don’t survive. There used to be another boy with us, Lance, but it turned out there was something wrong with him. He was the smartest kid in the world, I think, but he couldn’t look anybody in the eye, or be touched, otherwise he’d scream, “Get your dirty fucking hands off me!” He goes to a special school now.
Natalie’s skin is a dark gold, like the pre-historic goop that mosquitoes used to get trapped in. Ervin is Puerto Rican. “You’re white,” Natalie once said to me. It wasn’t mean or anything. It was like someone in her head asked her what color I was. It made Ervin laugh.
Last week, Mrs. Larson gave us an assignment where we had to write down all the capitals of all the countries in the world and then alphabetize them. Before she went back to the normal class, she said, “I’m sorry. I have no idea what to do with you people. It keeps me up at night.” The other kids were making dioramas. A girl named Therese loaded up a shoebox with glitter, spat into the box a bunch of times, and then dumped the whole mess on her head. The shiny gunk in her mouth and eyes made her cry.
“If Lance was here he’d tell her something,” Ervin said.
“Like she got a butt for a brain,” Natalie said.
It turned out that all the capitals of all the countries in the world were already alphabetized on the back of the EXPLORE! map, and there was nothing for us to do. I waited to see what Natalie wanted. She didn’t look at me for a minute, so I wasn’t sure, but then she went to the chalkboard and took the block of wood with GIRLS written on it and left the classroom. I did the same with BOYS. When I got to the giant handicapped bathroom, the door was open a crack, and her eye was staring out at me. Once I was in, Natalie locked the door behind us. It smelled like pee in there.
“I like your pants,” Natalie said. I was wearing my blue pinstripes that Mom gave me. She’s always buying me clothes we can’t afford, and doesn’t tell Dad.
“Thanks,” I said to Natalie. “They were expensive.”
“You wanna kiss me?” she said.
Every time we go to the bathroom, Natalie says that, and then I kiss her.
Natalie went back to class first. I counted to thirty Mississippi in the bathroom, and then I left. It was strange to run into Dad in the hall. He was walking around with Miss Rodriguez. She teaches fifth grade like him. They were both being quiet, and their faces were serious, like they were trying to read each other’s minds, but were having a hard time.
“What’s that in your hand?” Dad said.
I showed him BOYS.
“Gotcha,” he said.
Miss Rodriguez was a student teacher last year, but now she’s a real teacher. I don’t get why she walks around in high heels everyday. None of the other teachers do that. Mom says she gets it—“Oh, I get it all right!”—but when she asks Dad to explain it to me, he just says, “How many cocktails is that, darling?”
“I like your pants,” Miss Rodriguez said to me. “I used to have a boyfriend who wore pants like that.”
“What happened to him?” I said. “Did he die?”
“No,” she said, surprised. “He moved back to Puerto Rico.”
“San Juan,” I said.
“That’s the capital,” I told her.
Miss Rodriguez said she had to be leaving now, but that she was looking forward to seeing Dad later. She was a very fast walker. You could hear her shoes clacking all the way down the hall.
“I have a meeting after school,” Dad said. “With Miss Rodriguez. About school stuff.”
That meant I had to take the bus. Dad started to walk back to the fifth grade wing, but then stopped, turned to me.
“Did he die?” Dad said. “Really?”
“What?” I said. “It happens. That’s something everybody knows.”
I took the bus home. After it dropped me off, I saw Amber Costello crouched down by the mailbox with a cherry Popsicle in her mouth. Amber goes crazy for sugar. Her eyes were wet and shiny like pieces of fish.
“Hey, Einstein,” she said.
Amber’s T-shirt was long. It might’ve been the only thing she was wearing.
“Hey, Amber,” I said. “Why weren’t you at school?”
“Because it’s fuckin’ stupid and I fuckin’ hate it,” she said. “Those Chinks are back.”
The painters were in front of Building 6, eating a late lunch out of soup bowls. The women used chopsticks. The men tipped their heads back and slurped. When the painters spoke to each other, or laughed at a joke, noodles flew everywhere. The noodles landed in the grass that was just starting to grow. Amber and I stood ten feet away and stared.
“I think they see us,” she whispered.
Once, when Mom was sick and had to get well before Dad came home, Billy and his friend Darnell came over. I liked Darnell, but not as much as I liked Billy. Darnell was weird. He always called me Caspar, or Michael J. Fox, or Mick Jagger. Sometimes he just called me Tiny Little White Dude. I liked him anyway. Darnell was the saddest out of anybody when Billy died—maybe even more than Mom. He moved away after.
That afternoon, they were both still around. Mom called Billy, and somehow he understood what she was saying. I’d already gotten her into bed by the time they arrived. We stood in the bedroom, and looked down at her. I hadn’t seen a dead person yet, but that’s what she reminded me of. Billy pushed Mom’s hair back behind her ears. She opened her eyes real quick, and looked at him. “Heya, handsome,” she said. Then she closed her eyes again.
Darnell thought we should get some air. Holding hands, we took a walk through the complex.
“Kev’ in the middle,” Billy said.
They swung me up into the air as we walked. Billy’s laugh echoed off the buildings, and went down inside the swampy creek behind the parking lot before coming back to us. The buildings in the complex are brick, and two-story, and Dad says they were made for soldiers coming home from war. Not these wars, he says, or the ones before them, but the big war, the one his grandfather fought in and never talked about.
When we rounded Building 4, we saw Jim Costello and his custodians. Mom calls Costello “the fat blob of the Earth” and says the men who work under him all hate him, but are either too dumb to notice, or too afraid to say anything. Dad says Costello is the reason why the rich hate the poor. “It makes sense to me,” I heard him tell Mom once. “I look at him, and I get it.”
Costello was wearing the same stained, holey green T-shirt he always does, and drinking from a paper bag. He looked like the fat blob of the Earth, but with a patchy beard. The three men in his crew stood around with their own bags, sipping. I’ve never seen a single one of them hold a tool, or a mop even. They look like sailors to me.
Costello took a drink from his bag, and said, “You three look like a fuckin’ Oreo.”
Billy and Darnell turned toward Costello, but they didn’t seem angry. It was more like they were getting back to something they had set aside for a while. Billy pulled his hand from mine, and placed it on my head. He looked down at me. “When you get older,” he said, “don’t be like that.”
Billy was big and strong then. This was before things got bad, before Mom and me saw him in front of the Cumberland Farms, asking strangers for gas money even though he didn’t have a car.
To the 5th grade play that night I wore a cashmere scarf Mom bought for me on credit. It was cold out. The Contour wouldn’t start. One of our Ecuadorian neighbors had to jump us. “Good people,” Dad said. By the time we got to school, Dorothy had already found out about the Wizard. We sat in the way back, listening to Miss Rodriguez shout out lines to her students.
Everybody was at the reception. All the kids under twelve, and their parents, the Scarecrow and the Lion, Principal Rivers. The punch was called the Ruby Slipper, and fizzled with Ginger Ale. Across the gym, near the basketball hoop, Dad talked with Miss Rodriguez, and her fiancé, Juan. Juan’s a fireman. He did a whole presentation on career day where he brought in the dog.
I saw Natalie. She stood on one leg near the punch bowl.
“Hi,” I said.
“Your scarf looks stupid,” she said.
“No it doesn’t.”
“I’m not your girlfriend anymore,” she said. “I’m Ervin’s girlfriend. My mom says it makes more sense.”
“We come from two different worlds. Blame society. You can’t change history,” Natalie said.
“She says she’s not crazy about Ervin either,” Natalie said, “but whatcha gonna do.”
Through the crowd, I watched Dad, Miss Rodriguez, and Juan walk out of the gym, down a hallway that led to the music room. Juan did all the talking. Dad and Miss Rodriguez stared at the floor. I started to say something to Natalie, but she was gone. There was nobody around. I mean, no one was speaking to me, or asking me questions, and I went alone to the front of the school.
Only half the florescent lights were on. I’d never seen the trophy cases like that before. Fake gold shined in the dark. They keep the second place plaques and the team pictures in the case too. The pictures go way back in time, back to when the players don’t smile, and there’s only one black kid.
School is K through 12, and, unless we move, I’ll keep going here. I’m skipping to 4th grade next year, and then there’s 5th and 6th. You could keep going. When I think about that it never seems real. It feels like a story somebody told me, and in the story everything’s perfect. I can drive, and maybe I’m a scientist. But if I dream about it for too long, the car slams into a tree or my lab explodes. It happens every time.
Deep inside the school, I heard the sound of a man coughing. I moved toward the edge of the main hallway, but it was too dark to see. I thought I heard some flyers being pulled from a bulletin board. There was the ripping sound, and then the wobble of posters falling through the air. The steps were heavy, and I knew they were Dad’s. Soon he was out of the hall. In the light, I saw that his nose and mouth were bleeding. His hands were at his sides. He let the blood flow. He didn’t even try to stop it.
When Mom took me to see Billy, she lied. She said he’d been in a car accident. I knew it wasn’t true, but I pretended along. Before we went to visit him, I listened to Mom and Dad talk about it behind their bedroom door. It wasn’t hard to figure out. Billy owed guys money.
The hospital is ginormous. Mom’s building is out back, on a separate plot of land with its own path, plus benches and hummingbird feeders. Billy’s room was on the first floor of the main building. It had a view of the parking lot. Billy never saw the view because his eyelids were taped shut. A tube ran down his throat, and worked his lungs for him. His face looked like purple cauliflower.
The day Mom and I went to visit Billy, Darnell sat in a chair next to his bed and cried. I have this problem where I stare at people who are crying. If we’re at the grocery store and some kid starts sobbing, I stop and look at them until Mom pulls me away. She doesn’t like when I do it, so I tried not to with Darnell, but it was hard. It meant I could only look at Mom, or at Billy, or at the room around me, which was boring and tan, the way hospitals are. I could have looked out the window, I guess, but there was nothing out there.
“What’s he know?” Darnell asked Mom.
A tube ran down Billy’s throat, and worked his lungs for him.
“He knows about Billy’s accident,” Mom said. “He knows about the car.”
“Oh, good,” Darnell said. “Billy loves him.”
“Loved,” I said. “Billy loved.”
“Loves honey,” Mom said. “You mean that Billy loves.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
The morning before our Sunday visit, Dad tried out all kinds of makeup on his face, but none of Mom’s stuff helped.
“She’s too pretty,” Dad said. “If she were ugly, I could find something useful.”
I stood on the toilet seat, and together we looked at his face in the bathroom mirror. The swelling was down, but the skin around his eyes was green and black. His bottom lip cracked open every once in awhile. Dad tried a smile.
“How’s your war against the Vietcong going?”
In the mirror, I gave him my Kevin face. It might mean that whatever he’s saying is stupid.
“Your lip’s bleeding again,” I said.
We were late seeing her. Mom waited outside the entrance, near the automatic doors. Every time they closed, they would open again. When she hugged me it hurt my ribs. I’d worn the red sport coat. She told me I looked like a million bucks.
All Dad did was say Hi. Mom looked at his face.
We walked around the hospital until we found a bench. There was a hummingbird feeder next to it, and the birds were in the air around our heads. Mom made me tell her all about school.
“… Therese choked on some glitter,” I said. “That happened. We knew all the capitals, so—”
“Look at your goddamn face,” Mom said to Dad. “I’m supposed to sit here? This is my punishment? Some Latina? At least I loved him. You hear me? I loved him.”
For a half-second, all I could hear were the dumb hummingbirds. Then Dad yanked me up by the hand, dragged me down the main path into the hospital. He sat me on the couch in the TV room, and told me not to move or to talk with anyone. Then he went back outside to where Mom was on the bench. Through the window, I saw them walking, but then the sidewalk curved.
There were guys in the TV room. Bob and Carlos introduced themselves, and asked if the History Channel was O.K.
“I like history,” I said. I sat between them on the big red couch.
“Me too,” Bob said. He was fat, and older than Dad. “I was in it. ‘Nam. You gotta know the past, man. You gotta wrap your head around it. Otherwise, what?”
“You’re doomed,” Carlos said. His teeth were rotted out. “Otherwise that.”
“Doomed,” I said, nodding yes.
“This kid gets it,” Bob said.
The show was called “Rest & Relaxation: Love and Lust in Wartime.” It was about the American Army in the 20th Century. An old soldier was talking about a girl he’d known. Bob said he thought he knew the guy. The soldier said, no, he hadn’t met the girl in a bar. He’d met her on a jungle road. She was carrying a bucket of water on her head. He followed her to where she lived.
“You couldn’t even call that thing a hut,” he told the camera. “I stood outside of it all day. I wouldn’t leave until she took a walk with me. Finally, she did. It was nice. I don’t know. We didn’t speak the same language. Somehow we talked. There wasn’t any war when we talked. It was like we were people.”
He didn’t go on, but you could tell there was more to the story than that.
Mom came in alone to the TV room. The mascara down her cheeks looked like streaks of oil. In my head, I made a tin man joke, but it wasn’t funny. Mom saw me with Bob and Carlos, and took me by the hand.
“I don’t want you hanging out with junkies,” she said, pulling me away.
“Too late for that!” Bob shouted.
Mom said Dad was waiting in the parking lot. We had a few minutes, just the two of us. She brought me to her room. There was nothing but two beds, and a poster on the wall of a prayer to God. We sat down beside each other on her bed.
“Do you hate me?” she said.
“Do you love me?” she said. “Do you know I love you?”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I love you too.”
We stared at the other bed across from us. The blankets moved around some, and then a lady popped her head out from beneath the covers. She was a black lady, and she seemed tired, and scared. She didn’t say anything, just looked at Mom and me.
“Denise, this is my son, Kevin,” Mom said. “Kevin, Denise.”
Denise said that it was nice to meet me, and then she went back under the blanket.
“Denise,” Mom said. “Are you still mad at me?”
“Damn right I am,” Denise said. It sounded like she was talking into her pillow. “You’ve got problems.”
“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “I’m sorry I accused you of stealing my toothbrush.”
“That was messed up,” Denise said. “That was messed up on many levels.”
“I said I was sorry,” Mom said.
Mom tried to stop me, but I hopped down off her bed, and walked over to where Denise was. The blanket felt like cardboard. I pulled it up, and stared into her face. She looked like Mom used to sometimes in the morning, when I’d get up and find her in the kitchen, crying and talking fast to herself. I told Denise not to worry about Mom, that we weren’t racist in this family. Then I climbed into bed with her, and pulled the blanket down over us. Our faces were an inch apart.
“My girlfriend broke up with me,” I said. “She says we come from different worlds. Maybe I hate history. Maybe it means we’re doomed.”
“You’re crazy like your mother,” Denise said, but she was smiling.
Outside, Mom said she was going to count back from ten. The blanket was thin, and let the light through. The fabric made Denise look orange. We were warm under there, and laughing, and Denise took my hand and squeezed, and I squeezed hers, and then we waited for the countdown to hit zero, and for Mom to pull off the blanket, and for all of our fun to be over.
Originally published in Tweed's Magazine of Literature & Art.